UVALDE, Texas — After the Uvalde Robb Elementary School massacre in May, Jesse Rizo worried about his old friend, Police Chief Pete Arredondo.
The blame for the sloppy police response was directed heavily at Arredondo when Rizo texted him just days after the shooting: “I have been thinking of you and praying for you.”
Two months later, with investigations and body camera video highlighting the halting and haphazard police response to the killing of two teachers and 19 students, Rizo remains worried about Arredondo. He also wants him fired.
Rizo’s complicated feelings for his high school classmate Uvalde capture the kind of mixed emotions that the victims’ families and many residents of this tight-knit community navigate as they channel their grief and anger into demands for change. .
“I care about Pete. I care about him being mentally OK. I don’t want any human to start losing him,” said Rizo, who is a distant relative of a 9-year-old girl who was killed at Robb Elementary “But I also want to hold accountable people who don’t do their job properly.”
Arredondo, 50, who as head of the school district’s small police department was one of the first officers on the scene, took much of the blame for not immediately storming the hall class and confronted the shooter. He did not respond to repeated requests for comment from The Associated Press.
This week, the Uvalde school board abruptly scheduled a meeting to discuss Arredondo’s dismissal, only to cancel it a few days later. As authorities weigh their options, residents are growing impatient with unanswered calls to hold people accountable for the staggering 77 minutes of inaction by nearly 400 police who responded to the school shooting.
But the mere possibility that he will be sacked after months of resistance from local officials is a demonstration of the growing political influence of the victims’ families.
The tension over how to move forward can be seen in the signs that have popped up across the city. “Uvalde United.” “Uvalde must be united.” While these signs mean different things depending on who you ask, other signs are more pointed: “Pursue Pete Arredondo.”
Family ties and political struggles go back generations in Uvalde, a community where nearly three-quarters of the residents are Hispanic. Locals had widely revered the police before the shooting. Uvalde’s leaders, many of whom are white, share the pews of the church with their fiercest critics. And demanding accountability can mean demanding the work of your friend, neighbor or employer.
It’s a city with a ‘power structure’ and ‘unwritten rules’ that prevent many people from speaking out, said Michael Ortiz, a local university professor who moved to Uvalde 13 years ago. and said his mandate gave him a voice. a way that is not viable for many residents of the community, mostly from working class backgrounds.
“Somebody’s boss might not like it,” Ortiz said. “They are even afraid to walk.”
Since the shooting, the parents of the victims, mostly Hispanic, have struggled to make their demands heard with the city and the school district. Local officials initially resisted the release of information and calls for firefighters. But things are moving.
In a sign of growing political activism, more than 300 people have registered to vote in Uvalde since the shooting, more than double the number in the same period last midterm election season. And in July, more than 100 protesters braved 106-degree heat to demand tougher gun regulations — including raising the minimum age to buy an assault weapon — and greater transparency of the part of local and state authorities investigating the shooting.
It was the biggest local protest since 1970, when the school district’s refusal to renew a popular Robb Elementary teacher’s contract sparked one of Texas’ longest school walkouts over equal education demands. for Mexican American residents. This teacher’s son is Ronnie Garza, a Uvalde County Commissioner.
Garza said the shooting changed the community, uniting people in mourning but dividing them on issues of responsibility. “We are a desperate people right now. We’re screaming here this way, we’re screaming (the other) way, for someone to listen to us, to come and help us,” Garza said.
Faced with incomplete and conflicting accounts from local and state law enforcement, the families of those killed in Uvalde began to make people listen.
After state lawmakers released a damning report that exposed “systemic failures and extremely poor decision-making” by police and school officials, the Uvalde school board held a special session to hear from parents. Superintendent Hal Harrell apologized for previously being ‘too formal’ and not letting the victims’ families speak.
“Trying to find the right moment, the right balance out of respect, I didn’t do well,” said Harrell, who is white and spoke in an auditorium named for his father, who was also superintendent.
For the next three hours, grieving parents and community members berated the board, saying that if it didn’t hold people accountable, they would lose their jobs. Some told Harrell he was no match for his father’s legacy, while others referenced the 1970 lockout and said they hoped he would do better, eliciting applause. People demanded that all school police be fired and mocked the state troopers who stood outside the room.
Rizo, who was at that meeting, said he cannot respect the way the police chief or the many other officers he knows handled their jobs that day. “There are consequences to that,” he said. “I don’t understand why he wouldn’t resign.”
But the long history between them also pulls on Rizo. In the text he sent to Arredondo a few days after the shooting, he said: “Please be strong and patient.”
Arredondo replied, “Good to hear from you bro. Thank you and keep praying for the babies. They haven’t spoken since.
For more AP coverage of the Uvalde school shooting: https://apnews.com/hub/uvalde-school-shooting