Letter from Washington — From the March 2017 issue

Texas is the Future

Can Democrats reconquer the Lone Star State?

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Goldman, Zermeno, and Tremillo (who took over as executive director of TOP in 2016), came to their progressive politics by observing the world around them. Others active in the organization learned about society’s injustices through direct, personal, brutal experience. In 2003, Tarsha Jackson, an African-American single mother living in the dilapidated Greenspoint neighborhood, discovered that her twelve-year-old son, Marquieth, had been sentenced by the Texas Juvenile Justice Department to nine months in prison. His crime: breaking a fifty-dollar window at a neighborhood swimming pool. The boy had already spent time behind bars for various misdemeanors, such as kicking a teacher while being restrained in a special-education class. These Dickensian punishments had been sanctioned by a 1995 overhaul of Texas school discipline, which prescribed zero tolerance and immediate recourse to law enforcement for unruly children.

“My son served three and a half years for a misdemeanor as a child,” Jackson told me over lunch at Gloria’s Latin Cuisine, one of a thriving chain of Salvadoran eateries across Texas. “They kept moving him to different jails far away.” In total, Marquieth Jackson served five years as a juvenile. Appeals to the A.C.L.U. went nowhere. “They weren’t interested. So I started organizing for myself.” Founding Texas Families of Incarcerated Youth with two other mothers in similar straits, Jackson mounted an intense campaign, complete with demonstrations, media appearances, and tireless lobbying. In 2007, she succeeded in getting Texas Senate Bill 103 passed, which banned the jailing of children for minor misdemeanors, although, as she points out, “it took a white boy getting raped in jail for them to finally do it.”

By the time TOP was preparing for the 2016 election, in which numerous local offices were in play, Jackson had joined the organization as the director for Harris County. The membership, expected but not obliged to pay five dollars in monthly dues, had grown steadily since 2009. Petra Vargas, the hotel employee, recounted to me over barbecue how she had eavesdropped on a TOP conference while at work, joined on the spot, and attended her first demonstration the next day. Regular actions, such as the protest that led to a partial cleanup at the toxic CES plant, helped mobilize others. Feedback from the membership showed that there was a host of urgent issues on voters’ minds, such as low wages and poor schools. It was the death of Sandra Bland, however, that propelled criminal justice to the top of the list.

Bland, a twenty-eight-year-old African-American activist, was arrested in July 2015 in Waller County, just an hour’s drive from Houston. A state trooper pulled her over for changing lanes without a turn signal. Three days later, she was found dead in her jail cell, an alleged suicide. Bland’s arbitrary arrest and suspicious death aroused a national furor. But the reason she was still in jail after three days was all too familiar to hundreds of thousands of poor people, especially African Americans, in Houston and elsewhere across Texas: bail for this very minor traffic offense had been set at $5,000, and neither she nor her family could raise the $500 down payment demanded by the bail bondsman.

Tarsha Jackson herself had gone to jail in the 1990s thanks to traffic tickets. (“No inspection, no insurance, no child seat, I couldn’t afford it.”) Now, while launching a petition demanding an investigation into Bland’s death, she and her colleagues in the Houston TOP office sat down and built an agenda around criminal-justice reform. As she explained to me, many of TOP’s latent voters had experienced similarly punitive brushes with the legal system, which they were often reluctant to discuss. “They felt ashamed,” she told me. “Our canvassers on the doorsteps were telling them: ‘It’s okay to talk about this.’ It sucks!”

Rosie McCutcheon could cite her own experiences when discussing law enforcement with potential voters. Like Jackson, she had been picked up for driving without insurance or registration, back in 2003. She was fined $795 and consigned to the county jail, gaining release when she agreed to perform community service at an assisted-living facility. But the county lost the records of her service, and in 2008 she was arrested again — on her own porch, in front of her grandchildren.

By that time, her initial fine had ballooned to $2,100. That was largely due to the Driver Responsibility Program, introduced by the state in 2003, which had little to do with inducing responsibility and a lot to do with closing a $10 billion budget gap by adding supplements to preexisting fines. Hence McCutcheon’s spiraling debt, augmented by a payday loan at 100 percent interest to raise her original bail.

True to its threefold mission — canvassing, policy research, direct political action — TOP has taken on the bail system, whose vicious nature was most vividly revealed in a series of videos that the organization unearthed last year. One after another, inmates at the county jail file in front of a monitor showing the “TV judge”: a magistrate sitting in an office across town. In one video, the judge confronts Anthony Goffney, an elderly homeless man with dementia who had been arrested four days earlier for trespassing, and who clearly has no idea what is going on. “Bond is set at five thousand dollars!” snaps a hearing officer. (When the same officer asks Goffney whether he’s requesting a court-appointed lawyer, his answer is, “Who, me?”) In another video, the magistrate doubles a woman’s bail to $2,000 simply because she answers “Yeah” to a question instead of “Yes.”

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