Our Streets Will Not Be Silenced!

San Antonio Texas 

Our Streets Will Not Be Silenced!

¡Las Calles No Se Callan!

The Situation: The city of San Antonio, Texas charges some groups thousands of dollars for the right to march in the public streets while letting others march and rally for free. The San Antonio Free Speech Coalition is fighting to overturn this policy by mobilizing community members and suing the city for their right to assembly. This is one way activists are fighting to redefine and redistribute First Amendment rights. Fabiola Torralba explains:

It’s our First Amendment right; other than that, we already paid for street usage. We pay it in taxes. Our ancestors built these streets. Our blood, our sweat, its all here – We shouldn’t have to pay for it all again.”

Update: After their first attempt at a legal hearing in San Antonio was dismissed in June 2009, they appealed. Oral arguments were heard by the US Court of Appeals Fifth Circuit in New Orleans. This court also found in favor of the City of San Antonio in Sept. 2010. To learn more about the case and hear attorney Amy Kastely’s oral arguments visit the Coalition’s website. To read an account of the hearing go here.

“The message that’s put out by the tourist industry here is that visiting San Antonio you get to experience Mexican culture without having to deal with any conflicts.”

~ Amy Kastely, attorney for the San Antonio Free Speech Coalition

MJHP interviewed Amy Kastely, attorney for the San Antonio Free Speech Coalition and Graciela Sanchéz, Executive Director of Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, one of the lead organizations in the case. Here are some excerpts:

MJHP: How did the city ordinance requiring large fees for marches come about?

Amy Kastely: We are discovering that for years the city of San Antonio has practiced a very discriminatory system of access to the streets. Essentially they have been charging exorbitant amounts for police services and traffic control barricades and telling anyone who would have a march that these costs will be imposed so what we’ve discovered is that the only marches that are conducted in San Antonio are those where the organizers are able to pay upwards of $6,000 to $20,000 dollars or those that have been approved or “sponsored” by the city. The reason this ordinance was passed was that the immigration marches in 2006 and the anti-war marches in 2005 challenged the cities ability to intimidate organizers so essentially in those marches, particulalry in the immigration marches tens of thousands of marchers turned out on the streets even though the organizers had been told that they would have to spend thousands of dollars for that privilege.

MJHP: Has it come to light that there are other groups that are not charged as much? Can you characterize discriminatory implementation of the ordinance?

Amy Kastely: We think there is discriminatory application of the ordinance because over the past five years the city has in fact waived fees for some 30-40 events each year and that’s roughly half of the events that take place in San Antonio each year. the events that are allowed access for free are: The Fiesta events, which are essentially tourist entertainment, the Veterans Day march, the mardi gras march which is a city run entertainment for elders in SA, and incidental marches like the 9/11 march, the American Armed Services march, and various marches that began as protest marches but have been taken over by city commissions. So for example San Antonio has a large MLK [Martin Luther King]march.

MJHP: Why is the city blocking some marches and parades but allowing others?

Amy Kastely: The City has as its principal purpose the promotion of the tourist industry in San Antonio. That’s one of its major goals. Some downtown marches are perceived by city officials to interfere with the tourist industy – either by blocking entrances and exits to hotels or by sending a message that San Antonio has disputes and conflicts and a large dissenting population. The message that’s put out by the tourist industry here is that visiting San Antonio you get to experience Mexican culture without having to deal with any conflicts.

MJHP:What else is going on there?

Amy Kastely: The city is also involved with another campaign to aggressively prosecute any postings on poles or other public places as well as the fact that we have only one newspaper which censors dissenting views and actually fired writers for their anti-war position and has refused to respond to challenges around their racist reporting of Muslims and other Arabic communities. Clearchannel radio is located in San Antonio but we still don’t have local programming. So on one level, this effort to prevent marches is connected to these efforts to silence dissent.

MJHP: Why did the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center get involved in this issue?

Graciela Sanchéz: In San Antonio where we have 5 military bases, where we’ve been a colonized community for hundreds if not thousands of years we were already fearful of going out into the streets. But we’ve always taken those risks, but post 911 we’ve seen swat teams following us, we were told that we have to march in groups of 20, we saw that less and less of our community was willing to go out and march for fear of being shot and hurt by the police.

MJHP: Do you really need access to the streets to express your perspectives? Can’t you use new technologies?

Graciela Sanchéz: Our people have limited access. We do now have the internet and other forms of expression and ability to get the word out through video and such, but again it’s limited to those who have financial access. But more importantly the streets are the public space where anyone and everyone can come and meet up with others of like mind. These other forms tend to be very individualistic and the public streets and the marches is the place where all of us come together. It is easy and accessible to make a sign and walk up and down the street also, it costs nothing but all these other new forms of technology cost. And I know for a fact in my neighborhood and families that I know, they don’t have the internet.

So the work we do in the Esperanza, we still do the person to person, the flyering the phone calls, technology that is much more accessible. Again…for us in San Antonio to get 2-3,000 people out in the streets is amazing in 2008. But to see those 2 and 3,000 people in a city again that is so conservative, the leadership that is, but not the hearts and minds of the gente pobre, we need to feel like we’re part of a larger groups. We can’t feel alone and being isolated is so damaging and so this is a way that we come together as a people as a community and continue to strengthen the energy to continue to fight against the injustices of this world.

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