In the days after a mass shooting in a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, left 22 dead and more than two dozen others injured, local residents, community leaders, and elected officials have forcefully denounced the attack, arguing that the shooting was clearly rooted in racism and white supremacy.
Saturday’s shooting is being investigated as an act of anti-immigrant domestic terrorism by federal authorities, and it is possible that the suspected shooter, who has already been charged with capital murder, will also face hate crimes charges. On Sunday, John Bash, US Attorney for the Western District of Texas, said the shooting “appears to be designed to intimidate a civilian population.” A manifesto allegedly posted by the suspect used anti-immigrant language, referring to Hispanic and Latino communities as a threat to the future of the United States.
But even beyond this document, it is impossible to dismiss the ways race and violence intersect in the El Paso shooting. The city, which shares a border with Mexico, is more than 80 percent Hispanic or Latinx, and citizens of both countries regularly interact in El Paso. (In fact, the Mexican government has said that seven of the killed and seven of the wounded were Mexican citizens, and officials are reportedly trying to determine if the country can take legal action against the suspected shooter.)
The shooting — wielded against a city with a predominantly Latinx population, a population that has found itself a repeated target of racist and anti-immigrant attacks — also comes as the number of reported hate crimes rises across the country.
And in recent years, some of the strongest condemnations of Hispanic and Latinx immigrants have come directly from President Donald Trump. In the days since the El Paso shooting, the president’s rhetoric has been criticized by a number of 2020 Democrats, as well as local officials in the Texas city. They argue that the president’s rhetoric is helping drive growing hostilities against Latinx immigrants and other communities of color.
.@BNHR director Fernando Garcia - "It is the narrative that is coming from the presidency of the United States. From Trump himself has created this tragedy. He is responsible, and his hands are tainted with blood."#ElPasoStrong #ElPasoShooting— KFOX14 News (@KFOX14) August 4, 2019
LIVE: https://t.co/o2JIqvahnK pic.twitter.com/20eplqR7BF
For El Paso, the city has said that it will respond to the recent shooting by taking a stand not only against gun violence but against the ways that this violence often intersects with racism, bigotry, and white supremacist ideology. “This Anglo man came here to kill Hispanics,” El Paso Sheriff Richard Wiles wrote in a Sunday Facebook post. “I’m outraged and you should be too.”
“Somebody came from out of town just to do this to us”
In the hours after the Saturday shooting, the El Paso community quickly began coming together, with hundreds of people visiting blood donation centers as other residents worked to support first responders and members of the media.
On Sunday, El Paso held the first of what will likely be several vigils, with elected officials and community leaders speaking before a crowd gathered at a local baseball field to mourn. The Daily Beast reports that cries of “El Paso Strong!” were repeatedly heard during the often emotional event, as residents promised to join together in the wake of a shooting they said was clearly rooted in hatred.
“He was aiming for Mexicans,” one woman told the Beast.
“Somebody came from out of town just to do this to us,” Lupe Lopez, the friend of a school teacher killed in the shooting, told the Forth-Worth Star Telegram on Sunday. “We’re going to be strong. It’s just going to take time to heal. It’s hard for people living here in El Paso. It’s hard for all of us.”
On social media and in public statements over the weekend, some El Paso community leaders and elected officials quickly decried the attacks as being rooted in racism.
One of the more forceful statements came from Wiles, the El Paso sheriff. In addition to openly arguing that the attacks were racist, Wiles also argued that political officials needed to take a stronger stance on the issue, saying that the nation needs officials who “will stand up and support the diversity of our nation and our state.”
A slightly different argument was made by Martha Bárcena, the Mexican ambassador to the United States. “Xenophobic and racist discourse breeds hate crimes,” Bárcena tweeted on Sunday. “Hispanic communities contribute enormously to the American society. We have to work for a respectful and compassionate dialogue between our countries and communities.”
El Paso leaders blame Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric
As some leaders criticized white supremacy in more general terms, others focused squarely on the rhetoric of Trump, who has made attacking immigrants with dehumanizing language a core feature of his presidency. The argument that the president’s comments have facilitated acts of violence against communities of color is not new, but the El Paso shooting has led to renewed attention on the issue.
In the wake of the shooting, critics have pointed to several statements made by the president, including his March remarks that white supremacist violence was not a growing threat. That statement, as critics pointed out, ignores that there has been a documented rise in hate crimes across the country, particularly in areas where the president has held rallies, according to one analysis from researchers at the University of North Texas.
It’s led to fierce criticism of the president in recent days, including from political figures like former Texas congressman and current presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke. “Connect the dots about what he’s been doing in this country,” O’Rourke, who has made several recent comments linking the president’s rhetoric to the Walmart shooting, told reporters on Sunday. “He’s not tolerating racism, he’s promoting racism. He’s not tolerating violence, he’s inciting racism and violence in this country.”
“He should not come here while we are in mourning,” Rep. Veronica Escobar, the Democratic member of Congress who currently represents most of El Paso, told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Monday. “I would encourage the president’s staff members to have him do a little self-reflection. I would encourage them to show him his own words and his actions at the rallies.”
Trump, meanwhile, has attempted to shift blame for the shooting away from the limitations of current gun laws or the climate of open hostility toward people of color that he has helped foster. Instead, he has argued that an unrelated combination of violent video games and mental health issues are to blame for the shooting — an argument that some other Republican lawmakers have made in an attempt to move the conversation away from the need for increased gun control.
While the president did say that “hate has no place in America,” his remarks avoided his own role in harshly attacking Latino and immigrant communities. Shortly before that address, Trump tweeted that hardline immigration reform should be part of how America responds to recent mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio.
Other members of President Trump’s cabinet have criticized comments linking his rhetoric to the shooting and other recent acts of violence aimed at communities of color. “I don’t think it’s fair to try and lay this at the feet of the president ... he’s angry, he’s upset, he wants it to stop,” acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney said on Sunday. “I don’t think it’s at all fair to sit here to say that he doesn’t think that white nationalism is bad for the nation.”
The president’s actions, however, don’t align with that statement. And as the debate over the shooting continues, El Paso officials say that as the city begins to move toward recovering from the violence, they will fight to ensure that the needs of the city’s residents — and their unity in the face of racist violence and Republican opposition to gun reform — will not be ignored.
“El Paso will never be the same, because a racist came to our city to try and make a point,” Wiles, the El Paso sheriff, wrote on Sunday. “It didn’t work though, because the backlash of this community, as we hold national, state and local politicians accountable, will be the only point that will be made.”