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Gov. Abbott Courts Border Militia Vigilantism Rooted in White Supremacy and Violence

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As Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s dangerous dehumanization of migrants hits dangerous new lows, CNN reports that “some members belonging to a group known for using demonizing rhetoric and intersecting with extremists” have been discussing gathering in the region. “Maverick County Sheriff Tom Schmerber is monitoring the potential arrival this weekend of people from around the country and is concerned for the safety and security of the area due to the heated rhetoric on immigration,” CNN reported.

These self-described “patriots” could include armed, anti-immigrant militia members that were emboldened under indicted former president Donald Trump, and now appear to be rallying around Abbott’s deadly rhetoric. In recent days, Abbott has publicly lamented not being able to shoot and kill migrants on sight, and, in a dangerous and deliberate challenge to authority of the federal government, blocked some Border Patrol agents from performing their duties, which includes rescuing migrants in crisis. Three migrants, including two children, have since drowned in an area cordoned off by the state of Texas.

The possible arrival of armed militia members to the region risks throwing gasoline onto an already-volatile situation created by Abbott. The threat of vigilante violence at the border is not new. Extremism experts like author and researcher David Neiwert noted that early versions of these anti-immigrant patrols date back to the early 1970s, organized by former KKK leaders David Duke and Tom Metzger. 

“These armed anti-immigrant patrols have continued to attract all sorts of highly questionable characters, including white supremacists and neo-Nazis, who have conducted horrific acts of violence,” America’s Voice Political Director Zachary Mueller wrote in 2019. This includes a terrifying incident in 2019 when armed militia members held migrants at gunpoint in order to turn them over to Border Patrol. Militia members “uploaded videos to social media of exhausted looking migrant families, blinking in the darkness in the glare of what appeared to be the militia’s spotlights,” The New York Times reported at the time.

Too often forgotten is the threat that these militia members pose to all members of borderland communities, regardless of immigration status. In 2009, Arizona residents Raul Flores, Gina Marie Gonzalez, and their nine-year-old daughter Brisenia were shot by three militia members, who invaded the family’s home after pretending they were Border Patrol agents. Flores and Brisenia were killed. Bresenia loved animals, Neiwert wrote in his 2013 book, “And Hell Followed With Her.” The family’s new puppy was allowed only in the living room, so Brisenia was sleeping with it there the night of the home invasion.

Three assailants, including militia leader Shawna Forde, were subsequently convicted of murder. Forde and one of her accomplices, Jason Eugene Bush, were sentenced to death. Both remain on death row.

“National leaders of the Minuteman movement … hastily tried to put distance between themselves and Forde and her group,” Neiwert wrote in 2019. But there is a direct line between these groups and the domestic violence that has continued to terrorize the nation, from mass shootings carried out by racist killers citing “invasion” conspiracy theory, to the deadly insurrection of Jan. 6.

“Among the leaders of those on the ground on Jan. 6 and later convicted of seditious conspiracy in the attack was Stewart Rhodes, founder of the Oath Keepers and long-time promoter of the replacement and invasion conspiracies,” Mueller wrote on the third anniversary of Jan. 6. “In December of 2018, SPLC reported that Rhodes was encouraging his supporters to travel to the southern border to thwart a perceived ‘invasion’ of migrants outlining his replacement conspiratorial concerns,” Mueller continued. Rhodes is currently serving 18 years in prison for his role in the Jan. 6 insurrection.

It is also worth remembering that Timothy McVeigh, who bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people in 1995, was also radicalized by the militia organizing and armed standoffs with the federal government. Hopefully, there are not those like Forde, Rhodes, or McVeigh who hear this latest call as a radicalizing moment to coordinate future violence. But the governor is actively adding the ingredients of dehumanization, a perceived existential threat, and an armed standoff with the federal government that is an extremely volatile mix.        

Extremists inspired by conspiratorial beliefs are again being called to the southern border, this time to the site of Abbott’s challenge to federal authority over the international boundary, “to demand that elected officials honor their oath of office to defend the border against a ‘foreign invasion,’” CNN reported. The extremists are echoing both the Governor’s use of the white nationalist “invasion” conspiracy to defend his actions, and that of the mass murder who killed 23 people in a Walmart in El Paso in 2019. 

These sort of extremist figures have also been aided by their allies in the right-wing media, recently partnering up to harass migrants and humanitarian workers in Arizona, The Border Chronicle reported. “They were going around telling people that they were obligated to give them their information, implying that they were a federal agency, and harassing people and making people feel intimidated,” one humanitarian worker said, harkening that horrific night Forde and her accomplices also masqueraded as federal agents, leaving a child and father dead.

“There are currently no federal laws that address paramilitary activity or protect millions of Americans whose rights are threatened by this type of violent anti-democratic intimidation,” Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) and Congressman Jamie Raskin (D-MD) said in a release earlier this month. “Although all 50 states prohibit private paramilitary conduct, these laws are far too often outdated, underenforced, or ignored.” They’ve introduced the Preventing Private Paramilitary Activity Act, which would create a federal prohibition on paramilitary groups that publicly patrol or engage in paramilitary techniques, interfere with the exercise of someone else’s constitutional rights, and falsely assert authority over others.

“Private military organizations pose a threat not only to national security, but they also present a public safety problem that extends beyond any single state; for example, private paramilitary actors like the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers traveled across state lines on January 6th,” they said. 

But it’s the exact sort of behavior that Abbott is encouraging, through his violent rhetoric and policies purporting to empower himself with federal authority. Some more recent vigilantes have also included QAnon supporters, a conspiratorial movement inextricably tied to Trump. “The same day I was at the camp, other militiamen in two vehicles tried to drive through the middle of the camp while filming on their cell phones,” Melissa Del Bosque continued at The Border Chronicle. David Sarando, board member from Humane Borders, “fears violence if the militia activity remains unchecked,” the Los Angeles Times reported late last year. “It’s not going to be too long before these guys get hot on their triggers, running around playing army and end up killing somebody,” Sarando said. “I think that’s where it’s headed.”