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Local activist groups have taken up a battle cry for victims of police violence in San Antonio and the rest of the country. They’re fighting in the name of Marquis Jones, Charles “Chop” Roundtree, Antronie Scott, Norman Cooper, Justin Howell, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor.
“What we did here in San Antonio was a call of solidarity, in the names of these victims,” said Autonomous Brown Berets De San Antonio member Wolf Gang. “We launched a call to action here in solidarity with the black community of San Antonio – and globally.”
Over the past two weeks, daily protests across San Antonio have called attention to police brutality, demanding justice for those killed by police and calling for police reform.
Pushing back on aggressive crowd control tactics, over-policing of disadvantaged areas, and the disproportionate percentage of deaths of black Americans at the hands of police, this wave of new young leaders is determined to make sure San Antonio sees results from the current Black Lives Matter movement.
Protests give birth to new groups
The Black Lives Matter movement started in 2013 following the acquittal of George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch member who shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, the previous year.
The movement found its way to San Antonio following the local deaths of Marquise Jones, a 23-year-old black man who was killed by a San Antonio police officer in 2014, and Antronie Scott, a 36-year-old black man who was killed by an officer in 2016 after getting pulled over outside an apartment complex on the city’s North Side.
Led by Mike Lowe and Johnathan-David Jones, local activists focused on implementing changes to the police union contract and removing Confederate monuments in San Antonio between 2016 and 2017. The activists were successful in getting a Confederate monument removed from Travis Park but did not see all the changes made to the police union contract they had hoped for, Jones told the Rivard Report.
Lowe and Jones moved away from San Antonio after 2017, leaving the city in need of new leaders.
The new wave of protests in San Antonio began Saturday, May 30, five days after the death of George Floyd, a black man, at the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis that sparked protests across the country.
Organized by the Autonomous Brown Berets De San Antonio, the day’s protests began peacefully. Protesters marched from Travis Park to San Antonio police headquarters, where the names of black people who have died at the hands of police officers were read out over a megaphone. Police helicopters circled overhead while protesters called out for justice.
As the protest wrapped up, a smaller, unorganized, and unaffiliated group of protesters marched to Alamo Plaza, where a group of armed demonstrators was “guarding” the Alamo Cenotaph, which recently had been vandalized with red spray-painted graffiti condemning “white supremacy.” The encounter devolved into looting, with authorities firing tear gas to disperse the crowd.
It was seeing his former co-worker Delante Armstrong pulling tear-gassed individuals out of harm’s way and trying to stop looters that night that inspired Shamar Mims to continue participating in local protests, Mims said.
Armstrong, 19, and Mims, 22, met while working as entertainers at Chuck E. Cheese in 2017.
“He’d be in the [Chuck E. Cheese rat] suit, and I used to be his hype man,” Mims said with a laugh. “Which is how we kind of conduct our protests now.”
After reconnecting with Armstrong years later, the two began attending the daily protests organized by the Young Ambitious Activists, an emergent organization founded by San Antonio resident Antonio Lee.
While helping clean up downtown the Sunday after the first protest, Lee, 29, told the Rivard Report that he’d created the YAA in response to the violence that first night and was aiming to spread a more positive message of change.
While protests remained peaceful on Monday, June 1, the next day was a different story. After hours of peaceful protests downtown Tuesday, police officers shot tear gas and projectiles at protesters near Alamo Plaza amid a brief standoff that evening around 10:30 p.m. – two hours after a City-implemented curfew.
Hundreds of protesters gathered the following day to denounce the police’s use of force the previous evening.
When the Wednesday afternoon protest organized by the YAA at SAPD headquarters began to wind down, Mims and Armstrong encouraged any remaining protesters to march with them to Travis Park. Despite the 9 p.m. City-imposed curfew, about a hundred protesters remained in Travis Park late into the evening.
It was then that their group, BLM After Dark, was born, Mims said.
“After that night, dozens of people would come up to us when the day’s protests would begin winding down and ask if we were going back to Travis Park,” Armstrong said. “We’d be tired and planning to go home but we knew we had to stay because everyone was tired – they were tired of what was happening in our country.”
While the curfew remained in effect until Saturday, June 6, BLM After Dark continued to meet until late into the night in Travis Park following any major protests.
“Our goal is education on black history as we all push for reform,” said Mims, a furloughed Bush Middle School teacher. “We’re here to help educate anyone willing to listen.”
In search of solutions
Being a leader to the San Antonio Black Lives Matter community isn’t something new to Pharaoh Clark.
Clark, 32, played an instrumental role in getting a statue of a Confederate soldier removed from Travis Park in 2017 and is the founder and leader of the local anti-racism nonprofit Uniting America Through Wisdom.
In the past couple of weeks, Clark has developed a friendship with Mayor Ron Nirenberg and introduced the City Council to a petition the group created detailing 10 reforms aimed at achieving peace and justice.
“As these protests started going on across the country, I was sitting in my bed and said, ‘The one thing I’m not hearing are any solutions,’” Clark said. “I try to find solutions.”
The petition includes a zero-tolerance policy for racism across the City’s criminal justice system, changes aimed at making it easier to fire and punish police officers involved in unjustified behavior, and reparation for the families of unarmed victims killed unlawfully by police.
Clark brought the petition before the City Council on Thursday, June 4. After the meeting, Clark said he and Nirenberg had an “intense” conversation, during which Clark asked for Nirenberg’s help fulfilling the petition.
“He looked at me in the eye – and I’ll never forget it because he got very serious – he said if I will help him, we can do this together,” Clark said.
Following Clark’s prompting after the Council meeting, Nirenberg gave an impassioned speech calling for local protesters to hold him accountable for changes that need to be made. Since June 4, Clark said he and Nirenberg have been speaking regularly and that six of the 10 items on the petition have already been met in some way.
Items addressed include implementing stricter polygraph screenings relating to race preconceptions for police candidates, building an online pipeline for citizens to better communicate with city officials, and creating a monthly forum between citizens and SAPD officers, Clark said.
Ojiyoma Martin, 33, also has taken a legislative approach toward implementing change. Martin, the founder of emergent group Fix SAPD, is working to create a signature petition campaign to repeal or change Chapters 143 and Chapter 174 of the Texas Local Government Code.
Martin told the Rivard Report last week Chapter 143 establishes a “corrupt” appeals process for fired or otherwise disciplined officers.
Chapter 174 gives police the right to negotiate a contract and set its own terms on how officers are hired, fired, and appeal a chief of police’s decisions. Changing the police union contract alone is not enough “to change the culture, to change the tide,” she said. “We have to get rid of this union.”
Martin plans to launch signature petition campaigns to repeal these chapters.
She said that she feels she’s been passed a huge responsibility, a baton of history.
“The only baton I’ve tossed [before now] is the spatula to my husband,” she said jokingly. “Originally [our group] was just going to post comments on social media informing [people] of the rules that need to be changed. Then those people reached out to us and asked: ‘OK, where can we [sign]?’”
United toward a common goal
As activist groups continue to emerge around the Black Lives Matter movement, disagreements within and among the groups have surfaced.
During the YAA’s protest at Arneson River Theater on June 8, Douglas Greene, a public information officer with the SAPD, marched with the protesters. Greene, a black man, said he was there on his own, “as a human being” upset by the death of Floyd. He briefly took the microphone and addressed the crowd while in full police uniform.
“I’m here as a show of unity,” he said. “I’m here because I love San Antonio, I love what we stand for.”
Angered that a police officer was given the microphone at the protest, some protesters took to social media to express their distaste.
Lexi Qaiyyim and Trevor Taylor, organizers with the YAA, posted a video response on the BLM San Antonio Supporters Facebook page. The two said that, while they are with the YAA, they were speaking independently to acknowledge the hurt caused and to express that the group is young and still trying to figure out how to best go about organizing.
Qaiyyim addressed concerns protesters had about letting an officer speak at a protest and assured YAA supporters that the group does not “plan on having any other police officers [speak]” unless it’s to answer tough, vetted questions in “a live Q&A with the people of San Antonio.”
The YAA will no longer be organizing on friendly terms with police officers and welcomes mentorship from former organizers or older organizations, Taylor said in the video.
“Yesterday we made a mistake and we are now being held accountable for our mistakes as we should be,” she told the Rivard Report on Tuesday evening. “We need to … best formulate what the people want from their elected officials.”
Quelling rumors that the YAA had disbanded, Lee told the Rivard Report Friday that “there may be an individual or two who may not want to be under ‘YAA’ [because] of some backlash, but [it has] nothing to do with the organization.”
“It doesn’t bother me what others do, [because] we have a goal and vision and want to help our community and I believe we will continue to do so,” he said.
Qaiyyim confirmed Friday she is not one of the individuals Lee is speaking about but declined to further comment for this article.
Friday evening, Lee posted a video to the group’s Instagram apologizing for hugging officers and shaking their hands during protests, which he said stemmed from his own personal beliefs of how to accomplish change.
“We may have our different directions but we all want the same thing within the community and for our younger generations,” Lee said. “I did what I did because of what I believe in, and what I need to look at is it goes deeper than that. It’s not just about me.”
Protester Jourdyn Parks had been attending the YAA’s daily protests as a participant and said she was inspired to step up as a leader when she saw how few black people wanted to speak on the megaphone at the protests.
Parks called for the creation of an umbrella organization to help coordinate and unite the various BLM organizations in San Antonio seeking change.
“I believe one of the major downfalls for my community has been the separation within it,” Parks said. “I saw we had the ears of the world listening – and realized we need to be a united front.”
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She teamed up with four other protest organizers, including Clark, to form the Reliable Revolutionaries. Local organizations that have agreed to be under the group’s umbrella include the YAA, Uniting America Through Wisdom, and San Antonio’s NAACP chapter. The group’s list of member organizations is still growing, Parks added.
One of the main divisions among the groups is whether to organize with police assistance, Parks said. But the Reliable Revolutionaries exist to encourage all these groups to keep supporting each other despite their differences, she added.
“If we’re doing this for the right reasons, we need to amplify everyone’s voice, no matter the organization,” Parks said.
“[We need to] continue to bring those numbers out. … We’re pushing full force for change.”
Supporting a new generation
It’s a question that many of the local leaders of the BLM movement have heard multiple times: “So how long are you guys going to be protesting for?”
The answer is until there is real change, Parks said. Clark, Mims, and Martin echoed her sentiments.
Jones said he is proud to see a new generation of black leaders stepping up to make change in his hometown. His biggest piece of advice to the young new activists is to “stay focused” and “stay organized.”
Jones, currently a Houston resident, said he knows it can be daunting learning the ins and outs of politics and social reform.
“You get invited to a lot of meetings and you always run into this kind of attitude from other officials that [because] you’re young, you don’t understand how this works,” Jones, 28, said. “If you’re not careful or focused, that’ll weigh on you and imposter syndrome will set in. … Stay focused on your goal.”
Jones said he may return to San Antonio to be a part of the next renegotiation of the police union contract. With negotiations slated for next year, the move would depend on how it would affect his family.
“I’m in this interesting space – I kind of stepped away from the activism scene for a while,” Jones said. “I was living in Virginia until about a month ago. I have two boys now, and when the first was born, it was shortly following the removal of the Confederate monument [in Travis Park].”
Jones said he has been researching ways “to help bring up some tangible action items to clean up the contract.” He added that he wants to help in any way he can, whether that be from a supportive role with the new activist leaders or being a part of the activism scene again locally.
Police Chief William McManus said he supports the idea of reform and wants change for the city as well. McManus has spoken with several leaders of the organizations, including Lee with the YAA and the leaders of the Reliable Revolutionaries.
“When I fire [an officer] they need to stay fired,” McManus told members of the Reliable Revolutionaries on Friday.
The groups plan to continue to strive for their goals of education, legislative change, and police reform under the umbrella of the Revolutionaries.
The YAA, while still organizing protests, won’t be holding them daily – but at strategic times, Lee told the Rivard Report Friday. Lee declined further interviews for this article.
Parks said she and the other new leaders look forward to bringing lasting change to the city, both as independent organizations and together as a community.
These young new leaders are meeting regularly to discuss how to best go about implementing change, but one thing is sure, Parks said: San Antonio’s BLM community stands together.
Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick, General Assignment Reporter Jackie Wang, and Photo Editor Scott Ball contributed to this story.