Texas toast in El Paso

It’s not so much the flowers, those bundles of white roses wilting in the Texas sun. Nor the cards with the handwritten messages riddled with a faith that is blind to the futility of it all. “Through the darkness light will prevail.” Indeed.

It is the people. It is the living, breathing souls who stand in quiet reflection before the candles, balloons and 22 crosses all jumbled together.

Whether in Ferguson, Pittsburgh of the countless other scenes of American violence, it is the tributes of the living, that very 21st century communion of souls, that always catches me out, makes me pause, makes me blink back a year.

This time it is across the way from a Hooters restaurant in El Paso. And in the car park of a Walmart. Not much more American than that.

Who comes to a memorial like this early on a Wednesday work day with the temperature way north of 90F? It is work for some. The men in suits come to be interviewed by CNN and the news crews who have set up live points beneath white canopies. Billy Graham’s followers have a truck offering counselling across the way and other church groups are doling out bottles of chilled water.

It is a pilgrimage for others, who walk slowly along the line of pictures and placards. Children stand beside parents, perhaps wondering what the lesson in all of this is supposed to be. That we mustn’t let it happen again? Or that we should honour the dead?

And, by Wednesday, it has become a preaching ground. A microphone and PA system have turned the site into a speakers corner of sorts. There are tributes to the dead and insults for the politicians who are seem powerless or uninterested in trying to halt the violence.

“I am really nervous,” says one man before offering a halting prayer for tolerance.

The sign outside Whataburger

President Trump and his hostility towards Mexican immigrants is a recurring theme in a city that would straddle the border if its other half did not go by a different name, Ciudad Juarez.

I have come because I need a story. When you are starting from scratch, when you arrived in town around midnight, a town where the hotels are full apart from a two-star motel with damp-smelling pillows and where every rental car is rented, when you don’t know the city, then the obvious place to begin is the memorial.

You can find the quiet words of resilience which are expected from well-behaved survivors of violence, some paragraphs of colour, and if you stop one of the men in suits coming and going from the cameras you can include some quotes from a state senator.

The Starbucks you passed on the way here will have free wifi. It will be your media filing centre for the day. Then with your first story written it is time to do the other stuff, get on with some digging. Where is the friend of the Trump supporter, the baseball coach, who was shot as he shielded children from the gunman?

There’s a Whataburger on the way back. It’s a Texas institution, apparently, one of those chains with such strong a strong connection with place — like In-N-Out Burger in California — that it was declared a state treasure in 2001.

Predictably its sign declares “El Paso strong” when I pull into the car park. No-one is allowed to be weak or sad or in despair any more. Within hours of each outrage, even before the dying are dead, the population of San Bernadino or Las Vegas or Dayton is being told to buckle up and get on with it.

Texas toast

I order the patty melt —two burgers inside “Texas toast”, doorsteps of bread grilled up with butter. The melt, in all its greasy unctuousness, distracts from the two fairly average bits of grey meat inside. My fingers will smell of this all day.

The memorial is louder when I return in the late afternoon. It is as if it is taking on first the character of El Paso, its hodge podge of people coming and going, and then latterly it comes to encapsulate all of America’s fuckedupness.

This is who else comes to a memorial: Two women — one Hispanic, one black — begin chanting, “We love Trump.” Withering looks fly their way. Then shouts. “You’re not welcome.”

Half a dozen police officers surround the women and a young black man wearing a Make America Great Again cap, gently trying to ease them away from confrontation.

Police escort away Trump supporters

Do you think it is appropriate to make this sort of protest at a memorial, I ask gently. “Get your fake news camera outta here,” shouts the Latina in my face. “Latinas for Trump,” she chants.

I ask the young man what he is doing here. “I’m trying to keep my mother out of trouble,” he says.

He poses for a photograph and a blonde man dressed in black shorts, T-shirts and protective glasses sidles over. “Do this,” he suggests, joining thumb and index finger in a circle, splaying his other fingers. It’s the new white power salute. The black man follows suit.

The white man’s name is Thomas Bartram. He is 21. He works as a power wash operator and drove the 10 hours down from Houston in a pick-up truck carrying a poster of Trump dressed as Rambo in order to make his point.

Thomas Bartram, jetwash operator

“An event like this is always a political thing,” he says. “There’s no way around that.”

He has, however, made a concession. Normally “I’m an open carry kind of guy,” he says, but left his rifle at home given the tragedy that occurred.

He drives off in his truck soon after, worried that a storm is bearing down on the city.

The next I hear of him is that he has been arrested outside an immigrant centre, reportedly carrying a gun and a knife. Photographs showed him wearing blue, latex gloves. Police found clips of ammunition and a bag of white powder. He was detained briefly and released, a police spokesman said, as he was carrying his firearm legally.

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