More than 150 protesters clustered under the shade of three trees at the base of the Alamo Plaza Cenotaph on Saturday afternoon amid a global pandemic with stay-at-home orders in place around Texas.

Some of the protesters wore masks, many carried firearms and knives, but all arrived with the same goal in mind: keep the Cenotaph where it is.

“This monument has stood for honor, glory,” said Richard Briscoe of Open Carry Texas, who spoke at Saturday’s rally.

He said he was protesting “in memory of those who fought for Texas freedom and died on these grounds.”

The Cenotaph is a 60-foot tall marble monument that was erected as part of the 1936 United States Texas Centennial Commission Celebration to commemorate the defenders of the Alamo.

A planned $350 million to $450 million Alamo Plaza overhaul plan developed by the City, General Land Office, nonprofit Alamo Trust, and the Alamo Citizens Advisory Committee, calls for the Cenotaph to be repaired and moved roughly 500 feet south of its current location so the monument won’t block views of the church.

The phrase “Not one inch” was deployed many times over the two-hour event, as attendees and speakers alike shouted it to bolster their collective call against moving the cenotaph.

Brandon Burkhart, the president of This is Texas Freedom Force (TITFF), organized the Saturday event after members of his organization witnessed construction at Alamo Plaza continuing in recent weeks.

When COVID-19 orders went into effect around the state, TITFF members began monitoring the site, assigning at least one person to observe the grounds each day. Several members noticed construction workers failing to practice social distancing or wear masks, Burkhart said.

“Construction workers are considered essential by the governor, but the project on Alamo Plaza is not an essential job and there’s no reason to put people’s lives in jeopardy just so they can hurry up and do this while everybody else is being told to stay home,” Burkhart said.

TITFF asked City Council to shut down the work and said if construction did not halt, the organization would “be forced to have to bring Texans out to the Plaza and to rally.”

On Saturday, TITFF did just that, drawing a crowd of protesters, some of whom drove in from several hours away. Before the event, Burkhart encouraged attendees to wear masks and remain six feet away from one another during the program.

Organizers also made bottles of water, hand sanitizer, face coverings, and gloves available to attendees. However, on the day of the event, many protesters stood close together, with more than half choosing not to cover their faces.

Many attendees waved flags or carried signs. Some watched the slate of speakers address the audience from camping chairs with children or pets in tow.

Protesters gather at Alamo Plaza. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

The majority of the crowd’s ire was directed at Mayor Ron Nirenberg, Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1), and Land Commissioner George P. Bush. Several speakers named the men individually, blaming them for the decisions that shaped the Alamo Plaza plan.

San Antonio Police Department Chief William McManus was one of three police officers observing the event from several hundred feet away. He said the convening was no different than any other protest or demonstration.

“It’s peaceful and the only time that there would be police involvement here is if there is a breach of the peace or if someone calls in a disturbance,” McManus said. “Our job is to protect the protesters, protect their First Amendment rights.”

When asked if he felt responsible for keeping social distancing in place or enforcing components of the mayor’s order to wear cloth masks in public spaces, McManus said he nor the other officers were present to enforce a mask requirement.

Several hours later, Nirenberg was asked about the city’s responsibility to enforce social distancing at such an event.

“Those guys just want a confrontation [and] we’re not going to give it to them,” Nirenberg said, characterizing the gathering as a “vector for disease.”

“If someone is cavalier about wearing a mask and just wants to prove their manhood … they’ll have to sleep with that and realize when they see numbers like what is coming out of other cities that they didn’t do a darn thing to help their neighbor.”

At the tail end of the protest, the speakers gathered at the base of the Cenotaph to sign a petition that TITFF plans to send to Gov. Greg Abbott, asking for him to intervene and prevent the monument’s relocation.

Burkhart told the Rivard Report that Abbott could intervene in one of three ways. The governor could sign a document that orders the Cenotaph to be left alone, put the issue on the November ballot for all Texans to vote on, or kick the issue over to the statehouse for legislators to act on, he said.

Should legislators weigh in on the matter, Burkart hopes they’ll rally behind the Monument Protection Bill, which has already been proposed. Last session, lawmakers reviewed the bill, which passed the Senate, but did not pass the House.

“If we get something in writing, from the governor or lieutenant governor or whoever they like, we’ll disappear from the rest of the reimagine Alamo project and won’t give them any more fits,” Burkhart said. “We’ve told them the Cenotaph is our only problem with it even though we don’t agree with all the other stuff they’re doing. We want to stay focused on one issue.”

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Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.

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Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.