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Exclusive: Why I Went to the Border With a Bunch of Celebrities

To protest family separations, Travon Free, a former writer for "The Daily Show" and "Full Frontal With Samantha Bee" – and also a photographer – traveled to the Texas border on June 24 with Lena Dunham, Mira Sorvino, Amber Heard, and other stars. Here, Free (pictured above with actress Ione Skye and singer Sia) shares his photos. As told to Dawnie Walton

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Issues like family separation and police brutality are always on my radar. They’re things I just naturally care about. In late June, when this trip came up, I was working on an HBO show called "Camping," and I guess someone had reached out to Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner, the show’s creators, about coming to Tornillo, this little border town in Texas, for a rally to end family separation. Lena asked me if I wanted to come and I couldn’t have said yes fast enough. That was on a Wednesday. We wrapped "Camping" that Friday, had our wrap party Saturday, and on Sunday morning, we were in Texas. (Above photo, counterclockwise from bottom left: Bella Thorne, Lena Dunham, Ione Skye, Amber Heard, Joshua Jackson, Constance Wu, Elsa Collins, and Dani Thorne. Below: Earlier, at the El Paso airport, the group mingles before boarding the bus to Tornillo. Mira Sorvino wears a jacket riffing on the controversial one first lady Melania Trump chose for her visit to a border site.)

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There were probably 30 of us who traveled together from L.A. — me, Lena, Jenni, Sia, Mira Sorvino, Connie Britton, Constance Wu, Bella Thorne, Joshua Jackson, Amber Heard. We made signs on the flight to El Paso, and made more on the half-hour bus ride to Tornillo. An organization we worked with provided the #EndFamilyDetention T-shirts for everybody. I didn’t end up wearing one because, um, they didn’t have my size. [Free, a former college basketball player, is 6'7".] Above: Married actors Anna Camp and Skylar Astin, at left, making signs with a rally organizer, Lara Bergthold. Below: stars (including Connie Britton, Sia, and Ione Skye) on the bus.

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When our bus pulled up in Tornillo, all the cameras turned and people gathered to see who was going to get off. Anybody doing any type of journalism came over: Lena and Sia and Bella were taking pictures with people and doing interviews and talking about the issues. No one was talking about anything other than the reason we all came there: to end the family separations of undocumented immigrants and to reunite these kids with their families. We really wanted this rally not to go unseen. (Below three photos: Jenni Konner, Constance Wu, and Lena Dunham pose with Julian Castro, prominent Texas Democrat and the former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development; Bella Thorne hugs Texas-born Amber Heard, whose shirt in English reads, "Yes, I care. And you?"; and Mira Sorvino holds her sign high.)

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There was a flat-bed truck with a microphone set up on it. One after another people got up there and spoke. Rob Reiner talked; some people did their speeches in Spanish. After that, we walked over to the border fence singing songs and chanting, and unfurled a parachute-style tarp that said “Keep Families Together” on it. We tried to see as much as we could of the area at the Tornillo site where they were keeping the boys. No one really knows where the girls are being kept — that’s a thing people are still trying to find out.

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Listening to people talk about having their families torn apart, and knowing that my people — black people — went through that same thing in this country under much harsher circumstances was really emotional for me. I found myself thinking that the black community still experiences it now, through mass incarceration and all sorts of other methods that aren’t necessarily the same as the ones used on us before we were free people. So I was observing this rally through that lens and I was understanding what it must feel like for the undocumented immigrants. (Above photos: scenes from the rally, including Jenni Konner, Lena Dunham, Constance Wu, and Amber Heard.)

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I go to a lot of protests and rallies — this is probably my fifth since Trump’s been in office. They all carry different feelings, different energies. This one had more of a sense of urgency, though, a sense that anything could happen. At other rallies — like the March for Our Lives, or the Kaepernick rally, or even all the women’s marches — there’s no real risk of anything happening to anyone unless you actually do something to get yourself arrested. But there were undocumented people here. Had border agents decided to break up the rally or just start arresting folks for whatever reason, there were people who could have seen their whole lives ruined. The stakes just felt higher. I knew that if something happened, I’d be okay, but many of the people around me were at real risk. These were truly brave people. (Above photos: faces among the crowd.)

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You know what surprised me? Almost all the border agents were black and Latino. It just dawned on me yesterday when I was going through the photos, that they had a bunch of black and Latino guys doing this work. They formed a line so that you couldn’t necessarily pass through, but they didn’t come over and bother us. When we talked to them they were polite. There was no confrontation whatsoever. (Above: Rob Reiner approaches a tight line of border agents, who would not allow anyone to cross but otherwise allowed the protest to go on peacefully.)

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The energy at the rally was great and we didn’t leave until it was completely over. Once we got back on the bus, we talked about when the next rallies were, what we needed to do going forward. So we’re keeping the ball rolling, not just letting it go. (Above: California Secretary of State Alex Padilla and his family.)

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With celebrity comes the ability to inform people: There were maybe 200 people at the rally but, collectively, Lena, Sia, Connie, and the rest probably have 20 to 30 million followers on social media, people who listen to them and wait for their posts. (Pictured above: Bella and Dani Thorne, who have 7.2 million Twitter followers between them, on the bus.) And so now everyone’s posting and talking about what’s happening at this little town on the border. Beyond that, the media outlets are all covering it — CNN, CBS, MSNBC, Buzzfeed News — and that kind of attention probably doesn’t happen if you don’t get those well-known people there pulling focus to that event. It’s unfortunate that that’s the case, but it’s great to know there are celebrities who are willing to let their voices be heard and don’t care if people say, “I don’t wanna hear your opinion; you aren’t supposed to be political.” It’s like, well, we’re citizens of this country too and these things affect us. Yeah, I might be a famous person, but I have the right to speak out against bad things happening in the country where I live and pay taxes and vote.

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Travon Free (@Travon on Instagram and Twitter) is an Emmy-winning former writer for "The Daily Show" and "Full Frontal With Samantha Bee."



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