A tale of two Americas plays out in El Paso

EL PASO – With the sun setting and the crowds growing at Bowie High School on Monday evening in El Paso, two Alpine residents, Cyndi Wimberly and Patty Manning unfurled their Women’s March flag and hoisted it high.

“We wanted to lend our support via the Big Bend Area Women’s March,” Wimberly told the Big Bend Sentinel about the evening’s ‘March for Truth: Stop the Wall, Stop the Lies.’ The women are the organizers of the Big Bend Area Women’s March, which just held its third annual march through Alpine on January 19th.

Wimberly and Manning’s local Women’s March organization had signed on as participating community organizers for the evening’s event, which was organized by the Border Network for Human Rights after President Trump announced his own Monday rally in El Paso.

Event organizers were careful to center the march around stopping the wall, but a good portion of the crowd was focused on former El Paso Congressman Beto O’Rourke. Speculation in the media has grown around an O’Rourke presidential campaign, and the Beto 2020 signs, buttons, and shirts were out in force at the rally. Vendors displayed their Beto wares, and members of the crowd waved signs about the El Paso congressman, celebrations of immigrants, and grievances toward the President and toward the issue that has dominated 2019 national politics: Trump’s wall.

This year already holds the record for the longest US government shutdown in history, entirely caused by party disputes over funding the controversial barrier along the US/Mexico border. Now, another shutdown looms ahead if Congress cannot reconcile the budget before Friday at midnight. Manning proudly noted, “I know there are a lot of organizations here doing things to support immigrants,” and “it’s just really heartening to see the number and the variety of people that are here for their city.”

Wimberly and Manning were also quick to note that the day wasn’t about O’Rourke, and re-centered the political issues at hand. About the speculation that O’Rourke might announce his candidacy at the rally, Wimberly said, “I don’t know if this is an appropriate time, since this is really focused on the wall, or on the lies, but then again, Trump is doing his re-election thing, so I don’t know.”

Less than a mile away, Trump’s El Paso rally was rapidly checking tickets, and finally admitting the long line that now snaked the length of the street, rounded the corner, and trailed along US Highway 62.

Droves of excited fans were joining the line every minute, as El Paso Zoo buses ferried in and dropped off more red-hat-wearing supporters. Vendors of the distinctive red cap wheeled up and down the line. A man in a wall mascot suit, complete with barbed wire on top, danced and posed for photos with supporters.

Near the front, JP and Maureen Garcia pulled up their tickets, and pressed forward excitedly toward the entrance. The two graduated from Sul Ross State University in Alpine last year, and JP was sporting a sweatshirt from their alma mater. Within minutes, the young pair had slipped into the Coliseum, the venue where Trump would later take the stage. They would become two of the 6,500 attendees inside, with an additional 7,000 left outside to watch a jumbotron, according to the El Paso Fire and Police Departments’ counts.

Back at Bowie High School, Manning said of the Trump rally, “I’m really curious, I’d really like to go to it, just to see how many people are actually going to attend and what the atmosphere is like in there.” The Alpine women actually reserved tickets for the Trump event out of curiosity. “But he’s speaking at the same time as Beto, and I don’t really want to miss Beto,” said Wimberly.

O’Rourke, an El Paso native, was slated to speak later in the evening at the terminal point of the march – Chalio Acosta Sports Center’s baseball field – but far back in the crowd, the short-statured Wimberly turned to Manning, asking, “Is that Beto? I think that’s his voice.”

Sure enough, O’Rourke had hopped on stage to give a rousing speech before leading the march one mile east. The march route would take the rally alongside the Cesar E. Chavez Border Highway, setting the border fence as a prominent backdrop of the crowd.

The rousing speech was dampened by an undersized audio system which rendered him inaudible to most of the crowd, but few seemed to mind, as chants of “Beto! Beto!” erupted, and the crowd roared forward.

As O’Rourke led the way, the marchers chanted, alternating between English and Spanish, with cheers of “El pueblo uni-do, jamás será vencido!” [The people united will never be defeated] and “No hate, no fear, immigrants are welcome here!” carrying the group, now 7,000 strong, past the Trump rally.

As the march processed past the Coliseum to the Sports Center directly across the street, Wimberly and Manning asked an officer how to enter the Trump event, but were swiftly refused. The officers said the rally was at capacity and no more were being admitted, even if they had tickets.

Noticeably, the police had set up imposing barriers between the Trump event and the March for Truth event, set directly in the street that the two venues shared.

Inside the Coliseum, Trump rallied his fans by speaking of “caravans” and said, “If we didn’t do that shutdown, we would not have been able to show this country, these politicians, the world what the hell is happening with the border. That was a very important thing we did.”

Though Trump has said that El Paso was unsafe before the fence, the data does not bear that out.

Another view unfolded in the baseball diamond across the street. Wimberly and Manning found their place in the crowd, and a dissenter shouted crudely at the crowd from behind the fence, attracting some attention as a Tejano band played to keep the crowd energized.

O’Rourke took the stage, and launched into boasting that El Paso is “one of the safest cities in the United States of America. Safe, not because of walls, but in spite of walls. Secure, because we treat one another with dignity and respect. That is the way that we make our communities and our country safe.”

Like the marchers before him, he switched to Spanish, adding, “Aquí podemos mostrar que si queremos asegurar nuestras comunidades, necesitamos tratar cada persona con dignidad, con respeto.” [Here, we can show that if we want to secure our communities, we need to treat each person with dignity, with respect.]

The crescendo of the rally came as Beto discussed El Paso’s activism under Trump. He proudly proclaimed that during the administration’s policy of child separation, El Pasoans came to Tornillo to bear witness, and to protest.

As he announced that Tornillo was now completely “closed and out of business,” the crowd swelled, erupting in a chant of “Si se puede!” which O’Rourke went quiet for, and finally, joined in on.

As the March for Truth drew to a close, crowds spilled out of the stadium and onto the street once again. The jumbotron at the Trump event was visible from the road, and audio from the speakers filled the air.

But the law enforcement officers from earlier had now donned riot gear, and they lined the entire barrier that had been laid out earlier. The officers directed the crowd emptying from the march to head south, and sent the heavy stream of people leaving the Trump rally early northward.

Holding long guns and pulling their masks down, the officers were refusing to let attendees from either side cross the street, despite attendees saying their cars were on the other side, or that they had tickets for the other event. The crowds continued to go their separate ways.

“Is this so we can’t intermingle?” a pedestrian asked. “Yes,” the officer replied.