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Dateline Houston

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.

In May, Dateline Houston brought you the story of Lloyd Oliver, our latest local star of How to Succeed in Government Without Really Trying. But Oliver’s moment in the spotlight has come to an abrupt, less than dignified end.

Oliver, who has run and voted several times as a Republican in Harris County, bested Zach Fertitta in the Democratic primary race for District Attorney. Fertitta was widely respected by both parties and had been an Assistant DA since 2003. Oliver, a lawyer, said he was running because it’s “good for business.” After his win, which he attributed to “dumb luck,” Oliver said he hoped the Democratic party would send campaign funds his way so he could “get me a John Edwards $300 haircut.”

That’s not what happened. Today, the Harris County Democratic Party took Oliver’s name off the ballot, preferring to leave Republican Mike Anderson unopposed in November.

In a letter to Oliver, Harris County Democratic Party Chairman Lane Lewis said Oliver had violated party rules when he told the Houston Chronicle in May that the incumbent DA, Republican Pat Lykos, “would have gotten my vote.” But Lane added, “You should know that regardless of my decision above, the Democratic Party has determined that it will not present a nominee this election cycle” for Harris County DA.


Oliver was incredulous and promised to appeal to state party officials and, if necessary, bring a federal suit to stay on the ballot. He also called those who’d brought the complaint and sided against him “goobers.”

How hard is it to be homeless in Houston?

Very, very hard.

In April, Dateline Houston told you about a new city ordinance restricting food sharing with the homeless. (Look for the story of a group defying the ordinance in the September issue.) In subsequent months, local media have covered several disconnected stories about homelessness here. String them together, and they start to build a picture of life, and death, on the streets of Houston.

  • Early Saturday morning, a homeless man was walking a woman home from a bar in northeast Harris County. A car ran him over and kept driving. He died at the scene.
  • Just the day before, a homeless man in his 60s was also hit by a car. He had fallen asleep on a feeder road curb beside a construction site. The driver crushed both the man’s legs and kept driving. The man is hospitalized in serious but stable condition.
  • In July, a 16-year-old girl was certified to stand trial as an adult for her role in the April killing of a homeless man. She and three other teens “left Miguel Ramos, 32, to die in a dark, northwest Houston alley after shooting him and taking everything he had—a single torn dollar bill.”

A July report from the Coalition for the Homeless of Houston/Harris County said that Houston’s homeless population declined 14 percent from 2011—but this came after a 25 percent increase between 2010 and 2011. That increase triggered the U.S. Department on Housing and Urban Development to name Houston a priority community. The current count is 7,356 homeless, which is a point-in-time count; in other words, it’s the number of homeless that could be located and counted on a single night in January.

But other numbers suggest that far more Houstonians struggle to keep a roof over their heads. This month, the Houston Housing Authority will start accepting applications for housing assistance for the first time in six years. They will accept applications for seven days, August 20 to August 26. As many as 100,000 people are expected to apply during that time, just for a spot in a lottery. The lottery will determine which 20,000 people get a slot on a list, their order determined at random. Of those, about 2,000 households per year will actually get a housing voucher.

With waits for government-assisted housing so lengthy and uncertain, one Houston man got innovative with his plan to find shelter and food. On July 19, Jason Tanner, who is 30 years old and homeless, put a .45-caliber semi-automatic pistol in his pants and walked into the Harris County criminal courthouse.

He approached a deputy on duty and said, “I’m carrying concealed weapons and need to be arrested.” And he was.

He spent the rest of the night safely in the Harris County Jail.

Correction: The Houston Chronicle reported the janitors’ agreement Wednesday night. DH apologizes for the error.

Janitor-victor-picYesterday, Houston’s striking janitors reached a tentative agreement with six of the seven companies who employ them to clean some of the city’s swankiest offices. The agreement, to be ratified on Saturday, ensures them a 12% raise. It ends more than two months of public demonstrations, strikes, and sometimes-risky civil disobedience.

The janitors’ previous contract, which expired at the end of May, gave them $8.35 an hour. The union, Service Employees International Union Local 1, pointed out that Chicago janitors, some employed by the same contractors, made $15.45 an hour, and sought a raise of $1.65 per hour over three years. The contractors called this unreasonable and countered with an offer of $.50 over five years.

Under the new contract, janitors will receive a raise of one dollar per hour installed over the next four years.

As the strike spread to other cities, national media outlets, such as Marketplace and the Huffington Post, paid it significant attention as a component of the larger conversation about the disappearing middle class. Houston media, however, has paid the strike less and less attention. Both the Houston Chronicle and the Houston Press failed to report the janitors’ dramatic shutdown of a crucial intersection last Wednesday (detailed by DH here) and has, as of this writing, not reported yesterday’s agreement, which was announced late last night.

Houston as a whole ought to be rather self-conscious at the moment about its rich-poor divide. Last Wednesday, the Pew Research Center released a national study of income segregation—that is, the prevalence of upper-income households to live in majority upper-income neighborhoods, and low-income households among low-income. Of 30 major U.S. cities ranked by segregation, Houston came in first.

The report states, “These increases are related to the long-term rises in income inequality, which has led to a shrinkage in the share of neighborhoods across the United States that are predominantly middle class or mixed income.”

In other words, as the gap grows between rich and poor, it also grows more invisible.

Tom Balanoff, President of the SEIU Local 1, said in a statement, “The janitors’ victory brings hope to security officers, airport workers and others trapped by poverty wages. Our economy is broken, and unless we do something to turn low-wage jobs into good jobs, the middle class will be the great disappearing act of the 21st century.”

Janitors and supporters cheer at the corner of Westheimer and Post Oak as protesters run into the intersection.

I’ll admit it: I was scared. The crowd of about 500 had split up, lining the sidewalk on both sides of arboreal Post Oak Boulevard in tony West Houston, in front of the Neiman Marcus. They were waiting. Dozens of cops on horseback and bike and foot and in cars were also waiting. A press release from the Houston janitors’ union, Service Employees International Union Local 1, had announced another wave of civil disobedience, and already that morning several janitors and supporters had been arrested at a smaller protest downtown.

An organizer explained the plan. “They’re already waiting at the Jamba Juice. We have cars involved as well.” Two dozen janitors and supporters would wait until the marching crowds approached, then run into the street and sit down, blocking the intersection of Westheimer and Post Oak.

I had seen similar protests go wrong in my days as an agitator past; people get hurt, cars and police get angry. It was seven—Houston’s rush hour just beginning to ebb—and hot, the temperature 96 degrees and the heat index far more. The janitors wore purple and carried yellow flags and chanted in English and Spanish. Many blew shrill whistles. Faces were sober. These were not college kids. The crowd was largely middle-aged and Hispanic with lined faces, more women than men, some with children in tow. They were people with something to lose.

It was Wednesday, the eve of the janitors’ return to bargaining with the cleaning companies that contract them out to some of the most high-powered offices in the city. The janitors’ contract expired at the end of May, and since then they’ve rallied every day. Workers like Hernan Trujillo, whom we profiled here, were threatened by managers for participating in the rallies, so on July 11 the union announced a citywide strike against unfair labor practices. The following week, janitors in Los Angeles, Chicago, and several other U.S. cities joined the strike in solidarity. Vice President Joe Biden met with strike leaders when he was in Houston for the NAACP convention. Representative Sheila Jackson Lee and Houston’s Catholic Archbishop Emeritus Msgr. Joseph Florenza have spoken out on the janitors’ behalf. And on July 20, Mayor Annise Parker called for the cleaning contractors to return to the bargaining table, saying, “Their unwillingness to talk has left the union with no other choice but civil disobedience. That is not good for the City of Houston or our economy and it is not how we do business in Houston. We work hard, we work together and we treat each other fairly.”

Houston janitors currently make $8.35 an hour, one of the lowest janitor wages in the country, in one of the nation’s most robust economies. Contractors have also saved money by cutting the janitors’ hours to five or six a night while still expecting them to do the work other cities’ janitors do in eight, further depressing wages. The SEIU says the average Houston janitor makes about $9,000 a year, less than the poverty level for one person. The janitors want a $1.65 raise over three years, bringing them to $10 an hour. The seven contractors, all of whom have consistently declined comment, offered a 50-cent raise over five years, which the union calls “insulting.”

On Tuesday, hundreds gathered around seven protesters who scattered paper in a downtown lobby mid-day, then cleaned it up and sat down in a circle and were arrested. The protests, the arrests, the rallies are all to draw attention to the strike and make the contractors, and the businesses who employ them, uncomfortable enough to give ground in negotiations. By the end of the week, they’ll know if it worked.

Late Wednesday, the hour had come. Marchers massed in all four corners of Westheimer and Post Oak, and suddenly the chosen protesters were there, running into the street, tearing off their over-shirts to reveal the purple strike shirts underneath. They circled, sat cross-legged, scooted in close and waited.

Cars honked. Cops ran and rode to surround them. But the disaster I feared never came. Police moved without haste or anger. Some redirected traffic, some applied riot cuffs and read rights. A van backed up to receive the arrested. The striking janitors bore witness, as they’d come to do. Range Rovers were inconvenienced. Some of the lowest-paid, most invisible workers in the city took a stand in front of the Ethan Allen. And everybody was okay.

When police loaded the last of the sitters into the van and drove away, away, organizers directed the strikers down Post Oak to the grassy lawn and fountain beside the Galleria, that swankiest mall in Texas. Cops rode lazily now along with them. People laughed and talked. If this were 20 years ago, cops and protesters alike would have lit up cigarettes.

A car pulled up and unloaded stack after stack of pizzas for the strikers. The sun had dropped behind the skyline and the air was purple and starting to cool. Kids ran across the lawn with yellow flags and one had a kite. Everybody had done what they came to do. And if need be, they’ll do it again.

For a group that loves the Constitution, tea partiers are not super-good at following the rules.

Last night’s debate between Ted Cruz and David Dewhurst, eight days before the Republican run-off for U.S. Senate, was supposed to be, in the words of Catherine Engelbrecht, “a safe zone.”

The debate featured no rebuttals, making it less a debate than an awkward, cranky tag-team speech, and organizers tried to make sure their constituents behaved better than, say, Neil Munro in the Rose Garden.

“We’re not going to applaud or make any outburst of any kind,” urged Engelbrecht, head of King Street Patriots, during her welcome speech. “We’re just going to participate like good, quiet citizens.”

Quiet participation is hardly this group’s M.O. This was a standing-room-only crowd in the cinderblock bunker of the King Street Patriots. The KSP are known for founding “True the Vote,” an effort that purports to fight voter fraud by sending poll watchers to majority black and Latino precincts. The crowd of more than 350 had waited in a snaking line in the clammy Houston afternoon to get a wristband for this freedom rave. As I entered, a woman in front of me asked an usher, “Which side is Cruz?” as if attending a football game. This group had come for a fight.

They got one, sort of, despite Engelbrecht’s pleas.

The short version is this: Cruz graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law School for crying out loud. The man can talk. Everything he said sounded as slick and confident as the voice over for a political ad. He rarely got cut off by the 90-second time limit. He hit his talking points and got in his digs at Dewhurst like he was checking off a list. When Dewhurst spoke, Cruz gazed up at him with those serene, sympathetic eyes and a little smirk that said, “Coffee’s for closers.”

Dewhurst doddered. If you could get past the fact that he paused every time he said “Medi…caid” or “Medi….care” as if trying to remember which was which, and got a little lost in the middle of sentences, and often didn’t answer the actual question, you could hear that Dewhurst had actually done the very things that his interrogators wanted to know if he would do—slash budgets, disempower Democrats, support the transvaginal probe industry, etc.

It was never an even playing field. The debate began late, and Dewhurst walked quietly from the back of the room to his podium. As a crewmember started affixing his microphone, the crowd noticed him and applauded politely. Thus they were primed for their man Ted, who strode up from behind and hadn’t even gotten to the stage before the crowd was on their feet, cheering and applauding.

In substance, their responses to the audience-and-social-media-generated questions, which all boiled down to asking who was more conservative, were nearly the same. What parts of Obamacare would you keep? Not a tittle. How would you make Texas more business-friendly? Deregulate. And so forth.

Cruz was first, and ultimately the only, to attack directly, bringing up that in the last debate, Dewhurst had made the unfortunately fact-based observation that America’s health care outcomes are not always the best in the world. Cruz reiterated that Dewhurst’s data came from “left-wing studies” (like the World Health Organization) and opined, “I don’t think it’s the role of government to be micromanaging the outcomes” of health care in the U.S.

The fidgety crowd made it almost half an hour before someone yelled, “Liar!” at Cruz, who was describing how Dewhurst had allegedly given a speech advocating “amnesty,” then had the speech removed from his website during the campaign. The moderator, the unfathomably lovely Melinda Spaulding, an anchor for Houston’s Fox affiliate, reminded the crowd to be cool.

Cruz managed to attack Dewhurst fiercely and directly for negative campaigning—at one point pivoting toward him at their awkwardly close side-by-side podiums and asking if he stands by his assaults on Cruz’s patriotism—while making the case that he, Cruz, had stayed issues-based. It was a neat trick.

When Dewhurst said that Cruz had been running not for Senate but against him, an audience member shouted, “It’s not true!” Spaulding again urged “no outbursts,” and then someone started to applaud in support, apparently not understanding what an outburst is.

Not content to leave the naughtiness to the audience, Cruz interrupted Dewhurst three times. The most damaging was in response to a question about gun control (specifically, do we need more? answer: nope) when Cruz listed his endorsements and Dewhurst said, “I’m endorsed by the NRA.”

Cruz, with creepy, lawyerly pleasure, turned and said, “The NRA has not endorsed you.”

“What?” said Dewhurst, startled.

“The NRA has not endorsed you.”

“I stand corrected,” Dewhurst said, on a dime. “You’re absolutely right. The people…” He trailed off. “The local people have…”

This is what the local people had come to see: Cruz, young and snotty, calling out the establishment. Cruz quoted the Bible and the Declaration of Independence. Cruz was Fifty Shades of Jefferson. Dewhurst just kept pointing to his record, unsure why this was not enough.

Dewhurst finally got in a good one during his closing statement. “If Texas were as bad as my opponent keeps saying in these ads,” Dewhurst said, “Texas would look like California. Texas is a good state. I’m proud of Texas.”

But it might have been too late. As the crowd filed out, the women behind me giggled with glee. “When that guy shouted ‘Liar!,’” one told her friend, “that was the best part.”

If you tell people that their basic rights are under attack, that their home is a castle, that liberty means never being told what to do, and that the best way to defend your liberties is with a gun, eventually they will believe you.

Add in some government paranoia and fear of technology, and you’ve got a Thursday in Harris County.

In Houston yesterday, Thelma Taorima pulled a gun on an electric company worker trying to install a smart meter at her house. Smart meters, which count kilowatts digitally, transmit data wirelessly and are supposed to improve efficiency, saving homeowners money. Advocates say they also improve privacy, since no one has to go into your yard to collect data.

But Taormina sees Big Brother.

“Our constitution allows us not to have that kind of intrusion on our personal privacy,” Taormina told KHOU. “They’ll be able to tell if you are running your computer, air conditioner, whatever it is.”

Smart meter paranoia is now part of the tea party platform, mentioned along with health care as a dangerous “government mandate.” Forrest Wilder reported on a petition against them in March, and Railroad Commissioner candidate Greg Parker is now running largely on a promise to make smart meters optional.

But the Taormina story is different.

A few things are weird about it. One is that it happened at all, although with the popularity of vigilantism in Houston, I guess we should be grateful the story didn’t turn out worse. Two is that it’s being reported as a quirky, people-versus-The-Man story, rather than deeply disturbing proof that people have lost track of when it is and is not appropriate to pull a gun.

Third is that yesterday wasn’t the first time Taormina has done this.

In March, reported on Nick and Thelma Taormina in a story about Houstonian smart meter resistance: “The Taorminas have thwarted the installation so far – once when Thelma Taormina pulled a pistol after she and a meter installer tussled in August over her refusal to let him switch out her old meter.”

“CenterPoint spokesman Floyd LeBlanc wouldn’t comment on the incident but said such resistance is rare and that employees and contractors are trained to disengage and call law enforcement if conversations about smart meters become heated.

The Taormina incident did not result in any legal action.”

But will it this time?

“We are deeply troubled by anyone who would pull a gun on another person performing their job,” a CenterPoint spokesperson said yesterday. “CenterPoint will be taking additional steps – including court actions – because what happened is dangerous, illegal and unwarranted.”

But Taormina isn’t worried. She sees herself as a patriot. The March story reported that she and her husband were collecting signatures to oppose the mandatory smart meters, and current reports say she’s starting a group for the cause called, with desperate originality, “We the People.”

But if the Internet is to be believed, the Taorminas already started “We the People” in February of 2010, full name “We the People Are The 9-12 Association Inc.” The 9-12 Project was an idea of Glenn Beck’s in 2009, which I won’t go into here, as it would require a chalkboard, but suffice it to say it’s all about the tea party and values and 9-11 and not smart meters.

The Taorminas have a photo of themselves with the Beckster on their Meetup page. He, and countless other voices over the last three years, have helped make people like the Taorminos afraid—of the government, of technology, of lots of things. But when the TV goes off and the guns come out, that fearful fantasy can become all too real.

By now, you know the basics. Mitt Romney spoke to the NAACP convention in Houston on Wednesday, and it didn’t go great. If you need proof that the standing ovation doesn’t mean what it used to, observe that Romney had one coming and going, while being booed thrice in between. Sure, it was a slow rise—starting in the front, creeping back, people looking at each other like, “We’re doing this?”—but almost everybody joined in eventually.

In contrast, Vice President Joe Biden, who spoke in the same spot and time on Thursday, got nine mid-speech standing ovations, and I only counted the ones that extended to the sides. He also got booed once—when he said he was wrapping up.

Everybody knew Romney was in for a rough ride, including Romney. He really smiled through that first boo, which was long, 17 seconds, and crowd-wide and disapproving rather than angry. Nancy Pelosi speculated that Romney wanted the boos. Considering that they were prompted by the promise to repeal “Obamacare,” the right’s derisive name for the Affordable Care Act, maybe there’s some truth to that. Certainly the optics of rejection by a black group couldn’t have hurt Romney with a certain crowd, perhaps the crowd for whom he made this recent albino ad—two-and-a-half minutes with no people of color.

But I’ll give Romney the benefit of the doubt. He seemed to be making an effort. He opened with a joke, saying he appreciated the chance to speak before Biden. “I just hope the Obama campaign won’t think you’re playing favorites.” Polite chuckles. After that, he used the president’s name only twice, excluding “Obamacare,” and both mentions were glancing, gentle.

“When President Obama called to congratulate me on becoming the presumptive Republican nominee, he said that he ‘looked forward to an important and healthy debate about America’s future,’” Romney said. “To date, I’m afraid that his campaign has taken a different course than that.” He said this with paternal regret, a voice I can imagine him using with an employee, saying, “I’m sorry, we’re going to have to let you go.”

He treaded softly, too, up to the issues facing African Americans today, blaming no one. “Many barriers remain,” he mused. “Old inequities persist. In some ways, the challenges are even more complicated than before.”

Then he rolled out the only statistics he would use for the entire speech—to illustrate how crappily African Americans have it. “The unemployment rate, the duration of unemployment, average income, and median family wealth are all worse for the black community,” he reminded them. “In June, while the overall unemployment rate remained stuck at 8.2 percent, the unemployment rate for African Americans actually went up, from 13.6 to 14.4 percent.”

This was, I’m sure, supposed to focus the campaign on the economy, but in this venue it almost sounded scolding. He urged dissatisfaction: “Americans of every background are asking when this economy will finally recover—and you, in particular, are entitled to an answer.” (As PBS noted, Romney stopped short of saying “you people,” a mistake Ross Perot made in 1992.)

But it wasn’t answer time yet. It was more bad news time. “Today, black children are 17 percent of students nationwide—but they are 42 percent of the students in our worst-performing schools.” One can imagine these same stats being used to make a different case than the one Romney was presumably, although not explicitly, making—that black students are underserved.

He added, “A study from the Brookings Institution has shown that for those who graduate from high school, get a full-time job, and wait until 21 before they marry and then have their first child, the probability of being poor is two percent. And if those factors are absent, the probability of being poor is 76 percent.”

Romney offered this as proof of why it’s important to focus on strengthening families. But what I heard was, ‘If you’d done everything right, you wouldn’t be poor.’

“Any policy that lifts up and honors the family is going to be good for the country, and that must be our goal,” he said. He wasn’t specific on how he’d do that, only that he will stop the gays. “As President, I will promote strong families—and I will defend traditional marriage.”

Which should be a relief to all the black children in underperforming schools. Somehow.

How will Romney fix the African American situation in America? Simple: approve the Keystone pipeline.

No, seriously.

Romney’s five-step plan to return jobs to the U.S. is:

1. Approve the Keystone pipeline

2. Open up new markets for American products

3. Reduce government spending

4. Develop skilled workers

5. Restore economic freedom. “Entrepreneurs are being crushed by high taxation, burdensome regulation, hostile regulators, excessive healthcare costs, and destructive labor policies,” Romney said.

“If I am president, job one for me will be creating better jobs,” he said. (Romney said “job” or “jobs” 16 times.) “I have no hidden agenda. If you want a president who will make things better in the African American community, you are looking at him.”

The chuckles, this time, were less polite.

Romney had lost the crowd by now. Some, he never had to start with; a few minutes after he started speaking, a white-haired woman in an orange dress walked down the aisle, making contact with many as she passed. “I just can’t do this,” she said. “Can’t do it.”

Romney referred only once to his record in Massachusetts, when his reforms narrowed the achievement gap between students of different races. He also leaned hard on charter schools and called teachers’ unions “special interests.”

“I can’t promise you that you and I will agree on every issue,” Romney said as he closed. “But I do promise that your hospitality to me today will be returned.” Considering the collective mood at that point, this sounded a bit ominous.

Then, in place of his own civil rights cred, Romney listed his father’s, and then pivoted to God, “whose justice is certain and whose mercy endures forever,” a debatably contradictory pair of divine attributes. Finally, oh hell yes, Romney busted out Dr. King in a way that suggested MLK was disappointed in Obama’s record. Quoting: “Unless [God’s] spirit pervades our lives, we find only what G. K. Chesterton called ‘cures that don’t cure, blessings that don’t bless, and solutions that don’t solve.’”

Presumably, Romney then took a long, scalding shower.

The man who, in his opening statements, had said he wanted to “represent all Americans, of every race, creed, or sexual orientation,” had a fundraiser in Montana that very night. There, Romney was done being respectful. He said the NAACP booed him for not offering “more free stuff.”

“If they want more stuff from the government,” Romney said, “tell them to go vote for the other guy—more free stuff. But don’t forget nothing is really free.”

Rush Limbaugh posited that Romney’s speech went “over these people’s heads.”

Those comments play well to some nasty racial stereotypes, but if you compare Romney’s speech with Biden’s, it just ain’t true.

Romney talked like he feared his speech would go over people’s heads, in vagaries and trite expressions. “Trade must be free and fair,” Romney said, “so I’ll clamp down on cheaters like China and make sure they finally play by the rules.”

I have no idea what that means.

Biden, in contrast, went to the record. He named legislation like he expected his audience to have been paying attention to Congressional goings on for the last four years and, considering that the NAACP is a venerable, aggressively middle-class, highly politically active organization, was probably an appropriate bet.

“Extending the payroll tax—only seven Republicans initially voted for it,” Biden said. “Lilly Ledbetter equal pay—three Republicans voted for it in the House. When we attempted to raise the debt limit to maintain the full faith and credit of the United States, not a single Republican met the responsibility of meeting that requirement, resulting in a negotiation that brought us to the brink of disaster, ultimately causing America’s credit rating to be lowered for the first time.”

Biden rolled in with a big smile, happy, at home. He had the benefit of a darkened house (Romney got house lights half-on) and a full-on gospel choir warm-up that can only be described as bitchin’. Romney got a long warble of organ music and piano, old, thoughtful hymns that might make a person reflect on who his friends are.

Pre-Biden, after the choir wrapped up, a local pastor gave the invocation.

“Father,” he said, organ playing gently beneath him, the audience having been asked to stand, “it’s been a good convention. We’ve been blessed to hear from Chairman Brock, we’ve been blessed to hear from President Jealous, we’ve been blessed to hear from Attorney General Holder… And we’ve heard also from Mitt Romney.”

This did not go over their heads.

Then Biden preached. He praised Obama for the auto industry bailout, for Osama bin Laden’s death, for the Affordable Care Act, and he talked numbers: “[Obama] cut $100 billion from the federal debt over the next 10 years, provided access to affordable health care to 30 million Americans—eight million black Americans who never have had insurance.”

Biden painted a dark vision of a Romney presidency—cuts to college scholarships, early childhood education and job training, tax breaks for oil companies and threats to women’s health and safety. “The Governor isn’t sure what his position on is on the Violence Against Women Act,” Biden said. People laughed. “He’s not sure whether or not the Lilly Ledbetter law that passed was good. But he’s certain on his position on Roe v. Wade—overturn it. Planned Parenthood—get rid of it…[policy] where working women lose access to quality child care, where social policy is basically a throwback to the ‘50s.”

Unhappy murmurs.

Biden called out HIV and infant mortality and pointed to funding for the National Science Foundation and National Institute of Health and research universities as crucial to solving these problems. He named the high points of the ACA and brought home the Romney plan’s tax reality. “[Romney] eliminates college tuition credit, the earned income tax credit, and the child tax credit are cut. The result? Two-point-two million African American working families will see a tax increase if he succeeds. That’s a fact.”

Biden talked foreign policy and the START treaty, nuclear disarmament and America’s relationship with Russia. He was not throwing low pitches.

And finally he addressed civil rights themselves. “Did you think we’d be fighting these battles again?” he asked.

“I remember working with Republicans,” he said, “and, by the way, this ain’t your father’s Republican party.” People cheered. “Remember working with Republicans on Motor Voter? On voting by mail? Some of these were Republican ideas.”

“I know you know,” he said. “But I’m not sure everybody—the House of Representatives voted affirmatively to prevent the Justice Department from even investigating whether or not there was voter suppression.”

Biden closed by asking the audience to imagine a Romney Justice Department. The Attorney General, the head of the civil rights division, the Supreme Court.

The mood turned dark. Then he brought it back up. He brought in God.

“The best way to sum up the President’s view, my view, and, I think, your view, is we see America where, in the word of the scripture, ‘What you do unto the least of these my brethren, you do unto me.’”

The crowd went wild. Biden jogged off stage. The audience stayed as the lights came up and they kept standing and clapping until the song was over. The row of women behind me, delegates from Florida, sang the heart of the whole crowd.

“Signed, sealed, delivered, I’m yours!”

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