Saturday, September 15, 2012

Please Don’t Let the Students Read This

A little more than forty years ago, a horrible injustice was done in Houston.  Lee Otis Johnson, a student activist, supposedly gave an undercover policeman a single marijuana cigarette.  Despite the fact that the joint was a gift--an act that Johnson denied had ever occurred--he was arrested for “selling” drugs.  A new district attorney (seeking to further his political career) personally prosecuted a case that normally would have been dealt with by an Assistant District Attorney so fresh out of law school that he hadn't yet learned how to play golf.

Why would a district attorney prosecute such a small case?  Did I mention that the defendant was black?  Hell, he was a Black Panther.  And worse, he had been a voice for civil rights at Texas Southern University!

The district attorney pulled out all the stops and passionately demanded that the jury give Johnson 15 years in jail.  The jury, equally impassioned, gave Lee Otis Johnson 30 years.    Thirty years for a single marijuana cigarette—even after more than forty years, this stings to even think about.  

Naturally, this became a cause among the students.  “Free Lee Otis” became the rallying cry on campuses in many towns in Texas.  There were bumper stickers, signs, and a lot of chanting at protest marches.  We students wanted Johnson freed!  We wanted civil rights!  We wanted an end to irrational drug laws.  It turned out that it didn’t matter what we wanted: what we got was a harsh education in reality.

Governor Preston Smith came to the University of Houston and gave a speech.  For the life of me, I can’t remember what he talked about.  Probably omething about hosing the homeless and two legs being better than four—it was an election year.  Not that any of the students were listening--we were too busy shouting.   “FREE LEE OTIS!”  “FREE LEE OTIS!”  “FREE LEE OTIS!”  God, it felt so good to be young and involved.  I can’t remember, but we were either passionately brilliant or brilliantly passionate.

Then Governor Smith put his hand over the microphone, turned to his aide and asked—loud enough for all of us to hear through the public address system—“Why are they yelling ‘frijoles’?”

That crowd got as quiet as a funeral—aptly, it turned out—as a lot of young idealism died right there.  The shouts stopped as wide-eyed and freshly-matured students began slowly leaving the auditorium.  We had peeked into the back room of the political butcher shop and caught a glimpse of how sausage was really made. The process was ugly and quite a few of us became social vegetarians.

The conviction was eventually overturned and Lee Otis Johnson got out of jail after serving four years.  He lived a rather quiet life and passed away ten years ago.  Very few attended his funeral.  On hearing of Johnson’s death, the former district attorney told reporters:  "Times have changed so much that the sentence he received would not make sense in accordance with today,"   It is nice to see that one thing has not changed: the district attorney is still a jackass—that thirty year sentence makes no sense in any age.

It has been an interesting week at Enema U, a week that has frequently reminded me of my sudden disillusionment at the hands of Governor Smith.  Increasingly, the faculty seems angry, but it is a little difficult to understand exactly why.  Is it the sudden realization that after years of neglect, the state pension fund has a wealth of empty promises and not nearly enough assets?  Or is it the gloomy acknowledgement that this may be another hard money year when it comes to raises?   Or maybe everyone is just tired of the administration of Moose and Squirrel being about as organized as a soup sandwich?  Whatever the cause, you can see all the evidence you want on the faculty email listserv.

A listserv is a group mailing list where any member can mail a message to the email server and every member gets a copy of the message.  Then any of the recipients can respond.  Run properly, it is a great tool for communication; it is a public bulletin board where anyone can voice his opinion.  This same tool, when given to faculty members turns a few of them into angry children with magic markers scrawling graffiti on a public restroom wall.  Thank God only the faculty can read these messages.

I think it would be safe to generalize that the vast majority of the messages come from the same tiny handful of people, say a dozen people out of a total faculty of almost a thousand.  If each member were restricted to only a single comment a month, it would improve the quality of the postings immensely.  

What would happen if our students could read these postings?  Would they suddenly question why so much time and money was spent on learning from people who cannot even hold civil conversations among themselves?  Would they suddenly silently stand and slowly walk out of our classrooms?  I can just imagine the students whispering among themselves; “With so many important issues out there, why are they talking about frijoles?”

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