Area ac­tivist low­er­ing her pro­file

Rus­sell in­volved in a range of causes but now fo­cus­ing on schools.

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Ri­cardo Gan­dara rgan­dara@states­

A win­dow sticker on her well-worn 2002 Toy­ota Prius reads, “Bit­ing Those Who Need to be Bit­ten.” An­other asks, “Dear of­fi­cer, what part of the Con­sti­tu­tion are you de­fend­ing to­day?”

The mes­sages are spot on about Deb­bie Rus­sell, though she con­cedes she’s now more fo­cused on stu­dents as a trustee of the Del Valle school board.

The out­spo­ken 44-year-old ac­tivist has made head­lines on so­cial is­sues rang­ing from open government to po­lice mis­con­duct to the Oc­cupy Austin protests and even cham­pi­oned the late Les­lie Cochran, Austin’s iconic cross­dress­ing home­less man. She took part in the suc­cess­ful cam­paign to pass Propo­si­tion 3 to al­low the elec­tion of Austin City Coun­cil mem­bers

from sin­gle-mem­ber dis­tricts and is now keep­ing a watch­ful eye on how the plan is im­ple­mented.

In Del Valle, she’s on a mis­sion to close down the district’s dis­ci­plinary cen­ter — “trail­ers be­hind barbed wire,” as she calls it.

“Eighty per­cent of the kids sent there are for non­vi­o­lent of­fenses. I’d rather have an op­por­tu­nity cen­ter where those kids are in­volved in ac­tiv­i­ties like art to help them find a new fo­cus. I want to save peo­ple, not pun­ish them,” she said.

But Rus­sell might still be best known for her crit­i­cism of the Austin Po­lice De­part­ment and Chief Art Acevedo’s han­dling of of­fi­cers who have killed ci­ti­zens in the line of duty. Af­ter po­lice of­fi­cer Jaime Padron was shot and killed at a Wal-Mart store in April, she made this in­fa­mous post­ing on Face­book: “Cu­rios­ity killed the cat, but ego killed the cop.”

She deleted the com­ment and apol­o­gized on a lo­cal TV sta­tion, but it has dogged her ever since. Mayor Lee Leff­in­g­well and Coun­cil Mem­ber Mike Martinez ad­mon­ished her pri­vately. On her blog, crit­i­cism rained down.

Rus­sell re­sponded with a chas­tened post. “Mea Culpa,” she be­gan. “I re­gret in­creas­ing the con­flict, when nor­mally I pride my­self on en­cour­ag­ing con­flict res­o­lu­tion.” She apol­o­gized to Acevedo and Padron’s fam­ily, po­lice of­fi­cers and the com­mu­nity.

Still, the Wal-Mart episode threat­ened to com­pro­mise years of grass­roots ac­tivism.

“What she posted on Face­book … speaks to the depths of the dark- ness in her heart,” Acevedo said when con­tacted for this story. “I lost a lot of re­spect for her, and I ques­tion how she can ef­fec­tively serve chil­dren” as a mem­ber of the Del Valle school board.

In per­son, how­ever, Rus­sell is dis­arm­ing. She ap­pears rea­son­able, not con­fronta­tional. A fel­low school board mem­ber de­scribes her as “pa­tient and col­lab­o­ra­tive.”

“I get that a lot,” Rus­sell said. “Peo­ple will say some­thing like, ‘Oh, you’re not so bad.’ ”

Po­lit­i­cally, she calls her­self an in­de­pen­dent but leans to­ward the Green Party. She’s been a wait­ress, a teacher and an of­fice man­ager and now works for a com­puter re­pair firm. Her fa­ther taught her how to work on cars, and she once in­stalled a trans­mis­sion with the help of a friend.

“Once you take an en­gine apart and lay it all in front of you, you see how it works and what goes where,” she said.

Born in Hous­ton, Rus­sell is the daugh­ter of an Exxon pub­lic re­la­tions ex­ec­u­tive and a stay-ath­ome mother. She set out to be­come an ar­chi­tect but switched to English lit­er­a­ture at the Univer­sity of Hous­ton, from which she grad­u­ated in 1992. Fresh out of col­lege, she wrote grant ap­pli­ca­tions for dance com­pa­nies and taught at the Phoenix Academy, a small pri­vate high school in Hous­ton.

Her time teach­ing English as a sec­ond lan­guage in Hous­ton shaped her po­lit­i­cal aware­ness, she said. “Work­ing with refugees opened my eyes to how lit­tle I’d learned in school,” she said.

She moved to Austin in 1997 and has been here ever since, throw­ing her high en­ergy into causes im­por­tant to her: Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union-Texas, Aus­tinites for Ge­o­graphic Rep­re­sen­ta­tion, Youth Un­lim­ited, Bet­ter Austin To­day, Austin Cen­ter for Peace and Jus­tice, Austin Po­lice Accountability Coali­tion, Black Austin Democrats, Change Austin, Del Valle Com­mu­nity PTA and the Austin Cen­ter for Peace and Jus­tice.

All that involvement doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily pro­duce mea­sur­able re­sults, she ad­mits. “In Austin, it’s rare that your ef­forts re­sult in tan­gi­ble wins, but we have been suc­cess­ful in push­ing pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion of is­sues and push­ing de­bates on is­sues that are not oth­er­wise on the ta­ble. That’s a win,” she said.

An ex­am­ple: push­ing the Austin Po­lice De­part­ment to come up with a de­fin­i­tive pol­icy on peo­ple who film po­lice of­fi­cers per­form­ing their du­ties. “It de­fines that ci­ti­zens have a right to record, and it also de­fines what con­sti­tutes in­ter­fer­ence,” she said.

She served on the city of Austin’s Ur­ban Forestry Board from 2002 to 2005 and the Pub­lic Safety Task Force from 2007 to 2009. The Austin Chron­i­cle named her Most Ac­tive Ac­tivist in 2005.

For sev­eral years, Rus­sell was the unof­fi­cial spokes­woman for the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union of Texas, which named her Out­stand­ing Ac­tivist in 2009. Paid staffers now speak for the or­ga­ni­za­tion, and Rus­sell is sim­ply a vol­un­teer. “She is one of our most loyal and ef­fec­tive vol­un­teers. We value her par­tic­i­pa­tion in Austin,” said ACLU-Texas spokes­woman Dotty Grif­fith.

Her high-pro­file involvement in so many causes, some of them un­pop­u­lar, is bound to bring crit­i­cism, said Nel­son Lin­der, pres­i­dent of the Austin NAACP.

“Let’s face it: When you’re do­ing what Deb­bie does, you’re go­ing against the grain and against peo­ple who are pow­er­ful. But she’s been up­front and ef­fec­tive in keep­ing crit­i­cal is­sues like civil lib­er­ties and po­lice mis­con­duct be­fore the pub­lic,” he said.

Lately, Austin of­fi­cials ap­pear to have dis­tanced them­selves even more

from Rus­sell. She said Leff­in­g­well and Martinez won’t talk to her.

Coun­cil Mem­ber Bill Spel­man did not re­turn re­peated phone calls from the States­man about Rus­sell. His pol­icy di­rec­tor, Heidi Ger­bracht, con­firmed that Spel­man has had meet­ings with Rus­sell but said, “Our of­fice has no com­ment.”

Su­sanna Woody, vice pres­i­dent of the Del Valle school board, did re­turn the States­man’s call, say­ing she was speak­ing only for her­self.

“My opin­ion is that Deb­bie is very knowl­edge­able about the law and leg­is­la­tion. She’s pa­tient and col­lab­o­ra­tive,” Woody said. “Deb­bie stands up for what she thinks is right, no mat­ter what peo­ple think of her. You have to have courage to do that.”

The board did re­ceive a let­ter from a per­son com­plain­ing about Rus­sell’s Face­book post­ing about the Wal-Mart shoot­ing, Woody said. “Ba­si­cally it said that her com­ment was un­be­com­ing a school board mem­ber. It wasn’t any­thing we dis­cussed as a board be­cause it had noth­ing to do with chil­dren or the school board. She did apol­o­gize to us, but in my opin­ion she didn’t have to be­cause it had noth­ing to do with schools or chil­dren.”

Rus­sell was ap­pointed to the school board in Au­gust 2011 to fill a va­cant seat. She was not op­posed in the May elec­tion, and her term will ex­pire in 2015.

Mike Levy, a mem­ber of the city’s Pub­lic Safety Com­mis­sion, said he has strongly dis­agreed with Rus­sell on law en­force­ment is­sues, but they were on the same side on sin­gle-mem­ber coun­cil dis­tricts.

“Deb­bie is passionate, and she cares. Most peo­ple in Austin through­out the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum are un­will­ing to ex­pend that kind of emo­tional en­ergy on any­thing,” Levy said.

For now, she re­mains fo­cused on city government, Del Valle school is­sues and Aus­tinites for Ge­o­graphic Rep­re­sen­ta­tion, the group that backed sin­gle-mem­ber coun­cil dis­tricts. She keeps a watch­ful eye on pub­lic of­fi­cials — “Acevedo is fore­most on that list, and he knows it,” she said.

And there’s also her day job — work­ing for Happy Mac, a small Austin busi­ness that fixes Ap­ple com­put­ers.

“I’m a fixer of com­put­ers and cars,” Rus­sell said. “And I fix bro­ken government.”

Deb­bie Rus­sell might be best known for her crit­i­cism of the Austin Po­lice De­part­ment.

Alberto martínez / amer­i­can-states­man

Deb­bie Rus­sell re­cently protested an al­leged cav­ity search con­ducted in pub­lic by a Texas De­part­ment of Pub­lic Safety trooper.

Con­tact Ri­cardo Gan­dara at 445-3632.

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