The deaths of two black men – Philando Castile, 32, and Alton Sterling, 37 – at the hands of the Minneapolis and Baton Rouge police last week have left national and local communities in anger, fear, and frustration.
As the number of black men shot and killed by police officers continues to grow across the nation, activists and concerned citizens are asking their communities to take a stand. Johnathan-David Jones and Mike Lowe, member of SATX-4, are leading that charge in San Antonio.
When the clock struck noon on Saturday in Travis Park, Jones and Lowe stood in front of the Confederate monument with Colonel William Barret Travis atop it and addressed more than 200 people who assembled to honor the black lives lost in police shootings.
The message of the day was clear: San Antonio needs to wake up.
“We’re in the middle of Travis Park, standing in front of a memorial dedicated to white supremacy. If you wake up black in this country, you’re waking up to the reality and the burden and the proof of white supremacy. All of y’all should understand why this space was chosen (to gather), why this monument was chosen, because we live in a country that is silent about black lives matter,” Lowe said, as he raised his fist in the air to symbolize “Black lives matter” and encouraged the crowd to do the same.
The gathering was initially billed as a vigil for Sterling, a CD vendor who was shot and killed outside the Triple S Food Mart in Baton Rouge by police officers who responded to a call about an armed man. Witnesses have said police officers removed a gun from Sterling’s pocket after the shooting.
“We have not gone a day since without death,” Jones said. So the vigil turned into a rally and march to protest police violence.
“So, literally, we were having to constantly update what we’re going to be talking about (today) as each day passed because it’s that bad right now,” he said. “Within four days, we we’re having to add an insurmountable amount of names to these lists (of deceased men) that we’re mentioning today.
“We have people in our own community dying,” Jones said. “If everything that we’ve been looking at doesn’t cause you to flinch, doesn’t cause your walk to slow just a little bit, that’s a problem.”
As they revisited the harsh realities of racial division and violence in our world, Jones’ and Lowe’s words inspired screams of approval and emotional reactions from members of the crowd. Among those moved to tears was Debbie Bush, the aunt of Marquise Jones who was shot and killed by a San Antonio Police Department officer in 2014.
About 15 police officers surrounded the park, listened, and looked on as the passionate speeches continued.
Bush said that violence hits a lot closer to home than many in the city would think.
“When are we going to wake up, San Antonio? Because if you ever think it won’t happen to your family, you ask mine,” Bush said, trembling. “When we went to bed that night (when Marquise Jones was killed), we didn’t think he was going to be a statistic of a going-on in this country.”
She’s deeply disappointed by the lack of activism in San Antonio regarding the black men who have been unjustly slain.
“What is it going to take, San Antonio?” she asked. “They want you to worry about the Spurs, Fiesta, (and believe that) we have this beautiful city that’s so loving and caring and we just love everybody, Kumbaya – it’s a lie … we need to wake up. When some of our people die we need to be out here, front and center, and making (the police) be held accountable for what’s going on here.”
City Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8) briefly attended the rally in Travis Park. In an email sent to his constituents on Friday, he stated that the recent violence plaguing the black community and the five Dallas policemen killed Thursday night during a protest “is hard to look at but important for us to see.
“We have to acknowledge that we are still divided along many lines in this country, including race. We have to acknowledge that those divisions can only serve to destroy us,” he said. “We can be better.”
Undeterred by the 94-degree weather with little shade cover, the crowd began to march through downtown. Police escorts sectioned off portions of busy roadways on Commerce, Market, and Alamo streets, so the crowd could make their way to City Hall. Chants unified their voices: “All lives matter when black lives matter,” “No justice, no peace,” and “Hey, hey, ho, ho, these racist cops have got to go,” among others.
As the mass of people wound through downtown, black hotel and restaurant workers walked out of their workplaces with their fists high in the air to join the chanting. Drivers honked car horns in support. One woman holding a child watched in tears as the crowd passed by.
“Where is Ivy?” the crowd chanted as they approached City Hall. They climbed the front steps with their signs and banners held high. Jones and Lowe asked everyone to get their phones out to record the demonstration, so that City leaders and elected officials like Mayor Ivy Taylor could see how serious they are. Voting, they said, is one step towards overcoming systemic oppression.
“(In a press conference) the Mayor said, and I quote, ‘Stay engaged.’ Well this is our engagement,” Lowe said. “This is our duty, this is our responsibility.”
After a two-minute “die-in,” where participants laid on their backs in front of City Hall to commemorate the black lives lost across the nation, Lowe took to the megaphone and broke the silence by ordering everyone to stand up again.
“Stand up because Marquise Jones can’t stand up. Stand up because Mike Brown can’t stand up,” Lowe screamed. As tears welled in his eyes, he said the names of several other victims of police shootings, including Trayvon Martin and Orlando Jones.
“Stand up because they can’t stand up.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article stated that Sterling was unarmed at the time of the shooting. Witnesses now report that police officers pulled a gun out of his pocket.
Top image: Local activist and organizer Mike Lowe leads the march while documenting the event on his smartphone. Photo by Scott Ball.