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Native demonstration at Border Patrol checkpoint ended with DPS tear gas

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Native demonstration at Border Patrol checkpoint ended with DPS tear gas

12 from O’odham protest groups arrested after confrontation west of Tucson; T-O Chairman Norris calls DPS actions 'appalling'

  • Arizona Department of Public Safety troopers arrested 12 people after breaking up a demonstration at the Border Patrol checkpoint on Highway 85 north of Lukeville, Arizona, on Monday.
    Rafael Samanez/Indigenous ActionArizona Department of Public Safety troopers arrested 12 people after breaking up a demonstration at the Border Patrol checkpoint on Highway 85 north of Lukeville, Arizona, on Monday.

A group of Native demonstrators said they were "violently attacked" by Arizona Department of Public Safety troopers who used "rubber bullets and tear gas" to break up a protest at the Border Patrol checkpoint west of Tucson on Monday morning, arresting 12 people.

Around 7 a.m., a group of about 30 people held what they described as a "peaceful action" at the Border Patrol checkpoint near Lukeville, Ariz., about 110 miles southwest of Tucson. For about two hours the group settled in under the checkpoint's shade structure, and blocked traffic in both directions about 30 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border, and held a prayer ceremony. During the ceremony, activists sang traditional songs, prayed, and attempted to discuss the 1978 Freedom Of Religion Act with officials, the group said.

Monday. Border Patrol and Arizona law enforcement officials did not provide many details about the incident in response to's queries. Finally, late Tuesday afternoon, a DPS spokesman released a brief account.

The ceremony marked Indigenous People's Day—a replacement for Columbus Day—and members of the community prayed for sacred sites and burial grounds that may have been destroyed by the border wall, and "border militarization," they said. Across more than 100 cities, Monday was marked by celebration and activism, including the toppling of a controversial obelisk in the plaza of Santa Fe, N.M.

Around 7:20 a.m., DPS was informed that protesters were blocking Highway 85 in both directions at milepost 57, "creating a significant traffic back-up," said Bart Graves.

"Troopers arrived on the scene and witnessed the protesters blocking the highway," Graves said in an email to some 30 hours after the incident. "Soon after, the troopers gave a dispersal order advising the protesters they had five minutes to leave the area on their own. During this time, troopers attempted to have dialogue with the protesters, but protesters refused to communicate with them."

In recent months, members of O'odham tribal groups, including the Hia-Ced O’odham, Tohono O’odham and Akimel O’odham, have formed two networks to protest the border wall project that is extending along areas that the Natives consider to be their traditional homeland. Members of Defend O'odham Jewed—using the Tohono O'odham word for land—and the O'odham Anti-Border Collective have engaged in a series of actions over the last month to stop the construction of the border wall along the southern edge of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, which includes Quitobaquito Springs — an oasis long-considered sacred.

One organizer, who would only give her name as V, said that demonstrators were conducting a peaceful ceremony Monday, "bringing medicine" and saying prayers when about a dozen DPS troopers lined up across Highway 85. After forming up, the troopers shot tear gas and rubber bullets into the assembled crowd, she said.

The chairman of the Tohono O'odham Nation called DPS's actions "appalling" in a statement issued Tuesday.

"The use of tear gas on O'odham and fellow American citizens exercising their sacred constitutional right to protest is utterly appalling, and not something that should be tolerated in our democracy," Chairman Ned Norris said. "For years, I and other O'odham leaders have been raising the alarm about the very issues that are at the root of this travesty – the wanton destruction of burial and other sites that are sacred to the Tohono O'odham, and that should be protected by law."

Graves told that troopers used smoke from canisters "as a means to gain compliance," however "the protesters remained steadfast."

One man, identified as David Manuel or "Boy," was shot in the chest with rubber bullets, and "toppled" by several officers during the incident, the activist group said on Facebook. "Boy was arrested for simply standing up for the [land] and his people," they said.

Video and photos from Rafael Samanez posted online by the group show at least 20 DPS troopers, some of them encased in riot gear creating a skirmish line before launching a gas canister at the crowd's feet. The DPS troopers then move forward, pushing the group out beyond the checkpoint's shade structure, yelling "move back" in unison, as other officers tossed camp chairs.

"Troopers then deployed tear gas to get the protesters off the highway," he said. "Two protesters were observed trying to throw the smoke and gas canisters back at the troopers, and less-lethal impact munitions were deployed against them," he said. Graves did not specify what "less-lethal" munitions were used.

At one point, troopers tackle one man—likely Manuel—and drove him to the asphalt. He tells the officers, "I'm down, I'm down," and an officer barks "Yeah, you're going to stay down, got it?" 

A Border Patrol spokesman had earlier said that on Monday morning, protesters blocked traffic in both directions at the Tucson Sector checkpoint, and DPS responded. "After providing the protesters ample warning to clear the roadway, 12 individuals were taken into custody," he said. 

"We fully support the right to voice concerns and express opinions lawfully and peacefully under the first amendment," the spokesman added, referring additional questions to state patrol. 

"We are gathering information but won’t be able to provide details until tomorrow," Sgt. Kameron Lee, a DPS spokesman, said Monday.

The agency's Graves said Tuesday that eight adults and three juveniles had been arrested.

"Everyday is Indigenous People’s Day, and we are here to remind the world that this is, was, and always will be indigenous O’odham land, and we will do what is necessary to protect it," the activists said in a statement. 

The group demanded the release of all those arrested on Monday, the end of checkpoints and surveillance towers on Tohono O'odham land, and the end of construction of the border wall, including the section near Quitobaquito Springs. 

Last Monday, members of the group blocked Highway 85 near roads that lead to the border wall construction, blocking construction vehicles and regular traffic on both sides. 

"It’s obscene and offensive to us that local and state governments move to celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day while the federal government blows up our sacred sites, steals our kids, militarily occupies our communities, and shoots at Native Americans praying to protect our land and ancestors from desecration. They want to appropriate our cultures but they don’t want us to practice our religions or protect our lands," the group said, attributing the statement to one "O’odham Auntie" at Monday's incident.

Norris, the tribal leader, said Tuesday that "We, the Tohono O'odham, have been on the front lines of border security for generations. We are committed to national security and law enforcement. We have implemented vehicle barriers, integrated fixed towers, and many other measures to protect the U.S. We have spent our own funds to do so."

"As such, when we say a fortified wall is ineffective, easily bypassed, and a complete waste of taxpayer dollars, we know what we are talking about," Norris said. "This irrational, mad dash to build a wall is destroying our environment, desecrating sacred places, and physically separating our people for no real reason beyond serving as a wildly-expensive campaign prop for the president. This must end."

"The administration's reckless disregard for our religious and constitutional rights is embodied in the dynamite and bulldozers now employed all through our original homelands. This is why these individuals feel they have no choice but to take to the streets to protest these destructive activities. This is a travesty that was entirely avoidable," said Norris, who recently showed his support for Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden in a meeting in Phoenix.

As border wall marches on, protests accelerate

For more than year, contractors have been marching west from the Lukeville Port of Entry to build a 43-mile span of border wall along the southern boundary of the national monument. The project included removing old barriers, including an 18-foot high wall made of steel screens, low-bollard and x-shaped Normandy barriers intended to keep vehicles from simply driving into the U.S. from Mexico's Highway 2, which runs parallel to the international border there. 

Contractors are installing a 30-foot tall "bollard" wall, which includes a "linear ground detection" system, as well as lighting systems on towers that will stand up to 40 feet high. As part of the construction, contractors began drilling for water, leading environmentalists and Native activists to worry about the health of Quitobaquito Springs, one of a very few viable water sources in the desert, and an important part of the culture and history of the Hia C-ed O’odham. 

In November, hundreds came out to Organ Pipe to protest the construction, as contractors slashed through the desert with bulldozers and earth-movers, carving a pathway for construction along the 60-foot-wide Roosevelt Reservation—an easement of land that is controlled by the federal government along the borders of California, Arizona, and New Mexico. Some saguaros were purposely destroyed, while others were marked for removal, while contractors dug up or tore through mesquite trees and other desert flora to continue the project. 

In February, protesters again arrived, this time to show their fury over the project's use of explosives to break open part of Monument Hill, as the construction project removed the older 18-foot high metal for the new, taller border wall. This was followed by a march in August, when dozens walked along the border wall to again protest the construction, and multiple marches and protests in September. 

Despite these demonstrations and a major lawsuit in federal courts, the Trump administration has forged ahead, often racing to complete more than 300 miles of border wall. This week, CBP announced that it had installed 360 miles of wall. 

However, some projects may be held up after the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals told federal officials Friday to stop construction pending a lawsuit launched by the Sierra Club and the Southern Border Communities Coalition. 

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