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National Butterfly Center smeared by Pizzagate-style disinfo campaign closing ‘for the immediate future’

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Dancer-as-monarch performing at a recent butterfly festival in San Antonio. Image: Greg Harman

Our full interview with Center Director Marianna Treviño Wright, who told Deceleration that ‘psyops’ harassment and a recent violent confrontation with Virginian congressional candidate preceded decision to close.

Greg Harman

The board of directors at a nature preserve that has stood against border wall construction in the Rio Grande Valley—and suffered for it, with blistering social media attacks and on-the-ground harassment—has decided to close its doors “for the immediate future.” In a “Nectar” newsletter released earlier today, Jeffrey Glassberg, president and founder of the North American Butterfly Association, parent organization to the center, said the decision boiled down to one of prioritizing the “safety of our staff and visitors.”

The center closed over the weekend after Virginia Congressional candidate Kimberly Lowe engaged in a physical altercation with director Marianna Treviño Wright at the center while accusing Wright of being complicit in human trafficking in the area. It was an echo of Brian Kolfage’s accusations of years ago, when the head of a privately funded We Build the Wall effort attacked the center’s director with even worse accusations. (Kolfage, some likely remember, was later indicted on multiple federal charges including fraud and money laundering.)

After her encounter with Lowe, Wright says she was warned by a local Republican candidate to close the center—or, barring that, be armed and vigilant—while the MAGA-themed We Stand America was held over the weekend. The conference, the Daily Dot writes, featured a “host of luminaries in the stolen election/QAnon/anti-vaccine/MAGA/build-the-wall universe, including disgraced former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn.” It closed with attendees singing “Amazing Grace” in the shadow of a portion of border wall.

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While the Center closed for the event, it reopened for members on Monday and Tuesday. But the board voted late Tuesday to close the gates until “the authorities and professionals who are helping us navigate this situation give us the green light,” Glassberg wrote.

Deceleration spoke with NBC Director Wright late yesterday afternoon while the board was deliberating. She described the years-long experience of being targeted by hard-right conspiracy-minded anti-immigrant factions that came to occupy the mainstream of the Republican Party under former President Donald Trump. But she also offered a look ahead to more conflict to come by spotlighting what she described as the mid-term election strategy for MAGA candidates across the country who have begun to chant “every state is a border state.” And that, she said, means more factually adjacent candidates like Lowe touristing the region with very particular conspiracies to amplify.

Lowe, however, may not be back. “I am a single mom who drove with three kids all the way to the Texas border,” she complained on a Facebook video after being denied entry to We Stand America. “I have been here for two weeks to see what is happening on the border and I paid money for this event. And they are believing a left-wing, left-news hit pieces done on me to defame or slander me without any discussion.”

Below is a transcript of my conversation with Wright.

Harman: I tried to keep up with folks that were reporting about what happened this last week and over the weekend. And I’m sure I missed a lot. But it reminded me of what a target the Butterfly Center had become by certain elements of the far right. I wonder if you could do a brief update for folks who may not be aware of what it’s like to live in the shadow of the border wall and while in public objection to that reality.

Treviño-Wright

Wright: You know, the National Butterfly Center’s fight was never really about the border wall. We know the government has the power of eminent domain and congress voted year after year with bipartisan support for border wall and to appropriate funding for the border wall. What we objected to was the lawlessness of the project. When we found government contractors on our land on January 20, 2017, the government had not waived all of the laws that they were going to violate, which is something they have given themselves authority to do for border wall construction.

This is like 30-some federal laws, including the Native American Graves Act and others.

Correct. In Hidalgo County, for our area, they waived 28 federal laws. So there had been no waiver of law. There had been no right-of-entry request. There had been no lawsuit filed for the condemnation of our private property. Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

And here they were.

And they were cutting down our trees, mowing down our brush, physically altering and taking possession of our land. That is what we objected to. You would think any American would. And certainly, private property, the sanctity of private property, those things are colonial, conservative, sacrosanct principles. So that’s what we objected to.

That’s a good clarification. Thank you.

The fact that in some way this embarrassed the government or gave the Department of Homeland Security or then-President Trump a black eyewe’ve been dealing with retribution since then. That retribution has come from federal agents. It has come from the President’s proxies in the form of Steve Bannon and We Build the Wall, which is a dark-money fundraising scheme that’s tied to a Cambridge Analytica-style psyop, a military-grade misinformation campaign that was designed to accomplish a multitude of goals, and they have been successful in that.

They are using pages from a playbook that works for them. And it’s Pizzagate. They make up outright lies about a place that they associate with a person or a party who has opposed them in some way. They make this person out to be the enemy. And then they unleash vitriol and violence against them.

This is the so-called lone wolf situation. We know what happened at Comet Ping Pong and all that. At the Butterfly Center, what has been the experience of not only being cyberstalkedI mean, this is down on the ground.

We’ve not only experienced the voicemail, the phone calls, the email, the messenging, all of that. We have also experienced the militia showing up in person. We’ve had law enforcement threaten us. We’ve had law enforcement deployed at the National Butterfly Center, both state and federal, to interfere in our operations. Now we’ve got MAGA candidates from across the county along with Steve Bannon’s content creators showing up at the National Butterfly Center to broadcast their lies.

This is last week. What day was that? They came in. They introduced themselves, one of them, as a Secret Security officer, and they wanted to see where the bodies were buried or something along those lines.

Friday, January 21st, I was on a conference call in the conference room in the center when I was alerted we had two female visitors who refused to pay admission but wanted us to open up the property so they could go see ‘all of the illegals crossing on the rafts.’

These are images that had been out there on social media from other sources, right?

These ideas are based upon false images, fabricated photos by Brian Kolfage, Steve Bannon, and We Build the Wall. They photoshopped our dock with deflated rafts beside it. Then promulgated all of these lies about us being a cartel front, and human smugglers, and that I personally was selling women and children into sex slavery. It’s just Pizzagate.

And so all the crazies show up, right?

Yeah. And that’s their goal. And more than that, it is the MAGA mid-term election strategy. So these two women, one of them is running for Congress in Virginia but at the border because part of their new battle cry is ‘Every State is a Border State.’ That’s part of the new battle cry. And they make it very clear that they are in a war. We have Steve Bannon’s War Room, so we have all of this violent rhetoric. And one woman was running for Congress in Virginia. The other woman declared that she is Secret Service, which I found to be hilarious and I expressed that out loud, because I know Secret Service agents. They don’t declare themselves to be Secret Service agents ever, anywhere. And they don’t behave as this woman did and they certainly don’t let their physique go as this woman had. Nothing against anybody of any size, but if you’re a Secret Service agent you are held to a certain standard.

So for a number of reasons, this did not pass the smell test for you.

Absolutely. And people who are running for Congress are not assigned Secret Service agents. Candidates are not. When I told them this was private property and they needed to leave they then started with the tripe. The, ‘Oh, I guess you’re OK with all the illegals coming across your property and the babies being raped… .’

They’re filming you now right? I assume they’ve got their camera out.

At this point, as far as I could tell, they were not recording. But I told them: If you refuse to leave we will call the authorities. And I signaled to my son who was covering at the front desk that day, you know, to go ahead and dial, dial 911, which he did. At which point the women said, ‘That’s all right. We’re leaving,’ and they continued with their garbage. They stepped outside the front door and then they stopped. So I went out behind them like move along, keep it moving. Where again this Congressional candidate’s friend declared: ‘I’m a Fed. Nothing is off-limits for me. I work for the Secret Service.’ I again expressed hilarity. That’s when I noticed Kimberly Lowe has her phone in the air and appears to be photographing or filming me and the front of the building and saying, ‘I’m here with this not-nice lady at the Butterfly Center.’ And I put my hand up. I put my hand up to stop her from photographing or filming me. To knock her phone away or move her hand. To stop her. Because for three years these same people have been putting out images of me and my workplace with calls to violence. And it’s been horrible. We’ve had repercussions as as result.

It sounded like, and this is not the biggest point of this for me, but it did sound, [from] reading some of the reporting on this, [like] there was a confrontation, right? That either you grabbed the phone or something happened where it got physical, and I think you ended up on the ground and your phone ended up being taken, is that right?

Yeah. So as I moved to stop Kimberly from filming me, she tackled me. I don’t know how I lost my phone, but her companion Michelle had it. And as I’m on the ground my son comes busting out of the Butterfly Center and is over me and between me and Michelle. And he says he was afraid for my life. That this woman in boots was going to stomp my head or my throat. And Kimberly disappears and of course I didn’t realize any of this until I watched it on security footage. So Kimberly runs to her car and starts filming herself and me and Michelle and my son at the front of the building. I’m just telling Michelle, ‘Give me my phone. You can’t leave with my phone. You’re not leaving with my phone. You have my phone. Give me back my phone.’ And my son runs to close the front gate of the Butterfly Center.

Michelle gives me back my phone and walks to Kimberly’s car. Says that I’m not bothering her at all. ‘We have all this on video.’ Gets in the car with Kimberly where Michelle declares, ‘Oh my God I had her phone; I took her phone.’ And then Kimberly hits the pedal to the floor of her car, just guns it, and is filming herself screaming, ‘Get the fuck out of my way! Get the fuck out of my way,’ and swerving to hit my son who is closing the gate of the Butterfly Center. My son had to leap out of her way, he hits the ground and rolls. A visitor at the Butterfly Center has called 911 at this point and then goes to check on my son who was nearly struck by her car. Then we waited an hour for Mission PD to show up.

You’re out there, but you’re in the thick of a lot ofI don’t know how many forms of military marching around cutting, still cutting through your fences and showing up. That’s a long time to be waiting for down there for someone with a badge.

It really is. Because typically they’re parked, if not in our driveway, [then] less than a mile away at a variety of junctures where they do sit and just monitor activity. So the fact that it took an hour is just shocking. But we used that time to look at Kimberly Lowe’s Facebook page and [see] who she was, and that’s when I saw a photo of hers with a former state representative who is someone I know who is currently running for a state appellate judge position in Texas.

So I called him and I said, ‘How well do you know this woman? This is what just happened. Who is she? What’s going on?’ And this former state rep also happens to be the father of the Hidalgo County GOP chairperson. He is the one who informed me that this is how the MAGA candidates intend to own their opponents during the midterms. That they’ll all be coming to the borderlands to pull stunts like this and to say, ‘I went to the border. I saw the dead bodies. I witnessed the cartels trafficking. I touched the Rio Grande River. Have you?’ And these are the exact things that Kimberley. … She’s been running the playbook.

That sounds so familiar. I came down in ’08 maybe when the first border wall process got started. I traveled from San Elizario and followed the river to Boca Chica and just talked to people and the one thing I heard from folks who had lived for any length of time en la frontera in any capacity, in any way you define that, you know, is that they said the problems that popped up, in terms of whether it’s immigration or whatever, tended to come from people who were newer residents and had very confrontational ideas about where they were.

That’s very, very true and definitely our experience as well. This former state rep also informed me of the MAGA mid-term kickoff event called We Stand America, their inaugural event for the Take Action Tour to Save America that took place this last weekend in McAllen hosted by pardoned criminal Michael Flynn and a host of Christofascists and other bad actors. And he advised me I should be armed at all times or out of town for the weekend and should probably close the center because they were planning caravans to the border and would be making stops at a variety of locations including, for example, the National Butterfly Center, where the center and I would be targets. And I believe this man and I took his admonition seriously. I have no reason not to believe him. And certainly given the fact that he’s a GOP candidate and his daughter is the GOP chairperson, he’s a credible source. So we did close for the weekend.

So this woman from Virginia, I saw in the San Antonio paper, they followed some of this as well, that she was then denied admittance to this event or was that … are you aware?

It looks to us that that was more theater. Because we have been told that she was allowed to participate in the event and was at their activities at the border wall on Sunday where they marched at Benson State Park—rather they entered at Benson and marched on federal land adjacent to it. We’re routinely run off of it—actually we’ve even been run off of our own property by Border Patrol but for some reason during this march Border Patrol chose to stand back and stand down.

Seems to be a pattern with law enforcement in these situations: a charitable read would be not to induce conflict. But there’s also a lot of fistbumping going on. We’ve seen that in Austin. We’ve seen it here as well in San Antonio. So what has been the consequence now for the center islooking forward into 2022, the mid-termsthat this is the playbook, to come earn your stripes in their fabricated reality, this altered state the party has moved into. [So that] there’s a conversation about potentially shuttering the Butterfly Center.

Unfortunately, the NABA board of directors is considering what level of risk they are comfortable with for our staff, our members, and our visitors. And how that will effect our operations going forward. Whether we’re going to close on a temporary basis, on a permanent basis, [the question is] how we’re going to keep everybody safe.

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