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I love a charade

Area groups wrestle with Free Speech crackdowns as MLK celebrations return to SA

File photo
Mayor Phil Hardberger, Representative Ruth Jones McClendon, City Manager Sheryl Sculley, and Police Chief William McManus lock arms for the 2007 MLK March.

 

Martin was a quiet boy who grew into one hell of a man, placing himself again and again in the often bloody breach between attack dogs, boots, and batons of Jim Crow’s South on one side and the world he preached about – a world of racial harmony he radically conspired to help create – on the other.

This man who spent his adult life marching for justice and equality has in recent decades rightly been enshrined in American culture as one of many courageous voices that challenged the legacy of slavery and refused to allow government-sanctioned discrimination to continue unchallenged.

In San Antonio, Martin Luther King is remembered this month in weeks of City-sponsored events and a three-mile march from the MLK Freedom Bridge on SA’s East Side to Pittman-Sullivan Park. Organizers expect more than 100,000 to caravan down Martin Luther King Drive on Tuesday.

But with numerous social-justice groups locked in a lawsuit with the City of San Antonio over what they see as discriminatory policies dictating how much groups are charged to march on San Antonio streets, you can expect to see more confrontational signs than you have at past marches. [See “The Say-town Lowdown,” page 10.]

The city’s parade-rule rewrite has also generated its share of inevitable misgivings.

“I’ll march all day for MLK and I’ll march all day for Cesar Chavez,” says Genevieve Rodriguez, member of the planning committee for the annual International Woman’s Day March and Rally. “I also want to be able to march all day for Emma Tenayuca, Angela Davis, I mean I want to be able to march all day for women like that as well.”

We’re upstairs at the Esperanza Peace & Justice Center on San Pedro at an organizational meeting of the Woman’s Day March. Spread out on the floor are myriad statistics showing that victimization and discrimination against women is alive and well. If anything, the struggle for gender equality is not just ongoing but deteriorating on several fronts.

While the City offered to upgrade the Woman’s Day March to free City-sanctioned status along with the likes of City-sponsored MLK and Chavez parades, the group refused, instead joining the Free Speech Coalition lawsuit against the City along with 13 other social-justice organizations.

Had Woman’s Day agreed, “In essense it would be doing the same thing,” Rodriguez says. “It would be like, ‘What about the other groups that didn’t make it in with us?’”

Frank Valdez, co-chair of San Antonio Healthcare-Now Coalition, will be adding free speech to his usual objection to a broken healthcare system when he lines up for the MLK march.

“I have several axes to grind, right now healthcare and free speech — and the war — are my main concerns,” Valdez said. But the City’s actions don’t come as a surprise, he added.

“Across the nation we’re observing attempts to either water down or delete rights under the Constitution of the United States, and this is not only coming from the City Council but as high up as the President and even the Supreme Court … There is a nationwide movement to set us back and it’s up to us to address that.”

For the City’s part, the redefining of its parade ordinance came after two unexpected expenses hit in 2006 as the nation was caught in a furor over immigration reform.

Some of those who marched through downtown San Antonio on April 10, 2006, claim as many as 40,000 gathered to reject federal measures being debated in Congress that would transform undocumented immigrants in the U.S. into felons.

While Bush gravitated toward amnesty citizenship reforms, conservative lawmakers countered with plans for a massive border wall. Others sought to compel authorities to prosecute those who offered food or medical care to undocumented residents.

With vigilante Minutemen prowling the U.S.-Mexico border, and increasingly operating in U.S. cities, it was hard not to see an immigration war brewing.

Congress was at a stalemate, said Jaime Martinez, national treasurer for the League of United Latin American Citizens, and the time felt right to “reform broken immigration policies.”

The response to Washington’s gridlock was a tidal surge of protest across the country — hundreds of thousands marching in as many as 130 cities and towns, all chanting, “Sí, se puede.” Half a million marched on the Capitol alone, according to organizers there.

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Should citizens pay to march in the streets? Tell us at sacurrent.com

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At San Antonio schools there were walkouts. The numbers filling Milam Park continued to climb into the afternoon before an early evening march sliced the city in two as chanting, flag-waving crowds surged up Nueva Street on the way to Hemisfair Park and the Federal Building.

Though they placed participation numbers at less than half of organizer Martinez, San Antonio’s police department assigned 116 officers to traffic and crowd control.

San Antonio’s Bugarin family remembers one officer in particular, according to their attorney Louis Correa. It was the officer who allegedly yanked a young man crossing Durango off his feet as the crowds were dispersing and threw him to the ground. While SAPD and the DA’s office have refused to comment on the matter, Correa offers a startling version of what followed.

At the corner, dozens of witnesses were aghast at the cop’s behavior. Felipe Bugarin shouted for the officer to stop as the young man shook himself free. Then the badge challenged Felipe, pushing him into the crowd.

When he got ahold of Felipe, it was this yet-unnamed officer who then called for backup, resulting in a fist-swinging dogpile atop the young man and the arrests of three other members of his family in a cloud of pepper spray: his 63-year-old father, Andres; his brother, Jesus; and his teenage sister, Monica.

Charges of disorderly conduct against Felipe were dismissed, but he still faces a charge of resisting arrest. The others await judgment on charges of interfering with the duties of a law officer.

Last week, a scheduled hearing regarding their case was delayed another three months, meaning the San Antonio family will have waited more than two years for a shot at justice. County Judge Sarah H. Garrahan-Moulder refused a motion to dismiss the case for lack of a speedy trial, according to Correa.

But the immigration march had other unforeseen consequences. Unlike the City-sponsored Martin Luther King March taking place next week, the eruption of political opinion in 2006 came with an unanticipated pricetag.

According to former District Five Councilmember Patti Radle, march organizer Martinez, at least briefly, was believed to owe the city $70,000 for costs incurred policing the event.

“I brought it to the City Manager’s attention and her response was kind of shocked, like, ‘What are we billing someone that much money for a march for?’” Radle recalls. “And so she was going to look into it. It certainly went beyond anyone’s anticipation.”

Martinez insists all he was ever billed for the march was the $250 for reserving Milam Park and turning on the electricity.

“No, they never wanted to charge me $70,000. I don’t know who got that figure,” he said. “I would have flipped over if they had charged me $70,000.”

Ultimately, Radle says she believes the city just absorbed the costs, but it also formed a committee to study its parade ordinance soon after the marches.

“I have always marched in San Antonio, and never paid, through my life of demonstrating, using First Amendment, Fourth Amendment… If we paid $1,000 in expenses, it’s too much,” Martinez said.

While Martinez may have marched free of fees, others learned the hard way that going without a permit may be the only way to exercise free speech in San Antonio.

Jill Johnston, program coordinator for the Southwest Workers Union, went to the city in the summer of 2004 to secure a permit to allow the group to march from Dwight Middle School to the main entrance of Kelly Air Force Base.

Despite an infusion of $5,000 through Radle’s office for the permit-application fee, there were other costs, Johnston was told.

“Not only was it going to be over $25,000 to pay for police and orange barrels, but I’d have to get signed permission from all the churches and businesses we passed that they would be closed that day for the march,” Johnston wrote the Current in an email.

On top of that, there was a request for proof of $1 million in insurance coverage. Needless to say, the march happened permit-free.

It was “very clear that they did not want this community event to happen and were going to create as many obstacles as necessary to deny us access to permits,” Johnston said.

It was an instructive moment for SWU. The organization hasn’t sought a City permit since, despite their now-annual march on Kelly and a yearly march in support of a living wage for workers, as well as innumerable other political actions.

Groups who try to abide by the City’s standards typically end up not marching, thus the Free Speech Coalition’s lawsuit.

The city says it is merely trying to recoup the costs of traffic control and police protection, but Amy Kastely, attorney for the Free Speech Coalition, claims that the double-standards are intended to silence dissent in the city.

“This is the problem with the City’s interpretation of its prior ordinance and this new one in that it’s totally discretionary. Jaime [Martinez] enjoys a lot of influence with City Hall so they waive [the fee] for him,” Kastely said.

Anti-war Texans for Peace came to San Antonio hoping to march in October. The route would have run reverse of the April ’06 march: from Hemisfair to Milam Park. They were told it would cost between $12,000 and $15,000, Kastely said, and they decided they couldn’t afford the City’s protest price.

“They’re just discouraged from doing it, so they don’t do it,” Kastely said.

While none of the groups interviewed for this article disputed the relevance of MLK to the world today, their common message was: The work is not finished.

While MLK Commission Chair Gloria Ray could not be reached by press deadline Tuesday, it’s likely that if Martin were alive today he would rail against recent Air Force flyovers in his “honor,” perhaps freshening up an earlier proclamation that “A nation spending more money on military defense than social uplift is approaching spiritual doom.”

The icon of civil rights grew increasingly vocal against the Vietnam War and the ravages of militarism, reminding followers in 1967 that they were “bound by allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism…”

We suspect those loyalties, despite all the legitimacy his work commands today, would command Dr. King to march with us still. And should he visit San Antonio, he’d likely be hunkering down with the Free Speech Coalition and refusing, once more, to be moved.

See Also

Free Speech Squeal Deal: in CurBlog 3/14/2008

Parade Ordinance still a charade? : Plaintiffs say proposed changes not even close; Council considers them tomorrow 3/12/2008

Round one to the public : Judge grants Free Speech Coalition's request for preliminary injunction against City Parade Ordinance 2/21/2008

Laundering instructions for all your fine washables in The QueQue 2/13/2008

I love a charade : Area groups wrestle with Free Speech crackdowns as MLK celebrations return to SA 1/16/2008

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