CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE, HOUSTON STYLE.
Something is happening in local activism. Protest and civil disobedience arrests are mounting in Houston– totaling more than 100– in just dozens of actions over the past year. Haven’t heard about it? You’re not alone. Here’s a re-cap:
October 11- 150 people rallied at the Mickey Leland Federal Building, leading to 8 arrests of activists with Jobs Not Cuts. Protesters were motivated by soaring unemployment and the votes by local representatives that shelved a jobs bill. The action was inspired in part by Occupy Wall Street and included members of Occupy Houston, Good Jobs=Great Houston, and other Community Groups. They were met by 50 police officers in riot gear and by the overly employed HPD Mounted Division. The eight arrested were charged with Criminal Trespass, and their cases are still pending.
One arrested local activist, Hope Sanford, said: “That (expletive) Federal Bldg is OURS – and Mickey Leland woulda been right there with us. We were there to tell our OWN U.S. senator (Hutchison) how badly regular people needed that jobs act- that she was slated to (and did) vote against- and NO ONE was permitted to speak to her or her staff, nor was a staff rep sent out to address us. When we, the people, have less access to our own government reps in our own fed buildings than we do to rock stars at mega-arenas, CD is our only option.”
December 12– The Occupy the Ports action saw 20 arrests locally as Occupy supporters from Houston and all around Texas coordinated a solidarity action in conjunction with similar port actions in Oakland and Seattle. The Occupy supporters were met by 60 officers as they blocked traffic on a road leading to the port entrance. The arrested that had to be separated from their shackles– criminal instruments by law– still face from six months to two years in jail and a fine of up to $10,000. Among the arrested was Remington Alessi – a local occupy activist and candidate for Sheriff. Alessi is unable to comment on the recommendation of his legal representation as charges are still pending. Organizer Dustin Phipps said: “Occupy Houston executed the blockade of an entrance to the Port of Houston last year in support of fellow occupiers and unionists who were attempting a massive shutdown of the West Coast ports. Our target specifically was the Port of Houston Authority and its CEO, Alec Dreyer, who resigned the day following our action. We wanted to point out the abuses of public funds, including his massive salary, as well as the secretive meetings held by the commission in violation of Texas law. We were joined by Occupiers from all over Texas in a passionate act of civil disobedience in harmony with the spirit of the rest of the nation at the time. There were a mixture of folks from different Texas cities including Dallas, San Antonio and of course, Houston, who were courageous enough to place their bodies in the road, and their action was able to illuminate the illegal police activity of that day, such as the masking of identification information on uniforms and blocking media coverage of the arrests using large tents. The action was immensely successful and added Houston to the panorama of amazing events that day.”
May 18 – Three activists, including Kofi Taharka of the National Black United Front, were arrested and charged with Criminal Trespass, following the not-guilty verdict of ex-HPD officer Andrew Blomberg in the 2010 video-taped beating of Chad Holly. They blocked the entrance of District Attorney Pat Lyko’s office after being denied their chance to speak with the DA. Though Blomberg is shown on video stomping on the teenaged Holly’s head as he lay defenseless on the ground, an all-white jury ruled that it was acceptable police procedure, and that Blomberg was not criminally liable. Even Mayor Annise Parker and Police ChiefCharles McClelland disagreed with the verdict, and the other three officers, who still face trial for the offense, are seeking a change of venue after displays of public outrage.
June 11 – Seventy workers at D’Ambra Steel walked off the job, demanding safe work conditions after a co-worker collapsed at work and was hospitalized due to heat exhaustion. D’Ambra, an Exxon contractor, refused to cover the costs of the employee’s hospitalization. Although there are no arrests involved, D’Ambra Steel Workers were visible in the Janitor struggle, and had an action of their own in coordination with Janitor supporters.
June 21– Natalie Plummer was arrested and held for 12 hours after holding a sign that warned motorists to slow ahead of a speed trap. After an aggressive media campaign and show of support via a hastily organized protest, her charges were dropped without explanation or notice. Natalie only found out as she appeared for her court date on August 2, and stated: “I believe my charges were dropped because it was realized it would end in a complete embarrassment if anymore tax dollars were spent in prosecuting an obviously false charge.”
July 27– Local anti-Westboro Baptist Church activist, Aaron Brown, with signs and megaphone in hand, was arrested en route to protest Sarah Palin’s appearance at a Ted Cruz event by a Montgomery County sheriff’s deputy. Brown spent the night in jail and was charged with a Class C misdemeanor for Disorderly Conduct.
June through August– As organizing, longevity, and sheer number of arrests go, the Houston Janitor Strike, organized by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), takes the prize with 69 Civil Disobedience arrests amongst their almost-daily protests. The actions have been in coordination with community groups including: Good Jobs=Great Houston, Houston Peace and Justice, Interfaith Workers Justice, and Texas Organizing Project.
The Janitor Strikes are the grand-daddy of local civil disobedience with arrests in previous strikes of 2006 and 2010, but this latest round of negotiations have really raised the bar. When the Janitors Union proposed a contract to raise cleaners wages to a modest $10 per hour graduated in a three year deal, the cleaning contractors countered with a face-slapping offer to raise the current wage of $8.35 by only a total of 50 cents over a five year deal– while Houston Janitors are unable to make ends meet working short shifts that are legally denied breaks by Texas law. Instead of hiring more janitors, contractors have instead severely increased the workloads and pace of work by those already employed. Many janitors in Houston work 2 or 3 of these jobs to support their families on an estimated $9,000 per year. The CD arrests organized by the union were not a knee-jerk reaction, and only employed as part of a much larger protest and media campaign. Even Mayor Parker had to admit that little recourse was left available, other than Civil Disobedience arrests, which the Janitors Union has turned into an art form. The 69 well-coordinated arrests occurred in some half-dozen different actions with charges ranging from Criminal Trespass to obstructing roadways in these non-violent displays. Thirty-nine of the arrests occurred in two separate protests on the eve of renewed negotiations between the union and cleaning contractors.
Though a deal was reached between the union and cleaning contractors, Houston Janitor supporters are vowing to expand organizing and keep the pressure on in preparation for future struggles. ”We made progress here in Houston, and the janitors’ victory brings hope to security officers, airport workers and others trapped by poverty wages,” says Tom Balanoff, Union President SEIU.
Food Sharing Ban - Another of these ongoing fights is the effort to overturn the homeless feeding ban by Houston Keep Sharing Free. Food Not Bombs continues their food sharing, though it has been outlawed by the city of Houston. The law was passed over the objections of Houston community and faith groups, and since its enactment, has yet to be enforced. Despite confusion about the law and the lack of its enforcement, many faith-based food sharing have been intimidated into closing. The result has been more hungry mouths for Food Not Bombs to feed, and an amplified homeless crisis, as some have to go whole days without a meal. Though food sharers face a possible fine of $2000, there have not yet been food-sharing fines or arrests, as the city hopes to avoid the embarrassment and political cost of having it struck down by the courts as unconstitutional. Attempts to enforce it would jeopardize the law itself, which the city might want to use to harass and threaten future mobilizations. Free To Give Houston PAC has been petitioning for a ballot initiative to reverse this ban.
Connecting these dots shows Houston to be a quiet leader in Civil Disobedience protest action. Winning a contract for hardworking Janitors through exercising class power in a right-to-work state is a HUGE deal with national implications. The lessons drawn from these actions– especially on the heels of 2011 mobilizations for women’s rights and the May Day mobilizations fueled by immigrant rights groups– should better prepare us for the political battles to come.
Keep up the good work Houston!
*Bill Lambert was among the arrested supporting Houston Janitors ahead of the renewed contract talks. He is a local activist with Pro-Choice Houston and was an organizer with the Houston Walk for Choice, SlutWalk Houston, and the protest of Natalie Plummer’s arrest. Lambert is also an advocate for a Justice for Janitors Party. His court date for the class-B misdemeanor of Obstructing a Roadway is on September 10.
by Erin Dyer