Q&A with Scott Nicol, South Texas Artist and Environmentalist, on 14 Years of Activism Against the Border Wall

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Q&A with Scott Nicol, South Texas Artist and Activist

“We need to reject the narrative that the border is a scary place that needs to be militarized.”

Scott Nicol is a South Texas teacher, artist, and activist. Since 2007 he has been educating the public and the media about the border wall being built through his community in the Rio Grande Valley, in the state’s southernmost tip.

In Texas, due to US-Mexico treaties on water management and flooding, much of the border wall is built up to two miles from the Rio Grande, which divides the two countries. This means that the wall cleaves through churches, universities, and backyards. Residents live with the border wall in ways that other Americans cannot imagine.

I first came to know Scott in 2008 when I was writing my first story for The Texas Observer about the border wall under construction in the Rio Grande Valley. At the time, there was little critical information in the media about this issue, and even less information from the government. Scott, along with his partner and fellow educator, Stefanie Herweck, and dozens of other community members, landowners, and environmentalists had formed the No Border Wall coalition in 2007 to begin educating themselves and the public and organizing against the wall’s construction. Over the years, the grassroots movement has organized protests, raised awareness, and lobbied elected officials. When Scott isn’t teaching art at South Texas College, he’s writing op-eds, co-authoring reports with Stefanie on the environmental damage from wall construction, and giving presentations around the country. Over the years, he’s educated an untold number of journalists—including myself—as well as legislators and others on the impacts the wall has had on his South Texas community.

In July, I visited Scott in McAllen, Texas, and we talked about the homemade wooden ladders he often finds near stretches of the wall, which he’ll be repurposing for an art exhibit this fall at Austin College in North Texas. After I got home to Tucson, I followed up with him on the phone, because any conversation with Scott leads to several other interesting tangents. Our conversation has been condensed and lightly edited.

In 2007, when you helped form the No Border Wall coalition, what was that like, and what came out of that experience?

Well, there were several people concerned about what would happen if walls went up. We were looking around South Texas and thinking, you know, if they put a wall here, or here or here, what kind of damage is that going to do? And I remember, pretty clearly at the time, people were saying, “Oh, no, it’s never gonna happen. It’s ridiculous. They would never build a wall here. Because why would they?” And then the Secure Fence Act passed.

It started to look more and more like it was going to happen, because there was legislation that said it had to happen. There were several people in the group that I was interacting with who were primarily concerned about the environmental impacts in the wildlife refuges. But we were also trying to make sure that we included as many voices as possible, as many concerns as possible. We had people who were concerned about the impacts that a wall might have on immigrants and people, on landowners, and on the economy. We all got together out at Betty Perez’s ranch in probably May 2007. And that’s where No Border Wall got its start.

Oh, wow, out at Betty’s ranch. I had no idea. [Betty Perez is a longtime environmentalist and rancher in the Rio Grande Valley].

Oh, yeah. Initially there was a lot of back-and-forth, like, “We have to provide an alternative means of securing the border, so they don’t have to build a wall.” But then there were others, like me, who thought, this is ridiculous. There’s no reason to be militarizing the border, and we shouldn’t have to trade one type of militarization for another. And we should just take a very emphatic stance that we do not accept border walls, not in South Texas or anywhere else on the border. And that’s how it got started. We didn’t have any real institutional support. I remember scrounging to try to get money together for an order of bumper stickers. We were really trying to figure it out as we went along and trying to cobble together any resources we could.

What did you learn from helping organize the coalition?

We didn’t have any kind of institutional power structure. There wasn’t a leader. It was a very horizontal organization and very much done by consensus. It was also all volunteer, so that made it more difficult. So, whoever was doing the most work was as close to leadership as we had. The number of people would also expand and contract. It varied dramatically. During the Obama administration, after the wall building stopped after the first couple of years and people didn’t see it as much of a looming threat, we had a lot fewer people working on it. And then when Trump came into office and started beating the xenophobic drum, a lot more people were drawn into the struggle.

A No Border Wall protest in 2019 near the McAllen, Texas, airport as President Trump arrives for a border security briefing during the government shutdown. (Photo credit: Scott Nicol)

And how have border walls impacted your community and the environment since the government started building them? They started building in 2008, is that right?

Yeah, late 2008. Basically, like the tail end of the Bush administration. But most of the walls in the Rio Grande Valley were built in 2009 and 2010. And then you get the Trump administration walls after that.

And how did the Trump-era walls differ from those of the Obama and Bush administrations?

The Trump-era walls have a bigger footprint, literally. The enforcement zones, [areas which are cleared on either side of the border wall for patrol roads, surveillance towers and light posts] whether they’re going through a farm field or a wildlife refuge, instead of it being clear cut for maybe 40 feet from the base of the wall, it’s 150. That is the standard that they’ve established. And of course, the wall is taller and uglier. And it ramped up the performative militarization that it’s always got to be bigger. Trump could never settle for building a wall the same height as what Bush or Obama built, even though increasing the height didn’t really make any practical difference, aside from jacking the cost up. And then you have to always have more boots on the ground, more drones, more lights, and bigger enforcement zones. The only real imperative is it looks bigger than what came before.

And what kind of impact has it had on the environment?

There’s more acreage of wildlife refuge that has been clear cut to create enforcement zones. You’ve got the lighting that’s on all night, along those areas. And that really keeps nocturnal animals from functioning because they didn’t evolve with 24-hour floodlights. And I think the most important thing is the fragmentation of habitat. We’ve got these wildlife refuges that are supposed to allow terrestrial animals to move around from one part of a given patch of forest to another to look for food and mate and everything. And they can’t get past 15-to-18-foot bollard walls. No terrestrial animal can.

Right. And then there’s all this land that is south of the wall. And increasingly, I’ve run into younger people who have never been down to the river. Or been to the wildlife refuges. And many residents see the Rio Grande as a forbidden zone. You don’t go down there. It’s dangerous.

Yeah, that’s absolutely true. It’s bizarre. I was talking to Marianna [Treviño-Wright] at the National Butterfly Center, and she grew up down here, and she remembers waterskiing in the Rio Grande when she was in high school. And recently there was a group of college interns who are going to be working at the butterfly center learning about ecotourism. And only one of them had been to the Rio Grande in their life, and they all grew up here. So, the area from the levees to the river is now like this militarized no-go zone.

There definitely seems to be a lot more fear of the river and who’s coming across it. Or this feeling that “I’m going to get in trouble if I go near there.”

There’s no reason to fear either the river or the people who are coming across it. But you see in the news that the Border Patrol made these apprehensions, or you try to go there, and the Border Patrol stops you from doing so and says, “Oh, I’m sorry, it’s too dangerous. You can’t go back there.” People internalize that. And so after a while, they don’t even try.

Where do you see activism around the border wall headed in the future? And what about the land south of the wall?

We need to reject the narrative that the border is a scary place that needs to be militarized. It’s great to stop building walls. It’s an obvious good first step, and maybe fixing some of the damage that can be fixed would be another good step. But it has to be taken further than that. We have to say this is not an area that is only for fighting off these imagined national security threats. Because all this is being done, right now, to stop people who are mostly asylum seekers. There are walls going up, National Guard is being deployed, Border Patrol is all over the place. But the people who are coming across are families who are desperately trying to escape poverty and violence. They’re not scary people for the most part. And so, this idea that the environment has to be sacrificed and families that have owned their property in the area for 100 years, they have to sacrifice that property. For what? To stop a mother who is bringing her toddler to the border, because she’s trying to escape something terrible? That’s what we’re afraid of?

You used this term “performative militarization,” which I think is really appropriate, because it is like this performance zone, right? Where people come for campaign ads and where journalists get their photographs and do their stories.

Yeah, that’s exactly what it is. That’s what the wall has always been, a backdrop. That’s why the Government Accountability Office found that, under Trump, the Army Corps of Engineers emphasized putting up a mile of the visible part of the border wall and then told the contractors, “You can go ahead and put in the lights and the other stuff later. All we really are focusing on is the thing that can be a backdrop for a press release.” And we even have areas where the bollards are painted black for an eighth of a mile, and then they’re rust colored on either side. That’s where the administration came in and did a plaque-signing ceremony to announce that they had built hundreds of miles of new border wall. It’s nothing but performance. They create a narrative. And then they pretend that they are solving the problem that their narrative says exists. It’s just false from beginning to end.

In the Rio Grande Valley, acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf commemorates the construction of 400 miles of border wall on October 29, 2020, five days before the presidential election. (Photo credit: Scott Nicol)

You’re an artist, and I heard you’re planning to do an art installation with ladders that you’ve found next to the border wall. Can you talk a little about that? When did you first start finding ladders near the wall?

Shortly after walls started going up in Hidalgo County, especially near the Reynosa port of entry. That was around the end of 2008.

And has the number of ladders increased? Are you finding more now?

Lately, there’s been quite a few. It’s always hard to know what that means, though, because I’m only finding them when the Border Patrol picks them up and hauls them over to one of the gates. Then the county hauls them off to the dump. It does seem like there are more now, but the numbers do rise and fall.

And are the ladders always made from wood?

They’re almost always made out of scrap wood. I think one time I saw a metal ladder that looked like it had been pulled from a demolition site. Another time I saw a ladder that was made using rags and T-shirts to tie branches to a thicker mesquite branch.

Wow, so like a functioning ladder made from T-shirts and mesquite limbs?

Yeah, it was like a half-rotten fallen mesquite limb up the middle with crossbars tied to it with rags.

And so, they keep making the wall taller and taller. Do you just find longer ladders?

Yeah, and the bollard walls aren’t hard to climb. In a lot of cases, there’s no need for a ladder at the bollards. Even with the new Trump walls, you see handprints going up the sides of them. I remember seeing in 2012 barefoot prints up the side of a bollard wall near Brownsville. And in the grass, there were a pair of soccer cleats. And somebody figured out that soccer cleats don’t have a grip. So, they kicked off their shoes and climbed it barefoot and left these barefoot prints running up the side of the wall.

What about those anti-climb plates at the top? Does that make it tougher to climb?

I’m sure it makes it a little bit tougher, but it does not seem to be making much of a difference from what I’ve seen.

How do you plan to incorporate the ladders with your art?

I’m planning on doing an installation of ladders. I want to try to keep them as ladders, basically. I don’t want to do some crazy mutation of them or anything. What makes them interesting and worth contemplating is that they show how useless the border walls are, and that you can defeat a multibillion-dollar border wall with five bucks’ worth of hardware. They also really speak to the desperation of the people who are using them. You’re not seeing expensive ladders, you’re not seeing hardware store ladders, and not a fiberglass ladder that telescopes out, or anything like that. These are all homemade. They’re scrap wood. They really symbolize, for me, the fact that this isn’t really about security. It’s about fear of people who are poor, who are desperate economically, who are fleeing violence and moving because their communities have been devastated by climate change. We are throwing this huge military-industrial apparatus at them, which is not just an overreaction but morally indefensible.

So how do you keep up the energy to keep fighting the fight? And how do you not get demoralized?

It’s just, like, you know, ongoing deep-seated rage [laughs].

[Laughs] Really, fueled by rage?

Yeah, that’s pretty much it. I should get a T-shirt.