An African-American representative from El Paso County took the podium at last week’s Republican National Convention, with the party’s celebrity-of-the-moment, Milwaukee County’s African-American sheriff, David Clarke, to denounce the Black Lives Matter movement. Many people watching assumed that El Paso County was that place on the Texas-Mexico border where illegal immigration, narcotrafficking, and terrorist mayhem reigns, because the country needs a wall. But all those assumptions were wrong. The rep was actually from El Paso County, Colorado, several hundred miles north. Back in El Paso, Texas, meanwhile, the border city has such a low homicide rate—an average of only 15 a year since 2001, in a population that’s now about 700,000—that El Paso has for years been deemed the safest city of over half a million people in the country.
No one knows why El Paso is so safe. The Border Patrol crawls along the Rio Grande river, in squad cars, vans, and armed; they like to take credit for the law and order. The police do, too. They’re also headed by an African American, Chief Gregory Allen.
Allen is a lifelong El Pasoan, whose African-American parents and grandparents also lived for generations on the Mexico border. One of Allen’s grandfathers was a railroad porter, part of a venerable black community in El Paso. During the height of Jim Crow, A. Philip Randolph unionized black train porters, making their job some of the best that African-American men could aspire to. The Southern Pacific and the Santa Fe rolled through Texas to points north and west. El Paso was a major stop on the trips, and many black porters bought homes and raised their families here.
Among civil-rights activists in El Paso, Greg Allen, age 65, has for long been known for a “tough cop” attitude, at times bordering on thuggishness. An avid practitioner of Shotokan, Tae Kwon Do, Hapkido, and karate, he is muscular, curt, and often scowls when speaking with the media. In the early 1990s, during the height of “super-predator” and “gang” paranoia nationally, he was a police sergeant and member of the department’s anti-gang unit. In one incident during those years, an off-duty policeman parked at an Arby’s had a run-in with a high-school student who the cop thought disrespected him. Allen joined that cop and others in arresting the boy and a few others. The boys were illegally detained in a police office, and one boy said Allen cursed at him and knocked him around so hard that both of his eardrums burst and he suffered a fracture of the jaw. A police review board substantiated the charges and Allen was suspended from the force for a week. The assault made the newspapers, but that was before the days of the Internet. By 2008, everyone had forgotten about the beating, and the City Council appointed Allen as police chief.
It was in that role that Allen appeared, dour and scowling, at a press conference just after five law-enforcement officers were murdered on July 7 during an anti-violence protest in Dallas. The press conference, organized by local El Paso politicians, was intended to express regret and sadness not only at the deaths of the Dallas officials but also at those of the two black men recently killed by cops in Baton Rouge and suburban St. Paul. Allen stood apart, refusing to speak, until reporters approached him. A vigil, organized by local university students affiliated with the movement for black lives, was scheduled for that weekend. Asked what he thought about the upcoming event, Allen, stiff with anger, said that Black Lives Matter—presumably referring to the national organization—was a “radical hate group” that was responsible for what happened in Dallas and which “the leadership of this country needs to look into.”