Chaos broke out on the floor of the Texas House of Representatives Monday after Rep. Matt Rinaldi said he called US Immigration and Customs Enforcement on protestors and threatened to shoot a colleague in self-defense.
The incident occurred on the last day of the legislative session during which hundreds of people chanted in protest of SB 4, a bill that was recently signed into law that makes it a crime for police officers and sheriffs to not cooperate with federal immigration enforcement or inquire about a detainee's immigration status.
In a statement, Rinaldi, a Republican, said Texas Rep. Poncho Nevárez, a Democrat, threatened his life after Rinaldi called ICE on the protestors. He also accused Rep. Ramon Romero of physically assaulting him.
Rinaldi also said Nevárez threatened to “get me on the way to my car.”
“He later approached me and reiterated that ‘I had to leave at some point, and he would get me,’” Rinaldi wrote. “I made it clear that if he attempted to, in his words, ‘get me,’ I would shoot him in self defense.”
Rinaldi did not return calls or emails for comment. In a statement ICE said it was not aware of receiving any calls related to the incident.
Nevárez told BuzzFeed News that he pushed Rinaldi after hearing him tell a group of about four Latino lawmakers "Fuck them, I called ICE on them." They both started screaming at each other and that's when Nevárez told Rinaldi they should take it outside.
"I did push him. Where I'm from, those are fighting words," Nevárez told BuzzFeed News. "We should never condone pushing and shoving but the guy asked for it...I put my hands on him because he needed to get out of there."
Nevárez said he was shocked to hear that Rinaldi said he would shoot him in self-defense because he never threatened his life.
While the protestors broke decorum by shouting and disrupting the session, Nevárez said the response shouldn't be to call ICE on a group of brown people.
"How low and sniveling do you have to be to that kind of person, that guy is lower that rattler piss?" Nevárez said. "We need to get these protestors motivated to not just come out to disrupt the chamber but come out to vote."
Rep. Cesar Blanco, a Democrat from El Paso, said that as protesters began hanging banners from the gallery balcony, Rinaldi approached Blanco and a group of other Mexican-American legislators who were on the floor. According to Blanco, Rinaldi “came to us and said he had made a phone call to ICE [and] that he was happy that many of these people would be deported.”
Blanco, who also said other Republicans had allegedly made calls to ICE during the protest, argued the reaction was racially motivated.
“They don’t know if any of these folks are US citizens or not. They were just brown,” Blanco said.
Likewise, US House Rep. Joaquin Castro, a Democrat, also denounced Rinaldi for deciding “to call ICE just because he saw a bunch of people who were a shade darker. That’s wrong.”
On Twitter, Nevárez called Rinaldi a liar and weak.
“He's a liar and hateful man. Got no use for him. God bless him,” Nevárez said.
Rinaldi said he was currently under the protection of the Department of Public Safety (DPS) because of the incident.
DPS started pulling banners from protestors inside the legislature and eventually removed them as they chanted "We are here to stay." SB 4 goes into effect on Sept. 1 and is already being challenged in court by local jurisdictions and police departments.
The approximately 300 protesters filled the chamber's viewing gallery just before the session was began at 10 a.m. Just before 11 a.m., activists began dropping a series of banners from the gallery's railings, chanting, and singing. Although police forcefully removed about a dozen protesters, none were arrested, according to organizers.
Eventually police cleared the gallery entirely, and the protesters joined nearly a thousand other activists in the State House rotunda, marching through its halls and chanting slogans against the law for the next hour.
Astrid Dominguez, immigration policy strategist of the ACLU of Texas, said Rinaldi should apologize for his hateful rhetoric about peaceful protestors exercising their constitutional rights.
“Rinaldi's actions prove that anti-immigrant legislation like SB4 is motivated by animus and has already led to discrimination and racial profiling,” Dominguez said in a statement.
The protests eventually spilled out on the front steps of the capital, where protesters mingled with hundreds of tourists visiting Austin for the Memorial Day holiday. By early afternoon, it was equal parts protest and party — dozens of pizzas had been brought in to feed protesters, and a band played music between speakers.
Mark Jauregui, a 36-year-old Navy veteran from San Antonio, hadn’t heard about the protests before he and his family came to tour the capitol and the state cemetery.
“I’m for it," Jauregui said when asked about the protests. "My wife, her family are immigrants, so I’m with them. He also dismissed the notion that holding a protest on Memorial Day was disrespectful to veterans. I went over to Iraq to fight for other people’s freedom. They’re fighting for people’s freedom here."
The protest was a coming out party for what activists hope will be a new civil rights movement in the United States — and a demonstration of that movement’s power. And in many ways, Rinaldi’s over-the-top response is the best possible demonstration of that power organizers could have hoped for.
Although the protests were supported by a number of labor unions and national immigration groups, they were largely the work of a network of local organizations in Texas and allied organizations from across the country.
Hundreds of those allied activists came to Austin over the weekend to participate in protest dress rehearsals, community canvassing events at local churches and Latino markets, and even a Sunday evening dance party in the offices of the Workers Defense Project.
Although similar to the local and state level organizing that marked much of the civil rights movement, this approach to the immigration fight stands in stark contrast to the more nationally oriented efforts of the past decade. “That strategy failed,” one activist said simply of immigration overhaul pushes during the Bush and Obama administrations.
“There are so many people who are already organizing here, we’ve come to support them. We don’t want this law to spread in the country. If we stop this, it’s going to be an example … It’s an example of power. That the people have power,” said Maria Balboa, a United We Dream activist from Miami.
John Stanton is a national reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New Orleans. In 2014, Stanton was a recipient of the National Press Foundation’s 2014 Dirksen Award for distinguished reporting of Congress.
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