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As Uvalde Reels from School Massacre, a Look Back at Historic 1970 Chicano Walkout at Robb Elementary

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Uvalde, Texas, school district police chief Pete Arredondo has resigned from his new position on Uvalde’s City Council after facing widespread criticism over his handling of the May 24 school massacre when an 18-year-old gunman shot dead 19 fourth graders and two teachers. State authorities say Arredondo was the incident commander who ordered officers to wait in the school’s hallway for over an hour instead of confronting the gunman. We speak with Sewell Chan, editor-in-chief of The Texas Tribune, which has led an investigation into the failed police response to the school shooting. “The heavy militarization of the region raises profound questions about why the police and law enforcement response was so lacking,” said Chan. We also feature the Tribune’s video report on a 1970 Mexican American student-led walkout that took place in Uvalde.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

We end today’s show in Texas, where Uvalde’s school district police chief Pete Arredondo has resigned from his new position on Uvalde’s City Council before ever sitting in a meeting. Arredondo said he made the decision to, quote, “minimize further distractions.” He has faced widespread criticism over his handling of last month’s school massacre when an 18-year-old gunman shot dead 19 fourth graders and their two teachers. State authorities say Arredondo was the incident commander who ordered officers to wait in the school’s hallway for over an hour instead of confronting the gunman. Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw described the local police handling of the shooting as an “abject failure.” Arredondo says he didn’t think he was the incident commander.

To talk more about the Uvalde shooting, we’re joined by Sewell Chan, editor-in-chief of The Texas Tribune, which has submitted dozens of public information requests in an effort to force local and state authorities to release more information about the police response to the massacre.

Sewell Chan, thanks so much for being with us. It is unbelievable to think how much media has been in that town and how little information has been released, from Uvalde to the Texas Legislature to the Rangers. Rangers, Department of Homeland Security, local police were all in that school as 19 10-year-olds, at around that age, and two of their teachers were shot dead. They waited for an hour, even though they, too, had automatic weapons and shields, we have now learned, and the doors were open to the classroom. Tell us what you know, Sewell Chan.

SEWELL CHAN: Hi, Amy.

Yeah, you’ve really captured kind of the devastating portrait that’s been portrayed by state officials here in Texas. In addition to the question of the — you know, who was in charge of the incident, and again, the crucial discrepancy, Arredondo told us he did not think he was the incident commander, but the radio transmissions and other broadcast that we’ve reviewed suggest that people did consider him in charge.

There’s also the discrepancy of whether in fact the doors were locked. You know, the chief told us that he thought that the doors had been tried and found to be locked, and that the reason for the delay was that they were waiting for a master key to arrive. Now there is a lot of suggestions — there are a lot of suggestions that, in fact, the doors were unlocked all along. There are also other discrepancies. There was talk on the transmissions of a Halligan being available, an ax-like tool that firefighters use to enter the classroom. Why was that never used?

And then, finally, the question of the radios. The chief said he ditched his radios because he was responding to the scene and felt that he didn’t need them. But that cost him, of course, a crucial line of communication.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But, Sewell, help me with this. When you have multiple law enforcement agencies come to the scene of the crime, how do those in charge, let’s say, of the Uvalde Police Department or of the state police cede their control to basically a chief of a three- or four-man school police department?

SEWELL CHAN: Well, that’s one of our questions. And Uvalde doesn’t even have a single police department. It has a city police department, which was on the scene, and it also has the school’s police unit, a six-officer unit that was created four years ago. So one of the questions we’re asking is: Why didn’t the federal or state authorities who were on the scene take charge of the incident?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And in terms of the refusal of anyone, apparently, to get Chief Arredondo to testify in one way or another about what he saw or what happened?

SEWELL CHAN: Yeah, there are very much efforts to get him to testify. Even that has been a source of confusion, because the chief says that he already gave testimony at least two times and that he wished to get a transcript of that initial testimony before talking to the department, Texas Department of Public Safety, a third time. And it’s not yet clear whether or not that transcript has been provided.

AMY GOODMAN: Would you say there is a major cover-up going on, Sewell Chan, that goes right up to the state? I mean, we’re talking about an area which is along the border. They have poured millions into the police. And you had every level of authority in the state, and feds — right? — the Department of Homeland Security. There is — you know, every time I hear it, all relying on this one man, as Juan was describing, of the lowest level of the police, the school’s police chief, you have to raise questions about this whole Lone Star fund that has militarized the border. I mean, if those were undocumented people inside, you could only imagine how quickly the police would be or the feds would be moving in. These children in the local community — what happened?

SEWELL CHAN: Well, Amy, you know, as a journalist, I tend to avoid the word “cover-up” unless there’s a demonstrated conspiracy of some kind or a kind of definitely demonstrable kind of obfuscation. But I agree with you completely that the heavy militarization of the region raises profound questions about why the police and law enforcement response was so lacking, right?

I also do want to draw attention to the gun safety aspects of this. I mean, the gunman was armed with an AR-15, and we all know what those kinds of assault-style rifles and weapons can do. And I think that if you watch the video carefully, as we’ve done, you know, part of the hesitancy of the officers going in, I think, was genuinely confronting kind of a military-style kind of a weapons environment. And I think that raises profound questions about the kinds of arms that people have, that they’e allowed to have, and hesitation even of trained law enforcement to go in there and confront that.

AMY GOODMAN: Sewell Chan, we wanted to go back in time with you, because your paper, The Texas Tribune, did an amazing video. And it’s about activism, not from today — and clearly, the local residents are getting very active and angry. But it goes back to Robb Elementary School, not the first time police were involved. This is a video produced by The Texas Tribune about how Uvalde used to be known for a 1970 Hispanic student walkout. It features two people, Alfredo Santos, a walkout organizer, and Rebecca Ciprian-Moreno, a retired Spanish teacher who took part in the boycott. We want to play the whole thing. It’s just about five minutes. And I’ll read what’s written on the screen.

REBECCA CIPRIAN-MORENO: I was in the walkout, uh-huh. I was a junior in high school. And it was April of 1970. I was sitting in my English class. We were already kind of waiting for the sign to walk out. Alfredo Santos, I remember, opened the door, and he just kind of nodded, and we knew. We knew it was time.

AMY GOODMAN: “In 1970, over 600 Mexican-American students in Uvalde walked out to protest an unjust education system. [It was] one of the largest demonstrations during the Chicano civil rights movement and became entwined with the city’s identity.”

ALFREDO SANTOS: This incident at Robb is not going to be the first time that the public schools have been in the spotlight of controversy. I was 17 years old. You know, it was seat of the pants. We would play at night. We’d review what happened during the day. So, we started at the high school at 10:00, and people started getting up. And you could see all the people moving. People got up and joined us. We had put together a list of 14 demands. We wanted more Mexican American teachers. We wanted more books having to do with Mexican Americans in the library, things like that.

REBECCA CIPRIAN-MORENO: We had no Hispanic teachers. We had all white teachers. We had a all-white school board. The Hispanic positions were like the cafeteria workers, the custodians. I do sadly remember my second grade teacher. She walked up to me and got me by my ear and just pulled, and pulled and pulled and pulled. And I remember crying and crying, and blood was coming down my cheek right here. And I remember the beatings on our hands for speaking Spanish. That would never happen to the other kids, ever. In a way, we felt inferior because we just thought we were inferior, until we got closer to eighth grade, and then we, as kids, started talking to each other.

ALFREDO SANTOS: The walkout started with high school students. And then we got students out of the junior high school, and then students from the elementary schools.

REBECCA CIPRIAN-MORENO: They tried really hard to kind of demoralize us. I remember helicopters flying kind of low, because I remember the noise. Their favorite word to use on us, and it sounds really bad, it was “dirty Mexicans.” And one of the ladies came out and threw some soap bars at us. And I remember the guns, that they had guns. And at one point, I saw a gun pointed at us, and that was very scary. I think we all were scared.

ALFREDO SANTOS: The school district was forwarding names of students who were in the walkout to the local draft board. I went down to the draft board office, and we confronted the lady at the draft board. She looked on some list, and she saw my name there. And I told her, “Well, I’m not even 18.” And her last words were “You just wait 'til you turn 18. I'm going to get you.” So I left during the fifth week of the walkout. We had bet the house, and we lost, so to speak.

AMY GOODMAN: “After six weeks, the start of summer ended the walkout, but the Uvalde school board ignored the students’ demands. The protest sparked a decadeslong discrimination lawsuit against the school district that led to a desegregation order.”

REBECCA CIPRIAN-MORENO: Uvalde was known, we were known for the walkout, and it one of the biggest in American history. It was a positive thing. Now I can imagine that people will say around the world, “Oh, yeah, that’s where the shooting happened.” But the fact will remain forever that we were known for the walkout.

ALFREDO SANTOS: Some people consider the walkout in Uvalde to be una mancha negra and something that is a hurt, and they don’t want to bring it up. But it’s algo que se pasó, just like this massacre on May 24th. Yeah, it’s a black mark, but there are people who, you know, prefer to have the luddy-duddy version of history, y que Dale Evans, y que Matthew McConaughey, and noncontroversial stories. La vida no es así.

AMY GOODMAN: That report by The Texas Tribune reporters Uriel García Jinitzail Hernández. Juan?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, I’d like to ask, Sewell Chan, why you decided to break this story or go back into history at this time in terms of Uvalde, because, obviously, there were walkouts throughout South Texas in those years, in California in ’68, the Chicano high school walkouts then, why you decided that this was important to tell now.

SEWELL CHAN: Juan, well, we felt that it was very important to talk about the activism in this community, that the fact that a half-century ago during the Chicano Movement, the Mexican American political movement, there was a surge of activism. And, you know, my question has been: What’s happened since then? Right? This is an overwhelmingly working-class, overwhelmingly Hispanic community. As Amy pointed out earlier, it’s become heavily militarized. It’s relatively close to the border. And, you know, these are — a lot of the families have folks in law enforcement, working homeland security or Border Patrol or even ICE, which is one reason why South Texas has become more politically contested, with Republicans making some substantial gains in the last few years. And so we felt it was important to connect that history of activism to the story of what’s going on today, where the power structure remains pretty overwhelmingly Anglo, and, you know, what happened to that moment of kind of relative hope and relative political energy a half-century ago.

AMY GOODMAN: Sewell Chan, we want to thank you so much for being with us, editor-in-chief of The Texas Tribune. We want to talk to you about San Antonio, the 53 migrant deaths. We’ll post it online at democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Please stay safe.

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