This morning I was picked up in front of the Gardner Hotel in El Paso by the only person who has engaged in civil disobedience against the border wall. Texas, once a center of the Chicano movement, the site of the Alice student walkouts and state-wide protests against segregated schools, hasn’t seen such civil disobedience in a long time. For an issue as appalling to border residents as the Secure Fence Act of 2006, however, it’s been a long coming.
Judy Ackerman was fifteen minutes early, waiting for me on Franklin Avenue in an unassuming sedan. We talked the 15 minutes to the Rio Bosque Wildlife Refuge, but I can’t remember much of what was said. I do remember the way the border wall seemed to extend forever, farther still than the Rocky Mountains or the Sierra Madre, both of which end in this bi-national border community of almost 2 million. For years there has been a wire fence snaking along the Rio Grande, but lawmakers unfamiliar with the history of El Paso del Norte deemed it fit to separate Texas from the river and Mexico from its neighbor.
As we bounced and jounced toward Rio Bosque along the potholes containing some road, Judy seemed surprised that Diewitz workers were not already at work this Friday morning. Sadly, their work has progressed rapidly since Mrs. Ackerman first delayed the excavation on December 17. The wall now bounds most of the park, although many more miles are planned. In parts, it completely obscures the beautiful dun-brown mountains.
In spite of, or perhaps because of, the enormity of the sadness that border fence evinces, Judy instead told me about an old cottonwood tree. “This border wall has really brought the community together. Take that old tree there,” she said, pointing proudly to a cottonwood with a perfect crown and brown leaves still holding onto its branches. “The Border Patrol came through and chopped down two others just like that, because they extend in part onto their service roads. John Souse stopped them just in time. He quickly mobilized the local activists, and pretty soon the media was calling the Border Patrol wanting to interview them about their part in the killing of the last great cottonwood. By that time, the Border Patrol changed their tune and denied ever having entertained such an idea.” Ah, behold the power of people.
Few other trees in this Rio Bosque wildlife refuge, or in the El Paso area in general, are native originals. About eleven years ago, Souse graded this land and rerouted the Rio Grande to recreate its once wild trajectory. It was this capriciousness which earned the river its Mexican name, “Rio Bravo.” Now, cottonwoods and the invasive salt cedar fill the refuge, providing ample habitat for a variety of animals and birds.
As John Souse drove Judy and I through the small refuge (the only of its kind for miles and miles), I was astounded at the number of hawks. Harrier hawks sat atop cottonwoods, flicking their striped tail and looking too heavy to balance on so tenuous a perch. Cooper’s hawks cut through the morning air, chasing each other in the joy of it all. Harris hawks and red-tailed hawks flew over the duck pond, artfully weaving and dipping like stunt pilots.
The duck ponds highlight one of the major problems posed by the border wall. With a border wall cutting the refuge off from the Rio Grande, the animals have no way to access the river. Ducks have been reported to fly into the mesh wiring of the fence as well. Additionally, with no access to the river, Rio Bosque has to fight for its water rights. Since it is not a “money-making” enterprise such as agriculture or industry, the refuge only receives water in the off-season – November through January. The new well which was installed to pump groundwater into the canal and pond just fell into the ground on account of the contractor’s poor craftsmanship. Without this water, particularly during the stifling dry months, Rio Bosque would dry up and leave this valley without a treasure trove of nature.
“When I was standing in front of the bulldozer, I kept remembering what the ACLU told me – ‘Don’t ask if you are arrested; ask if you are free to leave.’ So, as the Texas Rangers, local police, DHS agents, and county sheriffs bickered about whose jurisdiction my civil disobedience fell under, that was all I could think to say. ‘Am I free to leave?’” Judy laughed, “Their response was always, ‘Yes, please! We’ve been waiting all day.’”
Judy’s military training prepared her well for keeping cool in such a hot situation. She executed civil disobedience in near perfect fashion, contacting authorities before and remained calm, cool, and collected during the demonstration. Judy had been well advised of the consequences of her action, and show she exhibited no fear. More importantly, she showed no anger toward the individuals on site. “I wasn’t mad at them,” she reminded me more than once. “I was protesting the idea of this wall.”
While she remembers all the authorities being civil and respectfully during the civil disobedience, sadly some spectators across the canal yelled out taunts and jibes at the officials. Judy remembers the Texas Ranger getting particularly peeved at that. “She’s not risking anything, but she keeps yelling at us and trying to get you [Judy] into deeper trouble.” Thankfully, Judy and her composure ruled the day, and it was clear that this was about more than an “Us vs. Them” scenario.
I walked down to the river, marveling at its relative freedom. I have seen where this river empties into the Gulf, broad and flowing at Boca Chica. Here, a few good strokes would get me across to Ciudad Juarez. Upstream, it is dammed and controlled meticulously. Farms and industries sap its strength as well, using as much as 99% of its water before it reaches the Gulf of Mexico. Climbing back up the steep riverbank, the border wall comes into sharp focus again. Franklin Mountain barely shows its peak above the wall, and the free-roaming tumbleweed country of this old Wild West Town seems all but a memory in the shadow of these steel girders. Would John Dillinger know the Gardner Hotel and downtown El Paso today? Would Marilyn Monroe recognize the Kentucky Club in a Juarez robbed of most its customers? Will anyone remember the time before this wall?
Looking back east, I can make out where the wall ends. That sight still gives me hope. Perhaps we’ll see our folly before it’s too late and this history is already written. I thank God that the history written by man is never penned in permanent ink.