Scott Ball / Rivard Report
Though the open carry of rifles and handguns is permitted in Texas and most other states, San Antonio residents take notice when groups of individuals donning kevlar vests and tactical assault rifles file into Travis Park on a Saturday morning or walk down Commerce Street toward City Council Chambers on a Wednesday night.
"I've never seen anything like this in my life," said Rudolph Garcia, one of several passersby in Municipal Plaza who stopped to observe – or record – the men and woman affiliated with This Is Texas Freedom Force (TITFF) escort Brandon Burkhart, the group's vice president, into the local government building Wednesday.
This is the second time in one week that downtown residents and visitors have seen men and women dressed in fatigues and tactical vests carrying assault weapons, additional ammunition, tasers, and sidearms in the city's streets. Many wear sunglasses, hats, helmets, or bandanas making it difficult to discern facial features. They are from groups such as the 3 Percenters and Alamo Militia which oppose removal of Confederate monuments both locally and around the nation.
TITFF has been enlisting militia members' support and assistance in opposing a Council Consideration Request by Councilmen Roberto Treviño (D1) and William "Cruz" Shaw (D2) to remove a Confederate monument that has been in Travis Park for 118 years.
Efforts to remove Confederate statues and symbols across the country united groups of white nationalists in Charlottesville, Va. over the weekend. Heavily armed militia members, dressed similarly to those seen recently around San Antonio, were among the demonstrators. The Washington Post reported that individuals from various Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern militia groups gathered to maintain civic order and defend free speech.
On the same day, similarly armed militia members filled Travis Park in downtown San Antonio. They congregated at the entrance and around the perimeter of the southeastern corner of the park that was permitted to TITFF by the City. While covering the event inside said corner, the Rivard Report was escorted off the grounds by three men in fatigues with assault weapons for being spotted earlier in the corner of counterprotesting group SATX4. Many of the militia individuals had been requested to serve as security members removing opposition members from the corner.
Members of the San Antonio Police Department, Parks Police, and SWAT looked on from various vantage points in and around the park. The Rivard Report did not see police officers inside either of the event's two corners.
Texas state law permits individuals to openly carry rifles without a license, and since 2016 has allowed licensed individuals to openly carry handguns.
But some residents perceive the militia members' weapons as symbols of aggression. Following this past weekend, they associate that aggression with the white nationalist violence seen in Charlottesville.
"If you have something to say, say it to the people," Garcia said. "You don’t need to be armed. You don’t need to have a show of force. They’re only encouraging more hate and more violence toward fellow American citizens. It’s bad enough that it’s the 21st century and me and my family have to witness the age of white supremacy."
Militia members outside of City Council Chambers Wednesday night said they were there for one reason – to protect Burkhart.
"When [TITFF] announced they'd be here speaking pro-monument at the City Hall meeting, they received what they felt to be credible death threats," said a 3 Percenter who gave his name only as Tunnel as he stood outside Council Chambers on Wednesday. He offered his opinions on why he believed it was important that the group exercised its rights to openly carry firearms.
"So many people want to strip certain rights," he said. "We're in America. With the Constitution, it's our right to do so. We have to deal with the consequences when we act upon those rights and when we exercise our rights."
One woman who addressed Mayor Ron Nirenberg and City Council on Wednesday complained that SAPD had failed to protect her and other members of SATX4, who were demanding that the statue in Travis Park be removed.
"We didn't feel like we were being protected against the people that had actual guns and rifles," said Lyndsy Gholson, who rallied with SATX4 on Saturday. "It was a little scary going out there, but I didn't let that stop me."
Counterprotesters weren't the only ones intimidated by the presence of firearms on one side of the park during Saturday's demonstrations. SAPD Sgt. Jesse Salame told the Rivard Report that several people approached police officers about the weapons. But Salame stated that SAPD did not confront or question any of the armed individuals because they were complying with state open carry laws while exercising their second amendment rights.
"I think it was alarming to some people," Salame said. "We had a lot of people that came up and asked how we felt about people armed with guns.
I don't think we were in any danger of having any kind of civil disobedience or anything like that. And, again, [open carry] is the law, we're going to follow the law."
No one openly carrying a firearm Saturday broke the law, Salame said, adding that SAPD will not interfere with law-abiding open carriers, regardless of whether or not they felt that they were there to secure their privately permitted demonstration on public property.
Tunnel said members of his group carry weapons to protect themselves, citing protests by left-wing groups that have turned violent.
"I think what we found ... is that the police don't have to protect us," Tunnel said. "In the event something were to happen like it did in Berkeley, or Portland, or Charlottesville, there needs to be somebody to protect the innocents. What we found is the narrative from the left is anybody who doesn't agree with them is a Nazi."
Tunnel believes that individuals who disagree with the stances taken by groups such as TITFF unfairly label them, making dialogue impossible. He believes such labels make TITFF a target for groups such as Antifa, so-called anti-fascists who also were accused of inciting violence during the Charlottesville protests.
"Now Antifa, I don't agree with what they're doing," Tunnel said. "I understand that there may be a time for violence, but everybody's a Nazi if you don't agree with them. So who are they going to determine, when they're walking around with their sticks, or their shields, or their guns, or whatever, who they can attack, who they can rightfully do it [to]?"
Tunnel insisted that TITFF's defense of the monument is not about race, but rather about preserving history and honoring veterans who fought a war for reasons other than the issue of slavery. Yet he feels that he and others are targets for violence simply because they're making the argument for keeping the monument in the park. In such a politically charged atmosphere, he said, members need to be armed when traveling to speak in public.
"It's sad, because if they sat down for five minutes to talk to me, they'd realize I'm not here for race," Tunnel said. "I'm here exercising my rights just as they're here exercising their rights. We should just have a lot more dialogue. It's just that until we see them open to dialogue, this is what has to happen."
Council members aren't scheduled to discuss relocating the monument in Travis Park for another three weeks, and even then it is only to decide whether or not the Governance Committee will allow the measure to be voted on by the full council at a later date. In the meantime, cities across the nation are removing monuments overnight while others are illegally toppled by crowds of protesters. Park police reported that earlier in the week the monument in Travis Park had been vandalized after a red liquid had been thrown above the base of the obelisk, according to John Jacks, director of the Center City Development and Operations Department.
The increased presence of organized groups openly carrying guns may be escalating an already controversial City proposal. On Wednesday, one person who spoke in favor of removing the monument said he and others who came to speak had considered coming armed.
"It was discussed, but it was only discussed as a reaction to us knowing that they were coming armed," said Matthew Lerma, who also attended the SATX4 rally Saturday. "But we ultimately decided that showing up like two armies opposing each other would just be bad.
"If things like what happened in Charlottesville come to San Antonio, I think it might," Lerma said.
With weeks left until the Council begins the process of deciding the fate of the monument, the presence of weapons on the city's streets may become more commonplace among activist groups from either side of the debate.
"If you want to, come armed," Garcia said. "... Just ... don’t get mad when people counterprotest armed against you.”