Mari-Lena Ochoa had it all figured out.
"I want to be a teacher," the 19-year-old explained earnestly, leaning over the empty seat between us to talk. "I really want to make a difference. White, Hispanic, Oriental, black--I want to help."
Nice sentiments. Wrong venue.
What better place to squash one's hopes for humanity than a Dallas Independent School District board meeting--where bullies, blabbermouths, and bigots converged last Thursday for four and a half hours of public insanity.
Ochoa had come to DISD headquarters on Ross Avenue at four in the afternoon to attend her very first board meeting. As a young, idealistic college student with dreams of a meaningful career in education, she'd arrived here--dressed primly in a starched white blouse and navy skirt--ready to learn, hungry for role models, eager to absorb the wisdom of her elder educators.
Instead, a lady in a wheelchair began screaming "I want my damn tax dollar!" and addressing board members as "asshole." Instead, a black guy in a baseball cap got in the face of a Hispanic DISD employee and called her a "lying bitch." Instead, the so-called "lying bitch" got assaulted by a New Black Panther with bushy hair and bloodshot eyes as she tried to enter the boardroom--while a posse of DISD security guards looked on and did absolutely nothing.
A couple of hours into the mayhem, her head filled with all these distasteful scenarios, Ochoa leaned across the empty seat again and spoke through the din: "Do you have any openings at your newspaper? Maybe I don't want to be a teacher after all."
I felt bad for Mari-Lena, an upright, hard-working North Lake College student and 1996 graduate of North Dallas High School. Like her, I'd come to see the inner workings of our Dallas school board. For the past few years, like everybody else in town, I'd watched the DISD fireworks via the nightly news--the pushing and shoving, the screaming matches, the arrests.
Surely, I'd thought--knowing full well how the media relish a good racial fight--there's more to these board meetings than this. Surely, there are quiet moments, constructive activity, informed debate.
But now, sitting next to Ochoa, I saw that I was wrong. There was no moral to this mayhem, no insight worth gleaning. I couldn't even have explained how these proceedings were remotely related to education.
Forget John Wiley Price and Lee Alcorn for a moment. Yes, they took their usual high-profile places amid the chaos, but they weren't the ones actually shutting down the meeting. That came about courtesy of two no-name hecklers, who hurled vulgarities at various human targets until the meeting dissolved into utter confusion, with trustees unable to hear each other's voices.
I watched the board members give up twice and file meekly out a side door. I saw the two hecklers and their half-dozen or so less vocal buddies trade smirks and grins, smitten with their own bully power.
Yes, I thought to myself, it's as bad as anything I've seen on TV--actually, it's a lot worse.
I hadn't attended a DISD board meeting since 1991. At the time, I was struck by the contrasts--the cavalcade of wide-eyed kids who collected awards and plaques at the beginning of the meetings, only to be followed by hours of sniping and nattering among the adults on the board.
But nothing--not the bits of scuffles captured on the evening news, and certainly not the sanitized accounts of board meetings in the Dallas Morning News--prepares you for today's disorder.
On paper, last Thursday's agenda looked like a real yawner. The Committee of the Whole was set to open at 2:30 p.m. with a workshop on parliamentary procedure. Fortunately for those of us with a low boredom threshold, the audience--and trustee Kathlyn Gilliam--immediately threw out the script.
I'd staked out a spot in the 50-seat board room, determined to stick through the committee proceedings--as well as the board meeting scheduled afterward. I ended up being the only reporter present all the way through both meetings. I was joined by a succession of TV, print, and radio reporters who ambled in and out of the room throughout the afternoon.
Right from the start, the hecklers were poised for action. A lady in a wheelchair, whom I later identified as one Earnestine Taylor, and a guy in a baseball cap--this was plainclothes New Black Panther Gregory L. Beasley--sat a few feet apart, with Taylor parked in the middle of the narrow center aisle.
When Bill Keever called the meeting to order, trustee Gilliam launched into an impromptu report on Lincoln High School's cable TV program, which a DISD official had abruptly cut off because students had aired an interview with a transvestite. Gilliam's languid voice eventually worked its way to the point: a call to reinstate Lincoln's TV program immediately.
Trustee Hollis Brashear chimed in, wanting more information. This ticked off Keever--which, unfortunately for the white board president, means he becomes instantly patronizing. "We're not supposed to talk about this today, folks," he whined. "This is not on the agenda...we can't do that."
That was exactly three minutes into the committee meeting--and with nothing accomplished, the first squeal of protest rang out.
"We are tired--you're doing business as usual and you need to stop it!" Gregory Beasley said, raising his voice. "You need to get it RIGHT. I'm tired of you misusing our children! You not gonna have any rest, and that's the bottom line! It's a new generation, and we're not gonna deal with this racist mentality. The good ol' boy mentality got to go!"
"Hello," the lady in the wheelchair said, temporarily occupying the amen corner.
In spite of the static, a prim lady named Ada Williams--a DISD employee charged with giving the trustees a workshop on parliamentary procedure--stepped up to the podium to formally begin the afternoon's business. Remaining stoic, she explained how Robert's Rules "help you get through a meeting. It's very important," she said. "It allows you to do it in order. It allows you to respect the rights of each other."
But the very mention of the words respect and order seemed to incite something in this crowd. I heard a low, guttural voice--"Tell the truth and shame the Devil!"--that rose quickly into higher volume and filled the room, like the sound of a Weedeater ripping through wet crab grass. "If you close a meeting, you're in trouble!" Earnestine Taylor screeched. "And if any policeman touch my wheelchair, you gon' deal with it too!"
At that point, the Second Law of Thermodynamics steamrollered Robert's Rules, and the committee meeting descended into chaos.
"How can you keep kissin' ass?" Taylor shrieked.
"Calm down, sister," said a lady in a rust-colored tunic, who refrained from heckling herself but egged the others on, grinning and giggling whenever Beasley or Taylor scored a particularly nasty bon mot.
"Mr. Keever is a grandson of the Klan!" Beasley hollered.
"I'm sick of this kissin' ass!" Taylor added.
"Don't curse," a lady near me said half-heartedly, while the woman in the tunic smiled.
"PAR-DON MOI," Taylor bellowed back.
Then Taylor and Beasley swung into full rant, piling squawk on top of squawk.
"Keever is a Klansman, he hook up with R.L. Thornton..."
"Don't touch my wheelchair!"
"These devils ain' gon' rest!"
The trustees had had enough. They got up and filed out the side door. Their committee meeting, as such, had lasted less than 15 minutes.
During this unplanned intermission, I stayed put in the board room while most people filed into the hall for a potty break.
I watched as Kathlyn Gilliam stepped back into the room to confer briefly with one of the lead demonstrators. The woman, clearly on orders, immediately turned and faced the room.
"All staff and media need to leave," she said. "Ms. Gilliam wants to speak with her people."
TV cameramen and a few DISD staffers obediently gathered their purses and papers and left, leaving only a handful of black protesters in the board room, as well as the Rev. L. Charles Stovall, a black United Methodist minister.
While Gilliam stood silently at the front of the room, her female co-conspirator scanned the seats for interlopers. Of course she stopped at me, the lone paleface. Adopting a wheedling, mock-polite tone, she said: "Ma'am, would you pleeeze leave?"
"No," I said.
"Please, ma'am--won't you respect the trustee? She wants to speak with her people," Beasley said.
"Who are her people?" I asked.
"The people of southern Dallas," he said.
"I live in southern Dallas."
"The people of her district--District No. 9," Beasley added, quickly tacking on another condition.
"I live in her district." (I was mistaken, I must admit. While I live within Dallas city limits, the children in my neighborhood go to Duncanville schools.)
"What media are you, anyway?" Gilliam's pal asked.
"Dallas Observer," I said.
"Aw, pssshhh--that explains it."
"Ma'am, why don't you just leave?" Beasley pleaded. "See--we're respecting you. So why don't you respect the trustee?"
I pointed out what I thought was obvious: "This is a public meeting in a public room, and I'm not leaving."
By then, since "her people" had run out of reasons for excluding me, the phoniness evaporated.
"Come on--let's go out in the hall and talk, since she's not going to respect us," Gilliam's cohort said loudly. "Let's go out to the van--I bet she won't follow us there."
At that point, the Rev. Stovall, who was holding a copy of that week's Observer--folded back to the page of a story exposing the racial maneuverings of former trustee Dan Peavy and former board president Sandy Kress--took pity on me. "The Observer ran a story this week that has a lot of truth in it," he said to the protesters in a reasoned voice.
Then Stovall, a gentleman, kindly introduced himself to me and passed me a card with his name, church, and phone number. "Oh, my husband's a minister, too," I said.
"What denomination?" Stovall asked.
"Church of God in Christ."
Stovall looked a little puzzled. "Do you realize that that is a predominantly African-American denomination?" he asked.
"Yes," I said.
"I want to meet that brother," Stovall said, smiling.
Beasley--the heckler in the baseball cap--overheard all of this and rushed to my side. As editor of a newspaper that ran an article rumored to support the allegations of "his" people, and as the wife of a minister to a predominantly black congregation, I was no longer an emblem of evil--a stereotype--but a human being. He offered his profuse apologies.
"I don't hate them devils, but I talk like it is," he said. "Black people are tired--I'm tired of being a profile suspect every day I walk by my house. I am not racist."
Racist? No. I do accept the truism--proffered by black leaders such as John Wiley Price--that prejudice plus power equals racism. But racially prejudiced? Come on, Mr. Beasley. In a mere 60 seconds I had been transformed in your eyes from white devil to South Dallas sister--apparently based on one skinny comment about my husband, who wasn't even in the room.
Racially prejudiced? Absolutely.
When the trustees reconvened around 4 p.m. for the formal board meeting, the second round of audience howling began within minutes.
The tone was set by the New Black Panthers, who entered the room chanting, "Keever must go! Keever must go!" County Commissioner Price, NAACP president Alcorn, and Panther "spokesman" Thomas Muhammad then strode to the front of the room to demand a discussion of the Lincoln TV incident.
"Dr. Gonzalez, make a phone call--turn on the TV," Alcorn said aloud. "Is she speechless? We want to hear from her."
Instead, the board resumed its workshop on parliamentary procedure. Newly appointed Superintendent Yvonne Gonzalez didn't say a word.
The room was quiet for a while--at Price's urging, surprisingly enough--but Earnestine Taylor grew restless, plainly bored with the relative state of decorum. Out of nowhere, she began bellowing, "I want my tax dollar! I want my damn tax dollar! I know my parliamentary procedure, and this ain't it. Tax dollar, c'mon. I want ya."
"Go back to Santa Fe!" someone shouted at Gonzalez. "If you can't stand the pressure, go home!"
"Hey Miss Colorblind, can you see us now?" Beasley screamed.
Price then began speaking directly to Gonzalez, but his words were drowned out by the heckling.
"Ms. Gonzalez, the commissioner is speaking to you," Beasley yelled out.
"You respond to this doggone community, lady," the Rev. Stovall piped in.
Soon Earnestine Taylor was screaming: "Don't touch my wheelchair!"
Believe me, no one wanted to touch her wheelchair. But by this time, the room was overflowing, and to get to the empty seats, folks had to work their way around Taylor, parked as she was in the middle of a narrow aisle.
Once again, the meeting was out of hand. After some 30 minutes of pandemonium, the board announced they were breaking for dinner.
"Don't disrespect us by going to dinner," Price said to Gonzalez. "Don't do that."
To the accompaniment of shouts and murmurs, the trustees filed out yet again, having failed to get through a single agenda item for the called board meeting.
Shortly after 6 p.m., while most of the black demonstrators were still milling around in the hallway, the trustees more or less sneaked back into the board room and started hastily pushing through the evening's short business agenda.
DISD security guards stood outside and barred the board room doors, and it took several minutes for the many demonstrators who'd left their seats--Beasley and Taylor included--to realize they were shut out of the meeting, even though several chairs remained empty.
With a scared-critter eye cocked toward the small windows of the board room's double doors, Keever mowed down the agenda items one by one, getting ahead of himself at times, while the black board members reminded him that at least some discussion was warranted.
This was Keever's version of democracy--the product of desperation. But the truth is that many people who had a right to be present at this public meeting, Mari-Lena Ochoa among them, were stuck in the hall, kept from entering by a phalanx of hefty security officers.
And sooner or later, they figured out there were empty seats inside.
Keever had pushed his way to the last item. It was 6:25, and I heard a rap on the board room door, then loud voices. Keever had that cornered look. The mob was closing in.
At 6:31, I heard a thump thump. Thump thump.
The door cracked open, and Earnestine Taylor's foot--and the leading edge of her wheelchair--momentarily protruded into the board room. Then the foot pulled back, the door shut, and I heard the muffled squawk of her voice.
Thump thump. Thump thump.
Then we all heard a woman's shrieking voice--"Get your hands off of me--don't touch me!"
The commotion grew in the hall, and all eyes in the board room turned to the door. The barrier was fixing to break.
"HE TOUCHED MY BREASTS!" the woman screamed. Then the door burst open. A jumble of Black Panthers, Hispanic activists, reporters, and hapless DISD employees and students surged in, filling the aisle.
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Beasley bounded in and got right in the face of the woman who'd screamed--Sequoyah Learning Center community liaison Dolores Castaneda East, who claimed she was assaulted by one of the Panthers. LULAC activist Alfred Carrizales rushed to her defense.
Beasley got cut off in mid-rant: "You and this whole goddamn act has got..."
"THE HELL WITH YOUR BLACK ASS!" Carrizales shouted.
"Ooooooh!" the ladies behind me gasped in unison--then yelled "Take him out! Take him out!"
"Crazy," someone commented, as the meeting lurched to a close.
How crazy? I turned here to Mari-Lena Ochoa--a virgin to this brand of craziness--for guidance. "It's frightening," she said with a sigh. "They should show everything on TV. I just think it's ugly. It's sad. Half of these people, I wonder if they even graduated from high school. I wanted to be a teacher--now I'm afraid."
But it's not the chanting that's fearful. After two years, we're over that. No, it's what we don't see that's frightening--the loss of good people, people like Mari-Lena Ochoa.