Behind a chain-link fence in Houston’s Fourth Ward, on the ground floor of a ramshackle duplex, revolution is fomenting.
Scott Gregory, a 25-year-old substitute teacher, gestures to two pairs of sneakers by the front door as we enter. “There used to be a no-shoes policy,” he says, “but it wasn’t really arrived at by consensus, so it was impossible to enforce.” The Roccupy House, as it has been dubbed, is one of two rental houses hosting an evolving assortment of Occupy Houston members as that group struggles to fulfill its stated purpose of “ending the corporate corruption of democracy.”
Inside are three bedrooms, one bathroom—“it has some issues,” Scott warns—and a kitchen with working refrigerator and non-working stove and sink. Scott, a founding member of Occupy Houston, is one of three rent-paying key-holders at Roccupy House. “We’re kind of an anomaly,” Scott says of Occupy Houston. “We don’t have demands. We’re not very political. We’re just trying to be as community-minded as we can.”
Roccupy House is one of the group’s community service projects, though in its early stages. One of the bedrooms has two mattresses on the floor and no other furniture. “That’s going to be a studio,” Scott says, “where we can record public announcements and do pro bono recording work for people in the neighborhood.” The second bedroom is empty. “That’s the education center,” Scott says. “We have lectures there. We’ve had a lecture on chaos theory and one on the Hubble telescope.”
Attila, who declines to give his last name but says he has been touring the world’s revolutions since Egypt, leans in the doorway. “Next I lecture on dark matter. After that, meditation.”
The third bedroom is locked. It contains the computer used to update the Occupy Houston Facebook page, which has over 16,400 “likes.”
The blue carpet is worn and the white walls are bare except in the narrow hallway, where a Guy Fawkes mask dangles from a Texas flag. In the kitchen, two men try to pour a large pot of dry black beans into an empty milk jug using a rolled sheet of paper as a funnel.
It’s a useful metaphor. Occupy Houston a group of about 30 activists, most of them young men, has plenty of ambition but limited resources. Since their first rally on October 6, 2011, attendance at their nightly General Assembly in Tranquility Park has declined from an estimated 300 to their current 30 or so. But those remaining are committed to a variety of activist projects, from picking up trash and donating labor at a nearby organic farm to turning the Roccupy House into a community resource for Freedmen’s Town, the historically black neighborhood that surrounds it.
It’s a transition from the group’s earlier focus, which was primarily on demonstrations and the physical occupation of Tranquility Park, a square block of grass and fountains across from City Hall. In December, seven activists from Occupy Houston and Austin were arrested for a protest at the Port of Houston in which they linked arms using PVC pipe. The pipe was deemed a “criminal instrument” and the protesters charged with a felony. Since then—although not necessarily as a consequence—the group’s protests have been small.
“There’s a split between people who want to do Freedmen’s Town and people who want to stay in the park,” says Kevin Laude, a 33-year-old software developer who helps run OccupyHouston.org. “I understand the political statement that staying in the park makes, but after a while the effectiveness of a sustained political statement declines. You have to start doing more stuff for people to take notice of you. Otherwise you just become those guys in the park.”
In the small back yard, laundry hangs in the damp night air beside a large plastic tub of milky gray water. On an adjacent lot, a dozen more Occupiers camp in tents beside a fire pit.
“We hope to get the upstairs of Roccupy House open to us soon,” Scott says, closing out his tour, “and the place next door, too. But right now there’s nothing in the house. Right now there’s just intentions. The studio room is just a guitar.”