Wednesday, January 18, 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

Part V: The Mainstream Embrace

[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. No. 4 was their vigilantism. Part 5 examined the extent to which mainstream conservatives are embracing this extremism. This part concludes the series by discussing strategies for dealing with them effectively.]

Part VI: Standing Up to Them

Fortunately, it was possible to obtain far more realistic assessments of the Minuteman Project, and the media coverage, than what was being proffered at most mainstream media outlets.

One such assessment provided by Mark Potok, who co-authored the SPLC report. Potok was interviewed by Bill Berkowitz at Working For Change, and had this to say about the reportage of the Minutemen:
As a general matter, the media did an exceedingly poor job of covering the Minuteman Project. The organizers said they were bringing in excess of 1,300 volunteers to Arizona, but brought significantly fewer than 300. They claimed the volunteers were being vetted for possible white supremacists by the FBI -- only to have the FBI completely deny that this was the case. They said the only people who would carry guns would be those with conceal-carry permits. In fact, almost no one was checked for permits. Almost none of this was noted in most mainstream press accounts -- accounts that in many cases were completely uncritical, even adulatory, in their treatment of the Minutemen.

Most important of all, the organizers of the Minuteman Project claimed that they would be keeping out white supremacists and other racists through their vetting process. In fact, there were at least six men participating who were members of the National Alliance, a neo-Nazi group whose members have been involved in crimes including assassination, shootouts with police, the machine-gun murder of a Jewish talk show host, bank robberies, plots to bomb Disney World and more. At least two of these men actually discussed setting up sniper positions along the border sometime in the near future. In addition, there was at least one member of the Aryan Nations, another major neo-Nazi group, participating in the Minuteman Project. No mainstream press account mentioned any of this.

Most press accounts ignored the bigoted past statements of organizer Chris Simcox, and almost all uncritically accepted self-congratulatory and inaccurate assessments from Simcox and co-organizer Jim Gilchrist. They also suggested, in many cases, that the Project had "shut down" some 20 miles of the border to illegal immigration; in fact, they only operated along a stretch of some two miles. One press account also described Project volunteer Jim McCutchen in flattering terms in a lengthy profile; completely ignored were McCutchen's anti-Semitism and his contacts with the white supremacist hate group Council of Conservative Citizens, which has described blacks as a "retrograde species of humanity."

Overall, I think the blandly positive tone of the press coverage has contributed to similar efforts that are springing up elsewhere -- not to mention California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's description of the Project as a great thing that should be emulated.

A similarly scathing report came from Marc Cooper at the Los Angeles Times:
For two solid weeks, thousands of news stories cascaded from the hardscrabble border zone, focusing on what was, in reality, a group of True Believers whose real numbers were tiny.

Though the Minuteman organizers vowed that 1,600 or more mad-as-hell volunteers had signed up for duty and that "potentially several thousands" would participate in the kickoff rallies during April Fools' weekend, turnout was an unmitigated flop — less than a tenth of the promised throngs showed up at the rallies. The entire Minuteman spectacle, indeed, easily qualified for that journalistic catchall phrase, "a fizzle," but virtually none of the news media reported it as such.

On its opening day, I could count no more than 135 participants, even at the two kickoff public rallies along the Arizona border. At one near the border town of Douglas, two dozen reporters and a handful of TV cameras swarmed over no more than 10 Minutemen -- most of them sitting in lawn chairs or in pickup truck beds. During the entire kickoff weekend, the media troops clearly outnumbered the Minutemen. And in the days that followed, piecing together the various reports and reading between the lines, it's obvious that the Minuteman numbers dwindled to no more than a few dozen at a time. If that many people marched down Hollywood Boulevard for any cause, who'd report it?

Indeed, only 18 days into the monthlong project, the effort collapsed. Predictably, a few hundred illegal immigrants had chosen not to cross in that area during the media ruckus. Minuteman organizers preposterously declared victory, claiming they had shut down the border to illegal immigration and packed off home. Even then, most news reports failed to acknowledge the project's obvious failure -- which may explain why on Thursday Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger offered sappy praise for the fiasco.

Most of Cooper's ire is directed, for good reason, at the media:
"They came by the hundreds," is how the Los Angeles Times breathlessly led its first-day report out of Tombstone, only to tell us deeper in the story that the actual number of Minutemen who showed up were "200 or so." A Times follow-up three days later got us closer to the truth when Minuteman organizer Jim Gilchrist admitted: "This thing was a dog-and-pony show designed to bring in the media and get the message out, and it worked."

It worked so well that less than a week later another Times reporter filed a 1,200-word of profile of Gilchrist, an obscure, retired Orange County accountant. Even though, by then, the Minuteman Project was into its 11th day, the reporter made no mention of the actual status of his collapsing border event.

The situation along the U.S.-Mexican border continues to sink into chaos, and Congress and the White House do little more than aggravate things. In spite of billions of dollars spent to bolster the line, every year hundreds of thousands (or perhaps millions) of desperate migrants manage to evade the human, physical and environmental barriers and make the crossing to wind up as our maids, nannies and gardeners.

More than 3,000 died trying to make the crossing in the last decade -- 10 times more than all those who perished trying to jump the Berlin Wall.

It's a complex and vexing issue that is getting hotter by the day. Now more than ever the public needs news media that are serious, thoughtful and analytical, not compliant suckers for the wound-up partisans and pandering politicians who are increasingly likely to inflame or obfuscate the issue with goofball dog-and-pony shows.

Cooper is right: Our officials -- as well as the mavens of the media -- are being grotesquely irresponsible by endorsing these kinds of demagogic displays. But it runs deeper than that.

This is, after all, an organization that has indicated it intends to expand its purview. And the concept of the Minutemen as a right-wing citizen vigilante force has uses well beyond even border patrols. These endorsements may wind up giving the Minutemen more than their 15 seconds of fame -- and that could be a problem for many years to come.

However, it's worth observing that the right-wing dynamic for self-destructive infighting is also rearing its head. The movement, in fact, is bordering on chaos, according to a report from the San Antonio Express:
It remains to be seen if future projects will be as effective as the first. Insiders say the group's two attention-grabbing leaders have parted ways.

Jim Gilchrist, a retired accountant and former Marine from California, originated the idea and handled recruiting through his Web site. He then tapped Chris Simcox, who already had been leading small civilian border patrol groups in Arizona for two years.

But differences between them grew throughout the month. It's not clear whether future Minuteman efforts will be led by Gilchrist or Simcox or if they will organize or support simultaneous but separate efforts.

"There are no ties," Gilchrist said this week. "If we did anything else together, it would be as allies, not partners. I support his goals, but I'm weary of his management capabilities."

Numerous Arizona participants, including organizers, said Simcox's dictatorial ways -- he became known as "The Little Prince" and "The Little Hitler" -- angered countless volunteers, prompting many to quit.

"He just pissed everybody off," said Jim Chase, who held several leadership positions during the mission, including security director. "It was ridiculous, going behind everyone's back. I'm never working with him again."

Simcox said he was unaware of any criticism and dismissed the notion that the group was falling apart. He and Gilchrist still maintain frequent contact and consult with each other on decisions, he said.

They decided to let Simcox handle all future border-watch efforts while Gilchrist would start a side project investigating U.S. employers who willingly hire undocumented workers, Simcox said.

Confusion over who's in charge has left nascent Minuteman offshoots in other border states tapping both for help.

The head-scratching already is visible in South Texas.

Wanda Schultz, a volunteer with Houston-based Americans For Zero Immigration, was told by Simcox's office to gear up for a monthlong mission in Brownsville starting Oct. 1. Simcox said he'll be dispatching an organizer to Houston next week.

But others who also volunteered in Arizona have started planning "Minutemen Texas." Its steering committee hasn't yet picked specific dates and places, but is aiming for October between Brownsville and Laredo, said Sandra Beene of Dallas.

It's worth keeping in mind, too, that these kinds of right-wing organizations are prone to implosion and real instability, as they typically involve a lot of high-maintenance egos and paranoid sensibilities:
Three months after hundreds of people descended on southern Arizona to stage civilian border patrols as part of the Minuteman Project, the anti-illegal-immigration movement has snowballed, with offshoot groups forming along the southern border and in other states.

But as the movement has grown, along with the media attention surrounding it, it has also splintered. Rival factions have emerged, squabbling over issues ranging from political correctness to use of the "Minuteman" name, and even over e-mail etiquette.

Some leaders of offshoot groups have launched verbal grenades at each other in the media and via news releases; others have traded insults online.

One group leader who feels particularly picked on says he has cut ties with Minuteman leadership and plans to operate solo.

And last month, Minuteman Project co-founder Jim Gilchrist dismissed two volunteers -- whom he characterized as "wackos" -- for sending querulous responses after he issued two e-mails to members of his group that threatened excommunication for those who didn't stop sniping at one another.

He signed one of his missives from "An American with better things to do than baby-sit quarrelsome adults."

"It's so counterproductive. It gets people distracted," said Gilchrist, a retired Orange County accountant who presides over Minuteman Project Inc., which he said is awaiting nonprofit status, and hopes to soon pursue employers who hire unauthorized workers.

"If I were to set up some rules of conduct, it would be to stop the argumentative attitude and be pleasant."

... [M]any agree the international media attention showered on the Minuteman Project, while it energized the anti-illegal-immigration movement, has also created a monster of sorts.

"When we left Arizona in April, too many people had seen the glamour," said Mike Gaddy, who is active in a Simcox-sanctioned Minuteman group in Farmington, N.M. " 'Gosh, I was on Sean Hannity. Gosh, I was interviewed by The Baltimore Sun. Gosh, I was interviewed on Spanish radio.' Egos are a terrible thing."

Like several others, Gaddy sees the elbowing as competitive. He says it bothers him that there are people in the movement who have political aspirations.

Gilchrist, for one, is contemplating a bid for Congress.

One of their opponents had the most accurate take:
Christian Ramirez of the American Friends Service Committee, a human rights group affiliated with the Quakers that has condemned the Minutemen and their successors, says he's not surprised.

"There has always been bickering among these types of organizations," Ramirez said. "There is always someone trying to become the leader of the anti-illegal-immigration movement, because it is such a fashionable thing. People are just fighting to see who is going to get more media attention."

One of the more interesting feuds has involved the Texas Minutemen, who announced their split from the national group:
The Minuteman Civil Defense Corp., the national organization led by co-founder Chris Simcox of Arizona, drew attention earlier this year with its patrols of the Arizona-Mexico border.

Last month, Simcox began to organize chapters around the U.S. and Canada. At least four sprouted in Texas, with plans to patrol the 1,200-mile border area as part of a national initiative called "Operation Secure Our Borders."

Some volunteers in Arizona were from Texas, and they returned to form Texas Minutemen LLC, based in Arlington. The group's co-founder, Shannon McGauley, said he agrees philosophically with Simcox but objects to the national structure.

McGauley's group also objects to paying the $50 fee per person that goes toward background checks and use of the national group's consultants, Web site and training.

"We wanted to keep it among Texans," he said. "And we don't charge anything."

Both groups have scouted land and have been gaining permission from landowners to set up lookout stations. Other groups have formed in New Mexico, California and Michigan -- among other border states -- with varying degrees of affiliation with Simcox's organization.

The Texas Minutemen said they will patrol the El Paso area, including Fabens and Fort Hancock. McGauley said his group has formed a loose network with similar organizations in New Mexico and California. He said another Texas group based in Houston is forming and expected to be part of the network.

Two Texas groups could cause problems, said Felix Almaraz, history professor specializing in Texas-Mexico border issues at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

"They're under different commands," he said. "They have a common objective of border security, but they're not coordinating together. It'll end up being selective surveillance."

Because the groups under close watch, any mishap could cause major damage to them, said Jerry Thompson, history professor at Texas A&M International University in Laredo.

"I think we need to be careful," he said. "This Texas individualism can get out of hand. What we need is more Border Patrol agents on the border. We don't need more Minutemen."

While it's likely the Minuteman movement will crumble under its own weight, like most far-right movements, that's not to say that it can't inflict serious damage on the body politic in the meantime.

And probably the most serious harm it inflicts is in moving the political center, particularly on immigration issues, ever farther to the right -- particularly by infecting mainstream discourse with its extremism.

A recent piece by Eve Fairbanks in The New Republic on the Minutemen underscored this essential point. Titled "Outside In: The Minutemen Are More Mainstream Than You Think," it argued:
The problem is, these Minutemen are home. Two weeks ago, I joined the Herndon Minutemen on one of their missions to photograph and videotape employers hiring day-laborers from the Herndon 7-11 expecting to be highly entertained by a gaggle of nutty retirees who'd piled into their Buicks before dawn for the chance to shake a shotgun at any varmint Mexicans they could find. After all, this is the image of the Minutemen held by many Americans, from commuters hurling insults to members of the media. A recent Post headline explained that "ON PATROL IN VT., MINUTEMEN ARE THE OUTSIDERS," while The Nation described a Minuteman rally as a "fringe political event." In short, the Minutemen are widely regarded both as outside agitators to the areas they patrol and as politically marginalized extremists.

But most of the Herndon Minutemen I met live just minutes away from the 7-11 they watch, next door or down the street from the day-laborers who cluster opposite them across Alabama Drive. And, while their actions are obnoxious, their concerns, far from being fringe, echo decidedly mainstream anxieties about cultural questions raised by uncontrolled illegal immigration. A recent Rasmussen Reports poll found that a full 54 percent of Americans actually have a "favorable impression" of the Minutemen, while only 22 percent have an "unfavorable" view. For liberals to dismiss the Minutemen as a tiny minority of racist throwbacks, loathed by the communities in which they operate, isn't just inaccurate. It's also naïve -- and politically dangerous.

The piece went on to explore what those mainstream "concerns" are:
[O]ver the course of the morning, as the Minutemen speak about why they joined the group, and why they soldier on the in face of such abuse, it becomes clear that such legalistic concerns are often a veil for deeper dissatisfaction with the way an expanding immigrant population is affecting the social fabric of their communities. This discomfort manifests itself as concern both about crime and about broader changes in the local culture--i.e., how the local immigrant community lives and socializes. Bill explains that he "slid into the Minutemen" because he was disturbed by the way his neighborhood was changing, and the other Minutemen standing with him nod in agreement. "Dormitory-style homes" have popped up on their streets, Bill says, and the residents come and go at strange hours. Their neighbors' children are intimidated and no longer like to play outside, in part because "we've got about 17 cars coming and going from our neighbors' houses." Matt, another Minuteman who lives in nearby Manassas, claims that the police have busted prostitution rings operating out of nearby properties. Bill doesn't want his name printed, he tells me, because he worries about retaliation from the local Hispanic gang, MS-13. Pointing to the cluster of day-laborers across the street, he explains to me that the Herndon 7-11 is "a social gathering place, too." Taplin has publicly objected to a regulated day-laborer site set to open in Herndon on December 19 -- proposed in order to combat the trespassing, litter, and nuisance complaints that have arisen in conjunction with the informal 7-11 site -- because he worries that even a regulated locale wouldn't change "their behaviors." Even on the coldest mornings, more than 50 workers often convene at the 7-11, and Bill judges that sometimes only 10 or 20 get hired. "When," he asks me, "is it ever a good thing for 40 men to hang out together?"

These anxieties may be overblown, in some cases borderline racist; but they are not, unfortunately, outside the mainstream. In Mount Pleasant, the predominantly Hispanic, rapidly gentrifying Washington neighborhood where I live, complaints have begun to surface about the groups of men that congregate on stoops or outside of convenience stores at night. Those who have complained call it loitering, but one Hispanic resident told the Post that when the men gather outdoors, "[t]hey're having coffee; they talk about issues. ... It's part of our community." For the neighborhood's Hispanic population, this practice is a cultural tradition; for its newer batch of hip, ostensibly liberal urbanites, it is disturbing, and too closely resembles something American law designates a crime.

Fairbanks is on target in raising the point that the kinds of views that fuel the Minutemen -- particularly the scapegoating of immigrants in a context in which dramatic demographic shifts are occurring -- are well within the mainstream. One might also say that, for civic leaders who understand the dynamics of such things, the trend is quite predictable.

But it misses the really significant point in all this: How the absorption of extremist Minuteman values into the mainstream represents a real poisoning of the national discourse. Of course, highhanded dismissal won't resolve this. But pretending it represents a new kind of normalcy is not an option, either.

Rather, it's incumbent on everyone -- the press, the public, and anyone in between -- to recognize that the Minuteman movement's steady march to public applause indicates a kind of radicalization of the mainstream.

Because when you strip away the bullshit, what is left of the Minutemen is the reality of what they are: a publicity stunt whose entire purpose is to lodge in the public mind the notion that Latinos Are The Problem. The Minutemen are the opening PR volley, as I've said, in a sustained campaign to scapegoat Latino immigrants and whip up public sentiment against them. The undercurrents of this campaign are old and well-established white-supremacist ideologies.

The fact that it has sucked in many, many well-meaning and otherwise mainstream people is not a mitigating factor. It is, rather, a real cause for concern.

Immigrant-bashing is a classic racial wedge issue, and one that, over the long term, will hurt the conservatives who adopt it more than it will help them. Still, over the next couple of years, they can destructively drive this wedge right into the heart of our discourse.

But only if we let them. Fortunately, there are abundant signs -- like the counter-protesters who are turning up everywhere the Minutemen appear -- that they're being recognized for what they are by growing numbers of people. It's imperative, as always, that communities come together, through their church and civic leaders, and make unmistakable statements that haters like the Minutemen do not represent their values. And that's been happening too.

But the Minutemen are just the start. All over the country, anti-immigrant measures are in the wings now, waiting to be trotted out in a number of states around the country, including Washington. The House just passed a draconian anti-immigration bill that includes building a fence along the Mexico border. Another one -- targeting the birthright citizenship of Latino children -- is working its way through as we speak.

Hate does not rest. The interests promoting this campaign are relentless. And the long battle has only just begun.

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