Monday, January 16, 2006

The March of the Minutemen

Part I: What's in a Name?

Part II: Rotten from the Top

Part III: Rank Ranks

Part IV: The Law in Their Hands

[Note: Part I began to count and describe the ways we know that the Minutemen are an extremist organizing strategy. No. 1 was their origins; No. 2 was their leadership; No. 3 was their following.]

4. The Vigilantism

The Minutemen like to portray their "patrols" as being merely a matter of supplementing the Border Patrol -- they're just keeping an eye out and letting authorities know when someone is trying to cross. They tell the press that they do not use force or arms except in self-defense.

But it's clear, in fact, that on many occasions when there is actual contact by Minutemen with illegal aliens, guns frequently are indeed brandished. One Minuteman leader in Texas indeed boasted of it:
Radio talk-show host J.C. McClain could hardly contain his excitement as he recalled the time he had to pull his pistol in front of an illegal immigrant whose pants were still wet from splashing across the Rio Grande.

The exasperated man told McClain to get out of the way, "the Border Patrol has already been through here." When a member of the man's group picked up a rock, McClain pulled his gun and held it in front of his belt, pointing at the ground. The man dropped the rock, and the group trudged back into Mexico.

McClain related the story to his Brownwood, Texas, audience the next day from an improvised radio booth in a borrowed house a few miles from the border near El Paso.

"It just made our day," he said, laughing as he described the confrontation.

The Minutemen's claims to being just a benign "neighbor watch" movement that carefully screens its participants and discourages the use of guns, except for self-defense, have largely proven a complete mirage as the project's participants and supporters actually take to the streets.

What remains, as that façade has dropped, is an organization predicated on vigilantism.

This became especially apparent when the Minutemen took their campaign to Texas. According to Ed Hegstrom at the Houston Chronicle, the Minutemen who planned to patrol the city on foot searching for illegal immigrants also planned to be packing heat:
Leaders of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps of Texas had earlier said volunteers observing Houston's day laborers in October would carry nothing but video cameras.

But leaders now say those involved in the operations targeting local illegal immigrants will be allowed to carry arms as long as they comply with all federal and state laws.

In fact, those who have a concealed-weapons permit are being offered a discount on joining the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps. An Arizona-based organization, the Minutemen started out by patrolling the Arizona-Mexico border in April to prevent illegal immigrants from crossing, but the group has announced it will conduct a variety of operations here this fall.

Members are normally charged $50 to join, with the money used to conduct a criminal background check. Those with a valid concealed-weapons permit can have that fee waived, since they already have undergone a background check and met other requirements, such as a handgun course, to get the permit, said George Klages, spokesman for the Minutemen in Houston.

Klages said the Minutemen are all responsible, law-abiding citizens, and the use of arms will not cause problems here.

"About 50 or 60 percent of our members are veterans," he said. "These are people who know how to handle a weapon."

This wasn't a border watch operation: These Minutemen were cruising the streets, searching for illegal immigrants.

The façade has vanished at other times, when journalists actually decided not to take their claims at face value. Among these was a news team that, during the original April Minuteman Project in Arizona, went undercover for KPHO in Phoenix, and produced a pretty remarkable report that largely ripped the lid off the Minutemen's carefully controlled image of being a cooperative neighborhood watch:
[B]ehind the scenes, our hidden cameras show there are problems and plenty the Minutemen are not telling reporters.

A lady on Hidden cam says, "We don't want the press to find out where the information is being handed out because we'll have CNN and FOX and yeah." They're controlling what you hear, from why some of these volunteers "really" came to southern Arizona:

John says, "If the border's gone, they're going to be pushing drugs on every one of our kids at school." To problems the organizers are having controlling the extremists who showed up.

John says, "The guys up here, on what we were talking about earlier on Mountain View, with the shotguns and the flag and lighting the fire. And lighting a fire on G-----n BLM land."

The piece goes on to explore in some detail the extent to which the Minutemen organizers are controlling what's given out to the media. It also features some deeply disturbing material captured in chats with some of the volunteers, in which it becomes clear that the project is having its most trouble keeping a lid on the collection of extremists who are part of the scene:
But as the sun goes down, problems keeping control of a group as big as the Minutemen begin to surface. Marc says, "There was a standoff and people got killed." The man from Tucson is asked to leave our group -- because he keeps talking to reporters. John says, "People like that, they'll drag down, they'll drag down the whole thing." And as the night goes on, a drama unfolds across the highway. Some of the volunteers are carrying shotguns, which is against the rules and our group leader admits: Minuteman organizers are having trouble deciding what to do about it. Adahm/John says, "(What's up with the shotgun guys? How are you going to deal with those two?) I have no idea ... that's out of my ... I don't even want to go up there." Adahm/John says, "(Well don't they have a guy like you are with us? Don't they have their?) He's not there. I can't find him." The man says, "I hope they're not drinking or anything. I didn't see any beer there."

Jim Gilchrist, the Project spokesman, explains these folks away later by claiming, "They are not Miuteman Project volunteers. They are rogue patrollers posing as Minutemen."

Be sure to check out the video link to the story. It includes some chilling footage, as well as a disturbing footnote from the anchor for the piece, Morgan Lowe, who adds that the crew heard plenty of racial remarks out in the field, including one from a volunteer who told him he looked forward to "hunting a certain group of people."

You can also get a sense for some of the paranoia that pervaded the Minuteman Arizona camp from reading the first-person report filed by a Freeper named "Spiff":
Nine days of blockade has begun to result in desperation.

We believe 500-700 illegals and their coyotes are bottled up in the Huachuca Mountains at present. They are running out of food and water. We have also figured out the system used here for putting out food and water caches and have been routinely using them to add some variety to our dogs’ diets. Our canine companions are most appreciative.

A recap of last night’s action: several Minuteman were almost run down by a fleeing load vehicle last night. Fellow LePer idratherbe painting is now on the injured reserve list after a bad fall into a dry wash at the same location. Another Minuteman is “under investigation” for making physical contact after saving an illegal from a bad fall.

This morning began with round up of the illegals who missed their ride in the fleeing vehicle the night before. Two had become thoroughly lost and confused and walked up to one of the MMP teams asking for directions. When the realized who they had approached, they took off running and practically jumped into a Border Patrol vehicle.

The daylight hours were uneventful other than a prolonged visit by CNN’s Lou Dobbs. He spent most of his time out on the Naco Line along the border fence. Those of us in the canyons got a visit from those fine folks from the ACLU. They chose to set up in a dull spot with a fine view of Ash Canyon.

All hell has broken loose since nightfall. Several groups have come down out of the mountains to attempt a getaway. Scanner traffic gives a tally so far of five load vehicles captured, about 70 illegals in custody, and a similar sized group scattered throught the west end of Hereford and being picked up piecemeal. We have recovered three coyote cell phones and the call histories should prove interesting.

The propensity toward vigilantism particularly comes out among the more extremist elements of the Minutemen. Casey Nethercott of Ranch Rescue, according to a report from KVOA in Tucson, announced that he was planning to ratchet the craziness even higher:
Casey Nethercott, the leader of the group said Friday that he doesn't yet want to go into detail on his plans.

He supports the Minutemen, but his backup plan is a much more aggressive approach.

Nethercott pointed to two black SUV's, saying, "These are armored vehicles. They got quarter-inch steel in them. They'll stop small arms fire and some rifles."

The headquarters of the militia, called the Arizona Guard, sits along the U.S./Mexico border near Douglas, Arizona, in the Southeastern corner of the state.

Pointing again to the vehicles, Nethercott continued, "You'll get killed without them, here's been so many shootouts out here."

So many shootouts, he said, that the back wall is riddled with bullet holes of all sizes from drug smugglers who open fire on the compound; prompting the group's border project, tentatively planned for July 4th.

"When this Minuteman thing is over, if it doesn't work, we're going to come out here and close the border with machine guns," Nethercott said.

This tendency toward vigilantism also has come out in acts not directly associated with the Minutemen, but apparently inspired by them. These include at least two vigilante border shootings near Tijuana, where two Mexican men were shot in separate incidents while attempting border crossings:
Carlos Alfonso Estrada Martinez, 38, was one of two Mexican citizens shot in separate incidents during the early hours of Saturday in the border region between Tecate and Campo.

In statements he made to officials, Estrada had said he was about 200 yards inside the U.S. when he was hit about 1 a.m. A second man who was shot about an hour later said he was assaulted just south of the border fence in Mexico.

... The second man, Jose Humberto Rivera Perez, a 32-year-old native of Guadalajara, was shot just below the left knee. Interviewed earlier this week as he recovered at the Centro de Salud hospital, he said he was shot by a man who had his face covered as Rivera and several others waited to cross the border roughly 20 yards south of the fence.

When they tried to flee, the man shouted at them in Spanish not to run and fired, hitting Rivera.

A statement released earlier that weekend by Mexican immigration officials blamed the shootings on bandits rather than on cazamigrantes, Spanish for "migrant hunters." Since mid-July, armed civilians have been watching the border in the area surrounding Campo, patrolling between Jacumba and Tecate.

The reporters also spoke to a Minuteman leader:
Jim Chase, the Oceanside resident who organized the three-week border watch, said none of his people have fired any weapons. But he added that while he turns away people he considers extremists, he has been running into people conducting their own patrols who are not with his group.

"It doesn't scare me, but it is scary from the standpoint of these are people who have not gone through me to pledge to be nonracist and nonviolent," Chase said earlier this week.

And as we've seen, getting that official Minuteman certification doesn't exactly seem like an ironclad guarantee against racism and violence, either. But then, movements like these, borne of racial scapegoating in the first place, are always going to attract those kinds of supporters. It's in their nature.

The reality-based picture of the Minutemen that's emerging is not of a friendly "neighborhood watch" for the border, but of a chaotic collection of vigilante hatemongers who seem intent on a kind of populist mob rule fueled by angry paranoia. It becomes a cover not for law and order, but for the ugliest kind of brutal authoritarianism.

That, in fact, is the face that vigilantism has always revealed eventually, even in places like Montana, which reveres the memory of its "vigilantes." As the history of the Montana vigilantes revealed later, their early "victories" over predators like Henry Plummer soon gave way to a vicious lawlessness in which people were summarily hanged not just for horse theft but for drunken misbehavior or breaking out of a jail. Its legacy continued into the 20th century and the long fights over labor unions:
In 1917 radical labor leader Frank Little, a member of the far-left Industrial Workers of the World, or Wobblies, arrived in Butte and began attacking America's recent entry into World War I. Speaking before large crowds of copper miners, Little called President Woodrow Wilson a "lying tyrant" and denounced United States soldiers as "scabs in uniform." This proved to be free speech at its most dangerous. Tensions between labor and management in Butte’s copper industry already were high, and the state of Montana as a whole was gripped by a fever of hyperpatriotism and intolerance for dissent. In the early morning hours of August 1, 1917, six masked men seized Little in his boarding house, dragged him through the streets, and hanged him from a bridge. A sign was placed on his back with the numbers 3-7-77 and the initials of six other men threatened with the same fate. Though Burton K. Wheeler, then a federal attorney, condemned the affair as "a damnable outrage," no arrests were made.

At the same time the Montana vigilantes were enjoying their career, another brand of night-riding, terror-inducing vigilantism, calling itself the Ku Klux Klan, was weaving itself into the cultural fabric of the South as well. This was the real face of vigilantism in America.

In 1866 -- one year after the end of the Civil War -- a noted trend of creeping violence toward blacks among whites, often embodied in seemingly unprovoked and often lethal assaults, became discernibly more organized with the emergence of the Ku Klux Klan, which originated with a claque of Confederate veterans in Pulaski, Tennessee, and spread like wildfire throughout the South. Initially much of the Klan night riders' activities were relegated to whippings, a punishment intended to remind the ex-slaves of their former status. But as the assaults on blacks increased, so did the intensity of the violence visited on them, culminating in a steady stream of Klan lynchings between 1868 and 1871 (when the Klan was officially outlawed by the Grant Administration); at least one study puts the number at 20,000 blacks killed by the Klan in that period. In the ensuing years, the violence did little to decline, and in fact worsened, despite the Klan’s official banishment.

Moreover, in addition to the night-riding type of terrorist attacks, mass spectacle lynchings soon appeared. These were ritualistic mob scenes in which prisoners or even men merely suspected of crimes were often torn from the hands of authorities (if not captured beforehand) by large crowds and treated to beatings and torture before being put to death, frequently in the most horrifying fashion possible: people were flayed alive, had their eyes gouged out with corkscrews, and had their bodies mutilated before being doused in oil and burned at the stake. Black men were sometimes forced to eat their own hacked-off genitals. No atrocity was considered too horrible to visit on a black person, and no pain too unimaginable to inflict in the killing. (When whites, by contrast, were lynched, the act almost always was restricted to simple hanging.)

The violence reached a fever pitch in the years 1890-1902, when 1,322 lynchings of blacks (out of 1,785 total lynchings) were recorded at Tuskegee, which translates into an average of over 110 lynchings a year. (The Tuskegee estimates, in fact, were notoriously conservative, and likely represented only half if not less of all the African Americans who were summarily murdered for the slightest offense, and sometimes none at all, during this period.) The trend began to decline afterward, but continued well into the 1930s, leading some historians to refer to the years 1880-1930 as the "lynching period" of American culture.

There are many postcards that recorded these lynchings, because the participants were rather proud of their involvement. This is clear from the postcards themselves, which frequently showed not merely the corpse of the victim but many of the mob members, whose visages ranged from grim to grinning. Sometimes children were intentionally given front-row views. A lynching postcard from Florida in 1935, of a migrant worker named Rubin Stacy who had allegedly "threatened and frightened a white woman," shows a cluster of young girls gathered round the tree trunk, the oldest of them about 12, with a beatific expression as she gazes on his distorted features and limp body, a few feet away.

Indeed, lynchings seemed to be cause for outright celebration in the community. Residents would dress up to come watch the proceedings, and the crowds of spectators frequently grew into the thousands. Afterwards, memento-seekers would take home parts of the corpse or the rope with which the victim was hung. Sometimes body parts -- knuckles, or genitals, or the like -- would be preserved and put on public display as a warning to would-be black criminals.

That was the purported moral purpose of these demonstrations: Not only to utterly wipe out any black person merely accused of a crimes against whites, but to do it in a fashion intended to warn off future perpetrators. This was reflected in contemporary press accounts, which described the lynchings in almost uniformly laudatory terms, with the victim's guilt unquestioned, and the mob identified only as "determined men." Not surprisingly, local officials (especially local police forces) not only were complicit in many cases, but they acted in concert to keep the mob leaders anonymous; thousands of coroners' reports from lynchings merely described the victims' deaths occurring "at the hands of persons unknown." Lynchings were broadly viewed as simply a crude, but understandable and even necessary, expression of community will. This was particularly true in the South, where blacks were viewed as symbolic of the region's continuing economic and cultural oppression by the North. As an 1899 editorial in the Newnan, Georgia, Herald and Advertiser explained it: "It would be as easy to check the rise and fall of the ocean’s tide as to stem the wrath of Southern men when the sacredness of our firesides and the virtue of our women are ruthlessly trodden under foot."

You see, vigilantism always claims to be about law and order and preserving "traditional values." And yet historically, real extremism has always expressed itself thus. This is because vigilantism is always, in the end, about the brutal imposition of mob rule without regard to the humanity of its targets. The proof, in the end, lies in the strange fruit it inevitably produces.

Next: The Mainstream Embrace

No comments: