Author Archives: Alex Arriaga

Counterprotesters say white supremacists, not Russian Facebook ads, drew them to rally

About a dozen people protested against what they called the threat of radical Islam, at the Islamic Da'Wah Center on Saturday, May 21, 2016, in Houston. They were met by several dozen counter-protesters.

When Ramon Mejía learned about an anti-Islam demonstration in Houston last year, he organized a counterprotest — but he said he didn’t get the idea from a Russian Facebook page.

Last week, federal lawmakers made public that two Russian Facebook pages organized dueling rallies in front of the Islamic Da’wah Center in Houston. One ad from Russian-controlled Heart of Texas announced a May 21, 2016, rally to “Stop Islamification of Texas,” while another announced a “Save Islamic Knowledge” counterprotest.

Counterprotesters say their presence wasn’t influenced by the Russian Facebook ad but by the white supremacists who said they would attend.

“It wasn’t Heart of Texas that we were organizing against. We were organizing against actual neo-Nazis that reside in our community, people we actually know,” Mejía said. “The Russians are just capitalizing on what is already existing in our society.”

Hannah Bonner, a United Methodist pastor who attended the counterprotest, said there’s a community in Houston that’s now accustomed to responding to similar events led by hate groups. The protesters at the Da’wah Center had already been active and organized before the Heart of Texas ad.

“We have to respond repeatedly in different locations and at different times, and in this case, the Russians selected the time and place, but they did not create the fear or the white supremacy — they just created an opportunity,” Bonner said. “We can’t blame Russia for the problem with racism that we have.”

Mejía said he was especially moved to organize when he saw a White Lives Matter leader in Houston, Ken Reed, was going to attend the anti-Islam protest.

According to the Anti-Defamation League, Reed is the executive director of a small but established neo-Nazi group in Houston called the Aryan Renaissance Society. He’s led similar White Lives Matter events in 2016 outside the Houston NAACP, at the Texas Capitol and outside the Anti-Defamation League office.

“This is the only instance we know of where extremists were actually motivated to show up to a ‘Russian’ event,” Mark Pitcavage, an Anti-Defamation League expert on right-wing extremism, said in a direct message on Twitter.

A NewsFix report from the day of the protest said Reed “wouldn’t identify as a member of Heart of Texas.”

“This is America. We have the right to speak out and protest, and that’s what we’re doing. We feel that Texas, our great state, and the United States is being threatened by the influx of Islam,” Reed said, according to the report.

Attempts to reach Reed and other White Lives Matter organizers were not immediately successful.

Steven Orozco, another demonstrator at the anti-hate rally, called the Russian strategy for enflaming racial tensions “smart and brilliant.”

“If that’s what happened, kudos to Russia for pulling off something that’s honestly easy to detect,” Orozco said. “As far as racism in the United States, in that case it’s a very effective tool.”

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Texas death row inmate Duane Buck has sentence reduced to life after Supreme Court orders retrial

Duane Buck, whose death sentence in a 1995 double slaying was appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court after allegations of racist testimony from an expert witness, had his sentence reduced to life in prison Tuesday after reaching a plea agreement with Harris County prosecutors.

Buck, 54, was convicted and sentenced to death after killing his ex-girlfriend and her friend in Houston. Last week, the Harris County District Attorney’s Office added two new charges of attempted murder.

Under the plea agreement, Buck pleaded guilty to those new charges and was sentenced to two terms of 60 years in prison, in exchange for the Harris County District Attorney’s Office agreeing to drop its pursuit of the death penalty for the 1995 killings. All three sentences will run concurrently.

In appealing Buck’s initial sentence, his attorneys argued that his sentencing hearing was prejudiced because an expert witness had claimed Buck was more likely to be a future danger because he is black. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed, handing the case back to Harris County for a retrial.

“After reviewing the evidence and the law, I have concluded that, twenty-two years after his conviction, a Harris County jury would likely not return another death penalty conviction in a case that has forever been tainted by the indelible specter of race,” Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg said in a statement. “Accordingly, in consideration for Buck pleading guilty to two additional counts of attempted murder we have chosen not to pursue the death penalty.”

Buck’s sister, Phyllis Taylor, who was the victim one of the attempted murder charges, has since advocated against the death sentence for him.

“Talking about that night is deeply emotional for me. So I thank the District Attorney, Kim, for agreeing to this sentence because the thought of going through another trial was just too much to bear,” Taylor said in a statement.

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Texas House Speaker Joe Straus calls for removal of “inaccurate” Confederate plaque

The "Children of the Confederacy Creed" plaque, highlighted in a letter state Rep. Eric Johnson sent to the State Preservation Board, asking that it be taken down.

Texas House Speaker Joe Straus requested on Tuesday that a contentious Confederate plaque be removed from the Capitol.

The plaque, erected in 1959, asserts that the Civil War was “not a rebellion, nor was its underlying cause to sustain slavery.”

“This is not accurate, and Texans are not well-served by incorrect information about our history,” Straus said in a letter to the State Preservation Board, which oversees the Capitol grounds.

Straus added in his letter that “confederate monuments and plaques are understandably important to many Texans” but stressed the importance of such landmarks being “accurate and appropriate.”

“The Children of the Confederacy Creed plaque does not meet this standard,” Straus wrote.

State Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas, who has called for the removal of the plaque, told The Texas Tribune he was “pleased” that Straus agrees it should come down.

“I am confident that it will come down soon,” Johnson said.

Straus’ letter to the State Preservation Board is part of a larger conversation — both statewide and national — surrounding Confederate monuments. Following the deadly racial conflict in Charlottesville, Virginia, that began as a defense of a Robert E. Lee monument, some confederate statues in Texas have quickly come down after years of debate including three at the University of Texas at Austin and one last week in a public park in Dallas. Still, there are more than 180 public symbols of the Confederacy around Texas including a dozen just on the Capitol grounds.

“We have an obligation to all the people we serve to ensure that our history is described correctly, especially when it comes to a subject as painful as slavery,” Straus said in his letter.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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