Fighting the Power
The drug dog stopped in front of the black minivan and wouldn't move. The German shepherd smelled alcohol, so Alex Golubitsky was pulled out of economics to unlock his van.
"May I see your search warrant?" Alex asked the HISD policeman standing in Lamar High School's parking lot.
"I don't need one," the officer said.
The 17-year-old senior is in the smart-kid classes. He's read the Bill of Rights.
"Look, I'm not going to be an asshole about this," the cop said; he had probable cause to search the 1990 Plymouth Voyager. "Either you open your car or I'm gonna get in there."
Houston Texans vs. Arizona Cardinals
TicketsSun., Nov. 19, 12:00pm
Rice Owls Football vs. North Texas
TicketsSat., Nov. 25, 12:00pm
Houston Texans vs. San Francisco 49ers
TicketsSun., Dec. 10, 12:00pm
Houston Texans vs. Pittsburgh Steelers
TicketsMon., Dec. 25, 3:30pm
Houston Open - Good Any One Day Grounds
TicketsSun., Apr. 1, 11:59pm
Not wanting his windows smashed and not thinking there was anything to hide, Alex unlocked the door. He wanted to get back to class and study for his English vocabulary test.
Facing away from the van, the officer made Alex put his hands on the police car, patted him down like you see in every cop movie and then ransacked his van. They didn't turn up any booze; Alex's dad had gotten the fuel injectors cleaned two weeks earlier, and the alcohol residue on the firewall and fenders was probably what the dog sniffed. They picked up a few crumpled chip bags, a copy of The Communist Manifesto, and buried in the back pocket of the passenger seat they found a dagger.
Sharper than a butter knife, but not as sharp as a kitchen knife, it was a $20 replica Alex's sister bought at a renaissance fair last summer. Alex collects ornamental knives; he had forgotten it was in the car.
The officer said it was an illegal knife. He was only a little wrong: The silver-trimmed black blade is five inches, a half-inch shorter than what the state law prohibits.
"You must be joking," Alex said. "That's not even a real knife. Feel the blade. The blade's not even sharp."
The officer didn't bother.
"If it's illegal, why do they sell knives like this in Texas?" Alex asked.
"Maybe they weren't selling it as a knife," the officer said. "Maybe they were selling it as a paperweight."
"Okay," said Alex. "I was using it as a paperweight."
"It wasn't holding down any papers," the officer said, searching Alex's wallet and backpack. He found some money from Alex's trip to China last summer and a couple of photos of Alex and his buddies holding beer cans on a camping trip in Waco Springs, just outside Austin. One shot showed a friend rolling a joint.
The officer passed the pictures to passersby, asked Alex to narc out his friends, then escorted him in handcuffs to assistant principal Warren Anderson.
Anderson suspended Alex for three days and threatened expulsion.
"Can I go get my work from my teachers before I go home?" Alex asked. He figured if he went straight home and mowed the lawn, his parents might be less mad.
"You're not going home," Anderson told him. He went to jail.
Alex would gladly go to jail as part of a protest, as a way of fighting the power. "I thought that'd be cool, the whole Abbie Hoffman thing," Alex says. But this trip to jail wasn't what he had in mind; forgetting a toy in his car isn't the kind of grand cause he wanted to suffer for. His arrest, he says, was a stupid mistake, and an unfair one at that. Because of it, he's become the cause he's fighting for.
"Ever since he was too small to remember, he would just get really excited by anything that smacked of injustice," says his mother, Barbara Keyfitz. Whether it was Asian factory workers being exploited or a Supreme Court decision in 1917, if Alex thought something was wrong, he wanted to fight it. In ninth grade he got especially angry, joined the young socialists club and started writing letters for Amnesty International. He protested a gated community and went to Huntsville to protest the death sentence of a man who had killed a cop. He quit the young socialists club because they wanted to have a yard sale and raise funds instead of going to a protest in the Galleria. Now a senior, he protests independently. Last week, his government class compiled a list of good qualities for a president: honest, moral, that kind of stuff. Alex wrote "communist" on the board.
"Hell if I know," says his friend Jake Cole, "but he might be the next Karl Marx. He's got those kind of ideas."
"Yeah, a Jewish Karl Marx," says his friend Tal Ozeri.
"Karl Marx was Jewish," Alex tells him.
In his freshman year Alex got some of his friends interested in socialism too. They liked the idea of equality. "Minors are some of the most pushed around people in this country," Alex explains. "We have no representation."
His friends' mothers called and yelled at him, saying they didn't want their kids involved in his commie crap. He just listened and responded calmly.
Alex's mother was a socialist in Canada. His dad is "less thrilled with marginal political activity."
On the school campus Alex saw things to protest. Last year principal James McSwain instated a more stringent absence policy effective the Monday HISD took its official attendance count. Alex's friends were outraged; they thought that if the school wants students to go to class, it should make classes more interesting instead of making more rules. To protest, one kid ran up and tried to grab the mike from McSwain's hands during the assembly; McSwain dodged. Alex and his buddies saw their friend charge the stage and figured they'd better follow. The group stuck around and chatted with McSwain for about 20 minutes. He told them if they ever tried to disrespect him again in front of a crowd, they'd be "in serious trouble."
"He likes using that phrase, 'serious trouble,' " Alex says. "He says it to a lot of people."
Alex helped his friend organize a walkout to protest the attendance policy's implementation. Alex didn't think the protest would really work, but he helped because the guy was his friend, and he didn't like the rule either. Not too many people walked out, but some did. Alex and his friend couldn't because they were called into the office of associate principal George August. They spent three hours being told to write down their statements admitting what they'd done.
"What are you talking about?" they asked. "We're not writing down anything."
"They tried to figure out something that I had done wrong, but they couldn't," Alex says. "I hadn't done anything."
His friend was charged with handing out unauthorized fliers (which he'd been doing) and behaving aggressively. Alex thinks the second charge is especially unfair -- "I don't know how you can hand out fliers aggressively," he notes -- and unduly harsh: It's a level-four offense punishable with removal to an alternative education program.
Alex got more than 700 signatures on a petition protesting his friend's punishment. But the administrators wouldn't allow him in the hearing. Instead he received a message from McSwain to "cease and desist." He was told that if he got one more signature he'd be in -- yes -- "serious trouble." Alex stormed from one vice principal's office to another searching for a Code of Student Conduct. He wanted to point out that petitions were perfectly legal. But by the time he did, the hearing was over and his friend was headed to a new school.
Not happy, Alex ran for student body president. He hung his two best posters outside the main office. One showed a circus tent labeled "Lamar" and said, "Don't Let the Clowns Run the Circus: Vote Alex Golubitsky." The other showed a student blocking a tank in Tienenman Square next to Rage Against the Machine's first album cover, a black-and-white photo of flames billowing onto a monk protesting the Vietnam War. In big block letters the poster read, "Take the Power Back: Vote Alex Golubitsky."
During the candidates' usual I'll-get-better-food-in-the-cafeteria speeches, one kid promised doors on the bathroom stalls, and another said "Vote for me" in Spanish (she won). Alex said he was going to work for the students and not bow down to the administration. Instead of planning school dances, he wanted to equalize power politics.
"He would have been a better representation of the average student," says Alex's friend Philip Tappe. "Normally we end up with rich West U preps that are more worried about keeping their Jeep Wrangler clean."
Philip was among the handful of students who voted for Alex. Elections were held during lunchtime, and the line was really long, so most of Alex's friends didn't vote, explains Charlie Mack, who, like most of Alex's friends, isn't the type to stand in line. But, you know, said Charlie, if he'd voted he would've definitely voted for Alex. (He did help make the campaign posters on his snazzy color printer.)
Despite defeat, Alex still wanted to be a voice for the pissed-off people. Every time he saw McSwain, Alex told him what he was doing wrong and why. They had a private meeting, and McSwain sent Alex home with a copy of Breaking Ranks, the Carnegie Report on High School Education for the 21st Century. On McSwain's resume, he says the report's philosophies and recommendations will help Lamar "to truly become a world class institution."
He lost it.
Alex pounds out the blues on his drum set and reads Dennis Miller's The Rants to calm his nerves. He doesn't fight with his fists. If someone gets up in his face, he just talks to them calmly. He likes to argue; he was a founder of Lamar's philosophy club. He debates politics and problems that need solutions. But he always thought he'd be fighting for the rights of other men, men he saw on TV or read about. He never thought he'd be the one behind bars.
The knife incident wasn't the first time Alex had come face-to-face with the law; it was just the first time the officers had done anything to him.
Before he got his driver's license Alex used to put on his trench coat and walk down the street to the park. Some nights he was mad at his parents, other times he just wanted to be alone with the stars. Officers used to ask what he was doing out so late, and a couple of times they took him to the station and called his parents to come pick him up.
The summer after eighth grade Alex and a group of guys were killing an afternoon shooting off Fat Cats and M-60's on the railroad tracks. Hearing the fireworks, a neighbor thought gang members were shooting each other, so she called 911. As the boys were riding away on their bikes, an officer jumped out of the bushes, gun pointed, and told them to freeze.
Another night Alex and Charlie got the munchies at 2 a.m. Alex's cupboard was bare, so they decided to hit the IHOP. They pulled out of the driveway in Charlie's car, Charlie switched on the headlights, and a few blocks later they noticed an officer following them. They turned right, and he was still there. They turned left and found Holcombe closed off and five cop cars waiting for them. A neighbor had thought they were stealing the car. While the officer talked, Charlie elbowed Alex to keep quiet.
"It's not a question of whether I want to or not -- it's my instinct to smart off to cops," Alex explains, sitting by his pool table with seven of his buddies. Pancakeless, he and Charlie were escorted home that night.
Alex has been at keg parties busted by the cops, has been caught sitting in a truck with an unopened six-pack and was stopped for driving over 95 miles an hour one Sunday morning. Aside from a ticket for running a stop sign (which he did run), the knife incident was the first time a cop hadn't just said, "Okay, don't do it again."
At the jailhouse, the guards confiscated the hair tie holding Alex's ponytail. ("I guess they thought I could hang myself with it," he cracks.) So Alex braided his waist-long locks and dropped the plait down the back of his Black Sabbath T-shirt; he didn't want to become anybody's girlfriend.
They took Alex's watch and his wallet, searched him and handed him over to the warden for another search.
"What?" Alex asked. He'd already been searched.
The warden grabbed his face, slammed it against the white-tiled wall and held it there while they patted him down. "It wasn't bad," says Alex. "My jaw was sore, but it wasn't police brutality or anything."
Charged with a third-degree felony, Alex sat in the holding cell getting legal advice from 15 other shoelaceless inmates. He spent the afternoon sitting around talking -- the way he spends most afternoons. Except at philosophy club meetings there isn't a toilet in the middle of the room. (Public peeing was "the only reason jail was indignifying," Alex says.) He and the inmates spent the day watching Fox on a tiny television and talking about what they were in for. One guy had pointed a shotgun at his friend, another had made terroristic threats, someone else had stolen a car. Most of the others were in for possession of narcotics. The rest were hungry, homeless guys asking Alex if they could have his bologna sandwich.
He was allowed more than the one phone call most sitcom stars get. He could make as many as he wanted, but they had to be collect. He tried calling his parents, both math professors at UH, but the school doesn't accept collect calls. He tried calling home, but their housekeeper's English is shaky, and the line was staticky; she got confused and hung up.
After his mom, Barbara, checked her voice mail, she spent the afternoon scared her imprisoned son would be beaten to death with chains. And if he lived, Barbara, a Toronto native, imagined the family fleeing to Canada.
She arrived at the jail during The Simpsons. If she'd been a half-hour later posting bail, he would have spent the night.
When he got home, Alex didn't call his friends like usual. He stayed awake trying to read, trying not to think. He played solitaire until sunrise.
"Get a haircut," Alex's lawyer, Brian Fischer, told him the next morning. The 18 inches Alex had been conditioning since eighth grade were chopped off. He bought a blue blazer and khakis and felt like a total tool.
At the Friday morning arraignment, prosecutor Kate Dolan dismissed the case because Alex hadn't broken the law.
According to Chapter 46 of the Texas Penal Code, it is illegal to "intentionally, knowingly or recklessly" have a knife whose blade is longer than five and one half inches in a school building, at a school-sponsored event or on a school bus. But it is legal to have a knife in the school parking lot.
After the arraignment Alex and his dad, Marty Golubitsky, visited his teachers. No one could figure out why the school had let a good student with a good record be arrested.
Paranoia set in. "We started making up conspiratorial theories," says Marty, "and I don't know if they're unrealistic."
Two of Alex's teachers told him they thought the administrators had it in for Alex. His name comes up at meetings, they said.
"I'd done a pretty good job of pissing the administration off," he admits.
Which might not have been in his favor at the expulsion hearing. Alex's offense -- having a knife on school property -- isn't illegal, but it's grounds for expulsion at the principal's discretion. At Alex's expulsion hearing, a team of 12 character witnesses came to testify: three of his current teachers, a former teacher, friends' parents and two UH professors.
McSwain didn't let the character witnesses speak. They weren't "fact" witnesses, he said. Alex was given five days of in-school suspension.
Serving the time wasn't a big embarrassing ordeal, Alex says. Most of his friends have had in-school suspension. And it gave him a chance to bond with other guys who were being disciplined.
Alex filed a formal student grievance November 2 concerning his arrest, punishment and expulsion hearing. The school's zero tolerance policy was inappropriately applied, he said, because he didn't have a real knife. His replica was never designed as a weapon, nor was it used as one.
What his parents want is for HISD to admit that the arrest was uncalled-for, to explain why Alex was thrown in jail (who messed up, did they not know the law?), to create guidelines for student arrests at Lamar and to reimburse them for roughly $7,000 in legal expenses ($5,000 for retaining a lawyer, $500 for the bond, the $1,500 lawyer's fee for expunging his record and the $150 expunction fee).
HISD said no.
Ray Reiner, central district superintendent, concluded that HISD "properly followed policies and procedures related to the alleged violations brought forward by Alexander Golubitsky."
"It is my understanding that the case was later dismissed by the D.A.'s office because the weapon was confiscated in the parking lot and not in the building. Being found in the parking lot would not allow it to be treated as a felony, but this does not rule out the fact that the weapon was found on school property, which is an offense subject to expulsion," Reiner wrote. (Like McSwain, Reiner refused to discuss the case with the Press, referring all questions to HISD's public-relations department.)
Okay, but where's the I'm-sorry-we-didn't-know-the-law-and-someone-messed-up-and-arrested-your-kid?
"Having a student arrested who has not broken a law is a problem," Marty says. "Everything else pales when you come down to that. Everyone in the world except HISD finds this somewhere between ridiculous and abhorrent. HISD thinks this is okay."
For the level-three appeals hearing January 8, Alex's parents put together a 52-page packet detailing who they are, who Alex is, what happened and what they want to happen. They included his SAT scores, his transcript filled with A's and B's, a petition signed by 17 parents, and letters from teachers and family friends describing Alex as "marvelously intelligent," quiet, contemplative and trustworthy. The director of the Institute of Behavioral Science at the University of Colorado, who focuses on adolescent and young adult development, wrote that Alex is a person of "sensitivity to social concerns, humaneness toward others, and the highest standards of ethical conduct." One of his teachers wrote that Alex is always on time for class, never skips, sits in the front row, participates in discussion and turns his work in on time. Alex's grandfather, a sociology professor emeritus at Harvard, wrote that although Alex's independent nature might be "construed as fresh or cheeky by teachers, of criminal tendency there is absolutely no trace in his nature or in his record."
Faye Bryant, the deputy superintendent of school administration, ruled that HISD was in the right. The Golubitskys plan to appeal her decision before the school board.
"They seem to be asking us to sue them," Marty says. He worries about the damage to Alex: "You see a life, if not being ruined, detoured." He normally runs a nine-minute morning mile; he's so angry he's down to seven and a half.
They're going to keep fighting. They see civil rights violations, and the Texas ACLU is considering the case.
This is all the family talks about at dinner. Now, instead of visiting friends, seeing movies or doing mathematics, Alex's parents research laws, codes and school rules in the evenings. It's consumed their world.
Alex says he and his parents don't argue over little things anymore. They fight a lot less with each other because now they're fighting together.
Since he was in jail, Alex hasn't been able to get jazzed about schoolwork. It could be senioritis setting in, but once you've been in jail, you can't get all that upset about a bad grade, he says. A 38 on a calculus test used to seem like the end of the world; now he knows there are worse things. He plays Rage Against the Machine's song "Killing in the Name Of" over and over. "Fuck you, I won't do what you told me," is the lyric he likes.
He's decided to keep his hair short; he realizes now how much trouble it was. He thinks that, someday, he wants to be a writer, maybe a political essayist or a George Orwell-type novelist. He's applied to six colleges so far; he's leaning toward Reed College or UCLA-Berkeley. For Reed he wrote one essay outlining the problems he sees in the justice system. In another, he recounted his jail time.
"The police made it seem as though having an illegal knife was worse than selling heroin to little kids," he wrote. "In fact, the crime they charged me with carried a heavier penalty than selling heroin to little kids....
"I'm not sure how much I really learned from this experience. I think that not learning anything from this might be a good thing, because everything that I could have learned would've been bad.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Houston, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.