In downtown Houston’s serene Sam Houston Park on Saturday, about 450 protesters dodged the blistering sun beneath the shade of a large tree, listening to local activists aligned with Black Lives Matter speak through a megaphone. Further down the park’s path, separated by metal barricades and a line of mounted police, were dozens of protesters bearing Confederate flags and carrying rifles. And down a grassy slope, behind locked gates and far out of reach of both groups, stood the Spirit of the Confederacy, a winged statue of a bronze angel.
Days earlier, a petition circulated pushing the city to remove the statue, bringing Houston into a nationwide movement to tear down Confederate monuments after a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville turned deadly. Houston’s Black Lives Matter chapter had called for a protest at the statue, and counter-protesters promised to come here to defend it.
Both sides seemed ready to withstand whatever came next. Black Lives Matter organizer Ashton Woods warned protesters not to bring their kids in case the situation became violent. And a representative of This is Texas Freedom Force, a pro-Confederate heritage group, posted a video on social media in the days leading up to the protest, warning of the event’s “high potential for violence,” saying that the group would come prepared to defend itself.
There was no violence on Saturday in Houston. But the hype beforehand and the protest’s large turnout is something that for years had been rare in the fourth-largest city in the nation.
It certainly came as a surprise to me. I lived in Houston for two years, having moved there from New York not long after the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri over the shooting of Michael Brown, and the mass protests in Baltimore over Freddie Gray’s death, which sparked massive solidarity protests across the country. I was shocked to find that Houston, a liberal city of 2.3 million people—25 percent of them African American and 44 percent Hispanic, according to the latest U.S. census data—had a disproportionately small protest movement rallying for the rights of people of color. Houston is already the most diverse city in the country, and it’s continuing to grow at a fast rate, putting it on track to supplant Chicago as the nation’s third most populous city.
The movement that did exist was nothing compared to the ones in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Boston. Even the city’s neighbor in North Texas, Dallas—not traditionally deemed a liberal haven—has successfully held much larger protests than Houston. I figured Houston’s sprawling layout and lack of a walkable downtown made it too hard to organize large marches, or perhaps the brutal southeast Texas heat was just too much to bear. For whatever reason, it seemed that Houstonians weren’t taking to the streets the way other Americans in large cities were.
But that has since changed. Saturday was part of the rapid rise of Houston’s protest scene, signifying the city’s shift from a sleeping political giant to a hotspot for activism. Under the tree, a diverse crowd chanted “Black Lives Matter,” and speakers used a megaphone to drown out shouts from the pro-Confederate monument crowd. Daniel Cohen, the chair of Indivisible Houston, a recently formed civil rights advocacy group, took the megaphone.
“Raise your hand if you’re a person who is newly activated or has recently re-activated in politics over the last six or seven months,” Cohen told the crowd. Nearly half of them raised their hands, including Cohen. “Better late than never, I suppose.”
It’s not as though the civil rights issues in New York, Ferguson, or Baltimore aren’t present here, too. Houston had nearly double the national average rate of officer-involved shootings in 2015, according to the Mapping Police Violence project. Federal immigration authorities are a heavy presence, posing a constant threat to the city’s large undocumented population.
And, like all large Democratic cities in Texas, it sits in a sea of red in one of the most politically important states in the country, a place where leaders at the state level regularly push laws that discriminate against minority groups. In the last session alone, the Texas legislature has passed or attempted to pass legislation restricting bathroom use by transgender people, laws banning sanctuary cities, and rules restricting safe abortion access for women. Meanwhile, the state is fighting in several federal court cases to keep in place tough voter identification laws and racially-motivated gerrymandered election maps.
In other words, there’s a lot for Houstonians to protest. But while large protests seem like an almost daily occurrence at the state capitol in Austin, the activist spirit needed more time to take hold in Houston.
The seeds of a growing movement were evident while I was living there. I arrived in Houston in May 2015, just before the city’s Black Lives Matter chapter became particularly active after the death of Sandra Bland in a jail cell outside the city, leading small but intense protests over the summer that sparked marches nationwide. That fall, grassroots organizers on both sides of the aisle fought fiercely ahead of a citywide vote on whether to implement a non-discrimination ordinance (Houstonians eventually voted against it). And last summer, Black Lives Matter protesters again rallied their forces, this time around the fatal police shooting of Alva Braziel, an African American man gunned down under questionable circumstances.
Still, nothing has galvanized Houston’s protesters quite like President Donald Trump. Since his inauguration in January, Houstonians have regularly taken to the streets in full force. The day after Trump was sworn into office, 20,000 people marched through downtown Houston, part of the national Women’s March protesting Trump. Weeks later, in the hours after Trump implemented a travel ban targeting Muslims, hundreds of activists flocked to Houston’s international airport, packing one terminal to capacity. The next month, around 300 people attended anti-Trump protests on two consecutive days while Houston was hosting the Super Bowl—those protests made national news. And in April, thousands again took to Houston’s streets during the March for Science.
A few hours before Saturday’s protest, I asked Woods, the leader of Houston’s Black Lives Matter chapter and the organizer of the push to have the statue taken down, how many people he expected to show up. “Ooh, too many,” he said. “That’s a good thing, but it’s just so hot.” Woods and his group came prepared for the heat, bringing several coolers of water for protesters. By the end of the protest, most of the water was gone.
He confirmed that there’s been a noticeable uptick in Houston’s protest scene over the last eight months or so. “Black Lives Matter Houston kicked it off, with the first anti-Trump protest in Houston, and after that it just got bigger and bigger,” Woods told me. He said at least 1,500 people were involved in the Super Bowl protests alone. “Everybody has a stake in this. Houston is a majority black and brown city. We don’t deserve to be living in the shadows of hate.”
November’s election hasn’t only lit a fire under anti-Trump Houstonians. In June, a crowd similar to Saturday’s counter-protesters gathered in another, larger park in downtown Houston, to protect a statue of Sam Houston that a group purporting to be the “Texas Antifa” planned to tear down. While it later emerged that the Antifa plot was really just a troll job by an entity claiming to be affiliated with Anonymous, hundreds of protesters showed up to rally at the park, anyway. At the last minute before Saturday’s protest, This is Texas Freedom Force called it off, claiming the protest to remove the statue was yet another “false flag.” In a statement, the group pledged to be “more strategic in our plans,” promising future actions.
Dozens of counter-protesters still showed up on Saturday. Most of them drove in from the traditionally more conservative suburban and rural areas on the outskirts of Houston’s sprawling metropolis. One of them hung a banner praising Trump over the metal barricades, as they traded insults with protesters over the heavily-policed divide. “We’re here to be a voice,” one of the counter-protesters, Laura Lee, told me. “It’s freedom of speech. They have it, and so do we. We want to show them that we can counter them.”
Lee shouted at the protesters through her megaphone, telling them they can’t erase history, and accusing them of being paid to appear at the protest by George Soros. “I know last week the checks must have bounced, because there weren’t that many of you! You’re not welcome here!”
Another man in the group shouted, “I hear California’s real nice this time of year,” a common dig directed at liberal Texans that implies they don’t belong in this state. “Look, we just don’t think anyone should break the law,” Lee told me. “They just want to tear down statues, and that’s defacing public property. And they want to support illegals, and that’s against the law.”
Lee doesn’t carry Confederate flags because “if we do, we’re considered racist,” she continued. “If you research it, the flag’s not racist. But it’s now associated with KKK, racism. We’re trying to unify people out here, not fight. You can’t whitewash history and pretend it didn’t happen, and you can’t whitewash history to make it not happen again.”
On the other side of the barricades, Monica Roberts, a prominent African American transgender activist in Houston, spoke before the crowd. A few moments into her speech, she was interrupted by a counter-protester with a bullhorn who had managed to get past police and approach the barricades directly surrounding the Black Lives Matter group. “You’re a bunch of fucking degenerates!” the man shouted, before he was drowned out by chants of “Black Lives Matter” and quickly whisked away by police.
“Those folks who are screaming out there are the proud heirs of a racist legacy,” Roberts said. “They are scared of the fact that since 2005, the number of non-white folks in Texas outnumber them. And they will do whatever possible to prevent the inevitable day that Texas turns blue...That statue, that went up in 1908 at the height of Jim Crow segregation, has got to go.”
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