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Misuse of Texas Troopers Has Broader Implications for the US

Authorities Unleashed Militarized Border Force on Students

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators face off with Texas Department of Public Safety officers at the University of Texas at Austin in Austin, Texas, US, April 24, 2024. © 2024 Jordan Vonderhaar/Bloomberg via Getty Images

While the pro-Palestinian student protests and accounts of police crackdowns at universities across the United States in April have fallen out of the newscycle, students at the University of Texas at Austin continue to face criminal charges and other punishment after Texas Governor Greg Abbott deployed the same police used to harm migrants at the US-Mexico border. The misuse of police against student and faculty protesters in Texas was perhaps the most egregious example from across the nation.

It is also a reminder that unchecked abuses carried out at the border often foreshadow abuses of people living in the US interior. And like the students, migrants also continue to pay a high price for exercising their rights in Texas.

The Columbia University encampment of solidarity with the Palestinian people sparked a wave of student solidarity encampments across the nation, including at UT Austin. Student leaders said they objected to the “Israel-led, US-backed genocide in Gaza” and called for an immediate ceasefire as “Israel continues to bomb hospitals, schools, homes, and refugee camps while cutting off food and water to more than 2 million Palestinians in Gaza.” The protesters demanded UT Austin divest from Israeli companies they say are complicit in killing Palestinians.

While university administrators in some states called local police to break up protest encampments, on April 24, Abbott also deployed the Texas Department of Public Safety – the same heavily militarized state troopers used against asylum seekers and border residents under Operation Lone Star.

Abbott’s multibillion-dollar Operation Lone Star has violated the rights of migrants and Texans alike and is enforced primarily by troopers, who have been involved in injuries and deaths under the program, including at least 74 deaths from high-speed vehicle chases. Operation Lone Star has also included attacks on freedom of association and expression of groups providing support to migrants in Texas.

On June 15, Abbott renewed the “disaster proclamation concerning border security,” first issued in 2021 and triggering the deployment of thousands of state troopers to the Texas-Mexico border to arrest migrants on state charges, including criminal trespass. Abbott’s perpetuation of the invasion and disaster narratives are false and risk fueling white nationalist violence.

The deployment of state troopers to disperse the peaceful protest and arrest students and faculty is just one manifestation of the growing misuse of police in Texas, demonstrating mission creep of the troubled Operation Lone Star. Under the program, the Department of Public Safety  regularly carries out air and digital surveillance, racial profiling, unlawful arrests, and deadly high-speed chasesdeaths and injurieshave also resulted from its use of razor wire and buoys with saw blades.

On June 13, Human Rights Watch filed a complaint with the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division calling for a swift investigation into allegations of abuse under Operation Lone Star, including asylum pushbacks and the beating of one migrant man to death.

At both the border and at UT Austin, Abbott’s use of state troopers represents a worrying expansion of state control of public spaces at the expense of rights and democracy.

Abbott deployed troopers with the explicit goal of arresting protesters, making sweeping statements that the protesters "belong in jail" and "should be expelled." Instead of respecting students' rights to assemble peacefully and to freedom of expression, law enforcement arrived 20 minutes before the protest even started and moved to disperse it less than an hour after it began, based on university officials' belief that protesters "intended to break... rules," and not in response to clear evidence of imminent violence or sustained disruption.

At least two Texas troopers escalated the risk of violence by carrying assault rifles, a needlessly intimidating move that could chill free expression and peaceful assembly. During the first day of protests, dozens of officers in riot gear marched toward the protesters. Mounted troopers pushed into hundreds of protestersinjuring a few, while some troopers shouted, “the horses will hurt you,” according to a report by the Austin-American Statesman.

Over two days, police and the troopers arrested over 100 people, many on trespass charges that have since been dismissed. Though state troopers were not the booking agency for more than a couple of arrests, Human Rights Watch witnessed the officers grabbing  and restraining people and assisting in arrests.

The US-Mexico border has long served as a laboratory for state oppression and surveillance, and the events unfolding in Texas echo the trajectory of the US Border Patrol.

After decades of unchecked abuse of migrants and border residents, including racial profiling and deadly high speed chases, the US government deployed Border Patrol officers  in 2020 to US cities to quell protests sparked by police violence against Black people. US residents were surveilled, and, at the funeral of George Floyd, 66 paramilitary agents from Border Patrol, including six snipers, were authorized to use both gas munitions and “deadly force” against mourners under certain conditions.

People and officials in Texas and across the US should become more invested in stopping abuses wherever they begin–in this case, at the border. That means acting immediately to hold the Department of Public Safety and other agencies, as well as political leaders who deploy them like Governor Abbott, accountable for abuses. Otherwise, people across the nation stand to pay the price. 


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