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Dateline Houston

A sign that says "vote" in many languages

On Fox yesterday, GOP strategist Karl Rove claimed that Obama won re-election by “suppressing the vote” His evidence? Obama captured a smaller percentage of votes than he did in 2008. Obama’s method? Making people dislike Mitt Romney.

“Suppressing the vote” just doesn’t mean what it used to.

Houston knows how to (allegedly) suppress a vote. Its suburbs spawned True the Vote, the poll-watching tea partiers who tend to target minority districts for their scrutiny. And this fall, Houstonians made up a huge proportion of Texas’s not-actually-dead voters who were slated to have their registrations cancelled, more of whom were in minority than Anglo districts.

But in the end, it was all sound and fury, signifying nothing. Public outcry paused the zombie voter purge, and the Houston Chronicle minced no words with Tuesday’s headline, “True the Vote’s impact said to be negligible.”

TTV founder Catherine Engelbrecht says they received hundreds of complaints and that it takes time to sort and submit them to election officials, so the group’s real results are yet to come. (Their 2010 efforts yielded only a few investigations and no criminal action.) So TTV may or may not have sniffed out fraud. But it doesn’t seem to have suppressed the vote either. Several civil rights groups under an umbrella organization, the Election Protection Coalition, say that while they got around 70,000 complaints of their own about election troubles, very few were about True the Vote.

There was, however, one showdown. A True the Vote-trained poll watcher says the NAACP took over and “basically ran” the Harris County Precinct 139 location. Allegedly, the nefarious NAACP handed out bottled water to voters in long lines and selected people (the NAACP says they were elderly and/or disabled) to go to the front of the line, “stirring up the crowd” to vote for Obama.

Someone better tell Karl Rove.

"Vote here" signDateline Houston is confused.

Texas Republicans are passionately concerned about so-called voter integrity. Ensuring this integrity has spurred legislation, court battles, and private citizens’ groups taking up only-probably-metaphorical arms against hordes of evildoers who might somehow steal elections from conservatives in a place that hasn’t elected a Democrat to statewide office since 1994.

So why wouldn’t the state welcome even more integrity-minded poll monitors?

“We just wouldn’t, okay?” Dateline Houston imagines Attorney General Greg Abbott snapping before returning his attention to a hand mirror onto which he’d pasted a picture of Anderson Cooper.

Until very recently, Republicans were the only ones mobilizing against alleged electoral shenanigans. In the interest of preventing a dubiously documented and apparently deeply ineffective rash of election fraud, Texas Republicans wrote and passed the voter ID law that only coincidentally disenfranchises traditionally Democratic groups, and which Attorney General Greg Abbott has failed to prove in court is not racist. The Republican-controlled Legislature also changed how counties identify voters who may have died, which led—again only coincidentally—to the potential deletion of many living voters who, statistically, were more likely to have been Democrats. A lawsuit is underway.

And then there’s True the Vote. TTV is a poll-watching project of the King Street Patriots, a supposedly nonpartisan Houston group spawned during the tea party orgy of 2009. In the 2010 elections, True the Vote trained and dispatched about 1000 volunteers to mostly minority neighborhoods to hunt voting irregularities and stare down would-be defrauders. As the Observer’s Patrick Michels reported, “[they] combined to send 800 complaints of improper voting to Harris County officials, who investigated a few but ended up taking no legal action. …While it generated little evidence of voter fraud, the King Street Patriots’ effort did result in complaints about voter intimidation and breached ethics, a lawsuit from the Texas Democratic Party, and an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice.”

To review: the party that hasn’t lost a statewide election in 18 years finds itself so besieged by election-stealing leftist lawbreakers that they have dedicated serious time and money at every level of their organization to curb it.

Of course, when anybody questions this—particularly if the sentence starts, “But, statistically…”—these patriots clutch their life-sized plush bald eagles and fall to the floor, shuddering with apoplexy, whispering, “freedom…”

The most recent freak-out was when a United Nations-affiliated group of election monitors announced it would send a total of 44 observers to the entire United States to watch for voter suppression, just as they have for years, at the invitation of the United States, and do all over the world.

In Texas, the fertilizer totally hit the ventilation system.

Attorney General Greg Abbott bewailed the UN invasion most concisely in a tweet: “UN poll watchers can’t interfere w/ Texas elections. I’ll bring criminal charges if needed. Official letter posted soon. #comeandtakeit”. On Wednesday, he explained to Reuters, “They act like they may not be subject to Texas law and our goal all along is to make clear to them that while they’re in Texas, they’re subject to Texas law, and we’re not giving them an exemption.”

In response, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) pinky-swore not to buy beer before noon on Sunday.

Then Abbott admitted that, actually, he was afraid the OSCE could do exactly what True the Vote, by many accounts, does. “Our concern is that this isn’t some benign observation but something intended to be far more prying and maybe even an attempt to suppress voter integrity,” he told Reuters.

Maryland Democrat Elijah Cummings, a ranking member of the U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, says True the Vote does just that. On October 18, Politico reported that Cummings had sent two letters to True the Vote asking for documents and citing reports that there “is mounting evidence that True the Vote’s aggressive poll monitoring tactics are being closely coordinated with the Republican Party” and has, in the words of one report, “a highly partisan and political agenda to deny African Americans and Latinos, specifically, the right to vote.”

With so much hand-wringing about poll-watching, one wonders what they’re all watching for. How do you spot fraudulent voters? What do they look like?

Well, in a very recent local case, the fraudster looks like a Republican precinct chairman who was running for a seat on the Fort Bend County Commissioner’s Court. Records show that Bruce Fleming voted both in person in Sugar Land and by mail in Pennsylvania—an actual swing state where a single fraudulent vote really could make an actual difference—in 2006, 2008, and 2010.

Catherine Englebrecht, founder and president of True the Vote, lives in Fleming’s Precinct 1. She and TTV were not responsible for uncovering Fleming’s alleged fraud.

For the November elections, True the Vote has long maintained it wants to send two million eyeballs to the polls. Considering that they seem to be many hundred thousands short of their goal, you’d think they’d want all the help they can get.


Lloyd Oliver
Lloyd Oliver

Dateline Houston cannot adequately communicate how vivid and disturbing the Houston Press’s new cover story profiling Lloyd Oliver is. You’ll just have to read it. Oliver, of course, is the guy who spent $325 in the Democratic primary for Harris County District Attorney campaigning against a highly qualified favorite—and won by 3000 votes. A lawyer with a checkered past, Oliver has run unsuccessfully for several offices, often as a Republican, because he says it drums up business for his law practice. Harris County Democrats tried to boot Oliver from the ticket for saying he would have voted for the incumbent DA, a Republican who lost in the primary, but Oliver took the issue to court and prevailed.

Because Oliver is a, how you say, local character, mirth ensued. Briefly.

Then, September 28, Oliver appeared on the Houston PBS political forum “Red, White and Blue” and was asked to clarify a remark he made publicly in March, that domestic violence victims should “maybe learn how to box a little better.” Confronted with his own words, Oliver didn’t backtrack. “There are some people,” he explained, “[and] I don’t understand it, but part of their making love is beat up one another first.”

Dateline Houston doesn’t think Oliver understood A Streetcar Named Desire.

Oliver went on to say that domestic violence cases should be prosecuted less often, so that taxpayer money and jail space can be reserved for “baby rapers” and the like.

It shouldn’t require explanation that domestic violence, and the prehistoric attitude that abuse is a private problem that doesn’t require or deserve public resources, is abhorrent. But by the by, October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and according to Harris County Domestic Violence Coordinating Council, Harris County sees more victims killed by abuse than any other county in the state.

Really, Oliver’s stand on this issue but scratches the surface of the political melanoma that is his candidacy. Here’s a tiny sample more from the Press feature:

“[Oliver] compliments women frequently on whatever ‘fine aroma’ they may be wearing. He characterizes certain teenage girls as ‘sticking out every which way you can imagine.’ … He is wary of Seattle because of all the ‘queers holding hands’ and the ‘rag heads.’ He loves soup. And his opinion of the local Democratic leadership? ‘Frustrated homosexuals.’”

Practically everyone who’s paying attention is worried that Oliver could win if enough people vote straight-ticket Democrat, which is perhaps likelier in this presidential election year. Oliver’s opponent, Republican Mike Anderson, “said an Oliver victory could spark a mass exodus of as many as 100 of the 240 prosecutors in the District Attorney’s Office,” according to the Houston Chronicle.

Dateline Houston hopes to learn, and soon, that Oliver’s whole candidacy and persona are part of a Borat-like farce intended to illustrate the dangers of an uninformed, partisan electorate. But if that turns out not to be the case, this show is definitely not funny anymore.



When Dateline Houston reported on Harris County’s deeply flawed “dead” voter purge, in which the county—under state instruction and then duress—risked disenfranchising thousands of legitimate voters in the interest of election integrity, the Houston Chronicle had already pointed out that a disproportionate number of those affected were minorities. At the time, Dateline Houston wasn’t aware of anyone coming out and saying the purge was motivated by racial or partisan bias. Well, now someone has.

First, the quick-and-dirty history. (Long snarky version here.) The state regularly uses various data to determine if a voter has died and should have her registration canceled. Last session, the Texas Legislature passed a bill that dramatically expanded (and, it seems, polluted) that list. About 77,000 Texans got letters in the mail asking if they were dead, and saying their voter registration would be canceled if they didn’t write back. Harris County residents got 9,000 of those letters. When Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Don Sumners heard immediate complaints from living voters, he said no one here would be purged until after the election and more investigation. To coerce Harris County into compliance, the state froze the county’s voter registration funding. Four not-dead-yet voters sued, and the whole affair was dropped until after the election.

To Dateline Houston, it seemed Sumners was defending all voters by stopping the operation as soon as it proved defective. But not to LULAC.

The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) joined seven voters Thursday in filing a federal lawsuit against Harris County and Sumners, alleging that he “targets the Latino and black communities in his voter purging by ZIP code,” said Attorney Luis Roberto Vera, Jr., LULAC’s general counsel, to the Houston Chronicle.

That makes LULAC’s accusation sound like a straightforward, moustache-twisting deletion of Garcias. Actually, what the suit alleges are a few piecemeal forms of discrimination only loosely tied to the recent voter purge, plus the overarching observation that the voter application rejection rate from 2009 to 2012 was higher for Latinos and black voters than for Anglos, and higher in majority Latino and black neighborhoods than majority Anglo neighborhoods.

The suit alleges this effect is deliberate, “undertaken with a racially discriminatory intent to deny or abridge the right to vote of African-American [and]…Latino persons.”

LULAC alleges that Sumners is denying voter applications because the voter’s residential address might be a commercial address, despite a 2009 settlement with the Texas Democratic Party where Harris County specifically promised that they wouldn’t do that. Sumners also allegedly rejected hundreds of applications for failing to include “all the required information,” despite the fact that the 2009 settlement included a fairly short list of basic information that had to be “legibly [provided]” for registration. LULAC also says that “all the required information” is too vague a grounds for rejection, and that Sumners’ decision not to send his staff to collect the voter registrations from new citizens at Houston Area Naturalization Ceremonies constituted a change in procedures that required federal pre-clearance under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

Finally, LULAC objects to Sumners’ failure to notify the 9000 Harris County residents who got “Are you dead?” letters that their registrations would not be canceled even if they failed to confirm their perpetuance.

It’s worth noting that House Bill 174, which expanded the perhaps-dead voter list by requiring the secretary of state to incorporate data from the Social Security “death master list,” passed with only one opposing vote and did get federal pre-clearance.

In response to the LULAC suit, Sumners’ office put out a press release that can be objectively described as snotty. It begins: “Here we go again. Another unwarranted political lawsuit.”

The release, written in the first person apparently by Sumners, says LULAC’s accusations are a retread of the previous suit, baseless and politically motivated. He’s obviously not rejecting voters for commercial addresses, he says, because a True the Voter recently sent him a “challenge” list of hundreds of registered voters with commercial address whom she wanted removed. Of course, this isn’t as strong a defense as it initially seems, because LULAC is not alleging that Sumners is cancelling all voter registrations from commercial addresses. They allege that Sumners is cancelling more commercial-address registrations from minority neighborhoods than Anglo ones. So the fact that a True-the-Voter can come up with hundreds of commercial-address voter registrations doesn’t prove that LULAC is wrong. If those addresses turned out to be in predominantly Anglo neighborhoods, it could prove them right.

Sumners also points out that nobody, dead or undead, is getting purged before the November elections, which also sounds like a strong defense at first. But that’s not what LULAC’s suit is about. It’s about, in part, the failure of Sumners’ office to notify people that they won’t be purged in the same official capacity as he told them they would be. Sumners’ retort also focuses only on the last two months, and doesn’t address the LULAC claim that racially disproportionate purges have been occurring since 2009.

Finally, Sumners says that the naturalization ceremony claim is “totally wrong and easily disproven,” though he doesn’t say how.

If the system works, the courts will establish who’s right in this he-said-they-said conflict. Place your bets in the comments section. But to Dateline Houston, the most important player in the Harris County zombie voter scandal is only mentioned in passing the in the dispatches from these two sides.

In the second paragraph of Sumners’ “pfft, check out this guy” press release, he notes, “The Secretary of State is not named as a defendant” in LULAC’s suit. The Texas legislature, after all, found time to pass into law the big changes that risked so much disenfranchisement, all to stop the four dead-voter-impersonators that cast ballots in this year’s run-offs. But the Secretary of State’s office is the one that froze Harris County voter registration funding for refusing to purge voters even after it became obvious to all involved that the new dead list was fatally flawed.

While LULAC mud-wrestles Harris County, who will point fingers at the state?

Photo taken from Houston Police Department Facebook page


Today, Houston is struggling with the shooting death of yet another unarmed citizen at the hands of the Houston Police Department. It is the fourth shooting of an unarmed person, and the third death, since July 9.

Just past midnight this (Thursday) morning, 38-year-old Kenneth Releford allegedly kicked in the front door of his neighbor’s home in south central Houston, assaulted the two boys and an elderly man living there, and left.

A lengthy Houston Chronicle article published early this afternoon took its account from John Cannon, a Houston Police Department spokesman. It reports that Releford “hit” the elderly man and that the son said the man “was not hurt when [Releford] tried to hit him.”

“Cannon said the elderly man and the juveniles who were allegedly attacked were not seriously injured and were treated at the scene,” the Chronicle wrote. But when the police statement on the event arrived this afternoon, it said that Releford “sexually assaulted one of the juvenile males.”

The family later said Releford had never bothered them before, and said they didn’t know why he’d attacked them, though they believed he may have had mental health problems.

Releford went home and HPD arrived. The officers went to Releford’s house and he came out on his porch, allegedly with his left hand behind his back. Releford screamed at Officer J. Rosemon, who’s been on the force for less than two years, and advanced on him as the officer retreated, keeping his left hand behind his back and ignoring commands to stop and show the hand, according to the Houston Police account.

Officer Rosemon fired twice, hitting Releford, who proved unarmed.

HPD paramedics arrived and Releford fought with them—another suggestion that Releford was mentally ill. He was pronounced dead at Ben Taub General Hospital.

Late last month, HPD came under strictly metaphorical fire for an officer’s fatal shooting of a mentally ill, unarmed double-amputee in a wheelchair.

Earlier in September, an HPD officer shot, but did not kill, another unarmed citizen with a history of mental illness. And in July, an HPD officer shot and killed an unarmed man whom the officer said was not responding to commands but whom two witnesses said was cooperating.

In September, one HPD officer also shot at, but missed, an unarmed alleged beer thief in the back of a car who made a “quick move.” Another officer shot two suspects in a car fleeing after a bar fight.

A July 30 report in the Houston Chronicle observed that shootings of HPD suspects were on the upswing, having doubled compared with the same period the previous year. Department officials, and the Houston police union, said the trend was “likely cyclical.”

Photo from the Houston Police Department Facebook page

On Monday afternoon, former Houston Police Department officer Abraham Joseph was sentenced to life in prison for two counts of aggravated sexual assault by a public servant. Joseph, while in uniform and on duty, pulled over a waitress on her way home from work, handcuffed and raped her. Joseph was found guilty on Thursday afternoon after the jury of five women and seven men deliberated for less than eight hours. During the sentencing phase of the trial, three other waitresses testified that Joseph had done the same to them over four months in 2010 and 2011.

Everything about this is sick, of course, but if anything could make it worse, it’s that Joseph knew the waitresses from having stalked them at their workplaces and knew they were undocumented immigrants. According to the prosecution, Joseph counted on their vulnerability to deportation to keep them quiet.

Abuses of sex and power were also revealed at the Harris County Sheriff’s Office last week. On Friday afternoon, Sheriff Adrian Garcia held a press conference to announce the results of an internal affairs investigation that led two deputies and four civilian detention officers to leave or lose their jobs. The probe found sexual misconduct between jail staff and other employees and between jailers and inmates. Garcia declined to give more details about the findings, but said the inmates involved were “numerous” adult women, that the offenses occurred in laundry rooms, and that the fired supervising deputy was aware of but did not stop the behavior.

Garcia didn’t specify that inmates were having sex with jailers in return for favors or contraband, but did say the investigation began in August of last year after an inmate was found with outlawed tennis shoes. “Then the ball of yarn began to unravel,” Garcia said.

A Houston Chronicle review of disciplinary records showed that since 2007, more than 20 Harris County Jail employees have been suspended without pay or fired for sexual misconduct with inmates, providing contraband, or both.

Since taking office in January 2009, Sheriff Garcia has fired, reprimanded or suspended employees at a greater rate than his predecessor, Sheriff Tommy Thomas. Sheriff Garcia told the Texas Observer that this wasn’t due to an increase in wrongdoing but rather an emphasis on discipline. When he took office, Garcia says, “there was a culture that this particular case [the recent firings] pointed to. But we’re dealing with that and we’re making it abundantly clear that this activity is not to be tolerated.”

Sheriff Garcia said that the Harris County District Attorney’s office would determine whether the fired employees would face criminal charges.

Houston Police Department Chief Charles McClelland has also fired slightly more officers during his first three years than his predecessor did in the same time period, 63 versus 58, though he has disciplined roughly the same amount, almost 1,300.

Civil rights activists say it’s not nearly enough. Chief McClelland was on the defensive in September over his decision “not to fire a police sergeant and three traffic officers he recently suspended for unnecessarily listing themselves as witnesses on hundreds of traffic tickets,” per James Pinkerton of the Chronicle. “They did so to get overtime for testifying in municipal court. Payroll records show the four earned $943,000 in overtime since 2008.”

“We certainly will not tolerate any kind of criminal or illegal behavior,” Chief McClelland said at the time. “But I have to weigh, can these officers be productive police officers and members of this organization again?”

At HPD, even those who are fired, suspended, or reprimanded by their superiors usually don’t suffer the full consequences. According to Ray Hunt, president of the Houston Police Officers’ Union, HPD disciplinary actions are overturned or reduced about 60 percent of the time.

Ho John Lee/Flickr

“Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” – Mark Twain

As you probably know by now, almost 77,000 Texans got letters in the mail in September asking them to let their county know within 30 days if they are not dead, lest their voter registration be canceled. Harris County citizens got more than 9,000 of those letters. I’ll skip to the end: as of Wednesday, the “purge” (really, has that word ever meant a good thing?) is on hold until after the November election. But the way this played out deserves study, because it’s further suggestion that the Texas guvm’t is willing to accidentally and/or incidentally disenfranchise a huge number of people to prevent a statistically irrelevant quantity of fraud.

Act One.

As soon as the letters went out, it was clear to anyone paying attention that mistakes had been made. Most of the letters were delivered on a Friday and Saturday, September 8th and 9th, and by the end of Monday the 11th, more than 300 Harris County residents had already called their county office to complain. Importantly, none of these people were dead.

Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Don Sumners immediately recognized the severity of the problem and declared that no one in his county would be deleted from the voter rolls until after the November election and after further investigation. Sounds pretty responsible, right? After all, in the three weeks since the letters went out, 32 percent of the Harris County voters presumed dead have been found very much alive, and only seven percent have been confirmed dead.

Let’s math, shall we? In Harris County, 9018 people received dead letters. So the living-but-potentially purged voters number about 2,885. And the actually dead are about 631 voters—a significant number, surely, but there’s no indication that any of those people would have been impersonated by someone trying to vote in their place. The vast majority, though registered, probably wouldn’t have voted because… they’re dead. So why the rush to “clean up” the rolls?

To maintain the integrity of our elections, of course. How big a problem is dead-voter impersonation in Texas? Well, in defending his ill-fated voter ID law, Attorney General Greg Abbott told Fox News in July that more than 200 people (!) who were legally dead had voted in the last election. At the time of this year’s presidential runoffs, Texas had more than 13 million registered voters. So that’s .0015% of the registered voters, which you should really say out loud—one-and-a-half thousandths of one percent—that AG Abbott said necessitated the Voter ID law.

But see, it wasn’t 200 dead voters that voted. When PolitiFact investigated that claim, they found that actually when you look a little closer at the data, it was really four. Four zombie voters. I’m not even going to dignify that with math.

Act Two.

So, back in Harris County, Tax Assessor-Collector Sumners saw that there was a problem with the dead letters and said, “I think we should wait on this.” In response, the Texas Secretary of State’s office, that Friday, froze Harris County’s voter registration funding. Money is the big gun in government; cutting off funding is the nuclear option. So the United Nations can fail for a year to get everyone to sign a mean letter to Syria, but the Texas Secretary of State’s office can, within three days, center its thumb on the windpipe of a major county and press?

People in places high and low started questioning the methods and timing of the purge. Cutting dead voters from the registration rolls isn’t new—the state has done it for years, using information from their own Bureau for Vital Statistics. What’s different is that, during the last session, the Texas legislature passed House Bill 174 requiring the secretary of state’s office to use the Social Security Administration’s “death master list” (a great band name) to assemble their roster of the probably-dead. The resulting lists were much bigger than usual and included both “strong matches” and “weak matches,” all of which were sent to the counties so designated. A strong match correlates the last name, date of birth, and entire SSN for a registered Texas voter and a dead person on the Social Security list. A weak match pairs either the same full Social Security number plus birth date or just the birth date, last four digits of the SSN, and one name component, which presumably includes middle names. (Think of the Waynes!) Of the 77,000 names the secretary of state’s office sent out potentially to be purged, about 70,000 of them were weak matches. Plus, according to the Travis County voter registrar, strong matches are automatically cancelled. So the vast majority of those affected by this move were already designated maybe not actually dead.

Unlike the Voter ID bill, HB 174 sailed to passage. It got through the Texas House with only one dissenting vote and the Senate unanimously. It was also precleared by the U.S. Justice Department, meaning it wasn’t thought discriminatory.

But was it? Analysis by the Houston Chronicle showed that in Harris County—where, I remind you, nearly a third of letter-getters have already proved not dead—voters in traditionally black neighborhoods received a disproportionate number of the letters. Lise Olsen writes, “Nearly 2,900 [of the 9,000 letter recipients] live in Harris County Commissioner’s Precinct 1 – a minority opportunity district created more than two decades ago that includes most of the county’s historically black neighborhoods.”

Drink that in.

There are a couple of reasons this might be. One is that residents of those neighborhoods may be older and so more likely to have died. Another is that traditionally African-American surnames are among the most common. The Chronicle observes that, across Texas, “voters named Smith, Johnson, Williams, Jones, Brown, Davis, Garcia and Rodriguez were most likely to be tagged” weak matches, and that “about 13,000 voters listed had last names associated with Hispanic heritage.”

Is this incidental? Was it deliberate? Considering that the elderly and minorities are more likely to be Democrats and more likely to be wrongly dropped because of HB 174, one smells fish. But nobody wants to say so out loud. They just want to stop the insanity.

Act Three.

And they did. Four living voters who’d been notified of their deaths sued the state to stop the purge, and on Wednesday settled in an agreement that no one would be purged until after the election and after verification of their (actual) death. This ended the inquiry into whether the bill as conceived or as carried out had Democrat-suppressing intentions.

Secretary of State Hope Andrade said (in my mind, blithely), that the process “has never precluded counties from taking the time local officials deem necessary to confirm a voter’s status.” Except for the whole freezing funding thing.

As for Harris County’s heroic tax assessor-collector, Don Sumners, he is content. “I hope everybody’s happy,” Sumners said. “I feel vindicated that we actually ended up with a solution that everybody could agree on, and it’s pretty much what I was doing.”

Michelle Alexander

When Mitt Romney’s comments about the 47 percent came to light, perhaps the most shocking part was made of two words rattled off in a list that ended with “you name it.” Romney said of this dismissible 47 percent of Americans that they, (erroneously) “believe they are entitled” to health care, housing, and “to food.”

To food.

Are we, as citizens of the United States, or even just as living humans, entitled to food?

I would think this question were easily answered, in theory if not in practice. But then, pre-Romney, I wouldn’t have thought it needed asking at all. Yes, people should be able to eat. Look at Death Row: we feed even those we think deserve to die up until the day we kill them. Surely if Charles Manson still gets his daily trays, we can agree that everyone is “entitled” to food.

So what about someone arrested for possessing marijuana?

Until last night, when Michelle Alexander, Stanford Law graduate and associate professor of law at Ohio State, addressed the Progressive Forum at the Wortham Center in Houston, I had no idea that most states, including Texas, prohibit anyone who has ever had a drug conviction from receiving food stamps.

In fact, the federal law that prohibits public benefits for drug felons was passed in 1992 by Democratic President Bill Clinton, as part of “welfare reform.” It contained an opt-out provision, but as of 2010, only 13 states and the District of Columbia had decided that, yes, even drug felons are entitled to food.

This is one of roughly a thousand head-spinning revelations in Alexander’s 2010 bestseller, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Reissued in paperback this year, The New Jim Crow has stayed on The New York Times Best Seller list for nine months and spurred a national conversation about whether, in the same America that elected a president of color, the criminal justice system is now doing the job that Jim Crow laws used to do: ensuring African Americans remain an “undercaste.”

Last night, Alexander exhorted a rapt audience of about 700 to “wake up” to the changes that 30 years of drug policy have wrought. Simply put: study upon study confirms that African Americans are no more likely to use or sell drugs than white Americans, but they are far, far more likely to go to prison for it, particularly if they are poor. Once a young person is transformed into a Felon, upon serving his time he’ll find virtually unscalable obstacles to full reintegration into society. This is because while it’s no longer acceptable to deny housing, employment, suffrage or public benefits simply on the basis of race, it is not only legal but, in the eyes of most, including a large part of the minority community, totally acceptable to deny these rights to a Felon.

In Texas, for example, a Felon (and I capitalize this to draw attention to the fact that this one characteristic becomes a whole identity subsuming the rest of the person’s history and worth) is not entitled to food stamps. Ever. According to Ana Correa, executive director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, Texas has more 70,000 people exiting its prisons every year. Those citizens have an extremely difficult time obtaining housing, being hired for any kind of job, or even legally feeding themselves. In Texas, even if you have no criminal record, if you allow a Felon to stay at your apartment with you, you can be evicted for it. So even family members of a former prisoner put themselves at personal risk by taking in their own who may not otherwise be able to obtain housing.

Alexander pointed to Texas as the “birthplace of mass incarceration,” and observed that while “Right on Crime” trends are beginning to erode “Tough on Crime” mentalities, this is little cause for rejoicing. The decrease in Texas prison populations has been a response to the extreme expense of mass incarceration in an age of shrinking state and local budgets, not because of recognized injustice. Alexander says that as long as the rationale for deincarceration doesn’t acknowledge the racial and economic origins of the prison boom, nothing is fixed.

The New Jim Crow, like anything bold, has its critics. Some recoil from Alexander’s suggestion that President Reagan deliberately publicized the explosion of crack cocaine in the inner cities to bolster support for his already-declared war, which, she notes, began two years before the advent of crack and when drug use rates were falling. Others criticize her focus on the minority community, ignoring the impact the drug war has had on poor people of all races, and failing to acknowledge the minority community’s support for tough drug enforcement.

But last night, Alexander made a point of recognizing the cost of the civil rights movement to poor whites and the way racial inequity historically has been used to keep the lower classes from organizing together. She called for a nothing less than a “multi-racial, multi-ethnic human rights movement on behalf of all of us” that would end felonies for simple drug possession, and, more expansively, ensure that the caste system created by slavery, perpetuated by Jim Crow laws and then mass incarceration would not be replaced by a new system to do the same job. She urged communities to break their silence about their own and their loved ones’ criminal histories, to create an “underground railroad” to help Felons reintegrate, and to shift to a public health model for treating drug abuse and drug addiction.

In closing, Alexander pointed out how detention of undocumented immigrants was now supporting the prison industry and functioning as the boogeyman to retain poor whites’ support for conservative policy. “We have to connect the dots,” she said. “It’s our task, I firmly believe, to end this.”


I can’t put it any better than does KTRK’s Christine Dobbyn:

“A mentally ill double amputee was shot and killed by a Houston police officer this weekend after he refused to drop a pen.”

There are many details in a story like this, of course. Some of them are arguably mitigating. But before we get to those, a word from our Chief.

In a statement released today, HPD Chief Charles McClelland called Saturday’s fatal events “tragic and unfortunate for all involved,” although surely, Dateline Houston would add, more so for some than others. Chief McClelland says he’s asked the FBI to “monitor and investigate this incident” in addition to the investigations being conducted by HPD’s own Homicide and Internal Affairs Division and the Harris County DA’s Office, Civil Rights Division. The Chief closes his statement, “It is my desire to have everyone reserve judgment until all the facts and evidence in this investigation have been gathered.”

Thus, Dateline Houston will resist her powerful impulses to judge and even weep and will instead attempt here only to present the available facts and evidence, and then some further contextually relevant facts and evidence.

Brian C. Claunch was 45 years old and wheelchair-bound, having lost an arm and leg in a train accident years before. Claunch had schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, and until about 2:30 Saturday morning, he lived at the Healing Hands group home in central Houston with two other disabled men and John Garcia, the home’s owner. Claunch had lived at Healing Hands for the last 18 months as “part of a placement by the Harris County guardianship program,” according to the Houston Chronicle. Garcia told KTRK that Claunch “liked to doodle. He was always doodling at the table.”

Claunch’s caretaker called police at about 2:00 AM Saturday morning because Claunch had become agitated, demanding soda and cigarettes. According to the police report:

“The suspect was agitated and began to yell at the officers and threatened to kill them and the other residents of the home. As he yelled at the officers, he waved a shiny object in his hand in their direction. The suspect refused the officers’ verbal commands to drop the object and advanced in a threatening manner toward one of the officers. As the suspect backed one of the officers into a corner, he attempted to stab the officer with the object. Officer Marin, fearing for his partner’s life, and his own safety, discharged his duty weapon one time, striking the suspect. The object was discovered to be a shiny, ball point [sic] pen.”

Officer Marin shot Brian Claunch in the head. Marin, a five-year veteran of HPD, also shot and killed another suspect in October 2009. That suspect was allegedly armed with a knife.

Two officers, two guns, and one man known to be mentally ill, in a wheelchair, with a ballpoint pen. The facts. The evidence.

Saturday night, an HPD officer shot at an alleged beer thief in a gas station parking lot. The suspect evaded capture.

On September 16, an unarmed 26-year-old man reached for what turned out to be a cellphone and an HPD officer shot him in the leg. The man had a history of mental illness.

On July 9, an HPD officer shot and killed an unarmed 54-year-old, Rufino Lara, whom the officer said was ignoring commands and made a threatening motion. Lara had a beer in his waistband and didn’t speak English. HPD says Lara ignored police commands, but witnesses say he had his hands against the wall and was compliant before being shot to death.

While all officer shootings are investigated by Internal Affairs, no law enforcement officer in Harris County has been charged in a shooting since 2010, when Sgt. Jeffrey Cotton was acquitted for shooting an unarmed man in his own yard.

In 2008, the city of Houston finally settled a lawsuit brought in 2004 by the family of 14-year-old Eli Escobar, who was unarmed and walking away from a scuffle with which he was uninvolved when an HPD rookie killed him with a shot to the head.

The Madness of Helena Brown

New machinations from Houston's most fascinating city councilmember

If Houston politics were a reality TV show, Councilmember Helena Brown would be the housemate that producers had selected specially as insurance against a boring season.

While Dateline Houston was having its mind blown in the Nevada desert, Brown was making headlines again, this time for trying to bill the city for stuff that the city obviously shouldn’t be paying for. Among this stuff was a personal lawyer Brown hired to attend meetings between herself, the mayor, and—wait for it—the city attorney. As in, the attorney employed, and already paid for, to advise councilmembers. A strong case could previously have been made for Brown regarding her employer as antagonist, but this really nails it. (The city will pay for outside counsel when there’s a conflict of interest, but none seemed apparent, and Brown refused, as she always does, to explain her actions.)

It also nails Brown’s fascinating hypocrisy, which might be explained by obliviousness. This first-term erstwhile hotel receptionist has made a name for herself by voting down fire trucks and care for the elderly, saying every blessed week that the city is broke and the country is broke, but she tried to bill the city for $2,108 in gas money spent not by her but by William Park, whom the Chronicle coyly IDs as a “volunteer adviser to the councilwoman on fiscal issues.”

Props to the Chronicle’s Chris Moran, who writes lines like that with a narrow eye but a straight face.

In July, the Houston Press made Brown/Park its cover story, speculating that Park, a disgraced financier, influences Brown’s votes and soapbox speeches if not outright writes them. Whatever the arrangement, Brown, in trying and failing to cover the man’s gas bill, starts to look a little victim-y. She/they have rendered her wholly ineffective, since she usually votes alone and doesn’t seem to have made any friends on the Council.

Then one reads that, while denying her employees benefits ostensibly to save the city money, Brown tried to get reimbursed for buying 13,000 magnets.

The expense, of more than $3,000, remains under review.

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