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Antonio Lee, a former oilfield worker who lives in San Antonio, was downtown on Saturday, participating in a demonstration against the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, when violence erupted.
As he livestreamed the destruction of several businesses along Houston and Broadway streets, he urged those watching to meet him on Sunday morning to help repair the damage.
“If we can get together to protest, we can get everybody to clean up,” he said.
Lee was one of the hundreds of volunteers city officials and business owners thanked during a Centro San Antonio press conference Tuesday in front of Rocket Fizz Soda Pop & Candy Shop. It was among the storefronts damaged and looted during the late-evening destruction that prompted nighttime curfews.
Centro’s Matt Brown, CEO of the downtown advocacy and planning nonprofit, said arriving on the scene Sunday morning and seeing the damage was an emotional experience. But as volunteer cleanup crews began to show up, with brooms and sponges in hand, it looked more like an old-fashioned “barn-raising.”
“I’ve never been in one, but the barn burns down and all the neighbors … just come out [and say], ‘This is our neighborhood. This is our family. This is our downtown. This is our home. Let’s come down, help each other out,’” Brown said.
Several hundred volunteers fanned out across downtown, he said, removing graffiti and broken glass. “We just knocked this out and look how beautiful downtown is,” Brown said. “We’re reclaiming it right now, and every day, so just want to thank everybody.”
In addition to the citizen volunteers and Centro San Antonio volunteers, the City deployed 30 crews to clean up starting early Sunday morning, to include street sweeping, cleaning sidewalks, and removing litter. Shortly after, the usual pedestrians and cyclists had returned to the area, said Assistant City Manager David McCary.
“We quickly restored the beauty of our great city,” he said.
City Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) said the cleanup efforts echoed the sentiments of the thousands who came out for peaceful protests against police brutality.
“We can’t forget the powerful message that was spoken loudly this weekend … and we cannot lose that message,” Treviño said. “I think that was really the big message Sunday morning – that despite an unfortunate incident Saturday night … this community will not let us lose that message. It’s loud and clear.”
Laurence Seiterle, who owns several of the properties that were damaged, said he arrived at 7:30 a.m. on Sunday to survey the damage left by the looters. “And there are people with mops and brooms, and they were basically done, and I was in shock,” he said. “There were more volunteers and … then tacos. A wave of tacos and water.”
Seiterle also announced that, despite the challenges brought on by the coronavirus pandemic and the vandalism, two new businesses are moving into the Houston and Broadway streets area, a deli and a shop that sells vegetarian meals.
Some of the federal coronavirus relief dollars coming to the City of San Antonio will be earmarked to help small businesses like those that were struck Saturday night, said Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3), who also chairs the council’s Economic and Workforce Development Committee.
“We, as a city, we will continue to focus on our small businesses,” she said. “We will lift one another up. And we will continue to work towards dismantling systemic and institutional racism [and] we do that when we come together.”
The cleanup, Mayor Ron Nirenberg said, was a way to “clear the canvas” for further conversations about race, violence, and police brutality, in order to move forward.
“We are, after all, a place where civil rights marches go through and often start here in San Antonio,” he said. “But the only way for reform to actually happen is for the wave of non-violence and peaceful protests to extinguish all aspects of racism and injustice.”