Above photo: The 30-foot steel bollards installed at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Southern Arizona. Nick Oza/The Republic.
Tucson – Activists and allies of two O’odham groups protesting the construction of a border wall along ancestral tribal lands in southern Arizona temporarily blocked the highway leading to construction sites in the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.
Members of the two groups, the O’odham Anti Border Collective and Defend O’odham Jewed, and non-Indigenous allies set up early Monday morning what they described as a “soft blockade” of State Route 85, using caution tape and canopy tents to stop traffic, some of which also was headed to the Lukeville border crossing with Mexico.
The blockade not only halted construction vehicles but also regular traffic to and from the nearby port of entry. The situation created moments of tension between the protesters and drivers stuck in the blockade, who attempted to rush through, resulting in some heated exchanges.
“This is a blockade in solidarity with the O’odham nation. This land is being desecrated every day as the border wall is constructed,” an unidentified protester could be heard saying in the livestream video that the O’odham Anti Border Collective posted to their social media.
“We’re here to block workers coming and leaving from this job that desecrates the land.”
The video showed several protesters holding the sign reading “(expletive) borders,” with lines of cars stopped at either end of the protest site.
The location of the protest, as shown in the video, is next to the main muster point for construction crews, a short distance north of the Lukeville border crossing, and close to the roads that take construction vehicles to Organ Pipe.
A spokesperson for Arizona Department of Transportation said the closure happened at Milepost 80 on State Route 85, which connects the Lukeville border crossing to the town of Ajo to the north and to Puerto Peñasco, Mexico, to the south. The agency tweeted the closure Monday morning and said at 12:33 p.m. that the road had been reopened.
ADOT referred requests for comment on the temporary highway closure to U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials in Arizona. CBP has not responded to The Arizona Republic’s requests for comment.
The protesters moved the tape and tents on occasion to let through some of the cars waiting on State Route 85. But numerous drivers attempted to drive through the blockade, videos showed.
Multiple drivers of vehicles stuck in the blockade charged the crowd of protesters, attempting to bypass the tents set up in the middle of the road. On one occasion, the driver of a truck sped up and struck one of the canopy tents, forcing protesters to get out of the way.
That car was followed by a white pickup truck that also tried to break the blockade. Protesters rushed to the front of the truck to use their bodies to block it, but the truck got through.
Activists said some of the vehicles hit some of the protesters, but did not report any major injuries on their social media.
“We are not here to disrupt anyone’s day. We understand that people need to work. The people need to also understand that we need water. The Indigenous sovereignty and the protection of sacred sites is way, way more important than a 40-hour workweek,” the woman recording the livestream said in response to the vehicles charging at protesters.
The video showed Border Patrol agents filming protesters from the side of the road. It also showed security guarding the muster point north of the border crossing, next to where activists set up the blockade.
Monday’s blockade is the latest in a string of confrontations by activists protesting border wall construction at Organ Pipe as the work has ramped up in southern Arizona.
The main focus of the protests is the construction of 30-foot bollards near Quitobaquito Springs, an oasis immediately north of the international boundary inside Organ Pipe. The site is sacred to the Tohono and Hia-Ced O’odham, who have lived in the area for centuries.
Construction began in the area next to the springs last week, prompting the U.S. National Park Service, which oversees Organ Pipe, to issue a temporary closure order restricting access to Quitobaquito.
NPS said the request came from Customs and Border Protection for the duration of construction in the area. Vanessa Lacayo, the spokesperson for the park service, said that the order “will be lifted once we learn the area is safe for use by the public.”
The closure order drew criticism from O’odham activists and elders, who believe the order did not acknowledge the rights of tribal members to access their sacred sites at Organ Pipe.
Lacayo said NPS acknowledges the importance of the natural resources and the cultural significance of O’odham sacred sites at the park.
“We respect and support the public’s right to peacefully demonstrate and exercise their First Amendment rights,” she said. “We are currently designating areas where the public can continue to demonstrate safely and peacefully.”
On Wednesday, protesters with the O’odham Anti Border Collective and Defend O’odham Jewed defied the closure order and entered the construction site near Quitobaquito, disrupting construction activity.
Three weeks prior, on Sept. 9, park rangers, with the assistance of Border Patrol agents, arrested two Hia-Ced O’odham women for using their bodies to block construction vehicles near Quitobaquito.
The two women, Amber Ortega and Nellie Jo David, are facing misdemeanor charges in Tucson federal court.