HOUSTON, TX - They gathered after nightfall at an undisclosed location downtown.
People representing more than a half-dozen protest groups that are set to march and rally here Super Bowl weekend met to coordinate their efforts — in a way New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick would have appreciated. That is to say, the protesters discussed using encrypted communication that would keep opponents from intercepting their messages.
It was so secretive Tuesday night, not all of the group representatives got the full game plan, said Blake Stroud, who created a group called #ResistHouston to connect the protesters and provided USA TODAY Sports with an account of the meeting.
“I guess they’re going for the element of surprise,’’ he said.
The goal: Present a large, loud, peaceful and, in the end, united front, mostly targeting President Trump and his policies on immigration. No fewer than five marches and rallies are scheduled across Houston for Friday through Sunday, and the protests will culminate on game day outside NRG Stadium, site of Super Bowl LI.
Brian Harrison, a local attorney who has provided support for the protesters, said, “Meanwhile, there’s a game being played on Sunday. I haven’t had any time to pay attention to it.’’
Less than a month after women’s marches drew millions of people around the globe and huge airport protests erupted over Trump’s immigration ban, the politically charged climate has created an unprecedented atmosphere during Super Bowl week.
Yes, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and coach Belichick have been asked about their matchup with the Atlanta Falcons. But they’ve been pressed harder to address their relationship with Trump.
Other members of the Patriots and Falcons were asked if they’d attend the White House if their team wins, with the players’ answers presumably serving as a referendum on whether they support Trump. Other players were asked for their opinion on Trump’s temporary "ban" on immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries.
The players mostly ducked and dodged the questions. The local protests, by contrast, are eager to tackle those issues head on and are expected to exhibit notable diversity.
Groups and community members involved thus far include members of the following groups: Black Lives Matter, socialists, abolitionists, communists, native Americans, Muslims, Jews, Hispanics, LGBT community members and the local Democratic party. Also planning to be on the scene: Opponents of circumcision. For real.
“We are seeing the petty differences between our groups matter less than what we agree on,’’ said Amy Zachmeyer, lead organizer for the Houston chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America.
Houston police chief Art Acevedo said his department won’t be caught flat-footed by the protests.
"I’m sure there will be more,’’ he told USA TODAY Sports earlier this week. “You always prepare for them to happen.’’
Three will start at city hall and embark on marches, two ending near the NFL’s temporary headquarters downtown and one ending at at NRG Stadium. Another rally will start at the stadium and is expected to merge with other groups.
Details of the protests can be found on the #ResistHouston Facebook page, where almost 1,800 people have indicated they will participate and another 6,800 people have indicated they are “interested.”
When it comes to the organizers, it’s not just the usual suspects anymore. Melanie Villela, 30, a mother of three who is a mechanical drafter, has emerged as one of the unlikely leaders.
“I feel this is more important than watching a bunch of grown men playing football,’’ Villela told USA TODAY Sports earlier this week, “and I know our strength is in numbers.’’
Villela was less optimistic last week when she went online in search of a march scheduled for Saturday, a day she could juggle parental responsibilities and protest. She found nothing, so she decided to organize her own rally and created a Facebook page. A few hours later, she checked the page and its progress.
She was the only confirmed participant.
The next morning, she got a call from her excited mother. Almost 100 participants had confirmed. By Thursday there were more than 700 people committed to participate, and Villela also secured an invitation to the Tuesday night protesters meeting.
She heard the talk about law enforcement harassment that night, but she’d already called the police to discuss her scheduled rally.
“They just wanted to emphasize maybe to stick with poster boards and not (posters with) sticks,’’ Villela said. “I’m not sure what was the reason behind that request.’’
But on Thursday, Villela was complying with the police department’s request while making posters with her three children. At one point, the children sat around a small table in her apartment and her 2-year-old son, Joseph, used crayon to put the finishing touches on one of the posters.
It read: “Unite Don't Divide.’’
Copyright 2017 USA TODAY