On Wednesday, Santa Cruz County Sheriff David Hathaway (second from left) visited the container wall construction site and offered enthusiastic support—and commemorative Sheriff’s Office coins—to the group of protesters gathered there. Madrean Archipelago Wildlife Center executive director Kate Scott is pictured at center. Photo courtesy Kate Scott

On Wednesday afternoon, Santa Cruz County Sheriff David Hathaway made an unscheduled visit to the group of protesters who have been working since Nov. 29 to stop construction of the container wall by the state of Arizona in Coronado National Forest, inside the neighboring Cochise County.

“He just came riding up in his sheriff’s car like he was kind of the cavalry,” said Kate Scott, executive director of the Cochise County-based Madrean Archipelago Wildlife Center and one of the organizers of the ongoing protest. “He said, ‘I’m so glad you guys are here.’ When you do a protest that’s not what you usually hear from law enforcement.”

Hathaway’s visit to the construction site in support of the protesters may have been unannounced, but it was not out of character for the sheriff. Hathaway, a Democrat, has been especially outspoken in the last week in his opposition to the controversial $95 million project put in motion earlier this year by Governor Doug Ducey.

“It is clearly illegal activity,” Hathaway told the PRT last Friday, Dec. 2, in a phone interview. “There are no permits for what they’re doing. It is illegal—and it is happening on federal land!”

Hathaway said his office had received numerous calls from concerned citizens in eastern Santa Cruz County regarding the trucks hauling the containers and heavy equipment, claiming they were traveling at breakneck speed.

“Those containers are now just 6.5 miles from Santa Cruz County,” he said. “I have a department of 38 sheriffs for the whole county, so we are not that big of a department, but we are prepared to draw a line in the sand if these containers make it to SCC. If we become aware of any individuals involved with the placing or trying to place these containers, we will arrest them and charge them with illegal dumping on public land.”

Hathaway felt that he was a bit of a “lone voice” in publicly calling out what he believes are illegal actions by the state of Arizona. He expressed disappointment that other agencies—and politicians—at the county, state and federal levels hadn’t done more to stop construction of the wall. 

“The feds are the ones that should be really upset about these containers,” he said. “I’m not sure why they haven’t done more to stop this. They are just sitting there when they are the ones most impacted.”

The protesters are also puzzled over the federal government’s inaction.

“I don’t understand why the federal government doesn’t help out, or get an injunction,” said Scott today. “The state government of Arizona is seizing federal land—isn’t that kind of an insurrectionary act? And so I appreciate the direct and succinct statements Sheriff Hathaway has made to the governor. He’s really feisty. His presence, and his enthusiasm and appreciation for what we are doing here, mean a lot.”

Early Friday morning, the camp of protesters seemed to have triumphed. According to Scott, sometime around 7:30am a supervisor for the project asked activists not to block construction machinery, which he said was going to be returned to a staging area. The protesters cooperated, and the heavy equipment is now gone from the site.

A backhoe operator working to install containers along the border in the San Rafael Valley waits as protesters blocked work on the wall on Tuesday, Nov. 29. Photo by Jenny Wrenn 

Maintaining a 24-hour presence near the work site and placing their bodies in front of machinery had allowed the growing group of organized protesters to significantly slow the wall’s construction in the last week, bringing it to a near-halt. A sheriff’s deputy from Cochise County visited the site recently and, according to Scott, told the protesters their actions were within their rights. Scott said the construction workers were clearly frustrated.

Scott was unsure what would happen now.

“You can assume they’re not going to continue work in that [particular] area, but they still have their equipment in the staging area,” she said. “They might attempt to work somewhere else at night, or really, really early in the morning. But the incoming weather may pose a really big problem for them.”

Looking forward, Scott anticipated that Governor-elect Katie Hobbs will halt the container wall’s construction when she takes office next month.

“I hope Katie Hobbs really seizes this moment and stands tall and does the right thing,” she said.

In the meantime, Scott is energized by what the protesters have achieved since Nov. 29.

“It became such a great turnout of people, from all over,” she said. “It’s very heartwarming. After suffering so much over Trump’s wall, you get really charged up when you can actually stop something.”