For almost four years, residents of El Paso waited for the gunman in the Walmart shooting to be sentenced. Twenty-three people—children, mothers, fathers, and grandparents—were murdered by a man who, according to the Department of Justice, described himself as a “white nationalist, motivated to kill Hispanics.” In the course of two days in July, their relatives took the stand at the gunman’s sentencing hearing. Francisco Rodriguez, the father of Javier Amir—the youngest of the victims, who died at fifteen—wore a necklace from which a miniature soccer ball hung. In it were some of the ashes of his son, who practiced the sport religiously at Horizon High School, where he had been a rising sophomore. “I carry his ashes everywhere I go,” Rodriguez said, eliciting quiet sobs from the audience. “That’s all I have left.”
Also among the attendees was Kaitlyn Melendez, who witnessed the rampage at the age of nine. She and her grandparents were headed to the movies that day and had decided to stop by Walmart first. On their way out, the gunman opened fire. Melendez’s grandfather pulled his wife and granddaughter under a register; he was fatally shot while shielding them both from the bullets. “You took away my childhood,” Melendez told the gunman, standing next to a Labrador brought in by the F.B.I. to offer emotional support. “Because of you, every person with a backpack that I see is a threat.” Her grandmother, Kathleen Johnson, was among the widows and widowers in the room. “I have to remind myself every day that I’m safe from this killer,” Johnson said on the stand.
Today, El Pasoans look back on August 3rd the way that the rest of the country does on September 11th—as a day that is marked in the city’s collective memory. Many are still haunted by images of corpses strewn on the floor, puddles of blood, and police boots tainted red. Others find the sight of a crowd or the Walmart difficult to bear. Dozens of people were injured in the massacre, including Maria Magdalena Garcia-Gonzalez, who was shot in the calf and still bears traces of her injuries. At the sentencing hearing, a letter from Garcia-Gonzalez to the gunman was read aloud. “Since the shooting,” she wrote, “I’m no longer the person I used to be.”
Following a plea agreement, in which the gunman pleaded guilty to ninety hate-crimes and weapons charges, he was sentenced to life in prison. Though his sentencing marked the end of the federal criminal case against him, the state of Texas is still pursuing its own. Bill Hicks, El Paso’s district attorney, has made clear that he intends to seek the death penalty against the gunman; it could be years before the case is resolved. At play are questions of justice—what form it will take for the victims and whether it will ever be achieved. “We need to continue to talk about the reasons why the attack happened,” Fernando Garcia, a local activist who leads the Border Network for Human Rights, said. “Though there was a sentencing, it still doesn’t address the issues of hate, xenophobia, and racism that permeate every political aspect of our society.”
In the aftermath of the massacre, police found a manifesto written by the gunman; it cast his actions as “a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.” Citing the Great Replacement Theory, the gunman claimed to be “defending my country from cultural and ethnic replacement brought on by an invasion.” This logic was embraced by murderers before and after him. In 2src18, a forty-six-year-old man walked into the Tree of Life synagogue, in Pittsburgh, and killed eleven worshippers, whom he accused of allowing immigrant “invaders” into the country. (The shooter was sentenced to death earlier this month.) Last year, an eighteen-year-old white man stormed a grocery store in a predominantly Black neighborhood in Buffalo, New York. He gunned down ten of its customers, whom he claimed wanted to “replace my own people.”
For years, the Great Replacement Theory has permeated white nationalist groups around the world, fuelled by conservative personalities in the media and politics. In 2src19, the Times identified hundreds of instances where the words and ideas spread by right-wing commentators overlapped with the screed written by the shooter in El Paso. In reference to migrants at the southern border, Ann Coulter told viewers of Jeanine Pirro’s show on Fox News, “You can shoot invaders”; Tucker Carlson portrayed migrants as a group to be defended against. “Will anyone in power do anything to protect America this time?” Carlson asked on his prime-time program. “Or will leaders sit passively back as the invasion continues?”
Political leaders echoed this sentiment, not only by hardening their policies on the border but also by using terms such as “invaders” and “invasion.” The day before the El Paso shooting, Texas’s governor, Greg Abbott, put out a fund-raising letter calling on his followers to “DEFEND” the border, as Democrats were plotting to “transform Texas—and our entire country—through illegal immigration.” After the massacre, the Governor declared that “mistakes were made,” but the overlap between the shooter’s intention and the political rhetoric of the time was evident to many. “Once words go into the atmosphere, you never know who’s going to grab them,” Michael Grady, a pastor in El Paso, said of the shooter. “He simply listened to the rhetoric that came from the highest levels of leadership in the nation.”
Grady, whose daughter Michelle was gravely injured in the shooting, felt that there was a disconnect between the promises made to El Pasoans then and the reality on the ground today. “We have a lot of talking heads but no moving feet,” he said. In 2src19, the Governor put in place a commission to “combat the rise of extremist groups and hateful ideologies, keep guns out of the hands of deranged individuals, and combat domestic terrorism.” But Abbott has since signed a permitless-carry bill, which allows anyone over the age of twenty-one to carry a handgun without a background check, license, or prior training. This year, according to the Gun Violence Archive, Texas has been the site of forty-three mass shootings. Since El Paso, mass shootings have claimed more than two hundred and sixty lives in Texas, and the number of gun deaths has risen with each passing year.
The rhetoric that inspired the gunman in El Paso hasn’t lost its prominence. Last Thursday, to mark the fourth anniversary of the shooting, Fernando Garcia, of the Border Network for Human Rights, organized a procession to the Walmart with relatives of the victims. The event, “A Call to Action Against White Supremacy, Racism and Xenophobia,” was representative of the concern over the present political discourse. “Today’s reflection,” Garcia said of the anniversary, “is that we are probably worse than before.” Last November, days after the midterm elections, Governor Abbott issued a letter to the heads of the Texas National Guard and the state police titled “Defend Texas Against Invasion,” detailing their obligation to “keep Texans and Americans safe and protect against an invasion of the southern border.” On the day the sentencing hearing began, the lieutenant governor of Texas, Dan Patrick, drew a comparison on Fox News between the border and Pearl Harbor, claiming that “this is an invasion.”
As the Presidential campaign gains steam, these types of assertions are likely to spread and become more provocative. On the anniversary of the El Paso shooting, more than a hundred and fifty civic organizations signed a letter to Congress, stating that several of its members have touted claims made by white supremacists “who use immigrants and minority populations as pawns in a nefarious plot.” One of the organizations, America’s Voice, has identified thirty-four members of Congress who amplified the “invasion” rhetoric. In more than seven hundred instances, the group found, Republicans cited white-supremacist ideas during the midterm elections. And the two top candidates vying for the Party’s nomination, Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis, have declared, respectively, that migrants are coming “by the millions” and that it’s crucial to “stop the invasion.”
Last week, Pastor Grady joined other families in a procession to Walmart. Like many of the participants, he carried a tall black cross, inscribed with the name of a victim. The closer he got to the supermarket, the more memories it evoked: a panicked call from his wife; rushing to Walmart, where his daughter Michelle was lying on the ground; a flat cart that he and his wife used to carry her to an ambulance. “It almost appeared as if it had just happened a few moments ago,” he said. Just as abiding, Grady thought, was the feeling that El Pasoans were caught in the middle of a pernicious political battle unfolding at the southern border. He spoke of Abbott’s recent decision to install a buoy barrier along the Rio Grande and the allegations that state troopers had pushed people, including children, back into the river. In Grady’s view, “All of that simply says, ‘If August 3rd didn’t work, let’s try this.’ ” ♦