Thousands of people waving placards and chanting “No Justice, No Peace,” “We Can’t Breathe,” and “Black Lives Matter” gathered in San Antonio’s Travis Park Saturday afternoon and then peacefully marched in a seemingly endless parade of protesters to the Public Safety Headquarters.
But after dark, protesters began breaking into businesses along Houston Street near Alamo Plaza, smashing dozens of windows including storefronts at the Rivercenter Mall. Police used tear gas to disperse the crowd.
Mayor Ron Nirenberg issued a curfew in the downtown business district from 11:30 p.m. Saturday to 6 a.m. Sunday and from 10 p.m. Sunday to 6 a.m. Monday to “prevent riots and civil disorder in the community.” Six people were arrested on charges that included aggravated assault, unlawful carrying of a weapon, inciting a riot, and curfew violations, city officials said.
The afternoon protest was organized as one of many in U.S. cities to protest the recent death of George Floyd, a black man, at the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis. The local march was peaceful, although various protesters angrily cursed police officers guarding the protest route.
The protesters marched from Travis Park to the police headquarters building at 315 S. Santa Rosa Blvd. early Saturday evening. The crowd chanted while police helicopters circled high overhead, and law enforcement personnel on the ground stood back and left protesters free to proceed. The names of other black people who have died in police custody or shootings were read out over a megaphone. Some gave onlooking police officers in the building their middle finger or shouted obscenities at them.
Later, a smaller group of protesters headed to Alamo Plaza and engaged in confrontations with armed demonstrators who said they “guarding” the Alamo Cenotaph, which was vandalized late Thursday night or early Friday morning with red spray-painted graffiti condemning “white supremacy,” “profit over people,” and “the Alamo.” SAPD and Texas Department of Public Safety officers attempted to block protesters from approaching the Cenotaph and nearby federal building, seeking to keep the groups separated.
Authorities eventually fired tear gas to disperse protesters.
None of the people who were out late Saturday night were representatives of the Autonomous Brown Berets De San Antonio, the group that organized the rally and march, Police Chief William McManus said at a press conference midnight Sunday.
The organizers did “exactly what they said they were going to do” and dispersed at 6:30 p.m., he said. Hundreds stayed behind, however, and made their way to Alamo Plaza.
Nirenberg said individuals who had resorted to acts of violence or vandalism in and around Alamo Plaza were relatively few in number.
“On the one hand, for the good part of today … this was a peaceful demonstration as San Antonio has a long tradition of doing,” Nirenberg told the Rivard Report late Saturday night. “But as we’ve seen in other places … for a few folks it’s devolved into something different.”
The violent protesters are “thankfully outnumbered” in San Antonio, he said. “That is a disservice to the cause that all those people were assembled today to do.”
Videos on social media emerged of Black Lives Matter protesters being blocked by SAPD in Alamo Plaza. Someone threw a bicycle at a line of police officers as they pushed the crowd away from the rally at the Alamo Cenotaph.
At about 9:40 p.m., protesters started breaking into businesses along Houston Street. One group pulled a snack shelf out of a restaurant while others asked them to stop.
“This is not why we’re here,” a young woman shouted. That disagreement echoed within the streets throughout the evening.
As police advanced its line from the Alamo Cenotaph and the federal courthouse, several protesters were yelling expletives. One man repeatedly shouted an obscenity at police officers. Then he turned his attention to the crowd.
“There’s 3,000 of us. Can you count?” he said. “We had the control. … We ain’t scared anymore. We outnumber them, remember that.”
Police officers tear-gassed some of the demonstrators, and by 9 p.m., the swell of protesters confronting the police line had dwindled to a few dozen.
Earlier in the day, the protest was peaceful and well organized. Police closed streets to vehicle traffic so marchers could safely move through downtown.
Protesters chanted, “We can’t breathe,” echoing some of Floyd’s last words as Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck on Monday. Chauvin was charged with third-degree murder on Friday.
Similar protests against police brutality have taken place across the nation, some erupting in violence and vandalism.
“We have this problem here in San Antonio,” said Debbie Bush, the aunt of Marquise Jones, who was shot and killed by an SAPD officer in 2014.
“We’re about Spurs, we’re about Fiesta, we’re all about these things – but what about the young black and brown lives that are being taken?” she asked the crowd.
Jones’ family is appealing the decision that cleared police officer Robert Encina of any civil damages in the shooting death. She and the family of Charles “Chop” Roundtree, who was unarmed when Officer Steve Casanova shot and killed him in 2018, advocated for the firing of Casanova and for murder charges to be filed.
Bush expressed frustration that media and the community’s attention has waned on the lives lost locally to police shootings.
“If you can come out here for someone you don’t even know, why can’t you show up for something that happened in your home city?” she asked the thronging crowd. “I am confused by how many people I see out here for Mr. Floyd, and my heart aches because I know what that family is feeling.”
SAPD estimates that the Justice for George Floyd rally packed more than 5,000 people in the park at its peak. Nearly all in attendance were wearing masks.
“What happened in Minneapolis to Mr. Floyd is an absolute tragedy,” McManus told reporters before the rally began.
McManus previously served as chief of the Minneapolis Police Department and said the department doesn’t teach the kind of tactic used by officers against Floyd.
“It’s not necessarily indicative of a department when one officer does something really, really bad,” he said. “You’ve got 99 percent of police officers who do a really, really great job. Unfortunately, this particular incident in Minneapolis was not one of those 99 percent cases.”
Christopher Herring, a veteran and executive director of Global Chamber San Antonio who attended Saturday’s rally, said a white man recently called the police on him as he was taking out the trash – likely because Herring is black.
“When the three police officers roll up on me, I knew at that point in time my life was on the line,” said Herring. “Anything that we do we have a chance to die. … When I served my nation I never thought I was going to return to this crap.”
After the rally in Travis Park, the large crowd spilled into the closed streets with instructions from organizers, some with the Anonymous Brown Berets de San Anto, to fellow protesters to wear masks, be respectful, and keep it peaceful.
If someone disagrees with you or this movement, said Aamori Olujimi, “you don’t have to engage them. … You’re here to say whatever you have to say. You don’t have to endanger yourself.
“Growing up in San Antonio, we never know if people are going to actually show up to something like this,” said Olujimi, a black transgender woman. “It’s so good to see so many people … black people, Latinos, white people, all kinds of people.”
Less than a half-mile south of Travis Park, This is Texas Freedom Force and other groups and individuals stood guard of the Alamo Cenotaph. SAPD officers cordoned off the Cenotaph with a temporary fence and about four of them stood inside, monitoring the crowds.
Most of the less than 50 people there were wearing tactical gear and large guns slung around their shoulders – prompting passersby in Alamo Plaza to stop and stare or take photos.
Much of the red spray paint that condemned “white supremacy,” “profit over people,” and “the Alamo” was removed. A suspect is in custody.
Freedom Force’s presence at the Cenotaph was not a counterprotest to the George Floyd rally and march, said President Brandon Burkhart.
“We’re not out here for a fight,” Burkhart said. “This is strictly a mission to defend the Alamo and the Cenotaph. That’s it. We have no other objective than that.”
Minister Tim Westley, a friend of Burkhart’s, said he jumped at the chance to help protect the Cenotaph.
“It’s worth fighting for,” Westley said. “I stand with them. … I wanted to make sure I came down to put a black face in the midst of them. Not just to be a black face but to let them and everyone else know about This is Texas Freedom Force. They’re not about color and issues of that nature. They’re about what’s right.”
The Alamo has nothing to do with white supremacy, Westley said. The Battle of the Alamo was not “just for white people or Hispanics. It was for Americans.”
“There’s no way I’d be around all these white guys if they were white supremacists,” he added. “There’s no way.”
Seventy-five troopers were sent to San Antonio from the Department of Public Safety to assist with patrolling the events, McManus said.
“We are here to ensure the rights of the folks who are here to protest,” McManus said. “We want them to exercise their first amendment rights and, in some cases out there, their second amendment rights.”