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Horse Shoed

Demonstrators at the Four Seasons were already drenched in sweat by mid-morning. Wearing pig snouts and Dick Cheney masks, they pounded out a discordant complaint of banjo, whistle and drum while Halliburton shareholders were meeting inside. A cadre of police horses on the asphalt pranced nervous circles, their eyes wild behind Plexiglas riot face shields.

A splinter group of demonstrators began marching around The Park Shops, across the street from the hotel, followed by a retinue of horses. When the group got three-fourths of the way around, it rested in front of the entrance to a parking garage.

"Back it up!" yelled a mustachioed officer to the crowd, using his heels to make his horse rear up.

"Calm down," pleaded a protester in front, realizing there was nowhere to go. The demonstrators were pinned in, caught between a brick wall, a mass of people and a phalanx of hooves.

Spurred on by police, the horses marched forward, plowing into people. The protesters began pushing back; a slim pole that once held a communal sign now became a makeshift roadblock. It couldn't bear the equine rush, and the people began falling over and running into one another. A lone protester ran up to a horse and began banging a drum in its ear, trying to make it retreat from the crowd.

But the horses kept coming.

A week after the May 18 demonstration, 17 protesters are charged with offenses ranging up to three felonies, including assault on police officers. The Houston Police Department issued a brief announcement that officers or their horses had been attacked and even kicked by an unruly mob.

The news media ran the obligatory statements and has moved on to other coverage. Eyewitness accounts of Houston Press writers covering the event and the available videos from the protest, however, show one problem with that official position: The crowd was unruly at times, but there are no indications that protesters did anything illegal to provoke the mounted charge by the police.

The protest started peacefully. Early in the morning of the demonstration, the granite corporate office building of Halliburton was quiet and seemingly empty as the crowd gathered across the street.

Holding to the rules of public protest, the demonstrators waited for a green light and stepped into the crosswalk on their way toward the building.

The bravest of them had made it halfway into the street when the mounted police began to move, ramming the crowd sideways across the intersection and into an adjacent park.

Pierced teenagers and graying activists stumbled beneath the trees and faced a wall of horses from the curb. They chanted and waved placards, such as plastic stop signs that said "Stop War Profiteering." It was a peaceful, if noisy, standoff. Then two of the horses charged at them.

One horse bounded up the curb and through the heart of the shrieking crowd, knocking a 23-year-old woman to the ground. Its hoofs ground the sod inches from her face.

The woman, who would give only her first name of Christina, brushed grass off her soiled shirt and was handed a cell phone to report the problem to Copwatch, a police monitoring group. "I didn't see anything; I was facing the other way," she said.

Clashes of man and horse had become increasingly forceful by the time the crowd was positioned outside the shareholders' meeting. Protesters sought to depict the company as a cash cow but sometimes ended up being violently walloped by officers and their mounts like unwitting steers at a rodeo.

The physical confrontations surprised several in the crowd, which had grown accustomed to more laid-back HPD procedures during demonstrations in recent years. Officers handled a slightly larger demonstration at last year's protest of the Halliburton shareholders' meeting, without any major incidents. They've managed some of the same crowds protesting Dow Chemical, the war in Iraq and Maxxam, owner of Pacific Lumber.

"I was told before this venture that we didn't have anything to fear from HPD," said Katie Heim, a spokesperson for Houston Global Awareness, which organized the protest, "and that was not the scenario."

Police and other media reports blamed scuffles on the activists. HPD Lieutenant Robert Manzo said that in addition to attacks by feet and fists, one officer was even thrown to the ground. One of those arrested had allegedly punched a horse.

However, the Press reporters observed a different scene, one that was supported by available videotape of the incidents.

By late morning, a group of young "black block" anarchists had paused near an entrance to a parking garage on Austin Street. They held a banner that read, "Greed Kills. Stop Halliburton." While they were loud and boisterous, they also appeared to be obeying police commands to stay out of the street.

When the horses moved in, one officer was still shouting for them to "move back," although there was no place to move to -- at their backs was the building's brick wall. Then the mounted police moved in, wedging the crowd even more tightly along the sidewalk and behind a small tree.

An officer on horseback pierced the crowd, and several cops started grabbing protesters by the shirt or hair and dragging them. Some of the demonstrators pushed back against the horses, but none was observed to throw punches or bottles, as reported by the Houston Chronicle.

The horses appeared spooked by the drums, and several reared into the air. One horse landed on Katt Perry's foot. "Yes, we were a little out of bounds," says Perry, 18, who lives in Austin, "but we were still being peaceful about it. What they did was totally uncalled for."

A man carried Perry away from the garage entrance to a sidewalk on a nearby street corner, where she was tended to by Cindy Daly, a 47-year-old financial analyst from Mesquite. Daly was dialing her phone for an ambulance when a mounted officer charged the corner and pinned her against a sidewalk barricade and a wall.

"I literally begged him; I said 'Stop! This woman is hurt! I am trying to help her!' and he just ran over me," she said, fighting back tears. "And then he looked me straight in the eye. It was so intentional. It's pure meanness."

The police horse trampled Daly's foot, hobbling her alongside Perry. She sought treatment the next day at a doctor's office. "We are peaceful people," said the self-described veteran activist. "We weren't doing anything wrong, and they just turned on us."

A call to action by the Houston Global Awareness Web site had encouraged demonstrators to remain nonviolent. "We will be noncooperative but peaceful," it said, "and above all, we will hold our ground. We will act in accordance with the rich traditions of social movements before us, which have succeeded using nonviolent resistance to challenge injustice."

The police defended the practice of herding crowds with horses, contending that the animals had been adequately trained. Told of the incidents observed by the Press, HPD spokesperson Manzo said, "Regretfully, some of the things that you have mentioned could have occurred…Does that mean that the police officer did anything inappropriate? Well, not necessarily."

Manzo added that the department would investigate any formal complaints.

Some protesters are already considering taking their case against the police to higher authorities. Daly contacted her congressman about the incident and spoke with an American Civil Liberties Union attorney.

"If you don't stand for something, you will fall for anything," Daly said, "and this country is falling…Nobody wants to be involved, or they are getting something out of the deal and being greedy."

Greed was a common theme at the protest, most visibly at the intersection of Lamar and La Branch streets, where the papier-mâché Cash Cow -- a creature about the size of a small school bus -- was being milked by a man in a Dick Cheney mask. A PA system played a soundtrack filled with mooing, cash register bells and missile explosions. The cow's udders dispensed $100 bills with Cheney's snarling face on them, labeled "Hallibacon Bucks."

"I want to at least make the connection in the public's mind between Halliburton, Dick Cheney, fraud and the Iraq war," said the Cheney impersonator, Keith Koski of Houston. Cheney served as the CEO of Halliburton for five years before becoming George W. Bush's vice president. He then talked up the illusory threat of weapons of mass destruction in support of ousting Saddam Hussein.

The Halliburton shareholders' meeting was also confrontation-addled, although there was no direct news coverage of it because the corporation had barred the media from attending. Andrea Buffa of the justice group Global Exchange was allowed to join the proceedings after Halliburton lawyers scrutinized her paperwork and determined that, yes, her group really did own 100 shares of Halliburton stock.

Buffa and a colleague asked Halliburton CEO David Lesar 12 questions about the company's accounting practices, business dealings in Iran (despite a U.S. trade embargo), use of a Cayman Islands subsidiary allegedly to avoid U.S. labor laws and other issues.

Buffa described Lesar's responses as "PR mumbo jumbo."

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Halliburton responded to questions with a written statement. "Halliburton supports the rights of protesters," it said. "Even if they don't have the facts right, they have a right to speak up."

But some protesters came away from the demonstration wondering if those rights were in jeopardy. Theresa Keef had been standing next to the Cash Cow when the police charged yet again. "They never gave a warning," she said. "They never said, 'Okay, this is the deal, you need to move somewhere.'

"Charging into a crowd on a sidewalk, there was just no call for that."

Staff writer Keith Plocek assisted with this story.

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