Police violence has been a San Antonio issue for as long as former District 2 Councilman Mario Salas can remember. He recalled when Bobby Jo Phillips, a black man, was beaten to death by San Antonio Police Department officers in 1968. (Those officers were later found not guilty.) And when he was younger, police officers used to beat black residents in a graveyard on the East Side, he said.
“For no reason,” he said. “I witnessed that as a teenager.”
Salas joined around 150 protesters in front of the Paul Elizondo Tower Wednesday afternoon to call for District Attorney Joe Gonzales to reopen the cases of two young black men who were killed by police officers in the past decade. Wednesday marked the 12th day of protests in San Antonio since George Floyd, a black man, was killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis. It was also the second day that protesters focused their attention on the district attorney’s office.
Marquise Jones, 23, was killed by a police officer in 2014. Charles Roundtree, 18, was killed by a police officer in 2018. Both were black. A grand jury voted not to indict Officer Robert Encina, who killed Jones, and he was found not liable in a wrongful death lawsuit. A grand jury did not indict Officer Steve Casanova, who killed Roundtree, but a civil suit is pending.
Around Salas, protesters chanted, “No gun, no justice. No DNA, no justice.” They were responding to Debbie Bush, the aunt of Marquise Jones. A gun found at the site of Jones’ killing went more than a year without being examined for DNA and fingerprints, and none were found, Bush said.
“Why didn’t they print it that night?” Bush asked. “There are so many holes in Marquise’s case and we don’t understand how [the district attorney] said he doesn’t have enough to reopen the case.”
Gonzales told the Rivard Report Wednesday that he is amenable to reopening Jones’ and Roundtree’s cases, but he needs new evidence.
“I have not made the decision not to reopen these cases lightly,” he said. “I have been reviewing these cases since I’ve been in office. But there has to be a legal reason to reopen them and re-present them to a grand jury, and presently, that hasn’t happened.”
Gonzales said he understands why people are calling for those cases to be reopened because of the passion of protesters calling to end police brutality, but the current “climate” is not enough of a reason to charge an officer with a crime.
“While I certainly understand the climate right now, with everyone being aware of the existence of police brutality and the fact that there’s so much racial inequity, I don’t believe that racism had anything to do with these officers’ decisions to fire their guns,” he said of the police officers who shot and killed Jones and Roundtree. “I can say that I have reviewed both of them, and unless there’s any new evidence or information that would lead me to believe that another grand jury would do something differently, I don’t have any plans to refile them and re-present them to a grand jury.”
Ananda Tomas, one of the protest organizers, noted Gonzales ran on a platform of accountability and trust and said not reopening Jones’ and Roundtree’s cases runs against that.
“The officers walked free,” Tomas said of the officers who killed Jones and Roundtree. “Barely a slap on the wrist. Is that justice? Is that accountability? That’s why we’re here today. … He says there is not enough evidence to reopen these cases and that is not true.”
Bush said her family does have new evidence, but then-District Attorney Nico LaHood refused to look at it during his term. She also said she was disappointed that she found out about Gonzales’ decision not to reopen the case through media reports and not from the district attorney’s office directly.
“We would call the DA’s office and try to set up an appointment,” she said. “I’ve been denied each time. I’ve tried at least three or four times since [Gonzales] was in office, because he said he would look into his case. Once he got into office, I feel like he totally ignored us.”
After so many deaths at the hands of police officers – as well as the more recent example of a police officer being reinstated after giving a homeless man a sandwich filled with feces – 70-year-old Salas wants to see the police union contract gone, he said.
“That contract has to go,” Salas said. “It has to be changed. Their ability to control the discipline process, that has to be removed from them. Removing their power to control the discipline process, that’s going to take City Council approval, it may take a referendum. Whatever it takes, we’ll stop that police union contract from defending murderous police and abusive police officers.”
After listening to speakers talk about Jones, Roundtree, Antronie Scott (a black man who was shot and killed by a police officer in 2016), and Norman Cooper (a black man who died after San Antonio police officers used a stun gun on him in 2015), the protesters made their way to the Bexar County Adult Detention Center. They marched with signs held high and voices in chorus: “This is what democracy looks like!” They settled in front of the South Tower at the jail, passing the microphone to people who wanted to speak, and urged each other to continue protesting and keep their attention focused on the Black Lives Matter movement.
At one point, they shouted, “Black lives matter! Your lives matter!” at inmates housed inside. The sun shone almost too brightly to let people see inside, but in the jail’s narrow windows, hands waved back and pounded the walls in response. Some held up signs too, and one read: “Black lives matter.”