By Aaron Reiss
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After returning to Houston in 2001, O'Brien got a job as an entry-level paralegal with Baker Botts. A former attorney with the firm said that O'Brien was a good clerk there. Two years later, O'Brien moved to Freedmen's Town, taking advantage of an opportunity to purchase a subsidized home for low-income buyers, and shortly after that, he entered grad school, living in part off his wife's earnings as a claims adjuster and translator.
His new surroundings provided his conspiratorial mind free rein to run wild. The oldest of Houston's African-American neighborhoods, Freedmen's Town has long been the most embattled, thanks to its prime location in the shadows of downtown's skyscrapers. Developers have long seen the area's brick streets and ramshackle, century-old shotgun shacks as an inexcusable, poverty-stricken, drug- and crime-infested blot on the landscape of otherwise prosperous Westside, Inner Loop Houston. Attempts to clear Freedmen's Town and replace it with some combination of upscale condos and a park go back to the 1970s, and are pretty much ongoing today, as the area continues its transformation into and re-branding as Midtown.
O'Brien sees it outside his front door every day. That fight is real, and Johnson's role in salvaging hundreds of homes in Allen Parkway Village was heroic, the strategic political street-fighting techniques he employed and later taught to O'Brien masterful.
It's when O'Brien takes those techniques across town to UH that he can seem both cruel and, at times, ridiculous, such as when he launched a grim, long campaign, which eventually included a formal public information request, to open the faculty- and staff-only (including funded grad students) restrooms on the fifth floor of UH's Agnes Arnold Hall to all grad students.
"They're continuing to give [bathroom] keys to a favored class," he snarled to the Press in 2005. "When people put barricades in front of me to get my education, I will knock that barricade down...I'm studying African-American history about people getting hung and all that injustice, and they're doing the same thing, even though it's minor."
Four years later, O'Brien had a more substantial cause on his hands, though the resulting tableau was just as surreal as his campaign to liberate the fifth-floor toilets.
This past June, O'Brien organized a street protest at the Clear Lake home of Emily Messa, UH's assistant vice president for university services and vice president for finance and administration. Students for Fair Trade and O'Brien wanted Messa to make UH an all-fair-trade-coffee campus — his group had already pressured the school into making fair-trade coffee an option — and give the Aramark workers in the school's employ a raise to more than $10 an hour.
In YouTube footage of the event, O'Brien is seen thundering into a microphone: "I wanna be at home with my lovely wife and my three-year-old daughter this Saturday morning, but I'm not, because this woman treats her workers at my school like they are slaves!" The street behind him is lined with two-story Brady Bunch houses set back behind lush green lawns. His hair is long and wavy in the early summer humidity. "They are not slaves! They deserve to be treated with dignity and respect!"
As O'Brien's supporters — several UH students and a few members of the People's Party (Houston's Black Panthers) — holler support, a man dressed in a black smock and face-concealing Zapatista-style mask mills around looking like Spider-Man dipped in ink. "This woman who lives there doesn't treat those people with respect!" O'Brien shouts.
Meanwhile, Messa's neighbor, a tall, balding white man in a Houston Texans shirt, smiles in disgust at the proceedings. As O'Brien's rhetoric continues, the neighbor engages one of his supporters in a somewhat heated though hardly livid conversation and starts meandering toward O'Brien, the activist's supporters blocking his way.
"Just because they may have brown skin, black skin, or may be low-income white people does not mean they are not human beings!" O'Brien says into the mike. Meanwhile, the neighbor starts arguing — less in real anger or menace than in bemused annoyance — with the man in black.
"Excuse me, sir! Get your hands off my brother!" O'Brien yells into the mike. Watching the footage, you can feel the tension ratcheting up exponentially with O'Brien's every word. "He wants us to go to jail because he's white and we're in his neighborhood! Get your hands off my brother! Get your hands off my sister!"
Eventually the confrontation fizzles, and O'Brien continues his harangue. He seems almost disappointed things didn't get physical.
Clayton Lust, a history teacher at Houston Community College and a fellow UH Ph.D. candidate, believes things like this protest typify O'Brien's modus operandi. "The thing is, I agree with him about a lot of things. I am in favor of fair trade. I am against sweatshops. I think that African-American history should be a degree program and not just a certification program. Those are great and fine issues. It's just that the way he goes about pursuing those goals is terrible."
Lust once blogged that O'Brien was "one of the most reprehensible people" he's ever met, and he still stands by that assessment today. So strong is Lust's animosity, he once preferred to office in a conference room rather than next to O'Brien. In Lust's view, O'Brien's ends — social justice — are far from justified by his vicious, bullying, racially-charged means. Lust even thinks that O'Brien will stoop so low as to use his own daughter as a human shield. "Who's gonna punch him when he's got his kid with him?" he asks.