O'Brien's Song

After years of fighting everybody and anybody, now the ornery, annoying civil rights activist has to concentrate on fighting for his life.

O'Brien is also not above berating secretaries if he perceives them to be protecting their bosses from him. One such unlucky receptionist was Juany Jimenez, secretary to UH President Renu Khator. According to an official statement Jimenez gave to the university as part of a disciplinary action against O'Brien, on June 2, 2008, O'Brien and his daughter entered the office and he asked about the status of an e-mailed invitation sent to Khator by Fourth Ward activist Gladys House, Ola Mae Kennedy's daughter. Jimenez also stated that O'Brien wanted to speak to Theresa Singletary, another employee in Khator's office. Jimenez told O'Brien that Theresa was gone for the day, whereupon O'Brien allegedly became "very angry," "rude" and "disruptive." He wanted to know why his groups received prompt responses when they contacted Khator, while House's ­African-American group went ignored for two weeks. Jimenez stated that she "very nice and polite" suggested that House follow up on the request herself, whereupon O'Brien "very angry screamed at me and said NO SHE IS NOT GOING TO CALL THAT'S WHY I'M HERE FOR." Jimenez said she couldn't help him; she wasn't familiar with the request. According to Jimenez, O'Brien went on to say that Khator's office was full of ignorant people. "Every time I try to talk to him and say something he cut me off," Jimenez stated. "[H]e made me feel intimidated and scare because he was standing not in front of my desk but on the side."

Trudy Barrett, another secretary in the same office, was a witness to the incident. In her statement, she labeled O'Brien a bully. "He is especially abusive when no-one of authority is in the office," she stated, and added that O'Brien was making theirs a "hostile work environment" and went on to say that "we cringe every time we see or hear him on our floor." Even she put in a good word for his organizations: "I may agree with some of [their] message." But then there's that common refrain: "[But] I abhor his tactics."

Two weeks later, O'Brien and his daughter returned to the same office, and a similar scene unfolded. This time the issue was fair-trade coffee and O'Brien was accompanied by a Houston Chronicle reporter and about ten students, some carrying a giant coffee bean. O'Brien demanded to see Khator. Jimenez told him she was away, and the activist persisted. Eventually Jimenez hit the panic button, which quickly brought three campus cops to the scene. O'Brien branded this a typical response; UH brass would rather muzzle students than listen to them. Later in the day, Jimenez stated, O'Brien returned to the office and accused Jimenez of stealing his daughter's missing backpack. "I don't appreciate being accused of stealing," Jimenez noted in her statement.

O'Brien's preschool-age daughter Yuna, seen here riding her dad's shoulders...
Photos courtesy Tim O'Brien
O'Brien's preschool-age daughter Yuna, seen here riding her dad's shoulders...
...and helping hoist a banner, often accompanies him on his protests. She is also a co-plaintiff in one of his lawsuits against UH.
Photos courtesy Tim O'Brien
...and helping hoist a banner, often accompanies him on his protests. She is also a co-plaintiff in one of his lawsuits against UH.

Nor is it likely that Jimenez appreciated being sued. In one of his suits, O'Brien accused her along with Barrett of filing "backdated and false statements" about the incidents in Khator's office which were later used to support what he alleges are "false disciplinary charges" that could have brought expulsion.

Which is exactly what many in the history department, including "Dr. George," would love to have seen. Many of them say they live in genuine fear of O'Brien. "His temper has been displayed publicly," George says. "People are edgy." George says that he has even raised the specter of the Virginia Tech shooting spree in talking to the UH attorneys who have responded to O'Brien's lawsuits, to no avail. As to how O'Brien has managed to continue as a grad student with his thick file of disciplinary actions, including numerous violations of probation, George blames the school's lawyers, whom he calls "uncaring, utterly incompetent and horrific."

As ever, O'Brien still maintains the charges are phony. If he scares people, it's only as a means toward enacting justice. "What have those people accomplished?" O'Brien asks of his foes at UH. "Are they out in the streets trying to change the world? I don't think so. They're on the sidelines saying, 'Tim O'Brien's an asshole.' You know what? I'm trying to change the world."

Lenwood Johnson lives and works in a shotgun-double in the Fourth Ward. The veteran activist's spartan office is literally packed to the rafters with the ghosts of Allen Parkway Village, the housing project he worked so long and hard to save through most of the '80s and half of the '90s. In the end, he scored a partial victory and staved off redevelopment for some but not all of the impoverished African Americans who called the project home. Other than boxes of files and piles of old newspapers and a few computers and printers, there's not much besides a Marlboro 100-filled ashtray in Johnson's bare-bones command center. His life is his cause and his cause is his life, and O'Brien now stands united with Johnson in both.

And perhaps their greatest mutual nemesis is Jackson Lee, who trounced Johnson when he ran for Congress in 2002's Democratic primary. Johnson believes that Jackson Lee's entire career is based on Republican money. She was funded by the GOP when she unseated Craig Washington in the '90s, Johnson alleges, and has been beholden to them ever since.

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