USW and Shell Are Talking About Talking

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Photo by Max Burkhalter
USW protestors rally at the Shell building in downtown Houston on February 6. They've been on strike since February 1.

Representatives from the United Steelworkers and Royal Dutch Shell have been arguing over a new national contract for the oil refinery workers with no success, but now it looks like the two sides are gearing up to sit down and try once again to work out a new national contract. Or at least they're talking about talking, which seems something like progress at this point.

So far, USW reps have rejected at least seven contract offers from Shell, and pulled more than 6,500 workers at 15 plants -- with about 5,000 coming from 12 oil refineries -- since the strike started on February 1. Locally, the strike started by pulling union workers out of LyondellBasell, Marathon's Texas City Refinery and Shell Deer Park. The two sides are reportedly butting heads over safety issues, rules that make sure fatigued workers aren't stuck on the job, and contractors. Things haven't exactly been going well.


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Bill Calls for Outside Prosecutors to Present Cop-on-Civilian Shootings to Grand Juries

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Courtesy of Janet Baker
Jordan Baker was unarmed when HPD officer Juventino Castro shot and killed him last January
Jordan Baker was riding his bike near a strip mall off 5700 West Little York last January when he encountered Juventino Castro, an HPD officer of over a decade. Castro was moonlighting as a security guard, hired by a group of stores that had recently reported a string of burglaries. Police say Castro, who was in uniform, flagged 26-year-old Baker because he looked suspicious and matched the description of the robbery suspects -- the "description" being that Baker was a black man wearing a hoodie.

Investigators would later say there's no reason to think Baker had anything to do with the robberies at the strip center. He had a kid at home, was studying to become a welder, and had no criminal record to speak of (he'd been charged with misdemeanor pot possession and evading arrest when he was a teenager, but those charges were dismissed). Yet for some reason, "a brief struggle and foot chase ensued" when Castro tried to stop and talk to Baker, according to police. Castro later claimed that, for some reason, Baker stopped running at some point, turned toward the officer and reached for his waistband, even though he was unarmed. Castro fired once, killing Baker.

As with all officer-involved shootings, the Harris County District Attorney's Office presented the case to grand jury in December to decide whether Castro was justified in shooting and killing an unarmed man. According to the DA's office, there were no witnesses to the shooting; it was Castro's word against that of a dead man. And, as has been the case in every single HPD-involved shooting for over a decade, the grand jury cleared Castro.

Invoking Baker's name, Missouri City state Rep. Ron Reynolds has filed a bill to take officer-involved shootings out of the hands of local district attorneys, and would instead call for a special Attorney General-appointed prosecutor to investigate and present such cases to a grand jury. "Jordan Baker. Mike Brown. Eric Garner. There are blatant problems with the criminal justice system, and many of you have demanded change," Reynolds said in a statement announcing his HB 1840.

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Ugly Social Media Response to Suspected Arson at Islamic Community Center

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Screengrab from Facebook
The social media response to the Quba Islamic Institute fire hasn't exactly been encouraging.

In the wake of the fire that gutted a building owned by the Quba Islamic Institute last Friday, people have taken to social media to air their thoughts and opinions about the suspicious fire. Go figure that a lot of those thoughts have been remarkably ugly and lobbed directly at the Islamic community center.

Within hours investigators with the Houston Fire Department told Imam Zahid Abdullah that it looked like the fire was started using accelerants, a strong indication that the fire wasn't an accident. (HFD officials announced that Darryl Ferguson, 55, had been arrested and charged with felony first degree arson late Monday, according to KTRK.) The center posted this information on Facebook and has also been fielding questions from people interested in making a donation to help the center.

But in addition to a lot of good will from social media, people have been posting on the Quba Islamic Institute's Facebook page with comments that run the gamut from snide glee to blatant bigotry. The fire is the first serious incident that has occurred at the institute since Abdullah opened it about two years ago, he says. That has made some of the negative comments on social media that much more shocking, he says. "It definitely makes you think and wonder why people think that way," Abdullah says. "It's a very simple thing. You have to understand that we are here to promote love, that's all. That's what the prophets Mohamed, Moses and Jesus have demonstrated all their lives and we have to be followers of those teachings."


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How My Five-Year-Old Daughter Reacted to Seeing Her First Open Carry Demonstration

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Photo by Jef Rouner
Funny things start going through your head when you and your five-year-old daughter are suddenly surrounded by a dozen people wielding high-powered weaponry. Mostly, you know, expletives and panic, but also an agonizing moment of loss where you are suddenly trying to distill decades of complicated gun nuttery to a child that is still convinced Doctor Who is real.

"Look, Daddy, a parade!" was what I heard from the back seat. I suppose we could chicken out and I could go with that.

We were on our way out of Pearland on FM 518 on Sunday after my daughter had spent the night at my sister-in-law's house. It gave me a good chance to catch up on work on the weekend and while my daughter got with her aunt to that church thing I hear so much about. After the long drive on a warm afternoon in a car with no air conditioning I was busy scanning the other side of the road for some place we might have lunch and cool drinks at when we blundered into an open carry event.

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Exxon Finally Has an LGBT Nondiscrimination Policy (Because President Obama Made Them)

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After years of booing and hissing, ExxonMobil finally has a nondiscrimination policy to protect LGBT employees. However, you might want to hold off on dancing in the streets, since Exxon only did it because President Obama made them.

ExxonMobil has a pretty shoddy history when it comes to preventing worker discrimination based on gender or sexual orientation. In fact, back in 1999 when Exxon bought Mobil Oil, the company actually rolled back the domestic partner benefits that Mobil previously offered employees. This move gave Exxon the dubious honor of being the first Fortune 500 company to actually move backwards in its nondiscrimination policy. The company also resisted shareholder resolutions to adopt LGBT protections 17 times, according to the Human Rights Campaign.

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Texas Muslim Capitol Day Went About as Well as Expected

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Screengrab from Facebook
State Congresswoman Molly White set a low bar for handling Texas Muslim Capitol Day.

An elected official and a clutch of protesters shared their views about this year's Texas Muslim Capitol Day. Take a wild guess how things went. (Hint: it's possible there was even a pair of jeggings involved.)

The event, organized by the Texas chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations was meant to be a chance for Muslim community members to learn about the democratic process and how to advocate for important issues. Well, those who showed up certainly got a bit of education on the current state of democratic process from at least one lawmaker and some motivated protesters.

Republican state Rep. Molly White got the ball rolling with a Facebook post outlining how she planned to approach the incoming Muslim constituency. With the House not in session until next Monday, the freshman congresswoman was back in her home district in Bell County doing home district-type things. However, she didn't want to miss an opportunity to let everyone know where she stands on the question of Texas Capitol Muslim Day, so she instructed her staff to greet anyone from Texas Muslim Capitol Day who swung by her office with warmth and enthusiasm, and to take notes on any concerns Muslim community members of her district might raise.

Ha. Just kidding.

White started off by leaving an Israeli flag on the reception desk in her office. In case that was a little too subtle for any Muslims running around the building, she also left her staff with very special and oh-so-tolerant instructions for any Muslim individuals who might stop by. Or in White's words, because, honestly, paraphrasing can't do this particular set of instructions justice:


"I did leave an Israeli flag on the reception desk in my office with instructions to staff to ask representatives from the Muslim community to renounce Islamic terrorist groups and publicly announce allegiance to America and our laws. We will see how long they stay in my office. "


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UPDATED Texas Uses Of Mice and Men Standards to Execute Mentally Disabled Man

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Photo courtesy of the ACLU
Robert Ladd

Update 1/30/15 at 8:00 a.m.: Last night, Texas prison officials executed Robert Ladd for the brutal murder of Vicki Ann Garner. Ladd's time of death was 7:02 p.m., 27 minutes after officials administered lethal-injection drugs.

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Original Story

Barring a last-minute intervention from the U.S. Supreme Court, Texas will execute a man with an IQ score of 67 tonight.

Robert Ladd is scheduled for execution by lethal injection at 6 p.m. Thursday for the 1996 murder of Vicki Ann Garner. This is despite the fact that the Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that executing a mentally disabled person for murder is unconstitutional. Stranger still, Texas has once again used standards derived from John Steinbeck's classic 1937 novella, Of Mice and Men, to justify executing a man that meets the clinical definition of intellectually disabled.

"Anywhere else in the country, Mr. Ladd's IQ of 67 would have meant a life sentence, not death," Brian Stull, Ladd's attorney, said in a statement. "But the Texas courts insist on severely misjudging his intellectual capacity, relying on standards for gauging intelligence crafted from 'Of Mice and Men' and other sources that have nothing to do with science or medicine. Robert Ladd's fate shouldn't depend on a novella."

And yet.

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Texas's New First Lady Is Heading Up a Pro-Life Rally. Because of Course She Is.

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First Lady Cecilia Abbott is getting down to business right quick.

We admit we've been curious about what it would be like. While everybody and their dog could see that newly anointed Gov. Greg Abbott would essentially be like a grumpier Rick Perry with worse hair, things were really up in the air about our new first lady, Cecilia Abbott. What would the first Latina to hold the spot of governor's wife in the great state of Texas choose to do with her power? The options seemed limitless and anything seemed possible.

Well, that ended fast. While her husband is pretty much living up to expectations since taking office this week, Cecilia Abbott has already gone and surprised us by signing on to headline a massive pro-life (aka anti-abortion) rally in Austin on Saturday. The rally is supposedly being held to "commemorate" the 42nd anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade, which made access to abortions a constitutional right, although we're betting this rally isn't exactly about celebrating a woman's right to choose.

Anyway, at 12:30 p.m. tomorrow thousands of people (according to a press release) will gather and then the whole group is going to march through the streets of Austin to wind up at the steps of the Capitol Building. And once there, Cecilia Abbott will be the headliner.


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The Fifth Circuit Oral Arguments Look Good for Gay Marriage

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Photo by Max Burkhalter

Those who have been hoping to see gay marriage recognized in the Lone Star State had a very good day in court on Friday. The U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments on gay marriage cases from Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi, and the responses of the two judges who are most likely going to vote to strike down gay marriage bans were nothing less than awesome.

Most experts are betting that the U.S. Supreme Court will still ultimately be forced to take up the issue and make a clear-cut decision one way or another. But in the meantime, on Friday morning a panel of Fifth Circuit judges, comprised of Judge James Graves Jr., a President Barack Obama appointee, Judge Jerry E. Smith and Judge Patrick Higginbotham, both appointed by President Ronald Reagan, dug into the issue and spent more than three hours -- with each case getting about an hour of time -- tearing into the legalese behind these bans.


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Gay Marriage Case Goes to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals This Week

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Photo by Max Burkhalter

After months percolating in the court system, the Lone Star State's gay marriage ban is finally getting reviewed by the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals this week. And the crazy part is, we actually aren't fairly certain of how they're going to rule based on the selected judges.

Last year, U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia ruled in De Leon v. Perry -- a suit brought by a lesbian couple who married in Massachusetts and then found they couldn't have both of their names on their first child's birth certificate in Texas -- that the state's gay marriage ban was unconstitutional as it violates our rights under the equal protection clause of the Constitution.

Garcia promptly stayed his ruling striking down the ban until the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals could make a decision on the issue. In keeping with everyone's expectations, state officials, including Gov. Rick Perry and Attorney Gen. Greg Abbott, promptly raged against the ruling and filed an appeal with the Fifth Circuit. Because that's what they always do. And now, the time has finally come.

This Friday the a panel of Fifth Circuit judges are scheduled to hear oral arguments on the case. The panel includes Judge James Graves Jr., a President Barack Obama appointee, and Judges Jerry E. Smith and Patrick Higgenbotham, both appointed by President Ronald Reagan.


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