This story has been updated.
As the City of San Antonio adjusted its budget for 2020 amid the coronavirus pandemic, dozens of supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement peacefully and loudly spoke out against police brutality and called for City Council to defund the police department.
Budgets across City departments were cut by $83 million and other financial activity was paused in response to an estimated decrease in revenue this year of nearly $200 million due to the coronavirus pandemic. Thursday’s Council action was largely administrative as those cuts – including $700,000 from the police department and the furlough of 266 City employees – have already been made.
“This bloated budget is what they use to terrorize black and brown communities,” Stephanie Koithan, founder of Young Democrats in Bryan, College Station, told Council. “Show us – not tell us. Show us that you believe that black lives matter.”
Several people called for Council to “defund the police.” Others asked for Council to strengthen disciplinary procedures for officer misconduct in the police union’s contract.
Peaceful protests in San Antonio started daily on Saturday after George Floyd, a black man in Minneapolis, was killed in police custody when a white police officer knelt on his neck for nearly 9 minutes. After the rally and march Saturday in San Antonio, confrontations between residents and police officers escalated to looting and tear gas. Tensions escalated again Tuesday, when police responded with more tear gas and nonlethal projectiles in response to objects being thrown at them. There have been no deaths in San Antonio attributed to the protests, but several people have died at or near protest sites nationwide.
Protests spilled into Council chambers Thursday, interrupting several Council members’ comments with chants of “black lives matter,” “it’s not enough,” and “you don’t hear us.” To avoid calling a recess, Mayor Ron Nirenberg tried to calm the shouting crowd.
“When we see police show up in riot gear for a peaceful protest, it doesn’t make us feel safe,” Eric Rodriguez told council members Thursday. “It makes us feel threatened.”
Public safety spending makes up 64.2 percent ($804 million) of the City’s nearly $1.3 billion general fund. The City will spend nearly $475 million on its police officers and department this year. City Council adopted a policy in 2015 to spend no more than 66 percent of its general fund on public safety.
When its last contract was approved in 2016, similar Black Lives Matter protests took place in and outside Council chambers for the removal of measures that protect officers who break the law or violate department policies. Floyd’s death has rekindled that debate.
Pharaoh Clark of Uniting America Through Wisdom worked his way up to the microphone and drew attention to a petition the nonprofit group started that details 10 reforms aimed at achieving peace and justice. Those include a zero-tolerance policy for racism across the criminal justice system, changes aimed at making it easier to fire and punish police officers involved in unjustified behavior, reparation for the families of unarmed victims killed unlawfully by police, and more.
After Clark intervened to calm and clarify the group’s protests and Nirenberg pledged to meet with him, the mood of the room relaxed slightly and the meeting proceeded.
Now is the time to start discussions about reforms, Nirenberg said, but we need to “get through this meeting” in order to start them.
“There is a system of racial prejudice that’s built into [the] criminal justice system that needs to be fixed,” Nirenberg said. “Enough is enough. … Black lives matter and we need justice in every corner of our community. … I hear you.”
Police officers perform some of the most vital services that a City is responsible for – but must be held accountable, Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8) said via videoconference.
The idea, however, that “no cop is a good cop” is false, he said, noting that he has witnessed police officers get women out of abusive relationships, help homeless individuals find shelter and food, and deliver Christmas gifts to impoverished children.
“Abusers don’t treat everybody the same way,” one woman yelled from the back of the chamber – implying that a cop can be good to some but bad to others.
Councilwoman Jada Andrews-Sullivan (D2), whose district includes San Antonio’s majority-black neighborhoods, also pledged to shepherd more “hard conversations” on what can be done.
“This conversation will not stop here,” Andrews-Sullivan said. “We will not stand on your necks, but we will stand to rise above.”
Later in the afternoon, as Council members were discussing the City’s coronavirus recovery plan, the meeting paused for an 8-minute, 46-second moment of silence in recognition of Floyd’s death. Officer Derek Chauvin knelt for that long on the neck of Floyd on May 25 while Floyd’s hands were behind his back in handcuffs and he repeatedly pleaded: “I can’t breathe.”
“Eight minutes and 46 seconds doesn’t sound like a whole lot of time, but in silence, it’s an eternity to do something,” Nirenberg said.
Chauvin kept his hands in his pockets for most of that time.
The NAACP, the nation’s oldest civil rights organization, organized the nationwide moment of silence.
Council voted 10-1, with Councilman Clayton Perry (D10) voting against the budget adjustment. He criticized canceling nearly $50 million in street maintenance projects.