EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – The hate speech and misinformation that sparked the Aug. 3, 2019, mass shooting in El Paso lingers in American politics and social media, putting additional lives at risk, Latino leaders say.
The attack allegedly carried out by a North Texas man upset by the “Hispanic invasion of Texas” claimed the lives of 23 people and left 23 others wounded. On Tuesday, El Paso residents will mark the second anniversary of the tragedy not with resentment, but with the unveiling of a community healing garden.
“August 3 of 2019 was a real opportunity for us as a country to learn from the power of hate speech, the danger and the risk of it and to really turn the corner as a nation. Unfortunately, our country has missed that opportunity,” said U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas. “We are seeing again elected officials using xenophobic language, hateful language and they use the tools of social media to spread it widely.”
Speakers at a Monday forum in El Paso sponsored by the League of United Latin American Citizens expressed concern over Texas politicians railing against illegal immigration, failing to pass gun control laws to prevent more mass shootings and sending Spanish-speaking communities mixed messages regarding COVID-19 protections.
Escobar said state leaders with “the loudest bully pulpits” are fueling hatred such as that which inspired the El Paso mass shooter while showing no interest in gun-violence prevention legislation. “It should be no surprise to us that will create incredible harm in our state,” she added.
On June 16, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law a bill that allows Texans over the age of 21 to carry a firearm without a license or training. HB 1927, commonly referred to as the “permitless carry bill,” would take effect Sept. 1 of this year.
When the Texas House approved the legislation, state Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, said state leaders failed to keep their promises after violence struck his community. He described visiting a school cafeteria with Abbott where families of victims waited for news.
“When the doors were closed, I heard lots of promises. I haven’t heard them since,” Moody said in May. “That’s the room I sat in that day. None of you shared that experience.
“One day, a tragedy will come to your community. I pray that it doesn’t,” he said.
A spokesperson for Abbott fought back against the suggestion that state leaders didn’t follow through on their promises to respond to the violence in El Paso.
“Following the horrific shootings in El Paso and Midland/Odessa, Governor Abbott took decisive action, directing state law enforcement to enhance anti-mass violence measures through eight executive orders and supporting DPS’ safe gun storage campaign,” said Renae Eze, Abbott’s press secretary. “The Texas Safety Action Report recommended the Legislature consider several items. Many of those have been taken up by the Legislature this session, including bills that would codify actions taken by the Governor and the Office of Court Administration following the report.
“The Governor will continue working with the Legislature and taking action, as laid out in the recent Texas Homeland Security Strategic Plan, to protect all in the Lone Star State.”
Abbott has also been moving aggressively to intervene in what he terms an immigration crisis at the border. He has deployed Texas state troopers to South Texas and suggested unauthorized migrants will be arrested for trespassing on private property. Last week, he issued an executive order “restricting ground transportation of migrants who pose a risk of carrying COVID-19 into Texas communities.”
In May, he issued an executive order banning local governments and school districts from mandating the use of face masks.
Escobar said that could lead to a new spread of the virus, given an increase in new cases and the arrival of the highly infectious Delta variant. “The consequences are significant in a community like El Paso where one-fourth of our population is uninsured. We are seeing the Delta variant and cases go up in a community that can least afford it. […] That kind of misinformation kills people,” she said.
Feminist, activist and former El Paso resident Brenda Victoria Castillo said violence against those of Hispanic descent in the United States has taken place since the days of the Republic of Texas.
“I was not surprised of another terrorist act done by a white extremist. Hate and violence against Tejanos and Latinos has occurred for centuries … where Mexicans and Americans of Mexican descent were attacked and lynched by Anglo Texans, including this state’s very own Texas Rangers,” Castillo said.
She called the El Paso attack the “largest massacre against Latinos in modern history” and a racially motivated hate crime fostered by social media. “Innocent lives were taken for no other reason than the fact they were Latinos,” she said. “We are here to tell Facebook and all social media companies ‘enough is enough!’ How many more must die before we hold social media accountable for the violence and harassment that results from their inaction?”
Escobar said social media is “part of what allows” the spread of hatred. “Social media and very powerful platforms have yet to be adequately regulated or controlled either by their corporate owners or, unfortunately, by Congress,” she said. “We are doing everything we can to regulate some of these very powerful corporations through our antitrust regulations but it’s not happening quickly enough and we don’t have enough support yet to have laws passed that will protect people from social media. I hope we are able to gain momentum.”
LULAC has always promoted education and, in the age of fast-moving, unverified social media messages, education can best counter misinformation, said former LULAC national president Belen Robles.
KXAN contributed to this story.