Video explains Austin’s heated 1970s protests against drag boat racing

12:00 a.m. Saturday, June 10, 2017 Local
This 1978 photo shows Austin Police confronting protestors on the north shore of Town Lake just east of the Interstate 35 bridge. Zach Ryall/American-Statesman

Better than almost any other archival resource on the subject, a black-and-white news documentary from 1978, now posted on the Austin Found blog, explains the controversy over drag boat racing on what was then known as Town Lake.

The videomakers’ attempts at even-handedness — the old-line business community, for instance, strongly supported the divisive races as a magnet for prestige and tourism — are as revealing as their keen insights into the protests that helped to spark ongoing Latino political activism.

The documentary, narrated and cowritten by Barbara Enlow, was recently unearthed and published by Tim Hamblin on the Austin History Center’s YouTube page. It explains a lot about those tumultuous times.

Festival Beach was normally a quiet East Austin park. But each year, the noise of drag races echoed through the neighborhoods along the lake, especially in the longtime Latino areas on the north shore. Attendees at these national boat races tended to treat the area shabbily, too.

In 1963, the Austin Boat Club started the annual series of races, which culminated during the Austin Aqua Festival, attended by tens of thousands of people who — the video reveals — parked their cars right on the prime grasslands of the park!

By 1978, community organizers had been protesting about the noise, traffic, litter and pollution for years. One of the biggest concerns was that the disruption would depress East Austin property values so that developers could later cheaply snap up the land from longtime residents.

The protests grew confrontational. Activists, including the Brown Berets and community organizer Paul Hernandez, tangled with police. The video shows a man getting harrowingly rough with Hernandez.

By the end of the decade, the races were gone, but the festival continued until 1998.

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