Rev. Alexa Gilmour with a fellow protestor, Rev. Chuck of North Carolina, at the Moral Monday protest in El Paso, Texas on July 29. (Photo courtesy of author)

Topics: Justice | Opinion

Tragedies in El Paso won’t stop me from marching

Days after I travelled to Texas to protest the treatment of migrants at the border, nearly two dozen people were shot and killed at a Walmart

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“Are you safe?”

After the mass shooting in El Paso, Texas on Saturday that left 22 people dead, my phone blew up with messages.

 “I’m safe in Canada,” I replied.

Just a few days earlier, I had attended Moral Monday at the Borderlands, a protest organized by a group called Repairers of the Breach. More than 500 interfaith clergy and others travelled from all over North America, invited by El Paso’s Border Network for Human Rights and by civil rights activist and Imam Omar Suleiman, to bear witness to the Trump administration’s cruel immigration policies. Referencing the commandments to love our neighbours found in all our sacred texts, we made demands for congressional hearings at the border, to end the inhumane practices of child detention, family separation and the “Remain in Mexico” program. We demanded due process for asylum seekers and the preservation of human rights.

On Sunday night, people who had been recently detained shared their testimonies of cold, overcrowded cells, lack of beds and adequate food, and constitutional rights that had been ignored. Children who haven’t committed any crimes have had their shoelaces taken because some, as young as four years old, have tried to hang or hurt themselves in custody. The young are schooled in despair. They don’t “smell like children should smell” or “smile like children should smile.” At least seven children have died inside the U.S. detention system in the last year, after a decade of no reported child deaths in custody. Together, we lamented America’s centuries-old legacy of white supremacy, propagated by church and state doctrines, that subjugates and dehumanizes non-whites and manifests in mass detention, incarceration and shootings.

At First Christian Church in El Paso, Texas on Sunday, July 28, protesters prepared for Moral Monday and heard stories from the recently detained. (Photo courtesy of author)

On Monday, Rev. Dr. William Barber, the president of Repairers of the Breach, and a coalition of interfaith leaders led us to a detention centre, where some detainees had been on a hunger strike for weeks. A passerby yelled “build the wall!” as we stood at the gate and asked to be let in to pray with the detainees. Across the street, members of the Lone Star golf course paused briefly at their tees to take note of us, before hitting balls down green fairways. Barber spoke into the intercom, telling the detention centre guards, “it doesn’t have to be this way.” They answered with silence.

A similar silence fills me now as I wait for the world’s response to this mass shooting. Will it be dismissed, like many of the more than 200 other mass shootings in the States this year, as an isolated incident of a white male with mental illness, rather than terrorism? 

In a statement released after the shooting, leaders of Moral Monday at the Borderlands condemned the attacks on immigrants and asylum seekers by the detention system and the El Paso mass shooter, saying “the extremism of this administration and some even in church, has unleashed a whirlwind of white rage. They will say there is no connection. But the Bible is clear that ‘life and death’ is in the power of the tongue.”

Calls to “build the wall” and “send her back” are part of this administration’s consistent pattern of dehumanization. Eradicate the “other” and take back “our” country against “invaders,” who invariably have darker skins, has been Trump’s clarion call. The deadly effects have not been localized to the border.

Rev. Alexa Gilmour outside the detention centre in El Paso, Texas. (Photo courtesy of author)

Years before I flew to El Paso, Trump’s rhetoric crossed into Canada, helping to unleash the pent-up white supremacy that has never been dormant, but sometimes conveniently shielded from the average white Canadian’s view. The month before the Quebec mosque shooter took aim, he lived on a steady diet of Trump, reportedly trawling the internet 819 times for Trump-related posts. In the year immediately following the U.S. presidential election (2017), police-reported hate crimes in Canada jumped 47 per cent from the previous year, after a few years of slow, steady increases. Two years ago, members of Pegida (a white nationalist anti-Muslim movement) began holding monthly rallies in Toronto. 

This isn’t the first time my friends have texted after a march or direct action to ask me, “Are you safe?” After this week in El Paso, my understanding of the question has changed. I wonder if any of us are safe? My daughter is brown. My sister is queer. My best friend is Muslim. I am a woman and scared for us all. 

As I marched towards the black gates of the detention centre on Moral Monday, I grieved for the strangers inside who are beloved family members and friends of people I may never meet. When I heard about the shooting on Saturday, I mourned for the people I met who are now burying their dead. I thought about our human family and knew I could never let fear stop me from marching. 

As the new week dawns, I carry glimpses of two possible futures. The one where more guns and higher walls tear us apart, and the one where people from all over North America cross state boundaries, national borders and cultural differences to stand together as one human family. Only the second will save us.

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Rev. Alexa Gilmour is an activist clergymember who serves Windermere United Church in Toronto. She is the founder of the Stone Soup Network, and a member of the Canadian Sanctuary Network and Toronto’s Faith in the City. For the past two months of her sabbatical, Rev. Alexa has been serving as a volunteer on the Repairers of the Breach organizing team.

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  • says:

    In the interest of the Broadest view of justice perhaps some coverage of the other side of the issue could help your readers be better informed about the complexity of the issue. Rather than simply take at face value the implications of this minister that the Border Patrol who represent an evil president is cruelly abusing people. She ought to give us more detail on how some of these kids died (the information is out available). More details of that please before we jump on your rage wagon. Oh and perhaps she could speak of the role of the Mexican drug cartels in turning a profit on the misery of these immigrants. They are truly the cruel ones here. A little more outrage at their injustice would be appropriate. There is a lot of angry sentiment but little analysis in this opinion piece. Just accusations by a Canadian no less about American domestic policy. Not helpful for solving the crisis. For those who want another view point of this issue to balance this opinion piece you could start by watching the video at Prager U- https://youtu.be/WbfSTms0BJw. Save the ranting and get fully informed.

  • says:

    I've been watching U.S. politics intently since Donald Trump announced his candidacy. My mind boggles at the fact that after his constant and continuing lying; his blatant racism against Muslims, Mexicans, Central Americans and Blacks; his firing of anyone who won't pledge loyalty to him; his obvious lack of empathy for anyone but himself and all the rest, that there are those who still follow him and will vote for him again. My personal thought is that these people are either just like him or they take great joy in being ignorant and apathetic. It wasn't too many years ago that it was the highest insult in the USA to be even thought of as having communist leanings, yet today, people seem not to care that Trump and his ilk are in Putin's pocket.

    No matter what political stripe a person is, how can a mom or a dad condone separating children from their parents; putting them in cages; not taking proper care of them and leaving them to imagine the worst. To me this presidency is reminiscent of Nazi Germany with the Republican party being Hitler supporters. We are all migrants. Humanity has been on the move since we've been on earth. We each seek to have a safe and decent life for ourselves and our kids. How is it that people like Trump get elected? And why is it that in the U.S. the person with the most votes doesn't win the election? They call themselves a great democracy, but that's a fallacy. Corporations and organizations like the NRA buy politicians. The NRA has given Mitch McConnell more than a million dollars in contributions and I feel sure that other corporations have other members in their pockets as well. The ordinary person doesn't have a chance in such a strange "democracy." Loving your enemies, as Jesus said, is one thing but as the old cartoon character Pogo once said. "We have seen the enemy, and it is us." The U.S. is being devoured from within from a wannabe king and his loyal followers and, it seems as long as he is in office, he is above the law. How will anyone ever trust them again?