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Travis County District Attorney Released From Jail This Morning

6:31 pm in Uncategorized by Kit OConnell

Portrait of Rosemary Lehmberg

Rosemary Lehmberg was released from jail this morning.

Travis County is home to Austin, Texas and well over a million residents. The county’s district attorney, Rosemary Lehmberg was released from jail about 1am this morning after serving half of a 45-day sentence for driving under the influence of alcohol.

From the Austin American Statesman: 

Lehmberg, who was sentenced April 19, served half of her jail term under a law that gives two days credit for every day served for good behavior. Travis county jail records no longer showed Lehmberg booked by 3 a.m. Thursday.

Predictably, in this Republican-led state there have been calls for her resignation from the right, even satirical bumper stickers that lampoon her behavior on the night of her arrest. Looking deeper, the situation is far more complex.

First, while the office of Travis County District Attorney is elected, if Lehmberg resigns than Republican Governor Rick Perry will appoint her interim replacement. But more so, many reports suggest that Lehmberg is suffering from an illness — alcoholism — which may benefit from treatment rather than further punishment.

Sources write that Lehmberg had a known drinking problem, and a Point Austin editorial in the Austin Chronicle argued for compassion and treatment over judgment:

Ours is a culture (including a cop culture) rampant with binge drinking – and it too often has deadly consequences – but if everyone who received a first-offense DWI also lost his job, the drinking wouldn’t stop, and the unemployment rolls would be staggering as well.

[O]ne can only wonder what might have happened to Bob Bullock or Ann Richards (or a host of other officials) had the Internet been available to chronicle and repost their every bibulous indiscretion. Anonymous trolls would be demanding their immediate ejections from office, and editorial writers (hardly squeaky clean themselves) would be anonymously chiming in. Yet we have long known that alcoholism is a treatable disease, and that reflexively treating alcoholics as criminals only fills our prisons without addressing the underlying problems.

Though the kind of reckless behavior Lehmberg engaged in is never acceptable, KVUE suggests that grief exacerbated her behavior:

Sources confirmed Lehmberg was distraught the night before her arrest on April 12th after attending the funeral of a dear friend and employee.

Investigator Lorraine Kerlick died in a motorcycle accident April 7th. Friends say Lehmberg appeared extremely emotional and depressed at the funeral.

As of now, Lehmberg intends to complete her term as well as seek treatment:

Lehmberg, who was released before 3 a.m. Thursday, also thanked the Travis County jail staff for their ‘professionalism and dedication’ in a statement issued shortly after 5 a.m.

‘In the coming days, Rosemary will be making arrangements to seek professional treatment and better understand her behavior,’ the statement said. ‘She will also meet with members of her staff with whom she been communicating throughout the last 3 weeks.’

Jason Stanford, in a sharply worded Statesman opinion argues the situation is representative of overall corruption in the Texas legal system:

But just because she’s a drunken mess of political entitlement doesn’t mean Lehmberg doesn’t have a role to play when she gets out of jail. The Travis County district attorney heads the Public Integrity Unit, which by law has jurisdiction over corruption in state government. Unless the Obama-appointed U.S. attorney decides to make a federal case out of something, the only one who can prosecute any of these Banana Republicans in elected state office is Lehmberg.

And if she resigns, Rick Perry gets to appoint her successor, explaining why local Democrats want her to stay on the job.

But should she? Making corruption charges stick is hard enough with one’s credibility intact. Ronnie Earle found this out when he tried to prosecute Kay Bailey Hutchison. It’s hard to imagine Lehmberg withstanding the political backlash that comes with trying to hold powerful public officials accountable. It says a lot about Texas ethics when the only check on political corruption is currently sitting in jail after pleading guilty to drunken driving.

Ken Anderson, District Attorney before Lehmberg and now a state district judge is facing charges of corruption. Ross Ramsey of The Texas Tribune argues that state officials are no longer untouchable:

Texas DA’s used to be indestructible. The political potshots at long-serving former prosecutors like Dallas County’s Henry Wade, Harris County’s Johnny B. Holmes Jr. and Travis County’s Ronnie Earle were part of their jobs. But each left on his own.

Times have changed. In the 1980s, crime was the major issue in many local and state elections. In the early 1990s, the people who won those elections went on an epic prison- and jail-building spree.

Voters are worried about other things now. Wrongful convictions and prosecutions have shaken public faith in the criminal justice system.

And, it turns out, in the people at the top.

Update: The Austin-area coordinator of the Texas Department of Public Safety resigned today after a DUI arrest.

Tents Up for Occupy Austin’s Eviction Anniversary

4:01 pm in Uncategorized by Kit OConnell

One of Occupy Austin's free speech tents with the Austin Overpass Light Brigade's signs.

On February 3 2012, Occupy Austin received about an hour’s notice before a violent police raid which cleared the encampment at City Hall. New regulations imposed a 10pm curfew and rules against tents, bedrolls or other “permanent” structures. As occupiers took the streets, there were several arrests. Activists and journalists were threatened by police ambush and, at one point, a pepper-spray can brandished by Austin Police Officer Jason Mistric. Three undercover police officers that had infiltrated the group in order to entrap its members were present throughout the day.

Tents at Austin's City Hall

Occupy Austin erected tents and celebrated the one-year anniversary of its eviction from City Hall on February 3, 2013.

One year later — this past Sunday — Austin’s occupation gathered again at their first home to honor the day and all that had taken place there since the movement began. Publicly, the group announced a simple potluck. Occupiers put up a food table that was soon overflowing with everything from both vegetarian and carnivore-friendly chili to the infamous piggie pie, a surprisingly edible concoction of graham cracker crumbs, donuts, soy “bacon,” and coffee chocolate syrup.

38 “food fight” arrests took place in late 2011 when occupiers refused to remove a food table, eventually leading to a successful lawsuit against City Hall. On Sunday, a security guard emerged with a photocopy of the memo banning permanent structures from the site.

“Do you have a permit or something that allows you to be here today?” she asked me.

“Yes,” I said, “it’s called the First Amendment.”

She tried to give me the memo but I refused, explaining I had read it before. When she placed it on our food table, I tore it up as she walked away being careful not to drop any on the ground — I didn’t intend to litter. Grabbing a piece of chalk (which Austin’s occupation is never without) I wrote ‘The First Amendment is Our Permit” on the plaza. Soon, chalked art and messages appeared everywhere and, as the afternoon wore on, two tents were erected.

Another occupier later thanked me for standing up to the security guard because she credited me with emboldening the rest of the group, which swelled to about 30 at its peak. But I just acted on my knowledge that the security guards have no power without the police backing them up, especially in light of the lawsuit.

The Austin Audio Co-Op erected an amplified sound system and Dan Cioper played folk music, followed by a group jam session. We cheered visits by old friends we hadn’t seen since the encampment. Police drove around City Hall or stopped to observe us but kept their distance.

Our tents seemed to provoke an intense response from the Internet, with messages of solidarity pouring in on Twitter and Facebook from around the world. The local media even appeared, including the Austin American Statesman which captured another of my interactions:

At one point, while occupiers were addressing each other with a microphone, a security guard inside City Hall appeared to be taking a photograph of the group. One protester, Kit O’Connell, noticed this, gained the attention of the group, and said to the security guard: ‘If you take my picture, please tag me in it on Facebook.’

On the microphone, I told the assembled occupiers that our encampment had shown me the best and worst of humanity.
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#Occupy Votes (Updated 2:25pm PST)

1:13 pm in Uncategorized by Kit OConnell

Tuned Out Hippies?

Since the Occupy movement began, many have attempted to position the group in opposition to electoral politics. Occupy in its purest form is nonpartisan, and since the beginning of the movement this has been a source of criticism.

If we want to really make a difference, we were told time and again, we should organize similarly to the Tea Party and begin to field candidates for office. When occupiers protested Mitt Romney or other hyper-conservative politicians, they’d be accused of being in bed with Barack Obama. If the movement protested neo-liberals like Obama, we were accused of being traitors to all that was good in the world because we obviously wanted Romney to win (Carnacing is not limited to blogs). Most of all, occupiers got accused of being disconnected from what their critics perceive to be real politics — we were lazy hippies who didn’t understand how the world works and worst of all we don’t vote.

Spelled out in lights: DO MORE THAN VOTE

Austin Overpass Light Brigade on November 5, 2012

Occupy and many allied activist groups stand in opposition to the idea that electoral politics should be the focus of American political engagement. It is especially opposed to the idea that just voting out one plutocrat and replacing him with a new one will fix our problems — even if that new plutocrat is a woman, from a racial minority, or practices an alternative religion or sexuality. Its ranks are full of activists who supported Obama with hours of hard work in the run-up to the 2008 election, only to “wake the eff up” over the succeeding years and realize real change doesn’t come from far-away leaders.

It’s my experience that occupiers are far more engaged with mainstream politics than mainstream America, which for the most part unthinkingly abstains from participating at all. While the average American simply does not vote, the question of whether to vote and how was an important concern to OWS. Members of Occupy Chicago spent hours in a heated debate over whether it was ethical to burn voter registration cards as a form of protest. Occupiers created street theater around the election: Occupy Chicago members took coffins to the Obama headquarters and launched Revs4Romney. On election day, Occupy the Stage in New Orleans protested the fact that Louisiana is one of eight states which disallow write-in candidates for President by performing a puppet show about the 2-party system at a polling place then accepting symbolic write-in votes (I voted via Twitter for Vermin Supreme). Occupiers held public debate-watching parties, helped Anonymous trend the hashtag #StopNDAA and livetweeted the elections.

Occupy groups also became closely involved in local issues at multiple elections since last September. Here in Austin, one Occupier made an unsuccessful bid for city council, while others became involved in the successful bid to make the city council itself more accountable. Austin will change from one of the country’s only completely at-large city councils to one where each council member represents part of the city.  The Occupy AISD working group fought new in-district charter schools by, in part, helping to unseat charter-supporter Sam Guzman. His replacement, Dr. Rev. Jayme Mathias, will be the first openly gay member of Austin’s school board. One of the Gulf Port 7, Ronnie Garza, is featured in the video at the top of this post. Another, Remington Alessi, ran for sheriff as a Green Party candidate. San Antonio’s Meghan Owen took 1.5% of the vote for the Greens in a bid to unseat NDAA-supporting Democrat Representative Lloyd Doggett.

Of course, many see Elizabeth Warren as a massive win for the goals of Occupy Wall Street.

An Ethical Dilemma At the Voting Booth

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