By Luis Miranda
The history of white supremacy that stains our region can be traced as far back as the first Spanish explorers who “discovered” the valley, which saved their lives as they were dangerously low on water. It can also be traced through the violent drawing of the border, eventually slicing through our city and making it two. It is present again during the “wild west” period of this town.
The El Paso Police Department website proudly recounts the history of U.S. Marshalls murdering each other for control of the region, in between lynching Mexican and Indiginous residents. In the 20th century, the U.S. began gassing working-class Mexicans who crossed the border with caustic, toxic chemicals. This became the inspiration for Hitler’s gas chambers.
This city saw working-class Mexicans fight back early in the implementation of this policy. Seventeen-year-old Carmelita Torres led the famous Bath Riots in El Paso in 1917. The baths they rioted against consisted of gasoline and cryolite and were conducted inside a brick building under the bridge.
The health personnel had been discovered taking photographs of nude women and posting them at local cantinas, leading to the riot. U.S. and Mexican officials eventually quelled the riot and arrested Torres.
Unfortunately, the practice continued for decades after the Mexican typhus scare. Around the same period, there were thousands of lynchings of Mexicans across the Southwest. Throughout our history, El Paso has taken on a consistent role as the testing ground for authoritarian laws and policies.
The events of Aug. 3, 2019, represented a resurgence of old violence that terrified our community. El Paso saw a record number of gun sales after the massacre; many people don’t feel safe without a gun here anymore.
It has become more apparent to many Americans that for some segments of the population, it isn’t a matter of if there is a civil war, it’s a matter of how to start one, in order to keep the undesirables on the other side of the border. The reason the Walmart shooter came here in the first place was to fight back the ‘invasion’ of immigrants. To him, there is no difference what side of the border you were born, it’s essentially a declaration of war against southern and west Texas.
Air Force Staff Sgt. Steven Carrillo went to Oakland earlier this year to kill what he and the far-right extremist “Boogaloo” movement refer to as “soup bois” — federal agents. His spree ended up killing federal officer Dave Patrick Underwood and Santa Cruz County Sgt. Damon Gutzwiller. The intention behind the attacks was to incite a civil war across the country using the George Floyd protests to incite division.
We have seen white supremacy at work regularly in our region. The United Constitutional Patriots, an armed right-wing militia, drew media attention in April 2019 for a video showing them detaining 200 migrants at gunpoint near Sunland Park, N.M. Larry Mitchell, the leader of the UCP, was eventually arrested for illegal possession of firearms.
They were galvanized by a president whose rhetoric includes explicit calls for strong borders and warnings of infestations. Trump has criminalized El Paso, when he falsely stated, “The border city of El Paso, Texas, used to have extremely high rates of violent crime — one of the highest in the country, and considered one of our nation’s most dangerous cities,” implying that without a strong militarized presence, the locals would be ungovernable. He carries the same blood on his hands as the Walmart shooter, along with the blood of so many others who have died as a result of his racist, authoritarian policies and rhetoric. Make no mistake, while the roots of fascism are old in El Paso, Trump is directly inspiring and encouraging this wave of brownshirt violence.
The El Paso Police Department fired tear gas and flexible baton rounds at a crowd full of teens and young children, with little provocation. They had the support of several federal agencies, including CBP.
They were also backed up by a number of right-wing militia groups at a later protest. Members of the Oath Keepers, which the Southern Poverty Law Center classifies as an anti-government group, were present at the June 10 protest Downtown to defund EPPD. There were two members present, armed with AR-15s.
In an interview I conducted with one of the members, he identified himself as a liaison between the organization and police. I witnessed him conversing with various police officers in a friendly and familiar manner throughout the day. He also mentioned a program called “Back the Blue” that they are applying nationwide to accompany law enforcement against extremist leftists. Despite their anti-government nature, they are steadfast supporters of Trump and consider the Black Lives Matter movement to be an extremist group, much like our own police chief.
The various police officers I asked for further information seemed familiar with the Oath Keepers, but unfamiliar with their status as a hate group. After days of trying to get a straight answer, EPPD ultimately told me the Oath Keepers are treated the same as any other group trying to demonstrate in El Paso, and declined to comment on their participation in any program with the group.
Hatred against Mexicans in the Southwest is baked into our history and institutions. We are not responding to the Walmart shooting with some newfound resilience, we are responding with our survival mechanisms built out of centuries of oppression.
We console each other and move on, and avoid the bigger and more difficult conversations this city needs to talk about. We never discuss the normalization of the blatant militarization of our region, or the visible classism right down to how the city is laid out and divided, or the racist heroes the KKK named our schools after, or the militias that continue to threaten us, or the police that brutalize us when we dare to speak up. These attacks won’t stop by just “staying strong” as a nation, and eventually the pot will boil over.
Luis Miranda is a freelance journalist and writer who grew up in Juárez and El Paso. His work focuses on immigration and politics in the borderland.
Cover photo: An El Paso Morning Times headline from 1917 on the response to a delousing campaign in El Paso for Mexican border crossers.