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Even seated outside the Taft Street Coffeehouse on a peaceful, breezy North Montrose Tuesday, Tim O'Brien overflows with nervous energy, occasionally cut with a shot of pure cold fury. He waves his hands and jabs the air with accusatory fingers as he calls forth a tangled litany of complaints, some directed against UH's history department (where he is a doctoral candidate) and administration, others against his arch-nemesis U.S. Representative Sheila Jackson Lee.
The fortysomething social activist speaks at an iced coffee-fueled, machine-gun clip that is occasionally too fast for a tape recorder to pick up. For O'Brien, grad school, and life in general, are full-contact sports, and heaven protect anyone who gets in the way of his idea of justice.
Taft Street is a most apt locale for a chat with O'Brien. The coffeehouse is both leftist and Christian just like he is, and Taft is one of Houston's old Jim Crow-era division streets, with blacks historically living on the east and whites to the west. O'Brien straddles the color line — a red-haired, very pale-skinned Caucasian who lives in nearby, historically black Freedmen's Town and attends a black church, the second he has joined since souring on the Roman Catholic faith of his upbringing over his perception of greed on the part of the Archdiocese.
"When you read my writing, everything is framed through the language of racial injustice," he states flatly. (O'Brien's nearly complete dissertation is about legendary Third Ward bluesman Lightnin' Hopkins. For a musician of his stature, surprisingly little has been written on Hopkins, and O'Brien perceived an injustice.)
In the last three years, the full-time grad student founded UH chapters of Students for Fair Trade and Students Against Sweatshops. While the groups have scored some victories — fair-trade coffee is now an option at UH where it wasn't before — O'Brien's activities in connection with both have resulted in vicious disputes with faculty and staff. O'Brien and his little band of cohorts — ranging from fellow students to Black Panthers to his half-Korean three-year-old daughter — have lately raised holy hell on the normally calm commuter school campus.
The groups — described by O'Brien's enemies as "cultlike" — have barged into meetings and executive office suites, picketed buildings and private homes, held videotaped news conferences, buttonholed and grilled college brass (also with cameras rolling), and flyered the campus with inflammatory broadsides, calling UH professors everything from "house Negroes" to "Microsoft bag-men."
Some of O'Brien's antics have resulted in official disciplinary charges. O'Brien says the charges are all phony: "The university didn't like the press that my student groups were getting, so they invented a bunch of discipline charges to try to expel me," he says. "This isn't high school," he continues, now snarling. "I didn't get caught smoking cigarettes in the bathroom. You can't just put me in detention hall. I pay a fee and I've got a family." (O'Brien's Korean-born wife Kyong Mi has been paying O'Brien's way through grad school on her earnings as a claims adjuster and translator.)
He accuses the history department of cutting his grad student funding because of his writings about neighborhood activist and O'Brien mentor Lenwood Johnson that also excoriate Jackson Lee. A few years ago, while working on his master's, O'Brien also wrote scholarly articles about Johnson's battle to save Allen Parkway Village. In them, O'Brien alleged that Jackson Lee connived with then-U.S. Representative and Republican Tom DeLay in turning over the downtown-adjacent neighborhood to real estate developers.
O'Brien points out that Jackson Lee's husband just so happens to be Elwyn Lee, the UH dean of student affairs, and O'Brien believes that Lee personally intervened (at his wife's behest) to cut his student funding in retaliation for his writings. In July of last year, O'Brien told a college reporter that Elwyn Lee was "afraid that [his] research about Freedmen's Town" would prove that Jackson Lee had been working to "wreck" Freedmen's Town for 13 years. Elwyn Lee has long refused to comment on the specific allegation, but has always maintained that the school would not retaliate against a student in such a manner. Jackson Lee did not return a phone call from the Houston Press.
Last July, the former Baker Botts paralegal started to fight back through the courts. O'Brien filed a federal lawsuit against UH, former UH interim president John Rudley and current UH president Renu Khator, claiming that the school violated his First Amendment rights and unfairly retaliated against him.
A second suit, like the first, also filed pro se by O'Brien, lists 29 UH faculty and staff members as defendants and features O'Brien's three-year-old daughter as a co-plaintiff. This suit claims, among many, many other things, that two professors were in breach of their contracts to O'Brien (by not returning his exam papers with comments), that O'Brien was defamed verbally and in writing, that O'Brien was assaulted by a secretary, and that several professors, administrators, staff members and one unnamed campus cop inflicted emotional distress on O'Brien and/or his daughter.
People in the UH history department claim that if anyone is inflicting emotional distress, it's O'Brien, and it's directed at them. "If I could be amused by him, that would be one thing," says a source we'll call Dr. George. George is employed by UH and is very close to the situation and claims to be simply too sick of dealing with O'Brien to comment on the record. "But he's scary."