Pay up and shut up

Text and photos by

Enrique Lopetegui

[email protected]

Esperanza's Graciela Sánchez raising hell.

The cops said “100-150,” but I counted around 200, if not more (the Express-News reported 300).

Whatever the number of the crowd, Graciela Sánchez, director of the Esperanza Peace & Justice Center, knows how to put on a good show.

Summoned by the International Women's Day March Planning Committee and the San Antonio Free Speech Coalition, el pueblo gathered at the steps of City Hall on Saturday to protest the fact that San Antonio is the only major city in the US to charge a thousand bucks for marching (sometimes more, sometime less, depending on the march, hence the “pay up or shut up” slogan). Then, they briefly took over Commerce Street while two desperate motorcycle cops were trying to dissuade them.

The whole thing started innocently enough at 10 am with the usual banners, drums, and Sánchez and others proudly sporting painted-on moustaches (“I'm a rat today,” she told me). I asked her if, by the way, she had to pay anything for the demonstration.

“We won't `pay`,” she said. “If we had called the Main Plaza Conservancy they would have charged us $500.”

Around 10:30, the well-scripted, bilingual call-and-response chants started:

“Ain't no power/like the power of the people/'cuz the power of the people/won't stop!/Say what??!!â?¦”

“The people/united/will never be defeated!”

“El pueblo/unido/jamás será vencido!”

Then, at one point, a white guy on a suit stood on a platform and started talking trash.

“Shut up! Cállense!â?¦ This is my city! I give you Fiesta and you still complain!”

Some joined in the fun and started yelling back, but the white dude was so good that a few demonstrators started closing in and urged him to shut up and leave the demonstration. The one who got closest was local activist Nick Calzoncit.

“This is street theater, my friend,” said the white dude, who identified himself as Justis Langford. “I'm glad we convinced youâ?¦”

“Wowâ?¦ I thought he was for realâ?¦,” said Calzoncit, who freaked out as soon as I mentioned I was from the Current.

“Ohâ?¦! Your editor doesn't like me! It's a good paper, but she doesn't like me. Now you're gonna make me look foolishâ?¦”

After many had sealed their mouths with small “pay up or shut up” adhesive signs, at 11 am Sánchez gave the order: “To the mercado!”

Immediately, the crowd (at this point, around 150 in my estimation) took over Commerce Street and headed for Market Square, while motorcycle cop Uriegas began an exercise in futility: to convince the marchers to get on the sidewalk.

“They're not supposed to do this! Look at what they do to the traffic!” he told me, pointing at the backed -up line of pissed-off motorists.

“That's OKâ?¦ Spontaneous marches are for free, and this is a spontaneous march,” Sánchez said, before suddenly running off while yelling to the crowd to “stop the march! Slow down the march!” The marchers, it seemed, were really getting into it, but that was only the beginning â?? the most surreal was yet to come.

The original plan was to take over the Market Square stage right across Mi Tierra, but Sánchez seemingly forgot that, at that time, musicians are usually using the stage area.

Just imagine the face of a guy playing what looked like a zampoña (an Andean wind instrument) and another one playing guitar, when a screaming crowd of 150 with signs, drums, and painted faces suddenly started heading in their direction.

For a few seconds, upon looking at the musicians, Sánchez looked surprised, while the musicians themselves had no clue as to what was going on. Amanda Haas, from the Esperanza, gently asked if they could use the microphone (yes, nobody even waited for the song to end). The zampoña guy made the gesture you make when you don't want to give up your mic. “He was scared to lose the job,” Haas told me later, “or that the city would take away his license.”

The musicians were actually replacing the band that usually plays on that spot, Peru's Wayanay Inka â?¦ and that's about all I could get from them. I don't know if I'm too white for this gig, but they were afraid to give out information.

“No, I can't do that,” the zampoña guy told me in Spanish about why he didn't want to give up his mic. “`The mic` is only for the music, not for a protest.”

But seconds later, when I told him that I thought the way their show was interrupted sucked, he looked at me and said: “What's wrong with it? They have their right `to protest`, don't they?”

Dude, you are the one who told meâ?¦ Oh, never mind.

The guy with the guitar said “I can't give you much informationâ?¦ I'm only an employee of the group that plays here.”

So, for the next 40 minutes, the musicians kept the mic and Sánchez and others took over the stage with a bullhorn while the stone-faced musicians sat and waited patiently (In the original version of this blog, I wrongly reported that the musicians had given up their mic; thanks, Amanda, for correcting me).

I found it so ironic that in a march that precisely protested against the city's “pay up or shut up” policy, the marchers punished two guys who paid for the right to play music and collect donations in that same location. The musicians paid up, and had to shut up.

To Sánchez's credit, at the end she repeated, “We took over the spaceâ?¦ We took over the spaceâ?¦ They `the musicians` had no choice, but they didn't call the police either. For that, we thank them and I ask everyone to please leave a donation for them.”

When the music was interrupted, I had seen a 20-dollar bill and a bunch of ones in the basket. After Sánchez asked everyone to donate, I counted ten people who immediately donated, and the basket looked good (I gave $5).

The crowd dispersed, nobody got hurt or arrested, and the musicians, finally, relaxed and smiled. They even shook hands with me.

“It's a good cause,” the guy with the guitar said. “Discúlpeme (sorry)â?¦”

This is what David Zamora Casas looks like without the túnica.

"I'm for the Veterans," said Manuel Landez. "A supporter of Middle East war soldiers."

Manuel Landez with La Lupita.