She Doth Protest Too Much?
It was the last day of school in May, and third-grade teacher Gloria Rubac just wanted to go home, drink a margarita and crash. But Gary Graham needed her help. A coordinator for an anti-death-penalty group, Rubac put on a T-shirt showing the condemned convict smack inside a green state of Texas, and drove downtown.
About a hundred people gathered on the steps of the Criminal Justice Center on Franklin Street. A third of the party decided to march down Main Street; the bullhorn was handed to Rubac -- it's often handed to her by default since she's been protesting since her first march with the NAACP 40 years ago.
Chanting that Governor George W. Bush is a serial killer, they began their march followed by a few bicycle cops, Rubac says. They were joined by patrol cars, and by the time they reached Foley's, a helicopter was circling overhead.
"Someone must be robbing a bank," Rubac thought to herself when she spotted the chopper.
The group made an about-face and started marching back up Main. An officer yelled something over a loudspeaker and then grabbed two young women. Rubac doesn't know what he was saying because she was still shouting into her own bullhorn and couldn't hear him. He handcuffed the women and walked them to the police car. A freelance reporter for the socialist publication Worker's World, Rubac picked up her camera and started taking pictures. This will make a great article, she thought. She says she tried to circle in front of them so she could get a good shot of their faces, but someone grabbed her arm and cuffed her.
You're under arrest, she remembers the officer saying.
This is ridiculous, she said. What for?
He told her to be quiet, she says. She gave her camera and car keys to her 11-year-old granddaughter, Lucha Rodriguez, and got into the cop car.
The two women already in custody were charged with Class C misdemeanors for walking in the street when a sidewalk was available.
What about me? Rubac asked.
"Oh, no," she claims the officer told her. "You're not getting off on a Class C. You're doing time."
He had seen her at every downtown protest he had worked at in the last four years, she claims he told her. "He said he was sick of seeing me," Rubac says.
Rubac does protest a lot. She's rallied against the death penalty, picketed during death row hunger strikes, demonstrated for Allen Parkway Village, fought for immigration rights and environmental issues and protested police brutality. "I grew up in the '60s," she says. She can gauge press coverage of her events by how many of her Wilson Elementary School students say they saw her on TV.
The arresting officer, Sergeant Steve Perez, sharply disputes Rubac's version of the arrest. He says that he did recognize her because he has worked several downtown protests in the last four years. But he doesn't recall telling Rubac she was "doing time" or saying anything like that. The way he remembers that May day is that he simply responded to a call on the police radio that a large group of people were marching down Main in the middle of rush-hour traffic.
"We have no problem with them voicing their opinions or convictions or whatever," he says. He just wanted them to get back onto the sidewalk. "I have a sworn duty to protect anybody's First Amendment right, and I take that seriously -- even when they protest against police brutality, I'm out there to protect them. I want people being safe, and I don't want people run over."
When the protesters did their about-face, the situation became dangerous, he says, because they were walking against traffic. "Cars were having to dodge and hit their brakes to avoid hitting the marchers. The marchers didn't have a permit to close down a moving lane of traffic. It was rush hour; it was a heavy lane of traffic."
Perez says police had warned the crowd several times to use the sidewalk. He used his patrol car PA system to renew the warning. When two women, 16 and 25 years old, refused three more orders to get out of the street, he had them arrested, he says.
That's when Rubac interfered with his arrest, he says. He was escorting one suspect to the patrol car when Rubac grabbed his arm. He pulled away, and she grabbed the suspect's arm, he says. Rubac "tried to pull her like a tug-of-war," he says. "I didn't arrest her for touching me or grabbing my arm. I arrested her because when she was pulling on my suspect she was interfering with my job."
He says that while in his custody at 1415 Fannin, she was "treated with the utmost respect and dignity." Rubac was charged with interfering with the duties of a public servant and spent the night in city jail.
Over the summer Rubac went to court six times. Her attorney, Melissa Martin, says it was a ridiculous case. Rubac's fellow protesters provided pictures of Rubac simply taking pictures. "A trial would have been a swearing match between the police and Gloria," Martin says. "There is no conclusive proof either way."
The D.A. talked to Rubac and to the officer and then made a plea proposal to the defendant. Rubac was offered pretrial diversion to avoid having a conviction on her record, but they instead agreed to lower her charge to a Class C misdemeanor (basically like a traffic ticket).
"If he did recognize her and said, "Hey, that's the same bitch, goddammit,' he would never tell anybody that, especially to her," says Lyn McClellan, the D.A.'s misdemeanor division chief. "That would not be very smart. I think officers are a little smarter than that."
She's still going to fight the man. Rubac's sending 450 Christmas cards to death row inmates, she'll be in Huntsville for the next five postelection executions, and she plans to protest at the presidential inauguration. "Both Bush and Gore support the death penalty," she says.
She bought a digital video camera "in case anything like this happens again," Rubac says. She won't riot without it.
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.