Part I: What's in a Name?
What do we call the "Minutemen"? Should we call them racists? Vigilantes? Nazis?
It's important to find an adequate descriptor for phenomena like the budding border-militia movement, especially for those who recognize it as the kind of civic threat it actually represents. After all, quickly -- and accurately -- communicating the essence and the presence of that threat is one of the fundamental tasks in dealing with it.
A lot of terms have been bandied about, and I'm not sure all of them are accurate. Certainly "vigilantes" is appropriate enough, but not all of the Minutemen are racists, and the racism inherent in their program is well disguised and not all that easy to explain.
One term that I think we can accurately use to describe them is extremist. It's a term that conveys both the nature of the Minutemen and the challenge they represent to the mainstream.
Indeed, one of the most significant facts about the Minutemen, in this context, is the extent to which they signify the real embrace of right-wing extremism by large swaths of the mainstream conservative movement. This is a development that has real significance beyond merely the debate over immigration.
A thorough review of its core of support -- from the white-supremacist American Renaissance and Aryan Nations organizations to less noxious but nonetheless racist outfits like VDare and American Patrol -- as well as the words of its own founders and participants will reveal right-wing extremism in every nook and cranny. Portraying them as "jes' folks" is not merely irresponsible, it's dangerous.
How do we know the Minutemen are extremists? Let us count the ways:
1. THEIR ORIGINS
Most Americans became aware of the Minuteman Project last summer, when Chris Simcox and James Gilchrist's "border watch" obtained national coverage, especially among the mavens of the right-wing press. But the idea had been bubbling up from the tarpits of right-wing extremism for some time.
Simcox's first organization in Tombstone, Arizona, devoted to patrolling the border was called the Tombstone Militia, though he changed it in short order to the Civil Homeland Defense Corps. Simcox's campaign was attracting press attention as early as January 2003, when he was inviting media members to observe the group's patrols. This is typical of even both the supporters and the offshoots of the Minuteman Project: they consistently identify themselves with the "militia" (or "Patriot") movement -- which is, by any definition, extremist. They call themselves "militias" with surprising consistency. That this hasn't set off any bells of recognition among reporters who were alive in April of 1995 is remarkable.
Indeed, claiming the name of the Minutemen is a page right out of the militia handbook: the original Minutemen were the heart and soul of the militias who defeated the British army in the Revolutionary War. The name claims a kind of descent from these historical forebears in exactly the same way as the "militia movement" claims descent from the Revolutionary War-era militias.
Prior to the announcement of the Minuteman Project, press coverage of the border-militia movement referred consistently to the participants as "militiamen," including a piece in the Los Angeles Times that examined Simcox's patrol and a few others, then made the following observation:
- So far, no one has been reported hurt in a confrontation. Another new outfit called American Border Patrol is planning to send volunteers equipped with Webcams and satellite uplinks to the border to stream live online video of immigrants crossing illegally into the U.S. The groups differ in tactics, but all three share an apocalyptic vision of an America under siege. "We cannot let [the Mexicans] export their failures," says Glenn Spencer, the 60-something organizer of American Border Patrol, based in Sierra Vista, Ariz. "They are a threat to our entire culture."
None of these organizations can produce more than a handful of supporters, and an informal poll--in restaurants, gas stations and on the streets of southwest Arizona--turns up few ready to strap on a gun and join them. Illegal immigrants "come through our land all the time, but so what? They're not doing any harm," says Cathy, who declines to give her last name when I meet her at a Chevron station in Bisbee, four miles from the border. She then uses a popular obscenity to describe Simcox and others like him.
Joanne Young, who tends bar at the Crazy Horse Saloon in Tombstone, says "Simcox doesn't have 10 people in this town on his side." Tombstone lives on tourism, she says, "and visitors are down this year from last. People are calling and saying, 'I don't want to bring my children there; it isn't safe.' "
Still, few in Arizona dismiss the border militiamen. While reporters are drawn by the photogenic firearms, fiery Rambo quotes and a morbid certainty that sooner or later somebody's going to get killed, locals know Simcox and his allies are on to something. In their half-baked, xenophobic, scary-screwball way, they've identified a real problem: The U.S.-Mexico border is a disaster.
It was immediately clear that the border-militia movement was in the classic mold of a Patriot movement opportunity: exploiting a genuine problem and in the process grossly distorting it -- a la Ruby Ridge, Waco, the Freemen standoff. Prior to the rise of the Minutemen, their most recent such hijacking of the political process was in the Klamath River water dispute, which was exploited by Patriots who screamed about the government there until the Bush administration caved. The outcome of that interference -- a fish kill of Biblical proportions the following summer -- seemed frighteningly apt, not to mention portentous.
Unsurprisingly, the dark side of the border-militia movement soon began making its presence known. An August 2003 Sojourners article described the problem in sobering detail:
- Human-rights organizations charge that these militias terrorize people they assume to be undocumented immigrants, violate state laws limiting militia activities and civilian arrests, escalate the potential for violence, and maintain links to racist hate groups.
"People were already being harassed by the Border Patrol, and now things have gotten even worse," says Jennifer Allen of the Tucson-based Border Action Network. Mexican Americans born and raised in the United States, she says, "used to go out hunting or hiking, but they've been dragged out of their tents and harassed to such a degree that they don't go out of the city anymore. And now these vigilantes are out there with the attitude that if you're brown and out in the desert, you must be an undocumented migrant. So even the residents are in danger because the vigilante groups are bringing people in that are racist and hunting for anyone with brown skin."
Border Action Network asserts that some militia members have openly consorted with out-of-state representatives of racist groups. One public meeting in May 2000 was attended not only by such local militia backers as Roger Barnett and Glenn Spencer, but also by two representatives from David Duke's National Organization for European American Rights and members of an Arkansas Klan group.
Questions of racism aside, militia members are reacting to, and contributing to, an already dangerous situation. In the past couple of years, smugglers have become increasingly desperate, aggressive, and in many cases violent. Groups of illegal immigrants have been fired upon -- and people killed -- by drive-by assailants who have never been apprehended. Law-enforcement agencies theorize that the killers are rival smugglers, while human-rights activists speculate that the attackers could be U.S. vigilantes.
John Fife, pastor of Tucson's Southside Presbyterian Church and a leader of the sanctuary movement in the 1980s, has decried the killings, no matter who is responsible for them, as "the culmination of a history of dehumanization and racism and militarism on this border that has gone on for a long time. Too long." Such faith-based groups as Humane Borders and Samaritan Patrol have given humanitarian aid to border crossers in trouble, but they are ill-equipped to contend with such violence—and the potential for more.
Border Action Network, while acknowledging that the border situation has become dangerous and untenable for crossers and residents alike, has been calling, with limited success, for state and federal authorities to take the militias out of play.
Most noteworthy at the time was the evident willingness of local law enforcement to play along:
- Activists charge that some law-enforcement agencies are complicit in the militias' activities. According to the Border Action Network's "Hate or Heroism" report, "Ranch Rescue says its members include former Border Patrol agents, military personnel, law enforcement officers, and members of Soldier of Fortune magazine. This may explain why Ranch Rescue operates with impunity."
Isabel Garcia, of the Human Rights Coalition, says, "What's really disturbing to us is the complicity of Larry Dever, the Cochise County sheriff. He's been a featured speaker at every one of these racist meetings they've had. He's done nothing to stem their violations, and we're not convinced that there may not be some involvement by the U.S. Border Patrol. The ex-Tucson sector chief, Ron Sanders, and [a former California-based] sector chief, Bill King, have been to American Border Patrol meetings. Ron Sanders still has folks within the ranks that are very loyal to him." Frank Amarillas, a spokesperson for the U.S. Border Patrol in Tucson, says there is no connection between his agency and American Border Patrol.
One of the early "border militia" groups called itself "Ranch Rescue," which, in the description of the Southern Poverty Law Center, is "a group of vigilantes dedicated to patrolling the U.S.-Mexico border region in an effort to deter and repel border crossers and trespassers. They conduct paramilitary operations and equip themselves with high-powered assault rifles, handguns, night-vision devices, two-way radios, observation posts, flares, machetes, all-terrain vehicles, and trained attack dogs."
The SPLC legal report went on to explain that one of the members of the Arizona chapter of Ranch Rescue, Casey Nethercott, was arrested in November of 2003 for assaulting two illegal immigrants in Texas -- for which he was ultimately convicted, and then forced to relinquish property rights to the ranch to the couple he assaulted when they successfully filed a civil lawsuit. Nethercott also did prison time for a weapons violation in connection with the assault.
While Nethercott awaited trial, his property in Arizona was briefly converted to a heavily armed compound -- one, perhaps, designed both for "hunting" illegal aliens and for repelling federal authorities. This was revealed in a seemingly nondescript story in the local weekly paper, the Sierra Vista Herald, describing some e-mails that raised concerns about Ranch Rescue's activities at the ranch:
- The correspondence shows deputies met with FBI, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents in November to discuss Ranch Rescue and varying reports that the group had constructed an armory with "'a million' rounds of ammunition" on the property, as well as previous reports of gun-mounted dune buggies and .50-caliber sniper rifles with a range of up to two miles.
... At the heart of the county's interest in Ranch Rescue are two zoning complaints, both filed in November regarding a flurry of construction on the 70-acre property believed to be owned by Casey Nethercott.
Ranch Rescue President Jack Foote has said that the group was invited by Nethercott in September to help Nethercott, a Ranch Rescue member himself, guard his border property against trespassing by illegal immigrants and the Border Patrol.
... The complaints allege the Ranch Rescue compound has constructed observation and guard towers from the remnants of a water tower and windmills, and workers are in the process of completing bunkers, barracks, a helicopter landing pad and indoor weapons range.
Zoning inspector Rick Corley said that while the complaints have yet to be investigated, such construction is likely a violation of the property's residential zoning restrictions.
A complaint filed Nov. 3 by the Sheriff's Department has since been withdrawn, with Rothrock citing FBI contact regarding the situation on Nov. 13 as the reason. In his explanation for the removal of the zoning complaint he writes, "The situation is more serious than we were aware of. We will be setting up a meeting (with) the FBI in the near future."
According to an e-mail from Rothrock, "(Border Patrol) says that the (Ranch Rescue) people openly state that they are 'hunting' undocumented aliens."
According to Ranch Rescue's Web site, volunteers from the Missouri Militia and other groups based out of Texas and California are at work in Douglas on a mission known as Operation Thunderbird. With continuous armed patrols of the U.S.-Mexico border region around Douglas, as well as the construction of physical obstacles on the private property to deter Mexican traffic, their goal, the site says, is to protect private ranchers' properties and apprehend illegal immigrants before they can ravage the land.
Trouble continued brewing with the border militias brandishing their hardware and stirring up trouble with property owners along border areas. A story in the Tucson Citizen described it reaching a point where the Ranch Rescue vigilantes were targeting Mexican military, because they believed the army was aiding and abetting drug and people smuggling:
- The next time a Mexican soldier sets foot on the small chunk of border property owned by a Ranch Rescue member group, members plan to open fire, their leader said.
"Two in the chest and one in the head," warned Jack Foote, president of Ranch Rescue, a civilian group that patrols in search of illegal immigrants and drug smugglers. He said his group is protecting the rights of property owners.
Chances are rising for an international shootout, thanks to patrols along the Cochise County border by people other than law enforcement, said Douglas Mayor Ray Borane.
"This isn't a game," Borane said. "That's the thing that has always worried me, that these people would cause an international incident and not only hinder relations with Mexico, but that they'd make this area become a hotbed for other organizations like that."
The "border militia" idea is not new -- the only thing that is new is that those promoting it have been able to disguise their racism successfully. It has been most loudly promoted in recent years by such groups as VDare, Peter Brimelow's anti-immigrant organization, and such figures as Glenn Spencer, founder of American Patrol. Both organizations have been designated "hate groups" by the SPLC.
Spencer is particularly notorious. As the SPLC explains in its report:
- Glenn Spencer, one of the hardest line anti-immigrant ideologues now operating, founded the Voices of Citizens Together (VCT, which is also known, like his web site and radio show, as American Patrol) in 1992.
In 1994, VCT lobbied hard for passage of California's controversial Proposition 187, which would have denied educational and other benefits to illegal immigrants and their children. (Although it passed, 187 was later thrown out by the courts.)
Four years later, Spencer claimed 3,500 subscribers to the VCT newsletter. Spencer takes a hard line on immigration, demanding that the armed forces seal America's southern border. He also displays a bigoted and vulgar side quite openly.
On his web site, he attacks Mario Obledo, a leading Latino activist and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, as "Pinche [literally, fucking] Cockroach and 1998 Asshole of the Year." A cartoon character is depicted urinating on Obledo's picture.
Spencer posts dozens of immigration-related articles but replaces the words "illegal immigrant" with "illegal alien," among other editing touches. In a 1996 letter to The Los Angeles Times, Spencer wrote: "The Mexican culture is based on deceit. Chicanos and Mexicanos lie as a means of survival."
He posts material on his site from such men as H. Millard, an infamous columnist for the racist Council of Conservative Citizens who once bemoaned the "slimy brown mass of glop" that immigration and interracial relationships were making of the U.S. population.
Spencer sent every member of Congress a copy of his videotape -- "Bonds of Our Nation" -- that purports to prove the Mexican government and Mexican-Americans are plotting to take over the American Southwest and create the nation of Aztlán. Hand-delivering the videos was Betina McCann, the fiancé of neo-Nazi Steven Barry.
On a weekly radio show that airs in several cities, Spencer has hosted a series of guests like Kevin McDonald, a professor who accuses Jews of devising an immigration policy specifically intended to dilute and weaken the white population of America.
The idea preceded even those far-right activists, though. The Center for New Community's Building Democracy Initiative explains this in some detail in a new report titled "Shell Games: The 'Minutemen' and Vigilante Anti-Immigrant Politics [PDF file], which lays bare the history behind the "border watch" concept:
- The strategy of border vigilantism as a political spectacle did not originate with the Minutemen Project, Glenn Spencer's American Border Patrol, Ranch Rescue, or even the militia groups that inspired Chris Simcox. Instead, the "men of this calibre" who hatched the idea were leaders in the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, more than a quarter century ago.
The Klan Border Watch was launched on Oct. 16, 1977 at the San Ysidro, California, Port of Entry by Grand Dragon Tom Metzger and Imperial Wizard David Duke, who claimed that the patrols would stretch from California to Texas. It was conceived to recapture the Klan's glory days. With nearly 4 million members in the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan was highly influential in the passage of the 1924 National Origins Act, thereby making racism part of official US immigration policy until the passage of the Immigration Act of 1965.
While Metzger handled the California operations, the Texas side was run by Louis Beam (who would go on to terrorize Vietnamese fishers in Galveston Bay a few years later.) They predicted that thousands would participate, though only dozens materialized. To Duke, a Klan Border Watch was a necessary part of "the battle to halt the flow of illegal aliens streaming across the border from Mexico."
More important than actually stopping border crossers, the Klan Border Watch was conceived as a way to "arouse public opinion to such a degree that they [the Federal Government] would be forced to better equip the beleaguered U.S. Border Patrol."
Just the name itself -- "Minuteman" -- has a certain legacy in right-wing circles. The most recent previous incarnation of an organization claiming the "Minuteman" name was the right-wing anti-Communist group of the 1960s. They too started out presenting themselves as merely patriotic citizens acting on concerns about the nation's well-being. But they ended up being something else altogether.
I wrote about them in Chapter 3 of In God's Country: The Patriot Movement and the Pacific Northwest [pp. 52-54]:
- Then there were the Minutemen. Not only did they preach a more rabid style of anti-Communist paranoia than the Birch Society, their activities also manifested, for the first time, the violent undercurrent of these beliefs.
Led by a Missouri man named Robert DePugh, the Minutemen not only believed that government had been infiltrated at its highest levels by Communists, but that a Communist takeover was virtually inevitable; therefore, they told their believers, you should arm yourselves with whatever weaponry would be effective as a counterforce to strike back when the takeover occurred. DePugh, a onetime associate of [JBS founder] Robert Welch before DePugh was dropped from the John Birch Society, also told his followers to harass "the enemy," and compiled at his headquarters a list of 1,500 people he identified as members of the "Communist hidden
government," with the intent to assassinate them in the event of the Communist coup.
The Minutemen soon became associated with groups like Wesley Swift's Church of Jesus Christ Christian, a Christian Identity church located in Hollywood. Swift preached the "two-seed" brand of Identity, holding that not only are white people are the true Israelites and descendants of Adam, but that blacks, Asians, and other non-whites thus are "pre-Adamic" people without souls, and Jews are either descendants of Satan himself (the offspring of conjugal relations with Eve) or practitioners of a Satanic religion. Among Swift's more notable adherents: retired Col. William Potter Gale, a former MacArthur aide who eventually became a key figure in Posse Comitatus; and a quiet-spoken Lockheed engineer named Richard Girnt Butler.
Also in attendance at Swift's Sunday services was Keith Gilbert, a gunshop owner who also was a Minutemen member. Gilbert was arrested in 1965 and convicted for the theft of 1,400 pounds of TNT that he later said was part of a plot to plant a bomb under the stage of the Hollywood Palladium during an Anti-Defamation League convention, and to detonate it during the keynote speech by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. -- a plot only disrupted by his arrest.
Other Minutemen were getting into trouble around the nation. The group was connected to an October 1966 plot, broken up by the FBI in New York City, to bomb three summer camps operated by liberal East Coast organizations. And illegal caches of weapons and ammunition linked to Minutemen kept popping up around the countryside.
By this point, though, DePugh had decided to move into the political arena. Using the Minutemen's agenda as a platform, he formed the Patriotic Party and made public speeches around the country touting its potential in the wake of Barry Goldwater's 1964 presidential election defeat. Two of those appearances were in Seattle in 1966. A mail-room employee of Seattle City Light named Duane I. Carlson put up $500 of his own money to sponsor the Northwest convention of the Patriotic Party at the Hyatt House. A few months later, DePugh made a stump speech for a November Patriotic Party gathering; some 600 people, paying $1 apiece, were in attendance. DePugh, however, only spoke to the crowd by a telephone hookup. The Minutemen's fearless leader was temporarily indisposed: he and an associate had been recently convicted on a variety of felony firearms violations and sentenced just the week before to four years in prison.
Over the next year, DePugh fought that conviction, and managed to stay out of jail through a string of appeals. But the legal troubles started taking their toll on the organization's finances -- and pressure mounted to find alternative sources of revenue.
Soon, Duane Carlson's activities moved well beyond public meetings. He gathered a group of six other Seattle-area men -- a longshoreman, a church sexton, a grocery clerk, a civilian driver at the Fort Lewis Army Base, a self-employed draftsman, and an unemployed ship's oiler -- and began plotting ways to finance the Minutemen's arms operations and strike a blow against the "Communist controlled" government at the same time. Their plan: set off a bomb at the city hall of a small Seattle suburb, Redmond, while simultaneously detonating another at the local power station, thereby creating a major distraction while taking out police communications at the same time. This would enable the gang to strike three Redmond banks they had targeted for a series of successive robberies.
Their downfall, however, came when a federal informant infiltrated the group. On the day the Minutemen planned to strike -- January 26, 1967 -- the FBI swooped down on them in two parking lots, one in Bellevue and another in Lake City, where the conspirators were meeting to carry out their plot, and arrested all seven. DePugh denied they were part of his organization, claiming Carlson had been dropped from his rolls for "non-payment of dues." Federal prosecutors, who found evidence that DePugh actually was party to the plan from its early stages, put out a warrant for his arrest.
DePugh went into hiding but was caught a few months later hiding out in Spokane, where he was charged in the Redmond plot. Five of the seven Seattle plotters were charged, and all five were convicted. DePugh, convicted in September 1970, wound up serving four years out of a ten-year sentence on the original firearms charges, but by then, his career in politics was in the ashheap. He later tried to resuscitate his ambitions by heading up an ultra-conservative organization called the Committee of 10 Million, but the numbers fell well short of those suggested by the group's name. DePugh currently is in prison again, this time on a 1992 conviction for sexual exploitation of a minor.
A number of human-rights monitors have pointed out the extremist origins and underlying dynamic of the Minuteman movement. A report in August from Bill Berkowitz explored this:
- Devin Burghart, who monitors anti-immigrant movements with the Illinois-based human rights group, the Centre for New Community's Building Democracy Initiative, is not surprised by the growth of the vigilante movement -- or its potential for internal strife.
"We are seeing a similar trajectory today with the Minutemen movement that we saw with the militia movement in the early 1990s," Burghart told IPS.
However, Burghart maintains that the Minutemen are in a much better position then the militias were because "they appear to be mostly relying on a number of already established anti-immigrant networks and activists to spread the word."
Twelve years ago, the Militia of Montana, the Michigan Militia and a number of other like-minded groups appeared to spring up out of nowhere. In short order, they captured the nation's attention as well as the media's spotlight.
Militia leaders such as Montana's John Trochmann and Michigan's Norm Olsen became oft-quoted spokespersons for what was at first portrayed as an amorphous collection of anti-government activists.
"In the early 1990s, it didn't take long for new militia groups to start springing up, many of which weren't even organised by the originators of the concept," Burghart pointed out.
"The establishment of local militia groups took on a life of its own, becoming somewhat of a mass movement. Even older and pre-existing Christian Patriot groups started calling themselves militias. It sounds like we could be on the verge of that happening with the Minutemen phenomenon."
... "The Minutemen of today and the militias of a decade ago have many commonalities ideologically,” Burghart said. "Despite all their 'law-and-order' rhetoric, they both rely on illegal paramilitary vigilantism and intimidation to push public policy."
"They both appear to be expressions of Middle American Nationalism -- the notion that 'middle Americans' are being squeezed from above by the economic elites, and from below from the multicultural hordes that are sucking the lifeblood from the productive middle."
"Both the militias and the minutemen create a demonised 'other' based on citizenship status: The militias had the 'sovereign citizen' concept, which divided people into (white) state 'sovereign' citizens and so-called '14th Amendment' citizens. The Minutemen do it the basis of perceived immigration status."
He noted that "both are rife with conspiracy theories. For example, the militias were concerned about the New World Order, while the Minutemen have La Reconquista, which contends that there is a secret plot to re-conquer the American southwest for Mexico."
Moreover, both the militias and the Minutemen have something in common with the Posse Comitatus, an anti-Semitic white supremacist group that sprung up in the 1970s. Latin for "power of the county," the Posse Comitatus was founded in 1971 by retired army lieutenant colonel William Potter Gale.
Gale "believed that all white, Christian men had an unconditional right to take up arms to enforce the principles of a 'Constitutional Republic,' and challenge various 'unlawful acts' of the federal government, including integration, taxation and the federal reserve banking system," Daniel Levitas, the author of ”The Terrorist Next Door. The Militia Movement and the Radical Right” (St Martin's Press, 2002), told IPS.
Simcox himself continues to make the connection of the Minutemen to the Patriot movement explicit. This summer, a news release on its Web site described its plans to organize patrols in four states -- California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas -- for the entire month of October:
- Join fellow Patriot-Minutemen in October for a four state month-long Border Patrol to observe, report and protect the US from illegal immigration in all southern border states
MinutemanHQ.com is the new National Organization for the original Minuteman border project. It is the only group authorized by Chris Simcox and Jim Gilchrist who organized the first border watch.
Contact us immediately to learn about upcoming missions. We are expanding to California, Texas and New Mexico on the southern border. Requests from activated volunteers on the northern border with Canada - Maine, Vermont, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Idaho and Washington State are creating new operations, this is truly an exciting time for Patriots!
"Congress and the U.S. Senate continue to drag their feet on securing our borders with U.S. military and National Guard troops. Meanwhile, thousands of illegal immigrants cross our southern border every week.
Next: Their Leadership