Everyone knows where Uvalde, Texas, is now. Following the death of nineteen children and two teachers at Robb Elementary School, the town has become a site of pilgrimage for those tracking school shootings in an otherwise indifferent United States. Many come to pay respects at the memorial that has grown just outside the elementary school. Even movie star Matthew McConaughey—who was born in Uvalde—paid a visit to speak with traumatized families. At the start of this month, it was reported that the funerals for the children would take place over the next two-and-a-half weeks. Special caskets have been donated by a Texas manufacturer, a morbid offering suitable for a devastated town. Morticians have had to work around the clock to accommodate the glut of bodies from the massacre.
In the news reports and analyses that have been written since the May 24 school shooting, Uvalde comes across as an quiet Texas town of aspiring immigrants, with words like friendly and tight-knit used to describe the community of fifteen thousand or so people. The image this conjures is that of a wholesome place where death and violence were not matters of course and where there was an easy coexistence among working-class people across racial and ethnic divides. Everything, the community and media seems to want to declare, was fine until this fateful day when a deranged teenager with a deadly AR-15-style rifle decided to mow down young children and their teachers, while most of the police and Border Patrol just stood around outside.
A closer look reveals a different story—of a town riven by racial disparities with patterns of harassment and persecution. One fissure has been created by Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s launch of a state initiative to hunt down migrants. In March of last year, Abbott, who may be seeking to burnish his far-right credentials to prepare a bid for the Republican presidential nomination, launched “Operation Lone Star” a $3.9 billion anti-trespass initiative that has deployed thousands of Texas National Guard and Department of Public Safety (DPS) personnel all along the Texas border. These state police roam the border areas and adjoining towns using the state laws against trespass on private property to flag down anyone who may look like an illegal migrant (read: anyone who is not white) and detaining them. The Texas Tribune reported that hundreds of people had been detained without charges and dozens held for more than a month, with little to no legal assistance.
With this spring’s primaries approaching, Abbott’s Operation Lone Star went into overdrive—by February, the number of those rounded up for trespassing had reached twenty-eight hundred. Uvalde—considered a “border zone” town since it is about eighty miles from Mexico—is part of the dragnet, its police department of under twenty police officers receiving over $500,000 in addition to their existing $4 million budget. Much of it was spent “hunting” migrants who authorities allege are drug dealers or human smugglers. Given that most people illegally crossing the border are racially profiled brown or Black, only white people in the town are safe from being stopped by these militarized cops. It is safe to say that the white people and the brown people in Uvalde live different realities and enjoy different privileges.
Earlier this year, a lawsuit was finally filed against the governor’s initiative, which uses state law provisions to enforce immigration laws that fall in the ambit of the federal government, primarily the Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The lawsuit alleges that the “catch-and-jail” policy is unconstitutional and demands $5 million for the victims who were wrongfully arrested and imprisoned by Abbott’s migrant-hunting cops.
Given the racial dimension of these lurid efforts at human hunting, white supremacist groups also jumped in to claim a piece of the action. Less than two weeks before the shooting at Robb Elementary School, “Patriots for America,” a racist militia, was operating in the area. The Los Angeles Times reported that the group’s founder Sam Hall and his heavily armed followers were roaming the area “helping” Border Patrol and other law enforcement personnel. The militia patrolled at Black Lives Matter protests and has also provided protection to Confederate statues. During their patrol of the border, militia members like Hall describe existing efforts by law enforcement as deficient, allowing too many migrants in.
The close relationship between Patriots for America and the Border Patrol unit that was present at Robb Elementary School is also notable. Patriots for America calls itself a “Christ-centered” organization; the ACLU describes it as a racist organization with untrained members performing law enforcement activities. The Border Patrol Tactical Unit team that the Uvalde police kept asking for (while teachers and children begged for help from inside the school) was patrolling forty minutes away. This was the same unit that President Donald Trump used to quash protesters in Portland, Oregon, following the killing of George Floyd. Agents from the unit were also deployed by Trump to monitor “sanctuary cities,” where they grabbed the allegedly undocumented and put them in detention.
In and around Uvalde, overheated rhetoric about the “invasion” of migrants was evident in the weeks leading up to the shooting. Some of it was led by Uvalde’s mayor, Don McLaughlin, who appeared on the Tucker Carlson show in March and described the situation as a “powder keg” about to blow up. McLaughlin and others were blaming the Biden administration’s decision to rescind Title 42, the Trump-era measure that enabled the government to refuse entry to asylum seekers on public health grounds, claiming it would lead to “total chaos” in towns like Uvalde. Yet McLaughlin was on the record almost a year earlier stoking the same fears, telling Carlson that Uvalde was already like “the wild, wild, west. We have car chases on a daily basis, we have immigrants jumping off trains, we have them coming into towns . . . in our schools. It’s just non-stop.”
All of these factors—from a white supremacist militia, to militarized police, to a national guard incentivized to hunt and prey on “suspected migrants,” to a mayor gleefully fear-mongering about an imminent migrant onslaught—paints a picture of a dreadful racially riven place. This is not to say that the gunman was intentionally committing a racially motivated act of mass slaughter. It does, however, provide some insight into why and how the members of law enforcement that were gathered at the school for over an hour sat about waiting for a tactical Border Patrol Unit to confront the shooter as children and teachers were killed steps away. All the law enforcement organizations in the town were incentivized to have a hunter mentality where the goal was catching brown people and throwing them in detention—yet when an actual threat to public safety appeared, they seemed to be unwilling or unable to act.
This mentality, of certain people being prey and white-skinned others their hunters, is just the sort of mindset that creates the sort of people who can sit around while brown children die. Many if not all of the law enforcement at the scene likely had experience in rounding up brown children and throwing them in detention. Cruelty of this sort creates an inhumanity that is not limited to a single act, it invited a mindset which dehumanizes brown and Black people and their children. If you spend your days working with a white supremacist militia rounding up brown “suspects,” when you take innocent children and throw them in cages with only mylar blankets for comfort, you become desensitized to the suffering of innocent children and even to their torturous final moments. The guns that the killer used, so easily procured, were one aspect of what made the massacre possible; the other was an environment and a discourse that deemed brown and Black human beings as less human, and not even worthy of rescue.