The year of COVID-19 also has been a year of political activism, from sweeping Black Lives Matter protests to storming the U.S. Capitol.
In San Antonio, thank God, citizen engagement is almost exclusively nonviolent. In fact, the most widespread and effective movements of the past months involved petitions to reform three of the city’s most powerful institutions.
Only one — Fix SAPD — potentially succeeded. The group collected the 20,000 valid signatures required to get a proposal on the May 1 ballot limiting the San Antonio Police Officers Association’s collective bargaining rights.
With contract negotiations between the city and the police association just getting started, it’ll be interesting to see how San Antonians vote. Election success would certainly send a signal to SAPOA leaders, though not strip them of all power. Whatever the outcome, certainly thousands understand more about how public-safety unions work. They also know you can fight for change in a peaceful and informed way.
The two other recent drives for reforms garnered much attention, although not enough signatures for ballot inclusion. Recall CPS, aimed at CPS Energy, and SAWS Accountability Act, targeting the San Antonio Water System, both sought major changes in the leadership of the city-owned utilities, rate structures and more.
Even with little funding, Recall CPS organizers made waves. Maybe it’s just coincidence their calls to reveal plans for the utility’s coal-fired Spruce plants preceded an overdue public release of records. Was it happenstance CPS leaders who previously pooh-poohed a citizen rate-advisory committee pivoted on their “flexible path” and established one? Or that CPS Energy President and CEO Paula Gold-Williams vowed to “expand the conversation,” and ensure the utility ramps up communication with ratepayers? Post “Snowvid,” better communication and resident involvement is critical.
SAWS leaders garnered a lot of support for their handling of the weather crisis, but SAWS Accountability Act political action committee leaders intend to continue pressing for a public audit of the controversial Vista Ridge pipeline project and more.
All three grassroots movements made some good points, and failures during the freeze that crippled the area focused awareness on transparency and communication. Clamming up when criticized is a lousy strategy, especially for publicly owned utilities.
Activism, after all, isn’t a bad word. I’m proud to tell friends in other cities about an incident last summer I believe says a lot about how people take action here. Soon after George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police, previously peaceful protests turned violent one night in Alamo Plaza. Here’s the part I love: After hearing about the rioting and looting, hundreds of regular people converged on downtown to sweep up broken glass, clean graffiti and fix anything they could. Like the innumerable individual acts of kindness during the power and water failures of the snowstorm, that was positive community activism in the finest sense. That’s the heart of San Antonio.
The citizen groups petitioning for reforms at CPS Energy, SAWS and the San Antonio Police Department aren’t professional politicians or vandals. They’re showing up to help out on their own time, trying to improve situations they believe could and should be better. I don’t necessarily agree with all their ideas. I do believe their hard work and the legal, peaceful activism they practice are essential to a healthy democracy.