On Monday, three young women, students at the University of Arizona, will appear in a Tucson courtroom to face misdemeanor charges for “interfering with the peaceful conduct of an educational institution.” They face up to six months of jail time, and their case has riled the campus and echoed around the nation. Their primary offense occurred outside a classroom where uniformed Border Patrol agents had been invited to speak, and where they began to voice their dissent.
“This is supposed to be a safe space for students,” said one of the students, standing at the door and speaking loud enough to be heard by those inside, “but they allow an extension of the KKK into campus.” When the agents cut short their presentation, two of the women followed them, shouting, “Murder Patrol.”
University President Robert C. Robbins quickly backed the campus police decision to press charges against the students, a move met by demonstrations, petitions and letter-writing campaigns. Nevertheless, Robbins maintains that “student protest is protected by our support for free speech, but disruption is not.”
Robbins’ appeal to the 1st Amendment raises the question: What sort of meaningful protest is not also a disruption? And in an age when immigration enforcement is increasingly weaponized to instill fear among America’s least privileged and most vulnerable, which is the more disruptive presence on a campus 60 miles from the border, angry students or on-duty immigration agents?
As a former Border Patrol agent, I too have been met by protests. Last February, I published a memoir about my 3 ½ years on the job. Despite the fact that I am deeply critical of the agency and left it more than half a decade ago, several of my bookstore events were interrupted by people who came to speak out against the Border Patrol. Some were measured and respectful, others were confrontational and, yes, disruptive.
The fury of those protesters, just like the dismay expressed by the Arizona students, is deeply rooted in history and the day-to-day experience of generations of borderland residents. In his new history of the American frontier, “The End of the Myth,” Greg Grandin paints a grisly picture of the Border Patrol in the years following its formation in 1924.
“White supremacists,” he writes, “took control of the newly established [agency] and turned it into a vanguard of race vigilantism.” In those early years, agents “beat, shot, and hung migrants with regularity,” attracting many members of a resurgent Ku Klux Klan to join their ranks.
Such abuses are not just a thing of the past — in 2012, an agent shot 16-year-old Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez 16 times for allegedly throwing rocks from the Mexican side of the international boundary line at Nogales, Ariz. Last year, 20-year-old Claudia Patricia Gomez Gonzalez, an unarmed Guatemalan woman, was shot in the head by agents in Rio Bravo, Texas. According to reporting in the Guardian, at least 97 people have died at the hands of Customs and Border Protection agents since 2003.
The University of Arizona students may not have feared for their lives, but the menace of the Border Patrol is viscerally real on a campus replete with immigrants and “Dreamers.” Fenton Johnson, a professor of creative writing who was teaching a class down the hall from the original incident, wrote a public letter to Robbins. Having been given no notice of the planned visit by uniformed agents, Johnson said, he “immediately and reasonably assumed they were on campus to detain students.” Johnson even feared they might try to enter his classroom. “It was that prospect,” he wrote, “not the demonstration, that distracted me from teaching my course.”
Speaking out against the U.S. Border Patrol from the safety of a college campus, or at a bookstore, is one of the few direct ways Americans might object to the ongoing violence in the borderlands. Except for hand-selected spokespeople, agents rarely appear before the public outside of their enforcement activities. Nor are they effectively held to account by our institutions — the agent who killed Rodriguez, for example, was acquitted in a case that took six years to reach trial, and the agent who shot Gomez has yet to be publicly identified, let alone charged.
It bears mentioning that I was never made to feel unsafe by the shouts or insults of those who protested at my book events. Neither, in all likelihood, were the fully-armed agents who visited the University of Arizona campus. In a video of the confrontation that went viral, the agents can be see rolling their eyes at the camera and smiling.The students who have been charged, however, have reportedly faced harassment, death threats and a shooting scare that led to the evacuation of a campus building.
Public universities are more than just orderly research institutions — they are also laboratories for expressing dissent. When considering the issue of campus disruptions, it is also essential to examine the power dynamics in a given situation. The agents, wearing the uniform of the most formidable country on Earth, were armed and trained to confront any threat to their safety. The students were equipped only with the power of their voices.
Robbins called the protests “a dramatic departure from our expectations.” But it is the University of Arizona, under his leadership, that has abandoned its purpose by shielding government agents from criticism instead of defending the safety and well-being of its students.