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In Uvalde, Texas, closeness complicates accountability in May shooting

Family and political ties go back generations in town that was scene of killing of 19 children, 2 teachers

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Uvalde County Commissioner Ronald Garza speaks about the issues surrounding the school shootings at Robb Elementary School, Tuesday, July 12, 2022, in Uvalde, Texas. Families and residents are seeking answers and changes after the tragedy.
Uvalde County Commissioner Ronald Garza speaks about the issues surrounding the school shootings at Robb Elementary School, Tuesday, July 12, 2022, in Uvalde, Texas. Families and residents are seeking answers and changes after the tragedy. (AP Photo/Eric Gay) (eric gay/Associated Press) Photo Gallery

UVALDE, Texas — 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 confronting the shooter. He has not responded to repeated requests for comment from The Associated Press.

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 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 who 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.

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