County Drops Gang Injunction That Would've Barred 46 Black Men From Community

The gang injunction that would have blocked 46 black men from even setting foot or talking to their grandmas inside a "safety zone" surrounding southeast Houston's Southlawn apartments has been dropped, the Harris County Attorney's Office and District Attorney's Office announced Monday night.

County Attorney Vince Ryan had argued for months that the gang injunction's primary purpose was to keep the residents of Southlawn safe, and that the criminal justice system simply wasn't doing enough to accomplish that. Apparently, to county officials, physically banning accused gang members from their homes for up to four years was to be the only way to do that; Ryan, in a letter to the American Civil Liberties Union, even compared the injunction to a "protective order" issued in a domestic abuse case, in which the 46 men evidently were the abusers and the entire neighborhood was the battered woman. The only way the men could find a way out of the suit and back home is if they proved to an appointed "community counselor" that they had turned their lives around, found work or school, and denounced gang life.

Advocates and a committed team of defense attorneys fought back against the suit and argued that it was unconstitutional since it stripped the men of their First Amendment freedoms, threatening them with arrest if they spoke to or associated with anyone in that zone.

"Our main concern was fleshing out and showing that each one of these guys is a human with parents and friends and children and grandparents in these communities," said Drew Willey, one of the defense attorneys. "You hope, you hope, you hope that you’ve got the right message. I think we definitely would’ve won [the case]."

The County Attorney's Office had also argued that the gang injunction was necessary because the residents wanted it. However, the ACLU and attorneys gathered nearly a thousand signatures from Southlawn residents who said that, actually, this was not something they wanted, which Willey said really tipped the scale.

Now, instead of banning people, the county announced that a work group that had been meeting for weeks will develop job-training programs and help the men find educational opportunities to "assist gang members who desire to become law-abiding citizens," as the press release states. 

“If these programs can help gang members turn their lives around and become law-abiding citizens, thereby helping to protect the community," Ryan said in a statement, "then we have accomplished what we set out to do — make Southlawn community safer."

Interestingly, the reasons that Terence O'Rourke, with the County Attorney's Office, gave to the Houston Press — as to why these programs, which had been discussed for months, had just now convinced them to drop this suit a week before trial — echoed exactly what the advocates and defense attorneys had been saying all along.

"Putting someone under an injunction is the opposite of what you need to bring people in to become a part of, for example, drug and alcohol counseling or anger management or other things," he said. "You don't need a government prosecutor questioning you at the very time you're trying to have successful treatment and turnaround programs."
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Meagan Flynn is a staff writer at the Houston Press who, despite covering criminal justice and other political squabbles in Harris County, drinks only one small cup of coffee per day.
Contact: Meagan Flynn