A new generation of black activist leadership in Houston has emerged from the protests over the officer-involved deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York.
At one point during a town hall last month, the clergyman-moderator acknowledged a fresh face in the audience wearing a T-shirt with a blazer who was given a few minutes to talk about a burgeoning movement of young people organizing in Houston.
As Bishop James Dixon, who is in his 50s, descended the steps from his pulpit-turned-dais toward Durrel Douglas, the microphone and that moment could be viewed as a metaphorical passing of the baton to the next generation.
Douglas and two others have formed Houston Justice. The organization is so new that it didn’t exist the week of Thanksgiving when a multi-ethnic multitude marched for miles in Houston’s Third Ward to protest a grand jury’s decision not to indict the Ferguson officer who fatally shot Brown.
Douglas had the spotlight that day too. At one point before participants briefly blocked traffic, he began shouting into a megaphone and wondered aloud why no elected officials were present to rally with the people.
By Thanksgiving weekend, he was caucusing with Shekira Dennis and Damien Thaddeus Jones about how to bundle the energy that had fired up hundreds – if not thousands – of Houstonians. Intentionally rejecting the pattern of mainline social justice organizations like the NAACP or the National Urban League, Houston Justice’s leadership structure was designed as a trinity of equals with no single figurehead.
“We said: We have to do something. We can turn this into something,” Douglas explained.
The born-in-the-1980s leaders settled on three initial goals: Convince the Houston City Council to pass the “Mike Brown Ordinance” to require Houston Police Department officers to wear body cameras while on duty, strengthen the power of the HPD citizens review board and increase the diversity of Harris County grand juries.
The group adopted the mantra “Less Talk, More Action” to emphasize that they’re not impressed by rhetoric.
Law enforcement issues have personal importance for Douglas. The 28-year-old worked as a jailer in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice for five years after high school. He found himself guarding former classmates who grew up with him on Houston’s south side.
“I saw so many, you’d be surprised,” he said.
Four years ago, Douglas switched to politics, first working for the Harris County Democratic Party and state Rep. Alma Allen, D-Houston, then the Texas Organizing Project, which advocates for poor and working-class families. Later, he was the Texas state director of Working America, a community affiliate of the AFL-CIO. Today, he’s a consultant.
Dennis, the youngest at 26, was raised in Houston and cut a path from standout student at Texas Southern University to Washington intern in the Office of Presidential Personnel.
She served as TSU student government association president during the 2011-12 academic year and interned with then-City Council member Wanda Adams. In addition to organizing for Texas Together in Houston’s Alief area, she worked in Charlotte, N.C., for President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign.
Some have questioned the authority of the younger generation to challenge established and elected leaders, but Dennis said the coalition’s actions are part of a mandate.
“I’m simply doing what our elders have asked us to do: Step up, take responsibility and take it to the next level. That’s exactly what we’re doing,” she said.
Raised in Jackson, Mississippi, the setting for many battles of the 20th century civil rights struggle, Jones is the closest the clan comes to having a preacher at the helm. The self-styled cultural critic comes from a family of clergy, usually wears a suit, leans heavily on morality in his arguments and is prone to offer Biblical references to illustrate a point.
“The movement is in me,” said Jones, 29, an Air Force veteran who served as TSU student government vice president. “This is what God put me here to do. When the people you expect to be fighting for you are not, we have nothing to lose.”
I’ve gotten to know Durrel Douglas, and I’m impressed by what he, Dennis, Jones, and others like them have been doing. The need for the kind of reforms that they and Houston Justice are pursuing is great and immediate. As for the leadership matter, I recommend you read Douglas’ open letter to Oprah about why their movement won’t have a “leader”. Honestly, they’re all leaders, and we need them. Grits, who thinks there’s more to be done on these issues at the state level, has more.