The More Things Change

About 200 people summoned by the Justice for Pedro Oregon Coalition surrounded a makeshift podium in Market Square Park last week for a rally marking a national day of protest against police violence. Houston police cars and mounted patrolmen formed a wider, more discreet cordon around the area, just in case things got out of hand. But the city had no need to be worried.

The gathering could have doubled as a "Greatest Hits of Houston Protest" reunion. Faces in the forefront of picket lines here for the last 30 years mugged once again for the cameras -- both media and presumably police undercover shutterbugs. Protesters were joined by younger recruits still trying to get the hang of this demonstration thing.

Travis Morales, the former Revolutionary Communist Party veteran and one of the defendants charged with inciting a riot at Moody Park in the late '70s, looked as natty as ever in a black T-shirt and trademark ponytail.

Several things had changed with time. Travis now speaks serviceable Spanish, and with the fall of Communism, his group's name is more chic, La Resistencia. As with Ronald Reagan, hair coloring seemed to be keeping the gray away from Morales's black beard and locks.

Morales's high profile in the protest reflected his early involvement with the Oregon family after the shooting, but was one big reason why few elected officials attended the rally. "Travis and all that bunch have been out there on this issue from the beginning," says a political consultant whose client stayed away. "Folks are concerned about standing by Travis and Travis saying something they're not comfortable with." Mayor Lee Brown's Hispanic Advisory Committee has tried to get the Oregon family to associate itself with political moderates, without much luck, judging by the latest public display.

Signs that seemed scrawled in nostalgia -- "Down with the Rich," "Give Us Protection," "Stop Killer Cops," "Oust Holmes Now," "The Erosion of Civil Rights Is the Erosion of the U.S. Constitution," -- bobbed in the cool afternoon breeze and reflected the first full sunlight in a week. It was a great day for a demo.

Justice of the Peace Al Green demanded that another Harris County grand jury investigate the Oregon shooting. He reminded listeners that when Holmes's prosecutors went after Democratic District Judge Lupe Salinas on campaign fund violations totaling $200 and subsequent alleged perjury on the matter, they took the matter to four different grand juries before finally securing felony indictments that were later thrown out by a state judge.

"Injustice in the Oregon home is a threat to justice in your home," said Green. "If Lupe Salinas can have his case shopped by the district attorney from one jury to another, surely we can have another grand jury for Pedro Oregon."

Prison- and gay-rights activist Ray Hill finished his speech with, "The mothers I'm worried about hold office in this town, and they're motherfuckers!" Then, as if on cue, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee took the mike to deliver a bulletin: "Today I announce, the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division has started an official investigation." Unfortunately, for anyone who listens to TV or reads the newspaper, the "bulletin" was a day-old news item. At least one protester with a longer memory shouted at Lee, "What about Allen Parkway Village? You still suck." Lee never missed a beat, and finally yielded the mike to a real novelty act, a Hispanic member of the Nation of Islam named Juan Muhammad.

Earlier, as the crowd gathered, a sad-eyed 30-year-old woman sat along a walkway clutching a picture of a young man in military uniform. Sandra Torres was eight years old when her brother, Vietnam vet Joe Campos Torres, was beaten by a gang of Houston police and thrown into Buffalo Bayou to drown. It was an act of brutality that defined the national image of the Houston Police Department until Lee Brown took over as chief in 1982.

"The way they killed Pedro Oregon, it brings back memories," says Torres. "It seems like yesterday, how they handcuffed my brother and then drowned him. It's like there's been no change at all."

Torres is only partially right. Back in the '70s, few elected officials in Houston were willing to speak out on the issue of police violence. In the current controversy over Oregon's death, the mayor, police chief and members of City Council have called for a federal investigation of the shooting.

-- Tim Fleck

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