Support for opposing presidential parties led to a heated confrontation Saturday at a Harlingen city park — a manifestation of ratcheting tension ahead of Election Day.
While law enforcement agencies believe there’s no current threat to voters, they’re reminding the public they will remain vigilant and ready to respond.
The incident began with a caravan of vehicles that started at 10 a.m. in Santa Rosa and grew slowly to about 25 participants as they drove through Harlingen, continued to San Benito, and circled back to Harlingen where they gathered at Lt. George Gutierrez Jr. Park.
It was a pre-planned event, but Joyce Hamilton, one of the attendees, said a permit was not requested.
Two versions of what subsequently occurred have since emerged — one according to the participants, and the other according to the authorities, the Harlingen Police Department.
BIDEN RALLY DISPERSED
After the last speaker delivered remarks supporting Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden, trucks with Trump flags encircled the park, Nancy Fly, another attendee, said.
“They kind of overwhelmed us,” Fly said.
The drivers began honking, “just like leaning on their horns,” she said. “Then, they were circling the park yelling out the windows. Then, they stopped and they got out, and disrupted everything…”
Hamilton was standing on West Harrison Avenue when a vehicle started driving toward her, onto the shoulder.
“I got right up to the curb, because that particular car kept rolling right toward me,” Hamilton said.
She noticed decals promoting the Proud Boys and Boogaloo Boys — the former being a far-right fascist group and the latter an anti-government extremist group. The Proud Boys is the group President Trump said during the first debate to “stand back and standby” when asked to denounce white supremacy.
Lidia Zapata, a Biden rally attendee, captured video of the confrontation. One shows overlapping dialogue from a man who claims he was harassed by attendees.
At the time, Hamilton said no one filed a police report.
HARLINGEN POLICE RESPONDS
No criminal report was taken on the incident, because no violation of the law was found, according to Harlingen Police Commander John David Osbourne.
“It looks like it was possibly instigated by that group,” Osbourne said referring to the Biden attendees.
“Supposedly a gentleman was driving on the road with a Trump flag, I believe when he slowed down for traffic, they threw his sign, a Biden sign, on the back of his truck. So, he stopped, got out of his truck, took the sign and threw it back to the protesters, got back in his truck and left,” Osbourne said, narrating the incidents as they were related to the police department.
Harassment allegations are handled on a case-by-case basis, but they must meet the state’s definition of the crime.
“Sometimes people’s version of harassment is not met by state law, because there are elements that are missing,” Osbourne said.
Driving around the park with the flags supporting a candidate is allowed, as long as the flags meet Texas Department of Transportation regulations.
“If Trump supporters went around honking their horns in a Trump parade, at this point, it’s annoying, but it doesn’t meet the elements of harassment,” Osbourne said.
He noted gathering above 10 people in Cameron County requires special permission from the mayor, but was not sought by organizers of the Biden rally. This county-issued order is still in effect and set to expire on Monday, Nov. 9, unless it’s extended by the county judge.
Hamilton refutes the claim that a supporter threw a sign into the man’s truck, and said, “If we had seen anyone do that we’d have disciplined them.”
She added, “There was complete shock that we are accused of instigating the disturbance,” and said the police arrived after the honking and confrontation began.
NOT AN ISOLATED INCIDENT
Drivers whose vehicles sport flags supporting the president were seen Friday on I-35 in Hays County chasing the Biden-Harris campaign bus over the weekend in a video that went viral. The FBI in San Antonio confirmed they are aware of the incident and investigating.
Close to the Harlingen incident around the time the Biden caravan was cruising through Cameron County, Norma Gonzalez, 71, the mother of a Cameron County judge, was driving on Road 1577 to get some lab results around 10:15 a.m.
She noticed a black truck and two men driving closely behind her. Gonzalez, who normally drives 5 miles under the speed limit, figured she would move out of the way to let them pass. She moved off to the side of the road ending up on the grass, but the truck kept getting closer.
“I thought they were going to hit me, the side of the car, so I went more off the road,” Gonzalez said.
The men pulled up to her driver’s side and lowered their window. Gonzalez said she didn’t open her window and didn’t hear what they said, but when they finally decided to speed up she noticed flags with the president’s name on them.
“I figured that my Biden and my ‘Impeach Trump’ sign in the back had gotten them angry,” Gonzalez said as she tried figuring out why she was targeted.
It lasted about seven minutes, Gonzalez estimated.
When she finally parked, she sat feeling startled and nervously looking around to see if they had followed her. Then anger settled in. “I came home and I put 10 more stickers on my car,” Gonzalez said.
Still, she can’t shake the feeling that it’s unsafe to express political support.
Her son, Cameron County Court-at-Law No. 3 Judge David Gonzalez, told her to be careful.
“I’m having second thoughts of putting all those stickers; I might just take them off,” Gonzalez said. “Or, I’m going to stay home until after the election.”
Though it’s apart from the Biden rally Hamilton attended, she said she fears such situations.
Federal and state laws protect the voter from intimidation and harassment. A violator of the federal law can be fined and imprisoned for up to a year.
Cameron County District Attorney Luis Saenz provided guidance to all police chiefs in the county, offering information on laws regarding offenses and potential charges stemming from allegations of election-related laws.
“It’s a reminder for agencies that have polling places in their locations to keep an eye on them, in the event there’s protesters or there’s any type of incidents there,” Commander Osbourne said.
The Harlingen Police Department and other agencies in Hidalgo County are encouraging people to call the authorities if they feel harassed or intimidated.
Voters are also reminded of their rights by the American Civil Liberties Union during this contentious election.
“Any form of intimidation violates the rights of Texans, and we are making sure that voters can cast their vote without any significant hurdles,” Astrid Dominguez, ACLU of Texas director of the Border Rights Center, said in a statement Monday.
The ACLU also has election protection hotlines for reporting issues during the election. English speakers can call 866-OUR-VOTE (866-687-8683) and Spanish speakers can call 888-VE-Y-VOTA (888-839-8682).