Pro-Palestinian protestors take to publicly confronting San Antonio City Council members

SAN ANTONIO – They’re passionate and loud, but are their tactics effective?

From a crowded restaurant to a City Hall press conference to DreamWeek events, some pro-Palestinian protestors have been turning up the heat on San Antonio City Council members with whom they are angry for not passing a ceasefire resolution regarding the Israel-Hamas War.

In videos posted in the past week to the Instagram accounts of San Antonio for Justice in Palestine and the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL), protestors are seen shouting at Mayor Ron Nirenberg, Councilman John Courage, and Councilwoman Phyllis Viagran during public events.

“Ron Nirenberg, you support genocide! You support apartheid!” shouts one man in a video video posted on Jan. 24 as he and others approach Nirenberg during lunch.

“F*** you, Phyllis. F*** you. Ceasefire now,” shouted one of several people interrupting a Jan. 27 sustainability symposium hosted by the District 3 council office.

In some of the recent videos, bystanders shout back, and the protestors are often escorted away or told to leave. The protestors are never shown being violent, though one attendee at the Jan. 27 DreamWeek Mayor’s Ball can be seen grabbing a protestor’s hair and trying to punch her.

The council members, on the other hand, largely don’t appear to engage the protestors directly. Viagran, though, is heard asking either a security guard or law enforcement officer to get one of the protestors’ names.

KSAT was also present for the Jan. 25 incident during Courage’s mayoral bid announcement, when the councilman unsuccessfully attempted to talk with the group that shouted over his speech.

“Don’t f***ing touch me,” a man with a bullhorn told Courage after the councilman approached him and touched him on the arm.

A spokeswoman for Councilwoman Sukh Kaur (D1) confirmed she was also approached at a “coffee with your councilwoman” event on Jan. 27. A short video clip shared with KSAT by someone in attendance shows Kaur talking with the group of people who appear much less confrontational than those in the other videos posted to social media.

It’s not an entirely new approach. Videos on PSL’s Instagram account from December purportedly showed a group protesting outside of Nirenberg’s neighborhood and another collection of protestors chanting during his appearance at a New Year’s Eve event at the Arneson River Theater.

WHAT’S BEHIND IT

Activists have said they want an end to San Antonio’s friendship city agreement with Tel Aviv, Israel, and for the city council to pass a ceasefire resolution over the Israel-Hamas war.

PSL member Tori Cruz described the use of a non-binding council resolution as a way to send a message to the U.S. federal government to stop aiding Israel rather than a message to Israel and Hamas. The Hill compiled a list of cities, which include San Francisco and Minneapolis, that have passed ceasefire resolutions.

As for ending the friendship city agreement, Cruz said it would work toward putting pressure on Israel by politically and economically isolating it.

Though numerous speakers have brought those goals up for months at the city’s public comment sessions, they have not gained much traction with the 11 council members on the dais.

“The only way where we see that we’re going to get them to move is through putting pressure on them through these tactics,” said Cruz.

The council had been poised to consider a ceasefire resolution, but the effort was derailed earlier this month when Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8) pulled his support.

At the time, he told KSAT he had gone on a “fact-finding mission.” After talking to “people in every sector in San Antonio,” he decided the resolution likely did not have the votes to pass, and the meeting “would have devolved into a circus.”

President and CEO of the Jewish Federation of San Antonio Nammie Ichilov wrote in a Jan. 16 opinion piece for the San Antonio Express-News that the resolution’s wording “fell prey to an oversimplified narrative about the Israel-Palestine struggle.”

Any three council members can force a special meeting on a subject if they sign onto a memo to request one. But while Councilman Jalen McKee-Rodriguez (D2) and Councilwoman Teri Castillo (D5) have continued to indicate support for a ceasefire resolution, no one else has stepped in to fill Pelaez’s shoes.

And Mayor Ron Nirenberg made it clear he wouldn’t push to put it on the agenda either.

I do not think this is the right thing to do for a local community,” Nirenberg said on Jan. 10. “If our focus is to address trauma and alleviate pain and… trauma within our local community regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict, we are not in a position to do that without a full understanding. And that’s not where we are with a local city council resolution.”

In the meantime, activists feel ignored.

“People are naturally angry because they engaged the process in good faith, and the process has failed them,” Alex Birnel, a member of San Antonio for Justice in Palestine, told KSAT on Tuesday.

Birnel says it’s a global movement, which should make it harder to dismiss the protestors’ temperament.

“I think it’s much more convenient to try to do so for political reasons — to be able to begin to build the caricature of the angry activist. But remember what the activist is angry about, right?”

Hamas militants killed some 1,200 people and kidnapped 250 more in an Oct. 7 attack on Israeli communities. The nearly 4-month-old Israeli offensive into Gaza that followed has killed more than 26,000 Palestinians, decimated vast swaths of Gaza and driven nearly 85% of its 2.3 million people from their homes.

United Nations court last week ordered Israel to do all it can to do all it can to prevent death, destruction and any acts of genocide in Gaza.

Israel, which was founded as a Jewish state after the Nazi slaughter of 6 million Jews during World War II, has strenuously denied accusations of genocide.

“WE WILL NOT STOP DISRUPTING”

Cruz was part of a group of two dozen protestors who interrupted a San Antonio City Council meeting on Jan. 11, shortly after the push for a cease-fire resolution broke down.

“We will not stop disrupting. No business as usual as long as Palestine is under attack,” she shouted in council chambers.

In the past week, they and others appear to have followed through on that statement. Cruz said her group’s main target has been Nirenberg, whom she said has the authority to end the friendship city agreement. KSAT was unable to confirm with the City of San Antonio before the end of business Tuesday which officials have power to cancel the agreement.

The aggressive approach of some of the activists does not appear to have swayed any of the council members.

Nirenberg told KSAT after being confronted at the restaurant last week that the tactics were having the opposite effect on him. Viagran similarly suggested the approach may cause other people who want a ceasefire to reconsider their position.

Courage told protestors, “You do not represent the entire community.” He told reporters afterward that his office sent a survey to 8,000 people, and out of the 1,200 who responded, 90% did not want the city to act on the resolution.

Pelaez, who has not yet been individually targeted, said the following in a statement texted to KSAT by a spokeswoman Tuesday:

“They absolutely have the right to protest, but all they are accomplishing with their antics is proving that they do not want to treat the topic of the war with the dignity and solemnity it merits. They are validating my decision to pull my support from the 3-signature memo and save us all the pain of the chaotic spectacle they are intent on creating.”

Cruz told KSAT it’s a successful tactic whether or not council members change their stances.

“Of course, the biggest goal is to get them to pass a ceasefire agreement and to end the friendship agreement with Tel Aviv, Israel,” she said. “But I mean, if they want to stand up tall and say, ‘Yes, I stand with apartheid. Yes, I stand for genocide,’ then yes, we do want to let people know that these — you know, for the rest of their political careers — that these people stood on the wrong side of history.”

Activists had hoped that Councilwoman Sukh Kaur (D1) might step in and provide the third signature to keep the idea alive. She had posted her support for a ceasefire on X, formerly Twitter, in October, referencing her own family’s experience with religious and ethnic conflicts.

However, in a statement texted to KSAT Tuesday by a spokeswoman, Kaur said definitively she would not provide the third signature for the memo.

“Since my initial statement on the issue my support for a ceasefire and peace in Israel/Gaza remains unwavering, I do not believe the use of the 3-signature memo is appropriate in this case. It has been utilized only once before and that was in 2021 to create a COVID-19 vaccine registry for San Antonio residents. Given there is no direct outcome necessitated by the resolution, I will not be signing the memo.”

Sukh Kaur, District 1 Councilwoman

KSAT was not immediately able to determine how often council members have used three signature memos to force an issue onto the agenda, though an October 2021 San Antonio Report story indicates the tactic was used at least once more that year to discuss bond projects.

Asked about next steps, given the continued lack of support from council members, Cruz said they will continue.

“I mean, history has shown us that you have to turn up the heat in order to get something done. And if they are continuing to refuse this, then we are going to continue participating in civil disobedience,” she said.

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