The activist panel (left to right) Mike Lowe, Shun Barrientez, Horace Brown Jr., Kwame Rose, Maureen Akpaka, T. Max McMillan, Tabitha Austin, Ashley Billard. Photo by Scott Ball.
The activist panel (left to right) Mike Lowe, Shun Barrientez, Horace Brown Jr., Kwame Rose, Maureen Akpaka, T. Max McMillan, Tabitha Austin, Ashley Billard. Photo by Scott Ball.

Nearly 60 people gathered to hear from African-American leaders, students, educators, and activists on the status of the Black Lives Matter movement during the San Antonio Community Activist Panel at the University of Texas at San Antonio’s Main Campus on Tuesday night.

Accounts of racial profiling, misrepresentations by the media, and personal activism had the audience listening with rapt attention as each speaker shared what the Black Lives Matter movement means to them.

“This movement is about acknowledging the living conditions that black people are living in and have been living in for years,” said Kwame Rose, former UTSA student, founder of Black EXCELLence and civil rights activist in Baltimore.

Rose was joined by other panelists including T. Max McMillan, local sociopolitical commentator; Horace Brown Jr., first vice president of NAACP San Antonio; Maureen Akpaka, UTSA NAACP chapter president; Shun Barrientez, staff advisor for the UTSA Black Lives Matter; Mike Lowe, member of SATX4; Tabitha Austin, president of UTSA Black Lives Matter; and Ashley Billard, vice president of UTSA Black Lives Matter.

From the start of the discussion, almost every panelist pointed to police violence as the impetus for movements like Black Lives Matter, but acknowledged that the black community has been marginalized long before recent cases of police brutality. It was unclear whether the San Antonio Police Department was invited to take part in the panel. There was no visible police presence at the event.

That marginalization goes beyond isolated incidences of violence, it’s systematic, McMillan said.

“White supremacy and structural racism created the atmosphere that said black lives don’t matter,” she said. “(This movement) is simply responding to that.”

#BlackLivesMatter came into the national spotlight after the shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman in 2012. Since then there have been dozens of similar instances that have left members of the black community, including Tuesday night’s panelists, wanting answers.

Lowe wore a sweatshirt with the names of several African-Americans killed at the hands of law enforcement in Texas to act as a “walking memorial” for them. At the MLK March in January, he protested and marched with the family of Marquise Jones who was killed by an SAPD officer in February 2014.

He criticized the media’s portrayal of the MLK March – which he found to exclude the perspective of Black Lives Matter activists – and encouraged panel audience members to reevaluate their roles as activists in the local community.

“San Antonians, you’ve got to start using your voice to speak upon issues, and you have to be sensitive enough to understand what the real issue is,” he said.

Perhaps the most debated topic of discussion among the panelists was voting. While the majority agreed that legislation is the key to shifting the system that has forever worked against the African-American community, Rose denounced the idea without hesitation.

“We’ve had legislation passed but we still don’t have freedom,” he said. “I think you can change the mindset of individuals way quicker than changing legislation.”

Billard respectfully disagreed, asking Rose to consider all those before them who fought, many to death, for their right to vote.

“Voting is a way for me to honor them,” she said.

The importance of staying engaged in activism, especially in the age of social media where social activism doesn’t necessarily mean sit-ins and marches, was a point on which all agreed.

Brown, who has been a longtime activist with the NAACP, acknowledged that times have changed since the ’60s and ’70s, but that generational gap shouldn’t divide people.

“There’s no one way to revolutionize,” he said. “There’s a way for everybody to fit in and we need to work together to advance the cause.”

Playing a vital role in the Black Lives Matter movement means taking that activism beyond social media platforms or forums, McMillan said.

“The plague that is systemic racism is a multi-frontal attack that requires a multi-faceted response,” McMillan said after the panel. “The notion that we can only be ‘activists’ if we are on a picket line is myopic and antiquated. It’s going to take all of us, doing different things at the same time.”

The event at UTSA was organized by Sonja Lanehart, a professor and Brackenridge endowed chair of literature and the humanities in UTSA’s Department of English.

On Thursday, Feb. 25, Mayor Ivy Taylor, Bexar County District Attorney Nico LaHood, SAPD Chief William McManus, and other state and national representatives will gather at New Light Baptist Church for a town hall meeting, “Justice For All,” to discuss “policing and propagandas in the minority community and possible solutions for prevention,” according to an event flyer.

The free panel – organized by the NAACP, Baptist Minister’s Union, Ministers & Citizens Alliance, Greater Eastside Coalition, Claude Black Foundation, San Antonio Fighting Back, and SATX4 – will begin at 7 p.m., 607 Piedmont Ave.

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CORRECTION: McMillan clarified her stance on picket lines and social media after the panel and her last quote has been updated to better reflect her opinion.

*Top image: The activist panel (left to right) Mike Lowe, Shun Barrientez, Horace Brown Jr., Kwame Rose, Maureen Akpaka, T. Max McMillan, Tabitha Austin, Ashley Billard. Photo by Scott Ball.

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Camille Garcia

Camille Garcia is a journalist born and raised in San Antonio. She formerly worked at the San Antonio Report as assistant editor and reporter. Her email is camillenicgarcia@gmail.com