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 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 body-camera video spotlighting the hesitant and haphazard response by police to the killing of two teachers and 19 students, Rizo remains worried about Arredondo. He also wants him fired.
Rizo’s complicated feelings toward his 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 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 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, has taken much of the blame for not immediately storming the classroom and confronting the shooter. He has not responded to repeated requests for comment from The Associated Press.
This 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 hold people accountable for the bewildering 77 minutes of inaction by nearly 400 police officers who responded to the school shooting.
But the mere possibility of his 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 popped up all over town. “Uvalde United.” “Uvalde Must Stand Together.” While those signs mean different things depending on whom you ask, other signs are more pointed: “Prosecute 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 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 local college professor who moved to Uvalde 13 years ago and said his tenure allows him to be vocal in a way that’s not viable for many of the community’s mostly working-class residents.
“Someone’s boss might not like that,” Ortiz said. “They are afraid even to march.”
Since the shooting, the mostly Hispanic 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, over 100 protesters braved 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,” said Garza.
Faced with incomplete and contradictory 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 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 they 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 and jeered at state troopers standing at the room’s edges.
Rizo, who was at that 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.