ST. LOUIS – It seems the U.S. Border Patrol and the El Paso, Texas, police, along the El Paso border where immigrant children are being held in sweltering tent city “detention” camps, have a different definition of what constitutes a felony than do we St. Louisans.
Carjackings, armed robberies, rapes, murders and aggravated batteries are the kinds of felonies that flood our news daily. But that’s what St. Louis artist and activist Elizabeth Vega, and four other St. Louisans, are charged with: a felony for putting up stickers with the faces of children who’ve died in Border Patrol custody inside a Border Patrol “museum.”
Vega is an artist and activist whose Art House near Fairground Park, has become a center for activist art in the five years since Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson. She has been busy with her group, Arthouse St. Louis, preparing an art exhibit called “As I See You: A Tribute to Mike Brown Jr.” that will be exhibited starting Aug. 9, the fifth anniversary of Brown’s shooting, at the Urban League’s Ferguson Empowerment Center on West Florissant Avenue.
But part of Vega’s mind drifts ahead to Sept. 6. That’s when she’ll head back to El Paso for her next court date.
“I could face up to a year in prison,” Vega said. “I’m going in fighting, but I’m OK with that, because we have to do something. This demands much more than stickers at the Border Patrol Museum.”
To find out why this artist, grandmother and veteran could face a year in prison on a seemingly absurd “felony” charge, you have to go back to Christmas, when Vega and fellow activists descended on the Tornillo Border Detention Center south of El Paso. On a sun-baked patch of desert 20 miles southwest of El Paso, tents pitched in the broiling heat housed 2,800 children ages 13 to 17 who’ve been separated from their parents by President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy for asylum-seekers.
“The kids aren’t allowed to hug each other, workers couldn’t hug them,” Vega recalled. “It was very military-looking. They had black plastic on the fence so no one could see inside, and it was topped with barbed wire. We blocked 27 buses from going in. We had large puppets on sticks that rose above the fence so the kids would know they weren’t alone.”
Infuriated, Vega returned in February, but this time, she and other activists were armed with postcard-size stickers emblazoned with the photos of Jakelin Caal Maquin, 7; Felipe Gomez Alonzo, 8; and Claudia Gomez Gonzalez, 19, all of whom had died in Border Patrol custody in 2018.
Vega and other activists went to a privately run Border Patrol museum to protest, give speeches and plaster the stickers with the dead young people’s faces and biographies on them around the museum. As they were leaving the area, they were stopped by (and here’s where it starts to get weird) U.S. Military Police.
Although a private business, the Border Patrol Museum is situated on the grounds of the Fort Bliss Military Reservation, meaning the law is the military police, known as M.P.s. The M.P.s took the activists’ names and let them go.
“The stickers are removable. It was to make a point,” Vega said. “We went in, we had nothing to hide, we even live-streamed the whole thing on Facebook.”
Conservative media, from “Fox and Friends” to the Washington Examiner, accused protesters of dishonoring dead Border Patrol agents by putting the stickers on photos of the officers memorialized in the museum. The protesters soon faced a barrage of online hate, including death threats.
And there things sat until April, when suddenly, the El Paso police held a news conference to announce that 16 of the protesters were being charged with felonies, for criminal trespass causing more than $3,000 damage each.
Vega went to El Paso to turn herself in, which is where, in addition to the M.P.s and the mysterious felony charges, things got weird again.
No one could find a warrant for her arrest. Anywhere. She finally managed to turn herself in, and was released, without a court date.
Neither she nor her attorney heard anything else, so they kept scouring online for electronic court filings, and on June 26, discovered Vega had been indicted. No notice was sent to her or her attorney. Again, weird.
Vega and the other St. Louis activists were arraigned last Friday. She posted $1,500 bail and faces her next court date Sept. 6.
She plans on trying to quash the entire thing. But she also has a defense she’ll use.
“Texas has a law that allows ‘crimes of necessity,’ where you can break the law to save another,” Vega said. “These kids are being abused in horrific conditions. I’m a mother, a grandmother and a veteran. This is the start of a genocide in my country.”
If you want to know how peel-off stickers at a museum resulted in $3,000 damage and the odd felony charge, and if you’d like to know why there were no warrants and no communication, and if you’d like to be assured this isn’t a trumped-up political prosecution being done in conjunction with Trump’s Border Patrol, don’t look to the El Paso Police Department for help.
Spokesman Enrique Carrillo will merely refer you to the El Paso P.D. press release at the time of the April charges, which says “…vandals overran, and vandalized, the Border Patrol museum.”
As the fifth anniversary of Mike Brown’s death approaches, Elizabeth Vega is, as always, busy with both art and activism. But she has no intention of backing down.
“We are not pushing toward a fascist state. We are in a fascist state,” she said. “But we’re not powerless. They’re scared. They’re intimidated that so many people from so many states showed up to resist them and what they’re doing to children.”