Peaceful Protesters Met with Militia at Governor Abbott’s Campaign Event
In 2014, then-gubernatorial-candidate Greg Abbott angered residents of the Rio Grande Valley (RGV) when he compared the majority Latino region in South Texas to the third world, saying that instances of law enforcement corruption in the Valley resembled “third-world country practices that erode the social fabric of our communities.” Since becoming Governor of Texas, he has continuously championed discriminatory legislation, such as the “bathroom bill” and Senate Bill 4, a “show-me-your-papers”-type law, that negatively impact at-risk residents of the Valley.
Consequently, there is a growing active resistance in the RGV—so much so that many average working-class individuals—like me—have become active in organizing efforts. Group chats consisting of concerned, passionate individuals have emerged to discuss legislation and events and how they affect the community and people’s lives. Most of us in the chat believe change begins at home in our own community, which has influenced the chat to grow. We discuss local events, including round table discussions with Congress members and campaign events.
When a group of activists learned about Governor Abbott's campaign visit to the Rio Grande Valley, there was an immediate response from the group that an action needed to take place. The core organizers of this action were four individuals with activism experience: John-Michael Torres, employed by social services organization La Unión Del Pueblo Entero (LUPE); Danny Díaz, La Joya School District employee and Hidalgo County Democratic Chair candidate; campaign strategist Abel Prado; and myself.
In the past six months, I have become actively involved in organizing resistance efforts against the current administration and participating in social justice movements. I recently became a Hidalgo County Democratic Party Precinct Chair and a board member of the Stonewall Democrats of the Rio Grande Valley.
On Friday, July 7th, an email invitation was given to us stating that the governor’s private re-election campaign event would be at Lone Star BBQ in McAllen, Texas. Sunday evening, we had a strategy meeting and decided to organize a peaceful protest in response. The theme of our protest was “Not Our Families. Not Our Values.” We aimed to express our disagreement with Abbott’s divisive rhetoric and agenda. One of our goals was to get professionals who had not yet been politically involved to join our action. We concluded that we needed several professionals and organizations to join our cause to guarantee attention from the local media. By the end of the week, and with the determination of our main organizers, we had invited members of the La Joya Teachers Union, LUPE, and ten other organizations and unions who were eager to join the protest. A press release was sent out to media outlets in all local sectors, as well as a few state and national media outlets.
On Saturday, July 15th, the protest began at 11:30 am with a crowd of retired and working teachers from the RGV. By noon the protest was in full swing with at least 75 individuals: Immigration, LGBTQ and reproductive rights activists were all present. Soon afterward, our organizers noticed two men in camouflage uniforms and carrying weapons later identified as semi-automatic rifles standing directly outside the restaurant. Then the number of these militia-type men grew to six, causing concern among our group of peaceful protesters, as well as among virtual participants watching through Facebook live. I approached a police officer present to ask if there was a problem with our gathering. Officer Castellano then asked me if there had been an altercation or argument between a supporter and if the protesters had plans to force our way into the restaurant to question Governor Abbott. I verified to him that we were committed to remaining non-violent and not engaging in any type of dispute—verbal or physical—and that we had no plans to enter the restaurant.
My fellow organizers and I have attended many events where elected officials were present with local and state law enforcement officers, so it came as a very unsettling surprise to see militiamen seemingly assisting at Abbott’s campaign stop. What was even more unsettling was the fact that many of the militiamen had their fingers on or extremely near the triggers of their weapons as we peacefully chanted alongside them.
While protesters chanted “Show me what democracy looks like” and “Greg Abbott, escucha, estamos en la lucha,” the militia started blockading the restaurant, spreading out about twenty feet in front of the main line of protesters. When protesters overheard speculation that the militia was U.S. National Guard, we began asking the militia who they were and who had hired them.
One militiaman I spoke to specifically stated that they were Texas State Militia. According to protester Celerino Castillo, one of the militiamen told him they were “hired by the governor.” One of our organizers then asked a member of the militia if the weapon he was carrying was legal, as it was obviously much larger than what standard law enforcement carry. The militiaman aggressively responded, “It's Texas, man!” but did not answer the organizer’s question about the legality of the gun. When more police officers arrived at the scene, I approached yet another officer to inquire if a problem had been reported. The officer then asked me about any altercations between an Abbott supporter and a protester, to which I replied that there had been none. I also asked another officer if they could verify that the militia was abiding by the correct gun laws; I never got a confirmation.
Despite our resolve to remain calm throughout the protest, the presence of the militia was intimidating. Nonetheless we continued to protest in the sweltering 100° weather. We had numerous volunteers bring cases of cold water to ensure all protesters kept hydrated and invigorated. The chanting was amplified by numerous megaphones and microphones. We declared with pride and dignity that our families and values were relevant and should be respected. We demanded to be heard, undeterred by our vulnerability to the armed militiamen and the unrelenting sun.
Meanwhile, behind the air-conditioned walls of the restaurant, Abbott presumably campaigned by promising legislation that would directly affect the very people protesting outside. When his event ended, some militiamen escorted the governor's supporters out of the restaurant, as if to shield them from us. After three hours of protesting, we never saw Abbott or his staff attempt to address us. Instead the governor snuck out of the restaurant, avoiding a small group of his constituents hoping to speak with him and sped off in his vehicle.
It was evident to me that the militia was there in service of Governor Abbott, whether he hired them or not. It was also evident that he and his supporters thought they needed to be protected from us—a group of school teachers, social workers, and professional and working-class Texans, his constituents.
Aside from the intrusion of the militia, the protest went extremely well. When I witnessed people who were initially invested in only their own agenda become engaged with the array of other social issues being discussed, I was incredibly moved. We all chanted the same chant, protesting the policies of a governor who has continually disregarded the same people he's supposed to be governing. The people being negatively affected by Governor Abbott’s agenda range from immigrants to trans youth to retired educators. There may not be much that unifies these marginalized groups except their need for change and their need to be heard. On Saturday, as Abbott campaigned for policies that attempt to divide and destroy us, we achieved a sense of unity.
Now is the time to rally together, despite our different views and different walks of life. Now is the time to inform our fellow Texans about how our struggles and concerns are intersectional. Now is the time to act—whether it be through protests or sit-ins, postcard parties or phone banks, all of which are happening every single day in the RGV and throughout Texas. Now is the time to spread the word on how we can all get involved, join a cause, and be a part of something greater than ourselves. If we can take the time to prove we aren't going down without a fight, we can achieve greatness for all Texans.
[Editor’s note: On July 18, State Representative Gina Hinojosa sent a letter to the governor asking him to explain the Texas State Militia’s presence at this event. In the letter Hinojosa, a member of the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee writes: “A peaceful protester who attended the event has publicly posted on social media that the militia was hired or engaged by you or your campaign. If this is true, I have grave concerns about a private group, that is not bound by the same constraints of law enforcement, seemingly asserting authority (by virtue of their military-style uniforms and possession of assault-style rifles) in the name of the governor over peaceful attendees at political events.” Representative Hinojosa has also filed an open records request to Abbott and Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw, requesting information about who invited the militia, if they were paid and by whom.]