Going through my files, I found this old clipping from the El Paso Times dated November 7, 1992. If I recall correctly, that is me in the middle of the picture, reaching down to help someone up the embankment. I just got finished committing a federal crime.
The event was a public show of solidarity with immigrants who were the targets of tremendous harassment and intimidation by the US Immigration and Naturalization Service ("la migra") whether they were lawfully in the US or not. It was sponsored by the Border Rights Coalition, a loose conglomeration of local human rights lawyers, immigrant rights advocates, environmentalists, and students.
The BRC decided that we needed to make a public stand for immigrants rights, and in El Paso nothing is more public than the Rio Grande river, the physical and existential border between the US and Mexico. And what better way to do it than by painting in blood red letters the number to report abusive behavior by la migra to the local chapter of the ACLU.
In central El Paso, the Rio Grande is a militarized zone, with barbed wire, watch towers and armed patrols. But on the American side, it's pretty easy to get to the river. (Not so easy on the Mexican side.) So it was that on a Monday morning, flanked by a camera crew from "Good Morning America" and other press, I and a half-dozen other volunteers carried buckets of paint and brushes to the Rio Grande, and quickly graffittied our message. I'm not much of an artist, but I have to say the "OJO" looks particularly good.
Minutes later, several INS trucks rolled up and a dozen officers got out. They pulled out walkie-talkies and binoculars, as the press turned their cameras on them. And the migra just stood there.
When we were finished painting and the spokespeople from the BRC had done their interviews, we walked back to town while the migra observed from a distance. "Whew, that was close," I said to another volunteer. "I thought for sure we were all going to jail." She just smiled and kept walking.
Only a couple of weeks later did I find out that several of the human rights lawyers thought there was a very good chance that I and the rest of the painters would get snapped up by the INS as soon as the media left. The lawyers had a whole plan worked out to bail us out, and fight the case in court — federal court, since defacing the Rio Grande is a federal offense.
But I received no knock on the door in the middle of the night. For which I am mostly grateful, but a tiny bit disappointed.
And thus ended my only instance of civil disobedience.