In response to the police killings of two black men, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, the Austin Justice Coalition and Black Lives Matter Austin hosted a vigil and meeting in east Austin at Givens Park, with an estimated 400 people in attendance. What began as a peaceful discussion ended in argument and anger for some.
Alton Sterling, 37, was shot to death Tuesday in Baton Rouge, Louisiana by police officers Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake II, who have been placed on administrative leave. Philando Castile, 32, was pulled over for a busted tail light and shot to death in Falcon Heights, Minnesota on Wednesday as his girlfriend and her 4-year-old daughter watched from inside the car. Both incidents were caught on video and sparked controversy and protests across the country.
“I know change is possible, but it takes hard work,” said Sukyi McMahon, an organizer and member of the Austin Justice Coalition. “[These shootings] are emotionally draining, but I feel compelled to never look away and to make people aware of this problem.”
McMahon said the purpose of the event was to recruit and empower members of the community, as well as to speak the truth about what is happening.
Also in collaboration for this event were Sisters of Austin and the Nation of Islam Austin. The Black Chamber of Commerce donated drinks and community members provided a PA system and candles. Austin Community College’s School of ASL provided sign-language interpreters.
“Givens Park is on the east side of Austin, with the black community,” McMahon said.
The organizers chose this location to make it convenient for members of the black community to gather for mourning, decompressing, strategizing and channeling energy in the best way possible, McMahon said.
UT associate English professor Snehal Shingavi was a speaker at the gathering.
“I think all of our hearts are heavy having seen what has just happened and having watched for now years and years and years … as black people are gunned down in the streets,” Shingavi said.
Shingavi also offered three takeaways from the work of the Black Lives Matter movement. The first lesson Shingavi listed concerned the “blame” placed on African-Americans for “all of the problems that this society has faced.” The second lesson addressed systemic problems with police forces.
“Lesson number three: The reason that we know all of the names that [were] listed for us, is because ordinary people took to the streets to demand justice … That is the only way we are going to get it," Shingavi said. "Ordinary people in this country can make a change because we have changed the conversation about racism and police violence in the United States.”
Antonio Rivera, a 19-year-old attendee, said he was at the gathering to pay his respects. “I want to be around people who want change,” Rivera said.
Rivera was holding a sign with several names of black men and women killed by police, such as Michael Brown, Sandra Bland and Tamir Rice. He said there needs to be justice and people need to be held accountable for their actions. Rivera drove from San Marcos to attend the gathering.
APD Police Chief Art Acevedo was present at the gathering, which caused some tension. At one point during the meeting, speakers acknowledged Acevedo’s attendance and challenged him to come to the stage. Shouts of “Bring Acevedo out!” could be heard from the crowd.
“I want y’all to turn to Acevedo and tell him what you want him to do,” a speaker said from the stage. Acevedo did not address the crowd, but released a public statement following the deadly shooting of five police officers at a protest in Dallas in which he referenced his presence at the gathering in Austin.
Acevedo tweeted, “As I watched our community come together at Givens Park to peacefully gather and demand police accountability in this nation, I learned of the attack in Dallas against officers protecting the First Amendment rights of their residents.”
“I started this day with a heavy heart like many Americans and I end it with a heavy heart,” Acevedo said.
Note: This story has been updated since its original publishing.