Organizers of San Antonio’s Black Lives Matter Protests Represent a New Generation of Activism

click to enlarge Activists gathered downtown over the weekend listen to a speaker. - James Dobbins
James Dobbins
Activists gathered downtown over the weekend listen to a speaker.
In San Antonio, a new generation of activists is facing down a pandemic, curfews, intimidation, threats of arrest and the South Texas heat to sustain daily public calls for police accountability and racial justice.

Organizers of the protests, which have now gone on for more than a week, share the feeling that anger over the death George Floyd stands to shake the foundations of our political and justice systems. However, they come to the movement from a variety of backgrounds and with different levels of earlier activism. Some have no previous organizing experience.

Kristen Calahan has attended protests before. But, recognizing the importance of this moment, she decided not only to carry a sign this time but step up as a leader. She's among those who organize daily demonstration at San Antonio’s Public Safety Headquarters.

“We all felt the weight of everything that is happening, and I wanted to figure out my contribution,” she said. “This is the first I organized, myself. I wanted to control the energy of what is going on. George Floyd was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and it sparked global outrage. The fact that a human being was comfortable being filmed killing another human being… I can’t even think of a word for that.”

Everyone has a role to play in the Black Lives Matter movement, Calahan added. Some people speak out, while others drop off water to keep the crowd hydrated. No job is bigger or smaller than another.

“Everything is adding up to one big hammer,” she said.

Inspired to Act

Shamar Mims and Delante Armstrong first met while working at Chuck E. Cheese together, but it had been two years since they last spoke. Fate brought them together again on the first night of San Antonio’s George Floyd protests.

“I saw people getting teargassed,” Mims said. “I ran into Delante helping people. That inspired me to do something.”

Mims and Armstrong, who share a love for skateboarding, have become well-known figures at the nightly protest in Travis Park. The pair, along with dozens of others, gather for what Armstrong calls “Black Lives Matters After Dark,” a smaller event he oversees after the main organizers leave Public Safety Headquarters.

Not long ago, Armstrong dreamed of becoming a sheriff’s deputy. He grew up surrounded by police officers in his neighborhood and respected goals of their work. But, now, he’s concerned about the dangers he’d face if he became a law officer. Black officers, Armstrong says, are often shunned by their community and have to strive harder to be seen as good guys.

“I don't think I’m strong enough to do that,” he added.

‘Cages of Racism’

Thirtysomething entrepreneur Ervin Lee has become a sort of unofficial protest mentor to Mims and Armstrong. Before the killing of George Floyd, Lee never considered taking action or protesting on the streets. Now, he's all in. Since his joining the demonstrations, he started an organization called The People’s Rep, which organized a peaceful march in Alamo Heights on Saturday.

“We want out of these cages of racism,” Lee said. “The wool was pulled over our eyes, but now we can see this stuff has been going on forever. We have shaken the cage of the system, and we’re not just going to be tranquil animals in cages.”

One of Lee’s main ideas for lasting change is to hold politicians accountable, Mayor Ron Nirenberg foremost among them.

“This is not about tearing this city apart,” Lee said. “I pay a lot of taxes. I want to see us grow together.”

click to enlarge Organizer Pharaoh Clark wants San Antonio to reconsider its budget and put human needs over the purchase of police weapons. - James Dobbins
James Dobbins
Organizer Pharaoh Clark wants San Antonio to reconsider its budget and put human needs over the purchase of police weapons.
Clear Understanding

Pharaoh Clark, leader of the group Uniting America Through Wisdom, also wants to hold the city’s top elected official accountable. Last week, Clark delivered a list of strategies and a petition to Nirenberg, and he’s been communicating with the mayor daily. The two are expected to have a sit-down meeting this week, the activist added.

Clark wants the city to reconsider its budget, putting human needs over the purchase of weapons. He wants to discuss the dangers of no-knock warrants and address the numerous protections for abusive officers contained in the city’s police union contract, which is up for renegotiation next year. What's more, he wants the mayor to take steps to build a police force that reflects the communities it serves.

“I want Mr. Nirenberg to talk to some of the moms, brothers and sisters of some of the victims in the city,” Clark said. “To see their hurt, pain, and tears. And I believe if he can sit down and talk to them, he'll get a clear understanding of the problem.”

Sustainable Movement

Longtime San Antonio activist and former attorney James Myart spoke briefly to the crowd of about 300 at the Public Safety Headquarters on Saturday. Myart — who made headlines for suing SAPD over his treatment during a 2016 arrest — said the current outcry against the police brutality is the largest he’s seen in San Antonio in 30 years.

And to his mind, it’s sustainable.

“The point is different people come here every day. It’s more than just Black people,” Myart said from a shady spot as he watched a new generation of protestors turn the plaza into a dance party.

"Everybody is angry. COVID-19 opened everybody’s eyes. People have lost their jobs, no matter what color they were. And now they are starting to see themselves, as one commentary on television said, as Black, understanding the strife back for the past 400 years. When I see this, I can’t help but cry. I’ve never seen it before."

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