Activists accuse Texas Gov. Greg Abbott of dog-whistle racism with his threat to get tough on 'rioters'

click to enlarge Texas Gov. Greg Abbott speaks during a recent press event. - COURTESY PHOTO / OFFICE OF THE GOVERNOR
Courtesy Photo / Office of the Governor
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott speaks during a recent press event.
San Antonio police reform activists called Texas Gov. Greg Abbott's pledge to increase criminal penalties for "rioters" a racist dog whistle and an attempt to discredit peaceful protesters calling for racial justice.

At a news conference Thursday, the Republican governor said he'll seek tougher penalties for people who destroy property or strike police officers at anti-police brutality protests. He also called for the creation of a law that could punish people who "aid and abet" rioters.

That announcement flies in the face of reality, activists charge, pointing out that such protests in Texas this year — with a few exceptions — have been peaceful.

"It's a racist move to portray peaceful protesters as rioters," longtime East Side activist and former San Antonio City Council member Mario Salas said of Abbott's press conference. "It smells of fascism, if you ask me, because it seeks to impose stiffer penalties for riots when there are no actual riots going on."

Abbott's tough talk is a bid to show his loyalty to the Trump White House ahead of the election by emulating the president's law-and-order rhetoric, Salas said. Democrats have also accused Abbott of using Thursday's event to deflect attention from his mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

San Antonio community organizer Marlon Davis worries stiffer anti-rioting punishments would be unequally applied. Anti-police brutality protesters, for example, would be more likely to face charges than right-wing militia groups, which have shown up to disrupt marches.

Abbott's law-and-order demands seem like a thinly veiled effort to pander to racists in the Texas electorate, Davis added.

"It's definitely misinformed, and it's absolutely a dog whistle," he said.

Texas' existing criminal statutes on rioting were passed in the 1960s as the state's conservative leadership tried to suppress the civil rights movement, critics argue.

"The Texas rioting statute was created in 1965, is written incredibly broadly, and was a product of Dixiecrat, anti-civil rights sensibilities that don't make a lot of sense today," criminal justice watchdog Scott Henson said on a recent Reasonably Suspicious podcast.

For Aimee Villarreal, a professor of Mexican American Studies at Our Lady of the Lake University, the parallels with the civil unrest of the '60s are unmistakable. She described Abbott's press conference as political theater meant to bolster Republicans ahead of the November election.

"We're replaying that same theater from the 1960s, when 'law and order' was code for keeping brown and black people in their place, for maintaining the status quo," Villarreal said.

San Antonio activist Ananda Tomas said Abbott's call to get tough on rioters without directly acknowledging the reason so many have taken to the streets shows his willingness to ignore the problem of police brutality.  

Indeed, the governor only addressed legislative efforts to curb police use of force during a brief Q&A session at the end of Thursday's news conference. His remarks only included vague calls for more officer training and the need to limit use of deadly force to situations where it's "absolutely necessary."

"Now, more than ever is a time to protect First Amendment rights," Tomas said. "The governor should be looking at why people are feeling compelled to protest and take to the streets in the first place."

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