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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

Prime time for activist

Houston's Quanell X, once a street kid selling crack, now makes his case on TV as a self- appointed spokesman for the black underclass.

July 27, 2007|Miguel Bustillo | Times Staff Writer

Houston — QUANELL X stared confidently into the television camera and told a heart-tugging tale about the frail man sitting by his side:

Dennis Garnier was roughed up and disrespected, all because police didn't have their facts straight. A SWAT team burst into his house and hogtied him. It had the wrong address; the drug dealer lived a few doors down.

Garnier has suffered memory loss and has become so scared of guns that he can't work as a security guard anymore. Yet police sent him a letter saying that an internal probe found nothing wrong. Houston Mayor Bill White should apologize. The city should also cut Garnier a check.

"The message this sends to all black people is that at the end of the day, you are still a black man in America!" Quanell X shouted into the camera, his indignation mounting. "When the chips are down, the system will show you."

Another camera crew stepped up, and when it was satisfied, Garnier, 58, muttered his thanks to Quanell X for taking his injustice to thousands of Texans through Fox and CBS newscasts. Houston's most televised activist then told the reporters he'd be in touch. He'd heard about an even bigger outrage, and the story might be ripe soon.

Quanell X was once just Quanell Evans, a Houston street urchin from a shattered home who was slinging crack and staring at a future he knew would put him in prison or a coffin before age 25.

He sought a new start through the Nation of Islam, but his hate-filled diatribes against white America -- which have included anti-Semitic remarks and exhortations to "mug you some good white folks" -- proved too much even for a black Muslim organization used to helping angry hoodlums out of the gutter.

So he left to join a splinter group of gun-toting black separatists, and he advocated racial justice by any means necessary in a misguided fantasy that he was the new Malcolm X -- a self-aggrandizing pose that brought him more ridicule than respect.

Now 36, Quanell X is morphing again, this time into a self-appointed spokesman for the black underclass that he came from, and his services are in high demand.

"They come to me because they know I am not afraid to challenge the powers that be," he said. "I'm not tiptoeing through the tulips and pussyfooting around. I'm saying what other people think but don't have the courage to say."

He has also carved out a reputation as the man to see in Houston if you want to confess to something terrible but don't trust police.

More than two dozen suspects have surrendered to Quanell X in the last five years, including the perpetrator of one of Texas' most sensational crimes of 2007 -- a jealous man who killed his former girlfriend, a Texas A&M student, and barbecued her in his backyard.

Investigators interrogated Timothy Wayne Shepherd for 10 hours and got nothing. The same day, a despondent Shepherd had a frank talk with Quanell X that brought the suspect to tears, and he confessed: He killed Tynesha Stewart in a fit of rage. Then he took Quanell X to the trash bin where he had dumped her remains, while news crews alerted by the activist filmed everything.

Quanell X's critics see his flair for flamboyance, and they write him off as a hustler who promotes himself at the expense of others.

A flashy man who's still obsessed with projecting a revolutionary mystique, he rolls around Houston in a white Range Rover with wide chrome rims, wears an enormous diamond-studded ring in the shape of a star and crescent, and travels with bodyguards dressed in dark fatigues and red berets who constantly scan the perimeter, hardly ever uttering a word.

"We certainly would not want to give him any more notoriety," Houston police spokesman Nathan McDuell said. "When Quanell is involved he notifies the media and makes himself out to be the central figure."

But in Houston's poor black neighborhoods, worlds far removed from the Italianate mansions and pricey boutiques that petroleum prosperity brought here, Quanell X is revered. Women stop him to say they want to have his baby. Elderly men roll down car windows and holler praise. One shouted, "Young brother, I love what you do!"

Quanell X may be a camera hog, many African Americans here say, but his rabble-rousing gets results. People like Garnier are convinced that Quanell X can accomplish more in a sound bite than they could in months of pleading to an indifferent bureaucracy -- though in that case, nothing came from the publicity and Garnier wound up filing a federal lawsuit alleging that police violated his civil rights.

"It takes a soldier, someone big, to get out of here without a scholarship to play sports," said Maurice Bailey Jr., 27, who snapped pictures of Quanell X when he saw him walking by. "It lets you know your brains don't have to be wasted out on the street."

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