The scene in City Council chambers Thursday evening was another disappointing moment in San Antonio civic life. Rowdy members of the activist group This is Texas Freedom Force and others opposed to the proposed relocation of the Alamo Cenotaph shouted protests, waved placards, and disrupted the meeting again and again. Several required eviction by San Antonio police officers.
The broader discussion of the redevelopment of the Alamo Plaza and the most debated elements of the plan was drowned out by the noisy mob.
Amid law enforcement concerns about their personal security, members of the long-serving Alamo Citizen Advisory Committee cast their votes to support the project without attaching their individual names to them.
They feared to do otherwise.
City officials and others wanted these citizen leaders, many of whom have volunteered years of their time and energy to this project, to safely exit the Municipal Plaza building after the hearing without incident. Given the threats circulating on social media and other attempts at intimidation, such security concerns were and are valid.
Such confrontational crowd behavior in San Antonio over the course of the Alamo Plaza redesign debate has driven off many of the more serious voices and their diverse views on the pros and cons of the far-reaching plan. It’s also projected an image outside the city that gives pause to others in Texas and beyond who will be asked to invest in the project.
San Antonio risks looking like a city where every effort to build and better it is opposed, delayed, or even blocked by a handful of loud serial protesters. Add to that a City government and City charter now threatened by angry firefighter union officials looking for leverage in a new labor contract.
No one will get “their way” with the Alamo Plaza project. Compromise is the only path to change. Elements of the proposed interpretive plan design should be subjected to serious professional scrutiny and debate. Unfortunately, such a thoughtful process has fallen hostage to mob behavior.
I had firsthand experience Thursday of what keeps so many engaged citizens from attending such meetings. Members of the public and media were kept waiting 30 minutes in the South Texas heat as extra security measures slowed the opening of doors and the influx of audience members. As I stood chatting with other journalists, Fidel “Two Bears” Castillo, who says he is the spiritual leader of the local Indigenous Tribal Nations of Texas, approached me in an aggressive manner.
“You’re Rivard?” he demanded, holding his smart phone close to record the incident as we stood face to face, only inches separating us. “They” were going to get me, he said, adding a few F bombs and that I was helpless to stop them.
“Get out of my face,” I said.
“You can’t f—–g make me,” Castillo said. A brief staredown ended with him walking away.
I’ve faced far worse in my reporting life than Two Bears, a familiar gadfly at public hearings of all kinds. I wasn’t intimidated, and didn’t feel the need to report Castillo’s threat to the San Antonio bike patrol officers on hand in Main Plaza to keep the peace. Later, I wondered – in this age of active shooters – if that was a mistake. Who among us can tell the difference between a madman and a harmless blowhard?
Nearby, Bryan Preston, the communications director for the Texas General Land Office, the state partner in the project, was being interviewed on camera by reporters from KENS5-TV and Spectrum News when another gadfly, Maria Torres, who identifies herself as the tribal chief of the Pacuache Tilijaya Coahuiltecan Tribe of Texas, burst into camera view and started shouting insults at Preston.
Such incidents undermine the efforts of local indigenous leaders to have their voices heard.
Preston, like others in his line of work, is accustomed to such confrontation. He also is a member of the six-person Alamo Management Committee that will next vote on the project.
Others, however, who care passionately about this city and the Alamo refuse to subject themselves to such treatment. While I saw a few members of the San Antonio Conservation Society and Brackenridge Park Conservancy on hand, these so-called “public hearings” attract fewer and fewer civically engaged citizens. They are dominated by anti-government groups and individuals, some of whom behave in unstable ways and are generally incoherent in their public remarks.
On Thursday, This Is Texas Freedom Force Vice President Brandon Burkhart, familiar in his black cowboy hat and ever-present service dog, was the first to interrupt proceedings and be evicted. Burkhart is fond of walking his dog, which resembles a large mastiff, through audiences at public hearings, which clearly intimidates some people.
City Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1), with Assistant City Manager Lori Houston at his side, led the meeting as a tri-chair of the citizens committee. He appealed in vain for decorum. Both Treviño and Houston have been the targets of social media threats for their leadership in the project.
Other disruptions and evictions followed. The police, it should be noted, were unfailingly polite as they ushered out shouting individuals.
After the meeting, Preston was walking out the front doors with Forrest Byas, a member of the citizen committee, a veteran, and a descendant of Alamo defender Andrew Kent, one of the so-called “Immortal 32.” Burkhart and his followers were waiting with boos and insults, shouting “Judas” and “traitor” at Byas, and asking how much he was paid for his support to move the Cenotaph, where his ancestor’s name is the first on the western face of the monument.
“It was absolutely hostile,” Preston said. “I walked past them, and they called me a traitor, too. I’m a fifth-generation Texan and a veteran, so that’s a serious charge, but I didn’t engage them.”
Byas, he said, decided to turn back to leave the building by a rear door, safe from the mob.
San Antonio is better than this. We do not want to be a city where people have to leave by the back door. The city we are and the city we aspire to be should be a city of open doors and open minds, driven by strong vision, noble aspiration, and goodwill, not by people whose only trick is disorderly conduct.
Sadly, higher purpose civics can no longer be found at most public meetings.