Late last Friday evening I got a text message from one of the young, tough activists in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. He was requesting legal observers from the ACLU to be present the next morning for a two-mile march between Lloyd Bentsen State Park and the National Butterfly Center. Both places are beloved parks and nature preserves located outside of McAllen, Texas. Trump’s version of the border wall would plow right through the middle of them, and destroy them.
“We are planning a peaceful march but have already heard that there will be a lot of police present, and would like some support,” the activist texted.
In an electronic blink of an eye, my intrepid ACLU colleague Maria Cordero did her magic and drummed up a dozen observers for the march the next day. While it was a very last minute effort to plan and pull off such a march, I absolutely agreed with the idea. Just a couple of weeks before, industrial-grade bulldozers had been trucked down and parked just outside the National Butterfly Center. Those contractors with their bulldozers had their marching orders from Trump and were just waiting for the word to plow their way through one of the most beloved areas in our region.
Although I have been a legal observer several different times in my life, the responsibility never ceases to make me nervous. One assumes, naturally, that if you are going to serve as an observer, then something will probably happen that would need watching and recording. Those “somethings” are not usually pleasant, and, way too often in the history of non-violent marches and protests, turn violent.
Usually the makeup of the crowd that the observers are to watch establishes the level of nervousness. This past Saturday morning there were about 150 people present. About a third of them were very, very old, using walkers and wearing a charming combination of flinty-eyed kindness. Another third were very very young, riding in strollers and attended to by young parents. The final third of the group were energetic and wise young people. Interspersed with the rest of the crowd was a nice fellow with a saxophone, some people on bicycles, and a whole bunch of people walking their dogs. Some Native Americans with banners and tribal staffs were to lead the marchers along the way.
At first glance, this group didn’t make me nervous. Who wouldn’t love them all? But soon after we set out on our march, the pace picked up, the chanting began and it became clear to me that this was a crowd with grit, one that would probably not back down from a police confrontation. Even those with strollers moved along at a good pace, the chanting never died off, and soon we were at the site where the border wall would severe the park from the river.
The octogenarian with the walker had refused a ride, but she soon rolled her way right up to the top of the levee where she joined the rest of the marchers as they faced off against the police: two agents in two border patrol pickup trucks, three border patrol agents on ATVs, a deputy from the county sheriff’s office, an officer from the Mission Police Department, an agent from the Fish and Wildlife Service, and a constable from the county, all accompanied by a helicopter that circled overhead the entire time.
The marchers’ intentions were clear. They were going to march up to the top of the levee, gather in a circle, have some prayer, enjoy some silence, sing a few chants and listen to some speeches. Afterwards, they would spread out along the levee for a group photo. And then they would go home.
The police had their plans as well, apparently. They were to have their authority respected and so there could be no gathering, no prayer, no speeches, and, certainly, no group photo.
Although the police must know her well, I am not sure why they keep under estimating the powerful presence of Marianna Treviño Wright, the director of the Butterfly Center. The poor constable who was sent up to confront her and the group was told by her, in steely terms, that HE was “the one trespassing, that all that you (the government) have any case is an easement—this is the Butterfly Center’s private property and our guests can traverse it or cross it or walk on it or, they want, watch butterflies from it.”
Spoke her words powerfully, no doubt impelled by the emergency that her center was facing—the loss of private property, the obliteration of a lifelong project, and the spiteful destruction of a lovely park located in a safe place along the Rio Grande River. Her words were, likewise, backed by a powerful chorus of the young and the not-so-young, people from the Rio Grande Valley and people from Minnesota and Nebraska, who had made this place their home.
The constable backed away. The photos were shot. Cheers were made—and we all headed by home.
As we made our way back down the levee to the road, the lady with the walker shouted out, clearly, “Ya nos vamos, pero no nos corrieron (We are leaving now, but it sure ain’t because you ran us off)” (my translation).
The police left as well, even though the helicopter nervously followed us up the road. I suppose one never knows just how much of an emergency people defending their parks and their properties and their right to assemble and speak, can get create.