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By Josh Inocéncio
A little over three years ago, the Black Lives Matter movement erupted with a hashtag and protests all over the United States shortly after George Zimmerman’s acquittal for shooting Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida. In the wake of Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri, the movement’s use of demonstrations crystallized as Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi continued to rally followers on social media and in the streets to protest police brutality and the killing of unarmed black men across the nation. From this national movement emerged state and city chapters, including in Texas.
“The Black Lives Matter Houston chapter actually started as Black Lives Matter Texas,” says Ashton P. Woods, one of the chief organizers for the Houston chapter. “Then we changed the name to Black Lives Matter Houston because we were based here.”
While Woods is committed to the Houston chapter, he is also involved with events that the national movement organizes all across the country. He even had a hand in planning several “disruptions” during the presidential primaries. “My role in the chapter, versus the national movement and the organization, has evolved over time,” says Woods. “I’ve been an activist with the national movement for a while—including helping to organize the disruption of Bernie Sanders in Phoenix.”
The Houston chapter maintains the egalitarian leadership style of the national movement, and Woods—an openly gay and HIV-positive black activist—has led his group through a particularly tempestuous year rife with the national tragedies in Orlando and Dallas. “Following the Orlando massacre and the deaths of Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, and the Dallas [police officers], people started coming forward with a little more courage and saying, ‘Hey, how can I help?’”
Woods’ intersectional identities have allowed him to bring more people together in the wake of these tragic events. “I’m not just fighting for black lives—I’m also an LGBT activist and an HIV activist. They’re all converging in a way I didn’t expect,” Woods says. “I’m a cisgender black man who happens to be gay, atheist, HIV-positive, and pro-black. Those are marginalized groups.”
In contrast to, say, the civil-rights movement in the 1960s, Black Lives Matter has proactively embraced its queer and transgender members. In fact, two of the national movement’s three founders (all of whom are women) openly identify as queer, according to Woods. The movement does not merely affirm the black LGBT community, but also organizes events and messaging to address issues affecting LGBT people of color.
“Black Lives Matter Houston had the first Houston event for Orlando that Sunday at Hermann Park. I organized it by myself. Tons of people showed up,” remembers Woods. “That Orlando shooting showed how people, regardless of who they are, tend to erase people of color—black and Latino people, to be specific. The Orlando shooting created a narrative where we could speak for ourselves.”
Indeed, the Orlando shooting emerged as an opportunity for LGBT people of color to control the narrative about how they are represented—not only in the media, but also in the LGBT community as a whole.
In addition to organizing events, the Houston chapter has partnered with the Montrose Center. “We’re at about a 50-percent alliance with them,” says Woods. “They’ve made it clear that if we need the space and it’s available, we can use it. They want to be more proactive with communities of color.”
The Dallas sniper shooting, which occurred less than a month after Orlando, also inspired a significant response from Black Lives Matter Houston. Alongside the mourning and demonstrations of solidarity, Woods also wanted to seize the narrative before conservative media outlets demonized Black Lives Matter for influencing the sniper’s actions. “I was front and center on that. I’m really close to the person who organized the Dallas protest,” says Woods. “What makes people think that we would stop protesting for the rights of people of color, and specifically black people, because some rogue person did something violent? Violence from an individual should not silence people [who are] demanding their rights.”
As far as local government institutions, Woods and the Houston chapter have faced some resistance to implementing their policy priorities, especially with the Houston Police Department and the Harris County Sheriff’s Office. “I was on Mayor Turner’s campaign staff. That gave me the ability to have a relationship with the mayor’s office, which connects me to the Houston Police chief,” says Woods. But unfortunately, even though he is now a part of the mayor’s LGBT Task Force, the most Woods can do is suggest policies and ideas.
“On a committee, all you can do is make recommendations. We need to get past the point of making a recommendation and getting to the point of action—substantial action. I don’t see it yet,” Woods says. “I really want HPD to be transparent, and more regulated with their body cameras. We all know they have to keep certain things covert. As far as my [calls for] transparency, I think it goes deeper than just the police. And how do you change the law-enforcement agencies? You vote them out.”
Independently from the local Black Lives Matter chapter (which did not endorse specific candidates), Woods has high hopes for several incoming Harris County politicians, including district attorney-elect Kim Ogg. He is less enthused about sheriff-elect Ed Gonzalez, but believes he will be better than the outgoing Ron Hickman. “Ed Gonzalez is cool, but he has a problematic history as a city councilman,” says Woods. “He’ll be better than Ron Hickman. But I don’t know if he’ll be a continuation of Adrian Garcia or be his own person.”
But regardless of how receptive the Houston and Harris County police are to Black Lives Matter’s vision, Woods and his fellow organizers will remain busy as activists in Houston. “We’re actually educating people. The political engagement I’ve done as an individual, you’ll see more influence with that. You might see us out there registering people to vote; you might see us out there HIV-testing,” Woods says. “And we will be out there trying to educate people, particularly on stigmatization. In the black community, there is a lack of understanding about the trans community and HIV. Informed people can do better. Now there’s a choice. The important part is about giving a choice.”
As far as the national movement’s demonstrations and disruptions with the incoming president, Woods chuckles and says, “Look for more! Expect more—you’ll be surprised.”
Josh Inocéncio is a playwright and freelance writer. A Houston-area native, he earned a master’s degree in theater studies at Florida State University and produced his first play, Purple Eyes, before returning to Texas last year.