Will a killer cop go free in Texas?

October 6, 2015

Mukund Rathi reports on new developments in the struggle to win justice for Larry Jackson--and on the continuing discussions among activists fighting this battle.

ON JULY 26, 2013, Austin, Texas, police detective Charles Kleinert racially profiled Larry Jackson Jr., proceeded to chase him down over a crime he didn't commit, and shot him in the back of the neck at point-blank range.

Last week, Larry Jackson's family sat in a courtroom and listened as Kleinert took the witness stand and justified everything he did that day, including killing Jackson. "He showed no remorse," said Larry's sister LaKiza.

The police claim that they encountered Jackson while investigating a robbery earlier that day at the Benchmark Bank building. Jackson attempted to enter the bank, allegedly claiming to be someone else, but was stopped at the locked doors. He tried to run when Kleinert went to question him.

Kleinert, described by a witness as "out of control," then pursued Jackson, even commandeering a car to catch up to him. When he did, he beat Jackson. Kleinert then placed his gun to the back of Jackson's neck and pulled the trigger.

TESTIMONY AT the hearing last week confirmed many of the glaring flaws in the police story that have led Jackson's family and their supporters to condemn Kleinert and the Austin Police Department (APD) for a racist murder and cover-up.

Austin activists rally to demand justice for Larry Jackson Jr.
Austin activists rally to demand justice for Larry Jackson Jr. (People’s Task Force)

One witness, who worked at a hospital nearby, was the woman who had her car commandeered by Kleinert. She recounted how Kleinert stopped her, ordered her to unlock her door, got in and frantically yelled to drive down the street toward where Jackson was running. Kleinert was "red in the face" and so "reckless" that she wasn't sure if he was a police officer, the witness said.

Another witness was David Dolinak, the then-chief medical examiner for Travis County, who reported the findings from Larry's autopsy. There was a "dark muzzle imprint" around the gunshot wound, according to Dolinak, meaning that Kleinert's gun was pressed to Larry's neck when the fatal shot was fired.

Recounting her experiences in court during a panel discussion at the University of Texas at Austin that evening, LaKiza said, "Being in court today and hearing the expert testimony made us realize more how much Larry suffered."

She and her family have been struggling for justice in this case for more than two years, and she has drawn a conclusion that the audience at the meeting resoundingly agreed with:

The system is unfair. There are clauses in the law to let cops get away with what they do. What you hear in the news is not true. They only give you bits and pieces, and a certain narrative--the police narrative. I want people to see Larry's humanity. He had three children, a mother, a father, myself, his sister, his only sibling, my daughter, and many other relatives and friends.

This humanity is flatly rejected by the APD and its powerful allies, and has been since day one. The APD stalled for a full day before informing Larry's mother of his death, even after she filed a missing person's report. The woman whose car was commandeered expressed similar problems with the department--she attempted three times later that day to report Kleinert's actions, but the police didn't take her seriously.

In fact, Austin police were busy getting their story straight and preparing a smear campaign against Larry, joined by the local media and the courts. Kleinert's lawyers have been attempting to paint Larry as a criminal and Kleinert as the hero cop who was simply carrying out his duties. In court, they pushed the medical examiner to talk about finding traces of PCP during Larry's autopsy, suggesting that this made him act erratically.

Currently, Kleinert's lawyers are attempting to get him off on a technicality. He worked on a federal anti-fraud task force at the time of the murder, and duties performed in that role are immune from state prosecution. In court, Kleinert said that he suspected Larry was at the bank to "commit fraud,", and he thus had probable cause for the chase, justified by his federal duties. Prosecutors pointed out the absurd logic, since Kleinert didn't even have probable cause to search Larry at the bank, much less chase him down and kill him.

However, LaKiza and other activists involved in the Black Lives Matter movement know the courts work on the basis of power, not logic. It wasn't until May 2014, almost a full year after the murder, that Kleinert was even indicted. The charge was manslaughter, not murder, and only came after months of rallying and marching--organized the People's Task Force, a local anti-racist organization--to put pressure on the Travis County district attorney.

Since then, the case has been repeatedly delayed in the courts, and Kleinert's lawyers have attempted a series of legal maneuvers. The federal immunity claim is the most recent, and could lead to Kleinert going completely free.

THIS COMES at a difficult time politically for the Black Lives Matter movement, which has rallied locally to the struggle win justice for Larry Jackson--with the rise of a pro-police backlash and smear campaign against BLM and the beginning of an election cycle in which candidates are attempting to co-opt left organizing.

When Kleinert was indicted back in May 2014, his lawyers complained about the influence of local anti-racist organizing, saying they were "not surprised" by the charges due to the "all the publicity" around the case.

The rise of Black Lives Matter into the national spotlight in August 2014 gave the Larry Jackson campaign additional attention. Not only were hundreds and even thousands of people attending demonstrations in Austin, but the politics of solidarity were at the forefront of the movement.

For example, in September 2014, the Palestine Solidarity Committee (PSC) at UT Austin held a panel discussion on the struggle "from Ferguson to Palestine," with 200 people in attendance. In December 2014, after the non-indictments of the cops who killed Mike Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in New York City, hundreds of UT students participated in a "die-in" in Austin. The next day, the People's Task Force held a solidarity rally, and hundreds of people marched through downtown Austin shouting "Justice for Eric Garner" and "Justice for Larry Jackson" as they shut down major streets and bridges.

The Black Lives Matter movement has continued to have a powerful effect across the U.S., and anti-racist organizing continues in Austin. However, the activity of the movement has reached a lull, and this has had a political impact.

After Sandra Bland was abused and left to die in a county jail cell in Texas in July 2015, there was national outrage and a call by activists to #sayhername, in recognition also of murdered Black women whose names are not known. A rally in Austin called by Black women activists drew hundreds, but it was organized in a different way than previous protests--the march was made up of separate contingents based on race, a practice that has continued at general meetings of the official Black Lives Matter Austin chapter.

The effort to highlight Black politics and voices in the movement is legitimate, but there are important questions that arise from basing organization solely around racial identity and from understanding non-Black anti-racist activists as merely "allies."

These questions need to be discussed and debated--as should the issue of what comes next for the movement. The BLM chapter in Austin and other new anti-racist formations are currently focusing on battles within city politics. There are worthy fights to be waged here, especially given that the City Council just passed a budget that includes funding for 50 new police officers, along with millions for body cameras. But there is a danger in confining the movement's activities to trying to persuade the local political power structure.

SOME OF these questions arose at the evening panel discussion at UT held amid the Larry Jackson hearing.

The forum, titled "Black Lives Matter in Texas: Organizing Against Racist State Violence" and co-hosted by the International Socialist Organization (ISO), the People's Task Force, the Campaign to End the Death Penalty and BLM Austin, featured Larry Jackson's sister LaKiza; Rodrick Reed, the brother of innocent Texas death row prisoner Rodney Reed; Christen Smith, a professor of Anthropology and Black Studies at UT; LaKenya Mason, a member of BLM Austin; and Lucian Villasenor of the ISO and People's Task Force.

A protest sign at the front of the room--with "Don't dismiss the case" written in bold letters, referring to Kleinert's immunity claim--was a constant reminder of the immediacy of the struggle. Black Lives Matter has exposed the courts as institutions of power, with killer cops going free literally 99% of the time. As Smith stated, to the audience's approval:

This particular system is one that we have to dismantle. We can't continue in this fashion. We can't think that signing a petition, getting body cameras on cops, or other reforms are going to fix it. We have to get rid of this and set up something different.

This raises the pressing question of what to do next--an especially urgent one in Austin if the courts let Larry Jackson's murderer go free and prove Smith's point that the system, courts included, is rotten to the core. What, then, can supporters of Black Lives Matter do to work toward dismantling it, as Smith argued?

Here, some of the political debates that have come to the fore during the lull in the BLM struggle were expressed at the meeting. For example, Smith spoke about the contentious discussion over the slogan "Muslim Lives Matter," which has been defended as an example of radicalization in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, but criticized by others as "appropriation" of the Black struggle. Smith, referencing a comment from an audience member about the idea of intersectionality underlying the potential for solidarity, said:

There is something profoundly violent about appropriating folks' pain. The brother over there mentioned intersectionality, which is important, but it's not lumping everyone together. Intersectionality is a theory which emerges from Black feminist praxis, and they are very specific about recognizing the uniqueness of people's pain.

Part of what is really problematic about these conversations is that because of the nature of political correctness and solidarity on the left, we tend to be very sensitive to the way that our fellow people are feeling, and wanting to honor that. But that being said, we have to be very careful about not overstepping our boundaries. The founders of Black Lives Matter have been extremely clear about that, and we need to be as well. Black folks are in crisis, and yes there are other crises, but those are other movements and other moments. Black pain is unique.

By contrast, Rodrick Reed saw his experiences in the struggle to save his brother's life--which won a temporary victory earlier this year when the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals stayed his execution a week before he was to be put to death--as offering a different lesson about solidarity:

In order to solve the problem, we need to come together and make a change. We as Black people can stand up and push an issue forward, but that's only going to solve part of the problem, not the whole problem. After that, we'll focus on another race, another creed--this is about everybody.

I do know that there has to be a starting point, and Black Lives Matter is a starting point. But in the end, it's not just about Black or white, but about all of us. And this is the perfect place to start, because we are at the bottom of the totem pole, being beaten, tortured, racially profiled. But that shouldn't make us bitter, it should make us better.

We should stand up together. My brother would not still be breathing today if it wasn't for black, white, Latino--all you people out there. We all came together to prevent his death and get a stay.

These discussions are an important part of building a stronger movement and left in the U.S. How such questions are answered will have a real impact on future struggles--for example, on family members like LaKiza and Rodrick who have been sustained in their fights for justice by organizations and individuals who supported them over many years. When they encourage people to participate in the struggle, it is more than just the gratitude of families facing hard times, but a recognition of shared oppressions and the need for a united fight against all of them. As LaKiza put it at the UT panel discussion:

I urge everybody, no matter who you are or what race you are, to realize this is a very important cause. These are real people, not just mug shots on a TV screen. They are real people. Larry was the kindest person. His heart was so pure, he would do anything for anybody. Not only was he my brother, he was my friend, and I miss that. I'm here to fight because of what has happened to my family, I don't want anyone else to go through that.

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