On Picking A Fight to Win One: My Houston Story

10 Nov

Friday night I had a bit of a bucket list kind of night.  I got to tell a story on The Moth Mainstage when they were in town at the Fitzgerald Theater in Saint Paul.  Ever since I first started listening to The Moth podcast, I have been telling John I wanted to be on and tell my story about Houston. The account below is not how I told it on stage, when you have about 10 minutes to tell a story to the live audience.  When people ask when I knew working for social justice is what I wanted to do — I often tell this story.

In 2006, Houston Janitors made the minimum wage, $5.15 an hour

In 2006, Houston Janitors made the minimum wage, $5.15 an hour

So I am sitting, legs crossed on the street, in the middle of a busy intersection in downtown Houston, arms linked with two other guys.  The three of us are looking up the nostrils of a horse.  The policeman on the horse’s back looks down at us and barks, “You are going to be trampled.”  And then he trampled us.

The three of us were the first of our group of about 45 dispersed off the intersection we had taken over in an act of civil disobedience. We had come from all over the country  – 11 of us from Minnesota – to support the janitors of Houston, who had been on strike for months, fighting for their first union contract. Their employers had left the bargaining table and were not budging, and so the strikers escalated the fight.  Ours was one in a series of acts of civil disobedience aimed at creating a crisis for the city of Houston.

The janitors of Houston lived in crisis every day.  In 2006 they were making $5.15 an hour – the federal minimum wage, and were limited to working four hours a night.  These janitors, like the janitors here and around the country, mostly work invisibly at night, after the office workers and executives have gone home.

The janitors taking home 20 dollars a night were mostly women and they were immigrants, and they clean the offices of some of the wealthiest corporations in the country, the world.  Exxon Mobil, Chevron, Shell Oil Company… Halliburton.

Everyone knew the only way the strike would end was if any of these corporations said to their cleaning companies, “end this strike.”  But no one was saying that.

So we were there to create a crisis, although I would not say that those of us who volunteered to go down there really understood what that meant.  I first got a clue that afternoon when we were briefed on the action, and the organizers leading this orientation talked like they were on Mission Impossible.  We would all arrive to downtown Houston in small groups of six or so people, from different points, and all converge at the same meeting place, a Burger King at that intersection, right across the skyscraper housing one of these big oil companies. They told us to not be surprised if our white vans were followed by police helicopters, and I thought police helicopters? What the hell did I just agree to?

I was scared out of my mind, and kicking myself for it. Stop being a wuss. But I couldn’t help it.  In the union, veterans of the Justice for Janitors movement all have stories of battle scars, stories that began: “I remember that time I got punched in the face by a cop.”  Before Houston I’d just listen quietly, as my experience prior to the union consisted of teaching history and anthropology to college students. I tried my best to look like I was in control on that day, but inside I was a quivering mess.

My little group made our way to the Burger King and it eventually filled up.  I recognized some of the people but others I didn’t.  I was looking around the room wondering who was in on it and who was actually a customer.  There was this one table full of elderly white people, drinking coffee and water.  That’s a scene I’ve seen before at a Burger King or McDonald’s. Clearly they’re not with us.

What was supposed to happen was at 4:15 someone would yell GO! and we’d all run out and take over the intersection. We’d sit, legs crossed, arms linked until an organizer came and put handcuffs on us.  What actually happened is that 4:15 came and went and we couldn’t do anything because there were police everywhere. On foot, on horseback.  There was a decoy rally of striking janitors a few blocks away but they weren’t being distracted.  4:30, 4:45, 5:00.  Now I had been scared all day but at that point I didn’t think the thing was going to happen and I was pissed.  I came to Houston to get arrested. If I have to hold up a convenience store, I am getting arrested.

But suddenly, the police did all go over to the decoy rally. So we hear it, GO! From that moment on I was focused, fear was gone. We got into position, linked arms – but before we could even form a full circle and before anyone could get handcuffs on us, the police were back. And me and the two guys from New York were staring up the nostrils of that horse.  After that no-minute warning, everything was a blur.  They moved us to one side of the street and the horses charged everyone else.  An older woman from New York had her wrist broken.

I had somehow ended up in an all-Puerto Rican group.  Me, the Puerto Rican from the island and these badass Puerto Rican janitors from New York, who were pissed. While everyone else was keeping up their chanting, Workers, United, Will Never Be defeated, my group was pissed, saying  What the fuck was that? This is not what I signed up for! That group of old white people in the BK, by the way, were on the street corner, chanting El Pueblo Unido, Jamás Será Vencido.

They eventually got us all into handcuffs and a huge armored bus arrived to take us away.  By the time they got us all on and blocked off the intersection, the decoy rally had arrived.  I looked out of the window through the iron grates.  It was a beautiful night.  The sky at dusk was full of color. Hundreds of Houston janitors and activists were, chanting. There were drums. It was lively.  I was overcome because, you see, something that no one said publicly, was that the reason we had come from all over the country to take part in this was because Houston janitors had risked a lot by going on strike.  But risking arrest, was too much because risking arrest for many could meaning risking deportation.

I had all kinds of thoughts running through my head.  I thought wow, I guess it’s just going to be this hard. We had been talking in the union about going into the South. Here we were and this city was spending so much money, so many resources were being put into keeping people in poverty.

I also thought, Oh my God, my mother can never find out about this.

Houston horsesMind you, in 2006 I was a grown ass man.  But this was not the future my parents had in mind for the son who, many years before, had sent to the US for college – to  Yale University – or as my tios and tias pronounced it, Jale – which, as I’m sure you know, is a factory.  A factory that produces elites. My parents had worked hard to get themselves out of poverty.  Unlike Latin Americans crossing the border, and by an accident of history, we Puerto Ricans are born American citizens. At 21, my dad found one of the only ways out of that poverty – he joined the US Army.  He became a career serviceman.  He did two tours of duty of frontline infantry in Vietnam and almost a third – until a Congresssional investigation of his battalion uncovered that black and Latino soldiers were getting third orders to Vietnam while many white soldiers hadn’t yet gone once.

I was a good kid, a studious kid when I left to Yale. After I graduated I had a long, too long, career as a graduate student working to become a professor, perhaps at some other factory for producing elites. That’s what brought me to Minnesota in 2000 to teach at an elite college.  But two years later, the tragic and accidental death of a U.S. senator, Paul Wellstone, made me an accidental activist and confirmed for me that I had to leave academia and do something. 

I worked in politics, began working for the union in 2004 and by June of that year I was asked if I would consider leading this union of immigrant janitors and security officers and I thought are you crazy? I was teaching history, like a year ago. And by March 2005 I was elected by the board of this local to become is president and by that fall of 2006 I was leading negotiations for 4,000 janitors. A group of 11 of us took a break from negotiations to go down to Houston to do support work for a strike that did not look like it was coming to an end any time soon.

houston2And that’s how I landed in Houston city jail. By the time we were processed and got through the gauntlet of fingerprints, mug shots, removing your shoe laces, handing over my belt – I didn’t get into the holding cell until about 2 am – and I was the first of “the protestors” that made it through.  I walk into this cell and I think, oh fuck I’m going to die here. Because of course I assumed that all these guys had just come from knife fights or shootouts.  If you ever find yourself in jail in Houston – or frankly almost anywhere else – the first thing you notice at everyone in there is black or brown.  The only white people in this packed cell were protestors.  Except late at night there was a prostitution bust an a few white johns came in.  And a few DUIs a little later than that.

Soon after I got through that gauntlet this young black guy comes in.  One of the other jail mates started calling him Sideshow Bob, the Simpsons character, because he had crazy hair – but not to his face because he also had a crazy look to him.  As soon as he got in he was restless, screaming for guards. They ignored him so he took a plastic bag from the garbage can and put it over his head and yelled “I will kill myself.” And all of the guard rushed in. There was a lot of shouting at him and one of them got the bag away from him through the bars. The guards all leave, except one of them stays behind.  He was this short, muscled up, and very young white guy who I came to nickname Abu Ghraib because he was constantly telling us he was a badass who served in Iraq.  He starts yelling at Bob. “You think I’m scared of you? You think I’m scared of you? I did two tours in Iraq as a grunt. I KILL PEOPLE.”

To which Bob replies.  “I kill people too.  I’m in jail.”

Jailmates 1, Abu Ghraib Zero.

I soon realized something else about our jailmates.  Almost all of them seemed to have been through this before.  They educated me and the other protestors on what would happen.  When we’d get to talk to a lawyer, how the bond is posted.  They were not all in knife or gun fights.  It was astounding how insignificant some of the charges seemed.  A seventeen year old latino kid who looked much younger was in because he had been trespassed by the high school he had dropped out of. When he drove back there to pick up his sister who was still a student there, was trespassed and arrested. Others were in because they were walking without ID and you can be held for 48 hours without being charged.

Now we had been arrested Thursday evening and we thought we’d be out by morning.  But as I said the Houston police were pissed and so was the District Attorney.  Talking to the lawyers I learned that he had originally set bail for us at $888,888.  Each.  The Crazy Eights Bail.  For blocking traffic. This same DA had set bail for a guy who had killed his own mother at 35k. So we ended up staying longer than overnight.

So by Friday night, after 24 hours already, we were panicking because, as our jail mentors warned us, “if you don’t get out by Friday at 5, you’re not getting out until Monday morning.

But late that night, the lawyers finally figured things out, got the bail reduced and we were told they’d start processing our releases.houston3

That didn’t start until 5am.  My name was called in the first group.  Now when you’re in jail, they do body counts a lot.  In the middle of the night.  They wake everyone up off the concrete floors, have you line up and you count off as they call your name.  And the guards always pronounced by name wrong.  So when they called me that morning I hear “JAY-VIER” and I thanked God. One of the Minnesota guys I’d come with corrected the guard HA-VIER and I thought shut the fuck up. Jay-vier is out of here.

When we got out we learned how big of a deal our arrests had become.  There was a candlelight vigil outside the jail.  It led the news on every station because the police not only barricaded our intersection but blocked off several more so thousands of people were backed up in traffic and couldn’t get home for hours.

The embarrassment had finally caused the corporate elites of Houston to get together and tell their cleaning contractors, “End this strike.” They had agreed to come back to the table. Our group from Minnesota made it back Sunday night and on my way to work Monday morning I got the news that the Houston janitors and won their first union contract with guaranteed wage increases and, for the first time, health care coverage.

This line of work is sometimes very hard.  I often ask myself, “why do we have to work so hard for so little?”  But I also think back to that night – sitting handcuffed on that bus – and think about janitors who made their invisible work visible. And I think of those who disappear, invisible into our jails and prisons.  And those tall skyscrapers, how it all exists right by each other.  And I think, “I guess it’s just going to be that hard.”

And I remember something Paul Wellstone used to say: “Sometimes you have to pick a fight to win a fight.”

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