It's a familiar sight: activist Quanell X standing in front of a row of television news cameras, waiting for his close-up.
As always, the man looks sharp. For today's event, Quanell has selected a crisp white dress shirt, a gold-colored necktie, a gray suit with yellow pinstripes and a heavy trench coat to battle the frosty 40-degree weather outside the Phillips 66 gas station on the corner of Cullen and Bellfort in Houston's predominantly African-American Third Ward. A fresh haircut and an oversized pinkie ring complete the ensemble.
"Soldier, how you feeling?" he says to a stranger standing nearby. "Get that door for that sister," he orders someone as a young girl tries to get past the crowd and into the convenience store.
Quanell is denouncing the sale and marketing of a "pro-relaxation" beverage called Purple Stuff that critics say glamorizes and promotes the abuse of codeine and Robitussin by young people. He begins the press conference the same way he's started them all over the last decade and a half, with a prayer.
"In the name of Allah the beneficent and merciful, the one God to whom we give prayer to forever," he says. "We thank you for your presence, we thank you for your patience and we thank you for your [news] station sending you out to brave the cold."
Quanell's squat 5-foot-10-inch body looks like one bulging muscle. His handsome face is angular and chiseled. Everything about him booms power, particularly his voice.
"We are here today," Quanell begins, "to say that we are angry and outraged that ConocoPhillips, a corporate brand name, a household corporate giant, would participate in exploiting and making a dollar from the ignorance of the young masses of African Americans in this community. We have young people dying in the black community and in the Hispanic community every day because this product is being used as a gateway drug and they are dying as a direct result of drinking codeine."
Then he growls, "This is a disgrrraaace."
Quanell finishes by saying he just got off the phone with Purple Stuff's marketing director, who assured the activist that his company will be pulling the drink off the shelves in nine states and repackaging it because of the public outcry.
When the TV cameras stop rolling, an African-American woman in a pink ski parka stops filling her car with gas and skips toward Quanell to ask if she can get her picture taken with him. Quanell's security detail, a man wearing a 1970s-era military jacket, a beret and a sophisticated electronic earpiece, who may or may not be armed, stands just far enough away so as not to get caught in the photo.
An instant later, Quanell and his entourage are on the move. They've climbed inside a black Cadillac Escalade with tinted windows and are off to Quanell's next press conference, where reporters are already waiting.
He pulls up to a home across from a waste-processing plant in a rundown neighborhood. Twice in as many months, explosions at the CES Environmental Services plant have sent metal flying into people's yards. There's also the sickening odor coming from the plant that neighbors have complained about for a long time.
Quanell is here to bring attention to the problem and persuade the city to kick the plant out of the neighborhood. (Less than a month later, the Houston City Council decided to do just that, agreeing to sue the facility under public nuisance laws.)
Two press conferences in less than an hour railing against injustice may, at first blush, seem like the same old Quanell. Yet something feels different. His causes, his words, they don't smack of racism, the refrain Quanell is most famous for singing. He's not pitting African Americans against The World or preaching racial hatred or intolerance of any kind. On this mid-December day, at least, all Quanell is trying to do is keep kids off drugs and keep exploding pipe shrapnel from crashing through low-income neighborhood roofs.
A former drug dealer and street thug whom friends still describe as "very nice with his fists," Quanell turned 38 in December, ten years after he changed his birth name, Quanell Ralph Evans, to Quanell X for religious reasons. He's garnered a reputation over the past 15 years as a talented orator, Muslim activist and black-power broker bringing public attention to inequities and injustices within the African-American community, while simultaneously earning the label of hatemonger for his media-seeking statements on whites, Jews and homosexuals. The fact that he wears expensive-looking suits, drives luxury cars and won't exactly account for how he earns a living adds to the man's mystery and controversial allure. As does the fact that he travels with a cadre of serious-looking bodyguards and seems to do a better job than the cops of putting high-profile fugitives behind bars.
Most politicians won't touch him, including Mayor Bill White and U.S. Representatives Al Green and Sheila Jackson Lee, all whom declined to respond to requests for comment. So did the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Even the Anti-Defamation League, which has so often publicly condemned Quanell, decided to suck on a lemon.
Quanell, however, says he's found a new voice and that his days of racial, religious and sexual bigotry are behind him. He says he's matured, studied history and felt the sting of racism within his sacred Muslim community, all of which have contributed to his gradual evolution as a person and a leader.
A recent Northeastern University study shows that between 2000-2001 and 2006-2007, Houston experienced a 139 percent increase in African-American murder suspects, the highest increase in the nation. Quanell knows this problem and its root causes require his full attention. For the first time ever, he's publicly saying he's willing to build bridges across the same racial and sexual divides he's helped widen and work with whomever he can to aid his community. Even if it means alienating his hard-ass core of revolutionary African-American supporters.
"White folks," he says, "you are now on the back burner. Hate is too consuming. It consumes the hater as well as the hated. This is a new philosophy for me. My main focus is on trying to implement solutions for the serious problems within the black community."
Sitting alone in a Third Ward coffee shop, without the protection and chaos of his usual band of followers and bodyguards, Quanell insists that to appreciate where he is today, people must understand his upbringing and how he grew to be a fire-breathing hater.
Quanell was born in South Central Los Angeles in 1970. His father was a devout member of the Nation of Islam and from day one Quanell was taught that white people were the enemy. That life lasted five years, until one day Quanell's mother packed him and his brother up and jumped on a bus heading to Houston. She told her sons that their father wanted to bring a second wife into the house, as suddenly allowed by the Nation of Islam, and she wouldn't have it. From that day on, Quanell was consumed with hate for his father.
A year ago this past Christmas, Quanell finally sat down with his dad to talk about the past. What Quanell heard knifed through his heart: His father never wanted another woman; his mother had lied to escape the strict Muslim lifestyle.
Quanell immediately confronted his mother, who is living in a mental-care home. She confirmed the news.
"To live that many years hating your father, to live that many years with an opinion of your father that was not the truth," says Quanell, "that shook me."
Quanell has since moved his father to Houston, and they pray at mosque every morning at 5:30 a.m.
"It was a tremendous learning experience for me," says Quanell.
After moving to Houston in 1975, though, Quanell received a very different kind of education.
"What you called home we called hell," he says. "Growing up, the only men we knew were the gangsters, the players, the hustlers, the men in the street. These were our role models because we had no lawyers, we had no doctors in our community who were visible. So we patterned our lives on what we saw on a daily basis."
Quanell remembers being eight years old and hanging out with the "older fellahs" when he saw a man stab another guy to death during an argument.
"The brothers were telling me, 'Don't you snitch, little fellah. You better not say one word.' I never spoke about it. Well, the brothers on the corner thought I was a stand-up cat."
Quanell soon began working for pimps and getting in gang fights. School wasn't really a priority anyway. Quanell and his friends would compete for Fs and celebrate their dismal grades by chewing on their report cards and spitting them out onto the street.
Quanell, however, was curious to learn. To avoid being teased or beat up as a kid, he used to sneak books on Big Foot, the Loch Ness Monster and nuclear weapons home under his shirt from the library and read them in the bathroom at home with the water running.
"I have criticized Quanell publicly to a larger extent and more often than probably any human being," says Houston conservative talk-radio host Michael Berry, "but I have never said he's dumb. He's extraordinarily bright and if Quanell had a Harvard law degree and had the right backing in the early days, he could be trying cases in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. He's that good."
In Quanell's world, though, education was seen as meaningless.
At 14, he was involved in a summer program that paid students to go to school and do community service. At the end of the term, there was a citywide banquet and competitions in math, reading and job interview performance. When Quanell showed up alone in a baggy suit from Goodwill, he saw white kids and their parents pouring out of limousines in their tuxedos.
Later that evening, after announcing the math winner, the master of ceremonies declared that for the first time ever, one child had won the remaining two contests. It was Quanell. When he proudly showed his trophies to his family later that night, they made fun of him and stuck the awards in the back of a cabinet. For two years they sat there.
"Finally," says Quanell, "I just threw them in a garbage can because I felt no one cared."
He says he did poorly in school because there was no one at home encouraging him and protecting him from a street culture that taught academic excellence was only for nerds and white people.
"I always had to act like the bully, the tough kid, like education didn't matter, even though I loved to read," he says.
The first time Quanell got drunk, smoked a joint or downed a pill of Valium was with his mother. He was five.
"My mother was an alcoholic and a drug addict and didn't care what we did," says Quanell.
She would sell food stamps for drugs and would forget to pay their rent. Quanell's grandmother took the parental reins, though when Quanell was in ninth grade, his grandmother left town to care for a sick relative in California and asked his mother to watch Quanell and his brother. Their mother never did, and soon the electricity was shut off and the home was boarded up. Afraid that Child Protective Services might take him, Quanell sneaked into the abandoned home at night to sleep and roamed the streets by day for nearly a year until his grandmother returned and paid the bills. It was enough to convince him to start selling crack. Soon, Quanell was living a BMW lifestyle.
"He was very well known in the streets," says Quanell's longtime barber, Eddie Broussard. "And don't get it twisted, he didn't play games. That's why he has no fear in his heart, because he already knows what he can do."
Quanell didn't just grow up learning to hate white people. Early experiences also taught him to distrust and dislike Jews.
Quanell's grandmother worked as a housekeeper for a Jewish family in West University. Quanell remembers walking her to the bus station at 5:45 a.m. every day so she could go cook her boss's breakfast while Quanell had to fend for his own morning meal. When he visited his grandmother after school, he had to use the back door.
"I'll never forget," says Quanell, "one time my grandmother was on her hands and knees mopping the floor and she asked me and my brother to help her. So we got down and helped. And then the lady of the house got home, and when we finished mopping, she told my grandmother she wanted to meet us. So we went in to say hi and my grandmother says, 'Baby, turn your pockets inside out.' And I never thought anything about it until a couple years later when I snapped to what had happened. The lady was checking to see if we'd stolen anything. And that was the beginning of my relationship with Jewish people and my understanding of Jewish people."
By 1990, Quanell was a 20-year-old street legend when he saw a flyer announcing Minister Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam was speaking at the Sam Houston Coliseum. Farrakhan's words filled his head with wonder, and that very day, swears Quanell, he joined the Nation of Islam and never touched alcohol or drugs or called a woman "bitch" or "ho" ever again.
"I had never seen black men with so much discipline," says Quanell, "so unified, so clean, whose skin was sparkling and whose faces were clean shaven and had on suits, and these brothers walked with authority and power in their steps. I had never heard a black man say, 'My brother, come in my brother, take a seat my brother.' Wow. Wow. I didn't know it existed. It was the first time I learned that a black man could be human and respectful."
Farrakhan's message did more than convince Quanell to stop selling drugs. It gave Quanell an outlet for all his anger, a justification for blaming whites and Jews for all of his and other black people's pain and suffering that he witnessed throughout his life.
In Houston, Quanell became a student of two Nation of Islam leaders, Minister Robert Muhammad and the more radical Dr. Khalid Abdul Muhammad.
"I latched onto Robert Muhammad like a newborn baby latches onto a breast and feeds from that breast," says Quanell. "I was his sidekick and he taught me wisdom and strategy and politics. Khalid Abdul Muhammad taught me to be the raw, unadulterated revolutionary, the warrior. He taught me military strategy, tactical weapons, sizing up an enemy, warfare language, and I loved it. He spoke the truth that was not watered down; it was black coffee, no sugar, no cream. Khalid Muhammad was the opposite of Robert Muhammad."
By the mid-1990s, though, Farrakhan was trying to forge a constructive relationship with Jewish people. Khalid Muhammad felt Farrakhan was going soft and wanted to stay on a more revolutionary course. Quanell had to pick sides: go with his idol Farrakhan and teacher Robert Muhammad, or follow the more venomous Khalid Muhammad.
Quanell's choice to follow Khalid Muhammad had immediate repercussions.
Two days before the 1995 Million Man March in Washington, D.C., 24-year-old Quanell told a Chicago Tribune reporter that Jews "can go straight to hell" and that Jewish America should "get ready...knuckle up, put your boots on because we're ready and the war is going down."
Not only did the newspaper report his hateful message, but that night, Quanell says, Larry King was interviewing Farrakhan, and Quanell's words drew fire from Jewish groups across the country.
"Khalid hated the Jews," says Quanell. "And boy, he gave me my marching orders. And I executed his orders to the tee. I never knew that day would change my life."
At the time, Quanell held the position of Youth Minister for the Nation of Islam. His comments about Jews did not fall in line with the Nation's new philosophy and were seen as hurting Farrakhan. Soon after, Quanell was kicked out of the Nation of Islam, though he will not discuss the exact reasons. He joined the New Black Panther Party and has been a member ever since.
Thirteen years later, Quanell says he feels terrible about what he said that day in Washington, D.C.
"I apologize to every member of the Holocaust who were survivors with whom I offended," Quanell says, "and I apologize to their families to whom I frightened and offended because I did not have the divine right to say the things I said."
Last year, Quanell contacted Michael Goldberg, an attorney at Baker Botts and a board member of the Holocaust Museum Houston. Quanell wanted to tour the museum and begin making amends with the Jewish community.
"Knowing he was a follower of Farrakhan and reading some of the things that have been attributed to Quanell," says Goldberg, "caused me great concern that this was some type of media play that would embarrass the museum."
The two men met at Goldberg's law office. Goldberg says that Quanell admitted that what he had been taught growing up, that Jews were in charge of the slave trade, for example, simply wasn't true, and that he had matured. Goldberg believed him and set up the museum visit.
Inside the exhibition, there's a memorial for the six million Jews who died during the Holocaust upon which visitors place a stone. When Quanell did so, he had tears in his eyes, says Goldberg.
"It was a bit surreal," says Goldberg. "Here's a man by reputation who was everything the Holocaust Museum is against, in my view being to teach people not to hate. But by the end of it, I was glad I'd met him and done this. There are people who will never get over their prejudices against him, but I do believe he's changed and grown and is trying to be a more moderating influence."
Quanell's comment at the Million Man March, however, was by no means his first dip into bigoted waters. Three years earlier, in 1992, Quanell went to Texas A&M to condemn racism after a fraternity threw a "jungle party" at which some white students dressed in blackface. In the process, he branded homosexuality "a sickness," reportedly saying that "at a time when black women don't have a variety of black men to choose from, we don't have time for the foolishness of homosexuality."
Again, Quanell says he feels badly for what he said.
"In Islam," he says, "homosexuality is forbidden and I still believe homosexuality is forbidden. But they are still my brothers and sisters in Christ, the children of God, and I've grown to realize that they should not be targeted for mistreatment, they should not be targeted for hate crimes, they should not be denied access to equal employment and equal opportunity in any way, shape, form or fashion. I have come to learn that some of them are some of the most passionate, kind and gentle human beings that you would ever meet."
This transformation, says Quanell, happened a little more than a year ago when he orchestrated an HIV/AIDS summit in Houston, bringing together African-American leaders, pastors, rappers and members of the gay community to combat the spread of the virus. For 11 weeks, Quanell met with homosexuals on the planning committee.
"I had never worked with gay people ever in anything," he says. "I never had a gay friend or had cordial relations with gay people. But I met some good gay people. Some good gay brothers. And I learned so much from them."
The Texas A&M incident was his entrée into politics. Just prior to his speech on campus, Quanell's brother had been murdered and he met then-state Representative Ron Wilson, a Democrat from Houston, at a news conference concerning the killing. It was Wilson who asked Quanell to speak to the A&M students.
Despite the antigay remarks, Wilson and Quanell became close and Wilson gave him a job as an administrative aide. Seeing how the system worked from the inside, however, convinced Quanell he could do more for the black community as a free-wheeling activist than as a politician.
"Politics disallows people to do the right thing because it's not politically expedient or acceptable," he says. "But I'm not playing politics. I don't speak the watered-down, polluted and diluted message that they speak. I can speak the language of the people in an uncompromising way because I don't have to seek the popular vote. You'll never see me at a political fund-raiser, you'll never see me at a political party, you'll never see me at mainstream gatherings of African-American leadership. You will never see me there."
Most famous for sounding off against the "white establishment," Quanell is not afraid to point his finger at black leaders, too.
"A pastor said recently on the radio that Quanell X used to be the pit bull for the black community," he says. "And I say to that pastor, I am still the pit bull for the black community, I've just taken my leash out of your hand, out of the hands of black leaders who want to play politics, out of the hands of those black leaders who would vote and stand with what's in the best interest of a party before they stand with what's in the best interest of the black community. To hell with them. I'm not going to play that game whether they like it or not."
One of the reasons, Quanell says, that some supporters in his own community are turning against him is his recent less aggressive stance against white people.
"When I met Quanell in 1996," says Pastor Chris Wright of Grace Temple Ministries, who has long been one of Quanell's allies, "he was a young man. We're talking sworn enemy from the womb to the tomb, from the cradle to the grave, I will fight you all the way, I will dig up your dead and kill them again because they didn't die hard enough the first time. That individual was a very hardened individual. It was very difficult for him to totally trust a Caucasian."
Quanell does not disagree with Wright.
"There was a time when I would have said he's absolutely right," Quanell says. "But not today. I've met too many good white people."
Says Michael Berry, "Quanell sometimes rushes to the lowest common denominator, which is screaming racism. And he's therefore marginalizing himself. And I think he recognized that. I think that he has matured and he has gone about taking up some new causes, and being more thoughtful and deliberate before he speaks."
One of the comments Quanell made that continues to haunt his public image occurred at a 1999 rally protesting the scheduled execution of an African American convicted of murder, when he reportedly said, "If you feel that you just got to mug somebody because of your hurt and your pain, go to River Oaks and mug you some good white folks."
Quanell insists that his comment was a premeditated publicity stunt aimed at shocking white Houstonians in hopes of forcing a desperately needed discussion between whites and blacks at a time when he especially felt the city's white elite did not care about the problems in the black community. To a degree, Quanell regrets the words he chose that day.
"What they heard was shock and awe," he says. "I did not know how many young white people I frightened. I was aiming at their parents. But years later, I learned that young white youth were afraid to go to school. I felt sad and I felt bad, because they were like collateral damage of a statement that I didn't mean to harm them. But what I learned was that language affects more than just your target audience. And so I didn't mean to frighten the youth, I didn't mean to put the white youth at odds with the black youth. I was screaming out to white people who have the ability, the talent, the political connections, the power to stop and say, 'What is happening in the black community, we have a duty to help them and to change the shameful, wretched conditions that they're living in.' And that's why I said what I did. It just had more than the planned effect."
The epiphany that sent Quanell hurtling down the road to change, he says, happened several years ago when Houston's Arab Muslim leaders asked him to help organize a protest against Israel for its actions against Yasir Arafat. Wanting to help his Muslim brothers, Quanell agreed.
He says he did not expect to get slapped in the face.
The night before the protest, Quanell says, several Arab leaders voiced concern over letting a black man be their spokesman at the event.
"Boy, when I saw them debating my skin color," says Quanell, "it broke my heart. I believed that in Islam, racism didn't exist. Remember, Malcolm X said there was no color in Islam, but Malcolm didn't live long enough to see the real manifestations of the hypocrisy of those who call themselves Muslim."
The bitter sting of racism within his own religious circles launched Quanell into deep study, he says, and he began reading history books — about how the Arabs began trading in African slaves before the Europeans — and the Qur'an, which, to his surprise, he discovered says no sex or race is superior to any other.
At the same time that Quanell was coming to grips with his own hateful comments from the past, he also began revising his priorities for the future. It was time, he decided, to use all his energy previously consumed by hating and focus it on finding solutions to what he now saw as the greatest problem in the black community: itself.
Among his many recent activities, Quanell has organized summits on the HIV epidemic in the black community and on banning the N word in music. He's counseled troubled kids one-on-one, helped rid Wal-Mart of a racially charged comic book and spearheaded a manhunt for a suspected serial rapist in southwest Houston.
Quanell is still out in front of controversial headline events involving race, calling for Joe Horn, who was white, to be indicted for murder when he shot and killed two suspected burglars who were black, and advocating for civil rights as in the case of Marvin Driver, father of Green Bay Packer star Donald Driver, who claims police beat him unjustly. Shortly after New Year's, Quanell staged a rally at the Bellaire Police Department raging against racial profiling after a white officer shot unarmed 23-year-old Robbie Tolan, an African-American minor-league baseball prospect, in Tolan's driveway. Police say the officer mistakenly believed Tolan was driving a stolen car.
Then of course there's the litany of suspected criminals Quanell has delivered to the police, such as Randy Sylvester, who allegedly confessed to Quanell his role in the deaths of his two daughters, and Timothy Shepherd, who allegedly told Quanell that he killed his girlfriend and incinerated her body on a pair of barbecue grills.
"There was a time when I hated a lot about the white community," says Quanell, "but I've grown tremendously. And I will say this publicly before the whole world: The biggest problem of black people in America is not white people. The biggest problem for black people is the lack of love for self and kind among our own people. The biggest problem among black people today is self-hatred and envy that is pervasive among black leadership. The drug problem in the black community. The white community has played a role, but the role of cleaning it up is not the responsibility of white people. It's our responsibility. The problem of black-on-black crime, you can't blame white people for that. That's us doing it.
"White people didn't get Timothy Shepherd to cut up a brilliant young Texas A&M student and put her down a damn garbage disposal and put her on a barbecue pit. We produce that kind of madness and demons among our community. White people didn't get Randy Sylvester to take his kids and murder them. White people are not responsible for black men home-invading other black homes and killing innocent people. We can't blame white folks for that. This is a problem that we must fix. And that's where I am today."
Over the last ten years, Quanell says he's brought nearly 30 suspected murderers to the police. Once he was even arrested for fleeing a police officer while doing so, but later beat the misdemeanor charge. Many times, he says, the suspects just turned themselves over to him.
Says Houston Police Department spokesman John Cannon, "Anyone who can help us identify and get a perpetrator into custody, that is of assistance to us."
The primary reason, however, that Quanell believes he's so effective is that he's able to do what other leaders will not — go into the most dangerous situations and confront the drug dealers and violent criminals face-to-face.
Quanell's own attorney, Stanley Schneider, says part of the reason Quanell can do this is that he's a former street thug. "People are afraid of him," Schneider says.
It doesn't hurt that Quanell is constantly flanked by a mean-looking security team.
Quanell's unknown number of enforcers are not paid employees, he says, and undergo background checks before being allowed onto the team. One is a former Navy SEAL, another an ex-Green Beret; two of them are concealed-firearms instructors and almost all of them have licenses to carry concealed guns, says Quanell.
"I have to admit it," says Quanell, "those who follow me, these are not choir boys. These brothers will kill concrete and drown a drop of water for what they believe."
Another reason for his goon squad, says Quanell, is protection. He routinely gets death threats, everywhere from the gym to sitting in restaurants with his two children, ages 16 and ten.
"Night and day my life is under constant threat," he says. "I don't talk about my children at all, but they have really suffered because of their father. One time at a pro wrestling match, a white guy yelled out, 'There goes Quanell X, I've got a gun, let's shoot him.' It frightened the hell out of my sons."
As for how Quanell makes a living, that remains a mystery. Questions about it elicit a wide smile and a laugh.
"People would be blown away if they knew who finances and supports Quanell X," says Quanell. "Blown away. It's people in entertainment, people in politics, Muslims. If they knew some of the entertainers, they'd be blown away."
He says Beyoncé Knowles's father has been a "good friend." He mentions that he helped famed poet Maya Angelou out of a sticky situation when someone in Houston was suing her and she later thanked Quanell by giving him "a precious gift," whose nature he won't disclose. Quanell also seemingly alludes to Oprah Winfrey, saying that a good friend of Angelou's, "who some would say is the most powerful black woman in the country," called him personally to say thanks.
To many, it seems at odds that a devout Muslim such as Quanell is always working alongside Christian pastors. But not to Quanell. To him it's a natural marriage.
"I am a Muslim leader who loves Jesus Christ," he says. "I am a Muslim who understands that at the end of time, Muhammad, peace be upon him, is not coming back. So I am a Muslim leader who is looking for the return of Jesus."
Pastor Chris Wright has been at Quanell's side for more than a decade. He says he sees a major change for the better in his friend.
"In 2003 I told the Houston Chronicle that 70 percent of the things I was involved in, I was not doing with conviction but was doing as a stepping stone for personal reasons," says Wright. "I believe that [in 2003] it was the same as with him. I have noticed that there appears to be a total conviction in him now."
Berry doesn't think Quanell has changed that much, but still, he thinks the man has changed.
"It's not anywhere near 50-50, but it's certainly better than it was," he says. "He has the opportunity to make change more than almost anyone in our community. Certainly more than any elected official. The question is how he uses that, and some days it's for good, more days it's not."
Getting hold of Quanell is not as easy as one might think. There is an informal phone tree of lawyers, pastors and old friends who have his direct line and funnel calls and complaints to him.
"People know I cut his hair," says barber Eddie Broussard, "and I get thousands of people calling to get in contact with him. I relay them to [Quanell] and he chooses."
Older, more experienced, Quanell picks his battles differently than he used to. In the past, he says, he'd stand and fight if the cause simply sounded good to him. No longer.
Quanell got burned in 2006 when he publicly supported a 15-year-old girl who claimed she was kidnapped in broad daylight and raped by a trio of men. It turned out the girl was lying.
Today, Quanell has investigators look into complaints and even performs polygraph tests on people seeking his help before agreeing to take up their cause.
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"I'm going to be honest with you, at least 40 to 45 percent of all complaints I get about racism have nothing to do with racism," he says. "The person's behavior plays a significant role in the problem. You'd be surprised by the number of African-Americans who come to us lying but want us to bully and frighten people."
Whether Quanell's evolution is wholly real remains to be seen. He certainly believes it, and many others do too. Even if people don't buy into it completely, critics see more potential for him than ever.
"I think he's smarter now and understands his shelf life was limited as a rabid hatemonger," says Berry. "I also think Quanell recognizes that the opinion of Americans and Houstonians on race has changed since he first became a public figure. And I think he's realized that he's far more bankable and influential if he's more thoughtful about his actions. If Quanell would apply himself to making our community a better place and not jumping at every headline, he could not only change people's minds, he could change policy. The possibilities are limitless."