Black Lives Matter Activists Say SA Needs to Talk About Police Violence

click to enlarge Local Black Lives Matter activists with the group SATX4 takes to downtown during an August protest. - Darcell Designs
Darcell Designs
Local Black Lives Matter activists with the group SATX4 takes to downtown during an August protest.

Mike Lowe is a tall man who wears black-rimmed glasses reminiscent of Malcom X's signature spectacles.

In personal conversation, Lowe, a community organizer with the local Black Lives Matter group SATX4, is soft-spoken and thoughtful. But nearly every weekend, he and a contingent of like-minded people can be found downtown, protesting police brutality and highlighting recent cases, like the August 28 shooting of Gilbert Flores, 41, by two Bexar County Sheriff Department deputies who were responding to a domestic violence call.

Cellphone video obtained by local television station KSAT 12 showed Flores with his hands in the air, appearing to surrender, moments before he is shot. The Bexar County Sheriff's Department and District Attorney's Office have said another video shows Flores with a knife, but the video hasn't been publicly released.

However, Flores' death is just the latest case of an officer-involved shooting in San Antonio, and just another blip on the roll of police-related shootings that have captured national attention since 28-year-old former Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed unarmed 18-year-old Mike Brown on August 9, 2014.

"SATX4 is an organization designed to expose systemic racial injustice," Lowe said. "We were birthed out of the Mike Brown situation in which Darren Wilson was not indicted ... that's when we came on the scene."

According to the website Fatal Encounters, which scours the Internet for news reports of police-related shootings all over the United States, at least 43 people have been killed by police in Bexar County since 2001, with the majority of cases falling between 2012 and 2015.

One of those was Marquise Jones, a 23-year-old man who was shot and killed by off-duty San Antonio Police Department officer Robert Encina on February 28, 2014 at a drive-thru on the Northeast side of the city.

"Today is 565 days," Lowe said, automatically knowing how much time has passed since Jones' death. "We're still fighting for the prosecution of Robert Encina."

Police have completed their investigation into the shooting and whether it goes to a grand jury is in the hands of the District Attorney.

Silence Is Violence

click to enlarge The SAPD arrested Mike Lowe in August. - Darcell Designs
Darcell Designs
The SAPD arrested Mike Lowe in August.

When Lowe and SATX4 activists hit the streets with signs decrying police brutality — some of which are confrontational — and proclaiming that black lives matter, they are often met with insults from passersby.

"People drive by and tell us to get a job and go to school. There are people out there with degrees, people of all backgrounds," Lowe said, adding that there are also people who respond to the Black Lives Matter slogan with sayings like All Lives Matter.

All SATX4 is trying to do is start a conversation, not diminish other races. But not many San Antonians want to listen.

"We're not saying only black lives matter, we're saying black lives matter, too," Lowe said. "What they hear from us is "only black lives matter," and that's definitely not what we're saying."

Desireé Luckey said for her, the Black Lives Matter slogan is empowering.

"I think it is important that San Antonio know BLM (Black Lives Matter) because any act of police brutality is an indictment on our entire law-enforcement body, not just one individual or one police department," Luckey said. "We have had instances of violence here, and we need to work to address that as a community. Pretending it hasn't or won't happen here will not work."

Marina Escamilla joined SATX4 in November 2014 and even traveled to St. Louis to gain personal perspective at the protests in Ferguson rather than relying on media coverage.

"My stay was hosted by a couple of girls who attended the university of St. Louis," Escamilla said. "There I listened to stories about the racism they and their families were faced with and how little change has been made."

Being a Latina, Escamilla said it's important to her to support black lives through protest and direct action.

"Our lives are on the line too," she said. "We need to take more action to show how much we care about the way we are treated, that we are more than the stereotypes that 'portray' us. I don't want my home to allow hate for my skin or for darker skin."

Marisa Laufer, an activist who attends SATX4 events and also helps run the San Antonio chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said the Black Lives Matter movement has relevance for San Antonio.

"Gentrification, police brutality, detaining refugees from Guatemala and Honduras in prison-like detention centers — these are issues that ties us as people together," Laufer said. "We need to look at the bigger picture of dehumanization on a global scale and see how it relates to San Antonio. If we can get behind a national movement to empower black lives and relate it to brown lives, then we can raise all boats."

Yet, on the tourist-soaked streets of downtown, SATX4 mostly finds push-back against these messages.

Just a few weeks ago Lowe was arrested and charged with "disorderly conduct – language" by the SAPD who accuse the group of chanting "fuck the police" as they marched downtown in proximity to the River Walk.

"The group never chanted 'fuck the police' even though the police wrote that on the police report," Laufer said. "I felt the police made it a bigger deal than it was."

However, Lowe's sign did have "fuck the police" written on it, albeit in small letters juxtaposed with much larger lettering, which was non-obscene.

"If people were more offended by words than they are by the fact that 823 people died this year by the police, it says a lot about the society we live in," Laufer said.

According to "The Counted," an online project by The Guardian that compiles a database of police killings in the United States, 829 people have been killed in the country since September 15 of this year. On the flipside, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page, a website, 87 police have been killed in the line of duty in 2015.

Time To Talk

click to enlarge Mike Lowe disputed details included in the police report of his arrest. - Darcell Designs
Darcell Designs
Mike Lowe disputed details included in the police report of his arrest.

Last fall, former SAPD chief William McManus pitched body cameras to City Council. He told the city's leaders that San Antonio has largely missed unrest from police shootings and that the cameras were just one way to make sure the Alamo City isn't the next Ferguson.

And the District Attorney's Office, in coordination with the SAPD and other leaders, have held community policing forums in order to build relationships with San Antonio residents. Local activists have complained that not enough notice is given before the forums.

Recently, on the East Side, the SAPD held a "Coffee with the Cops" event at a McDonalds.

"From their perspective, they do it in a strategic way," Lowe said of the forums and community events. "But I think we're missing the mark."

To improve relations, life has to be better for students at school and the city has to allot more resources to community organizations in African-American neighborhoods that target the youth, and provide opportunities to the unemployed. Police will have to build relationships with all members of the community, from business leaders, to lay people, to pastors, to the LGBT community, he explained.

"Everybody has a voice and in the black community, we have all those aspects," Lowe said.

And laws that disproportionately send black men to prison for non-violent offenses — like small-time drug possession — need to be reformed.

But before change can happen, people need to be able to talk about why black lives matter.

Dr. Gregory Hudspeth, an associate professor at the Department of Social Sciences at St. Phillip's College, said the Black Lives Matter movement is not an anti-police movement.

"There's an attempt to bring about an awareness that there are some issues with regards to how individuals are treated, as well as how they perceive they are treated by law enforcement," Hudspeth said.

And there's plenty of credible data that shows African-American communities are disproportionately affected by police violence and incarceration.

"The vast majority of police officers are very good people," Hudspeth said. "That would be true for any profession."

However, according to Hudspeth, there is a national problem with black men being killed by police, though Hudspeth clarifies that he thinks San Antonio is largely blessed with a good police department.

"Conversations are always good to have. And ... as long as we're talking to each other we get to know each other and we're able to prevent problems before they become problems," Hudspeth said. "The discussion is a violent discussion to have even if we're not having that problem within our own community. It's like saying, 'Do we have to have a discussion on child abuse if we're not having it in our community?' Absolutely, we do."

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