The little crowd gathered at the steps of the Harris County Courthouse on Thursday afternoon didn't pull much attention. As Veronica Cooper told a bank of reporters about her dealings with Quanell X, the Houston civil rights activist she'd hired to help her fight to keep her teaching job and who, she maintains, cashed her check but did not provide any real service, the journalists listened intently, but all around them, everyone from the men and women with business at the court to the random passersby, scarcely acknowledged the tableau in front of the courthouse.
Both policemen and the homeless stepped around the group. The rest of the world barely seemed to notice the protest being conducted in the middle of downtown Houston. This protest came two weeks after the first one was held in front of the Jefferson County Courthouse in Beaumont, as we've reported.
With about eight people comprising the demonstration, the bevy of media — there were roughly 14 of them — scrunched together in a tight semi-circle around the aggrieved group. The protestors all say they hired Quanell for his ability to draw attention to a case, to shape a narrative in the media.
For this event, most of the protestors who attended the first gathering in Beaumont wore T-shirts emblazoned with slogans to help underscore the point — that they feel they've been cheated by Quanell. (We've reached out to Quanell but haven't heard from him yet. We'll update with his take on this as soon as he gets back to us.)
Mary Wiltz's shirt featured a photo of her grandson, Cambron Wiltz, and the words "Hope for Justice" printed across her chest. Wiltz hired Quanell to help her with a custody battle, and she says it's his fault she lost custody of her grandson.
Leslie Bradley wore a T-shirt that read "Charlie Bradley is Innocent" across the back with a picture of her husband's face below it. She says Quanell told her he would help her prove her husband, currently serving time for aggravated robbery and aggravated kidnapping, was wrongfully convicted. (Bradley says neither the DNA nor the description of the guys who stole a truck and trailer with about $1 million in prescription drugs match that of her husband. On the flip side, fingerprints collected from the stolen trailer match Charlie Bradley's, according to court records.)
Charles Carter heard about the planned protest on the news and showed up, the only one not holding a sign or wearing a themed T-shirt. Carter says he paid Quanell $5,000 earlier this year after his daughter, Denitra Green, was sentenced to eight years in prison for driving a car that dragged and then ran over a man who had met Green and a friend to sell them Jay-Z tickets in December 2014. Carter says his daughter, now 23, didn't understand what was happening when her friend grabbed the tickets and told her to drive.
Carter said he hired Quanell because the activist said he could help his daughter get a lighter sentence. "I know what these people are talking about because it happened to us. He stopped returning my calls. He always sounded positive when we spoke, but eventually he just stopped answering the phone." Carter raised the money to hire Quanell through his own funds and donations from family and friends.
Quanell has previously told the Houston Press that when he agrees to represent someone — by collecting an initial fee and having clients sign a contract that comes with a nondisclosure agreement — he reserves the right to withdraw if he and his vetting team decide the person they're representing isn't being honest. Quanell also noted that his standard contract states the fees he collects are nonrefundable and that he isn't a lawyer.
Thursday's protest, like the first one, was organized by Ricky Jason, a professional activist from Beaumont. This time around, Jason held up a neon-green, homemade sign that showed Quanell's head attached to the body of a pig with the words "History is GREED" below. Otherwise Jason kept a low profile.
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But David Atwood, a fellow activist from Houston who has focused on opposing the death penalty, spoke about his own concerns about the stories he was hearing from his fellow protestors on Thursday afternoon.
"He promises these people everything and he's on TV, he's a powerful man, and they're desperate," Atwood said of Quanell. "They spend money that should be going to a lawyer on him and when Quanell promises them something, they believe he'll deliver."
Unlike Quanell and Jason, Atwood doesn't charge for his advocacy services. He pointed out professional advocates are often trying to strike a balance between helping those in need and making a living, hence their charging for their services. But, Atwood says, it all depends on how much a person charges and what customers get in return. "Money can do so much damage to people. If you accept that money, if you do that, then you've got to deliver."
The protest ended when the reporters, photographers and cameramen left. After that, the protestors stood chatting outside the courthouse. If it weren't for the signs, you might not have even noticed they were, well, protesting.