City Hall

The Observer Picks: 10 of the Biggest News Headlines from 2021

When Winter Storm Uri hit Texas, it left millions without power for days at a time.
When Winter Storm Uri hit Texas, it left millions without power for days at a time. Creative Commons/DJJudah
Between North Texas Capitol rioter Jenna Ryan, the delta and omicron variants of COVID-19 and an endless series of worrisome new laws on the books, it was a hell of a year.

It's hard to know where to start, but the Observer has a few suggestion for catching up on the news from 2021.

Jenna Ryan

Real estate broker and North Texas local Jenna Ryan made headlines time and again in 2021. After she flew to D.C. on a private plane and joined the pro-Trump insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, she made splashes in local and national media.

It all started for the Observer when Ryan got her PayPal and other accounts dropped thanks to the work of local activists.

But Ryan had trouble staying out of the news. She insisted that her blond hair and white skin would keep her out of prison, claimed she'd done nothing wrong and then pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge for illegally picketing and parading in a government building.

In early November, she was sentenced to 60 days in prison. The judge and the prosecution cited several of her tweets during the proceedings, after which she admitted, "I just shouldn't tweet."

But keep tweeting she did. She's since said that she looks forward to doing plenty of yoga in prison. Because if nothing else, prisons are known for their excellent yoga classes.

Crestfallen Dallas Paramedic

In August, the Observer learned of a lawsuit filed against the city and then Dallas Fire-Rescue paramedic Brad Cox, who had kicked a mentally ill man in the head several times in August 2019.

The allegations looked bad for Cox, sure, but then we published the body camera footage that clearly showed Cox punting Kyle Vess in the face. (Warning: It's graphic stuff.)

It didn't stop there. We later learned of surveillance footage that showed an earlier incident during which Cox, a trained mixed martial arts fighter, had kicked him at least nine times.

Worse still, Vess was still facing charges for supposedly assaulting Cox, despite the video evidence showing how little of a threat Vess posed that day. In October, Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot's office finally dropped the charge against Vess.

But Cox still hasn't been charged with any crime, and the D.A. has insisted that the statute of limitations expired. A fragment of justice appeared to be served when the state revoked Cox's license, but it's since been reinstated.

And if that wasn't enough cause for alarm, Jim McDade, the president of the Dallas Fire Fighters Association, recently spoke out in defense of Cox, insisting he did nothing wrong and had only been defending himself.

Ted Cruz vs. the World

It's impossible to pick one U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz moment in 2021. The man's too set on embarrassing himself and Texans to only have one or two absurd stories in a single year.

First, Cruz caught backlash over the U.S. Capitol riot and the unfounded claims he made that the November 2020 presidential election had been rigged against former President Donald Trump.

Not long after that, he made national headlines when he took off to Cancun as his constituents plunged into the dark during Winter Storm Uri in February. 

Later, Cruz joined the chorus of anti-immigrant Republicans drumming up fear over asylum seekers and others crossing the border, spreading false claims that blamed migrants — and not Gov. Greg Abbott's policies, such as ditching mask requirements early — for the spread of COVID-19 in Texas.

But demonizing people in Texas and on the border wasn't enough for the Republican lawmaker. He had to rail against Australian officials over their COVID-19 safety measures, which earned him a good deal of derision down under and beyond.

Cruz made plenty of new enemies in 2021, but one certainly stands out: Sesame Street's Big Bird, whom he described as "the media" and accused of spreading "government propaganda" via a Twitter post in which the lovable avian encouraged people to get their COVID-19 vaccinations.

Weed, Not Quite Weed and Texas Law

We always knew Texas hated marijuana, but this year the state really ramped up its efforts to get rid of anything that even vaguely resembles weed. In a state like Texas, where they refuse to simply legalize it, some smokers have turned to alternatives like CBD, smokable hemp and delta-8 THC, among others.

The Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) was tasked with regulating the new hemp industry in the state. One of the rules they’ve tried to implement is a ban on smokable hemp products. This caused hemp companies to sue the state for the right to sell smokable hemp. That legal battle continues today. Until recently, there was an injunction on the smokable hemp ban, halting enforcement.

Because of the way state and federal laws regarding hemp were written, companies assumed they were allowed to dabble in psychoactive cannabinoids, as long as they didn’t exceed 0.3% delta-9 THC on a dry weight basis. This led to a market of “hemp-derived” THC isomers, one of the earliest being delta-8 THC.

In September 2020, the Observer smoked some delta-8 for science purposes and reported back. At the time, it didn’t seem delta-8 was on too many regulators’ minds. That has certainly changed since then. During the legislative session in Texas this year, lawmakers tried and failed to add language to cannabis reform bills that would have outlawed delta-8.

Then came October, when DSHS posted a notice on its website saying THC isomers in any concentration, besides 0.3% delta-9, are Schedule 1 controlled substances. Austin hemp manufacturer Hometown Hero CBD promptly filed suit and eventually got an injunction on the ban.

DSHS went to the Texas Supreme Court to try to get its way on smokable hemp and THC isomers, asking that bans on the products be reinstated.

The Texas Supreme Court upheld the injunction on the THC isomer ban while the suit is being litigated. There was previously an injection on the smokable hemp ban, but DSHS appealed this with the Texas Supreme Court, which automatically reinstates the ban until a decision is reached by a panel of judges. That decision hasn’t come down yet, but some stores have continued selling the products. They’ve been able to get around the ban by marketing products as “consumable” instead of smokable.

But, it’s not all doom and gloom for Texas THC. The compassionate use program, the state’s medical marijuana program, was expanded to people with any form of PTSD and cancer. Additionally, in light of DSHS cracking down on THC isomers, companies have started making delta-9 products that fall in the legal limit, but still have enough THC to be psychoactive.

QAnon: From Conventions to Cults

Woo, boy. Texas has a long history of conspiracy theories, but QAnon sure made headway in Dallas in 2021.

The news of the now-infamous QAnon convention, called the "For God & Country Patriot Roundup," in Dallas first hit the Observer's radar in March, when locals began circulating a petition calling for it to be canceled. Unsurprisingly, they weren't the most media-friendly bunch.

We learned soon after that John Sabal and his partner Amy, whom we dubbed a "QAnon power couple," were behind the event and that the proceeds would be pumped into lawyer Sidney Powell's nonprofit as it tried to overturn the November 2020 presidential election results.

Then, the list of speakers emerged. U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert, then Texas Republican Party chairman Allen West and retired Gen. Michael Flynn were all on the docket.

The petitioners looked to get their way when Gilley's nixed the QAnon event, but in the end, the show went on. The event took place over Memorial Day weekend. Conspiracy theories ran wild, journalists were kicked out and Flynn appeared to endorse a murderous military coup like the one in Myanmar. (Flynn said he didn't say that.)

QAnon John and his pals took off and are now organizing a similar event in Las Vegas, but Dallas still has plenty of QAnon hardliners in its midst.

In early November, a group of fringe conspiracy theorists within the QAnon movement descended on Dallas from all over the country and beyond.

Led by Michael Protzman, who used to run a demolition business in Washington state, they believe assassinated President John F. Kennedy and his dead son JFK Jr. will show up in Dealey Plaza any day now. More bizarre still, once the long-dead duo appear, they will execute their pedophilic enemies and reinstate Trump as president.

Some reports say they've been drinking a worrisome cocktail of probiotics and disinfectant, and that Protzman and his confidantes have been monitoring their phone calls and text messages.

Relatives of the QAnon cultists are worried – no one knows how this could turn out, but there's good reason to be concerned of potential tragedy.

Less Power to You

In February, Winter Storm Uri hit Texas. Hard. Millions of Texans lost power for days at a time. Pipes burst in homes and offices around the state. Flights into DFW were canceled. There was a mad dash to get homeless people into shelters. Some restaurants became de facto warming stations in Dallas and elsewhere. (And Ted Cruz fled for Cancun.) More than 200 people died, according to some estimates.

In the wake of the storm, homeowners and renters had to worry about the costs they had incurred. For some, that meant fixing damage to their homes. For others, it also meant dealing with enormous power bills.

Even months after the freeze thawed out, Texans were worried about the sustainability of their power grid. In June, ERCOT issued a warning asking residents to conserve power, which only compounded those fears.

Of course, the legislators in Austin quickly got to the much-needed task of reforming the grid and prepping it to best any more potential weather catastrophes. Except they didn't, not really. Now, the grid is likely to play an important role in next year's gubernatorial elections, although it's not so likely the lack of reform will keep Gov. Greg Abbott out of office.

North Texas Has a Nazi Problem

Neo-Nazis, white nationalists and other far-rightists may not be battling with political opponents in the streets as much as they did a few years back, but many are still trying to make their presence felt in North Texas and beyond.

In Dallas-Fort Worth, a group of white nationalists tried to hold a few "white lives matter" rallies, but almost no one seemed interested in showing up. They planned a redo, but it never panned out. Instead, they resorted to putting up racist flyers and stickers, which were promptly torn down and defaced by Dallasites.

That doesn't mean other far-rightists weren't busy in Dallas-Fort Worth. In February, the feds arrested Christian Michael Mackey on federal gun charges in Grand Prairie. Mackey, who referred to himself as the "radical Jew slayer," had tried to sell a rifle to an undercover FBI agent. He also talked about gunning down Jews and African Americans. He later pleaded guilty to a one count.

There were other would-be attackers, too. Seth Aaron Pendley, a Wichita Falls man with pro-militia sympathies planned to blow up an Amazon data center. In June, he entered a guilty plea to attempting to destroy with an explosive a building used in interstate commerce.

That same month, when the White Lives Matter crowd tried to take their protests rural, they were similarly run out of town. In June, a small group of masked neo-Nazis held a rally in Centerville, about halfway between Dallas and Houston, and locals berated them until they packed up and left.

Zombies, Invaders and Tiger King Haters

Perennially cute and sometimes cuddly, animals made for some interesting news in 2021. Lions and bears didn’t make the cut in Observer coverage, but tigers definitely did.

This summer, big cats got some revenge after an exotic cat rancher tied to the blockbuster docuseries Tiger King was locked up by the feds. And, after a loose tiger terrorized a Houston neighborhood in May, Tiger Queen Carole Baskin called out Texas’ two senators for not doing more to improve big cat safety.

Still, there was some bad news in the animal world this year. For one thing, deer experts warned of a potential surge in “zombie deer disease,” which, like COVID-19, also happens to be a surprisingly political malady. And fishermen rushed to their reels after invasive carp were spotted in Texas waters.

In North Texas, animal advocates reported an uptick in surrenders as pandemic adopters kicked their pup to the curb. But looking ahead, Dallas City Council may soon ban puppy and kitten sales in pet stores, pleasing pet owners and animal advocates alike.

Dallas City Hall

It’s been a long year, with almost too many City Council, commission, and committee meetings to keep up with. So, here are a few highlights from our coverage of work over at City Hall.

Before this year, activists had been working on getting the city to rename Lamar Street in honor of Botham Jean, who was killed in his own apartment by an off duty police officer. Amber Guyger, the officer, claims she entered Jean’s apartment thinking it was her own, and shot Jean because she thought he was an intruder. In mid-January this year, the activists got the proposed street name change before the City Council for a vote. They voted unanimously to rename the southern half of Lamar Street to Botham Jean Boulevard. Of course, not everyone was happy about the change, but the activists are still working to get the rest of the street renamed.

While there was some infighting, miscommunication and confusion over the vaccine rollout in Dallas, city officials were able to come together with local organizations to open warmer centers for people during Winter Storm Uri. The city later created a program to help homeowners pay for damage caused by the storm.

In the following months, the Dallas officials would approve a controversial high rise despite overwhelming neighborhood opposition, pick fights with local homeless encampments, and address crime in their districts, all of which set the stage for an interesting City Council election season.

Dallas residents voted in a handful of new people during the City Council race. The newest council members are Jesse Moreno (District 2), Jaynie Shultz (District 11), Gay Donnell Willis (District 13), and Paul Ridley (District 14).

The next few months would be a little rocky. Fearing they wouldn’t have a voice in shaping their communities, several organizations would form the Coalition for Neighborhood Self-Determination. They did this to ensure a path forward for neighborhood-led plans in the city.

Then, Dallas would be sued by the owners of a carwash claiming they were targeted by the city for a shakedown. The same month, it came to light that the city and police department had lost several terabytes of data in April. A select few city officials knew about the loss, but they neglected to notify everyone else until four months later.

Coming into the new year, the City Council is preparing to take on issues such as when sexually oriented businesses should be allowed to open, whether or not to allow gas-powered lawn equipment, and how to regulate Dallas’ concrete batch plants.

Collin College

Over the past year, multiple professors have made damning accusations against North Texas’ Collin College. Allegations include, but aren’t limited to: free speech violations, the mishandling of the school’s COVID-19 response and racism, ableism and sexism.

Late last year, history professor Dr. Lora Burnett posted a mean tweet about then-Vice President Mike Pence. Soon enough, Collin College district President Neil Matkin and state Rep. Jeff Leach placed her in their crosshairs. Later, Burnett claimed she was canned in violation of her constitutional rights and filed a lawsuit against her former employer.

Professors Dr. Suzanne Jones and Audra Heaslip say their contracts also weren’t renewed after they spoke out against the school’s COVID-19 policies. Both were members of a local educational advocacy group, leading some to accuse Collin College of union busting. In September, Jones sued the school, too.

Before long, academic freedom groups and workers’ rights advocates were throwing their weight behind the excommunicated educators. Readers who want to get an overview of some of the highlights can read staff writer Simone Carter’s deep dive, which appeared on the cover of an Observer issue in April.
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Observer Staff Writers