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Dueling Demonstrations Confront Each Other Over San Antonio's Columbus Statue

Tensions escalated and tempers flared at two competing demonstrations around a statue of Christopher Columbus at a downtown park on Saturday.

About a half dozen police officers erected barriers to try to keep the raucous crowds from coming into close contact with each other. Nevertheless, people shouted, held signs and argued for several hours. Most wore masks.

A group of armed individuals arrayed themselves near the statue. Another cluster of people supporting the Black Lives Matter movement and indigenous groups assembled to condemn the statue's continued presence and what they said Columbus symbolized.

One anti-Columbus organizer addressed the crowd. "We are here for peaceful protest," he declared, "to let them know that [the statue] is going down. ... All the symbols of racism will be going down." He called Columbus the father of racism in the Western Hemisphere.

At one point, anti-Columbus demonstrators pushed aside the barriers. One woman walked up to the armed demonstrators and dared them to shoot her. The armed demonstrators stood in silence. Several more police officers arrived on the scene, and demonstrators from both sides engaged in close face-to-face arguments. "We are not aggressive!" some chanted, "We are angry!"

William McManus, San Antonio's police chief, arrived on the scene. He asked the armed demonstrators to leave. Members of the anti-Columbus group yelled, "Go home!" The armed demonstrators refused.

The police began guiding the anti-Columbus demonstrators behind the reerected barricades, which outraged them. "They have gated us in!" one demonstrator yelled. "The people without weapons!"

When McManus walked up to listen to their concerns, at least three individuals yelled at him. "What are they still here?" they shouted, pointing at the armed demonstrators. McManus tried to speak and then stepped away.

Not every moment of the event was contentious. Some people played indigenous music and waved a collection of burning herbs over individuals, who held their arms outstretched as the smoke wafted and swirled around them.

The demonstration ended around 3:30 p.m. For some participants, their next stop was a Black Lives Matter rally at Lockwood Park.

It was the latest in a series of demonstrations throughout the city, the state, the nation and the world over the past month that began when George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer.

The demonstrations have challenged city leaders, state officials and even national govermments to rethink how police interact with communities they are meant to protect, how history is taught, and who exactly from that history deserves to stand on pedestals and grace the names of cities, universities and other cornerstones of twenty-first century civilization.

The Columbus statue is controversial because many groups consider the fifteenth century explorer to be not the heroic "discoverer" of a "new world" but rather the first of many opportunistic European aggressors and invaders who slaughtered indigenous populations and brought disease, cultural oppression and slavery to the Western Hemisphere.

Credit Jolene Almendarez | Texas Public Radio

The contentious issue of the statue came up during a city council meeting on Thursday.

Several citizens spoke in favor returning the statue to the Christopher Columbus Italian Society, which first donated the statue in 1957 and has agreed to take it back.

Antonio Diaz, a regular attendee of city council meetings, has frequently called for its removal. He said it is a monument to colonialism.

“This is not something that’s removing history," he said. "We know our history. We know how terrible and how horrible our history has been. We are rewriting our own narrative starting now. And we want you to participate along with us. Don’t ignore us anymore.”

District 1 Councilman Roberto Trevino has filed a request to remove the statue and rename the park. It will be considered at a city council committee meeting sometime in the coming days.

On Friday night, San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg urged people not to congregate in Columbus Park. New orders in place to combat the growing threat of COVID-19 limited park gatherings to groups of ten.

“This is about making sure about not overwhelming our hospitals," he said. "We're gonna ask you to please not do that right now. We’re in the midst of the worst spike in cases that we have seen, really ever, and so we need to act accordingly.”

Metro Health officials reported 795 new COVID-19 cases on Saturday, bringing total cases since to 9,652 since the outbreak began. The death toll on Saturday rose to 107.

Joey Palacios contributed to this report.
Jolene Almendarez can be reached at JoleneAlmendarez@gmail.com and on Twitter at @jalmendarez57.

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Jolene Almendarez can be reached at jolenealmendarez@gmail.com.