COURTESY OF TORNILLO: THE OCCUPATION
Activists during a demonstration in El Paso, Texas.
Little more than seven months before a gunman targeting Mexicans killed 22 people in an El Paso Walmart, St. Louis activist Elizabeth Vega and Cathy "Mama Cat" Daniels visited the same store to buy diapers, deodorant, tooth paste, jackets and more for immigrants who had just been released by Border Patrol agents.
They were part of a multi-state coalition of activists, known as Tornillo: The Occupation, that gathered in the border town to draw attention to the deaths of immigrant children who have died in the custody of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
The coalition carried out a series of actions during the Valentine's Day weekend. They flew kites. They sang. The group also pasted over 100 stickers with the images of immigrant children who have died around the National Border Patrol Museum, which includes memorials to agents who have been killed in the line of duty.
"We wanted to challenge the narrative that was in the museum," says Vega, who grew up in Las Cruces, New Mexico, about 50 miles north of El Paso. "That narrative that puts the lives of Border Patrol above the lives of children. I'm not saying that they're not equal — I want them to be on equal footing. But that's not where we are right now."
The action at the museum resulted in a call to military police, who detained members of the group.
Vega, who says she has been arrested fourteen times since the 2014 Ferguson protests began, considered the action "green, maybe yellow." In other words, she did not expect criminal charges. At first, there weren't. But on April 4, El Paso police issued arrest warrants for sixteen activists.
The targets of the warrant included five from the St. Louis area. Vega and fellow activists Lisa Winter and Amber Duval, face felony charges of criminal mischief. Amanda Tello and Keith Rose, also from St. Louis, face misdemeanor charges of criminal trespassing.
By the time the warrants were issued, the St. Louis contingent had been gone from Texas for nearly two months. Vega, who has chosen to represent herself, says she first learned about the charges from someone who had spotted them on an online court records site. She says she wasn't contacted about her July 26 arraignment until one week prior, when Borderland Bail Bonds reached out to her.
She is representing herself and has pleaded not guilty.
COURTESY OF TORNILLO: THE OCCUPATION
Activists posted photos in the museum of children who died in the custody of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
The museum, run by a private organization not affiliated with the actual Border Patrol, is run on donations and located on a military base. It claims the activists caused more than $2,500 in damages, thus making Vega's criminal mischief charge a felony, which could result in a state prison sentence. While Vega claims the stickers are easy to remove, the museum disagrees.
David Ham, the museum's director, told the El Paso Times
the museum doesn't have the space to discuss local and current events.
"Today a group of protestors invaded the Border Patrol Museum and defaced all of our exhibits including our sacred Memorial Room," Ham posted
on Facebook. "This angers me greatly."
Activists say that while the agents are memorialized in the museum, the immigrant children who died in Border Patrol custody are being overlooked.
"We felt like these children died in Border Patrol spaces, they should be remembered in Border Patrol spaces," Vega says. "There was a whole exhibit on the backpacks of human beings that had traveled and risked life because the life that they had, in the country that we helped de-stabilize, was so horrific that they would risk death and crossing the desert to come."
In the past year, seven children are known to have died in the custody of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Activists say their actions were justified, but that doesn't make the prospect of going to jail in Texas any easier.
Amanda Tello says she is weighing the possibility of getting locked up as she tries to decide whether to plead guilty at her August 13 pre-trial hearing. A mother of three children, who were with her at the protest, she was still considering the consequences and talking with her lawyer as of July 31. (Update: Tello says she pleaded not guilty today and charges were dismissed.)
Some museum employees, all of whom Tello says were Latino, claim they were harassed and insulted. Tello says that did not happen and describes a different encounter.
After several white activists attempted to de-escalate the situation with the manager, who told them they could not speak to him about this issue, she decided to get involved. She explained why they were protesting and that they weren't a threat.
"And to try to have a real in-depth conversation with him about his own history and his family's history with immigration and whether he felt that his family's history was shown in that museum and represented in that museum," Tello says. "And we got to the point where he said, 'No.' He didn't feel like it was represented."
Tello says that in the manager's mind, he may have felt attacked because having such difficult conversations can leave someone in a difficult emotional state.
Vega explained that, because so many Central American immigrants live in that area of the country, often times they will work jobs like those at the Border Patrol Museum. Her own brother is a Border Patrol agent, she says.
To Tello, it is a form of colonization.
"There's no better way to control a body of people than finding people from that body to be able to help control them."
The sixteen people charged come from seven different states, including El Paso activist Ana Tiffany Deveze. Vega says she turned herself in mid April to alleviate pressure on Deveze, who had been put on El Paso's most wanted list.
Vega says that when the country is more concerned about stickers than dying children, that hypocrisy needs to be amplified and revealed. Tello agrees.
"We have a moral obligation to tell these stories, even the parts we don't want to," she says.
Vega, a veteran who says she was once "extremely patriotic" and "believed the rhetoric of the United States" enough to enlist in the military, stands by the action.
"If the things that we saw on the border were happening in another country, we would be crying crimes against humanity," Vega says. "But because we are the ones who are doing it we're blissfully ignoring it."
Correction: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Amanda Tello's last name, clarify the name of the activist group, correct information about Ana Tiffany Deveze and reflect the fact that military police first responded to the museum. We regret the errors.
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