SA’s MLK March Matters, but the Fight for Justice Is Year-Round

A man confronts activists moments before they took over the Martin Luther King Jr. Day march.
A man confronts activists moments before they took over the Martin Luther King Jr. Day march. Gabriela Mata

There were two marches in San Antonio on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. One is often billed as the largest in the country. The other was a show of direct action.

Organizers say that this year approximately 300,000 people showed up for San Antonio's annual MLK march, which starts at the MLK Freedom Bridge, travels 2.75 miles up Martin Luther King Drive and ends at Pittman Sullivan Park on the historic East Side.

"Each year, hundreds of thousands of people join the City of San Antonio in its commemoration to reflect on the lasting impact of Dr. King's teachings and why it is important to continue honoring this notable civil rights leader," Mayor Ivy R. Taylor said in a post-march press release touting its success. "I am proud that our city continues to host one of the largest marches in the country honoring Dr. King."

Taylor, along with a contingent of other VIPs, including Sen. John Cornyn, Chief of Police William McManus, Sheriff Susan Pamerleau and many other state and local officials were at the head of the march.

Then there was a much smaller group marching, too. A handful of activists from the Black Lives Matter movement — maybe 10 to 15, wearing black shirts that said "I am Marquise Jones. If you don't know, ask me." — crept up behind the politicians right before the march started and began chanting while holding a black banner that read "Arrest Robert Encina."

Encina is a San Antonio Police Department officer who was off duty and working security at Chacho's and Chalucci's on the city's northeast side on February 28, 2014, when he shot and killed 23-year-old Marquise Jones in the restaurant's drive-thru. The vehicle Jones was in had been involved in a fender bender.

The police department maintains that Jones displayed a handgun and exited the vehicle while Encina was speaking to the driver. Jones' family says he was shot in the back, and they allege that the gun police found had no fingerprints on it. In December, a grand jury declined to indict Encina on any charges. That same month, a grand jury also declined to indict two Bexar County sheriff's deputies who shot and killed Gilbert Flores during a disturbing incident captured on cellphone video.

Standing with the activists and holding onto the banner was Deborah Bush, Jones' aunt. Many of Jones' family members, including his mother and father, were at the march.

"I totally believe that if MLK was alive today he would be totally against what's going on here," Bush said. "There's black men dying all over the country at the hands of our so-called police departments and they turn this march and stuff into a celebration. This is not a celebration. There's young men dying and my nephew happens to be one who has died."

Yet the mood of the city-sponsored march was celebratory. Before it started, gospel music blared from speakers at the Martin Luther King Academy, adjacent to the eponymous bridge. There were men selling T-shirts and others selling popcorn. There was a voting drive. People wore shirts advertising whatever candidate or politician they supported. Nonprofits from around town toted signs and shirts promoting their messages. Others wore the logos of the companies they worked for. There were fraternal orders and politicians who mulled through the crowds shaking hands and smiling. Babies were probably kissed.

But then the Black Lives Matter activists let the bullhorns rip. They chanted "No justice, no peace" and broke through the VIP ranks. They passed the chief of police, sheriff and mayor, and they marched up Martin Luther King Drive toward Pittman Sullivan Park, leaving the nation's largest MLK Day parade to drive into the distance behind them.

An SAPD officer followed with a video camera. Another officer briefly tried to speak with one of the Black Lives Matter organizers as they marched forward. Yet another officer, in plain clothes, shadowed the protestors throughout the route. The larger march followed about a quarter of a mile behind.

Alan E. Warrick II, the councilman who represents the area, marched in front of the larger parade with the city's first African-American mayor. He's wholly cognizant of the problems faced in his district, which Taylor used to represent.

"We are the most economic and racially segregated city in the country," Warrick said.

Of the 22 elementary schools in his district, all perform poorly.

"There's a disparity in our educational system," he said.

Then there are the 2,200-plus vacant homes.

"Of course, we have the highest incidence of gun violence. Not the entire district, but pockets," Warrick said. "I think it's unacceptable."

Warrick has lobbied for shot-spotter gunfire technology, which allows police to respond to incidents of shots fired quicker and creates more effective policing, Warrick says, citing Washington D.C., Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Miami Gardens, Florida, as cases where the technology helped reduce gun violence.

Warrick says he had hoped the technology would already be deployed, but it won't be implemented until April. He says it can't come quickly enough. Less than a week before the march, there was a rolling shoot-out in the area that left one dead.

As Warrick marched with thousands of others, the gap between the parade and the Black Lives Matter activists filled in with people, and it began to look like one march as the route neared its end.

Recordings of Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous "I have a Dream" speech began to blend with chants of "No justice, no peace" and "Hands up, don't shoot." The activists asked onlookers to raise their fists if they believed black lives matter. People of all colors raised their fists in solidarity along the route.

When they reached the top of a hill where Martin Luther King Drive T-bones into Pittman Sullivan Park, the activists turned and faced the rest of the march with chants as it arrived at its final destination. San Antonio Police Department squad cars that heralded the annual march arrived with flashing lights. A little African-American girl in a pink shirt riding in the back of one of the squad cars driven by a black policeman raised her fist out of the window in solidarity while the officer driving smiled. The protestors lingered for about 15 minutes before dispersing into the park to join others in listening to speakers discuss civil rights and Dr. King's legacy, while vendors sold food and goods and music blared.

The march's keynote speaker, Hill Harper, an author and actor, called Jones' family and Black Lives Matter organizer Mike Lowe onto the stage to recognize them and to remember Jones.

The public recognition at the media-dense event for the family and the activists at the march was an unusual blend of civics and activism in the Alamo City — a fitting way for both marches to end.

But that was just one day out of 365 in 2016.

Problems of violence and poverty and disparity in educational systems and in economics exist all year round.

"No matter how many celebrations you do and what's going on, the problem is still there," Bush said. "They could come out to this type of thing and make it the largest march in the nation, [but] why can't they come out here and do a large protest against the injustices that are in this city?"

Simply showing up once a year to honor MLK is nice, but as Dr. King pointed out, equality and freedom take constant work.

"Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle," King once said. "And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom. A man can't ride you unless your back is bent."

That's something Jones' family takes to heart.


Since 1986, the SA Current has served as the free, independent voice of San Antonio, and we want to keep it that way.

Becoming an SA Current Supporter for as little as $5 a month allows us to continue offering readers access to our coverage of local news, food, nightlife, events, and culture with no paywalls.

Join today to keep San Antonio Current.

Scroll to read more San Antonio News articles

Join SA Current Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.