From a 2013 march in River Oaks following the not-guilty verdict in the killing of Florica teenager Trayvon Martin. Flickr user Ed Uthman.
Since President Donald Trump took office, there have been a string of protests -- some coordinated, some spontaneous -- around the country, from the Women's March and satellite events around the globe, to the most recent round of protests at international airports in the wake of Trump's executive order on immigration.
As protests shook Boston's Copley Square and New York City's Kennedy International Airport this weekend, Houstonians flocked to the George Bush Intercontinental Airport and downtown to reject the ban and demonstrate why Houston is one of the most refugee-friendly cities in the country.
Though Houston is known as diverse city, and (as Mayor Sylvester Turner has repeatedly emphasized) it's a welcoming city, Houston hasn't historically been seen as a protest city. That's not necessarily due to a lack of trying.
"There’s a general story that it’s a city of oil and gas, and it’s not a city of activism and marching, but if you dig at all, you a see much more rich and complicated story," said John Pluecker, a translator who has written about the city’s organizing history.
When the Houston organizers of the nationally-coordinated Women’s March met at Montrose's Café Brasil the weekend before the event, they weren’t expecting big crowds. “We thought there might be 3,000 people coming,” said Aimee Mobley Turney, president of the local League of Women Voters organization. They knew there wasn’t much time to prepare, but they had an organizer with experience dealing with permitting, and access to the League’s contacts list. Through email and social media, the march grew. By the day of the march, some 22,000 people had signed up, according to Turney. “I couldn’t believe it.”
Some marchers went all the way to Washington D.C. to join the national march. Others headed to Austin. But many stayed in town to march here in Houston. As in D.C., the turnout in Houston surpassed expectations. Official estimates put the crowd size around 20,000 people.
It wasn’t Turney’s first time at a protest. Nor was it Houston’s first time hosting a protest of tens of thousands of people. As recently as 2006, in another nationally coordinated day of protest for immigrants’ rights, a crowd of roughly 50,000 took the streets. But compared to other cities -- even smaller cities -- Houston’s turnout for the Women’s March was modest.
The crowd of 20,000 was dwarfed by attendance in other cities. Chicago saw estimated turnout of 250,000, despite being only slightly larger than Houston. Denver -- with a population 70 percent smaller than Houston's population -- hosted five times as many protesters. In Philadelphia, the mayor’s office estimated that some 50,000 people came out, even though it's a smaller city than Houston.
So, why the small turnout in a big city like Houston?
As sociologist and Kinder Institute founding director Stephen Klineberg has put it, "You could put inside the city limits of Houston, simultaneously — I kid you not — the cities of Philadelphia, Baltimore, Chicago and Detroit."
“Houston is really big and it’s so spread out,” said Robin Paoli, one of the organizers of the Houston Women’s March. “When you’re in a tight, dense environment where people are used to public transportation and public gatherings, that lends itself to, ‘Everybody take the A train to Central Park.’”
But in Houston, the situation for protesters is more complicated. Participants must think about “how to get there, where to park, how to pay for parking,” said longtime Houston organizer Pancho Argüelles. “If you’re making less than $20,000 a year, suddenly having to pay $10 for parking becomes an issue.” Ashton P. Woods, an organizer with the local Black Lives Matter movement, compared his experience here to places like his hometown of New Orleans. “It’s really about transit and access,” he said.
Other characteristics make big visible gatherings difficult, including the relative lack of density and common public spaces. Because the heavily suburban Houston metro has several downtowns -- the Medical Center, the Energy Corridor and downtown, among them -- there isn't a single, highly visible space that has served as a sort of Speakers' Corner over the years.
That's not to say protests don't exist here. Indeed, despite the city's sprawl, the Houston's infrastructure itself has served as the site and subject of protests historically. "Far from secondary objects, roadways and other infrastructure are among the most essential and hotly contested elements of our cities," writes Kyle Shelton, a researcher with the Kinder Institute.
When marchers took to the streets in Houston to protest the verdict in the death of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin in 2013, they walked, casket in hand, toward State Highway 288 where several protestors spilled onto the road blocking traffic for up to 15 minutes. Tactics like these stem from what Shelton described as infrastructural citizenship, referencing earlier protests in the 1970s when both white and black homeowners organized to oppose highway construction that would displace hundreds of families. Recent protests, like those at the airport or the regular Critical Mass bike rides around town, also represent a form of infrastructural citizenship, accessing and disrupting spaces that facilitate the city's economy and movement.
Houston isn't the only sprawling city that boomed in the age of highways and cars. But of the country's five most populous cities, it's the only one located in the South, Argüelles said. Both the structural legacy of segregation and the collective memory of how it ended here continue to inform civic life in a way that both erases and hinders organizing efforts over time.
In June 1963, professor John Lash at Texas Southern University wrote in the Houston Chronicle that the city’s white community was nervously taking note of the “explosive events in Alabama, Maryland, North Carolina, Mississippi, New York and elsewhere” as the fight for civil rights progressed. “Can what happened in Birmingham and other places happen in Houston?” he asked, in a series of questions and answers meant to illuminate the violence and structural injustice occurring locally.
Yes and no, Lash wrote. Certainly, black Houstonians had full cause to engage in mass demonstrations, he said, but they tended to feel their reasonable demands and goals “can be reached by voluntary action of the white leadership of the community.”
Today, the story of Houston’s desegregation -- told in the book, "No Color Is My Kind: The Life of Elderwey Stearns and the Integration of Houston" and the documentary based on the book, "The Strange Demise of Jim Crow" – is often offered as an example of Houston’s pragmatic and peaceful approach to change. Downtown local business leaders got together and agreed to integrate in the face of public protest, but they avoided any coverage by convincing the media to engage in a week-long blackout. There was another media blackout when the city’s hotels did the same thing. That chapter of the Civil Rights era in Houston, said Pluecker helped create a lasting impression “that somehow these things happen without a fight, as if segregation disappeared because the kindly white business class decided it was the best thing to do for the city.”
Negotiations also helped head off other protests, including in May 1963 when a plan to disrupt a parade downtown was called off after movie theaters and restaurants agreed to integrate.
Houston's somewhat conflicted position about protests emerged again, years later in 1984, when 67 percent of Houstonians said they supported a nuclear freeze with the Soviet Union, according to the Kinder Houston Area Survey. At the same time, almost half of residents said they were opposed demonstrations supporting that position. Houstonians seemed uninterested in protesting, even though they were concerned about the issues.
But the examples of boycotts and organizing begin well before the Civil Rights era and extend far beyond. In the early 1900s, black passengers boycotted streetcars operated by hostile white conductors. In 1979, LGBTQ activists sported “Oddwads and Queers for Tinsley” shirts after drawing the scorn of city council member Frank Mann for endorsing his opponent Eleanor Tinsley. And today, Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services leads regular “toxic tours” through the refinery- and chemical plant-heavy neighborhoods along the Houston Ship Channel. Organizing in Houston, Pluecker points out, doesn't always take the form of mass mobilizations, but is still critical, like the work of Texas Organizing Project or The Metropolitan Organization.
When Argüelles reflects on the Civil Rights era in Houston, he sees both a pragmatic approach to social change from the city leaders that he thinks still persists, but also an undermining of organizing efforts that have had lasting effects on how communities here organize.
“They gave people the policy victory but took away the moral victory,” he said. Without the visibility, protest movements had a harder time establishing the tradition of an infrastructure for mobilizing.
Despite the perception that integration was peaceful in Houston, there were several mass mobilizations and violent clashes that followed the media blackout.
In a 2010 story for Cite Magazine, Pluecker chronicles several such incidents, including a student march on the Houston Independent School District headquarters to protest the slow progress of integration, the arrest of 488 people during a protest organized by students at Texas Southern University in which a police officer was shot and killed, and the takeover of an HISD school board meeting by Chicano activists protesting the district’s desegregation plans that integrated Mexican-American and black students while having a minimal impact on white students.
The killing of black activist Carl Hampton after a ten-day standoff with the police in 1970 has, Pluecker writes, “been largely erased from Houston history.” In 1977, another police-involved death, in which José Campos Torres was found drowned in the bayou two days after he was arrested, sparked a riot at a memorial held a year after his death at Moody Park in the Near Northside.
And today, the city's increasingly blue politics are sometimes at odds with those of the red state of which it is a part, he notes. That can impede protests. “In LA, if you drive, you have a driver’s license,” Argüelles said of a recent law that allows undocumented residents to obtain a driver’s license. “Here, every time an undocumented person gets in a car without a license, they’re taking a risk.”
That sense of risk also includes the recent memory of violence for some communities in response to mobilizing. “There is a history of asking 'is that really a place where I will be welcome, am I safe?'" said Argüelles who trains and consults community organizers through his Paz y Fuente, LLC.
All of these factors have combined to create an underfunded, understaffed organizing infrastructure compared to other cities, said Argüelles. He points to a wealth of organizations that provide services for immigrants in Houston but a lack of organizing groups. He also pointed to a smaller number of unions in Houston and Texas -- long associated with organized protests -- and nonprofits' tendency to focus on single elections or policy issues instead of building sustainable organizing capacity.
Without that, he said, vulnerable populations have to first focus on survival. His own group, Living Hope Wheelchair Association, started organizing in 2005 when the Harris County Hospital District stopped providing catheters, diapers and other critical supplies to undocumented immigrants with spinal cord injuries who were ineligible for Medicaid.
Ten years later, he said, the organization has grown, but “when you are busy with your practice of survival, you don’t have as much time to be developing that organizational power.”
Often it’s those people most affected by a political issue who lack the time or funds to join potential protests, said Woods, the Black Lives Matter organizer. Money – for gas and travel expenses to do things like the protest at the state capital in Austin -- has been his number one organizing challenge, he said.
Despite the lack of resources and the barriers that many still face to participating in mass mobilizations, many are hopeful that the success of the recent demonstrations can be channeled into further participation in the city. For some, noted Argüelles, it was their first march. He sees that as a challenge and an opportunity. There were many who questioned the day's calls for unity after facing issues that disproportionately impact communities of color, often without that highly visible unity, and in the face of a clear divide that emerged among voters when more than half of white women who voted did so for Donald Trump. But the march organizers said the event wasn't a protest of Trump. And they're hopeful those first-time marchers will stay involved. “There’s nothing I like less than seeing people protesting and then not doing anything after that,” said the League of Women Voters' Turney.