HOUSTON CHRONICLE: A New Generation of Houston Activists Rising

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By: Cindy George, Houston Chronicle. 

A new generation of black activist leadership in Houston has emerged from the protests over the officer-involved deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York.

At one point during a town hall last month featuring Harris County's district attorney and sheriff, the clergyman-moderator acknowledged a fresh face in the audience wearing a T-shirt with a blazer who was given a few minutes to talk about a burgeoning movement of young people organizing in Houston.

As Bishop James Dixon, who is in his 50s, descended the steps from his pulpit-turned-dais toward Durrel Douglas, the microphone and that moment could be viewed as a metaphorical passing of the baton to the next generation.

Douglas and two others have formed Houston Justice, an organization so new that it didn't exist the week of Thanksgiving when a multi-ethnic multitude marched for miles in Houston's Third Ward to protest a grand jury's decision not to indict the Ferguson officer who fatally shot Brown.

The spotlight was on Douglas that day too. At one point before participants briefly blocked traffic, he began shouting into a megaphone and wondered aloud why no elected officials were present to rally with the people.

By Thanksgiving weekend, he was caucusing with Shekira Dennis and Damien Thaddeus Jones about how to bundle the energy that had fired up hundreds - if not thousands - of Houstonians. Intentionally rejecting the pattern of mainline social justice organizations like the NAACP or the National Urban League, Houston Justice's leadership structure was designed as a trinity of equals with no single figurehead.

"We said: We have to do something. We can turn this into something," Douglas explained.

3 initial goals

The born-in-the-1980s leaders settled on three initial goals: Convince the Houston City Council to pass the "Mike Brown Ordinance" to require Houston Police Department officers to wear body cameras while on duty, strengthen the power of the HPD citizens review board and increase the diversity of Harris County grand juries.

The group adopted the mantra "Less Talk, More Action" to emphasize that they're not impressed by rhetoric.

In advancing an agenda tailored for Houston, the trio knew they were moving in the right direction and potentially building an impactful movement when elected officials from City Hall to the Texas Legislature began contacting them and requesting meetings. They were invited to appear on radio shows. Police union representatives and Houston mayoral candidates wanted to talk.

When Douglas, Jones and other Houston Justice allies addressed the City Council in early December, supporters rose in the gallery and assumed "hands up, don't shoot" postures.

Their zeal helped nudge council members to promise to speak to Mayor Annise Parker about convening a town hall to seek citizen input about body cameras. Over the last year, the city tested the recording devices on 100 officers. HPD now plans to start its full-fledged program of outfitting all 3,900 uniformed officers by the end of 2015.

Law enforcement issues have personal importance for Douglas. The 28-year-old worked as a jailer in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice for five years after high school. He found himself guarding former classmates who grew up with him on Houston's south side.

"I saw so many, you'd be surprised," he said.

Four years ago, Douglas switched to politics, first working for the Harris County Democratic Party and state Rep. Alma Allen, D-Houston, then the Texas Organizing Project, which advocates for poor and working-class families. Later, he was the Texas state director of Working America, a community affiliate of the AFL-CIO. Today, he's a consultant.

Dennis, the youngest at 26, was raised in Houston and cut a path from standout student at Texas Southern University to Washington intern in the Office of Presidential Personnel.

She served as TSU student government association president during the 2011-12 academic year and interned with then-City Council member Wanda Adams. In addition to organizing for Texas Together in Houston's Alief area, she worked in Charlotte, N.C., for President Barack Obama's 2012 re-election campaign.

Some have questioned the authority of the younger generation to challenge established and elected leaders, but Dennis said the coalition's actions are part of a mandate.

"I'm simply doing what our elders have asked us to do: Step up, take responsibility and take it to the next level. That's exactly what we're doing," she said.

Cultural critic

Raised in Jackson, Miss., the setting for many battles of the 20th century civil rights struggle, Jones is the closest the clan comes to having a preacher at the helm. The self-styled cultural critic comes from a family of clergy, usually wears a suit, leans heavily on morality in his arguments and is prone to offer Biblical references to illustrate a point.

"The movement is in me," said Jones, 29, an Air Force veteran who serves as TSU student government executive vice president. "This is what God put me here to do. When the people you expect to be fighting for you are not, we have nothing to lose."

The civil rights movement of an earlier era got much of its energy and leadership from those under 40. When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was tapped to lead the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, he was 26. He was assassinated at age 39. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, known as SNCC, made its mark in the 1960s through young people performing field work, namely registering black voters in the South.

Houston Justice is following that model with a 21st century twist. The group relies heavily on social media, which has become the primary tool to move its message and get people involved. Hundreds have signed their body cameras petition. A town hall meeting on law enforcement issues in early December drew more than 300 people. With two notaries public on hand, more than 70 completed grand juror applications that night. The group gathered more completed paperwork on a recent Sunday at a Houston mega church.

"Young people need something to grasp onto real quick," Dennis said. "We wanted to have tangible, small things, that people can do. People still don't know how they fit into things right now, but they want to make a difference."

After the immediate goals, Houston Justice intends to further disrupt the status quo with an "Elected Accountability Project" to evaluate the "tangible legislative and programmatic progress" of local black and Hispanic politicians at the city, county, state and Congressional levels.

'The right moment'

According to a U.S. Census Bureau report released in April, nearly half of the nation's eligible voters in 2012 were 44 or younger. The analysis showed that 21 percent were 18 to 29, the group with the lowest voting rates, historically. Another 24 percent were 30 to 44. Young adults in Texas have some of the weakest voting rates when compared to people their age nationwide.

That's why Houston Justice is so relevant and has so much promise, the leaders contend.

And, tapping into that sleeping giant is one reason Houston Justice expects criticism.

"We know that, while building this, it's going to come. The hate," Douglas said. "But we've come to the conclusion that we have each other, no matter what."

Dennis is steadfast about the group's mission and remains undeterred by naysayers.

"We are thinkers, doers, believers and dreamers," she said. "We are in the right space and we are in the right moment."

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