Monday, November 8, 2010
c2008 B. Greene
Saving our Land
I told Sam he could fuck the war,
and got a busted jaw
for sayin “fuck the law”
If you wonder why I’m mad, check the record
What's a nigga gotta do to get respected
Sometimes I think I’m getting tested, if I don’t say “yes”
a nigga's quick to get arrested
My relationship with the South has always been bittersweet. Like my love affair with the blues, I’m attracted to the cultural intensity and authenticity, but repulsed by the history of pain and hardship. Houston, Texas came to hold a similar position in my mind. Houston longs to be linked with the Southwest, and all that connotes, but remains, geographically and historically in the South. That means that all things Southern are all things Houston. It means, too, that parts of Texas continue fighting the Civil War, and parts are still resisting postmodern social theory. Like the rest of Texas, Houston is not without complexity. Politically progressive groups from mainstream Democrats to more radical elements have always struggled to maintain a foothold. The power structure of Houston, including city government, law enforcement, and social services was unabashedly protective of the status quo. Given this reality, I was never without fear and doubt about my safety. The work we were doing, like our idealism and politics, ran counter to the majority view. Despite the protection of the U.S. government, we were targets, and needed to remember that always.
Occasionally, hints of our vulnerability came in the form of phone calls at 3 o’clock or 4 o’clock in the morning. It seems that our local KKK chapter was encouraged to give us these “wake-up “ calls in the form of mild threats.
“Y’all need to reconsider what yur doin’ here and get the hell out.” Our niggers are happy without you messin’ in their bizness. If I were you, I’d go back where you came from and don’t send any more long haired nigger-lovin commies where they’re not welcome.”
Nobody took those threats to heart until a recently updated VISTA phone tree list, with street addresses, fell into the wrong hands. An anonymous tipster informed our supervisor that the Klan definitely had the new list. My concern went through the roof because I had recently moved. When Julie, my horse- owning partner, found an inexpensive 2-bedroom garage apartment in the North side barrio, she convinced Kim and me to share the cost.
“It’s a great little garage apartment. There’s a bedroom you guys can have and a dining room that I can use for a room. Besides, it’s only $25.00 a month rent. Think of the money you can save.”
“Are you sure about the rent?”
“Yeah, Mrs. Martinez, who owns the house in front is very partial to VISTAs. She has a history of renting to the project. She likes to think that by keeping the rent low she’s making her little contribution to the project. Can I tell her you guys want the place with me?”
One look at the apartment and the deal went down. It was clean, had beautifully kept hardwood floors, seemed quite roomy, and truly did rent for $25.00 monthly. My portion of the rent was going to be $12.50. The stolen list had this new Cochran Street address; it was clearly a recent addition. The local Klan chapter probably knew my new address better than I did.
I felt targeted. I worried that Mrs. Martinez might be too. But I knew that this type of harassment came with the territory. Certainly it was no more than many before me had felt. Sometimes, on steamy nights, unable to sleep, I’d think about the fire bombings of Black churches all over the South and the constant threats against all who marched, spoke out, or ultimately gave their lives for what they knew to be right. I’d think about the people who were lynched for exercising the right to vote and soon the more notorious cases like Emmet Till and Medgar Evers would drift through my mind. One evening, after realizing that there was absolutely nothing I could do if someone decided my presence warranted removal I thought deeply about my own political evolution. Like all kids growing up in the 50s and 60s, the black and white TV images of the Civil Rights Movement, fire hoses turned on demonstrators, dogs tearing clothing, God-fearing, Bible toting women spewing verbal venom at 6 year old school children, were seared in my brain. But that particular night, with the realization that my name had found its way into the hands of Klansmen, my fear dissipated when I recalled the moment I knew I wanted to be an agent for change. My 11th grade U.S. History teacher, Mr. Ellcot, had assigned a term paper. Using historical texts and current periodicals, I wrote about the struggle for voting rights in the South. In one Newsweek article I came upon some literacy test questions used to deny Blacks the right to vote in Alabama. There, in my high school library, with my American Literature anthology and my history text, The Pageant of American History, weighing me down, I read the question: “How many bubbles are there in a bar of soap.” For me, the meaning of democracy changed forever. This new fear was nothing. Looking back now I realize feeling threatened for ethical beliefs is something that never leaves. Like hunger, once endured, it becomes a permanent part of the psyche and shapes all that follows.
The List. (Kim’s added notation: the address of her friend Clarence. Fortunately the KKK didn’t get this copy!)
Soon afterward, the entire project learned that there was a direct link between the Houston Police Department and the local Ku Klux Klan chapter. That explained our contact information forwarded to the Klan. It followed that the Mayor of Houston at that time, Louie Welch, was a passive overseer of all this collusion. If Welch was passive, Police Chief Herman Short was on the front lines. Short, whose 10-year reign as Houston’s top cop from 1964-74, left no doubt. His overtly racist attitudes and policies shaped the tone of the entire department. In fact, the KKK openly recruited in the police locker room. When a local newspaper fortuitously captured a picture of a Houston Klansman dressed in white robes getting out of a Houston police car, police chief Herman Short was quoted in the Houston Chronicle saying, “I see no contradiction between being in the Ku Klux Klan and being a Houston police officer.” The department knew that and acted accordingly.
What else can I say? Photo: Ron Laytner, Edit Int.
This alleged connection between a hate group and a police department invites skepticism. None existed on my part. Further evidence for the link came when I attended a demonstration against police brutality one Saturday afternoon. On advice from Lee Canales, one of the VISTA Supervisors in Houston, we remained on the sidelines throughout most of the march. With local media coverage, the demonstration of solidarity went off without a hitch. Some of us made our way into the march itself carrying signs, chanting “Stop police brutality now” or “Hey Hey, Ho Ho,” Herman Short has got to go.” A few VISTA lawyers present in the crowd of onlookers noted down the make, model, and license plates of cars that seemed to be following the proceedings with a critical eye. Most of their drivers were clicking cameras in our faces. The cars had Louisiana plates. We saw those same cars, usually white with blackwall tires, a few weeks later with plainclothes policemen and Texas plates. The lines were drawn. Anybody who had ideas that ran counter to the conventional wisdom about “social change” would hear from the white power structure. Cops or Klan, that’s how it was done.
I snatched this off a telephone pole on South Main St.
The Houston police were notorious for their methodology. In their desire to protect and serve, people often came up missing. We heard all about the questioning of suspects down on Buffalo Bayou.* Thus far our only skirmishes with the police took the form of patronizing warnings to keep out of poor communities or an occasional case of flat out harassment as in Kim’s arrest and “trial.”
And then there was the case of Lee Otis Johnson a former SNCC member turned Black Panther. After a violent confrontation on the Texas Southern campus in 1967, in which one Houston police officer was killed and almost 500 students arrested, Johnson became the target of the Houston Police Department. Students were beginning to listen to his speeches carefully. If SNCC was non-violent, the Black Panther Party was clear about adopting Malcolm X’s strategy, “By any means necessary.” The story of Lee Otis Johnson’s arrest was well known throughout Texas and frequently mentioned during our orientation to Houston. At a party, a Black, Houston undercover officer passed Johnson one joint. For the possession of a single marijuana cigarette, he was given a prison term of 30 years.
That was Texas. Lee Otis Johnson’s story was constantly with us when dealing with the police. We saw the same tactic used with Kim’s friend Clarence. The relationship between the District Attorney and law enforcement made this sort of thing a common occurrence. If any explanation came down to the word of a cop against the word of a suspect, or even a witness, case closed.
We really didn’t have much planned for the weekend. When Miles Simmons, the head VISTA supervisor called, late Thursday I told him so.
“Bruce, I need you to do something this weekend. Listen carefully, I can only tell you so much, and you have to do exactly what I say.” Now I was intrigued.
“Can I take Kim along?” I asked.
“Yes, you can, actually I was hoping she’d go with you, but if she doesn’t, I need you to do this.”
“OK, what is it that’s so mysterious and pressing?”
Miles proceeded to give me a set of specific instructions. He wanted me to take my GSA car and drive out to a lake about an hour out of town. There I would meet him and receive some camping equipment, food for two days, and a few dollars. He advised us to take a book or radio because we’d be at the lake for 48 hours straight. Finally, Miles explained that we’d be sharing a campsite with a man and his young son. On Sunday afternoon, we were to return them to the Project headquarters.
Kim was cool with the plan, so we threw some clothes together, found an old portable radio, grabbed a few books and magazines and headed for the lake. The April weather was blustery. Swimming was out of the question. We found the lake and designated campground and met up with Miles and his “friends” easily. He introduced us to Enrique and his 8 year-old son Luis. They spoke very little English, but my limited Spanish served me well. Before Miles left, he reminded me about the time and place for our return Sunday. He and I unloaded some food, tents and sleeping bags, and firewood from his car. I was overjoyed when Enrique produced a fishing pole and I remembered seeing a bait shop within walking distance from our site. Miles gave me his usual warm smile and whispered, “Thanks, see you in a couple of days.”
Because of the wind, the campground was fairly deserted. The first evening I fished with Luis and Enrique for a bit. They retired early. Kim and I began to speculate about the nature of this big hush-hush assignment. Because a child was involved, our thoughts centered on Luis. Perhaps he was being protected from something. Saturday dragged along. A cold wind whisked the lake to white caps. Fishing became difficult, so we all settled for a brief hike along the shore. The dry, cracked ground was an ugly gray-brown. I was beginning to think we were becoming increasingly vulnerable in this hostile spot. Toward the end of day my thoughts focused on why we were sent out of town and who Enrique might be. Kim and I began to speculate. He obviously was in some kind of danger, yet he didn’t seem like many of the Chicano leaders we knew. They were bi-lingual, verbally engaging, and defiantly proud. Enrique seemed almost to cower in our presence. Perhaps it was the language barrier, or his own timidity or embarrassment at having to have caregivers accompany him on an outing with his son. He never initiated much conversation and seemed as anxious as we to return on Sunday afternoon.
Late the next day, with Enrique and Luis safely delivered back to their family; Miles called me and filled in the blanks.
“Did you notice the scars on his face,” he asked. “I guess so, I replied, but I thought perhaps they were just pock marks or the remnants of teenage acne,” I said.
Miles told me they were more the results of plastic surgery. He proceeded to explain that Enrique had been the recipient of a beating by the Houston police. Rather than throwing him into Buffalo Bayou, as was often the custom, he was discovered and sent to Jeff Davis Hospital. Here’s where the story went from interesting to extremely interesting. Apparently, among the bones broken in Enrique’s face was one that rarely gets broken. Miles reminded me that he was not privy to any medical facts but added that a young intern in the ER who treated Enrique was so fascinated by this fact that he took an inordinate amount of photographs. That documentation was to become part of a lawsuit against the Houston Police Department. Enrique’s lawyers were afraid that something would happen to him before the case went to trial. To insure he survived, they were taking turns moving him around until his deposition was completed. We merely played a small role in insuring that justice would be done.
I’ve always been relieved that I knew very little during that weekend. I can only imagine how often I’d have looked over my shoulder on that camping trip. In an ironic twist, VISTAS were experiencing much the same fear and distrust as those whom they endeavored to help. I don’t think we ever thought just by physically putting ourselves in these communities we could immediately effect change. It’s difficult to say now, as it was then, just what we thought we could accomplish. What was clear, however, was that this “Other America” did exist, and anything we might be able to bring to the table would help. Exposing the glaring inequities of the world’s richest democracy was definitely heady stuff as well. Yet, contradictions and paradoxes lurked behind every other thought. As one Oklahoma pastor asked us the last week of training, “Could you lie for the same reasons you’d tell the truth?” Looking back, I see his point was not really a question; he was letting us know what we’d be up against at every turn. Like the cops with duel license plates, and the civic officials, and in some cases, the very people we were trying to help, the message was clear. Any attempt to mess with the status quo would have consequences.
By November, the University of Thought for high school students was in its second semester. Patterned after a growing “new schools” movement, the idea captured the imagination of teens and young educators. The VISTA sponsored Free University sought to offer Houston’s high school students classes in subjects they wanted. Many local teachers volunteered their time and resources for the pilot program. Rice University offered us classrooms and evening hours. Everything from language classes to art history to photography and writing workshops made the initial schedule. The class that received the most sign-ups was Rock and Blues Analysis. When the organizers of the program elicited my help, I volunteered to teach the class. I was sure I could do justice to the subject. I knew I wanted to go into teaching after my battle with the draft was over, and I felt qualified given that my undergraduate history thesis was in African-American studies. I’d even done a major research project on the blues. I ached to teach the class.
One of Saul Alinsky’s key tenets of political organizing was that the middle class makes a better target than the underclass. That’s where the power is, he reasoned. I’d been to enough political meetings in L.A. with Black Panthers and other less aligned radicals telling Whites to organize their own communities before building agendas for underrepresented Black and Brown people. The content of any Rock and Blues Analysis course would contain the foundation for a larger ethnic studies program. In exploring the origin of African-American music, White middle class kids would be exposed to a rich curriculum detailing the impact of African roots, slavery, and the Civil Rights Movement on the music they loved. In the 60s the blues enjoyed an enormous revival that resurrected the careers of ageing legends and gave recording contracts to young Whites retooling old songs and calling themselves blues bands. Janis Joplin and Big Mama Thornton enjoyed simultaneous success. Muddy Waters and Mick Jagger, Howlin’ Wolf and Van Morrison, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, Canned Heat, J. Geils Band--all prospered. It was nothing short of a golden age of blues. Rock and Blues Analysis was the vehicle to bring a comprehensive approach to ethnic studies to students whose libraries and social science curriculum were “whitewashed.”
When the University of Thought kicked in, immediate success followed. The local press showed up to the first meeting of Rock and Blues Analysis and with a feature story in the Houston Post, enrollment swelled. Once a week, for the six-week duration of the course, I made the trip across town from the suffocating heat of the 3rd Ward, to the air-conditioned oasis of red brick and ivy at Rice University. The students were bright and engaged. We traced the African retention of sound, lyric, and beat to three specific styles of blues music. Using recordings, excerpted texts, my own harmonicas, and my students’ talent and enthusiasm, the course ended a resounding success. Looking back now, with 30 years of teaching experience under my belt, I can see how I might have done some things differently. Yet, given my limited resources and experience, I’m pleased with the job I did. Though I did not know it at the time, I have come to believe that we teach best what we love.