"The river is life, the wall is death."
“I am going to stay here until they leave me alone or they arrest me because I believe that the consgtruction of this wall should stop completely." --Judy Ackerman as she is arrested by the Texas Rangers. This quote and the photograph is from an article from El Diario El Paso which ran a front page feature on the protest. (El Diario's website has more photographs and commentary in Spanish here). The El Paso Times stuck a small article on page six of the morning edition.
Yesterday (12/17/08) I got a call from my daughter Susie Byrd. The construction of the infamous border fence was approaching El Paso's Rio Bosque Wetlands Park, 372 acres of reclaimed natural habitat that sits downriver from El Paso in Soccorro. Judy Ackerman, a member of Friends of Rio Bosque and the Sierra Club, decided to put a stop to the construction. A 20-year veteran of the U.S. Army, Judy knew how to prepare for the occasion. She wore a hard hat and a reflecting jacket, she packed in food and water, she parked at the park's visitor center and walked through the bosque and crossed the irrigation ditch to find the construction site. She arrived at the site in the early morning darkness before the workers and she sat down in the path of the day's construction. She wasn't going to move. The workers scratched their heads and called the authorities. But who were the appropriate authorities? It didn't seem anybody knew for sure. The construction is following the Rio Grande along the levee, and that land belongs to the Water Commission. So the Texas Rangers came, the Border Patrol came, the Sheriff's Department came, the El Paso police came, the El Paso Fire Department came. But what were they going to do? Who was going to arrest her? Surely they called the mayor, surely they called the governor's office, surely they called somebody in DC.
My friend Ben Saenz and I arrived about noon. Judy had been in front of the equipment for five hours. She seemed to be enjoying herself, chatting with the suits and uniforms, sometimes laughing. But she was not budging. She was on the levee that runs between the Rio Grande and the irrigation ditch that borders the Rio Bosque Park. About 15 people were gathered there in on the park side of the ditch in support of Judy and her action. More were to come later, including City Council representative Eddie Holguin. El Diario El Paso had a photographer stationed there for the event, and the Associated Press had a writer. No other media. About an equal number of federal, state and city police officials were there. Likewise a group of hardhatted workers (KIWI Construction out of red-state Nebraska of all places) twiddling their thumbs and making jokes among themselves.
Among the people you'll see on the video are Maria Saldana, the woman in white and a good friend of Judy, who happily busied herself heckling the gaggle of uniforms. The first person interviewed in my video is Billy Addington of the Sierra Club. Billy is a veteran of local and regional environmental activism. He was one of the leaders of the successful effort to stop the creation of a nuclear waste dump in his hometown of Sierra Blanca, Texas. The second interviewee is John Sproul, the director of the Rio Bosque Park. John is an acclaimed environmentalist and naturalist for our region. Years ago I went to the bosque with the Audubon Association and John had us crawling on hands and knees in search of the yellow-breasted chat. Sure enough we found the chat! A great occasion.
Ben and I both had appointments to make. We waited as long as we could to see what would happen, but we left about 130. On our way out the gate into the park had been locked. Luckily Miguel, a young man who works with John Sproul, was right behind us with a key. It had to be KIWI Construction who had locked the gates (only them and park personnel have keys), denying entry or exit to a public park. Surely an arrogant, in not illegal, act. But our little bit of inconvenience was minor to what happened to others.
At 2pm the Texas Rangers handcuffed and arrested Judy Ackerman. She sat handcuffed in the back of a car for an hour while the uniforms tried to figure out what to do. Eventually they took her downtown where she was released at about 5pm. Her supporters were leaving in John Sproul's truck after her arrest. On the way back to the Visitor's Center they met the Texas Ranger (the man in the suit and cowboy hat in the photograph) in charge. They stopped to talk, but in the discussion he recognized Maria Saldana, the woman who had been heckling him. He handcuffed her for questioning, but she refused to be moved. Billy Addington has a cell phone video of this scene which I hope makes it to youtube soon.
Other places to refer to this ongoing saga is newspapertree.com and Jim Tolbert's blog. Jim, an El Paso environmental activist, is starting a new blog entitled "El Paso Naturally" which he describes as "Ecological, environmental, food, farm and community-building for a sustainable El Paso Southwest." In his first entry Jim talks about the ecological damage that the fence is doing to our way of life here, and he was wise enough to link to a flickr site which gives some wonderful archival photographs of the fauna and flora of the Rio Bosque Park.
Please note: I am not a journalist. If I've made mistakes in my narrative, please contact me.