Five News Stories that Dominated 2015
Francisco Montes; Daniel Kramer; Marco Torres
In 2015, stories of national and international significance had their epicenters in Texas.
Greg Abbott had a banner first year in the governor's office, helping fuel the tinfoil-hat brigade's paranoia over Jade Helm 15, spearheading a lawsuit to ensure your undocumented abuela still faces deportation, and, in a year-end coup de grace, proudly shutting the door on families of Syrian refugees fleeing unimaginable violence.
This year the state upped the ante in its war on women with another full-on assault against Planned Parenthood. Thanks to our state legislature, Texans are about to see more people carrying more guns in more places, including in public university classrooms and dorms. This was also the year Ted Cruz somehow became the reasonable front-runner in the GOP presidential race, largely because of the racist, misogynist muppet currently leading in the polls.
Look forward to hate-reading about those stories and others in the coming year. But before that, here's a recap of what dominated the local headlines in 2015:
Ken Paxton, a bad investment
The state's latest indicted elected official probably thought he had put everything to rest when, before he was elected Attorney General, the Texas State Securities Board slapped him on the wrist: he had failed to register as an investment adviser while he referred potential clients to a friend's money-management firm. He probably chuckled over the $1,000 fine.
But things got real when, shortly after he was elected, Paxton was indicted on three counts of securities fraud. Instead of a fine, he could face 99 years in prison for pitching investments in a troubled start-up called Servergy, without disclosing that he was being compensated.
Having already admitted to running afoul of state securities law, Paxton was in a bit of a bind: how would he be able to honestly defend himself? As it turns out, he wouldn't – his defense would have to be a bit more dishonest. Specifically, he used the witch-hunt defense, alleging that he was the target of a conspiracy that even involved the judge and the judge's wife.
It's a defense that rings hollow for a number of reasons, not least of which is that the special prosecutors appointed to the case can't exactly be accused of being tools of the left. Houston's own Brian Wice, who specializes in appellate law, is responsible for getting Tom DeLay's money-laundering conviction overturned. Tom freakin' DeLay.
If there's one thing Wice can be accused of, it's of writing some pretty damn entertaining (and on point) motions, and this is especially true in the Paxton case. The filings, with their allusions to Animal House, Don Draper, and JFK, are actually one of the only redeeming qualities in the whole ordeal.
Still, Paxton has succeeded somewhat in hijacking the case's conversation: it seems the prosecutors have to spend as much time rebutting Paxton's persecution narrative as they do arguing the meat of the case. We just hope that this thing wraps up before the close of 2016.
HERO goes down in Houston
This year Houston, widely lauded as the most diverse city in America, earned the more unfortunate distinction of becoming the only major American city without a non-discrimination ordinance.
Religious conservatives bucked against the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance almost as soon as Annise Parker introduced it in her final term as mayor. The ordinance, which would have banned discrimination based on, among other things, race, sex, sexual orientation and gender identity, passed city council, but a dizzying legal battle forced city officials to put equal rights on the ballot.
Then came the “bathroom bill” ads and scaremongering from the anti-HERO crowd, all based on the bogus premise that transgender rights would trigger a public safety crisis in public restrooms (never mind the fact that restroom assailants haven't been an issue the 200 cities and 17 states have these laws on the books). Underscoring the symbolic importance of upholding Houston's law, the Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBT organization in the country, dumped some $600,000 into the fight to save HERO.
The fact that Houston voters, who elected the country's first openly gay mayor of a major city just six years ago, repealed the ordinance by a staggering 22-point margin seems to spell trouble for similar fights gearing up across the country. HRC has said that, now that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in favor of marriage equality, it plans to push for a non-discrimination ordinance in Congress. Local ordinances were supposed to be stepping stones toward that larger goal, Houston's being the largest.
HERO opponents have already taken their show on the road, targeting similar ordinances already on the books in cities like Dallas. Whether HERO's defeat serves as a wake up call for supporters of LGBT rights or a sign of things to come is something to watch for in 2016.
Gaslamp: Adventures in Midtown douchebaggery
On a pleasant September evening, three African-American attorneys wanted to go to the Midtown club Gaslamp, and what should have been a simple act turned into an avalanche of douche. One of the men complained on Facebook the next day that everyone in his group was charged a $20 cover, while white patrons waltzed in for free. A bouncer eloquently responded on Facebook that the three were charged because they were “old, out of shape, with no girls dorks lol.” Gaslamp's lawyer Tim Sutherland told the reporters that the men were charged because they weren't dressed cool enough for Gaslamp's trendy décor.
Then, apparently thinking their club didn't come off bad enough, the management released a video featuring Sutherland – a man who is actually licensed to practice law in the state of Texas – saying things like, “We are willing to hurt your feelings by telling you that you don't fit the dress code.” Sutherland gave a subtle nod to the city's anti-discrimination HERO ordinance – then still up for vote – saying local ordinances are needed in order to file and investigate the kinds of complaints the three would-be patrons were making.
Without an ounce of self-awareness, Gaslamp owner Ayman Jarrah later told the Press that this was all a big bummer, and may have in fact altered the course of his career, saying, “I am looking to meet with the landlord today to see if he will buy me out or let me sell the business. I want to step out of the whole business.”
The lawyers didn't want to wait to see if HERO would pass, and in late October they filed a federal civil rights suit.
And as for that “dress code” – KPRC ultimately aired the results of their undercover investigation showing Gaslamp charging African-American and Hispanic men, but letting two white guys in for free – and giving them a pair of VIP passes to boot.
The murder of Deputy Goforth
On August 28, Harris County Sheriff's Deputy Darren Goforth walked out of a northwest side Chevron store toward the pump where he was gassing up his cruiser when, according to police, Shannon Miles ran up behind him, put a gun to the back of Goforth's head and pulled the trigger. Authorities say Miles then stood over Goforth with his .40 caliber semi-automatic pistol and emptied the clip, 14 more rounds, into the deputy's back.
The brazen murder of a uniformed officer quickly became a Rorschach test of sorts. To some, it was yet another example of how serious, untreated mental illness can ultimately lead to tragedy (Miles, according to court records, had in the past been homeless and, on a judge's orders, spent time in a state psych hospital just long enough for him to regain competency to face charges for a violent assault against another homeless man). To others, Goforth's murder was a reminder of the danger peace officers expose themselves to simply by putting on that uniform (Miles' nauseating defense to avoid the death penalty—that Goforth was meeting a mistress at the gas station and was therefore not “on duty”—doesn't change the fact that Goforth was murdered in his uniform just feet away from his cruiser).
Local law enforcement officials, however, decided early on that the growing movement to hold police departments accountable for police brutality somehow contributed to Goforth's murder. In a press conference the day after Goforth's shooting, Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson said, “There are a few bad apples in every profession. That does not mean that there should be open warfare on law enforcement.” She called Goforth’s killing “an assault on the very fabric of society.” Harris County Sheriff Ron Hickman drew a more explicit line between the Black Lives Matter movement and Goforth's murder, saying, “it isn't a very far stretch to believe that that kind of rhetoric could influence someone” to do what Miles has been accused of.
Apparently, according to some, #blacklivesmatter and #copslivesmatter are mutually exclusive sentiments.
The death of Sandra Bland
Eric Garner. Michael Brown. Freddie Gray.
Shortly after Sandra Bland died in a Waller County jail cell on July 13, her name was added to the list of those synonymous with police brutality, yet another example of how benign police interactions with people of color can quickly spin out of control.
Bland was arrested by state trooper Brian Encinia after a routine traffic stop near Prairie View A&M turned confrontational. When a clearly frustrated Bland asked why she should have to put out her cigarette, Encinia ordered her out of the car. When she started to recite her rights, Encinia lunged at Bland and ultimately pointed a Taser at her, yelling “I will light you up!” During the arrest, Bland, with her hands cuffed behind her back, somehow ended up face down on the ground. Encinia's response when Bland told him she had epilepsy: “Good.”
It's hard to watch the dash-cam video of Bland's arrest without seeing an avoidable confrontation triggered by police escalation.
Members of Bland's family, who have filed a federal lawsuit against county and state officials, have contested the official findings that Bland committed suicide in lockup. Regardless of whether that turns out to be true (so far, no evidence has surfaced to disprove that Bland hanged herself with a trash bag inside her jail cell), Bland's death has already sparked a conversation we weren't having a year ago.
Shortly after her death, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards cited the Waller County jail for its faulty handling of suicidal inmates. When it was revealed that Bland indicated on her jail intake form that she'd attempted suicide just months before her arrest, and yet jailers took no special precautions, lawmakers called for reforms in how jails identify and monitor potentially suicidal inmates. Her death has led to increased scrutiny of county jails by both the media and state lawmakers.
And while a grand jury recently cleared jail officials of any criminal wrongdoing in Bland's death, the case is far from over. A grand jury is set to reconvene in January to consider criminal charges against the officer who arrested Bland.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.