By Dmitri Sans
Today, as fireworks ignite to celebrate the Fourth of July, the East Riverside community in Austin, Texas will not be able to enjoy the thunder of cracks and explosions without hearing the echo of gunshots that disturbed the festivities last year. The loud pops and bangs that once recalled memories of good times will now be clouded by the image of racist Jason Roche, decked in full tactical gear and armed with a Taurus handgun and a Mossberg AR-15-style rifle, shooting down Devonte Ortiz, a young Black man who had stood up against Roche’s threats toward him and his friends.
Roche was not from the apartment complex on Anken Drive where Devonte had lived with his family for 12 years. He was visiting his father Dennis, who joined his son that night in yelling racial slurs at Devonte and his friends as they set off fireworks in the parking lot. It was after Devonte began to stand up against the older Roche that the younger one retrieved his guns and shot him dead.
“[Devonte] was not going to let that man and his daddy run those kids off from having a good time,” Devonte’s mother Kristina told a demonstration at the courthouse a month after his death. “This is what we do. We’re [a] a community. We stick together. If something’s wrong we’re knocking on each other’s door. So I don’t understand why [Roche] walked past my [home] to shoot my baby.”
“It was premeditated,” Kristina continued. “He knew what he was doing, and what he wanted to do. He was big enough to tackle my baby, but instead he took his life in front of his [home].”
A year has passed, and the tragedy of another Black man’s life cut short should be mourned, but more than that the example Devonte set and what he stood for should be honored and celebrated.
In many ways, Devonte was the opposite of Roche. While Roche had made the news for drunkenly speeding into an emergency vehicle in 2016, Devonte made a name for himself rushing down the football field at Travis High. Roche has been arrested for furnishing alcohol to a minor. Devonte has been praised by kids from the neighborhood for having been a role model. While Roche was often seen walking around the Riverside complex terrorizing neighbors by openly carrying his guns, everyone on the street knew Devonte as a valued member of the community, who had left Blinn College after a year to return home to support his family.
Despite fatefully meeting in the same East Austin parking lot last year, Devonte and Roche came from separate worlds. The oppressive conditions that Black children in Austin are forced to grow up in played a role in Devonte becoming the hero that defied racist intimidation that night, just as these conditions allowed Roche to become a racist killer.
This year, Austin was voted the number one place to live in the US for the third year in a row according to the US News & World report, but this poll does not include the disclaimer that the city’s success is largely based on its oppression of the working class and the Black, Chicano, and oppressed nation immigrant communities within it. To travel from Austin’s luxurious urban hubs to the hoods of East Austin is to cross between different countries.
The Austin advertised to outsiders boasts schools with an average graduation rate of 83%, but what is not as eagerly shared is the fact that in 2017 (when Devonte was a Junior) there was a greater disparity in the test scores of white and Black students than there was between students with special needs and those without.
This year, the school district has begun construction for moving the elite Liberal Arts and Science Academy to replace the current campus of Eastside Memorial High school, which will be moved to a campus in District 1. The relocation will mean that Eastside Memorial, where Black students make up 12% of the population, will belong to the same district as the other high schools with the largest Black demographics (Reagan with 14% and LBJ with 37%), effectively segregating the school district.
Many Black students fight back against teachers and administrators, holding them responsible for these abhorrent conditions, but even students like Devonte (who was on the honor roll) are still punished as they strive against oppressive adversity to get an education.
In 2017, when Black mother Pamela Murray decided to transfer her son from Gus Garcia Middle School (also in District 1) to Clint Small Middle School in southwest Austin in hopes that he would have a better chance at success there, it was only weeks after he started that a white student falsely accused him of bringing a weapon to school, resulting in him being handcuffed in front of his entire class.
Earlier this year, police arrested 13-year-old Latashia Milligam while she was at the Eastside Carver Branch Library (which had been known as the “Colored Branch” decades ago) in response to a rumor that she had threatened another student.
In the Austin where Devonte lived, you could be targeted at school, at the library, or in your own neighborhood, like when former police officer Geoffery Freeman fired multiple times at visibly unarmed 17-year-old David Joseph in 2016, killing him like a dog in the street.
Witness testimony of the racial slurs that Roche used before he killed Devonte show that Roche despised the young man in part for his Black skin, but Roche’s actions and how the city has judged him to date cannot be completely explained by his racist motivations. Roche murdered Devonte as part of a greater assault on the Black nation carried out by city and state governments, capitalists, and police departments across the country.
The first enslaved Africans were brought to the US in the 1600s. This human trafficking reached its peak in between 1750 and 1850 in order to satisfy the demand for labor on cotton plantations in the Southern states. This history of slavery lies at the heart of Black national oppression in the US, and this period of influx is what gave shape to the “Black Belt” as it is known today.
Generations of Black families were subjected to the cruelest oppression and exploitation in the form of chattel slavery, resulting in lasting political and economic consequences for Black people today, such as the extraordinary poverty among Black communities (especially in the agrarian South), mass incarceration, and targeted police and racist killings.
The tendency towards segregation in the Austin Independent School District is a continuation of the 1928 city master plan that forced the majority of Black residents to relocate to the then under-developed east side. More recently, the City of Austin and developers have unleashed a wave of gentrification against those same neighborhoods (including Devonte’s) which have become more desirable due to the introduction of large companies to the area like tech firm Oracle, making Austin the only major growth city in the US with a declining Black population.
The main trend among most other cities, however, has been the ghettoization of Black communities, where a combination of deindustrialization, white flight to suburbs, racist housing and hiring policies, and white supremacist violence have forced Black people to live under horrible conditions and without access to many amenities and public services.
Despite the gains of the Civil Rights movement, the economic base of the Black Nation has remained depreciated in comparison to the rest of the US economy, which has been mirrored by the devaluation of Black lives, most blatantly illustrated in the widespread and largely unchallenged killings of Black people by racists and the police.
The way that Roche made threats towards Devonte in the days leading up to the Fourth of July killing parallels how the racist vigilante George Zimmerman stalked 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida for blocks before murdering him in 2012. Trayvon’s murder and the police killing of Mike Brown in 2014 helped spark the nationwide #BlackLivesMatter (BLM) movement, the most prominent and rebellious mass movement of this decade.
BLM gave birth to Communists and militants as well as revisionists, careerists, and sellouts. Ultimately, the leadership of the movement was never consolidated, and the spontaneous energy of the masses was not organized properly. Eventually, the intense period of almost constant mass actions and protests faded away.
However, the uprisings in Ferguson in 2014 and in Baltimore in 2015 have made indelible imprints on the history of the Black nation as well as on the minds of revolutionaries in the US and beyond, and the tremors of those explosive episodes are still felt today. The recent rebellion in Memphis, Tennessee, while not on the same scale as the uprisings at the height of BLM, presents a reminder that the righteous rage of the Black nation is boiling like water under a lid, ready to overflow at any time.
The outrage over Devonte’s death saw a resurgence of the feelings of anger felt during the first wave of BLM, and in the absence of a mass movement the Devonte Ortiz Brigade (DOB) formed, joining Devonte’s family in leading protests and organizing the community to push for People’s Justice against the racist killer.
Predictable as vultures, sellout activists Chas Moore of Austin Justice Coalition (who was recently awarded a six-figure grant for his work collaborating with police) and Fatima Mann, then-director of Counter Balance ATX, used Devonte’s death as a platform to push people towards voting, reforms, and validating the same government that has always oppressed the Black nation and created the conditions that led to Devonte’s murder.
While DOB did provide an alternative message to the sellouts, consistently pointing out the bankruptcy of the criminal justice system and its ruling class character, it did not do enough to go on the offensive against the sellouts who sought to personally profit from the community’s loss and serve ruling class interests.
In spite of its revolutionary-sounding rhetoric, DOB would eventually get bogged down in the court proceedings of the case against Roche, tailing the wishes of Devonte’s family who had not been prepared for the prosecution’s trickery and intimidation tactics, and failed to grow the struggle outside of its legal parameters.
In the end, DOB did not rely on the masses and did not lead the successful campaigns necessary to make the organization anything more than a support group for Devonte’s family.
Many people from the community want to see Roche pay for what he did, but honoring Devonte’s memory cannot be limited to seeking justice for his killer or supporting his family. It must also mean following and upholding the principle of human dignity that Devonte embodied.
It would have been easy for Devonte to run away when Roche and his father started trouble one year ago today, but how many other times had Devonte been told that he didn’t belong where he lived? How many times in his life had people called him a “nigger” or “monkey” like Roche did? How many times had Devonte watched as his friends were terrorized by uniformed men with guns from a world different than his?
By standing up against the racist scare tactics of the Roches, Devonte stood up for himself, his community, and his nation.
While Devonte is physically gone, his spirit lives on in the struggle. The courageous final moments of Devonte’s life have lit fuses inside the hearts and minds of all those who have cried out, “Justice for Devonte!” It is only a matter of time before those fuses burn to their ends, and the rockets of revolution launch and assault the skies above in a stunning display that Devonte longed to see.