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San Antonio Activists ‘Cannot in Good Faith’ Support This Year’s Mayoral Candidates

Local activists have soured on incumbent Mayor Ron Nirenberg, and no other candidate offers a compelling alternative.

On June 4 last year, 11 days after former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd, two-term San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg stood in front of a crowd and encouraged his constituents to judge him on his ability to transform their city’s police department.

“When we ask you for your vote, or we ask you for your support, or we ask you for anything else, it’s because we’re asking you for the responsibility to make the change,” he said. “And we’re asking that responsibility not to be put on somebody else, but to be put on us. So hold me accountable.”

Now, nearly a year after Nirenberg made those public remarks, he is up for re-election on Saturday, and local civil rights organizers and activists told The Appeal this week that they believe Nirenberg has failed to fulfill any of his promises when it comes to policing. Multiple activist groups also said that, although they have little faith in Nirenberg’s ability to create transformational change, the entire pool of candidates in the upcoming race is such a disappointment that it appears nearly impossible to hold Nirenberg “accountable” at the ballot box.

Nirenberg’s stiffest competition is  Greg Brockhouse, a former City Council member and far-right Republican who ran for mayor in 2019 and pushed Nirenberg into a runoff election that year. Despite the ongoing racial justice protests around the nation, Brockhouse has said he would increase the size of the San Antonio Police Department and use crime statistics to target “high crime” neighborhoods.

“Neither the incumbent for mayor nor the challengers are vocally supporting police accountability, much less the reallocation of funds to crucial areas including public health, housing, and/or education,” the Defund Coalition SA, an activist group that is pushing the city to reallocate funding from the local cops to other city services, wrote in a statement to The Appeal. “We cannot in good faith support or stand by any of the mayoral candidates. Regardless, we will hold the winner of this election accountable to the community they have been elected to serve.”

On Sept. 15, San Antonio police shot and killed 55-year-old Darrell Zemault Sr. while attempting to serve him warrants. The police department made a series of statements about what happened: Officers initially said Zemault had hit a cop with a can of wood stain; on the day after the shooting, the police department revised its statements and said “the officer wasn’t sure exactly how he was injured, and he wasn’t sure if the actor intentionally hit him with the can or if the contact was incidental to the arrest.” Police later said that, after a scuffle ensued, Zemault reached for one officer’s gun, which prompted another cop to shoot Zemault in the back. In further revised statements, officers said  they beat Zemault with their batons after he ignored their commands. An officer’s gun fell to the floor at some point, police said, and Zemault picked it up and “manipulated the gun in an attempt to point it at officers.” Zemault’s family has long disputed these accounts.

The family told the San Antonio Express-News that they’d requested to view the footage in September but were denied. In response, Nirenberg’s administration has claimed that the family had simply filed an improper records request. In February, the city finally agreed to show Zemault’s family two three-minute video clips from the incident, rather than the entire footage from that day.

Family members later told the Express-News that the footage did not answer their questions and that the city’s official narrative of the shooting contradicts what some bystanders said they saw. Some bystander footage of the shooting exists—including video that showed cops waiting more than a minute after shooting Zemault to administer medical aid.

“The Defund Coalition sat in meetings with Ron Nirenberg shortly after the murder of George Floyd where he looked us in the eye and said he was serious about police accountability,” the Defund Coalition told The Appeal. “But when police violence once again hit home in San Antonio when Darrell Zemault Sr. was murdered by SAPD in September, he was silent.”

“He never even said Darrell Zemault Sr.’s name,” they added.

Nirenberg’s campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Saturday’s ballot offers another way to hold San Antonio’s police accountable. Proposition B asks voters to decide whether to repeal the police union’s collective bargaining power. (Earlier this week, The Appeal: The Political Report published an explainer on Proposition B.) The San Antonio Police Officers Association has long had one of the strongest police union contracts in the country. As a result, the city has little power to hold officers accountable for misconduct. In 2020, local ABC affiliate KSAT published an investigative series on the substantial number of officers accused of misconduct who were allowed to keep their jobs because of union rules.

Kimiya Factory, founder of the local grassroots activist group Black Freedom Factory, told The Appeal that she is disappointed that Nirenberg has not taken a strong stance on Proposition B.

“He wanted [an] endorsement from SAPOA,” she said. “When he makes moves like that, it’s very clear he’s trying to secure certain conservative voters in the city, which is  harmful to the movement when accountability is on the ballot.”

Factory said that, no matter who the next mayor is, she hopes that victims of police brutality and their families will have a stronger voice in setting policies. She’d also like to see the next mayor commit to taking a stronger stance on housing justice. (In February, The Appeal reported that Nirenberg’s administration bulldozed a homeless encampment and destroyed tents and blankets mere weeks before Texas’s unprecedented cold weather and power outages.) “There’s been a lot of shiftiness away from the issues that matter—especially police brutality in this city,” Factory said.