Over Valentine's Day weekend, Miami artist Alessandra Mondolfi and about 50 other activists walked calmly into the U.S. Border Patrol Museum in El Paso and broke into song. "Child, child, child, child, will we ever see you grow? We are standing for your future, and we love you so," they sang. They unfurled banners with messages like, "Can you look your child in the eyes after this?" Using a megaphone, two of the demonstrators spoke of children who have died in Border Patrol custody. Others placed stickers honoring the dead children around the facility.
Within 15 minutes, the protest ended and the group left the museum. But because some of the stickers covered a memorial featuring the faces of agents killed on the job, the demonstration soon stoked outrage. It became national news in the right-wing media world, covered by Fox & Friends, the Washington Examiner, and the Daily Wire. Museum director David Ham claimed workers were frightened by members of the group, noting some wore bandannas on their faces.
Now, two months later, the El Paso Police Department has issued arrest warrants for 49-year-old Mondolfi and 15 other protesters, all of whom are part of a coalition called Tornillo: the Occupation. Three are charged with trespassing, while the rest — including Mondolfi — are charged with felony criminal mischief, a crime that carries a prison sentence of up to two years. The police department called an April 4 press conference to announce the charges and even listed one of the protesters on its most wanted list.
"Several individuals descended upon the museum and began to commit acts that were defined as criminal mischief, criminal trespassing," El Paso Police spokesman Darrel Petry said at the press conference. "They had been asked to leave by some of the museum staff, and they refused."
Mondolfi, whose recent work targets the Homestead detention facility for migrant children, declined to comment on the record Monday. But Tornillo: the Occupation released a statement blasting the arrests and announcing the creation of a legal defense fund. The group said the felony charges — which mean the damages were between $2,500 and $30,000 — are wildly overblown.
"The coalition maintains the allegations made against its members are grossly exaggerated and especially egregious in light of the human rights violations that activists are speaking out against, including the warehousing of asylum seekers under the Paso Del Norte Bridge," the group said, referring to migrants being held under a bridge at the border. The group likened its members' arrests to those of two University of Arizona students who are facing misdemeanors after protesting a Customs and Border Protection event on campus.
Tornillo: the Occupation, named for the now-shuttered Texas migrant detention facility, had previously shared a live stream of the museum protest on its Facebook page. In it, the protesters can be seen singing and holding up their banners inside the museum. A speaker says border patrol agents are complicit in "the violence and the genocide" of migrant youth and families.
The protest group said the demonstration was meant "to highlight the voices that were missing from this memorial and the human rights violations inflicted upon them." The privately run, nonprofit museum represents itself as apolitical but ignores the stories and perspective of the migrants impacted by the Customs and Border Patrol, the activists said.
Two of the protesters — Ana Tiffany Deveze of El Paso and Elizabeth Vega of St. Louis — turned themselves in on Monday. They marched to the police department from a local park, joined by supporters who chanted and held signs that said "Drop the charges" and "Just peel the stickers off."
The El Paso Police Department says it is working with the district attorney's office to extradite the protesters who live outside of Texas.
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