All in the Family

Bryan Parras recalls a time in elementary school when he accompanied his dad on a work trip to Nederland, in Texas’ Golden Triangle. The warehouse where his dad organized county workers was “just one open vacant room with a bunch of chairs like you would see in a movie.” Bryan, now 44, remembers running around outside, playing on a mound of sand, while his dad discussed strategy with Jefferson County employees. Meanwhile, Juan Parras, who was there to try to negotiate Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a paid holiday for union workers, recalls what was happening inside. In the East Texas region long home to the Ku Klux Klan, Juan says the mayor, whom he describes as looking like KFC’s Colonel Sanders, took him in a back room during city council proceedings to tell him that he thinks he’s “a smart Mexican” but he’s not going to give workers “a n***** holiday.” 

“I never understood the dangers of the work, but I know they were there,” Bryan says of Juan’s longtime activism across Texas. When he could tag along, he liked the chance to spend time with his dad, who was often gone for work, leaving Bryan and his brother home with their mom, Jesusa Moreno. Juan’s union travels took a toll on the marriage, and though organizing had brought the couple together during their youth in Big Spring, the two split up when Bryan was young. He describes his dad as coming from a generation where “they’re all in. The lines between family and community completely get blurred.” But as Bryan got older, his dad’s activism rubbed off on him and he found himself wanting to maintain the intergenerational organizing work, “to keep the good things going from previous generations.”  

Today, Bryan and Juan are organizers fighting for environmental justice and the co-founders, along with Juan’s now-wife, Ana Parras, of one of Texas’ leading grassroots environmental organizations, Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (TEJAS). The nonprofit has gained national and international attention for its advocacy on behalf of Houston’s low-income communities of color, which are disproportionately affected by pollution from the city’s petrochemical refineries. Juan even garnered a nomination to President Joe Biden’s environmental justice advisory council last year. But for the Parras family, the work has always been personal. 

Growing up in Houston in an area tucked between a historically Latinx neighborhood and a historically Black one, Bryan felt the impacts of environmental racism firsthand. He remembers getting headaches and mysterious rashes on his arms, which he attributed to pollution from the chemical refineries that bordered his neighborhood. Years later, he’d be diagnosed with asthma. 

Bryan and his mother, Jesusa Moreno, who nurtured his interest
in photography
and video. Ivan Armando Flores/Texas Observer

Juan, now 72, fell into his union career after organizing workers to address backlogs at Harris County’s welfare office in the 1970s. The American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the union that represented county employees like Juan, took note and offered him a job. At the time, he was the only Latinx union representative for AFSCME. “I was like a token,” Juan says. “Anywhere they were organizing where they needed a Latino they would send me, and I would tell them, ‘Look, hire some more Latinos. I’m not the only one in the damn nation.’”

Soon, Juan’s work took him down to Corpus Christi to organize Nueces County employees. It was there he met Ana, a young organizer who worked at the information desk. Every visit, he’d stop by for directions and the chance to chat her up. “Took seven years, though,” Ana says to Juan, laughing. “You didn’t organize me right away.” Ana rose to become the president of the local AFSCME chapter at just 24 years old. 

In 1993, Juan left the union. He and Ana got married shortly after and moved back to Houston. Juan worked odd jobs for a while but couldn’t find anything permanent—he says it’s because companies were fearful he’d unionize their workforce. Then one day he got a phone call from an organizer with the Louisiana Labor Neighbor Project in Baton Rouge offering him a job. “I’m thinking to myself, ‘What the hell is he talking about?’” Juan says. He looked across the living room at Ana, who mouthed that she’d sent in his résumé and a cover letter. The two relocated to Louisiana, where Juan supported the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers’ Union in the midst of a five-and-a-half-year lockout and Ana worked for a domestic violence shelter and a union for injured workers while raising their younger kids.

In the late ’90s, Juan and Ana returned to Texas. Every day on his way to work at Texas Southern University in Houston, Juan passed a huge sign that read, “Future site of new high school.” He didn’t think much of it until Ana drove him to work one day and pointed out what was behind it. Juan had never noticed the smokestacks in the distance, spilling pollution into the surrounding neighborhoods, potentially exposing future students to the same health issues that Bryan faced as a child. Bryan had become interested in photography and video in college, an interest nurtured by Jesusa, who introduced him to Nuestra Palabra, a Latinx reading series and radio show on Houston’s Pacifica radio station. He documented Juan and Ana’s activism as they fought to keep the school from being built within a quarter-mile of three large petrochemical plants. Though the group lost the battle to stop the construction, Unidos Contra Environmental Racism, the organization that would become TEJAS, was born. 

In 2019, TEJAS joined forces with the Sierra Club to file a complaint alleging the Texas Center for Environmental Quality’s public permitting process was inaccessible to non-English speakers, in violation of the Civil Rights Act. They won, and the new proposed rule, awaiting final approval from the commissioners, requires translation of key documents and live interpretation at public

The intergenerational work that launched TEJAS remains at the forefront of its mission. “We’re like a training ground,” Ana says. “We’re hoping to teach the importance of caring about what’s around you, where you live, what you do, and what people are exposed to.” 

Today, while Juan and Ana remain with TEJAS, Bryan now works at the Sierra Club, where he aims to provide support to local grassroots groups like the one that shaped his life and pass on the lessons that his family taught him. 

“Organizing is not just a profession but an everyday practice,” Bryan says. “All the things that we’ve learned from the environmental justice movement and our elders and personal experiences of being shafted, unappreciated … I carry all of that still.” Younger organizers of color might not have that history, he says, so it’s important to make sure they also understand “the process and the struggle that got us here.”  

Top image: Bryan Parras says he felt the impact of environmental racism firsthand growing up in Houston.

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A Texas Professor’s Guide to Learning Black History

Leonard N. Moore thinks every white person in America should be required to take a Black history class. That’s how Moore, a professor of Black history at the University of Texas, opens his new book, Teaching Black History to White People. In this timely book from the University of Texas Press, Moore guides readers—many of whom Moore, who is Black, presumes will be white—through Black history and his own personal experience in academia. Moore is a popular professor at the University of Texas at Austin, where he teaches a course called “Race in the Age of Trump.” He has also addressed racial tensions campuswide in his role as the university’s Vice President for Diversity and Community Engagement.  

Moore offers six specific steps that white Americans (and other non-Black people) can take to improve America’s racial climate. Excerpted below are steps 4-6.

Check the Microaggressions

Microaggressions are similar to stereotypes; they are more subtle but equally painful. Recently, a colleague and I were in a meeting and  the person we were waiting for walked in, looked at me, and said, “How you doing, Dr. Gordon?” I’ve been called Dr. Gordon, Dr. Harrison, and Dr. Smith. What do we all have in common? We are all Black men who are professors at the University of Texas at Austin. We look nothing alike. Do you know what it’s like to show up to an event and they give you the name badge of another Black person? Black people do not complain, because it doesn’t do any good, but we just need to share some of these stories. 

Dr. Leonard N. Moore at the LBJ Presidential Library in 2020. LBK Library/Jay Godwin

 A lot of people who claim to be liberal are some of the biggest offenders when it comes to microaggressions and micro-invalidations. Don’t assume that all the Black women on campus are there to run track or that the Black men are there to play football or basketball. I had a student who was five-foot-five and he was still stereotyped as a football player. Now, some of you may think, “Well, that’s not a bad stereotype,” but to the student it is. Because what is being suggested is that the only reason they are on campus is because of their athletic ability. 

When I tell white people that I work at the University of Texas at Austin, many of them instinctively think that I work in athletics. After flying in to San Francisco a couple of years ago, my son and I went to the rental car counter. The Avis guy pulled up my information, saw that I worked at the University of Texas at Austin, and said, “Oh, what are you doing out here? Recruiting athletes?” 

I said, “No.” 

“What do you do at UT?” 

I said, “Why don’t you guess?” 

“Well, I don’t know. I thought you were out here recruiting.” 

On several occasions I have arrived at events where I’m the keynote speaker,  and typically I’ll introduce myself to the organizer just to let them know that I’m there. I’ll typically say, “I’m Leonard Moore from the University of Texas.” They introduce themselves, and on more than one occasion they will say, “Good to meet you. What time is Dr. Moore coming?” I will say, “I don’t know. Hopefully he will be here soon.” These are real experiences. If I deal with these things as a Black man, what do my Black female counterparts often deal with? At times, microaggressions can become outright hostile for Black women. A Black female colleague was confronted by a white male colleague who stood in her office doorway shortly after she was hired and said, “I don’t understand why they’re paying you that much money!” 

The constant stereotyping and microaggressions confirm what many Black people were told by their parents and grandparents: “You gotta work twice as hard to go half as far.” To get ahead in the workplace, we embrace John Henry–ism. “I’m going to just work harder, and  harder, and harder, then I’ll get the promotion.” I was in full-blown John Henry–ism during my years at LSU. A lot of Black professionals take on extra assignments and duties without receiving adequate compensation. We do that because we feel that we have to prove ourselves. But in doing that we work ourselves to death, and we still don’t get promoted to the level of our abilities. 

Get Uncomfortable

I want to talk about the importance of getting uncomfortable. Your political affiliation doesn’t matter. (You may say you’re a liberal, but I know a lot of liberals who value trees and the environment more than people.) Some of us are narrowly trained in our area of expertise but we need specific training around racial injustice. We don’t like to go to training because it makes us feel uncomfortable. The first time I went to an anti-sexism training, I was uncomfortable because I didn’t realize how a lot of my unconscious actions contributed to sexism. Similarly, many white people don’t understand how some of their unconscious actions contribute to an unhealthy racial climate. Anybody can handle budgets or create a strategic plan, but can you navigate the tricky waters of race and racial justice? Discomfort is the fertilizer for growth. If the lived experiences of Black people make you upset, then you need to sit with the discomfort and ask yourself why. 

Whenever I teach my Black Power class I always have white alumni sit in on the class. One semester an older white gentleman in his early seventies came to every class. On the last day of class I had him stand up and the students gave him a standing ovation. He said, “Dr. Moore, this has been the greatest experience of my life.” In my Race in the Age of Trump class I often have many white students who enroll in the class, but their parents are reluctant to let them take it. One student told me that at the end of every class she would have to take a picture of her notes, email them to her mom, and at night they would discuss the notes as well as the class readings. Apparently, the mom did this because she didn’t want her daughter taking my class and “becoming a liberal.” By the end of the semester the mom had transformed from a helicopter parent to a convert. She sent me an email and thanked me for changing her perspective. 

A way to ease yourself into the discomfort and to learn more about American history, the civil rights movement, and race relations is to do a civil rights tour throughout the great state of Mississippi. You can start in Jackson, Mississippi, at the new civil rights museum, which I think is one of the best museums in the country, and then you can work your way up north through the Mississippi Delta, ending at Memphis, Tennessee. It will be worth your time and money. 

“What Can I Help You Fight For?”

Many well-meaning white people are often curious about what they can do to help calm racial tensions. Instead of asking, “What can I do?” I recommend you ask a more profound question, “What can I help you fight for?” 

About ten years ago, I took a group of students from my church to East Austin, which at the time was predominantly African American and low-income. Our intent was to canvas the neighborhood and ask residents what issues were important to them. Prior to the outing I asked the students what they thought the community needed. They talked about after-school programs, high-quality childcare, job training programs, a grocery store, more recreational opportunities, and a litany of social programs. They were wrong. The residents of the community wanted speed bumps. Yes, speed bumps. Why? Because a lot of kids in the neighborhood were getting hit by cars during rush hour as commuters used the side streets in East Austin to avoid traffic jams. This was a profound experience for my students, who learned that you must allow a community to tell you what their needs are instead of just assuming you know. 

Around the country right now there’s a lot of energy on college campuses directed toward taking down Confederate statues and changing building names. But some of that stuff is so woven into the bricks and mortar of an institution that you may never be able to get rid of it all. While I think the typical Black student would agree that these symbolic gestures are important, I believe that they would see other issues as more of a priority. Many of them would like to see an increase in Black enrollment, more Black faculty and staff, and a significant increase in scholarship money for African American students. But many white liberals have co-opted Black activism on America’s college campuses to such an extent that the actual demands of Black students aren’t even heard. So we have white liberals expressing what they think is best for Black students without even consulting them. 

A few years ago, I was asked to mediate a dispute between a Black law school professor and his disgruntled students, who were upset about a question on an exam. On the exam the professor asked the students to provide a legal defense of school segregation. I thought it was a brilliant question. Before I arrived at the meeting I predicted that the group of angry students were largely white liberals. I was correct. In the group of students I met with, only one was Black. The spokesperson for the group was a white male student who seemed rather happy that he was able to call out his Black professor. The students were up in arms. During our meeting they said the question was “traumatizing” and “triggering” and that they should not be forced to answer it. But it went further. They wanted the professor disciplined. They also demanded that the professor be banned from teaching first-year students and that a committee of faculty approve all of his exam questions moving forward. After listening to their complaints, I said, “This has y’all really upset, huh?” They said, “Yes.” Then I asked the following question that changed the entire trajectory of the conversation: “How come you all aren’t equally upset that this law school enrolled only ten Black students this year out of an entire class of three hundred?” The room fell silent. In defense of the law students, I believe they meant well. But they were misguided. They got caught up in symbolism and not substance. This is what happens when you assume you know what Black people really want. If you want to really be an ally, to do something radical, ask Black people a simple question: “What can I help you fight for?”

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Promoting Equity

San Antonio has a history of electing young, fresh faces to city council—think Henry Cisneros and Julián Castro. In June, voters picked a 26-year-old math teacher named Jalen McKee-Rodriguez to represent the city’s historically Black East Side, making him not only one of the youngest politicians ever elected in the city, but also San Antonio’s first openly gay city council member.

With backing from the Democratic Socialists of America and the Texas Organizing Project, he also represents what some see as an emerging progressive block in San Antonio politics. The Observer spoke with McKee-Rodriguez about his election, discrimination he faced as a former city staffer, gentrification in his district, and other issues facing the city’s East Side.

Texas Observer: You’ve called Barack Obama’s election and Trayvon Martin’s killing eye-opening and defining moments for you growing up. How did those events influence you? 

When I was young, it was uncommon to see anyone who looked like me on TV or in politics and in major positions of power, even educators. I never had a teacher who looked like me. I was in eighth grade when Obama was elected, and I remember my mom crying. She was so excited that someone who looked like me, half-Black and half-white, could be president. The election was an early symbol of progress and hope for me. 

Fast-forward a few years: When Trayvon Martin was killed, I saw how someone just like me—we were the same age could be villainized and made to look threatening even though he was just a young boy. It felt like a back-to-reality sort of moment, like society was saying, “Yes, we’ll elect a Black man to office, but if you’re a regular, everyday Black person, this is what we’ll do to you.” 

You’re San Antonio’s first gay city council member and the first out Black man ever elected to public office in Texas. You’ve also been vocal about discrimination you faced working at city hall. What can be done to strengthen protections for LGBTQ people at the local level?

The chief of staff in the office where I worked was older, religious, and I would describe him as homophobic. He wasn’t comfortable with my hair or my clothes. He would say that my outfit wasn’t manly or that I wasn’t masculine enough.

If something like the discrimination and harassment that I faced can happen at city hall, then really who is our nondiscrimination ordinance protecting? I’ve been asking for an office of civil rights, with a legal team and a civil rights coordinator to investigate claims of discrimination within the city. Right now, San Antonio’s ordinance only applies to city employees. I believe I have the support in the community to expand the discrimination ordinance, but I think that other city council members are hesitant. And that’s a sad reality. Workers in Texas can still be fired for being gay. Educators in Texas can still be fired for being gay. Opposite-sex couples don’t get in trouble when they talk about their partners at work, but that still happens to same-sex couples in this state.

What have crises like the pandemic and winter freeze revealed about the needs in your district? 

In the beginning of the pandemic, people thought there could be lockdowns and started stockpiling food and resources, but on the East Side, we already have a food desert. On the North Side, where it’s predominantly white and middle-class, they have abundant resources. Often we have to leave the district or leave our side of town to have access to things that other people have in their neighborhoods. 

During one of my first city council meetings, we talked about the pain felt during the freeze. The pain was real for
my colleagues and their constituents on the North Side, but when you have communities that are already marginalized, where houses aren’t winterized or don’t have insulation, the pain is real but the impact is definitely not the same. 

In San Antonio, we use a lens of equity when we allocate city resources, specifically funding for infrastructure. I think we need to commit to that further and look into all departments, all city resources, all development plans that we’re promoting and incentivizing as a city and seriously ask ourselves: Is this promoting equity? We need policies that allow the East, West, and South sides to catch up to where everyone else is. 

San Antonio has been a poster child for police union protections that shield rogue cops, yet a recent ballot measure to limit the union’s negotiating power failed. What can be done now to increase police accountability and oversight? 

When you look at which sides of town supported that measure, the May election showed that communities like mine—the sides of town that are the most heavily policed—are also areas of town where people most want police reform and accountability. It’s frustrating because the city and police union are often fighting for reforms and solutions that are just Band-Aids. As we saw during this election, people who oppose reform will demonize it as defunding or abolishing police. When we want to allocate more money to domestic violence prevention or substance abuse counseling in order to get at root causes of crime, it’s turned into, “Oh, they’re trying to get rid of the police.” Sadly, I think we’ll see a lot of meaningless debate on that front. 

San Antonio’s East Side has been a flashpoint for gentrification in recent years as the city tried to spur downtown development. How do you limit predatory development? 

For the past several decades, city council members from all across San Antonio have been hand-picked by developers. Developers are really the major funding sources for campaigns here. There are usually dozens of developers contributing the max dollar amount, which can get someone through an entire campaign. That has made campaigns very lazy. They don’t reach out to the community. They don’t really solicit funds from other sources. It’s very much a pay-to-play situation. That’s led to luxury apartments being built next door to a house that should really only cost $70,000 or $80,000. Then more investors come in and flip the house for $400,000, or they get council to rezone the area even when the community doesn’t want it. 

I’m committed to working with everyone—developers, community members, all stakeholders—but developers are never going to be the priority for me. A lot of development that I’m now being briefed on, projects that my predecessors approved or encouraged, it’s just dropping luxury apartments in the middle of a community with high poverty that desperately needs more affordable housing. It’s very clear that my community is not the population these projects seek to benefit. I want whatever development keeps the community intact and benefits the residents who are already there, not development designed to draw people in from out of town or out of state for the purposes of a wealthier tax base.   

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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‘Trigger Warning: Time’

Everything happens in time
but Time still sometimes
wants a body

a stalk like an asparagus
a golden eye
that opens slow and misty

maybe a scar or two
to prove its memories

the mirror of a quiet pool
or nakedness before another

Time dreams a trunk
and leaves and branches 

reaches down beneath the dark
for some kind of hold 

Before this world started
Time drank heavily
of empty and of dark

It gladdened Time’s heart
when first it came upon
starshine on the waters

and found things watchful 
to observe its changes
and keep it company
until they had to go

Its favorite travel spot so far
is right here in the Holocene

It likes the insects
and going to the movies 

The bad news is
even Time feels
it’s moving faster now

What can be next

when the whole show
becomes a window
closing too fast
for Time’s taste 

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What’s the Status of Public Integrity Cases in Tarrant County and Across the State?

For our full collaborative investigation “Justice For Some” on the Texas Rangers with KXAN, KTEP, and the Fort Worth Report, go here.

For two days in a row, Doreen Geiger joined a handful of others holding signs demanding a forensic audit in front of the Tarrant Regional Water District headquarters. Some cars slowed. Some honked. 

Each day, they went inside the building to reiterate this demand as the board considered setting its tax rate and other matters.

“My comments today are not about the tax rate, but they are about money,” Geiger told the board during the public comment portion of the meeting. “TRWD does need an audit done every year like most other organizations have. This year, in particular, it needs a forensic audit so this board can make sure the new general manager makes all the needed changes to put a stop to waste and fraudulent spending of taxpayers’ money.” 

Geiger felt this was necessary after the district’s previous general manager almost retired with what amounted to an additional year’s salary without the full board’s approval

A statewide public integrity unit based out of the Travis County District Attorney’s Office used to investigate and prosecute cases such as the one Geiger is protesting at the water district.

Since the Texas Rangers took over that responsibility in 2015, 564 public integrity and corruption investigations have resulted in 67 prosecutions, according to a Texas Observer analysis.

Experts interviewed by the Austin-based publication said that this is because the Rangers often have to get permission from a local DA before they can launch a probe. The experts said some local DAs knew the accused and shielded them.

Only three of the 564 public integrity cases the Texas Rangers investigated involved officials from Tarrant County. 

Because the Tarrant cases did not result in prosecutions, there are few public details about them.

Tarrant County District Attorney Sharen Wilson, who took office in in 2015, but after the change, said she has never turned away the Texas Rangers. Her office has a white collar/public integrity team that accepts cases from the Rangers and other law enforcement agencies. The team has been around since the 1980s and consists of three attorneys, three investigators and two financial analysts. It has about 211 pending cases, 15 of which involve a current or former elected official or person in a place of public trust.

When asked to cite a public integrity case that she thought her office handled well, Wilson pointed to one where a handful of Arlington police officers were accused of falsifying a government record. Specifically, the officers indicated they had conducted traffic stops when they had not. Court records show the officers’ cases were dismissed in 2017 a few days after they were indicted, though. They reached a plea agreement.

“When they resigned and surrendered their licenses, that was a win because we don’t need jails lined with nonviolent offenders. Not everybody has to go to prison to find justice, so justice was done in this case,” said Anna Tinsley Williams, a DA’s office spokeswoman.

When the Report asked Wilson if she’d recuse herself if her fellow county leaders were ever accused of a crime, Tinsley WIlliams said, “She makes every decision based on the law and facts in individual cases, so there’s just not a uniform umbrella answer for your question.”

Wilson has been the subject of a Texas Rangers’ public integrity investigation. In 2016, she was accused of breaking the law by emailing her employees and asking for their personal email addresses, cell phone numbers and home addresses. She was accused of then sending them an email invite to a campaign fundraiser. Then Wichita County DA Maureen Shelton declined the case, according to numerous media reports, including in the Appeal and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Wilson has rescued herself in at least one public integrity case, too. It involves former deputy medical examiner Dr. Marc Krouse, who was suspended and then fired after his superior audited his work and found numerous errors. Wilson asked Dallas County DA John Creuzot to determine whether Krouse should be charged with falsifying a government record.

“We’re not handling that case because we’ve sponsored him as a witness for 30 years and, by all accounts, he was a very good deputy medical examiner for almost all of that time,” Wilson said in an interview with the Report.

Her office has also helped smaller counties that have said they do not have the resources to prosecute public integrity cases or need to recuse themselves because of a conflict of interest. For example, it is prosecuting two Ellis County Auditor’s Office employees charged with theft.

“We always say ‘yes’ because we just can’t be in a position to not help somebody else,” Wilson said.

The Texas Rangers appear to have investigated only one other case similar to what is alleged to have occurred at the Tarrant Regional Water District. 

In 2018, the Rangers launched an investigation into abuse of official capacity at the Agua Special Utility District. This came after local media reported the general manager there had approved severance payouts worth half a million dollars to two employees. The employees, who also served on a school board, had become ineligible to work for the water district under a new law that barred the Agua SUD board from hiring elected officials from other taxing entities.

Wilson did not respond to follow-up questions about whether her office was working with Texas Rangers to investigate and prosecute anyone associated with the water district, and Texas Rangers Spokeswoman Ericka Miller told the Report it had not received a complaint about it.

But that hasn’t deterred people like Geiger from continuing to seek accountability.

The night before a recent Tarrant County Commissioners Court meeting, she typed what she planned to say to them about the water district and emailed it to friends for their feedback. 

In her first draft, Geiger wrote that the commissioners should direct Wilson to order the water district undergo a forensic audit.

“Then, I had to revise it because one of my friends called me afterward and said, ‘You don’t understand how the government works. Even though the DA’s office is a county department, the commissioners court can’t really direct the DA to do anything.’ I didn’t really understand that,” Geiger said.

Geiger then tried asking Wilson. She printed out hundreds of pages of public records and news articles that she thought proved wrongdoing at the water district and brought them to Wilson’s office downtown. 

“I highlighted everything I wanted to jump off the page at them,” she said.

But an employee wouldn’t accept the parcel, instead directing her to the sheriff’s office. Now, Geiger is skeptical anything will be done.

“I’m one of the ones now that says it probably won’t be tried in court so it needs to be tried in the court of public opinion,” she said.

This story was originally published in The Fort Worth Report.

Top image: From left: Robert Vann, Linda Hanratty, Lon Burnam and Kit Jones protest outside the Tarrant Regional Water District on Sept. 20.

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