It was past 11 p.m., below freezing, and the government-contracted excavators coughed into life. The protesters had been sitting down, standing in the way, blocking border wall construction in Coronado National Forest for weeks starting in November. But that was during the day, when the Southern Arizona sun kept them warm, when they could see what machines they were facing down.
After repeatedly being stymied by protesters during daylight hours, the crew contracted by former Republican Gov. Doug Ducey’s administration tried a new tactic: stacking shipping containers and building the border wall in the dead of night. That’s why the protesters, even as snow fell on their heads, tents and vehicles, decided to set up camp.
“People from a bunch of different groups, with different viewpoints, realize they have the power to stop the wall,” says Parker Deighan, a Tucsonan who volunteers with No More Deaths, explaining why she decided to head down to the border to protest the wall early last December.
Tucson people working with the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sky Island Alliance, the Sierra Club, No More Deaths, the Green Valley Samaritans, the anarchist BCC, found common ground to block the construction dividing the border. Community groups and concerned locals from Bisbee, Ajo, and rural parts of Pima and Cochise County joined, too.
“It wasn’t a unified political stance, but a shared goal,” Parker says.
Their method was always peaceful: they sat down, stood up, hung banners, beat drums, and sang. And when they had to, they pitched tents, lit campfires, mobilized support and supply runs from the city, and worked out how to stay in the way of the wall. They not only halted construction, but pushed the state to reverse course on the further walling off of Arizona from its neighboring state of Sonora.
They came together to pull off a historic act: dismantling a border wall.
In the final weeks of Ducey’s administration, the governor’s office signed a legal agreement with Biden’s administration to remove the shipping containers. In the end, Ducey’s barriers in Yuma and Cochise counties cost taxpayers $202 million.
Ducey’s short-lived wall
After stacking up a row of old train boxcars outside of Yuma in the summer of 2022 in an attempt to seal gaps in the Trump-built border wall, Ducey turned his attention to the Coronado National Forest southwest of Tucson, between the border cities of Nogales and Douglas.
In mid-October, in a mostly empty stretch of mountainous desert known more for animal crossings than for people migrating to the U.S., the Ducey administration began staging the land to build more walls across the Arizona border with México.
Officials with the U.S. Forest Service told the Ducey administration that any wall built on federal public lands would be unauthorized and illegal. And yet, having funneled public money into a “Border Security Fund”, Ducey earmarked $335 million dollars to build a state-funded border wall, and planned, again, to use rusting train boxcars for the project. The state also funneled money to sheriff departments in border counties and to efforts to prosecute and imprison human smugglers.
Immigrant-rights advocates called the measures a rhetoric-filled expansion of the Arizona GOP’s political actions against immigrants, especially people from Latin American countries seeking asylum. Ducey considered the measures critical border security actions for Arizona that the Biden administration refused to take. He declared an emergency, sent troops to the border, and then started building his wall.
There were a number of problems, especially with his last effort. The terrain in the Coronado National Forest isn’t dinner-plate flat like it is outside Yuma, making it much harder to seamlessly line up squared-off shipping box cars. The land that Ducey wanted to build on wasn’t owned by the state, and so any state-backed construction would be illegal without federal approval.
The most formidable obstacle turned out to be not the mountainous wilderness or the federal government, but a ragtag collection of environmentalists, activists, and other Arizonans bent on saving the stretch of national forest from a “Great Wall of Junk,” as Russ McSpadden, one of the lead protesters and the Center for Biological Diversity’s Southwest Conservation Advocate, called it.
The greater Tucson area has long stood up against the state government’s GOP-led anti-immigrant animus. Efforts include steering the sanctuary movement beginning in the 1980s, consistently offering water and aid to migrants crossing the Arizona deserts — even under threat of arrest — and establishing one of the country’s preeminent day labor centers, among other acts of solidarity.
Activists leaned on that history and experience to pull off an unexpected win over Ducey’s border wall.
From Berlin to Coronado
While the community-driven dismantling of the wall is not completely unprecedented, it is a historical aberration. For the last three-quarters of a century, walls around the world have been going up, rarely coming down.
At the end of World War II, there were five international border walls. As of last year, there were 74 walls.
The Berlin Wall, which fell in 1989, is the most famous dismantling. The physical, emotional and generational barrier separated families between East and West Germany. After nearly 30 years, amid rising political pressure, including concerts from Bruce Springsteen and David Hasselhof and, most crucially, massive local resistance — from theater groups and local churches — the wall eventually fell.
In the late 1970s, migrant-rights activists in El Paso and political resistance brought down another wall, sometimes referred to as the Tortilla Curtain, between El Paso and its sister city to the south, Juárez.
Latin American history professor Alexander Aviña says the main similarity between the Tortilla Curtain and Ducey’s border wall is the “power of local community organizations on the ground to expose, protest, and force changes in border wall construction.”
Aviña teaches at Arizona State University and is the author of “Specters of Revolution,” which covers Mexican revolutionary groups in the 1960s.
Aviña notes that the people opposing the wall in El Paso in the late 1970s had the backing of U.S. local and federal politicians from both Democrat and Republican political parties, Mexican-American leaders, as well as the Mexican consulate and the Mexican president.
“The AZ protestors valiantly stopped Ducey’s wall largely by themselves, and they won,” Aviña says.
To underscore the political shift in attitude toward borders, and the difficulty today’s protesters faced, historians will draw from the past, including rhetoric that didn’t stand the test of time. In 1978, Texas Republican gubernatorial candidate William Clements campaigned against further wall construction
“I don’t believe that we and Mexico should have any sort of Berlin on our borders,” he said in a New York Times article. Clements went on to become governor, serving two terms.
Prior to the protesters’ win in El Paso in the late ‘70s, historians in migration and politics analyzing border policy, have to go back to the McNamara Line for another example of people pulling down an international barrier, Aviña says. Cleaving North and South Vietnam, and conceived and funded by the U.S. government, the People’s Army of Vietnam effectively breached and destroyed it after only a few years.
In late October, when Ducey began placing shipping containers along the border on federal land, a handful of locals began heading out to monitor, then protest, and eventually block ongoing construction.
Mikal Jakubal lives in Ajo, about 40 miles from México and west of Tucson and the Coronado forest. He heard about the construction and the resistance on Twitter. A documentary photographer and filmmaker, Mikal has a history of engaging in civil disobedience to protect old growth forests in Northern California and the Pacific Northwest.
“The model of large-scale, non-violent civil disobedience has worked” in the northwest and elsewhere, Mikal says. “We changed the narrative,” he says, but notes that the conditions in Coronado forest were “very unique” and likely not to function as well to stop other wall construction.
“I can’t think of a time that I’ve been watching border wall construction and I didn’t have a deep urge to just stand in front of the machines,” Russ says. He closely monitored and documented the erection of Trump’s wall starting in 2017.
Unlike the spontaneous protests in September 2020 by Amber Ortega and Nellie Jo David, Indigenous Tohono O’odham women who temporarily blocked border wall construction on their sacred and ancestral land in Organ Pipe National Park, protesters in Coronado forest were mostly White. Other O’odham members also protested and briefly blocked the 2020 border wall construction.
Nellie Jo and Amber were arrested.
Ducey’s wall, even early on, was widely understood to be illegal. The Cochise County sheriff also explicitly told Coronado forest protesters that they would not be arrested.
“They were blocking fully-authorized federal contracts,” Russ says, referring to Amber and Nellie Jo. “The feds were acting immorally for sure, but, on the White man’s books, they (feds) were acting within the law” to arrest them.
“We’re not that brave,” Russ says of Amber and Nellie Jo, adding that the women “were a huge inspiration for us.”
Nellie Jo reflects on the two separate Arizona border wall protests. They are both a “reminder that there is community here,” she says. The walls are meant to divide, she says, but they’ve also shown that they can bring people together to resist.
The wall may be the most obvious or symbolic element of border militarization, she says, but it’s more than the wall.
“The border wall trauma is just the most traumatic … (but) I basically lost my hometown” — Ajo, Arizona — “to the border patrol station, the check points,” she says.
She says that the biggest difference between their 2020 protest and last year’s protest to dismantle the wall of shipping containers in Coronado National Forest was jurisdictional.
“The law was on their side,” Nellie Jo says, referring to the recent protests in the Coronado National Forest. But when she and Amber protested the wall on ancestral O’odham land, she says, “the law should have been on our side, too.”
It was mid-October when activists started noticing that old shipping containers, similar to those used to build makeshift portions of border wall outside of Yuma, were being staged at an Arizona National Guard station near Nogales. Through various listservs and text chains, organizations and individuals were put on alert.
A month later, as the boxcars were being stacked up as border barriers, protesters started heading to the construction site from Tucson, rural parts of Cochise County, as well as other parts of the state.
With some intel gleaned from a private security guard — that if protesters were close enough construction crews weren’t allowed to work — they settled on a new plan.
Protesters started stepping in the way.
Russ says there was a power vacuum at play, which gave protesters more leeway.
After weeks of standoff, with protesters effectively shutting down further construction, by early December the builders tried a new tactic: working at night.
The protesters quickly caught on.
Kate Scott, of the Madrean Archipelago Wildlife Center, says they realized on Dec. 6, that the construction work would shift from day to overnight to thwart protesters. They decided to act.
“OK, we have to stay here, make camp,” she remembers the protesters who were on hand spontaneously deciding.
And that’s what they did, setting up a semi-permanent camp along the wall, erecting tents and fire rings in the way of construction vehicles. They named the makeshift encampment Camp Ocelot, and soon more people were drawn in.
“We were hoping to stop them long enough until Ducey was out of office,” says Erik Meza, Borderlands Coordinator at Sierra Club.
“The greatest thing that happened is that people really started engaging,” Erik says. “They realized that the wall wasn’t going to make anyone safer, but was just destroying the environment. The way the community came together, Tucson-based orgs, folks from Cochise County — it was really inspiring.”
Robin Silver, one of the founders of the Center for Biological Diversity, reflects on the history of Tucson standing up against anti-migrant policies: “We have a deep history and a love for our multicultural roots. We understand it. Tucson is ground zero.”
Dismantling the narrative
Erik says the Coronado National Memorial is one of the most biodiverse regions in all of the Southwest and needs to be protected. Dotted with sky islands, and where the Rocky Mountain zone almost touches the Sierra Madres of Mexico, this span of desert is one of the few places on earth where black bears and jaguars can drink from the same spring.
“It’s a place where different ecosystems meet,” Erik says, “and is such an important part of the borderlands ecosystem.”
One of the principal differences, and worries, between the existing wall, largely built or rebuilt under the Trump administration, and Ducey’s boxcar wall, is that the double-stacked boxcars created more of a continuous barrier than the bollard slats, which means that no water or even small creatures can cross the boxcar wall. Activists and immigration experts note that the boxcar wall is actually easier for humans to climb and cross.
While Southern Arizona’s protesters didn’t have the star power of David Hasselhoff in a keyboard scarf, once they realized the power they did wield, they had fun with it.
“The vibe was always beautiful,” Russ says. He and other organizers estimate about 150 people showed up over the roughly two-month period. “It had this sort of festive feel to it.”
Parker describes fire rings, drum circles, even a movie screening and poetry readings. It was a dynamic and diverse group of people coming together, she says.
Like many social and civil-rights movements, the presence of the protesters, and their commitment to remain, are essential to halting the government.
On Dec. 14, the U.S. Department of Justice filed suit to try to force Ducey to take down the wall.
Finally, by Dec. 21 Ducey’s office signed a legal agreement with federal officials two weeks before his last day as Arizona’s 23rd governor. It mandated the removal of all shipping containers in Yuma and the Coronado National Forest.
“Protestors effectively dismantled the wall and once again showed the power of communal direct action,” Aviña says.
Arizona Luminaria reached out via social media to Ducey and his former spokesperson C.J. Karamargin. Neither responded to requests for comment.
Karamargin told the New York Times that the governor agreed to remove the wall because the federal government was installing more-permanent barriers.
“We’ve said from the very beginning that the shipping container program is temporary,” Karamargin said. “We now have indications that they’re moving closer, that they’re more serious.”
With weeks left in the Republican governor’s tenure, the shift surprised some political analysts who predicted Ducey would draw out the legal proceedings with Biden’s administration and leave the so-called Great Wall of Junk up for newly-elected Democrat Gov. Katie Hobbs to deal with.
Daniel Scarpinato, former deputy chief of staff for Ducey, says that “a big outcome” of Ducey’s wall construction “was bringing attention to this issue and how badly it’s been handled by the Biden administration at the federal level.”
“Look at the pictures of those shipping containers,” Scarpinato says. “They are ugly. And it was never intended to be a permanent fix. It was intended, I believe, to be a clarion call nationally of how desperate the state of Arizona is for this issue to be handled.”
How have policies or the narrative changed since Ducey’s wall was put up and taken down?
Scarpinato says that Democrats’ entire 2020 campaign “was predicated on stopping the construction of the wall. They never provided nuance. So they’re now doing that. And I think that the reason that they’ve changed their tune is because of the pressure that has been put on them from Governor Ducey and other governors to call attention to the issue.”
The Biden administration committed, before any boxcars went up in the Coronado National Forest, to continue to close gaps in the border wall. However, that had yet to happen before Ducey spent tens of millions in taxpayer dollars to erect a wall that came down in less than six months.
The GOP isn’t the only group seeking to shift the way that Arizonans and people across America think about the wall. That was, in large part, also the protesters’ agenda.
“Fundamental change will begin not from political elites who have to be forced to make changes, but from below, especially from individuals and communities who actually live in the borderlands, know the borderlands, and experience the borderlands,” Aviña says.
On the last day of January, the remaining boxcars were hauled away.
“We’re thrilled to see the last containers leaving Coronado National Forest today and look forward to seeing how wildlife reoccupies their habitat at the border in the days ahead,” Emily Burns, Program Director for Sky Island Alliance, said in an emailed statement.
Kate, of the Madrean Archipelago Wildlife Center, another of the early protesters, says that the success encourages our border wall resistance network to think of how collaborative civic action from like-minded local communities could address the 30-foot border wall spanning much of Arizona.
The protesters want not only to bring about immigration policy changes to be able welcome the people who come to the country seeking better life, she says, but to protect “the land, water, and wildlife” throughout the borderlands. They contend that isn’t possible to do with a wall.
“It was a really empowering moment to show up and realize we have the power to stop the destruction of public lands,” Mikal says. “That will live longer than us. You can just show up and make a difference.”
Mikal posted photos and an essay marking the days at Camp Ocelot in Southeastern Arizona. In the first image on Dec. 9, a wall of double-stacked shipping containers in faded blue, yellow and red snake through more than 3.5 miles of rolling desert land. The photos document construction crews uncoiling barbed wire over the wall and bulldozing into the earth. They also show protesters making dinner, painting posters, and standing atop the boxcars. In one photo, a snowman holds a sign reading, “$100M political stunt.”
The final photo, dated Jan. 30, shows 10 stacks of shipping containers and equipment as the last remnants of Ducey’s wall. By the next day, all of the containers were gone.