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“'Cause everybody's gotta have somebody to look down on
Prove they can be better than at any time they please
Someone doin' somethin' dirty, decent folks can frown on
You can't find nobody else, then help yourself to me.”
- Kristofferson, “Jesus Was a Capricorn
The store sits on the southwest corner of the only two roads passing through town. Visitors coming to take to the rivers stop for supplies, food, beer, chips, even firewood, before moving off to their campsites. The limestone ledges and rocky hills make up valleys drained by the Sabinal, Medina, Frio, and Nueces rivers. They are separated only by miles and the campers and motorcyclists and AirBnB weekenders tend to find their way to the little general store near the intersection.
I’ve been going there since the seventies, camping at Lost Maples and Garner State Park, finding the geography and climate most of the year comparable to the Sonoma region of Northern California, and in many spots even prettier. The waters draining the Edwards Aquifer are crystalline and cool, protected from the Texas heat by giant cypress, and there are few pastimes more relaxing than laying back in those slow-moving currents with a cold drink and a warm sun.
My tendency when I wander is to engage the locals, and when I look around any part of Texas, I am often envious of their placement in the universe, especially down around Leakey and Utopia. They’ve come into the world in a land of stony hills covered with live oak and mesquite and a horizon suggesting the endlessness of the state. Up on the Devil’s Backbone, east of town, the sky and the land offer improbable beauty and tumble and roll in an aggregation that makes the observer wonder about the difference between the beauty of chaos and design.
There were two benches on either side of the stairs leading into the store and I noticed a couple of men sipping beers they were pulling from a cooler full of ice. One of them had his dirty work boots propped up on the bumper of a pickup with a sticker proclaiming support of the high school’s “Leakey Eagles.” I thought I might stop and eavesdrop a bit when I came out with my provisions and see if there was a way to insert myself into a conversation and learn a bit more about the rivers and the ranches. Inside the store, I hurried through the three narrow aisles and across the sagging wooden floor, made my purchases, loaded them onto my motorcycle and sat the empty wooden bench not ten feet distant from the pair.
Barack Obama had been elected president less than a month earlier and I had been edified by a touch of hope that maybe our country was turning from its troubled racial past. I wasn’t gathering information for a report of any type, but I was thinking I might hear a few positive comments while traveling, words from working-class people in rural regions that might indicate hints of cultural transition. I got off to a bad start.
“I think it’s the damn Northerners who did it,” the man nearest me said. “Can’t be too many down here who’d vote for n***er. Damn sure nobody I know.”
The other man pulled his straw had down a bit across his brow and turned his head toward the sun as if to test his adjustment before he spoke.
“I’ll tell ya what I’d like, George,” he said. “I’d like to get his damn black ass down here so we could all let him know we aren’t gonna listen to a goddamn thing a n***er says, even if he did get into the White House.”
“And that’s what just kills me,” George said. “I gotta go to bed every night now for the next four goddamn years thinkin’ about a n***er in my White House. What the hell is wrong with this country?”
“Somebody bought them votes for him. Ain’t no way there’s enough people in the whole U.S. who are gonna elect a n***er. I sure as hell know that much.”
There was a momentary pause in their exchange, and I got up and walked to my motorcycle. They seemed to watch me put on my helmet, straddle the bike, and push it backwards. I convinced myself they were wondering why I didn’t join their dialogue. In ten minutes, I was at my campsite on the Frio, sipping my own cold beer, and wondering, not about a transcendent moment in my country, but instead pondering what it was about racism that keeps it so virulent even in the face of contradictory facts.
As much as I wanted to believe that the election of the first African American president was a signal moment informing our nation that we were moving on from hating people because of their skin color or genetic lineage, I was horribly misguided. I am confident, however, that the election of the orange New Yorker has made it abundantly clear we are a bifurcated land and much of our anger is borne of racial antipathy. Trump seems to have authorized racists and bigots to go forth from their front store benches and spread their bile into schools and businesses and churches and any public forum they can find, and there is joy in the process, not shame.
The results of this empowered hatred are manifest almost everywhere we turn. Connective tissue runs directly from Trump’s angry rhetoric to the motivation of the small, nearly mindless souls who attack others for how they look, or who they love. In Texas, our governor is using this base hatred to fire his campaign, and I fear it is working. Greg Abbott, who loves to have his staff Tweet out scripture for him on Sundays, has turned “the least of these,” poor, hungry, desperate immigrants, into demons at our doorstep. He has elevated levels of fear by stringing razor wire across the Mexican frontier, marching armed troops up and down the riverbanks, and dispatching thousands of DPS troopers whose only job is to look for people who appear brown-skinned and destitute, and find reasons to arrest them.
Texas leaders have a long history of using race for political gain, and no one more famously than President Lyndon Baines Johnson. LBJ came of age in a Texas that was immersed in racism against black and brown people, and during his political ascent he even raged about Asians in the Post War world, referring to them as “hordes of yellow political dwarves.” Most of his early political career was spent fighting against equal rights, and his position made no substantive change until after JFK was assassinated and LBJ became president. During a campaign trip to the South, the Texan explained to his young staffer, Bill Moyers, how racism worked to deliver political leverage.
“If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man,” Johnson said, “He won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”
The analysts and intellects often refer to it as “otherizing,” which is a considered attempt to turn people into something other than what you are, to make them different, strange, and for political effect, also frightening. Trump began this latest rise in racial anger with his campaign language identifying immigrants on the American border as “rapists and murderers” and any other type of pejorative his small mind could conjure. The Texas and Florida governors, and much of the conservative right, have found the approach politically productive, too. Predictably, their words have devolved into actions by their believers, and it is extreme naïveté’ to think that overt racial animus in America has nothing to do with hateful political language.
The most recent tragedy needing more attention occurred less than a week previously out in the Chihuahuan Desert near the small community of Sierra Blanca. If you have ever passed that way, you know Hudspeth County is a kind of American Outback. The region is vast and covers just under 4600 square miles from the Rio Grande north to the New Mexico border. Generally, immigrants entering the U.S. illegally do not risk the harsh landscape because of heat and a lack of water. Crossing such distances on foot is brutal even if properly equipped with gear and supplies to sustain the journey.
Thirteen Mexicans, however, had traversed the desiccated sun scape, survived, and were just south of Sierra Blanca. Their water was consumed but they saw a small stock reservoir outside of town, which was known as “Five Mile Tank,” and they went for a drink. According to an affidavit from the Texas Department of Public Safety, the group scrambled to hide behind some scrub when a pickup truck stopped, and then backed up in their direction. A voice reportedly yelled from inside the vehicle, “Come out you sons of bitches, little asses.” When there was no response, the driver, identified by police as Michael Sheppard, got out of the truck, leaned his shotgun against the hood, and fired two rounds into the brush where the Mexicans were hiding.
“Did you get him?” his twin brother, Mark Sheppard, reportedly asked. According to various news reports, Mark changed the pronoun from “him” to “it” when questioned by state troopers, which was an attempt to claim the two were hunting animals and not indiscriminately gunning down humans they didn’t like. Recounting what happened to investigators, Mark said they had been looking for ducks, changed it to birds, and then javelina, claiming his brother saw what looked like an animal’s butt, and fired. The alleged shooter, Michael, killed a man and injured a woman, who was taken to the hospital 100 miles west in El Paso. Either unaware of the harm they had inflicted, or uncaring, the 60-year-old brothers drove away and went to attend a Sierra Blanca water board meeting.
Although it’s impossible to know what the two men were thinking as they drove off, I think it’s a fair assumption to make that they somehow viewed their actions as considerably less than murder. Michael Sheppard, who fired the shotgun, had been working as the supervisor at an immigrant detention center in Sierra Blanca. Maybe he viewed the immigrants as “animals,” and was unmoved by the death and injury he had caused. The two brothers are being held in El Paso County Jail without bond, and Michael has been fired by La Salle Corrections, which runs the West Texas Detention Center. Both brothers have been charged with manslaughter. The woman shot in the stomach is reported to have survived and the remaining migrants are in federal custody.
Sheppard’s disdain for Mexican immigrants was not a secret. During his tenure running the Sierra Blanca facility, migrants filed complaints claiming they were victims of physical abuse by the warden and guards. There is no indication if the U.S. Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security ever requested an investigation of the allegations by the F.B.I. but an ICE spokesperson told the Texas Tribune that the agency quit sending detained immigrants to the Sierra Blanca facility in 2019, though she did not offer an explanation as to why. Sheppard was the supervisor when the complaints were filed, and at the time ICE had made its decision.
If they are guilty, where did the Sheppards learn their hatred? Did Michael view the detainees he was overseeing as foreign creatures in cages, less than human? Were the brothers raised to think Mexicans were inferior to Whites and ought to be treated differently? I have no doubt the racist climate of our Texas and national cultures informed their choices and gave them a false sense that killing a Mexican is not the same as killing an American, and even if they were implicated, they figured it was worth the risk. There was probably more hate than thought that went into their actions, though, and it’s quite easy to understand its contemporary origins in Texas, which is at the foot of the angry governor’s chair.
Immigration was a lead topic when Gov. Abbott debated his Democratic opponent Beto O’Rourke down on the border in Edinburg. Abbott used his scare tactics to try to justify the expense of $4 billion in Texas taxpayer dollars to sustain his Operation Lone Star, which isn’t working. Immigrant crossings have only increased through the past year. The governor consistently accuses President Biden of not doing his job and operating an open border, demonstrably false statements. Well, the more accurate word is “lies.”
The Biden administration has proposed an increase in the budget for U.S. Customs and Border Protection to $85.6 billion, which is a 3% jump. The money means the hiring of 200 new CBP officers, 300 more Border Patrol agents, 300 border processing officers, and 1000 additional technicians for agency staffing. The USCBP is already the largest law enforcement agency in the country with an estimated 65,000 employees. Neither the President’s actions nor those statistics suggest anything even remotely close to an “open border”policy. While Abbott brags that he is doing the federal government’s job, the mass of humanity approaching the Rio Grande in Texas is only rising. Federal figures show 2.3 million arrests by the end of the fiscal year in September, made by the border patrol, not Texas lawmen and National Guardsmen.
The fact that makes Abbott squirm is that he and his state have no jurisdictional authority over the border. His soldiers and troopers can pick up immigrants, but they must turn them over to Border Patrol for processing, which means he is wasting money on a useless redundancy already being funded by the federal tax dollars of Texans. The state can only arrest people crossing from Mexico without papers if they come up out of the river and onto private land and become trespassers. This is a kind of property protection service for rich ranchers, which is, of course, paid for by Texas taxpayers. The trespassers are detained in local jails or a former state prison while awaiting adjudication of a petty crime and are often denied rights to a lawyer because they are all booked up with other transgressors and the county court dockets are too jammed to consider cases. Eventually, the detainees are released on personal recognizance after getting a court date in the distant future, or, more likely, they are taken into custody by Border Patrol for processing.
Which means Greg Abbott’s Operation Lone Star has, essentially, a zero net effect for the $4 billion dollars invested.
His words and advertising make it sound like every border crosser is a drug mule for a cartel, schlepping shipments of fentanyl in their little backpacks or plastic bags. Another fact Abbott can’t countenance is that all his troopers and soldiers are not stopping drugs, even though he is implying his sideshow is confiscating contraband. The overwhelming majority of illicit drugs captured are stopped at legal border crossings in vehicles set up for smuggling. Every form of import is being used to move fentanyl, heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamines into the U.S., and it is not in the luggage of staggering immigrants out in the desert and brush country being hounded to the ground by DPS. Cartels can’t move a lot of product on the back of a human.
Abbott and his acolytes are constantly posting on social media about the amount of fentanyl confiscated at the border, which means the feds and the president are doing their jobs even as Abbott accuses them of failing to do what he’s just said they do. In sum, Operation Lone Star is a dark joke and has as its only goal to scare people and convince them Greg Abbott is protecting them from hordes of drug smuggling Mexicans.
O’Rourke made some of these points during the debate. He has an intimate relationship with the consequences of racial hatred. His hometown of El Paso was targeted by a white supremacist who went into a Walmart and killed 23 people with an AK-47. The killer drove 600 miles from Dallas after explaining in a 2500-word rant he posted online that he wanted to stop the Hispanic invasion. The act was clearly connected to racist rhetoric from Donald Trump, who as president called immigrants on the Mexican frontier “rapists” and “animals” and even chuckled when someone in the audience at one of his Florida rallies suggested shooting migrants might be a good idea. Only a damned fool denies the linkage between the words and the subsequent act.
These facts make it hard for me to believe recent polls that have Abbott leading O’Rourke by 6 or 7 points. I find myself wondering if the masses of women angered by his absurd anti-abortion law are being reached by the pollsters, or if they are responding with a preference they are expected to provide as registered Republicans while planning to exercise their true opinion inside the voting booth. Maybe that’s wishful thinking. The public has a short memory. If not, how could they vote for a man who has done nothing to prevent another El Paso or Uvalde, who can’t keep the electric grid running, robs women of fundamental personal rights, ignores the plight of teenagers being abused in state custody, wastes state tax money and federal Covid dollars on a border stunt to promote himself as presidential timber, and transports people like so much cattle to communities that are given no warning about the impact that is about to be made on their local resources.
I don’t want to believe it’s possible Abbott will win. But I couldn’t believe what I was hearing on that wooden bench in Leakey a few years ago, either.
And I still can’t.