Last night around 7 p.m., the Good Hope Missionary Baptist Church was packed tighter than a month's worth of Sunday mornings. Hundreds swarmed to attend the standing-room-only NAACP town hall meeting about the recent video release of teenager Chad Holley being brutally kicked and beaten by police officers. Many gathered say police brutality against blacks isn't new for Houstonians. But for once, it was caught on tape.
At one table: Assistant Chief of Police Michael Dirden, Assistant Harris County District Attorney Jim Leitner and Mayor Annise Parker. At the other: a panel ready to crucify.
D.Z. Cofield, pastor of the church and president of NAACP Houston, moderated the discussion. "We're sitting on a powder keg that can explode...cooler heads prevail now, but cooler heads may not be able to prevail for long."
Quanell X, the activist who leaked the tape to the media, rose from the far table to speak. He introduced a woman named Cyndi Paxton, who gave him the tape. "Brothers and sisters, you had a right to see this tape," he said, directing most of his vitriol at Parker, who previously stated that she wished the tape to remain under wraps until the criminal trial.
Assistant Chief Dirden said that all of the police officers involved had been fired and that the police department was working with the FBI on the investigation. In the meantime, he said the department created a special squad training unit to make sure what happened to Holley never happens again. Though Dirden conceded, "You don't need special ethical training...to explain to the officers involved in this incident that what they did was wrong."
To the crowd gathered, the city's attempt to conceal the video from the public looked like an attempt to save face for the police department. But Parker claimed different motives.
"We wanted it to come out at the criminal trial. We wanted to make sure that the charges stick. And we wanted a local jury to sit," she said.
When she saw that the tape had been leaked, Parker was upset. "I was angry, because all I could see were police officers getting off," she said.
"What's different?" someone screamed into the warm air of the church hall.
Leitner, the short, graying assistant district attorney, took the podium. He tried to convince the crowd that concealing the video until trial would have led to harsher charges. "When we saw that tape, we saw it was a crime against this community," Leitner said, waving his hand over the crowd to emphasize the last two words. "We wanted to make sure this community is on the jury."
If you saw the video before the trial, Leitner said, you'd be influenced. "The law is that you're off the jury. We didn't want that to happen, so we kept it quiet."
Murmurs of "we don't trust you" rippled through the crowd.
And then, unwittingly, Leitner lit the powder keg. "We wanted you people to be able to make the decision," he said. People jumped out of their chairs, and a swell of "ooooh man, you used the wrong word" rolled through the room. Leitner's voice was drowned in the din.
Cofield stepped in, and Leitner sat down.
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"Part of the frustration that you hear is because it's hard to expect us to hear those words and to take them as sincere with what the track record says," Cofield said, echoing the sentiments of the crowd. "I was told there's a different set of laws for police officers."
Demands from the panel included classifying the incident as a hate crime instead of its current charge as official oppression. It's the difference between a felony and a misdemeanor. The panel called for a trip to Austin to change the law: When anyone is handcuffed and beaten by a police officer, the panel agreed, it should be a hate crime.
When Cofield dipped into the audience for questions, half the crowd raised their hands. Cofield picked six. Someone asked the gathered officials if they would have done anything differently with the case. Leitner said he wouldn't, but Parker had second thoughts. "If I had to do it over again, I would have released the tape," she said.
The meeting closed with no real solutions, but with the beginnings of a dialogue. "We're just asking for some courage, Mayor," one of the audience members said. "You have a black child. That could have been your child."