In Uvalde, familiarity complicates accountability for school massacre

·5 min read
Escorted by the Texas Brown Berets, family and friends of those killed and injured in the school shootings at Robb Elementary take part in a protest march and rally, Sunday, July 10, 2022, in Uvalde, Texas. Families and residents are seeking answers and changes after the tragedy. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Escorted by the Texas Brown Berets, survivors and friends of victims in the school shootings in Uvalde, Texas, march to demand changes on July 10. (Eric Gay / Associated Press)

After the massacre at Robb Elementary School in May, Jesse Rizo was worried about his old friend, school district Police Chief Pete Arredondo.

Blame for the botched police response was being directed heavily at Arredondo when Rizo texted him just days after the shooting: “Been thinking of and praying for you.”

Two months later, with investigations and surveillance video spotlighting the hesitant and haphazard response by police to the killing of 19 students and two teachers, Rizo remains worried about Arredondo. He also wants him fired.

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

“I care about Pete. I care that he’s mentally OK. I don’t want a human to start to lose it,” 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 people accountable who don’t perform their jobs properly.”

The 50-year-old Arredondo, who as head of the school district’s small Police Department was one of the first officers on the scene and was to be in charge of the law enforcement response, has been heavily criticized for not immediately storming the classroom and confronting the shooter. He has not responded to repeated requests for comment.

In the last week, the Uvalde school board abruptly scheduled a meeting to discuss firing Arredondo, only to cancel it days later. As officials weigh their options, residents are growing impatient with unanswered calls to identify who is responsible for the bewildering 77 minutes of inaction by nearly 400 police officers who swarmed the school after the shooting started.

But the mere possibility of Arredondo’s firing after months of resistance from local officials stands as a demonstration of the victims’ families’ rising political clout.

The strain over how to move forward is visible in the signs that have appeared all over town. “Uvalde United.” “Uvalde Must Stand Together.” While those signs mean different things to different people, other signs are more pointed: “Prosecute Pete Arredondo.”

Family ties and political struggles go back generations in Uvalde, where nearly three-quarters of the residents are Latino. Locals had 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 calling for the job of your friend, neighbor or employer.

It’s a town with a “power structure” and “unwritten rules” that make it hard for many people to speak out, said Michael Ortiz, a college professor who moved to Uvalde 13 years ago and said his tenure allowed him to be vocal in a way that many of the community’s mostly working-class residents can’t.

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

Since the shooting, the mostly Latino parents of the victims have struggled to make their demands heard by the city and school district. Local officials initially resisted releasing information and calls to fire officers. But things are shifting.

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 rallied in 106-degree heat to call for stronger gun regulations — including raising the minimum age to buy an assault weapon — and for greater transparency from local and state 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 prompted one of Texas’ longest school walkouts over demands for equal education for Mexican American residents. That teacher’s son is Ronnie Garza, a Uvalde County commissioner.

Garza said the shooting has changed the community, uniting people in grief but dividing them on questions of accountability. “We are a desperate people right now. We are yelling here that way, we are yelling [the other] way, for somebody to listen to us, to come and help us,” Garza said.

Presented with incomplete and contradictory accounts from local and state law enforcement, families have begun to make people listen.

After state lawmakers issued a damning report that found “systemic failures and egregiously poor decision-making” by police and school officials, the Uvalde school board held a special session to hear from parents.

Supt. Hal Harrell apologized for previously being “too formal” and not letting the victims’ families say their piece.

“Trying to find the right time, the right balance out of respect, I did not 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 upbraided the board, saying that if it didn’t hold people accountable, members would lose their jobs. Some told Harrell he wasn’t living 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 whole school police force to be fired.

Rizo, who was at the meeting, said he cannot respect how the police chief or the many other officers he knows handled their jobs that day. “There are consequences to that,” he said. “I can’t understand why he wouldn’t just resign.”

But the long history between them tugs at Rizo too. In the text he sent Arredondo days after the shooting, he said: “Please be strong and be patient.”

Arredondo responded: “Good to hear from you, bro. Thank you and please keep praying for the babies.” They haven’t spoken since.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.