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Snake Oil

Dwayne Stovall campaign flyer
Dwayne Stovall campaign
Dwayne Stovall is Texas

Steve Stockman, the congressman and provocateur who’s trying to unseat longtime U.S. Sen. John Cornyn in next month’s Republican primary, has talked his way into more than his share of our WTF Friday roundups. And this week, he’s done it again.

Per an anti-Cornyn screed on his campaign site Thursday:

He thinks all these illegal aliens will vote for him and other Republicans.

That’s stupid!

The million of illegals John Cornyn wants to turn into legal voters will cancel out your vote.

And John Cornyn’s illegal alien voters will elect a permanent Democrat White House.

That’s why Obama is pushing Cornyn do [sic] hard to pass it!

[...]

That’s why the illegal alien lobby has endorsed John Cornyn.

But Stockman isn’t the only candidate running to Cornyn’s right in this race. And this week, his other challengers have been fighting back. Ken Cope, a retired Army officer from Midlothian, called on Stockman to drop out:

“As long as you continue in the race, your antics and embarrassing actions will steal the limelight from the serious candidates.”

Serious candidates, presumably, like Dwayne Stovall, the bridge-builder from north of Houston who’s garnered endorsements from the Pearland Tea Party to something called the Facebook Tea Party.

In a video posted this week from the Liberty Forum in Houston in January, Stovall showed he was a serious candidate, indeed. Serious as slavery. Serious as abortion. Serious as paying your taxes:

“Fiscally speaking, we are being enslaved. We are being stolen from 7 days a week, 24 hours a day. … That’s theft. They take our money and add to it with money we don’t have, and by the way the ol’ taxation without representation? What about unborn children? When your taxes, when you enslave the people of the nation in servitude to a national government to things you don’t give your consent to? You talk about tyranny.”

But the week’s most outstanding show of campaign seriousness came from retired Air Force Lt. Col. Reid Reasor. So many true statesmen who’ve stood bravely before a camera to share their disgust with President Obama’s State of the Union speech, but Reasor may have done it best. His 36-minute response to Obama’s hour-long speech hit YouTube Thursday, includes a stiff defense on behalf of “you white men banking Republican GOP guys,” George Soros’ plans for armed revolution in the streets, and a few lessons Reasor picked up in his time in San Marcos, “the Berkeley of Texas.”

The State of the Union, Reasor says is revolution:

“Who we are fighting is not the 1980s communists. That’s not who we’re fighting. We’re fighting the 1960s communists. We need to understand this is the era that influenced and impacted and made these people the way they are. These are the anti-America, you white rich people, you ugly imperialist folks. You capitalist haters that make people lower than. So much so that they actually hate America and love communism. They love communism, that’s who these people are. These are the Clintons, this is Obama.

[...]

Do I think our government right now is intentionally trying to cause the conditions for violent revolution in America? Absolutely.”

Feast your eyes, melt your mind, on the entire response below:

 

Alfred Wright
Sabine County Sheriff's Department
Alfred Wright

For months now—during the search for 28-year-old Alfred Wright last fall, and the investigations into his death that followed, on Jasper’s local TV news and on CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360″—Wright’s family has resolutely hoped for one thing: a federal investigation they believe could uncover a truth local authorities might rather keep hidden.

Now, according to Houston Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, the family may finally get its wish. On Monday, Jackson Lee announced the U.S. Department of Justice had been swayed by her request last month and would “investigate and take appropriate action” regarding Wright’s death.

The announcement, first reported Tuesday by the Beaumont Enterprise, is light on details of the scope of this new federal investigation, who’ll carry it out, and what impact it might have on the ongoing Texas Rangers’ investigation. The congresswoman’s office referred me to the Department of Justice for details.

A spokeswoman at the U.S. Attorney’s regional office in Beaumont said Tuesday she was aware of Jackson Lee’s announcement, but declined to comment, as did a Department of Justice spokeswoman in Washington.

Jackson Lee asked Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate Wright’s death shortly after meeting with Wright’s family two weeks ago. Wright’s family and friends, and activists who’ve flocked to the “Justice for Alfred” cause, say the Sabine County Sheriff’s Department has mishandled Wright’s case from the start, or may even be hiding evidence that Wright was murdered.

A toxicology report attributed Wright’s death to a lethal combination of cocaine, methamphetamine and amphetamine, and said there were no signs of foul play. A forensic pathologist hired by the family disagreed with that last point, saying she found “signs suspicious of homicidal violence” on Wright’s body, including a cut across his neck.

Wright’s body was found in a field near where he’d disappeared weeks earlier, missing his eyes, an ear and some teeth—damage the official autopsy attributes to animal activity, but which some activists take as signs Wright was tortured before his death. Wright’s case has been a lightning rod in Jasper’s African-American community; rallies and fundraisers for Wright’s family have featured other stories of black men and women who’ve died or disappeared in the area under mysterious circumstances.

There’s no word on how soon Texas Rangers might finish their inquiry, or how federal involvement might affect their efforts. “The case remains under investigation,” Department of Public Safety spokesman Tom Vinger told the Observer Wednesday. “I don’t have any additional information at this time.”

In the absence of a conclusive investigation, Wright’s family and friends, and others around Jasper, have begun sharing a general sense of injustice, and specific theories about what really happened to Wright. Those theories got a national airing in a three-night series of reports on Anderson Cooper’s show. The third installment included a segment on a dime found near Wright’s body, suggesting a connection to Sheriff Tom Maddox’s ex-girlfriend, who said that when they were together, she often found dimes around her home. Reporter Deborah Feyerick explains the significance: “In the criminal world, dropping a dime means snitching on someone, and leaving a dime on a scene can be a warning to keep your mouth shut.”

On Monday, the Shreveport TV station KSLA aired a report on Wright’s case including a new anecdote from a Sabine County woman who said her husband, who is black, had recently stopped outside the same liquor store where Wright was last seen alive, two days prior to Wright’s disappearance. The woman said two men attacked her husband at the store and called him racial slurs, but Sheriff Maddox dismissed her concerns that the cases could be related.

And this morning, “Good Morning America” aired an interview with Wright’s wife, mother and father. Wright’s mother Rosalind directly addressed her doubts that her son’s death was accidental: “I feel like they held him hostage, and they tortured him.”

UPDATE Thursday at 3 p.m.:

Wright’s brother Savion is a contestant on the current season of American Idol, and on Wednesday night he performed a song he wrote for Alfred. Talking to host Ryan Seacrest, Savion only hints at the controversy around his brother’s death, saying, “I put all my anger and my emotions into my song.”

The reality show has driven even more national attention to Wright’s death than any previous reporting, and coincided with a crowdfunding campaign Savion Wright began for his brother’s family. Idol fans shared their outrage on Twitter, often sharing new stories in Rolling Out magazine that reject the official autopsy outright, including: “Black father found dead with throat cut, ear missing: Texas sheriff claims he overdosed” and “Alfred Wright murder: Ear cut off as trophy, like lynching postcards.”

Also on Thursday, KTRE reported that the Texas attorney general’s office has taken over the case from Sabine County prosecutors. District Attorney Kevin Dutton said in a press release:

“It is my understanding that the investigation by the Texas Rangers is substantially complete. … Due to the allegations against the sheriff, and to avoid any appearance of impropriety, I have been requested and have agreed to turn this case over to the Texas Attorney General’s Office.”

 

Previous coverage:

A Missing Man and Familiar Old Wounds in Jasper

Family, Activists Want Outside Help Investigating Jasper Man’s Death

Official Report Cites Drug Overdose as Cause of Alfred Wright’s Death

A supporter of Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Kesha Rogers, before the Martin Luther King Day parade in Houston.
Kesha Rogers for U.S. Senate/YouTube
A supporter of Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Kesha Rogers, before the Martin Luther King Day parade in Houston.

As we do every year at this time, we once again join together to remember the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and to try and forget all the creepyobnoxious things that people and corporation-people had to say about his holiday.

Monday was all a little more SMH than WTF, so for the week’s strangest remarks we turn to a few regulars. We begin with lieutenant governor hopeful Dan Patrick, who asks if you know where your children are, and if they know how to count, because, as he said in a candidate forum last weekend reported in the Houston Chronicle, a great many immigrants are probably coming for them:

“[H]ardened criminals we arrested from 2008 to 2012 – not illegals who were here for a job, who got four speeding tickets, but hardened criminals – 141,000 we put in our jails just in four years in Texas.”

“They threaten your family. They threaten your life. They threaten your business. They threaten our state,” he said, adding that they were charged with 447,000 crimes including 2,000 murders and 5,000 rapes.

 

Those are some pretty dramatic numbers! And as Charles Kuffner has noted, they’re pretty ludicrous, too. Over that five-year stretch, Kuffner says, Texas saw just over 6,000 murders in Texas, meaning that “they” committed one third of the murders in Texas. Couple that with a congressional report which says that from 2008 to 2011, there were 219 murders committed by undocumented immigrants nationwide, and it’s a wonder any of us made it out of 2012 alive.

Enough of this scaremongering, and on to some smart border policy… Go, go, Gohmert!

“Israel has shown you can have a fence, even if it is a wire fence.”

That, of course, is the esteemed Congressman from deepest East Texas, Louie Gohmert, in the midst of an unfortunate civics lesson at Carlisle High School in Price. As the Longview News-Journal reported, government teacher David Minnix’s class invited Gohmert to speak, no doubt as some sort of “scared straight” program for aspiring politicians.

Gohmert took student questions and ran with them to some strange places, predicting “a massive rush” of 40 million people crossing the border from Mexico—”I think we’re wasting time talking about immigration reform”—and explaining why he blames Obamacare for forcing him to cite a litany of bogus costs and cancel his health insurance this week.

But as Lone Star Q pointed out, his most insensitive comments came as he delved into Gohmert’s Big Book of Plumbing:

“I’m not homophobic,” he said, noting his gay friends say they should be able to be with whomever they want. “I agree, but if we’re going to continue society, it’s between a man and a woman. … I still want someone to explain to me how sexual relations between two men helps our species evolve forward.”

He’s been trying out this line for a while now, but it might be the first time Gohmert has delivered a lesson in evolution at a school. The students looked pretty skeptical.

Last, we consider state Rep. Bill Zedler.

Good. That didn’t take long.

Zedler is a sort of Zen master on Twitter—he’s rarely the most offensive or sanctimonious voice in Texas politics, but there’s a bare-faced simplicity to his account that seems to perfectly distill the conservative outrage du jour. (But never actually in French!)

After the people’s filibuster ended last summer, it was Zedler who spread the word that “we had terrorist in the Texas State Senate.” During the government shutdown last fall, Zedler astutely noted, “Obama is closing down memorials, the ocean, etc, THAT HAVE NEVER BEEN SHUT DOWN BEFORE IN PREVIOUS SHUT DOWNS.”

Zedler’s tweets are CliffsNotes for Fox News, a declaration that he, too, has seen all this snark about the liberals and he gets the joke! And so this week, as the conservative backlash spread to Wendy Davis’ real biography—with all the subtlety of a gold-digger’s shovel to the head, Zedler offered this:

 

Nailed it.

That might even have been his best since last week, when he offered this contribution to the intelligence debate:

 

As the Houston Chronicle‘s Matt Schwartz was quick to point out, Zedler was absolutely right: “There has not been a single terrorist attack on lunar soil in that time.”

Responsive Education Solutions' campus map, in its 2013 annual report.
Responsive Education Solutions' campus map, in its 2013 annual report.

Zack Kopplin, the creationism-bustin’ wunderkind who made a name for himself fighting Louisiana’s school voucher scheme in 2010, has a great piece in Slate today detailing how Responsive Education Solutions—Texas’ largest charter school network—is using junk science straight out of the intelligent design playbook.

Kopplin has made national headlines before by exposing junk science and other ideologically driven lessons in state-funded private schools in Louisiana. His story today suggests Texas charter schools may be using their freedom to do the same thing. It’s also an interesting window into charter school operations that can be pretty opaque, despite Texas’ open records laws.

Through an open records request, Kopplin got his hands on a few of Responsive Ed’s “Knowledge Units” workbooks, which, for starters cast doubt on evolution and the scientific consensus that the Earth is between 4 and 5 billion years old. Kopplin asked the Lewisville-based school’s leadership about that:

In response to a question about whether Responsive Ed teaches creationism, its vice president of academic affairs, Rosalinda Gonzalez, told me that the curriculum “teaches evolution, noting, but not exploring, the existence of competing theories.”

Bringing creationism into a classroom by undermining evolution and “noting … competing theories” is still unconstitutional. What’s more, contrary to Gonzalez’s statement, teaching about supernatural creation in the section on the origins of life is doing far more than noting competing theories.

The Texas State Board of Education’s latest round of science textbook adoptions—while full of feisty debate over epigenetics and “gaps in the fossil record”—carried a lot less weight last year because Texas schools are no longer required to buy books the board has approved. That freedom was seen as a blow to creationists whose strategy had been to effect sweeping statewide change from the state board. But Kopplin notes that freedom would also allow other schools to follow Responsive Ed’s lead and teach books laced with junk science.

The history text also makes some novel assertions, blaming “anti-Christian bias,” in part, for the outbreak of World War I, and ornery samurai for Japan’s entry into World War II. The samurai, of course, were dissolved in the late 19th century, despite Tom Cruise’s best efforts. Feminism, the workbooks say, “created an entirely new class of females who lacked male financial support and who had to turn to the state as a surrogate husband.”

There a few more gems in the history curriculum:

About President Franklin Roosevelt, it teaches, “The New Deal had not helped the economy. However, it ushered in a new era of dependency on the Federal government.”

Perhaps the workbook’s best line comes when it explains that President Jimmy Carter pardoned Vietnam War draft dodgers out of “a misguided sense of compassion.”

Sleuthing around Responsive Ed’s leadership, Kopplin highlights strong connections between the school and conservative Christian home-schooling outfits and publishers like Accelerated Christian Education and Paradigm Accelerated Curriculum.

Responsive Ed operates 70 campuses, according to its website, with 20 more on the way in Texas this year. Its schools include the “Premier High Schools,” “Vista Academies,” “Classical Academies,” “iSchool High” and “Quest Middle School” brands. Responsive Ed operates the Texas Virtual Academy, which, as Forrest Wilder noted in 2008, has been a haven for home-schooling parents hoping to avoid lessons on evolution. Responsive Ed is also part of a Gates Foundation-backed partnership between charter operators and Austin ISD.

In the story, Kopplin wonders whether the Legislature is likely to investigate these lessons, as  Senate Education chair (and lieutenant governor hopeful) Dan Patrick has proposed doing for another charter chain, Harmony Public Schools. (Harmony has been a longtime tea party target, over concern that it’s tied to Turkish and Muslim leaders). Kopplin doubts Patrick will be quite as upset about Responsive Ed, given that he’s previously supported the chain, and already said he supports teaching creationism in public schools.

Dan Quinn at the Texas Freedom Network turns up in the Slate piece noting Texas’ history of lax regulation of charter schools. Last year the Legislature gave the Texas Education Agency more power to close underperforming charters, and since then TEA has already moved to close six of them. But regulating the content of charters’ curriculum—even when it violates the U.S. Constitution—would mean going much further.

In response to the story, TFN director Kathy Miller said Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams should investigate Responsive Ed. “If these allegations are true,” she said in a statement Wednesday, “they represent a shocking betrayal of the trust that parents and taxpayers put into our charter schools.”

UPDATE: Official Report Cites Drug Overdose as Cause of Alfred Wright’s Death

Family and activists plan "Justice for Alfred" march this weekend
Alfred Wright's family
Patrick Michels
Alfred Wright's mother Rosalind, father Douglas, sister Kassilia and wife Lauren stand beside Beaumont lawyer Ryan MacLeod in December.

Update Jan. 14 at 9:22 a.m.:  In a 10-minute segment Monday night, CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360° gave Alfred Wright’s mysterious death the national spotlight Wright’s family has been hoping for.

Reporting from Jasper and Hemphill County, Deborah Feyerick offers a dramatic account of the mysterious circumstances around Wright’s death, in interviews with Wright’s wife Lauren, his father Douglas, and Beaumont lawyer Ryan MacLeod. CNN mentions the official report that Wright’s death was an accidental overdose, but raises a few new details, including: that Wright’s throat appears to have been cut and that his body was found missing an ear (neither of which are mentioned in the official autopsy); that Wright had been friends with Sheriff Tom Maddox’s daughter; and that—according to his family—Wright’s body did not appear to have been exposed to the elements for the entire three weeks he was missing.

You can watch that segment below. Part two of their story will air Tuesday night.

Original story: Family, friends and civil rights activists from deep East Texas to Houston have been waiting months for the medical examiner’s word on what killed Alfred Wright, the 28-year-old whose body was found in a Sabine County field weeks after authorities called off their search for the missing man. Now that wait is over.

The official report from a Beaumont medical examiner attributes Wright’s death to “combined drug intoxication,” with levels of cocaine and its byproducts “within lethal range” along with methamphetamine and amphetamine. Consistent with a preliminary report released in December, the new report (which includes some graphic descriptions) says there are “no signs of trauma” on Wright’s body. Texas Rangers have already taken over the investigation into Wright’s death—with some help from the FBI.

“We ask for the public’s patience and request that they withhold passing judgment on this case until the investigation is complete and all the facts have been established,” DPS spokesman Tom Vinger said Wednesday. Multiple agencies, Vinger said, are combining efforts to gather fact “in a deliberate and methodical manner.”

The mysterious disappearance of Wright, a black man, from a county road south of Hemphill became a rallying point for locals worried that Wright had become the area’s latest victim of racially motivated violence, and convinced that the local sheriff’s department hadn’t done enough to find him. Some had so little trust for law enforcement that they were convinced of an official cover-up.

The official search for Wright—including teams of volunteers, dogs, horses and an airplane—centered on a field with a barbed-wire fence where Wright’s clothes and belongings were found, and lasted four days before Sheriff Tom Maddox declared there was nowhere left to search. Weeks later, a group of Wright’s family and friends found his body about 100 yards from the fence where his clothes had snagged, in an area Wright’s family says they were told they couldn’t search.

Maddox says the limits he put on the ground search were safety measures to keep people from getting lost or wandering the woods in the second week of deer season. “I’m sorry we didn’t find the man,” he told the Observer this week. “But hey, every effort there was put out, way out and beyond the call of duty.”

But lawyers at the Bernsen Law Firm in Beaumont, which has been representing the family, have complained about investigators’ lack of professionalism. Early on, a sheriff’s deputy suggested on Facebook that Wright had simply skipped town to avoid legal troubles, and well before the toxicology results were released, other investigators had suggested Wright’s death was probably drug-related.

On Wednesday, the law firm said in a statement that the new autopsy results were a “self-serving continuation of that rhetoric,” and leave plenty of questions unanswered. (Why, for instance, on his way home from work, and while waiting for a ride from his family, would Wright have ingested such a dangerous combination of drugs?) At a press conference the firm hosted last month, a private pathologist hired by Wright’s family said her examination yielded “findings that are definitely suspicious for homicidal violence.”

That press conference drew a caravan of concerned Jasper residents, and it also attracted religious and community activists from Houston and Galveston—some tied to national civil rights groups—who vowed to publicize Wright’s case and call for a federal investigation.

Flyer advertising Saturday's rally calling for Justice for Alfred Wright
Flyer advertising Saturday’s rally calling for Justice for Alfred Wright

On Saturday, activists and Wright’s family will march on Saturday to Beaumont’s Jack Brooks Federal Building with “Justice for Alfred” T-shirts, calling for a federally managed investigation into his death. “We are aware of recent news releases ruling Alfred’s death as accidental,” the flyer says. “This is not an acceptable answer to the circumstances surrounding his death and we will continue to seek answers.”

In December, activists said that even an official ruling that Wright’s death was accidental wouldn’t dissuade them from the cause. Rev. Nathaniel Brown, president of the Galveston chapter of Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, told the Observer he was troubled by the local investigation and by its lack of communication with Wright’s family.

Brown joined Quanell X, a leader of the New Black Panther Party in Houston, in a rally outside the Sabine County Sheriff’s Department last fall. “East Texas is the last bastion of great hate that has not been dealt with by the mass of Texans,” Quanell X told the Observer.

“This is a real live murder mystery and it can be solved, but it won’t be solved from within Jasper and Sabine County,” Houston activist Deric Muhammad told the Observer last month. “It’s going to take some outside pressure. So as long as these people, these rednecks in these small towns, know that the likelihood of a camera showing up is slim to none, they’re gonna keep doing what they’re gonna do.”

Tony Diaz
Tony Diaz

Last fall, hundreds of protesters gathered at the University of Texas at Austin after a student group announced it would stage a game of “Catch an Illegal Immigrant” around campus. The local Young Conservatives of Texas chapter was planning a human scavenger hunt, with targets wearing “illegal immigrant” buttons, but canceled the game after receiving criticism from across the country.

The same day, just a few blocks from campus, Houston author and activist Tony Diaz stood before the State Board of Education to offer a modest suggestion: The students who’d organized that “game” just might have benefited from a class that instilled a little cultural sensitivity. The game, he said, was “proof that we need Mexican-American studies in Texas.”

The timing was coincidental. Diaz, who is also director of intercultural initiatives at Lone Star College, had been planning his speech and rallying supporters well before the “catch an immigrant” fiasco blew up.

The State Board of Education was deciding what courses will be necessary for new graduation requirements the Legislature passed last session. Those changes have been controversial; there’s been strong resistance by Latino advocacy groups, among others, to eliminating courses like Algebra II—generally seen as important college preparation—from basic diploma requirements.

But Diaz saw a fresh opportunity in the turmoil. One provision of the law, he noted, adds a “community engagement” aspect to school district evaluations. Adding Mexican-American studies to graduation requirements, Diaz told the board, would go a long way now that more than half of Texas’ students are Hispanic.

But a few board members were skeptical. Diaz made public a conversation he’d had with Houston Republican Donna Bahorich before the meeting. Bahorich wondered, Diaz said, whether Mexican-American literature would be “as intellectually rigorous” as British literature.

“These courses don’t exist,” Georgetown Republican Tom Maynard told Diaz at the meeting, “but the school district has the capacity to create the course.” A handful of schools already offer them, in fact.

“I would beg you,” Diaz responded, “to hear our community say that it should be listed explicitly.”

His appeal was answered the next day, when Ruben Cortez, a new board member from Brownsville, submitted Mexican-American history to the state’s list of new social studies courses to develop. Before joining the board, Cortez had watched from afar as a hyper-political State Board of Education tried to scrub the history standards of figures like labor organizer Dolores Huerta. Cortez told the Observer he was amazed by the board’s response. “Nobody raised an objection to my request. I was kind of speechless, everybody just stayed quiet.”

Cortez sees the board’s acceptance of his proposal as a sign of greater cultural sensitivity, and he’s looking forward to the next potentially divisive step in the process: nominating experts to help design the course. That’s all still a ways off—Mexican-American history is now just one of many on the board’s “wish list” for the future—but the board should advance its plans for those new courses in its meeting later this month.

University of Texas history professor Emilio Zamora says this is the biggest advance in Mexican-American studies education in a decade. A 2003 law authored by state Rep. Roberto Alonzo (D-Dallas) allowed community colleges to offer Mexican-American studies programs. Now Cortez and the rest of the board are poised to do the same thing for Texas’ public schools.

Along with its relevance to the millions of Hispanic students in Texas schools, Zamora says, a Mexican-American history course is a good way for students to develop a better understanding of broader themes in U.S. history and understand “that our national history includes multiple histories,” he says. “I think that’s an important justification that people don’t really talk about.”

Rep. Pat Fallon (R-Frisco) in a santa hat
Rep. Pat Fallon (R-Frisco)

It sure seems like the War on Christmas starts earlier and earlier each year. Those Black Friday bruises have barely healed up, and like clockwork, there’s a gang of elf-loving, milk-and-cookie-mad yuletide patriots anxious to remind you which six letters start the word “Christmas.”

This was supposed to be the first year of peacetime Christmas, thanks to Houston Republican Rep. Dwayne Bohac and the “Merry Christmas bill” he authored in the last Legislature, ensuring public schools are free to celebrate Christmas—or Hanukkah, or the traditional winter holiday  of your choice—without fear of upsetting non-believers.

But even with Texas law behind it, Christmas wasn’t safe this year. The original “forever war” blew up again last week in—of all places—Frisco, the choice Dallas suburb whose quaint holiday-fired largesse once made it a case study in modern American Christmas spirit.

All it took was one rogue elementary school parent to send around party-planning emails reminding everyone to avoid the word “Christmas” and the colors red and green, and by Thursday activists had organized an “emergency meeting” in Frisco with Frisco Republican Rep. Pat Fallon.

“We have to draw a line in the sand—it is a Christmas break we’re having. We are not taking a break just because it’s winter.”

That’s how Fallon explained the cause to the Dallas Morning News this week. (And if you really want to keep Christmas safe, consider a stylish gift from Fallon’s own Virtus Apparel for the “armed and fabulous lady” on your list.)

Alice Linahan, the anti-CSCOPE activist whose recent emails suggest you “Give the Gift of American Exceptionalism to your child or grandchild,” helped organize the meeting. And sure enough, as the News reported, talk turned quickly from Christmas to CSCOPE.

CBS11 investigated the situation further, and declared the “Christmas Spirit Alive” at the school after all, finding “festive hats” on the crossing guards and letters to Santa on the walls. As one school parent lamented:

“It’s a shame, however this all started, that it’s put a bad light on the school.”

Fallon, though, continued beating the dead reindeer on Friday for David Barton’s “Wallbuilders Live.” As Right Wing Watch noted, Fallon said he and his wife planned on testing the limits of our festive freedoms, by passing out “Jesus is the reason for the season” T-shirts at school. And he’s got the tough talk to prove his dedication:

“And I tell you right now, they’d better not send any of those children home, or there’s going to be some issues.”

The family of Alfred Wright
Patrick Michels
The family of Alfred Wright, who was found dead near the East Texas town of Hemphill two weeks after his mysterious disappearance, at a press conference Friday with attorney Ryan MacLeod at the Bernsen Law Firm in Beaumont.

On November 25, several days after the Observer‘s story on Alfred Wright’s mysterious disappearance along a remote East Texas highway near Jasper, a search party of Wright’s family and friends discovered his body just yards from the spot where his clothes and belongings had been found.

At that point, his family had already grown upset with the Sabine County Sheriff’s Department, which called off its ground search after a few days, declaring it had exhausted its leads on the scene. Sheriff Tom Maddox told the Observer those concerns were misguided—that his office was still busy with an investigation that went beyond a ground search. He and Jasper Mayor Mike Lout both said they were frustrated by community members who rushed to tie Wright’s disappearance to Jasper’s history of racial violence, or who said investigators gave up the search early because Wright was black.

But in the weeks since Wright’s body was discovered, his family has only grown more frustrated with local officials, and many community members have only grown more suspicious, as time passes with no new answers about Wright’s death.

This morning in Beaumont, dozens of concerned people from around Jasper, Beaumont and Houston joined Wright’s family and lawyers to discuss getting investigators from outside Texas to look into the case—and to hear the results of a second autopsy on Wright’s body.

Officials released the preliminary results of the first autopsy last week, which noted Wright’s body showed “no evidence of severe trauma.” The Bernsen Law Firm in Beaumont, which is representing Wright’s family, hired Houston forensic pathologist Lee Ann Grossberg to conduct a second exam.

“From what I can tell,” Grossberg said this morning, “I disagree. I would not have put that statement, I see findings that are definitely suspicious for homicidal violence.” Though she said it was a “preliminary opinion” while she waits for photos from the original exam, Grossberg said she had “a high index of suspicion that this is a homicide.”

Ryan MacLeod, an attorney at the firm, said Wright’s family was particularly frustrated that investigators have yet to ask for statements from family members or the volunteers who found Wright’s body. He said police have yet to search Wright’s truck. And it’s been two weeks since either the family or his firm have heard from local investigators or Texas Rangers about the case.

“We are blind,” MacLeod said. “We are asking law enforcement for answers to questions, but the door as of today has been slammed shut.”

Maddox has, so far, not returned a call requesting comment. When he spoke to the Observer last month, though, he said his office was being cautious not to share too much of their investigation prematurely. “Thank you very much, hey, we don’t release every single piece of evidence,” he said.

MacLeod mentioned other mysterious details this morning:

A patch of material from Wright’s medical scrubs (he was a physical therapist, and had just left an appointment when he disappeared) found on a barbed-wire fence is a “perfectly cut rectangular piece” that does not appear to be torn. The package store where Wright left his truck has a surveillance camera inside that either malfunctioned or was never recording, while the outdoor camera is missing from its mount.

And then there’s the fact that Wright’s body was found just 100 yards or so from where officials spotted his belongings weeks earlier.

Alfred Wright's family
Patrick Michels
Alfred Wright’s mother Rosalind, father Douglas, sister Kassilia and wife Lauren stand beside Beaumont lawyer Ryan MacLeod Friday.

“For anyone that has been down Coussons Road, I can’t explain it in any other way, but it is a creepy, creepy road. It is a dark road, God bless those who live out there, but I’m not going to. It’s not a place that I would be by myself at night, and it’s not a place that Alfred Wright would be on his own at night either.”

A crowd of friends and supporters packed the law firm’s office to hear the latest, and some called on federal investigators to take on the case.

“My suggestion is that everybody in this room reach out to your congressperson, and tell your congressperson to request a federal investigation into the murder of Alfred Wright,” said Deric Muhammad, a Houston activist whose name will be familiar to some readers from Emily DePrang’s reporting on police brutality in Houston. “If Alfred Wright were white, this investigation would not be going the way that it’s going.”

Cade Bernsen, another attorney at the firm, spoke up right after.

“We know there are some heated feelings about this disappearance and this whole situation,” Bernsen said. “Whether race was involved, we do not know. We’re not saying that. … I don’t care what color he is, he deserves justice.”

Cedar Creek High School students stage a walkout in honor of 17-year-old Noe Nino de Rivera, who was tased by a school security officer.
SuperHope12/YouTube
Cedar Creek High School students stage a walkout in honor of 17-year-old Noe Nino de Rivera, who was tased by a school security officer.

Noe Nino de Rivera is still in a coma after being tased by a campus police officer at Bastrop’s Cedar Creek High School last month. The 17-year-old had been in the middle of a fight—which he may have been trying to break up—when a “school resource officer” shocked him and he fell, hitting his head. (The boy’s parents have since sued the school district over the incident.)

A handful of groups led by the ACLU of Texas have noted there’s no statewide standard guiding Taser use by school cops, and in a letter sent last week, they asked the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement to create one—by banning the use of Tasers, and pepper spray, on students.

Private security firms, in-house school police departments, city or county police and even undercover school marshals all provide for some measure of school security across the state, each with their own standards of force. But the groups that signed on to last week’s letter focused on creating a new guarantee for students in Texas schools.

“Schools should be safe havens from this type of police use of force,” said ACLU of Texas Executive Director Terri Burke in a statement. Disability Rights Texas, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Texans Care for Children, Texas Appleseed, and the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition all joined on to the letter.

The popularity of “non-lethal” weapons like Tasers and pepper spray is just one piece of a much larger problem all those groups have been  fighting for a long time: the school-to-prison pipeline that turns public schools—especially those in poor, nonwhite neighborhoods—into harsh, brutalizing institutions in the name of discipline and safety.

But as the Houston Chronicle‘s James Pinkerton wrote last week, many school officers see Tasers and pepper spray as important tools for their jobs:

The use of Tasers and pepper spray was defended by Chief C.A. “Chuck” Brawner, of the Spring Branch Independent School District police force, who said nonlethal weapons are necessary so officers don’t have to use firearms or nightsticks on unarmed students. His officers do not use Tasers but carry pepper spray and have used the caustic agent twice on students since 1987, Brawner confirmed.

“When you take away the pepper spray and you take away the Taser, what do you have left?” Brawner said. “What if there are several people and you have one officer and they can’t control them and they could get away and cause other problems, how do you stop them? When you start taking away other options other than a firearm or a nightstick, what else are you going to use?”

Other officers mentioned in the Chronicle story suggest better training helps to avoid misuse of Tasers or pepper spray against children. Houston ISD police have a pepper foam, which is less likely to hit bystanders, and have used it nine times in the last two years.

Even concerns about Tasers in school are nothing new. In 2006, Florida lawmakers introduced bills banning stun-gun use on children after officers stunned a 6-year-old boy “who was wielding a piece of glass in a principal’s office”—but the bills never made it out of committee.

In September, four Fort Worth-area police departments suspended Taser use, after their lawyers suggested they could be held liable for injuring people with the stun guns. One department has since lifted its ban.

The ACLU’s letter makes what seems to be a reasonable suggestion, that weapons like Tasers and pepper spray are even more dangerous to children than they are to adults, though that’s still an open question in academic research. The good people at National School Safety and Security Services note it’s “unlikely that there will ever be such a strong body of research reflecting real-life ‘tests’ actually on children/adolescents since ethical implications of scientific testing and the vast majority of parents will understandably not permit such testing.”

Unfortunately, there’s a growing sample size for any researchers who want to look into Texas schools. In a footnote, the letter lists 19 local news stories about Taser or pepper-spray use against students in just the last six years. Of course, many more aren’t even reported.

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Sid Miller, Lamar Smith and Ted Poe land in WTF Friday this week.
Patrick Michels
Sid Miller, Lamar Smith and Ted Poe land in WTF Friday this week.

WTF Friday returns this week from its Thanksgiving hiatus—as I fill in for Forrest, who’s on vacation—with three spectacular tales from the exotic political wilds: a Congress entertained by extraterrestrial visitors; unmanned flying objects  run amok in America’s very near, very dystopian future; and an aspiring agriculture commissioner with a troubling case of hoof-in-mouth disease.

The last of those is Sid Miller, the former Republican state representative from Stephenville jockeying to return to Austin and replace Todd Staples as the benevolent guarantor of Texas’ gasoline pump standards. (Thanksgiving weekend was another reminder that the gas station restrooms along I-35 remain well outside his office’s jurisdiction.)

Miller’s campaign has so far made headlines forhiring Ted Nugent as a campaign adviser and as a possible foil to Democratish challenger Kinky Friedman—and for tying Miller’s promise as ag commissioner to his legislative work on (human) reproductive issues. On Thursday, though, the Dallas Morning News turned up a complaint against Miller with actual relevance to agriculture. At a horse show in May, Miller was spotted “exercising” three prize-winning quarter horses by driving them in circles tethered to his trailer—which would have been dangerous enough even if he wasn’t hurling insults at them too, like a football coach yelling “hustle up!” from a golf cart.

To which Miller replied:

“If anybody thinks that I would tie three half-million-dollar horses to a trailer and they had a chance of getting a scratch on them or injuring themselves, I would have to be an idiot.”

An interesting choice of sentence structure, but in fact the American Quarter Horse Association did believe Miller’s horses were in danger, and issued him a warning. In his interview with the News, Miller followed his not-quite denial with a not-quite promise never to do it again:

“I shouldn’t have done it. I just wasn’t thinking. It’s just such a common practice for me that I really didn’t think nothing of it,” Miller said. “I just should have known better because not everybody understands it.”

In a less dangerous exercise Wednesday, Texas Congressman Lamar Smith’s House Science Committee held a for-real hearing on the search for extra-terrestrial life. While it was refreshing to see a Texas Republican talk about “aliens” without bringing up immigration policy, Smith’s hearing drew fire, as Andrew Sullivan noted, because he appeared far more open-minded about life beyond Earth than he has been about climate science within our atmosphere. At ThinkProgress, Rebecca Leber noted that just a day before the Congressman opened the floor to aliens, he doubled down on his global-warming skepticism:

Smith blasted the Environmental Protection Agency’s rules for carbon pollution from new power plants for lacking scientific grounds. In a letter to the EPA, Smith wrote that the proposed standards are “based more on partisan politics than sound science.”

At least our new alien overlords enjoy broad bipartisan support.

And finally, following 60 Minutes‘ ground-breaking investigative infomerical Sunday night, Humble’s humble Congressman Ted Poe shared his concerns about Amazon’s drone-delivery plans on the House floor Tuesday:

“Sounds like something out of the ‘Jetsons’ doesn’t it? Gone will be the days of the neighborhood mail carrier, soon there will be a drone to replace him.”

Such private-sector creep into government monopolies would be scary enough on its own, but he went on:

“Think of how many drones could soon be flying around the sky,” he said. “Here a drone, there a drone, everywhere a drone in the United States.”

Poe is no newcomer to the drone-a-phobia jam—last year he imagined a terrifying future with drones controlled by some “EPA bureaucrat who wants to snoop on somebody’s farm and watch Bessie the cow graze in the pasture.” Still, Poe just couldn’t resist one more jab at the Obama administration, even if it muddled his message a little. The drones, he said, were proof that,

“Amazon, unlike the glitch-ridden government websites, can efficiently use online Internet services that get a timely product to market.”

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