COPS at 20 BY GEOFF RIPS San Antonio AT THE 20TH anniversary convention of Communities Organized for Antonio on May 29, a room with seats for 5,000 people was overflowing as Governor Ann Richards, Comptroller John Sharp, Mayor Nelson Wolff and Archbishop Patrick Flores led assorted local officeholders and business leaders onstage, accompanied by leaders of COPS. Behind them were the words: “1974-1994: From Oligarchy to Democracy.” How much had changed? I’ve known San Antonio’s COPS for 20 years, ever since founding organizer Ernesto Cortes held a house meeting in the home of my neighbor in 1974. I subsequently attended more meetingsat the local parish church, Our Lady of Sorrows, and at other churches, where leaders of the COPS parish organizations got together. I remember another neighbor urging me to come to a meeting. “This isn’t like those other groups,” she said. “This one will do something.” We were living in a neighborhood divided by a big scar of land cleared for a freeway that had been delayed by court battlesa wasteland of cement supports, halfgraded gravel entrance ramps to nowhere, ditches and weeds that would soon become the W. W. McAllister Freeway. One-half block away the streets flooded with the smallest rain, the local elementary school was falling down and Trinity University was creeping south toward our homes. But it was nothing like the West or South Sides of San Antonio, where whole families were washed away in rainstorms, where Castroville Road past General McMullen Drive became Castroville River, where vacant South Side lots became the waste dumps for the entire city, where there were no real parks, the schools were too small, too poor, too old, where the odors from stockyards and the smoke from coalfired plants overwhelmed whole neighborhoods and you could only go outdoors when the wind was right. Meanwhile, the Good Government League, which had run the city for Geoff Rips is a former Observer editor. Rips is currently director of a project for the Texas Center for Policy Studies in collaboration with the Texas IAF Network. decades, was being displaced by a group of North Side developers, who successfully ran candidates for mayor and city council. Taxpayer money and bond money was being routed to provide the infrastructure for new development north of the central city, first anchored by the new county hospital and a branch of the UT medical school and later, farther north, by the creation of the University of Texas at San Antonio. Regents, a mayor and their friends had no small interest in the development of the land north of San Antonio. And as they coordinated efforts, the center of power and public and private capital in the city moved farther north. Demanding change Enter Communities Organized for Public Service. In May 1974, several children on the West Side drowned in a rainstorm. After COPS leaders were turned down by city officials in their request for immediate action on a long-delayed drainage project, they turned to the city archives. There they found that the drainage projects desperately needed on the West and South Sides had been authorized by bond elections many years before. But the money had been diverted to projects on the North Side. Hundreds of COPS leaders filled City Council chambers demanding action. Four hours later, the city staff had drawn up a plan for a $46.8 million bond issue for 15 drainage projects, which passed later that year. That same year, COPS also developed a “counter-budget” for $100 million in capital improvements on the city’s South and West Sides. When representatives of COPS couldn’t get the attention of city leaders, ‘they went to the corporate community that backed the city council. Early the next year, after Frost Bank chairman Tom Frost and the chief executive of the city’s biggest department store refused to assist in arranging discussions of the counter-budget with the city, COPS leaders spent all day trying on clothes without buying anything in Joske’ s department store and later lined up 10-deep at teller cages at Frost Bank, changing pennies into dollars, then dollars back into pennies, bringing business to a halt. COPS was suddenly on everyone’s radar screen. At the May 29 convention this year, COPS’ first President, Andres Sarabia, recalled those days: “In 1974, when we dared to enter the lobby of Frost Bank, the history of San Antonio was forever changed. We walked in with pennies in our hands demanding change. Today that same lobby is now the city council chamber. COPS will be returning to that lobby…continuing to force change for a more just future for our children and our children’s children.” Sarabia asked the veterans of those first wars to stand, and they did, gray-haired for the most part, sprinkled among the delegations representing parishes and schools. Twenty years before, the then-fledgling community organization had helped these neighborhood leaders find a resource within themselves that enabled them to work together and stand together to confront the established order, the oligarchy that had governed the affairs of their city for decades. It was what historian and former Observer editor Lawrence Goodwyn calls an “unsanctioned idea”: that the people will participate in the process by which their lives are organized. Twenty years later: the inner-city communities organized by COPS are served by nearly one billion dollars worth of new sewers, streets, sidewalks, parks, drainage systems, libraries, literacy centers, clinics and street lights; there are more than 1,000 new units of housing in the inner city, another 2,600 rehabilitated houses and new owners of another 1,300 inner-city homes; almost 650 inner-city residents are enrolled in the first class of trainees of Project Quest, a worker-training program put together by COPS, the Metro Alliance \(a North and East Side San Antonio Industrial city, state and federal governments and the business community, guaranteeing graduates high-skill jobs upon completion of training; 2,000 high school graduates have attended college through scholarships provided by the San Antonio Education Partnership, organized by COPS, the Metro Alliance and local businesses; an after-school recreation and tutoring program serves 15,000 children at 60 elementary and secondary schools; a community college campus serves the previously unserved southwest quadrant of the city; and parents and teachers are actively involved in restructuring 12 inner-city San Antonio schools, as part of the IAF Al 6 JUNE 17, 1994
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