By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
So maybe you figure the Dallas Observer wants to do stories to help Laura Miller get elected mayor because she used to work here. I think the same way--paranoid.
If that's what you think, you're wrong. Right now Miller and her husband, state Representative Steve Wolens, are officially not speaking to the Observer, they're so mad at us over the story Thomas Korosec did on Wolens' law firm, Baron & Budd ("Homefryin' with Fred Baron," March 29, 2001). Wolens, in fact, has threatened to retaliate against the Observer and its sister paper the Houston Press.
As for me, I'm really not much of a mayor-picker. About the best I can do every once in a while is to be a mayor picker-onner.
All of which is irrelevant. The most important point I possibly could make in the scene I am about to paint for you is that the central characters are not Laura Miller or Steve Wolens, and definitely not Jim Schutze or anything to do with the Dallas Observer.
It's Saturday morning, March 31. I'm asleep. My phone rings. A neighborhood activist in the Bachman Lake area tells me hurriedly--running down a list of names to call, a little breathless, no time for chit-chat--that Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price and a group of protesters are outside Oak Cliff City Councilwoman Laura Miller's house with a bullhorn and placards that say, "Laura Miller is a bitch," "Laura Miller is a whore," and "Laura Miller has penis-envy."
I know exactly what it's all about. My source knows I know. It's about the campaign Miller and fellow Councilwoman Donna Blumer are carrying out to get more information from the FBI on corruption charges against Dallas Chief of Police Terrell Bolton.
The caller gives me Miller's address. I throw on clothes and get to Oak Cliff as fast as I can. But not fast enough. I arrive just after Price and the protesters have gone. Most of the cops have left. This is what I see when I get there:
Wolens is on the stoop with his three young children and a cop. The children, ages 5, 8 and 10, are still in their pajamas, very upset, flicking away tears. I have seen these kids before: They're not easily upset by grownups. These are politics kids. I remember running into Miller in the grocery store when she had the littlest one in the cart: The minute we started to talk City Hall, the little boy put both palms to his ears and muttered to himself, "Oh, no, she's talking."
But today they are scared. They're frightened, because what happened here early this morning wasn't politics. The law recognizes the difference between controversial words and fighting words. John Wiley Price, whom I have known and watched for almost a quarter century, certainly knows the difference. Bitch and whore and penis-things about the kids' mother are not political discourse: Those are male fury words, spoken right before the bitch gets the spit slapped out of her mouth. Kids feel all of that in their guts.
So first I overhear Wolens showing the children that the police officer has a gun. He's telling them something like, "See, the officer has a gun and a stick, and the officer is staying here in front of our house. The officer won't let anybody hurt you." ...words a father says to wash away the near-physical pain of a child's fear.
Then the kids go in the house. I'm supposed to be talking to Miller, who doesn't want to talk to me because of Baron & Budd, but I keep eavesdropping on Wolens and the cop. Wolens is being very nice, very decorous, trying not to put the cop on the spot, but he's asking if something can't be done about the illegal aspect of the protest--not the words, which he doesn't mention, but the amplified bullhorn.
Apparently the bullhorn, which is against the law in a residential neighborhood, was tossed into somebody's car the instant the cops showed up. But there are witnesses who heard and saw it before the cops got there, including some neighbors, who are willing to sign complaints.
The cop is shucking and smirking and back-pedaling, and it's all about please now, Mr. Wolens, now don't put us in this position, we don't want to get cross-wise with the chief.
Terrell Bolton. That's whose name comes up again and again in this dialogue in front of Wolens' home. Wolens is asking if there isn't some way they can do something without getting into trouble with Bolton. The cop is clearly worried about trouble with Bolton.
And finally it strikes me: What Wolens told the kids isn't true. The police will not protect them.
There is threat here, real threat--the air is still thick with it. Bitch and whore; your mother wants a penis. Those words hover right at the edge of smashing somebody's face. There's not an ounce of persuasion in those words, not a breath of moral argument. Those are bloody-knuckles words.
But the police, God bless them, are weaseling. Miller tells me later that the cops told her, "Headquarters is in our ear every minute when we're out here."
Get it? Implicitly or explicitly, this is the chief's deal. The people with the "bitch" and "whore" signs are his brownshirts. The cops, gosh and darn and give us a break, don't want to get caught in the middle. Whether the police know explicitly that the chief set this up or just assume it, their perception, conveyed grudgingly to Wolens in front of me, is that they can't do much for him because if they do they will get into trouble with the chief.
The rule of law has been suspended here this morning. Suspended by the attackers. Suspended by the cops on the scene. Suspended by The Dallas Morning News, which had people at Miller's house before I got there and deliberately reported not one word of this for several days until they had no choice. The rule of law was suspended in the gutless silence of the Dallas establishment that said nothing for days.
Price was out there calling Miller a bitch and a whore and making sex jokes about her in front of her kids to settle a host of personal scores, including payback for her March 1991 D Magazine story, "The Hustler," in which three unnamed women were quoted accusing Price of rape. But Price also was in front of Miller's house with the implicit permission of the establishment in Dallas. You will never convince me otherwise.
I spent most of that afternoon on the telephone. In one of those conversations, I found myself chatting with a politically astute person who happens to have the ear both of the rich white guys downtown, on some issues, and of the black political establishment that works for them.
I said, "I can't believe Price doesn't understand what he's doing with this stuff."
"He's electing Miller mayor."
I explained. Nobody knows whether Miller will run for mayor the next time the job opens in 2003, but she has given broad hints that she will. If she does, her biggest hurdle will be the perception that she's a liberal, maybe because she's married to one, maybe because she used to work here. (I don't know why people perceive the Observer as liberal, unless it's that Dallas thing where "liberal" means any kind of iconoclasm or pot-stirring, whether truly liberal or libertarian conservative. As far as I know, we just try to tell the truth and sell newspapers.)
Miller's dramatically growing base of support over the last two years has been in conservative North Dallas, perhaps because of her close association with North Dallas council member Blumer, an extreme social conservative, and maybe because Miller has earned a reputation for Ayn Rand-style individualism in an atmosphere of cowering conformism.
Whatever. Nothing helps her distance herself from the bleeding-heart thing better than having John Wiley Price beat up on her.
I explained it. Long silence on the other end of the phone. Quick goodbyes.
I have good reason to believe that my two-bit theory was relayed to some decision-makers in or near the Price camp and that Price, whom I have always considered politically smarter than his white handlers downtown, saw the wisdom in it. I think it's why they called off the protests--not because Bolton or the mayor or Olympics booster Tom Luce or Belo/Morning News chairman Robert Decherd or any of those fine fellows ever recognized the sheer un-American immorality of what was going on in front of Steve Wolens' house. I think the idiots called it off because it hadn't occurred to them sooner that there would be a backlash and that the backlash would work for Miller, not them.
And here is the last point, which was supposed to be the first one: This is all about those children. Or your children. Or your parents. Or you.
If they can suspend the rule of law at Wolens' house, they can suspend it wherever and whenever they choose. Don't think for a minute it can't be you next. From what I've seen, this police chief gets mad at people very easily.
It made me sick to stand there, watching a man try to reassure and protect his kids, and what he's really doing, in a very quiet way, is begging. Cajoling. Wheedling. Asking for the protection of the law.
But the protection of the law is just not there for him.
I don't pick mayors. But I'll tell you one thing. Terrell Bolton is dead as police chief. He cannot continue to be the chief of police after this. Whatever happens after he leaves, I don't know. But we all need to take a major reality check. There is no way this man can continue to be the chief of police.
He needs to go, sooner rather than later. It's not about Miller or Wolens. It's about those kids and the rule of law.