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.

Since their meeting shortly after O'Brien moved to the Fourth Ward in 2003, O'Brien has become Johnson's protégé. "I think he's picked up some of what we used to call 'O.J.T.' — on-the-job training, in organizing," Johnson says of O'Brien. "I think he has learned, number one, that if you go to this door and it doesn't open, you go to the next door up. Two is persistence. You have to understand that it took from 1980 to 1996 to get where we are with Allen Parkway Village."

Johnson believes he has taught O'Brien media savvy and the art of embarrassing officials publicly. "You shine a light on what someone's doing so they can't operate in the darkness," Johnson says. "We had to snatch Mickey Leland from his safe haven and make him stand up. We did that in a number of ways, and I think Tim has learned to jerk people's strings that way."

Leland, Johnson points out, had a claim to fame as a champion of the poor. "That makes it easier for poor folks to reach out and snatch 'em back," he says. "But if they've never had that reputation, it's almost impossible."

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.

As, he says, is the case with Jackson Lee. "Sheila Jackson Lee has no claim to fame for helping poor people."

O'Brien has utterly absorbed Johnson's sour views on the congresswoman, not to mention many of the elder man's views on life. Asked if he considered Johnson a father figure, O'Brien says no, that he's more of a mentor, but then later adds that Johnson's message and his dad's message were much the same: "Stand up and fight, don't just go along to get along."

O'Brien claims he won the congresswoman's undying enmity on November 6, 2006, the day Fourth Ward's Friendship Baptist Church burned down. O'Brien lived directly across the street. This was the second Fourth Ward church fire in as many years and O'Brien says he angrily told Jackson Lee, who was on the scene, face-to-face that she needed to do something about the blazes. "Bethel went down and you didn't do nothin' about it," O'Brien says he told the congresswoman. "My family almost got killed tonight. You never do nothin' for nobody. People are gonna get killed. You need to do something."

He also says he added that he was a UH grad student and that her doings figured much in his studies. "I told her I was writing a book about the neighborhood, and that I knew what she'd been doing," he says.

Just over two years ago, another spot appeared on O'Brien's back, this one about the size of his pinky. O'Brien didn't have insurance, so he hoped it would just go away, but it only grew. By November of 2007, it was the size of a doorknob. O'Brien's wife told him it had to go, and off he went to Ben Taub, where, after a daylong wait, a doctor told him he needed to see a doctor. "I said, 'Well, you're wearing a white suit, and it says Baylor College of Medicine on it. And you're gonna tell me I need a doctor? I oughta punch you in the fuckin' mouth. You got a scalpel? Get busy. I got this doorknob on my back.'"

Although he was a long way from South Korea's socialized medicine and the operation cost him more than $3,000 cash, O'Brien was lucky that time: The growth was nonmalignant. But at the same time, O'Brien's dad was fighting a losing battle against cancer. After their falling-out in his teenage years, the two O'Briens had patched things up. "My father was proud of my activism and chosen field of studies," he wrote in an e-mail message. "Although he wished there would be less drama, especially with UH and their interference with my Ph.D., he always taught and encouraged me to never back down from a confrontation."

The elder O'Brien told his son to do whatever he had to do to attain his goals and never compromise his values, to stick to his guns whatever the cost. "The last two days I spent with him in April before he passed, we went over that in detail," O'Brien wrote. "I wanted and got reassurance from him that he was OK with the way I lived my life. He said to keep fighting...there was never any suggestion from him to give up being an activist to make it easier for my family and I."

Three months later, O'Brien would be dealing with cancer himself. While staying with friends on a research trip to Austin, O'Brien found a lump in his armpit while showering. On returning to Houston, he visited a clinic for low-income patients. The doctor gave him some blood tests, told him he didn't have lymphoma and charged him $200 for the visit. Two weeks later, O'Brien received a letter telling him to "take no action." O'Brien was hugely relieved, although the letter did tell him to see a doctor if the lump was still there in two months.

And it was. A subsequent visit to a dermatologist revealed that it was melanoma, and later visits to other doctors uncovered the fact that the cancer cells were now shot through his lungs.

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