By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
Despite the humid morning air, Phrogge Simons looks surprisingly fresh in her olive-colored corduroy dress, especially for someone who's been on a 22-month campout in downtown Houston. It's the day after Election Day, and after almost two years of waging a guerrilla-style war against insiders in Harris County's family courts system, Simons and her supporters had achieved most of their objectives. Of the nine family judges targeted at the outset of the protest, two had been defeated in the November 8 election, four had earlier chosen not to run for re-election, and one had died.
Decent numbers by anybody's political body count.
"I'm very pleased," Simons says as she positions herself on a pastel floral-cushioned lawn chair on the concrete plaza outside the county Family Law Center, amid the scores of signs and placards that partially obscure the front of the building.
While the turnover on the courts can partly be attributed to the more mainstream efforts of CourtWatch, an association of lawyers, health care professionals and other concerned citizens that endorsed reform candidates, Simons' fanatical dedication helped to initially focus public attention on allegations of widespread abuses in the system.
The living protest on the south side of the center was launched on December 7, 1992, by a woman with the memorably repetitive name of Donna Ringoringo. For just more than four weeks Ringoringo camped out in front of the building and refused all but liquid nourishment. Simons became intrigued by news accounts of the unorthodox, around-the-clock demonstration.
"It was unbelievable to me that there was a woman starving herself to death in downtown Houston and it didn't seem like anybody cared," recalls Simons. She says she grew most concerned about Ringoringo's assertions that judges were awarding abusive parents custody of children -- that is, if the parents' attorneys had stroked the judge financially with campaign contributions.
Simons went to the Family Law Center and met with Ringoringo. She then undertook research of her own and found that she, too, had serious reservations about the way business was being conducted by family court judges and attorneys. When Ringoringo fell ill, Simons promised her she would maintain the vigil. But when the torch was passed to her on January 9, 1993, Simons says she never really expected to be in for the long haul.
"If someone had asked me if I would be willing to stay out here this long, I would have told them they were crazy," says Simons. "I sure didn't picture myself being able to hold out."
Like Ringoringo, Simons, at the beginning of her protest, conducted a hunger strike, eschewing all nourishment except for liquids. However -- in the first of several attempts to discourage her -- embarrassed county officials locked the building's restrooms at night. Since the closest public facilities were a couple of blocks away, Simons gave up her liquid diet and began strategically scheduling her trips to the toilet. She also finally adjusted to sleeping on a cot fully clothed that first winter. The first summer was a different matter.
"In the winter you can put on more clothes," says Simons. "But in the summer, there are only so many clothes you can take off. And in Houston, sitting around in the summer of '93, when the temperatures were in the 100s, you sit out here in this plaza -- it catches the heat -- and it was just like being in an oven. Five o'clock, I'd just kinda go into a coma. But you adapt."
To make life as normal as possible, Simons says she developed a routine. She gets out of bed, such as it is, every day at 7 a.m., when the building's restrooms reopen. After cleaning up, she has breakfast. "I'm sick of fried, cafeteria food," avers the health food enthusiast, who says she's been sustained financially through the protest by her "very supportive significant other."
After breakfast Simons greets and is greeted by folks whose jobs bring them to the Family Law Center each weekday. She also consoles and commiserates with people who believe they have been victimized by the courts. Part of Simons' day is spent reading newspapers. She also sits in on court proceedings. At night she does research in the nearby Harris County Law Library.
In addition to trying to make her stay as physically uncomfortable as possible, county officials have spent considerable time and energy trying to find a legal method of evicting Simons and her handful of supporters. At the same time, Simons says, she's received encouragement and assistance from an unlikely source -- downtown's homeless.
"I think they realize that we're fighting against the system," she says. "A lot of them are victims of the system themselves. Maybe not family court. But in all courts it's basically the same. You get as much justice as you can afford."
Simons says some of the homeless men have provided her with protection at night. One, she says, even brought her some uprooted plants and flowers inside a cookie tin last Valentine's Day. "It was beautiful," she recalls.
Simons also has won grudging respect from some of those who've fought to end the 24-hour-a-day protest. Among the well-wishers who stopped to congratulate Simons the day after the election was Rock Owen, an assistant to Harris County Attorney Mike Driscoll. Owen was Driscoll's point man in the county's unsuccessful legal effort to dislodge the protesters.