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Younger, diverse Fort Worth takes ‘a pivotal turn’ in week of George Floyd protests

June 7,2020

See full Fort Worth Star-Telegram article by Mark Dent here.

Donnell Ballard started protesting when he was 16. He was a student at Fort Worth Polytechnic High School and learned from an older Black Panther friend who went by the name Sabe. From the early 1990s through today, Ballard has been involved in hundreds of protests, rallying against everything from police brutality, to outdated computer technology at the Fort Worth school district, to the discriminatory hiring practices of a convenience store on the west side, to the lack of air conditioning at the Ripley Arnold Place housing project.

Many of the times he’s helped introduce change: the convenience store started hiring black workers, and the project building installed A/C. Other times, Ballard has found himself in a lonely position. In 2018, he and longtime protester Carol Harrison-Lafayette were about the only people protesting the conviction of Crystal Mason, a Tarrant County woman sentenced to five years in prison for voting as a convicted felon on supervised release.

Over the last week, those sparsely-attended protests have felt like a distant memory. What started as a two-night plan has entered its second week, with hundreds of protesters, including organizers Ballard and Harrison-Lafayette, rallying each night at the Courthouse, City Hall, West 7th and throughout the streets of downtown. Kyev Tatum, a Fort Worth pastor, hasn’t seen such a high and diverse level of engagement in Fort Worth in 30-plus years of community activism. “This is one of those moments in history we’ll look back on,” he said, “and say there’s a pivotal turn in the history of Fort Worth.”

The spark started in Minneapolis, where George Floyd died after a white police officer pressed his knee into his neck for almost nine minutes. But a fatigue over the so-called Fort Worth Way — a concentration of influence among a small group of mostly white power brokers, rather than the city’s majority-minority population — looms over the protests. When Mayor Betsy Price addressed protesters Thursday outside City Hall, expressing solidarity, she said: “It isn’t about me. It isn’t about the city. It’s about George Floyd.” She was quickly rebutted by attorney Leon Reed Jr., who told her and the crowd, “I respectfully disagree with our mayor that this is about George Floyd. I am George Floyd.”

And through night after night of protest and a deluge of complaints and questions levied at the City Council on Thursday, protesters and black community leaders believe officials will face more pressure than ever to address systemic racism and give minority groups a visibility that befits the majority-minority city Fort Worth is. “I’ve been waiting on this a long, long time,” Ballard said.

There exists a wide gap between white people and people of color in Fort Worth, both in economic outcome and in treatment by police. The share of white residents with at least a four-year college degree is 20 percentage points higher than black residents and 30 percentage points higher than Hispanic residents. The poverty rate for black and Hispanic people is twice as high as it is for whites.

Search any year in police-reported racial profiling statistics, and you’ll find black and Hispanic people are over-represented in the number of stops by police (In 2019, black people accounted for 27% of police stops even though black households comprise 14% of Fort Worth’s car owners). Since 2009, controversy has followed the police killings of several black Fort Worth residents, including Michael Jacobs Jr., Charal Thomas and Kelvin Goldston. In October, officer Aaron Dean shot and killed Atatiana Jefferson inside her home (Dean resigned and has been charged with murder).

Jefferson’s death and resulting protests — along with the arrest of Jacqueline Craig in 2016 — led to changes, such as the city’s hiring of a diversity and inclusion director. The protesters this week have made clear those initiatives haven’t been enough to address larger, systemic issues.

“When Atatiana Jefferson gets killed they move swiftly to make it go away, but the underlying issues are still there,” said Max Krochmal, a TCU history professor who studies social movements. “So when George Floyd happened or Ahmaud Arbery or Breonna Taylor, it struck home for people in Fort Worth because they could see that it was happening here and nothing was being done.”

The active resistance coming out now hasn’t been as pronounced in the past, even in the turbulent 1960s, according to Krochmal. Powerful white leaders gave in to civil rights groups that pushed to get black voters registered and set more equitable voting districts, in part because they sought to use the black vote to their advantage. The accommodation reduced some of the need for widespread protest. In 1968, for instance, when riots and protests erupted across the United States after the death of Martin Luther King Jr., Fort Worth did not experience similar unrest. The city’s largest protest in recent history was in 1993, when thousands marched downtown after a teenage white supremacist was sentenced to probation by an all-white jury for the murder of Donald Thomas.

But as Fort Worth has changed, growing into a city where 35% of the population is Hispanic and 19% black, Krochmal said the power structure has not kept pace. “In a lot of ways Tarrant County just got kind of stuck there (in the 1960s) and Fort Worth got stuck there,” he said. Krochmal added: “I do think the Fort Worth Way has been a powerful force here in the way economic and political elites operate. They’ve managed to keep things behind doors and keep people in line and contribute to campaigns in such a way where black and Latino officials are tied to them, just through campaign finance reports if anything else.”

Tatum, 64, was born into the post civil rights era. He experienced racism growing up in South Fort Worth, especially from police, but assumed something was wrong with his neighborhood. It wasn’t until he went to college at Tarleton State and North Texas that he found the minor infractions leading to arrests and beatings in his neighborhood were dismissed as youthful indiscretions in majority-white areas. Tatum and a group of black pastors and activist community leaders have been a continuous presence in Fort Worth’s political scene, but he said his generation overall did not push for more progress and let the fire blow out. “I think we blew it out,” he said. “We were so busy trying to prosper, chasing the dollar and the American dream. When problems turned up we turned our heads.”

The children of Tatum’s generation have faced the same discrimination in Fort Worth and Tarrant County. Trice Jones, a 33-year old who represents Black Lives Matter, has been a fixture at the protests, often in a Colin Kaepernick jersey. She remembers her father being consistently stopped by police in Euless in the 1990s. In 2010, while driving in a Nissan on Riverside Drive, Jones was pulled over. She said the police searched her car but didn’t give a ticket and didn’t offer a reason for the stop.

Jones has been involved with community activism since 2012, but the infusion of hundreds of young and diverse protesters and activists in the last week has been new. They are in their 20s and 30s, a mixture of black, white and brown resembling the new Fort Worth born out of decades of growth and changing demographics. “It’s so beautiful because so many other races are joining us,” Jones said. “When you look at these protests it’s not majority African-American people. It’s white people, it’s Hispanic, it’s Asian. It’s people that are fed up.”

Jernee Goods, a 22-year-old TCU graduate and Fort Worth native, protested here for the first time Monday. “We want to have each other’s backs,” she said “We’re very racially mixed.” Like many involved in the protest, she was “fed up” by the killing of Floyd. Goods, who is black, was also motivated by her experiences in Fort Worth. Recently at TCU, while walking from a campus eatery to the gym, she said a man passing by in his car rolled down the window and called her the n-word.

Andrés Acosta-Lopez, who is 33 and grew up in South Fort Worth, deals with similar racism at his retail job. He is Hispanic, Muslim and gay (“a minority within a minority within a minority,” he noted). Though the protest was inspired by police brutality, he said it can be a notice to Fort Worth that minority communities deserve better treatment in all areas. “In a place like Fort Worth, where this isn’t a common occurrence, this is going to raise awareness,” Acosta-Lopez said. “It’s going to show people who are part of the problem we’re ready for change.”

Moving from protest to change is often the hard part. Goods said it will happen only if people of color keep sharing their stories of injustice, and white people engage in difficult conversations with them.

Ballard and Harrison-Lafayette have tried to create action by steering the younger protesters to local politics. On Monday, they helped register 58 people to vote, Harrison-Lafayette said. United Fort Worth, which has helped organize protests, routinely advocates for changes at the city and county level, most recently by calling for an investigation of Sheriff Bill Waybourn.

On Thursday, many of the calls for change were concrete: The people who addressed the City Council wanted a civilian oversight board for the police, demilitarization of police and the discontinuation of police at Fort Worth schools. They even notched a small victory: After a parade of speakers asked to delay the authorization of an agreement between the city of Fort Worth and the union representing the Fort Worth Police Department, the City Council agreed to the postponement.

Several speakers at the protests have told the crowd that bigger victories will require voting and a sustained presence at City Hall. As for the marches? Ballard said he will organize them as long as a group of protesters wants to join. His phone rang constantly last week with calls from strangers wanting to get involved.

On Monday night, one protester carried a sign that read, “It is too quiet Fort Worth. Where y’all at?” That may have been true in the past, but this week the city was louder than ever.

Location Mentioned: Tarrant County Courthouse