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How A Peaceful George Floyd Protest Turned Violent In The Alamo City

A riot broke out on East Houston Street Saturday night after a peaceful march and vigil for Minneapolis man George Floyd turned violent. 

People broke into and looted from shops while San Antonio police officers responded by releasing tear gas and shooting people with pepper and rubber bullets to clear the area. Multiple people were taken into custody.

The situation devolved into a riot after protesters, counterprotesters and police clashed outside the historic Alamo.

Protesters stood toe-to-toe with police officers in riot gear, shouting and throwing water bottles. Officers made rough arrests and fired tear gas and pepper bullets into crowds.

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Credit Kathleen Creedon / Texas Public Radio
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Texas Public Radio
Members of the This Is Texas Freedom Force stand behind police during a clash with George Floyd protesters on Saturday May 30th, 2020.

San Antonio resident Trestan Patton was at the scene, where police stood in front of armed militia members from a group called the Texas Freedom Fighters, who guarded a monument by the Alamo that was graffitied Friday. 

“When you have your back toward people that aren't doing a peaceful protest and they have weapons aimed at us, it sparks up a different type of anger and it sparks up a different type of violence that is inherited inside of our brains and inside of our lives.” he said.

Police escorted militia members away from the area. As Alamo Plaza began to clear out, people began rioting on East Houston Street. As a crowd of people broke a storefront window at a jewelry store, police officers released tear gas and sprayed small pellet-like objects into the crowd. They then began firing pepper bullets at people.

The crowd was mostly dispersed by midnight, save for a few demonstrators still in the area. By that time, a curfew was in effect for downtown San Antonio.

San Antonio Ron Nirenberg signed a local disaster declaration and issued a curfew effective from 11:30 p.m. Saturday until 6 a.m. Sunday, and then from 10 p.m. Sunday until 6 a.m. Monday.

“This brief curfew will protect the safety of people and property in the downtown business district while allowing the vast majority of people to peacefully assemble,” he explained in a statement Saturday night.

According to the city's statement, "all persons must not travel on any public street or in any public place within the designated area of San Antonio’s Downtown Business District. Travel is defined without limitation as travel on foot, bicycle, skateboard, scooter, motorcycle, automobile or any other mode of transporting a person from one location to another." A violation of the curfew is a misdemeanor offense, which could be punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 and up to 180 days in jail.

“The planned demonstrations from earlier today were peaceful and the organizations did exactly what they said they would do to keep others safe," San Antonio Police Chief William McManus said in a statement. "The situation was escalated by some bad actors whose only intent was to incite violence and cause destruction. The actions of a few do not represent the majority of those who came out to peacefully demonstrate.”

McManus said three officers were hurt and one person suffered a seizure outside the Public Safety Headquarters.

Travis Park

Saturday evening's chain of events began when the Autonomous Brown Berets de San Antonio hosted the rally at Travis Park at 5 p.m. to demand justice for Floyd. He died while being restrained by a police officer who pressed his knee into Floyd's neck.

Organizer Kimiya Factory said she wanted people to know one thing about the demonstration: that San Antonio cares about black people.

"Today, I want people to know that Black Lives Matter," she said. "More importantly, I want people to know that San Antonio cares about black lives, and I just want to see change in this country before anything else."

People took turns standing on the small stage at the park, where they shared stories about lost loved ones, made speeches and testimonials and read poems.

The crowd of hundreds of people then marched to San Antonio Police headquarters. They chanted "Black Lives Matters" as they held signs or clenched fists above their heads and moved slowly down the streets. The crowd was tightly packed, but the vast majority of participants wore masks.

Bella Andrews sat with her friends on their car after police officers closed off the streets.

“It's crazy how y'all sign up to protect us but you're scared," she said. "You have a gun, you have everything, you have other people with you, and you still feel a need to put someone's face in the ground to feel secure. That’s not right.”

Participants held up signs that read "We Want Change," "Arrest Should Not Equal Death," and "Serve & Protect Not Kill & Neglect."

The marchers returned to Travis Park around 6:30 p.m. and, after the demonstration ended, many people made their way to the Alamo.

The Alamo Cenotaph

Moments before the 5 p.m. Travis Park rally began, a few blocks away, visitors to the Alamo Cenotaph were greeted with a heavy police presence and a metal barrier erected around the monument.

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Credit This is Texas Freedom Force

The group This Is Texas Freedom Force (TITFF) had gathered under the trees to show support for the cenotaph, about a day after someone sprayed graffiti on the side.

The group claimed the San Antonio police had failed to protect the site, and in the event announcement online, they said, "it is up to Texans to watch over our most valuable historical monument and ensure its safety."

Violence first erupted at the Alamo during a confrontation between members of TITFF and the nearby protesters speaking out against the police killing of George Floyd. TITFF was heavily armed, and said their presence was necessary in light of the recent anti-white supremacy graffiti protest art that someone tagged the Alamo Cenotaph with. 

The first interactions between TITFF and protesters were relatively peaceful, though contentious. Members of the different groups argued about Texas' layered history, from its indigenous origins, to the Spanish takeover, to the Mexican Revolution, to the formation of a slavery-friendly republic and state.

A non-black TITFF member began to say, "It would be worse if you lived under Mexican rule because not only would you be oppressed," before a black protester cut him off: "Y'all didn't liberate black people with this. We were still slaves at the time that Texas got liberated."

Eventually, hundreds of protesters moved from Travis Park to the Alamo. At that point, bike police began to separate the protesters from TITFF members. Officers in riot gear soon appeared on the scene and pushed protesters back. They formed a tight circle around TITFF and the Alamo Cenotaph, shielding the militia members and monument from the protesters. 

SAPD waited before intervening in front of the main Alamo building, where protesters clashed with TITFF members and the Alamo's private security guards. 

By 8:30 p.m., a brawl had broken out between the Texas Freedom Force and protesters. The Alamo stood in the background as men and women threw punches. American flags waved back and forth. Water bottles were thrown. People screamed for the fighting to stop. Others held up their arms, flashed peace signs and pleaded, "Keep the peace!"

Finally, someone on a bullhorn reminded the protesters of their adversaries: "Everybody be calm! They got guns! They got guns! They got guns!"

Trestan Patton, who lives in San Antonio's South Side, was at the Alamo demonstration. "There's a group of people out here that are standing with weapons facing us," he said, referring to the Texas Freedom Force members. "I get that they're trying to defend the Alamo but in America right now, there's a face of racism that's geared towards black people. And the face of racism looks exactly like the faces of the people that are standing there with weapons pointed at us."

McManus had said at a Saturday press conference — about an hour before the demonstrations officially began — that a "massive force" of law enforcement officers and Texas state troopers were assembled to ensure simultaneous demonstrations at the Alamo and in Travis Park were peaceful.

He added that police planned to keep participants from both demonstrations separate from each other.

But that passive strategy rang hollow for Patton. "The police officers shouldn't allow these people to show up when they already know there is a reactive situation on hand and people are angry," he said. "They're setting a bad image when they're putting their backs to the people who are holding up weapons and holding their batons against people who are supposed to be doing a peaceful protest."

Houston Street

By 9 p.m., police had arranged for the members of the Texas Freedom Force to safely leave the Alamo. As they left the area one by one, protesters mocked them and yelled, "Bye!" or "Go home!" Others simply applauded.

But the absence of the Texas Freedom Force members did not calm the climate on the nearby downtown streets. The protests continued. A phalanx of riot police walked in formation past the Alamo. They held club-like weapons, like small baseball bats. Most wore helmets with plastic face shields.

By 9:30 p.m., night had fallen. Under the glimmer of street lights, several police officers donned gas masks.

Demonstrators began to argue among themselves and with counter-protesters. The police did little to intervene.

People then began breaking storefront windows on East Houston Street. Other demonstrators pleaded with them to stop.

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Credit Kathleen Creedon / Texas Public Radio
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Texas Public Radio
Two SAPD officers stand guard on Houston St. seconds after deploying tear gas to diffuse the crowd of demonstrators.

When they refused, the police took action. In pursuit, they launched tear gas and then fired rubber bullets. The sound of the weaponry echoed among the buildings. It was unclear how many people were injured.

By 10:30 p.m., the contested section of Houston Street appeared to be cleared. But it was littered with garbage. Shards of glass scattered across the pavement glittered under the street lights. Police were lined up on one end of the street as demonstrators, still choking on tear gas and nursing wounds from the rubber bullets, fell back.

By 11 p.m., it was mostly over. The city's downtown curfew went into effect at 11:30pm.

Nationwide and statewide Floyd rallies

Peaceful demonstrations, which condemned Floyd's death as one more in a series of deaths of minorities at the hands of police, have taken place across the U.S, including in front of the White House.

Several other cities have seen violence break out, and Minneapolis has seen the most dramatic unrest so far.

In Texas, Austin, Dallas, Houston, Boerne were among cities that had also seen a variety of demonstrations, and more were scheduled.

In Austin, hundreds of people marched for a second day, demanding justice for both Floyd and Michael Ramos, a man killed by an Austin police officer in April.

In Dallas on Saturday, protestors gathered at City Hall and chanted George Floyd's name.

In Boerne on Friday, Reverend Kerry Kirtley of Touchstone Community Church denounced Floyd's death as just the latest in a long line of injustices.

Kirtley held up a flag in the town’s main plaza bearing the names of many African-Americans killed during encounters with police officers.

“We just can’t have it anymore. We just can’t," Kirtley said. "So I listed as many names as I could remember. Black people killed for jogging, for standing, for being in their own apartment.”

Nationwide, at least two people have died because of violent unrest, one in Oakland, Calif., and another in Detroit, according to NPR. The imagery of structure fires, riot police and screaming and sobbing people have shocked the nation and the world. Almost immediately, the tragic drama eclipsed the coronavirus crisis and the 2020 presidential campaign.

However, a new side of the story has emerged, at least in Minneapolis. MPR reported Saturday that new groups were appearing on the streets: not to protest, but to rebuild and recover what was lost.

Dan Katz, Fernando Ortiz Jr., Norma Martinez, Lauren Terrazas and Brian Kirkpatrick contributed to this report.

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