Anger, fear, suspicion and hope hung in the air as about 30 black men and women met last week in an Austin, Tx., church. Amid tears and shouts, some members of Black Lives Matter recounted personal stories of unlawful arrests, seizures and police stops that undergird their distrust of law enforcement. One woman said she fears for her grandchildren's lives, repeating a claim that members of the Ku Klux Klan have infiltrated local law enforcement and the federal government, reports the Texas Tribune. It’s been more than two years since anger over the shooting death of Trayvon Martin in Florida fused Black Lives Matter into a hashtag and rallying cry that has defined a new fault line in the nation’s racial politics. An international organization has formed and boasts 26 U.S. chapters. The group’s challenge, leaders say, is molding outrage and despair into tangible political impact. “We’re at the dawn of a new civil rights era,” said Margaret Haule, founder of the Austin chapter. “Something needs to be done.”
Though the next Texas legislative session is more than a year away, activists want to get in on the conversation early as lawmakers begin interim studies of criminal justice issues. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has charged Senate committees with studying police and jail safety before the 2017 legislative session. Last week, Texas House Speaker Joe Straus announced similar directions. The Austin chapter is pushing five policy demands: Mandatory investigation of police officers accused of misconduct that are seen through to completion even if the officer quits, is fired or transfers to another department or agency; independent bodies with subpoena power to conduct investigations and issue recommendations to district attorneys;; compliance with the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, a federal law that created standards for safety in state prisons; programs and policies that treat drug addiction as a public health issue instead of simply criminalizing behavior, and ending the use of solitary confinement in prison as punishment.