Sixties Survivor

Gene Locke rises from the streets to City Hall without disavowing his past

Twenty-five years ago Gene Locke faced a different set of legal challenges than those he will inherit when he replaces Benjamin Hall III as Houston city attorney later this month. On April 6, 1969, Locke was busy trying to figure out how he and two friends, Deloyd Parker and Dwight Allen, could safely surrender to authorities on conspiracy to riot charges without subjecting themselves to bodily harm.

"We knew the reputation of the Houston Police Department at that time, and didn't feel like we just wanted to be picked up on the street," Locke recalls, "because we felt like there was a great possibility for brutality if we were just picked up."

The 21-year-old East Texas native, whose maturity and long emotional fuse in incendiary times made him the anchor for the University of Houston's Afro-Americans for Black Liberation, huddled with friends and two lawyers and came up with a solution that was well ahead of the times: call Marvin Zindler!

Zindler, who in those days had yet to find his true media calling as KTRK/Channel 13's consumer gadfly, was a Harris County sheriff's deputy, albeit one with a knack for making hot-dog, on-camera arrests for the benefit of himself and TV newsfolk. He had already established a reputation for racial evenhandedness, making him a law enforcement anomaly among the city's white officers in 1969.

Locke, who has fathered five children, put on a few pounds and earned a law degree from South Texas College of Law in the ensuing quarter-century, laughs as he remembers his booking by the future over-the-top television personality.

"We chose him to surrender to, and our lawyers worked a deal and we called him and asked him to process us in," Locke says. "He probably doesn't even know that we chose him."

Zindler's booking technique was "very professional," the former Dwight Allen, who is now known as Omawale Lithuli, remembers. "He basically responded to us with 'yes sir' and 'no sir' and treated us like gentlemen, as opposed to like criminals. He was just exquisite in his treatment of us."

Parker says each of the threesome arrested that day had distinct characteristics that are still apparent.

"I was more or less the community base, like I'm in the 'hood," says Parker, who has headed the SHAPE Community Center in the Third Ward since 1970. "Live, sleep, eat in the 'hood. I'm on the streets. Omawale was the most intellectual of the group. Brilliant. Gene had excellent leadership skills. He was like the old man of the movement. Gene was ... more mature in his thinking than some of us."

Locke, Parker and Lithuli and 11 other UH students were charged with rioting and destruction of state property under a new law, the Texas Riot Act of 1967, which made participants in a disturbance potentially guilty of any crime that happened during the incident, whether or not they were directly involved.

The misdemeanor charges against Locke and his friends stemmed from a protest march that culminated in what was tagged, in the peculiar language of the time, as the "Cougar Den Mini-Riot." The only real casualty was Locke himself, who was beaten by several white students in a morning incident that triggered an afternoon protest march to the UH student center by supporters of Afro-Americans for Black Liberation. The rowdy group smashed about $2,000 worth of glass and cafeteria tables before it dispersed.

Initially, no one was charged in the incidents. Then the school administration came under pressure for supposed leniency toward radicals, and a perusal of newspapers from April 1969 reveals a wacky obsession by authorities with the threat of campus militants. State Senator Henry Grover called for an investigation of the UH bureaucracy for sheltering radicals. Texas Southern University president Granville Sawyer shook Rotarians out of their post-luncheon slumber with dire warnings that local campuses might become invasion points for foreign powers. President Nixon told reporters that campus unrest threatened American civilization. During the month federal authorities charged the Chicago Seven with rioting at the Democratic convention of the previous summer. That hot and bothered April, "conspiracy to riot" was a major worry in the republic.

"In 1969 we had negotiated an agreement with the University of Houston and its president, Phillip Hoffman, that would end the student protests around the black student demands," Locke says of the long-running effort by AABL to secure better conditions for UH's then-minuscule population of black students. "We had been negotiating and meeting for several weeks and had come to understand that everything was worked out. It was our understanding there would be no reprisals as a result of anything that might have happened. And we got wind that there were actually warrants out for our arrests. We felt we had really been betrayed by the university."

Locke was less measured in his explanation back then, telling reporters, "The villain, Mr. Hoffman, has turned us over to the arch-villain, [District Attorney] Carol Vance."

Charges against the other students were eventually dropped, but Vance chose to take Locke and Lithuli to court on the misdemeanor riot charges in 1970. The trial afforded the two activists an opportunity to air political issues before the six-person jury.

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