Waller County, Texas, Thinks It's Just DARLING When The Black Students Vote
In most places, turning in a letter to a county election official that requests fair treatment for voters wouldn't lead to the person delivering the letter getting arrested. But most places aren't Waller County, Texas, which is 70 percent white, but also home to Prairie View A&M University, a historically black institution that has had voting rights disputes with the county for freaking EVER. Which leads to how Jacob Aronowitz, a field director for Democratic congressional candidate Mike Siegel, ended up getting his ass hauled off to jail after he dropped off a letter at the Waller County Courthouse urging local officials to let Prairie View students vote this fall with minimal fuckery, please.
A clerk at the courthouse objected to Aronowitz taking a picture on his phone to document that he'd delivered the letter, called the police, and after deputies asked him what candidate he was working for and what party that candidate belonged to, Aronozitz was arrested and charged with "failure to identify" -- although he says he identified himself when he turned in the letter and when the cops asked him to.
Well of course it's a complicated mess. It's about Texas, race, voting, and party politics, isn't it?
Long story short: The county has treated the voting rights of students at the university like they were nonexistent, even resulting in a 1979 decision by the US Supreme Court telling the county it had to let students vote. Nonetheless, in 2004, the county's then district attorney, Oliver Kitzman, threatened to charge any Prairie View students with voter fraud if they attempted to vote, but backed down after protests and the threat of another lawsuit. The university was only granted the amazing privilege of an on-campus polling place in 2013, for Crom's sake.
If "Waller County, Texas" and "Prairie View A&M" and "race" sound vaguely familiar to you, you may recall it was the Waller County Jail where Sandra Bland died in 2015 after being arrested for aggravated failing to use a turn signal while black. Bland, you may recall, had just moved to the area after getting a job at Prairie View A&M. Golly, that county has some high-profile "town and gown" conflicts, doesn't it?
The current voting fuck-tussle is a bit less charged, but a fuck-tussle all the same: County officials told Prairie View students they could register to vote using one of two campus addresses, since students don't have individual mailboxes. Problem is, one of the two addresses they were told to use is physically in a precinct that's not on campus. So Tuesday, the deadline for voter registration, Waller County Elections Administrator Christy Eason announced that if students wanted to vote on campus, those registered at the wrong address (which was given to them by county officials, let's mention a third time) would have to submit a change of address form. But hey, she very generously will allow them to submit the forms up to election day, so what's the problem, other than massive confusion among thousands of college students and probably poll workers to boot?
And so Siegel, along with Waller County Democratic Party Chair Rosa Harris and Waller County Democratic Club President Denise Mattox, drafted a letter asking Eason to please just let students who'd registered at the wrong address (given to them by the county) vote without any additional paperwork, and Aronowitz went to the courthouse to deliver it. To head off the possibility that county officials might claim then never saw any such letter, Aronowitz took a photo of himself delivering the letter (gosh, such unjustified paranoia, huh? It's 2018, after all). Here's the Houston Chronicle's account of what happened next:
The clerk objected to having her picture taken and complained to a nearby bailiff, Siegel said.
"The bailiff then stopped Jacob as he was trying to exit the building in the stairway and apparently called the police," he said.
Aronowitz then called Siegel, who is an attorney. Siegel said he heard Aronowitz repeatedly ask why he was being held and whether he was free to go. At one point, Aronowitz told a detaining officer that his lawyer, Siegel, was running for Congress.
"They say, what party is he from?'" Siegel said. "I don't know why that was relevant."
Aronowitz said he was never told why exactly he was suddenly surrounded by cops. His attorney, Sylvia Cedillo, was told the young miscreant would be kept in the pokey for a "48-hour investigative hold," and his phone was confiscated, because it was evidence of whatever terrible abuses he'd committed at the courthouse. As it turns out, he was released after two hours, but charged with that "failure to identify" misdemeanor for being a smartass. He eventually got his phone back too -- can't imagine the national media kerfuffle Thursday had anything to do with that.
Mind you, the local Sheriff's office spokesperson told the Texas Tribune this was a totally legit arrest over a disturbance of the peace, and possibly an affray with intent to commit fractious hullaballoo. Waller County Sheriff Captain Manny Zamora explained the poor clerk was "disturbed" by the photo-taking, and Aronowitz was one scary dude:
"He had been told to leave. He agitated and perhaps accosted the female that was there working ... and that's what we were responding to," Zamora said.
Zamora also said Aronowitz's party affiliation had nothing to do with the arrest, no sir, definitely not:
"We don't base any arrest decision or investigation decision on any kind of philosophical, party, or ideological, even spiritual or religious affiliation," Zamora said. "That's not what we do."
We like the part where he only denied Aronowitz was arrested because he was an agitating Democrat, but didn't deny that deputies asked him what party he was with. That's good spokespersoning!
In a press release Wednesday, Siegel presented a timeline of the events and condemned the arrest of his campaign worker and called on the county to knock this crap the hell off:
For a fascinating overview of the lengths Waller County went to in the past to keep black students from their legal right to vote, and an interview with Siegel and Aronowitz, here's a segment from last night's "Rachel Maddow Show," during which Maddow reminds us that yes, it is indeed 2018, even if you might expect blatant vote fuckery like this to be coming from a black and white TV in the '60s.
It's not really an exact comparison, you know, since at least this 2018 version ends with the young voting rights advocate telling his story to Rachel Maddow, not a month from now with the discovery of his body in a shallow grave, so hooray for progress. Good thing Jacob Aronowitz is white, and wasn't actually left all alone in that jail for the full 48 hours, huh? Not that we're implying anything at all, heavens no.
[Texas Tribune / Houston Chronicle / Dallas Morning News / Houston Chronicle / MSNBC]
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