Silence = Consent: Local Protests Against Police Violence
By Jane Nguyen
Photos by Jane Nguyen & Elizabeth Brossa
“Four and a half minutes of silence!” Pastor E.A. Decker called out to a crowd of about 700 people in Third Ward near Freeway 288. “Four minutes of silence to represent the four and a half hours Mike Brown lay in the street in Ferguson!”
Most everyone complied, but some fidgeted and made noises, which was met with with Decker’s admonition: “Silence!……SILENCE!……Your silence is your STRENGTH!”
This was a powerful moment at one of Houston’s largest protests, to date, against police brutality. In the subsequent month and a half, Houston has continued to call on its strength but been anything but silent as it joins other cities across the country in ramping up the resistance against police aggression. The #BlackLivesMatter movement was sparked, initially, by the murder of 18 year-old Mike Brown at the hands of Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. However, since the story first emerged, numerous other cases, equally troubling, have come to light. These include the choking death of Eric Garner in Staten Island, N.Y., the toy-gun incident with 12 year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Walmart pellet gun case involving John Crawford in Beavertown, Ohio.
Locally, Houstonians have been anticipating a grand jury announcement regarding 26 year-old Jordan Baker. Baker was gunned down by a police officer last January after a brief encounter and foot chase when the officer mistook him for one (any one) of three robbery suspects who held up three stores nearby. Similar to the Brown case, the officer claimed that Baker “charged at him.” Baker’s mother, however, does not believe this, and many Houstonians are likewise skeptical.
Though activists have centered the cases of Brown and Garner, their protests are on behalf of all unarmed black men extra-judicially murdered by police. On November 25th, the day following the grand jury announcement that Wilson would not be indicted, roughly 600 people convened at MacGregor Park near University of Houston. The energy was high from the get-go, with a sense of readiness to go out into the streets to disrupt business as usual. Early on, Assata Richards, program director for Project Row Houses, suggested that the group block the intersection of MLK and Old Spanish Trail. The spot was held for about fifteen minutes before organizers led the group in an unpermitted march through Third Ward, along the perimeters of UH and TSU, picking up about 400 more participants along the way.
At 288, there was a call – made organically by the crowd – for that freeway to be blocked. This culminated in a standoff with police, who formed a human chain to obstruct access. Pushing and shoving between protesters and police stopped only when Pastor E.A. Decker and another member of the NAACP called for “four and a half minutes of silence” from the crowd. Some believe that this instruction was misguided because it gave police officers time to diffuse the crowd’s militant energy. While participants and organizers debated what to do next, about 100 people left. The march eventually proceeded back to TSU, where many students still on campus joined the protesters in an impassioned speak-out.
Protests and die-ins have continued to take place throughout December – at MacGregor Park, on the campus of UH, as well as at Rice University. Some of the larger actions have been in the Galleria area. On December 6th, about 600 people turned up with renewed energy in the wake of the announcement that the officer responsible for the death of Eric Garner would also elude indictment. Protesters held up signs that read “I Can’t Breathe,” and some wore mouth-covers to reinforce this.
For about an hour, they chanted, “Hands Up! Don’t Shoot!” “No Justice, No Peace!” and “Black Lives Matter!” Some stood in one spot while others repeatedly traversed the crosswalks at Westheimer and Post Oak. The constant movement allowed them to be visible and audible to cars driving by, and to cause traffic slow-downs. All the while, the tension was palpable as protesters glared at police officers and challenged or mocked their directives for order.
Soon, led by the National Black United Front, the crowd entered the Galleria, and because doing so was spontaneous and unprecedented, the police could do little to stop it. Inside, protesters were spirited, moving about and shouting, “If I Can’t Breathe, You Can’t Breathe!” and “We won’t take it any longer! Justice for Eric Garner!”
As they rode up and down the escalators, they chanted and defiantly carried signs that read, “Ferguson is Everywhere,” “White Silence = White Consent,” and “Don’t Blame the Victim; Examine the System.”
Perhaps most poignantly, they lay down on the floor near Nordstrom’s, Macy’s, and the Apple store, to symbolize fallen, unarmed black men. While some Galleria shoppers joined or cheered in support, others looked on with fear or disdain. Ultimately, ten to twelve stores locked down for fear of looting and vandalism, which protesters insisted was never on their minds; their aim was only to be heard.
While this occupation was still in progress, social media was flooded with news reports about it. This, too, was met with mixed reactions, some people approved wholeheartedly and others found the shutdown of retail stores to be a counterproductive misplacement of blame. For long-time activist Burke Moore, however, the invasion of the Galleria was quite simply an exquisite triumph. He and others felt that taking a first step toward challenging corporate interests could only bode well for even bolder actions to come.
In the days after, people eagerly anticipated a repeat performance, with even more numbers, on the following weekend. This hope was quickly dashed, though, when organizer Michael Allen received a phone call from Galleria property management and HPD four days beforehand.
“They threatened me,” he said, “that if anybody went into the Galleria to protest, I would be liable. They also said that we can protest on the sidewalks and the park, but if we block any intersections or roadways, we would be arrested.”
Just as promised, on December 13th, officers stood firm with arms across their chests in front of Neiman Marcus, daring protesters to enter. Parts of the Galleria lawn were fenced in with steel barricades, and posted along the sidewalks and on entrance windows were signs that read, “No protesting on these premises. Protesters will be treated as trespassers. Violators will be prosecuted.”
At one point, when a small group of protesters wanted to cross an intersection at Westheimer and Post Oak, officers told them that they could not. If they tried to, they would be arrested, police said, because there were too many people on the other side. Officers claimed that this was for public safety, but many believe it was simply to disrupt the protest, as people identified as shoppers were allowed to cross streets freely.
Officers also told protesters that they could not enter the mall even if they were finished protesting for the day and wished to enter as individuals, carrying no signs, to grab a bite to eat. If they did so, police warned, they would be arrested for trespassing.
Tensions ran high in other ways as well. Many participants noticed undercover cops wearing bulletproof vests, standing among them, not chanting but quietly holding their hands behind their backs. They taunted mounted officers with cutting words: “Get those animals off those horses!” and “Fuck the police!” There was even back-and-forth yelling about apathy and consumerism between three protesters and a long line of shoppers camped out for the release of Jordan athletic shoes.
With increasingly crowded sidewalks and driveways as more people showed up, officers became more irritable and threatening, and arrests began to occur. All told, six men and two women were taken into custody, some of them charged with obstructing a highway.
Other arrestees were just passive bystanders, though. A witness said that while officers were manhandling some protesters, one woman got caught in the pushing and shoving but continued to film the police being rough with people. She was eventually knocked to the ground in the midst of the skirmish. Soon after, she was handcuffed with a plastic zip-tie and taken away.
In the next week, the nation saw the massive protests in New York City, as well as the cleverly orchestrated shut down of the Oakland Police Department with a much smaller but highly effective group of people. Houston organizers realized that they, too, had to find a way to work with what they had, regardless of how many people showed up for the upcoming action.
Saturday, December 20th was an overcast day, and this time, the numbers had dwindled dramatically from the previous actions, from 500 to about 100. This time, however, some were on hand well before the start time in order to scope out the situation. The typical contingent of men in blue – both on foot and on horses — milled around.
Protesters gave speeches at the park before starting a march toward the intersection of Westheimer and Post Oak. As if to compensate for their fewer numbers, the chanting was more loud and spirited than in the previous two actions. They roared, “We’re fired up, can’t take it no more!” and “What do we want? JUSTICE! When do we want it? NOW!”
During this action, yet more barricades erected and two officers warned through bullhorns, non-stop, that if protesters stepped into the street, entered the mall, or obstructed an intersection, they would be arrested. At intersections, participants were allowed to cross only when officers removed barricades.
Since protesters were not allowed to enter the Galleria, as there were once again prohibitive signs up and officers guarding the Neiman Marcus entrance, the march went in the direction of the 610 Loop. With officers in tow on foot and on horses, they were eventually stopped near a gas station driveway about 100 yards before the freeway and told they could not walk further. This infuriated the protesters, who demanded to know why they couldn’t cross a simple driveway, on sidewalks, with no intention of taking the freeway. However, the police held their ground with a horses-and-officers blockade that would not budge.
For fifteen minutes, protesters aggressively inquired about the actual law regarding public driveways and peaceful assembly. Some directly asked the district attorney himself, who was on-hand. He refused to answer, saying, “I’m not here to give you legal advice. I’m just here to observe. If you have questions, you should ask your own lawyers.”
Some organizers favored staying put and continuing to challenge the officers and the D.A., while others said the march should just continue in the other direction. Eventually it headed back in a westward direction, then returned to Post Oak to march north on that street. The event ended with brief discussions at Waterwall Park.
The rally was spirited while it lasted. However, all agree that future actions will require more creativity and possibly even new locations to keep things energized and fresh.
The next day, on Sunday, December 21st, about 60 people attended a candlelight vigil for Jordan Baker at the corner of Antoine and West Little York. At the request of the family, who were in attendance, there was no march but simply speakers who lamented the often inane, brutal contexts in which black men’s lives are taken. There were also moments of silence and prayers for comfort, solidarity, and healing. Attendees ended the gathering by singing “Amazing Grace” and exchanging words of hope that the grand jury’s decision, which was expected on Tuesday the 23rd at 9 a.m., would be one of justice for the young man, who left behind a seven-year-old son.
A Harris County grand jury announced that the HPD officer who shot Jordan Baker was cleared of all wrongdoing. Protesters have called for a federal investigation, hired attorneys, and even reached out to the White House. They and the Baker family are disappointed and vow that large gatherings will protest the decision.
[UPDATE: Here is Jane Nguyen’s coverage of a march and rally demanding justice for Jordan Baker on December 29, 2014.]
by Guest Author