The New Light Baptist Church sits on the high ground of the near-Eastside with the bright lights of the Alamodome and Tower of the Americas visible in the near distance. Downtown seems so close, yet there is no pretending: For the African-American residents who gathered Thursday evening at the church on the corner of Piedmont Avenue and Martin Luther King Drive, life in their neighborhood is very different than life in your neighborhood and mine.
It’s less than 2.5 miles from the church to the Rivard Report offices at 110 East Houston St., where I write tonight and Scott Ball edits his photos, but it might as well be two different worlds when it comes to community views of law enforcement, the justice system, and the deep-seated fear, anger and frustration over police shootings of unarmed black men that have not resulted in any charges against any of the officers.
The evening was billed as a town hall meeting, titled “Justice for All.” As the church pews filled with members of the black community, there was a sense of anticipation and an edge in the air. Mayor Ivy Taylor, San Antonio Police Chief William McManus, and Bexar County District Attorney Nico LaHood were on the panel, along with U.S. Attorney Richard Durbin Jr. and representatives of the FBI and civil rights attorney Artessia “Tess” House and Dallas civil rights attorney Daryl Washington. Councilman Alan Warrick, who represents the Eastside, was also in attendance.
A Feb. 11 meeting convened by Mayor Taylor at City Hall with many of the same members of the Eastside community leadership and Chief McManus, City Manager Sheryl Sculley, Councilman Warrick and other city officials had been largely free of tension or acrimony. Many of the participants on both sides saw that meeting as a sobering yet promising start only seven days after San Antonio Police Officer John Lee fatally shot Antronie Scott, 36, as he emerged from his car outside a Northeast side apartment complex. Lee claimed he thought a cell phone Scott was holding in his upraised hands was a gun. Privately, a senior police official has said Lee should have never allowed the situation to spin out of control with such tragic consequences.
The New Light Baptist Church was overflowing with people by 7 p.m. Even the choir began to fill as neighbors continued to arrive. Community leaders hoping for an evening of healing, of getting answers to their questions, of showing the community that progress could be made, were left somewhere between deep disappointment and despair. The evening got off to an unpromising start when Debbie Bush, the aunt of Marquise Jones, left the church in tears after being cut off by one of the organizers while speaking at the microphone.
Jones was fatally shot by San Antonio Police Officer Robert Encina in the drive-thru of a Chacho’s franchise one year ago. Encina claimed Jones exited his vehicle holding a pistol after a minor parking lot fender-bender, an account disputed by others there. Encina was not charged in the shooting.
Audience members began to call out to let her speak, to no avail. They grew more vocal as the program continued and moderator Blaise Labbe of the Sinclair Broadcast Group, struggled to manage citizens lined up at microphones to speak. Some directed their question to the panelists, but many wanted to speak at length about their own negative experiences with police or their distrust of authority. Mayor Taylor, who lives in nearby Dignowity Hill and is widely respected in the African-American community, left after 45 minutes to attend the World Affairs Council dinner. After her departure, the dialogues devolved into angry filibustering, people standing in the church aisles carrying signs that read “I am Marquise Jones,” others calling out from the audience to heckle or criticize the frustrated moderator.
At one point neighborhood activist Mike Lowe led a dozen or so protestors into the church, carrying placards and shouting, “What do we want? Justice. When do we want it? Now. Black lives matter!” The protestors formed a semicircle behind McManus at the front of the church and continued to disrupt the proceedings. Several police officers sat stone-faced on the other side of the church as McManus looked straight ahead, ignoring those shouting around him, who eventually dispersed and marched out, chanting loudly.
That signaled a disorganized closing of the program, one that ended without resolution or much sense that constructive dialogue had taken place. The #BlackLivesMatter protestors stood outside in the dark, barely visible, holding their banner and chanting as people exited the church. The Tower of the Americas and other downtown landmarks were clearly visible. It was a view of another world.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misidentified the church at which the meeting was held. It was New Light Baptist Church.
*Top Image: San Antonio Police Chief William McManus sits as protestors, including Mike Lowe, surround him asking for justice for Marquise Jones and Antronie Scott. Photo by Scott Ball.