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Dateline Houston

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.”

PHOTO PROVIDED BY RANDALL MORTON
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.”

PHOTO SOURCE: FACEBOOK.COM/HOUSTONPOLICE

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.

Ouch.

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.”

PHOT BY EMILY DEPRANG
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.

janitors2
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.”

janitors4
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.

janitors3
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.”

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