In Uvalde, the proximity complicates accountability for the shooting

UVALDE, Texas (AP) – After the massacre at Uvalde’s Robb Elementary School in May, Jesse Rizo was worried about his old friend, Police Chief Pete Arredondo.

Blame for the poor police response was largely directed at Arredondo when Rizo texted him a few days after the shooting: “I’ve been thinking and praying for you.”

Two months later, with the investigations and the body camera video highlighting the hesitant and haphazard police response to the murder of two teachers and 19 students, Rizo is still worried about Arredondo. He also wants to be fired.

Rizo’s complicated feelings toward his Uvalde High School classmate capture the kind of mixed emotions that victims’ families and many residents of this close-knit community are navigating as they channel their pain and fury into demands for change.

“I care about Pete. I care that he’s okay mentally. I don’t want a human to start losing it,” said Rizo, who is distantly related to a 9-year-old girl who was killed at Robb Elementary. “But I also want to hold people accountable who don’t your job properly.”

Arredondo, 50, who was one of the first officers on the scene, took much of the blame for not immediately going to the classroom and confronting the shooter. He did not respond to repeated requests for comment from The Associated Press.

This week, the Uvalde school board abruptly called a meeting to discuss Arredondo’s firing, only to cancel it days later. As officials weigh their options, residents are impatient with unanswered calls to hold people accountable for the baffling 77 minutes of inaction by the nearly 400 police officers who responded to the school shooting.

But the mere possibility of his dismissal 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 is visible in the signs that have popped up across the city. “Uvalde United”. “Uvalde must be united.” While those signs mean different things depending on who you ask, others are more emphatic: “Prosecute Pete Arredondo.”

Family ties and political struggles go back generations in Uvalde, a community where nearly three-quarters of the residents are Hispanic. Residents largely revered the police before the shooting. Uvalde’s leaders, many of whom are white, share church pews with their fiercest critics. And demanding accountability can mean asking your friend, neighbor, or employer for a job.

It’s a city with a “power structure” and “unwritten rules” that make it difficult for many people to speak out, said Michael Ortiz, a local college professor who moved to Uvalde 13 years ago and said his tenure allows him to express himself to the world. . a way that is not viable for many of the mostly working-class residents.

“Somebody’s boss might not like that,” Ortiz said. “They are afraid to even leave.”

Since the shooting, parents of the mostly Hispanic victims have fought to make their claims heard by the city and school district. Local officials initially resisted releasing information and calling the fire department. But things are changing.

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 during the last midterm election season. And in July, more than 100 protesters braved 106-degree temperatures to call for stronger gun regulations, including raising the minimum age to purchase an assault weapon, and greater transparency from state and local authorities investigating the shooting

That was the largest local demonstration since 1970, when the school district’s refusal to renew the contract of a popular Robb Elementary teacher sparked one of the longest school walkouts in Texas over demands for equal education for Mexican-American residents. That teacher’s son is Uvalde County Commissioner Ronnie Garza.

Garza said the shooting changed the community, uniting people in grief but dividing them on questions of responsibility. “We are now a desperate people. We are shouting here then, we are shouting (from the other side), for someone to listen to us, to come and help us”, said Garza.

Faced with incomplete and conflicting accounts from local and state law enforcement, the families of those killed in Uvalde have begun to make people listen.

After state lawmakers issued a damning report that found “systemic failures and egregiously poor decision-making” by both 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 have their say.

“Trying to find the right timing, the right balance out of respect, I didn’t do it right,” said Harrell, who is white and spoke in an auditorium named for his father, who was also superintendent.

Over the next three hours, grieving parents and community members berated the board, saying that if they didn’t hold people accountable they would lose their jobs. Some told Harrell he didn’t live up to his father’s legacy, while others referenced the 1970 lockout and said they hoped he would do better, drawing applause. People called for the entire school police force to be fired and jeered at the state troopers standing at the edges of the room.

Rizo, who was at that meeting, said he can’t respect how the police chief or the many other officers he knows went about their jobs that day. “That has consequences,” he said. “I can’t understand why he didn’t just resign.”

But the long trajectory between them also pulls Rizo. In the text she sent Arredondo days after the shooting, she said, “Please be strong and be patient.”

Arredondo replied: “Let me hear from you, brother. Thank you and keep praying for the babies.” They haven’t spoken since.

In Uvalde, the proximity complicates accountability for the shooting

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