As she and a colleague delivered four boxes containing more than 38,000 signatures to the San Antonio city clerk this month, Ananda Tomas’ eyes started to well with tears.

“It’s really happening,” she said as a clerk sealed and time-stamped the boxes.

The signatures, from residents in support of placing a range of policing issues, including the decriminalization of abortion and marijuana, on the May ballot, represent the latest reform effort by ACT 4 SA, the group founded by Tomas in the summer of 2021.

The clerk will need to verify that at least 20,000 of those signatures belong to registered voters in San Antonio, a threshold Tomas and others are confident will be reached.

Volunteers and canvassers for ACT 4 SA — which stands for Accountability, Compassion and Transparency for San Antonio — and other progressive groups spent about three months collecting signatures for what Tomas calls the Justice Charter.

After delivering the boxes, Tomas was greeted by supporters on the steps of City Hall. They chanted a melodic “we love you” as they surrounded her. Another brief chant of “Ananda for mayor” started shortly after.

She smiled, briefly, but let that chant die down after a slight wince.

Tomas, a 32-year-old El Paso native, has become highly regarded in the progressive community. She was one of the leaders of the 2021 effort to repeal collective bargaining for the police union, supports families of victims of police violence and recently created CopTheData, an interactive database of San Antonio police officers fired, rehired or suspended, along with a summary of their misconduct.

While some of her admirers would like to see her eventually run for office, Tomas says she is satisfied with the work she’s doing.

She told the San Antonio Report she understands why having progressives in office is important.

“Because you do need leadership to help push these policies,” she said over coffee at a Starbucks near Woodlawn Lake and ACT 4 SA’s office. But at least for now, she continued, “I can’t imagine not being able to be in the field.”

That field for a grassroots organizer like Tomas is knocking on doors, planning meetings, rallies and protests, connecting people to resources and — most important to her — listening to residents.

“It [feels] like I figured out what I want to do in my life and my place.”

But there was a time, early in the civil rights uprising after George Floyd’s death, that Tomas wasn’t sure if San Antonio or the police reform movement was her place.

A demonstrator holds a painting of George Floyd, whose death sparked a national movement for police reform, during a Black Lives Matter march in Southtown.
A demonstrator holds a painting of George Floyd, whose death sparked a national movement for police reform, during a Black Lives Matter march in June 2020. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

‘Darker voices’

In the summer of 2020, a few weeks after Floyd was murdered by a police officer in Minneapolis, Tomas started organizing community meetings, because she wanted to do more than march and she wanted to connect with others interested in making tangible change.

She had graduated with a master’s degree in political science from the University of Texas at San Antonio that spring and, like many who were laid off during the pandemic, she had a lot of free time.

But at one meeting a small group of Black women told her she had “light-skinned privilege” and needed to make way for “darker voices on the mic,” she recalled.

“That was really hard. … Especially knowing what I know now, that’s stuff from the slave days,” Tomas said, tracing the privilege of lighter skin to actions by white slave owners “to segregate us even more and create that in-fighting. And that still exists.”

She had encountered this charge before, not only for her light skin but because she was raised by white parents who adopted Tomas and her twin sister when they were toddlers. But at the same time, she said, “I’m ‘too dark’ to be white.”

Tomas retreated to New Mexico to stay with her parents. Conversations with them and other activists in San Antonio about the importance of changing criminal justice policies led her back. It’s work that can literally save lives, she believes.

Back in San Antonio, she contacted Ojiyoma Martin, a young Black woman she had met who had no political or organizing experience but also wanted to make meaningful change.

Thanks to her previous organizing experience, Tomas was ready.

The path to organizing

Tomas’ passion for community work was inspired by her mother, Robyn Tomas, who started a nonprofit in El Paso called Candelighters, which serves families with children who have cancer, after her own child died of the disease.

“I don’t want to be on my deathbed and not be able to say that I helped at least some people [or] did something to leave a positive impact in this world,” Tomas said. “And I know that comes from what my parents both instilled in us.”

She graduated from Eastern New Mexico University with a bachelor’s degree in social work and sociology. Her grades earned her a full-ride scholarship, and her volleyball skills got her a housing stipend — she has played since seventh grade and still plays in a women’s league.

After college, she joined AmeriCorps in New Hampshire to work in the U.S. Department of Education’s homeless and migrant youth program.

That work inspired her to move toward macro-level, institutional changes — and that led her to grassroots organizing.

After attending Change Corps, a training academy for activists, she worked on election campaigns and petition efforts in several states, culminating in a regional field director position in San Antonio with Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign.

During the campaign, she built valuable connections to other organizers, donors and activists. After Sanders’ primary loss, she enrolled at UTSA.

By the time the summer of protests began, Tomas’ experience was exactly what Martin needed, even though neither woman could yet foresee the long battle ahead.

Trading a ladle for an engine

Martin was cooking dinner when she heard Tomas was holding a meeting that night. Like so many Americans that summer, Martin was searching for meaningful action after Floyd’s murder.

“I said, ‘You know what? Enough,’ and literally handed over the ladle to my husband and walked out the door and went to this meeting,” Martin said.

Tomas listened to Martin’s idea to strip San Antonio’s police union of its ability to collectively bargain for a contract because the process had resulted in contract provisions that allow cops fired for misconduct to return to the force.

Tomas immediately saw the potential impact of that change. That night, she began gathering emails and putting together spreadsheets. She followed up with Martin the next day.

“I was like, ‘Oh, snap, this is really happening,'” Martin said. “If Ananda wasn’t onboard, I would have gone back home, grabbed the ladle from my husband and continued stirring.”

Instead, Martin launched the effort to gather signatures for what would become Proposition B, to repeal local implementation of the chapter of the Texas Local Government Code that grants the union its collective bargaining rights.

The group became Fix SAPD and hired Tomas to be deputy director.

Proposition B made it onto the May 2021 ballot, and a divisive, expensive political battle ensued, with the San Antonio Police Officers Association leading the charge against the ballot measure.

Ultimately, the measure failed, but far more narrowly than many expected, given the political and financial power the police union has long wielded at City Hall.

Its support by almost 50% of voters showed a substantial appetite to rein in the union’s power and gave city leaders the political cover they needed to make substantial strides in ending the contractual loopholes that allowed fired cops to get their jobs back.

Martin credits Tomas for being the “Energizer Bunny” behind that success.

“Ananda’s that engine — she just won’t stop … and she’s just going to keep this alive,” Martin said.

Ananda Tomas, deputy director of Fix SAPD, reacts to tight election results for Proposition B.
Ananda Tomas reacts to tight results for Proposition B during the May 2021 election. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

A clarity of purpose

After the vote, Tomas found herself at another inflection point. Most other organizers with Fix SAPD went back to their “normal” lives — working and caring for children.

A job opportunity cropped up for her as well — a job with decent pay and benefits.

Financial stability and work-life balance are common challenges for progressive organizers, said Michelle Tremillo, co-executive director of Texas Organizing Project (TOP), whose education fund was Fix SAPD’s top donor. “What scares people away [from this work] is ‘How do I feed my family and do this?’”

But Tremillo also saw Tomas as a leader San Antonio still needed for a movement whose work was not done. Over a drink at the Lighthouse Lounge, Tremillo urged Tomas to continue that work and let TOP worry, at least at first, about the financials. TOP became one of ACT 4 SA’s first major donors and Tremillo sits on its board.

That financial backing “might have made it easier for [Tomas] to sleep at night … but she did the work,” Tremillo said.

Tomas created ACT 4 SA, with the goal of continuing the momentum Fix SAPD built to hold police accountable and improve the public safety system.

Tomas’ willingness to listen to the community is complemented by her personal connection to the work, Tremillo said. She has “a clarity of purpose, a real love for her community. … She listens first, acts second.”

ACT 4 SA was selected to be in the first cohort of a mentor program developed by BRIDGE, a local accelerator for startups, organizers and innovative ideas. Each group receives $100,000 and training on fundamentals from fundraising to leadership development.

“She just absorbed everything that we could throw at her,” said BRIDGE founder H. Drew Galloway. “She’s a voracious learner, but also she’s a super-diligent executor. She sets a plan in motion and runs the plan. … That’s a rare talent.”

ACT 4 SA had raised over $350,000 and had four full-time employees by the end of last year, Tomas said.

In addition to its work creating and collecting signatures for the Justice Charter, ACT 4 SA has pushed for the city to stop armed law enforcement from responding to mental health 911 calls, pressured the police department to more quickly release bodycam footage and lobbied for more accountability from VIA Metropolitan transit police.

The group also supports the families of police violence victims, organizing protests and connecting them to resources.

Tomas is now working to make ACT 4 SA an education and resource hub for the community to learn about police reform issues and how systems work to empower communities to make change. It has begun that effort with “People over Policing” toolkits on its website.

Tomas established the ACT 4 SA Action Fund, a 501(c)(4), that can campaign and lobby in elections — including for the Justice Charter — since ACT 4 SA is a nonprofit 501(c)(3), which is tax-exempt and so cannot lobby or campaign.

“If we can shrink the overall impact of policing in Bexar County in a substantial way … that’s gonna save lives,” she said. “I think we police for too much, we jail for too much and all it’s doing is breaking apart families and harming people. We’re seeing alternative models pop up that are healthy and more rehabilitative and we want to get San Antonio there.”

As the nation reels from the latest horrifying killing of a Black man at the hands of police, Tomas is grieving Tyre Nichols and girding herself to continue the work.

“I’ve been crying because I’m sad and angry for Tyre — but also crying because I’m frustrated [with myself], feeling like I’m not doing enough or not doing the right thing. … What more can we do?”

Body cam footage from the five Memphis, Tennessee, police officers who beat Nichols to death during a traffic stop was released Friday, prompting protests across the country, including one Saturday evening organized by the local Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL).

Tomas said ACT 4 SA will work with PSL and other groups to organize a rally next weekend but hopes the protests will translate into action.

“It’s really problematic and saddening that things like this have to happen for folks to get activated,” she said.

She hopes the CopTheData dashboard will show “just how frequently misconduct is happening” in San Antonio and that people will see how the Justice Charter could potentially reduce violent interactions with the police.

“Hopefully, by bringing these things to light and putting it in the public’s face, they can start to recognize that [misconduct] happens here. But it is so frustrating that people think it doesn’t happen in their city or their town.”

About 50 people gathered Saturday on the narrow Martin Luther King Jr. Plaza on the East Side, including Deborah Bush, whose nephew Marquise Jones was shot and killed in 2014 by an off-duty San Antonio police officer outside a San Antonio restaurant. 

No criminal charges were filed against the officer, and Jones’ family lost a wrongful death suit related to the case.

“This is really getting old,” Bush said. “When [those Memphis police officers] were beating that young man, they knew exactly what they were doing. They thought they would get away with it with qualified immunity, which is one of the things that needs to be abolished because they need to be held accountable for what they do to us.”

Dozens attend a vigil and speak out for Tyre Nichols, a black man who was beaten and eventually killed by five former Memphis Police Department officers. at Martin Luther King Plaza in San Antonio on Jan. 28, 2023. Credit: Kaylee Greenlee Beal for the San Antonio Report
Dozens attend a Saturday vigil in Martin Luther King Jr. Plaza for Tyre Nichols, a Black man fatally beaten by five Memphis, Tennessee, police on Jan. 7. Credit: Kaylee Greenlee Beal for the San Antonio Report

The fight ahead for the Justice Charter

The Action Fund is now fundraising for the Justice Charter, the goal of which is to “reduce unnecessary arrests and save scarce public resources.”

If approved, the Justice Charter would decriminalize marijuana and abortion — meaning San Antonio police would not pursue low-level marijuana possession charges or most abortion cases — ban officers from using no-knock warrants and chokeholds and expand the city’s cite-and-release policy for low-level, nonviolent crimes. It would also require the city to appoint a “justice director” to oversee the implementation of these changes.

Ananda Tomas, executive director of Act 4 SA, speaks on the steps of City Hall on Jan. 10 after delivering more than 38,000 signatures to place a City Charter amendment known as the Justice Charter on the May 2023 ballot. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report

The police union is expected to mount a substantial campaign against the measure; San Antonio Police Officers Association President Danny Diaz released a statement arguing against it.

ACT 4 SA says it has community sentiment on its side and has shared the results from polling it commissioned showing support for each measure ranging from 51% favorability for a ban on police use of neck restraints to 64% for a ban on no-knock raids. The proposal overall polled at 67% approval, the group said.

“Every day, police departments decide what they’re going to enforce and what they’re not going to enforce, and this represents the people of San Antonio saying: these are not our priorities for our scarce public dollars,” said Mike Siegel, political director and co-founder of Ground Game Texas, which has joined with ACT 4 SA to push the measure.

“This work is thankless; it doesn’t pay well,” Siegel said as the chants in front of City Hall in praise of Tomas began last month. “You have to be inspired by the community benefits and, to me, Ananda is extremely sincere and committed to this work and we’re honored to be with her in this fight.”

Avatar photo

Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at