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San Antonians Protest Treatment Of Demonstrators At City Council Meeting

Many San Antonio residents attended a City Council meeting on June 4, 2020 to speak against the budget for the San Antonio Police Department.
Joey Palacios | Texas Public Radio
Many San Antonio residents attended Thursday's City Council meeting to speak against the budget for the San Antonio Police Department.

The San Antonio City Council Chambers was a tinderbox of emotion Thursday from Black Lives Matter protesters as the council weighed budget cuts over the COVID-19 pandemic.

The council approved more than $80 million in adjustments from lost revenue but Black Lives Matter demonstrators called on the council to defund SAPD over use of force measures during protests on Saturday and Tuesday. Residents who attended the meeting disrupted it several times, including an impassioned exchange with the mayor.

One community member, Alex Birnel, said San Antonio needs to "divest from police and invest in community."

"Police, if you ask the average person, are supposed to enforce the law. We’ve expanded what ‘enforcing the law’ means to cover social disorder, distress and hardship — somebody who is sleeping on a park bench, someone who is going through a mental health episode. They do not have the tools to solve these problems. They have guns, handcuffs, tasers, when people need housing, mental health services and things to actually assist them," Birnel said.

Jennifer Falcon, a former city hall staffer for District 5 Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales, was one of many protestors who called for SAPD’s budget to be zeroed out and the collective bargaining agreement with the San Antonio Police Officers Association to be cancelled.

“Many of you here voted for the police contract that allows little to no accountability for police with violent infractions, you are complicit in the murder of black people,” Falcon said. “I worked here in city hall with many of you when this contract was passed, I’ve block walked and donated to your campaigns. I’ve watched the aggressive stance the police have taken and I am ashamed of supporting you because by giving you the power to approve that contract, I am complicit in the murder of black lives as well.”

The San Antonio Police Department’s 2020 budget is about $480 million and no money was being considered in the budget adjustment approved by council.

Stephanie Koithan, another speaker, made note of the recent protests that saw SAPD fire deterrents into crowds near the Alamo.

“This bloated budget is what they use to terrorize black and brown communities, it’s what they use to target peaceful citizens and use military grade weapons against those they are sworn to serve and protect,” she said.

After Tuesday’s protest, SAPD confirmed its use of projectiles after protesters threw at least one water bottle at officers in riot gear. San Antonio Police Chief William McManus said multiple tactics were used by police in a statement on Wednesday.

“As soon as projectiles are thrown, we begin measures to disperse crowds. Typically, police will issue several warnings, but very fluid situations do not always allow for that. Police will use tear gas, pepper balls and rubber and wood projectiles. These are less than lethal options that are designed to help disperse a crowd. The projectiles are necessary because instigators will often wear gas masks to protect themselves from the tear gas,” he said.

Nearly 20 people addressed the council; there were brief moments of chanting and outbursts from some attendees that stopped the meeting.

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Jolene Garcia, a retired Air Force tech sergeant , stood up from her seat while District 6 councilwoman Melissa Cabello Havrda was speaking. Garcia said her husband was fighting in Afghanistan.  

“We never in a million years expected to fight terrorism in our own damn city yet here we are, I have a black son, I have a black father, I have a white face and a black voice, and you’re going to hear it,” she said.

San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg thanked her for her service and took a moment to address the disruptions. Nirenberg pointed to several police officers who were standing on the second floor of the council chambers.

“This council and this whole city is working really hard, and although there’s some difficult decisions made in the heat of the moment that we would all like to have back --  but even the folks up there, they’re doing their very damn best --  if we’re going to make change in this country, or in this city, it starts at meetings like this so I’m asking you for your patience.”

Earlier this week Nirenberg reinstated the city council’s public safety committee, which oversees both the police and fire departments. The committee, like the other council committees, had been suspended during the city’s pandemic response.

District 2 Councilwoman Jada Andrews Sullivan, who represents the city’s East Side, will sit on the committee.

“Being the only African American voice that sits on this dais I must speak for those who have not had the opportunity to take this privilege to speak for themselves,” she said. “We know that the public safety committee will restart and we will have these hard conversations and not only will we have these conversations behind closed doors  we will have these conversations with the community, the community comes first.”

She promised the concerns of demonstrators would be addressed there.

“This conversation will not stop here and we as a city are dedicated to making sure each and every last one of our residents knows that we will fight for you and we will not kneel on your necks but we will stand to rise above everything that is happening in our community.”

Nirenberg made note that the protestors were making a point on an inconvenient truth about city budgets.

“As more and more resources have been going to security and police services with the goal of addressing safety and making sure we have safe community has left fewer and fewer resources for the services, infrastructure and other programs that make for a health community,” he said.

Nirenberg added that it leaves less money for programs like arts, parks, libraries and road maintenance.

The city will begin drafting its 2021 budget, which is expected to take a major hit due to COVID-19, later this month. 

Joey Palacios can be reached at Joey@TPR.org and on Twitter at @Joeycules.

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