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Houston Justice

Project Orange

This is a good thing.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

This past Friday, January 12th, Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez held a press conference along with Houston Justice representative Charnelle Thompson and Harris County Tax Office Communication and Media Relations Director Tracy Baskin, to announce what many are calling the most ambitious effort ever undertaken to help qualified incarcerated citizens register to vote who are currently in the Harris County Jail. That initiative is called Project Orange.

Project Orange is the brainchild of Houston Justice co-founder and Executive Director Durrel Douglas, whose first job out of high school was as a prison guard at a Texas prison. Douglas was moved to start this initiative after seeing how incarcerated individuals, who happened to make a mistake in their lives, were treated before and after being behind those prison bars.

“When we sat down to plan Project Orange, our goal was to reach out to eligible voters who are often ignored,” said Douglas. “When people have paid their debt to society, they should be able to rebuild their lives. Point blank…we want as many eligible voters to register, and vote. I don’t care what party they prefer, or which candidates or issues drive them. Our goal was, and continues to be to engage as many citizens as possible.”

As part of the Project Orange initiative, for four consecutive Sundays, beginning this past weekend, volunteers from Houston Justice will be escorted through the jail with voter registration cards that qualified inmates will be able to fill out. In addition, Houston Justice is staffing voter registration booths in the visitation waiting areas at the 1200 Baker Street and at the 701 San Jacinto locations.

“In our first Sunday, we registered 100 new voters,” said Douglas. “We have three more Sundays to go for our inaugural push. In the future, we plan to do this in other cities across the state as well.”

“Qualified” means just what it says – people who are legally eligible to register to vote. As the story notes, some 70% of people in the Harris County jail have not yet been convicted of anything. Many of them will not be convicted of anything, and many of the rest will plead to or be convicted of a misdemeanor. All of them have as much right to vote as you and I do. And if you still don’t like the idea of a dedicated effort to register a bunch of mostly low-level inmates at the jail, I have good news for you: You can support bail reform, so that there are far fewer of those inmates in one convenient place at a time to be registered. It’s a win-win.

The next generation of leaders

The future looks good.

Durrel Douglas

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.

On grand juries

Some folks are trying to change the makeup of grand juries in Harris County.

HarrisCounty

It was a largely black crowd with at least a third of the audience made up of white people and a few anarchists sprinkled in. They were there to share ideas, sign some petitions, and to vent about injustice in the Mike Brown and Eric Garner deaths.

Inside the packed El Dorado Ballroom in the Third Ward, the shirt on a lonely hipster said it best: Murder Beats Not People.

A group called the Houston Justice Coalition, made up largely of students from nearby Texas Southern University, organized the outing. They shared their platform, which calls for Houston to implement police body cameras (something already working its way through city council) and for raising awareness about grand juries.

“I’ve served four times, twice as a foreman,” Third Ward Councilman Dwight Boykins said. It’s a hard sell, but everyone was encouraged to help diversify grand juries, which are commonly racially and economically lopsided and are easily swayed by prosecutors. “You have to commit not only to the $28 per day two times a week, but three months out of the year. And some people don’t like to do that,” Boykins said.

The event was advertised on social media as an organizing call for millennials, the target audience for all the #CrimingWhileWhite and #AliveWhileBlack responses on Twitter. It’s an age group that’s historically been the foundation of rights movements. This might all be a test to see if today’s young activists can keep the energy going.

It’s a start. Changing the grand jury system here from the current “pick a pal” method, which is a big driver of the non-diversity of grand juries, to a random selection like what is used for regular juries, would also make a difference. Sen. John Whitmire has filed a bill to require just that for Harris County, but a better question might be why do we have grand juries at all?

The concept [of grand juries] comes from our colonial parent, England. “It goes back centuries here,” explains London-based legal writer Joshua Rozenberg. “In medieval times, it was drawn from the local neighborhood. And these were men who were expected to look around and report criminal behavior within the community. They’re people who actually knew the offenders, as we’d call them today, and could perhaps bring them to justice.”

By the 16th century, that morphed into the system we’d now recognize as a grand jury: A group of people listening to a prosecutor’s evidence and deciding whether to indict.

But the United Kingdom actually abolished its grand jury system in 1933. “We now send cases that are serious enough straight to jury trial,” Rozenberg says. That way, both sides are able to present evidence and make their arguments, which is definitely not the case with a grand jury.

In fact, the UK exported grand juries to most of their former colonies — Canada, Australia, New Zealand — and virtually all of them have stopped using them.

“They are said to be ‘putty in the hands of the prosecutor.’ In other words, the prosecutor really tells them what he or she wants and they will go along with it,” he says. “Or that’s what we are told, because we don’t really know. We can’t watch grand juries at work.”

That’s why former New York judge Sol Wachtler once famously said that a district attorney could get a grand jury to “indict a ham sandwich.” But, Rozenberg points out, “it must be even easier to get the sandwich acquitted if that is what the district attorney may actually want.”

Link via Grits. Why shouldn’t we make District Attorneys be the ones that are accountable for these decisions? I’d be interested to hear from the attorneys out there what the down side to this might be.

Mayor Parker wants body cameras for HPD

Good.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

Houston won’t wait for federal funding before buying body cameras for all of the city’s uniformed police officers, Mayor Annise Parker said Wednesday, as activists launched a petition drive for an ordinance essentially mandating the mayor’s plans.

Both the mayor and police chief have announced their commitment to body cameras designed to record all interactions between officers and the public, even though the innovation is expected to cost around $7-million during a severe city budget deficit. Houston plans to apply for some of the federal funding proposed by President Obama earlier in the week, the mayor said, but the city plans to invest in its camera program before Washington’s money flows through the pipeline.

“We are absolutely going to apply, as is every other big police department across the United States, for body cams,” Parker said. “Actually, not every police department will want to go that route, because you have to have the policy in place, you have to have the ability to store the records from the body cams. But we’ve had our pilot up, we know what we want in the cameras. We have a good initial policy that we’re going to roll forward.”

The mayor hopes grants and law enforcement foundations will bankroll about half of the expected expense.

“As the national debate on body cams becomes more robust, I think you’re going to see more interest,” Parker said.

See here for the background. Activists are pushing for an ordinance to require body cameras on the grounds that while the current Mayor and police chief support them, the Mayor we get next year and the chief he or she appoints might not be so supportive. You might think that after the travesty in Staten Island with Eric Garner that body cameras aren’t what they’re hyped up to be, but that isn’t the case. They will do a lot of good, for the public and for the police. Let’s get this done.

A “Mike Brown Law” for Houston

From the inbox:

COMMUNITY TOWN HALL 12/4 TO DEMAND MIKE BROWN LAW

HOUSTON- Hundreds plan to attend a town hall organized by Houston Justice, a grassroots activist group aimed at local criminal justice reform. The first goal is to pass necessary legislation to adopt the Mike Brown Law that requires body cams for on duty police officers in Houston. Houston Police Department Chief Charles McClelland has already come out in publicly in support of the measure (link to Houston Chronicle story), but with a $140 Million deficit looming at city hall, the group is proactively demanding commitment from Houston City Council.

“Recent events have caused an awakening in our community, our first goal is to pass the Mike Brown Law at Houston City Hall,” said Durrel Douglas, an activist with Houston Justice. “With our energy we will pass an ordinance funding mandatory body cams for police (petition here) and increase diversity on grand juries. We will balance the scales of justice in Harris County,” concluded Douglas. According to a recent Gallup Poll, 24% of African American males said they had been treated unfairly in dealings with police in the last 30 days.

The activist group is holding a town hall this Thursday where next steps will be planned and attendees will have an opportunity to voice their opinions, apply to be grand jurors in Harris County and register to vote.

TOWN HALL

Who: Houston Justice Coalition
What: Community Town Hall, Planning Session
When: Thursday, December 4, 2014 6:30 PM
Where: El Dorado Ballroom
2310 Elgin
Houston, Texas 77004

See these two posts for some background on HPD and body cameras, and this Chron story from last week for Chied McClelland’s most recent statement in support of them. McClelland has already made a request to Council for up to $8 million to buy and deploy these cameras. We need to determine a funding source for that and make it happen, and along the way we need to figure out what the rules will be for keeping and accessing the video footage they will generate. I kind of like the suggestion made in the comments here by Steven Houston to make it all (with some limited exceptions) publicly available. Whether that’s feasible or not, let’s move forward with this. There’s a lot to be done to ensure accountability and restore the faith of all of the public in police work, and this is a key first step.

UPDATE: Here’s a Chron story about another town hall event, which took place yesterday. I don’t think we can have too many of these right now.