Early Sunday morning, dozens upon dozens of volunteers arrived downtown to help their fellow San Antonians heal.
The night before, the businesses on the 500 block of East Houston Street, around the corner from the Alamo, were vandalized by people participating in the protest against the death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, which has sparked similar scenes of unrest nationwide. In downtown San Antonio, windows were broken, merchandise stolen, buildings and structures defaced, including the Torch of Friendship. What began as a peaceful protest of roughly 5,000 people had devolved into chaos, according to news reports.
By around noon Sunday, much of the damage had been cleaned up and restored by a small army of volunteers and city workers.
Perhaps the hardest hit was Mar Silver Jewelry, where multiple cameras caught a small mob break the windows and pounce on the shop, some taking jewelry with them.
“I was a little bit prepared for this, because what’s happening in the whole country is not new—it’s escalating, escalating, more and more and more and more. San Antonio is not the exception,” owner Francisco J. Mar said while inside his disheveled shop, working on zero hours of sleep. “Yesterday, in the morning, I walked around here and I had a feeling that something would happen, especially when I saw Walgreens totally closed with the heavy metal door.”
Last night while at home, Mar got a call from the security company, warning him about the unrest brewing outside his business. Accessing the security cameras on his cellphone, he saw his store from the inside looking out, blinds fully closed, untouched.
“Everything looked fine, and suddenly—pow,” he said describing the moment the window shattered. Mar and his wife, Ann, estimate there were 15 to 20 people in the shop throughout the incident. This was the moment, captured via cellphones, where police in riot gear started firing rubber bullets and teargas to disperse the crowd.
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Mar opened his jewelry shop in 2001, but started selling jewelry from a neighboring building two years prior. He estimates no more than 10% of his merchandise was stolen, but thinks the damage may be more costly. He’s unsure about his store’s future. Mar has another location in Fredericksburg, but the one on Houston Street has seen better days, he said. Houston Street is reeling some, part of which can be attributed to the coronavirus pandemic.
Three shops adjacent to Mar—a candy shop, a Turkish gift shop and a fine art store—have closed in recent months. Down the street, Bella on Houston Street, a popular restaurant with River Walk roots, recently filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, the San Antonio Business Journal reported.
“I don’t know, I need to really consider if I will keep going, because I don’t see really hope for this,” Mar said.
By mid-morning, volunteers had swept broken glass, straightened up fallen display cases, and generally tidied things up inside Mar’s shop. Even after the work was done, volunteers kept showing up anyway.
Last night, “I wanted to log out of social media so many times, because the negativity was just overwhelming,” said Rylie Ruiz, 18, a senior at Burbank High School who arrived with a few friends. “At the same time, we felt bad for all these businesses that were getting destroyed for no reason.”
The protest began at Travis Park, made a stop at the police headquarters, returned to the park, then slowly trickled to Alamo Plaza, where they met police in riot gear and armed members of This Is Texas Freedom Force, a Texas pride group that’s opposed to the Cenotaph relocation. The Freedom Force members eventually left. Some protestors who remained began breaking windows and spray painting building facades. Mayor Ron Nirenberg issued a nighttime curfew for Saturday and Sunday nights starting at 10 p.m., while closing Alamo Plaza starting at 6 p.m. tonight.
Veronica Sandoval, owner of Regalos Mexicanos folk art shop, two doors down from Mar, was lucky. A vandal broke a window and was preparing to open the front door when cops started pushing them back toward Alamo Street. The looter managed to break a few clay and glass items, including a $3,200 ceramic lamp and a $400 Noah’s Ark diorama.
Sandoval said she was overwhelmed by the volunteerism on display.
“I forgive the people who trashed these businesses, but when you see volunteers come the next day and you’ve never met them and they just hear about the destruction and they feel for you, that really can restore your faith in humanity,” said Sandoval, who’s operated her shop for 12 years.
Making the rounds up and down Houston Street and around Alamo Plaza were dozens of people like Michael Cavanaugh, his wife Claudia and their two children Kimberley, 8, and Anthony Stark, 5 months.
He pushed a stroller full of bottled water and snacks while wearing an American bald eagle jumpsuit and blaring the Hulk Hogan theme song from an ’80s boombox. Occasionally, people would ask him to pose for photos like this one:
“Everyone is coming together, getting stuff done, getting it knocked out, getting the graffiti cleaned up,” Cavanaugh said. “Everybody is in good spirits. We know we can come together and do this. This isn’t a big problem—it can be easily solved.”
Jimmy M. Elizondo, a retired law enforcement officer who owns a cellphone repair shop on the South Side, arrived downtown by himself and left having exchanged contact info from a few fellow volunteers. He was on the corner of Houston and Navarro streets, talking to a barber and a guy running for state office, when he explained what compelled him to venture downtown.
“What took place should never have happened and this reaction is kind of a ripple effect of it,” Elizondo said. “As citizens of San Antonio, we have to do our part.”
Laurence Seiterle, who’s family owns the Atlee B. Ayers building, where Mar’s shop is located, was in and out of stores Sunday morning, checking in on the shop owners. He talked about the senselessness of people destroying the small businesses that inhabit his buildings, and about how last night’s behavior is not indicative of San Antonio.
“We’re not stopping,” Seiterle said. “We’re going to find a way. The support is just unbelievable. ‘You want water, you want tacos?’ There’s more volunteers than there are problems.”
During the interview, while sitting on the low sill of a broken out window at the former Rocket Fizz candy shop that closed recently, Seiterle was making a point about the future of Houston Street, when we were interrupted.
“How you doin’ gentlemen? Would you like any ice cold water?” a man asked as he passed us.
“(No) thank you, you guys are awesome,” Seiterle said before turning back to the interview.
“There it is, that’s San Antonio, right there.”