It was April 1991, just short of 30 years ago. I was working in my tiny office on the rim of the city room at the old San Antonio Light newspaper. All of a sudden Rosie Castro was up close and angry.

She had reason to be angry. She was working for Maria Antonietta Berriozábal, who was in a mayoral election runoff with Nelson Wolff. I had written a column expressing my admiration for Berriozábal, who had been my City Council representative for 10 years. 

She had always spoken eloquently for the many hard-working but poorly paid citizens who lived in the central city District 1. And there was never a hint of scandal around her. She had never become full of herself. She truly saw herself as a servant of the people. In my opinion, she nearly always voted “right” on the issues.

But I also observed that in her decade in office, Berriozábal had never persuaded the rest of the council to pass any significant legislation addressing her issues. She was not skilled at the political give and take of legislation, a skill I thought important for a mayor.

Rosie Castro (yes, the mother of two then small and now famous twins) was not restrained in her anger. My recollection of her direct quote was, “Casey, if you keep writing s— like this, there will be riots in the street!”

“Rosie,” I said, “this is San Antonio. We don’t do riots in the street.” 

In my memory, at least, she lowered the volume and agreed that I was right – about the riots, not about Berriozábal. 

The incident came to mind when I saw a picture of San Antonio police, clad in riot gear, standing Saturday evening between a large crowd of protesters and a small band of armed men who fancied themselves as Davey Crockett’s heirs, defending the Alamo in the wake of the infliction of graffiti on the Cenotaph, a crime for which a single suspect has been arrested. 

One could make the case that San Antonio police don’t need riot gear any more than the city’s public works department needs snowplows. Maybe even less.

The last riot in San Antonio came in 1939 when about 5,000 patriots stormed and vandalized Municipal Auditorium because Mayor Maury Maverick, a First Amendment enthusiast, allowed a small openly Communist group to hold a meeting there. Some of the patriots reportedly went looking for Maverick.

The last blizzard came in 1985 when Mother Nature dumped 13 inches of snow on the city and shut it down for the better part of a week. 

As 5,000 demonstrators marched on Saturday afternoon, my take on San Antonio appeared to hold. Despite the provocation of the sickening 8-minute video of the casual murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis policeman with his hands in his pockets, the marchers were nonviolent. Angry, but nonviolent. But hours after they went home Saturday evening, the tone changed. Some of those still on the streets broke store windows, some looted, some threw things at police officers, and some tagged public spaces with graffiti. At least six were arrested on various charges, the most serious being assaulting a police officer.

Three officers were injured by flying objects, two hit in the head by bottles, one in the knee by a brick, according to police reports. About 40 businesses suffered damage. Officers responded with tear gas and pepper pellets. 

At a press conference Sunday, police Chief William McManus admitted that an earlier comment of his that the hooliganism was largely the doing of outside agitators was possibly wrong. The four arrested at that time included one person from Uvalde. The others were San Antonians. 

McManus was asked to compare what he had seen here with reports from other cities.

“The level of destruction and violence is not what we’ve seen around the country,” he said. “But it’s a lot for San Antonio.”

It was indeed, and it forces me to painfully reconsider my confidence that San Antonio doesn’t do riots. I can’t be so categorical.

I can still say that we don’t do race riots. The provocation came from the latest wanton murder of an unarmed black man by a police officer, yet the demonstrators were a rainbow coalition, and of the four mug shots published so far of those arrested, not one was of a black person. 

If any people involved in the vandalism think they were supporting black people with those actions, I pass along a request from Ijeoma Oluo, the Seattle author of the 2018 book So You Want to Talk About Race. She says non-blacks should do nothing to increase tensions at demonstrations, since there is a good chance that it is blacks who will pay the price.

I can say one more thing. San Antonio cleans up after itself. Sunday morning citizen volunteers spontaneously showed up on Houston Street, some before the shop owners and managers, to help sweep up glass from broken windows and scrub graffiti off walls. Some brought their children.

Rick Casey

Rick Casey

Rick Casey's career spans four decades of award-winning reporting on San Antonio. He previously worked as a metro columnist for the former San Antonio Light and, later, the San Antonio Express-News.