This story has been updated.
Mayor Ron Nirenberg told hundreds of people protesting the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis for a sixth day that he alone is accountable for helping “people feel safe” in San Antonio.
Protesters began the day at San Antonio’s Public Safety Headquarters on Thursday afternoon, equipped with walking shoes, masks, and homemade signs to protest the death of Floyd, a black man killed by a white Minneapolis police officer on May 25.
Around 4:30 p.m., the group of protesters swelled to around 300, and the crowd marched toward Bexar County Courthouse chanting, “We protest / in peace.” They also paid homage to Breonna Taylor, a black woman killed in March in her Louisville, Kentucky, apartment by police officers who were looking for someone else.
The crowd thinned out after 7 p.m. and moved on to Travis Park, where clusters of them sat chatting in semicircles, the Black Eyed Peas’ “Where Is the Love” playing on someone’s device, as if they were there just to enjoy the evening.
San Antonio police officers stood at the edge of the park, observing.
Organizer Shamar Mims, 22, addressed the crowd of about 80 people to talk about his experiences as a black man living in San Antonio. Mims, a furloughed schoolteacher at Bush Middle School, spoke about the injustices black men in America have faced. From Nat Turner to Emmett Till, from to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to George Floyd, Mims said it often felt like a crime in the U.S. just to be black.
“You go to the Northeast Side as a black man and you are accused as a criminal on the spot,” Mims said.
The Johnson High School graduate said that despite his family finally getting out of poverty on the East Side, they were treated with suspicion once moving to Johnson Ranch.
“The second we got to our spot in the neighborhood, they didn’t want to give us the [house] keys,” Mims said. “We were buying the house.”
Two police officers came over to remind Mims and fellow organizer Delante Armstrong, 19, about the City curfew promptly at 9 p.m.
Mims and Armstrong decided to start the hashtag #BLMafterdark to help organize the evening part of the protests moving forward before heading out at 9:30 p.m.
With 50 people left at the park, the scent of sage hung in the air from a woman repeatedly “smudging” – the religious practice of burning the plant to help purify energy. Some protesters began breakdancing briefly while others sat around the park and talked, the sound of an overhead helicopter echoing off the ground and nearby buildings.
Their numbers quickly dwindled soon after 10 p.m.
At the courthouse earlier, Nirenberg joined the protest for the first time since demonstrations began Saturday. He pledged to meet regularly with one of the protest leaders, Pharaoh Clark, to listen to concerns.
The momentum of the protests doesn’t seem to be waning, nor should people feel they have to stop, Nirenberg said.
“They shouldn’t, until people feel safe in their communities,” he said. “People out here protesting tonight … they’re asking to be heard, for accountability from the people they elected to office. That’s me.”
Nirenberg said he was not interested in forming another task force or committee that would not lead to change. He told protesters to keep him alone accountable “because I’m the mayor of this goddamn city, and we’re going to make change together, OK?”
Nirenberg’s words were met with applause from listeners. Lexi Qaiyyim, another of the protest’s leaders, said starting a relationship with the mayor was important to organizers.
“We know these problems start from top down,” Qaiyyim said.
Early on, protest leaders emphasized to the crowd that they were there to be “peaceful.” One instructed those gathered to point out any “agitators” so they could be stopped.
“This is about being peaceful, showing the world we are peaceful, for great change in this nation,” he said into a bullhorn.
Qaiyyim helped lead previous days’ events and said voter registrars were present for people who needed to register to vote. The primary runoff election in Texas is July 14.
A few volunteer deputy registrars handed out voter applications to a dozen people clustered around them outside of the Public Safety Headquarters. Valerie Reiffert sat cross-legged, hunched over signing applications in the shade. She was able to stay only for a little while, she said, as she was scheduled to coach gymnastics at 5:30 p.m.
Reiffert was deputized Wednesday, she said.
“I was out here doing this yesterday,” she said. “The reason why we’re doing it is the importance of getting people to vote. We have to show up in droves for local elections and presidential elections because we’re all fed up.”
In 15 minutes, Reiffert had registered seven people, she said. Her fellow registrar Amy Bryant, who had been deputized hours before the protest, helped a dozen others in half an hour.
Reiffert said protesting is a good way to show up, but she also wanted to use the opportunity to get people ready to vote.
“The deadline [to register for the runoff] is June 15, and we need to be out here,” she said. “And we have to show up on election day. If we mobbed up, like we were yesterday, at the polls – that’s what we want. We’re building a strong community out here.”
Earlier in the day, dozens of Black Lives Matter demonstrators entered the San Antonio City Council chambers to call for changes to the San Antonio police union’s contract aimed at strengthening disciplinary procedures for officer misconduct.