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Saving Austin

Emboldened reactionaries tried to super-fund our city’s police force. But we out-organized them, and voters rejected their message resoundingly.


Austin celebrated a significant win in the November election when voters defeated a pro-police ballot proposition and averted a major setback in criminal justice reform. This victory represents the tireless work of organizers across a broad political spectrum, and it is also the latest skirmish in an ongoing war over the soul of our city. What happened in Austin offers crucial lessons to abolitionist and decarceral organizers elsewhere, many of whom face ongoing attacks and relentless backlash, suffer countless disappointments from the Democratic establishment, and continue to navigate the complexity of fighting for an unrecognizably different world. 

In sum, the defeated municipal proposal, Proposition A, would have mandated that the city maintain two law enforcement officers per 1,000 residents. Because the Austin Police Department already receives 38 percent of the city’s general fund — and because Austin’s population is exploding — paying for this proposal would have bumped APD funding by up to $120 million, according to city projections, raising it to an estimated 46 percent of the available budget. The plan threatened catastrophic financial gridlock due to new Texas laws severely penalizing cities that reduce police budgets, even after right-wing campaigns balloon those budgets to new heights.

What we’re facing and have faced here in Austin, an ostensibly liberal city in conservative Texas, is happening in other parts of the nation. My hope is that our strategy of rising to the occasion here can be instructive to the broader movement as we fight back.

None of that happened, thanks to our organizing ahead of the election. But what we’re facing and have faced here in Austin, an ostensibly liberal city in conservative Texas, is happening in other parts of the nation. My hope is that our strategy of rising to the occasion here can be instructive to the broader movement as we fight back.

A Conservative Front Group Sets Out to ‘Save’ Austin

There is important context to understanding Proposition A that requires a brief summary of the group behind the proposal, Save Austin Now, and how they came to be a political force in Austin. The origins of Prop A stretch back to June 2019, when organizers moved the Austin City Council to decriminalize homelessness — a rare and hard-fought victory of The Homes Not Handcuffs coalition, celebrated alongside the unhoused community in our city. What we failed to anticipate, though, was the scale of the backlash that waited on the other side of that win. When the people with whom we had organized began sleeping in more visible and far safer places, homelessness suddenly seemed like a larger problem than it did when unhoused people were forced to hide from police to avoid citations and jail time. This reality was seized by police unions and right-wing operatives, who latched onto decriminalization to stoke outrage and drive negative media coverage — which in turn had the effect of misleading the housed community and demonizing the homeless. 

Out of this fearmongering emerged Save Austin Now, the group behind Prop A. Save Austin Now was formed by the notorious Matt Mackowiack, the chair of the Travis County Republican Party, in partnership with the police union. Their strategy boiled down to exploiting homelessness decriminalization as a jumping-off point, launching a highly misleading, nearly $2 million ballot petition campaign to restore a more punitive version of the rolled back homeless ordinances. This anti-homeless effort won with 57 percent of the vote in May 2021.*

One year earlier, George Floyd was murdered by police in Minneapolis. Progressives in Austin at the time responded in lockstep with cities all over the country, mobilizing in protest against police violence and coalescing around a demand to defund the police. In another rare win, Austin became one of a small number of cities where city leaders actually passed some level of police defunding in August 2020. Though it would prove temporary — reactionary forces at the state legislature passed laws restoring every cent of the police budget we had removed — Austin organizers celebrated a community victory at a moment of national mobilizations. In the summer of 2021, Save Austin Now celebrated their own win over poor people by zeroing in on their next target: the pro-police funding campaign Proposition A. 

The #NoWayOnPropA Coalition

To defeat Save Austin Now, organizers had to match their power. Kathy Mitchell, policy coordinator of Just Liberty and treasurer for the anti-Proposition A campaign, told me that the “most important thing that we did in the entire campaign was aggressively and successfully create a very diverse coalition against Prop A.” This coalition brought together Democratic clubs, labor unions, the Austin DSA chapter, Black Lives Matter groups, and many others. The effort saw its unusual bedfellows, like the Sierra Club and beloved no-kill shelter Austin Pets Alive, hosting phonebanks and doing significant amounts of member outreach.

One particularly strategic partner was Austin Is Safer When, a grant-funded coalition effort formed after the police defund vote. According to organizer Matt Korn, this coalition spent months engaging in direct voter contact and neighborhood organizing with local groups. In all, they identified 25,000 people who supported defunding the police before the Prop A campaign even started. This group’s list became the basis for their anti-Prop A organizing, allowing them to find volunteers, engage them in relational organizing, and mobilize a get-out-the-vote effort. “By the time the election rolled around,” Korn told me, “[Austin Is Safer When] had identified 31,000 anti-Prop A voters, and we were able to mobilize over 80 percent of them to the polls.” 

This was a significant contribution, considering that the total number of yes votes on the police re-funding referendum earlier this month was 49,000. But the group’s impact extends further. As Mitchell pointed out, Austin Is Safer When mobilized “a set of people who were kind of pre-educated before Prop A was a twinkle in [Save Austin Now]’s eye.” In addition to inoculating voters, Austin Is Safer When produced organizers who went into the anti-Proposition A campaign well-versed in the issue. 

This work helped our campaign hone its message, which was another strategic advantage. Seneca Savoie, a Texas Appleseed field organizer and co-chair of the Austin DSA Defund & Decrim Committee, offered the following breakdown of the messages that worked with voters: 

  1. Republicans are behind Prop A
  2. Rich people are behind Prop A
  3. Prop A will defund parks, libraries, firefighters, and EMS
  4. Police don’t make us safe 

Savoie explained that all of these messages were effective but with different groups, owing to variation in feelings about police and degrees of partisan identity. Regardless, the defeat of Proposition A was cemented by the development of this messaging based on canvassing feedback from the failed campaign to defeat Save Austin Now’s earlier anti-homeless campaign, as well as feedback from Austin is Safer When’s organizing.

As Mitchell pointed out, the city council’s vote to defund the Austin Police Department resulted in numerous tangible benefits to the city, such as 67 new paramedics, six park rangers, and funding for programs to keep housing-insecure people in their homes. “That was the case we were able to make in a variety of sectors, so that we could create the coalition we needed to win,” she told me. It was also a refinement of the message abolition organizers had been delivering since the beginning of the defund movement, and it represents the power of what abolitionist rhetoric can accomplish when paired with specific and tangible alternatives to the police. 

Perhaps the real MVP in the effort to defeat Proposition A was, ironically, the group organizing to pass it. Korn told me that in his eyes, Save Austin Now “overplayed their hand” after their anti-homeless campaign by failing to recognize how reluctant Austin voters are to increase funds for any city departments, police or otherwise. Mitchell pointed out that Save Austin Now’s exorbitant expenditures on Facebook ads did little to move the needle for them. During an Austin DSA debrief after our November victory, Savoie further noted the group’s faulty assumption that their positive voter IDs from the prior anti-homeless campaign would turn out to support Proposition A as well; they were off to the tune of around 40,000 votes. 

Engaging Democrats

One key factor in Save Austin Now’s earlier anti-homeless victory was the absence of full-throated Democratic opposition to the proposal. Why did our campaign against Proposition A campaign enjoy voracious engagement from Democratic leaders, but not that prior effort? While Austin has several champions in office who are truly committed to social justice, most electeds tout the progressive label but also wait to see which way the wind blows before attaching themselves to any significant departure from the status quo.

As Korn saw it, “The visibility of houselessness during the period camping was decriminalized generated more disgust in your average progressive Austin voter than it did sympathy.” Savoie concurred, noting that we didn’t place many positive stories about decriminalization to counter negative homelessness coverage. Austin DSA co-chair Ana Perez pointed out another challenge: Save Austin Now’s anti-homeless campaign “was a choice between locking people up or people sleeping on the street, and that’s a shitty choice.” When there is a lack of positive alternatives to carceral solutions, voters will typically choose what’s familiar. 

Mitchell’s perspective on how Democrats engaged with these issues starts with understanding the strategy of state Republicans. “It’s about the GOP in Texas seeking those talking points that will help them split voters off,” she told me. In Mitchell’s view, both the homeless backlash and Proposition A were plays in a rightwing strategy to stymie Democratically controlled cities so municipal governments are unable to provide the services that communities need, in turn creating openings for conservatives to regain a foothold. Austin Justice Coalition Policy Director Chris Harris, another anti-Prop A organizer, also drew attention to this threat. “This is a systemic play to make our cities ungovernable,” he told me. “When people don’t receive the services they need, they get unhappy and become open to different visions.”

That the anti-homeless campaign in Austin took place during the legislative session was another contributing factor. In Texas, the legislative session represents a brief, intense, all-hands-on-deck dogfight for Democrats. During this window, “half the movement is taken out of commission,” Mitchell says, which creates a structural impediment to broad, party-wide support. 

But our campaign benefited enormously from hindsight, too. The successful anti-homeless campaign had a huge impact and gave the GOP unprecedented momentum in progressive Austin. Mitchell says that establishment Democrats by and large didn’t like the homeless encampments, but she added that “if those same Democrats had fully understood the degree to which this issue would become a GOP run on all of our swing districts … there would have been more enthusiasm.” 

There were canaries in the coal mine among us warning that Save Austin Now wouldn’t vanish after homeless camps did, but these voices were largely ignored. Why this happened is an interesting question with strategic implications for organizers doing decarceral work. Building power within the Democratic establishment might win more pull with party leaders, and thus greater ability to persuade. Or perhaps energy is better spent building power outside the party with low-engagement voters who aren’t ensnared in the goings-on of legislative sessions. Either way, political players behind the Prop A campaign undoubtedly had a better grasp of what was at stake for them than they did when the anti-homeless campaign was afoot. 

Takeaways for the Broader Movement

For better or worse, the criminal justice movement will continue to wrestle with decisions regarding when and how to engage with the existing political establishment. There may be no easy answer to that question, but luckily reflections from our campaigns offer plenty of useful insights.

Savoie, the Texas Appleseed field organizer, encourages others engaged in similar work to have clearly defined voter universes for post-campaign analysis, to rely on deep canvassing models, and to make consistent contact with voter lists to help build more stability in people’s attitudes over time. Korn, meanwhile, advocated for seeking out independent funding sources, like grants, and paying organizers to create more opportunity for people of color and low-income folks to lead movement work.

During the DSA debrief on Proposition A after the election, two other strategic advantages became evident: contacting positive IDs from the homeless campaign and leaning on existing labor relationships to bring more unions into the coalition. Maintaining organizing relationships paid huge dividends in this campaign, and there is no better example than the relationships campaigners stewarded with organizers from our broader progressive coalition across Austin. 

Anti-Proposition A organizer Clarissa Rodriguez pointed out that while canvassing in pairs meant fewer doors knocked in the short run, more volunteers returned for later canvasses because they had a better experience working in teams. DSA also organized weekly tabling at a popular farmer’s market in a strategic precinct in Austin and crowd-canvassed at this year’s Women’s March. These strategies had the added benefit of training organizers for canvassing conversations and offering alternatives for people who felt uncomfortable going door-to-door in neighborhoods.

Harris, from the Austin Justice Coalition, added that one major achievement of the Prop A campaign was broadening the constituency in Austin that understands the fundamental tradeoff between police and every other city service. “When it comes to the police union, there is no labor solidarity,” he said. “They don’t give a fuck [about other unions that depend on city funding]. Police are going to take as much of that pie as they can.”

The tradeoff between police and every other city service is at the heart of the defund movement’s foundational assertion: Our cities are better and safer if we fund alternatives to police.

This tradeoff is at the heart of the defund movement’s foundational assertion: Our cities are better and safer if we fund alternatives to police. Overfunding law enforcement comes at the expense of functional public transportation, non-police emergency response, and amenities that improve quality of life. The stakeholders in these services represent very large numbers of people, and therefore power. For unions and mainstream Democrats to grasp this tradeoff is a major win, and it sets the stage for police to face more serious competition over city resources in the future. In other words, there is real opportunity for organizers in bringing into focus the tension between funding cops and funding everything else, even among pro-police voters. 

This latter point, in particular, resonates with a lesson I learned from the earlier backlash against Austin’s homeless: that we win when we ask people to fight for themselves. During my own organizing against the anti-homeless campaign, I attempted many times to move voters with moralizing arguments, which were often insufficient. When we instead focus on understanding the people we’re talking to and build our arguments around their interests, we are more effective organizers. Whether our goal should have been engaging Democratic party leaders or mobilizing working class voters is a point of contention, but one thing that isn’t is that we can engage anyone if we clearly lay out threats to something they care about.

The numbers speak for themselves. Proposition A’s happy conclusion was a crushing loss, 69 to 31 percent, despite Save Austin Now spending more than $1 million and employing a host of deceptive tactics. Their dishonest messaging oscillated between misrepresenting crime statistics and claiming that Proposition A would fund parks, libraries, and other services — the very things that would have actually been on the chopping block had their proposal passed. As DSA member and organizer Ashley Sherwood told me, “Once people heard the real numbers … we didn’t even have to sell it. All we had to do was tell the truth for most people.”

Our fight against Proposition A clearly demonstrated that Austin voters believe we need police reform. Mitchell told me that even polling commissioned by Save Austin Now told them that Proposition A needed to be framed in terms of police reform in order to be successful. “That gives all kinds of things momentum that would have been uncertain until [this election],” she added. Our opponents’ co-opting of reform rhetoric was dishonest, but there is a silver lining to what it represents: that more voters are skeptical of police today than in the past. How we leverage the insight gained from this campaign is an open question, and an exciting one. Even though Proposition A was a defensive campaign for us, we did lay groundwork for the defund movement to go on the offensive. Because of this campaign, people in our city are more open to and curious about what we could have if we shifted police funding. Austin organizers now have some promising opportunities to explore. If we can seize this momentum, there is considerable power to build on the road ahead.

*Correction, Nov. 24, 2021: An earlier version of this essay misstated when Austin voters approved a camping ban affecting the homeless. That ban was approved in May 2021, not May 2020. The text has been updated accordingly to reflect the correct date and the events surrounding it.

Image: Unsplash