Sunday, April 01, 2007

Borderline Personalities

-- by Dave

[Note: With the news this week that the Minutemen have returned to their stations on the Washington border, I thought it would be an appropriate time to run the full, unedited version of the article I wrote last year about them, published in August in Seattle Magazine (and not available online). This version was edited down for length in the magazine edition.]

The Canadian border, at certain stretches in northern Whatcom County, is a six-foot-wide ditch running between a pair of parallel two-lane country roads. You could walk across it with a long hop and hardly a soul would notice.

Except on this day, because the Minutemen are out here.

One of them, a retiree named Larry Pullar, has set up his observation post right at a corner of one of these roads on the American side. Mostly, he sits in his PT Cruiser and watches for what he calls "suspicious behavior."

Pullar says that on one of his patrols, back in December, he called in a car that was behaving oddly, and Border Patrol agents made an arrest. "We never heard back about it," he adds. "But I do know there have been five incidents we reported, and that was one of them."

Still, Pullar admits that he's not really on the border to report on bad guys in the act. After all, there aren't hordes of Canadians coming over the border into the U.S. surreptitiously; the biggest border problem out of Canada involves drug trafficking, which generally comes either through ports of entry or remote wilderness areas. This border isn't like the one with Mexico, where the prevailing issue is human traffic.

"I'm just -- our government is not controlling the borders," Pullar says. "Essentially, nobody's doing it, and it's been that way for years. It's just time for people to come out and make a statement that it's time to do something."

That's what he and his fellow Minutemen all say they're doing: Making a statement.

But what exactly is the statement? The Minutemen uniformly say it's about border security. Others are not so sure.

"What we are doing is we are showing that we want the national attention on the fact that the borders are wide open," says Gary Cole, national operations director for the Minuteman Project, who has come up to Whatcom County to observe the goings-on. "To say that we are going to stand out here on one of these roads and be able to spot a whole bunch of people is, at very best, an overstatement. It's not going to happen."

The problem is as plain as the ditch between the two roads, as Cole says: "You look out here and you drive the border, anybody with three IQ points to rub together could figure out, 'Hey, somebody who means us damage could come across this border.' And there's nothing being done by the United States government to stop that."

The Washington Minuteman Detachment, as they officially call themselves, began organizing last summer, taking their impetus from the Minuteman Project that drew national headlines and TV coverage for their month-long border watch in Arizona earlier that April. The project drew many fewer volunteers than it had originally projected, but it was a smashing success media-wise, drawing lots of coverage that fueled nationwide recruitment and chapters in many states.

Among these was the Washington outfit. Officially an offshoot of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, it was organized largely at the behest of the group's national leaders, who wanted a presence on the Canadian border as well. Tom Williams and Claude LeBas, two Whatcom County residents who had taken part in the Arizona border watch, were chosen to head up the detachment.

Their first official border watch, which gathered at a Lummi Indian Reservation site in September, drew only a handful of volunteers and fairly light media coverage. But it sparked a controversy in the community that continues to smolder -- and threatens to break out into a much broader culture-war wildfire.


The first note of opposition was sounded by the Bellingham City Council in October, with a nudge from Whatcom County Human Rights Task Force.

Barbara Ryan, the council president, sponsored a task-force resolution regarding the presence of the Minutemen, decrying "the activities of self-appointed militia or vigilante groups or individuals with limited training and no legal authority" and pointing out that "the existence and activities of vigilante groups or individuals in other regions have created fear, an atmosphere of racism and violence, and increased suspicion, intolerance and even hate in those regions."

The opposition quickly went statewide; the Washington State Democratic Central Committee passed a nearly identical resolution. Moreover, two local groups formed specifically to oppose the Minutemen: one calling itself the Coalition for Professional Border and Law Enforcement, and another called Not In My County. A host of local and regional human-rights groups joined in as well. The American Civil Liberties organized teams of "legal observers" to watch the watchers and make sure that no one harassed Latinos.

Bellingham resident Aline Soundy told the Bellingham Herald she was openly skeptical of the Minutemen's claims that they were only concerned with border security: "I understand the security issues with terrorism, but this isn't about terrorism. They're not here to protect us from terrorists but from illegal aliens."

The opposition did not go unnoticed. In Seattle, conservative radio hosts pounced on Ryan's resolution, particularly the language suggesting that the Minutemen were racist. In short order, she was appearing on national right-wing talk shows, where she found she was being used as a whipping post for defenders of the Minutemen.

Some of the counter-reaction had a sinister side: Ryan's home address and phone numbers were posted on at least one white-supremacist Web site, and she was inundated with hate mail and phone calls, some of it threatening.

It all came to a head in mid-April, at a town-hall gathering in a Bellingham church, which hosted an official meeting of the state Human Rights Commission. About 200 people showed up for what was supposed to be an evening of testimony and debate about the Minutemen, but became largely a series of harangues against the border watchers.

At times the testimony was reasonable and well-intended. Researcher Paul deArmond explained that the Minutemen represented the latest cycle in a recurring wave of far-right activism that had been part of western Washington society for decades, including the Bellingham-based Washington State Militia, which in the mid-1990s had similarly presented itself as a "neighborhood watch group." The militia broke up in 1996 when the FBI arrested its leaders and several members on bomb-building and conspiracy charges.

The specter of this not-so-distant earlier ugliness weighed on many of the concerns voiced that night by members of the Latino community, and it raised the temperature accordingly. “Latinos have been many times persecuted,” said Larry Estrada, a Western Washington University professor. “We have been under the gun by vigilantes, and that’s not going to happen any more. … We say to the Minutemen, ‘Not in our city, not in our county, not in our neighborhood.’”

Others pointed out that while the Minutemen might eschew racism publicly, their entire existence was part of a larger movement opposing Hispanic immigration, often by scapegoating Latinos. "The Washington Minuteman Detachment is nothing more than a clever PR campaign attached to anti-immigration legislation," said David Cahn of the local Community to Community Development organization.

Others were more conciliatory, noting that the local detachment was not necessarily a pack of racists. Rosalinda Guillen of the Coalition for Professional Border and Law Enforcement welcomed the twenty or so Minutemen who clustered in a section of the pews.

“It’s preferable that you meet us and get to know who we are,” she said.

As the charges of racism mounted, though, the hyperbole grew. "I ask the law enforcement: What is your plan when the lynching happens and what is your plan when the intimidation happens?" Another critic suggested that the Minutemen admired the Nazis his father fought against in World War II.

But others defended the Minutemen, particularly the most prominent member in the room: Chris Simcox, one of the Minuteman Project's co-founders and leader of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps.

Simcox had been in town to meet with the Whatcom outfit, and attended out of curiosity. He was one of the last speakers at the gathering, and he was adamant that the charges of racism were groundless.

"I don't think I've been in a room full of such fear and hate such as I have tonight in my whole life," he said. "We don't discriminate on the color of anyone's skin. We watch the border. We answered our civic duty and our call of our nation and our president to be vigilant, to be observant, and to report suspicious illegal activity to the proper authorities, which is what we've done.

"I don't care what color your skin is, where you come from, or what language you speak or what your purposes are. If you're breaking into our country in a post-September 11 world, you are a potential problem and should be reported to proper authorities."

Some of the Minutemen's defenders tried to shame the crowd for what they saw as a kind of reverse prejudice: "Ask yourselves: What would Martin Luther King say?" retorted one.

At the evening's end, the commissioners offered their thoughts. Ellis Casson, a Seattle pastor who actually knew King, offered a response to this earlier challenge.

"I knew Dr. King," he said. "I think I know what he would say." He shook his head slowly.

"'Here we go again.'"


The shadow of the militia movement of the 1990s hovers over the Minutemen like a dark cloud, both nationally and locally. After all, Simcox's first border-watch organization in Arizona, formed in early 2003, called itself the Tombstone Militia, and was actually modeled on similar local organizations in Texas and Arizona that likewise called themselves "border militias."

I'm reminded of this the first time I see "Camp LeBas," the rural acreage north of Bellingham the Minutemen use for headquarters for their month-long border watch in April, designed to coincide with a similar Minuteman campaign on the southern border. In the '90s, I had visited a number of "Patriot" movement properties, including the Freeman compound in Montana and Bo Gritz's separatist community in northern Idaho.

The Minuteman HQ had the same look: the rough edges; the clusters of cars, RVs, and trailers; the flags and signs. It was déjà vu all over again.

I especially took note of the flags, since one of them -- a "Don't Tread on Me" Revolutionary War flag -- was identical to one popular with the Militia of Montana. It didn't necessarily indicate these were militiamen, but it certainly brought back memories of them.

The people at the Minuteman headquarters, however, were an entirely different story. At militia compounds, the air was thick with paranoia, and interviews were often terse and unfriendly affairs, since media people were often highly suspect in their New World Order-tinged worldview. In contrast, the Minutemen were jovial, friendly, and seemingly well organized.

It was clear that "making a statement" entailed attracting as much media attention as possible, which meant that they were far more media-friendly than the militias and Freemen ever were. They were quite successful, too; the first weekend out, there were Seattle TV news stations there, and a variety of newspapermen too. They kept track of how many reporters they'd talked with that weekend, and they carefully tailored their talk for the cameras and tape recorders.

Most of the organizing takes place inside a little camper trailer pulled up on Claude LeBas' property, where they have radio communications working with all the Minutemen out on border patrol, as well as computers for tracking the day's work and tying into the national network. People wander in and out, joke a bit, or hang outside the trailer and chat.

The Minutemen gather for their "musters" inside a large equipment shed next to the trailer, a section of which has been portioned off with temporary walls on which they have tacked their maps showing the border-watch sites, along with posters like the one of the Beverly Hillbillies as "Department of Homeland Security." On rainy days, there's a blast heater running, and a table with a coffee pot and some doughnuts on it.

Tom Williams, the 64-year-old Marine Corps veteran who the Minutemen call "Skipper," pours himself a cup, sits down at the table and leans back, smiling. He's affable and pleasant, the opposite of the frequently high-strung militiamen.

The shadow of the militias hangs over Williams personally; he lives in Deming, not far from the onetime home of John Pitner, leader of the Washington State Militia. But Williams seems baffled by the connection; he says he'd never even heard of Pitner until recently, and his group had nothing to do with the earlier one.

Indeed, having been to several of Pitner's gatherings and covered his trial, there are no familiar faces in this group. And while both were middle-aged veterans, the contrast between Pitner and Williams couldn't be more striking personally: Pitner liked not just to play up his military credentials but to hyperinflate them, telling his troops that he had been part of a secret special-ops team in Vietnam called the "Daiwee," when a check of his actual record revealed that in fact he had never risen above Navy grunt and had been shoved out with a less-than-honorable discharge after stealing a fellow recruit's car.

Williams, on the other hand, not only really did serve two tours in Vietnam with the Marines, he also obtained a degree in clinical psychology and later developed nationally recognized expertise on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and published a text on the subject. He really has done extensive work for the National Organization of Victims Assistance, and really did provide counseling to victims and the families at a number of disasters, including Oklahoma City in 1995, and was on its international team in Kobe, Japan, the same year.

Williams, in fact, is everything Pitner wanted to be, and more: the real deal. By all outward appearances, he's a decent man, and an intelligent one. That's why, two days after the Human Rights Commission hearing, he's still steaming at what he heard.

"It was a rhetorical lynching," he says. "None of us were invited to speak. And then when we got there, people were saying, 'Hurry up and sign up before they get here.' They wanted us later on in the evening, I suppose.

"I was stunned, just stunned. I don't want people like that in my country. I never have been a victim of hate like that before. You know, I've had people spit at me after Vietnam. … You know, I didn't pay much attention after Vietnam. But it sure brought back that stuff. Where somebody can sit there and say I worship Adolph Hitler and there's nothing I can do about it. And to see these people that represent the government of the state of Washington to applaud that … was stunning to me."

Williams says he first moved to the Bellingham area in about 1995, after visiting on business and liking what he saw. He says he's retired now, disabled by a combination of old war injuries and PTSD.

He first heard about the Minutemen through a Court TV interview with the project's co-founder, Jim Gilchrist. Williams said he was impressed and, since he was planning a trip to Arizona that spring anyway, began making inquiries. One of these was with a friend of his, a retired FBI agent named Jim Horn with whom he had served as a Marine officer, and who knew Gilchrist as well.

"So I talked to Jim Horn and I said, 'What's the deal,' and he said, 'Well, I wanted to come but I've still got three kids in college.' He's retiring. And runs around and does guest lecturing and stuff like that. I said, 'Well, what’s with this Gilchrist guy?' And he said, 'Well, you know, it's legitimate, and we've helped him work out the paperwork, and I'd really appreciate it if you go -- I wish could go, but if you could go, I'd be fine.'

"So I said, 'Yeah, I'll go. But I'm not gonna stay if they're gun nuts. So I got a laptop computer with a wireless so I could have a little more flexibility, and Claude [LeBas] here decided I was gonna get in trouble by myself since I was an officer, so he'd better come 'cover my 6,' which is what he's been doing ever since."

When they got to Arizona, his background in military intelligence wound up getting he and LeBas involved in the work of assessing the people who were joining the Minutemen. Their arrival coincided with a report that there was an armed contingent of Latino MS-13 gang members in Naco, on the other side of the border, poised to attack them. He and LeBas were asked to assess the situation, and they soon realized that there was no threat from MS-13, but the jittery border watchers were another story.

"We realized, after we assessed the place, our biggest danger is the Minutemen," Williams says. "Because everybody's armed -- well not everybody, we weren't. But everybody seemed to be."

The Minutemen's security chief asked them to help get the situation under control. "So we sort of string along and he says, 'Here's the deal, in an hour and a half, we're having a meeting with all the people who are going to volunteer to be on the reaction force.' I said all right, cool.

"Then we had this meeting. And of course every gun nut shows up. So we sort of cull them out. Get rid of some of them, use some others, and keep some real close to us. Of course, everybody we throw out we give the name, rank and serial number to the sheriff so that everybody knows exactly what's happening."

Williams says only three recruits were actually let go from that first group. "That was it. We had to make an assessment -- it was just a job assessing people. I'd been in counterintelligence, I did at as a police psychologist, and I did it as an employer."

Williams and LeBas continued to help the Minutemen cull out white supremacists and criminals, mostly relying on Internet-based background checks. On occasion, he was asked to provide security for visiting celebrities, including Fox's Sean Hannity.

At the end of April, they packed up and went home. "And one of the best things when we left there, we got stopped on the border checkpoint, you know, and they look at us, and we're driving a huge truck with a big camper on it and pulling my Jeep, you know, and they see we're Minutemen and they stop, and they said, 'Wait a minute,' and they called the guys in the truck, and they all come out and clap and wave and yell at us. That was a good, good feeling, when that happened."

After returning home, they were contacted by Gary Cole, who was looking for people to organize a Minuteman detachment in Washington state, and Williams and LeBas were not only experienced and trusted hands, but ideally situated. They started advertising for recruits and were up and running by September.

Williams says he maintains the same kind of vigilance over his outfit as he did in Arizona, weeding out the "gun nuts" and extremists. Some are obvious: "Somebody sent me an e-mail saying he wants to join, and what kind of guns to bring, and dah dah dah." It's a dead giveaway. "And that goes to the FBI and the sheriff."

His average recruit, he says, is "a 62-year-old, former military and law enforcement, disabled or retired, guys."

And what motivates them?

"Well, border protection is what we started with. Some people are getting pretty hot about the illegal immigration, and getting some resolution to the illegal aliens. But you know, universally, what keeps us together is border protection, and to support the Border Patrol. We wouldn't be here if the individual agents didn't think we were doing some good."

But the underlying emphasis on illegal immigration, in the minds of many Latinos, conveys the message that they are the problem, and not border security. That's why they're concerned.

"I can understand, obviously, why they're scared to death. They're here illegally. Of course, they're scared to death," Williams says. "What I'm getting from the phone calls, what I'm getting is an increased level of support from people that identify themselves as silent majority, saying, 'I don't want to see these Mexican flags.'

"I don't like people to be afraid of me. But I want the border secure. I want those Border Patrol agents to get what they need to do the job. They're fine, hard-working men and women, you know, they're just like our troops in Iraq, and half of them were troops in Iraq. They need what they need to do their job."

Williams acknowledges that some of their fears, given the history of militias in Whatcom County, aren't completely groundless. He says he'd like to find common ground with the Latino activists, but blames them for creating the gap in the first place.

"Here's what happens from a psychological standpoint," he says, calling upon his background. "It's called cognitive dissonance. What happens is, the more you have to solidify your position, the more polarized it gets, the more I get called a violent racist vigilante. … The fact is that he polarized me. He's painted me into a corner, poking a stick in my eye. And the more pokes a stick in my eye, the more I am going to get against illegal immigration.

"Who's the hatemonger? The hatemonger is Barbara Ryan, the hatemongers are the county Democrats that, without even asking us who we were, said we were a bunch of racist vigilantes, and Barbara Ryan says, 'You bet they are. And by the way, listen up, community, we have violent racist vigilantes and there's one of them right there. So you better start getting scared. You better get your people together and protect yourselves because these people are going out to get you. Go get guns and rakes and beat them about the head and shoulders, tar and feather them. Run them out of this community.' They forgot we were part of this community."

Of course, Barbara Ryan never said any such thing; her resolution was careful to point out that the racism associated with the Minutemen had been observed elsewhere, and that the concern was that it might attract similar ugliness in Bellingham. But when the rhetoric starts to fly, such nuances are often buried -- and while Ryan may not have said such things, there are others who have come close. In the process, the gap within the community widens.

Williams, for his part, is stumped about how to respond to the concerns within the Latino community that the Minutemen are part of a movement that scapegoats them.

He pauses. "I don't know. Like I say, I don't want somebody coming across this border and blowing something up again. I was there at Oklahoma City, and it may not have been somebody who snuck across the borders, but that sort of thing obviously happened at 9/11. If it hadn't been for 9/11, we wouldn't sitting here.

"We all know that his is awfully symbolic. Minutemen aren't going to catch them anyway -- they're just going to observe and report."


The rest of the Minutemen are equally sensitive about the criticism, and equally adamant that their only real concern is border security.

"We're just making a statement that the border should be secure," says Gerrit Terpsma, an elderly border watcher who has a spot along another pair of parallel roads. "The other people say we are intimidating them, we're not intimidating anybody."

Benjamin Vaughan and his wife are there on the border -- parked at the end of a dead-end road, watching a wooded copse while listening to books on tape -- because of border concerns, too.

"I've seen people cross," says Vaughan, who lives in Bellingham. "Only problem was, they were going the wrong direction. It was like one of those things down south where you got a whole family group, about four adults and maybe three or four kids. That was what I saw, and it was going north. The only thing we could was we called the Border Patrol, and then they called the Canadians."

After 9/11, he said, he grew seriously concerned about border control. "The only thing I do is support the Border Patrol," he says. "I've got six grandkids, and I've still got the heart that says I signed up, and I've never quit."

But not all of them are focused on border concerns. If you talk to the Minutemen long enough, the subject of immigration inevitably floats to the surface.
"I see the nation descending into poverty, philosophically, and part of it is illegal immigration, a big part of it," says a twentysomething young man named Eric, who declines to give his last name. "It's also outsourcing, increasing corporate power, excessive corporate power, that kind of stuff. What I can do here, since I'm so close to the border, is help out with the immigration issue." His fiancée, he says, can't understand why does it.

"Illegal immigration is my concern," he says. "Now, how to control it, of course, is to have better border security. That's what the purpose of border security is -- preventing drugs and illegal immigration to enter. If we could help, then supposedly activity decreases on the border when we're out here. It's very boring. It's hard to stay awake."

At the border-watch site at Peace Arch State Park, Terry Schrader -- a middle-aged man from the Olympia area -- keeps an eye on another ditch borderline that runs the length of the park.

It's a rainy day and there's not a person in sight. What brings him out here?

"The Minuteman thing? Oh, I was just a normal person a few years ago, have Mexican friends, my best friend is a Colombian guy. Moved here many years ago. We worked together for years.

"But I've just seen the hordes of Mexicans, in particular showing up in my little town -- I live south of Olympia. Just the hordes of Mexicans coming in and taking over several occupations. In particular, construction, which I used to do -- used to build houses.

"I'm building a new house right now. Trying to get a few subcontractors here and there, so I call them, and I say, 'Do you hire Mexicans?' Most of 'em say they do. Building trades like insulation, drywall, roofing, have pretty much been gutted by the illegal trade. And they're not -- the guys running the businesses aren't Mexican -- they're American, speak English, hire illegals. So it looks sorta legal on the surface."

They're not the only Minutemen preoccupied with illegal immigration. Some of them even pursue punitive measures against illegal immigrants.

One of them is Bob Baker, a Mercer Island resident who joined the Washington Minuteman Detachment and has been to the border a couple of times. As part of a separate project called Protect Washington Now, he also has filed an initiative -- I-946 -- that would require the state to deny any kind of "non-federally mandated" public benefits to illegal immigrants. It also would require state and local government employees to ascertain applicants' immigration status.

Another is a Seattle Minuteman named Spencer Cohen, who was a regular attendee at Minuteman musters through the month of April. Cohen, a political consultant, organized his own kind of watch in Seattle, hanging out near day-laborer pickup sites and photographing the people who pick up workers there, then posting them on a Web site.

But while this kind of activism may send up red flags for civil-rights watchdogs and the Latino community, what really sets off their alarms is the kind of activism that has turned up elsewhere among the Minutemen and around them.

At an anti-immigration "Save Our State" rally late last summer in Laguna Beach, Calif., at which Jim Gilchrist made an appearance, agitated supporters were photographed taking out and waving large Nazi and Confederate flags. In Arizona, the Southern Poverty Law Center documented the presence of several Aryan Nations members within the Minutemen's ranks, Tom Williams' vetting efforts notwithstanding. Nearly everywhere the Minutemen crop up, they seem to draw white supremacists out of the woodwork, and many of them are able join in spite of the organization's proclaimed efforts to weed them out.

Then there was the former Minuteman volunteer -- and participant in Simcox's original Tombstone Militia -- named Laine Lawless, who broke off and started up her own group called Border Guardians. The SPLC uncovered a secret e-mail Lawless sent this spring to an Ohio leader of the neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement outlining a plan of attack for white supremacists to deal with illegal immigrants: stealing money from them, beating them up, mistreating their children, making death threats.

The Minutemen's bigger problem, though, is with their leaders, or more precisely, with the extremism into which their founders readily delved while first organizing the project -- and whose effects are woven into their basic fabric. The early Minutemen tended to recruit on the fringes of the far right, especially among the old "Patriot" contingent, and so the rhetoric from Jim Gilchrist and Chris Simcox was tailored accordingly.

Gilchrist posted on the Minuteman Web site about "tens of millions of invading illegal aliens who are devouring and plundering our nation."

"These people don't come here to work. They come here to rob and deal drugs," Simcox told the SPLC's Intelligence Report in 2003. "We need the National Guard to clean up our cities and round them up."

Simcox also is prone to bizarre conspiracy theories. He told a California Coalition on Immigration Reform gathering: "There's something very fishy going on at the border. The Mexican army is driving American vehicles -- but carrying Chinese weapons. I have personally seen what I can only believe to be Chinese troops."

The old Simcox had quite a different appearance. He sported a scruffy look with jeans and ballcap, and that same high-strung demeanor so common among militiamen. In Nikolas Vijborg's documentary USA Under Attack, filmed on the border in 2003, Simcox holds forth:

I feel that the people that are coming across, invading this country, I think that they should be treated as enemies of the state. We need to putting them in work camps. Anyone could walk through these borders of this country bringing bombs, chemicals, weapons of mass destruction. I think they should be shot on sight, personally.

He's not the only one who holds that sentiment: One of his volunteers tells the cameraman: "We ought to be able to shoot the Mexicans on sight, and that would end the problem. After two or three Mexicans are shot, they'll stop crossing the border and they'll take their cows home, too."

The Chris Simcox who showed up in Bellingham was a transformed man: clean-cut, healthy-looking, with a straightforward demeanor. The team from Diener Consulting -- the D.C.-based public-relations firm that Simcox hired last year -- had clearly done a first-rate makeover job.

Simcox claimed the mantle of the civil-rights movement and emphasized how many lives the Minutemen ostensibly had saved. He also told the commission that the remark about shooting border crossers on sight actually was a case of "clever editing": "I said drug dealers should be shot on sight."

Afterward, I asked Simcox about Laine Lawless. "She was with us for two months," he claimed. "And we quickly vetted her out." Which was only true for the Minuteman Project; but in truth, she had worked with Simcox for over a year before that in Tombstone.

For most of the Minutemen manning the Canadian border, most of this doesn't matter. Several of them tell me they think the quotes a falsified. Others, like Larry Pullar, claim ignorance: "I haven't listened to him much that myself."

Tom Williams listens to some of Simcox's old remarks and nods and thinks, then finally says: "Simcox and I have a deal -- he doesn't tell me what to say, and I don't tell him what to say. That's what it is."


Williams is similarly not-so-forthcoming about his organization's support for activities like the anti-illegal-immigrant Initiative 946. "What I do is provide the information to all the membership, and if they want to take a thing around and get it signed, then it's up to them," he says. "We don't get into endorsing it."

But if you talk to the volunteers, and listen carefully to Williams himself, it's clear that they're unanimous in supporting the initiative. They're just too leery of how it would sound in the media to say so openly.

As they wrap up their day, they hold a "muster" in the equipment shed and compare notes about how the watch went. None of the watchers had any activity to report, except for the journalists who came out to talk to them.

That really is their whole purpose -- making a statement through the media. The little wrap-up is almost embarrassingly self-conscious, with several of the Minutemen offering mini-sermons on immigration for the consumption of the one reporter in the room.

Massive pro-immigration rallies around the country and a national boycott are planned for the following Monday -- as it happens, on May Day, which sets off the Minutemen's alarms as surely as the planned Spanish rendition of the national anthem -- and they begin talking about their planned response. Most of them say they intend to spend heavily to counter the boycott.

"I have a bunch of purchases I've saved up," says Eric, the young volunteer.

A Minuteman named Hal pipes up: "I've decided to make my annual purchase of ammunition on Monday."

Williams shakes his head a little: "Thank you for saying that in front of the media, Hal." Everybody laughs.

The Minutemen gathered here are acutely aware that they're essentially on a kind of public stage, enacting their own version of right-wing street theater. Their entire purpose, by sheer virtue of their presence on the Canadian border, is to refute potential charges that a sole focus on the Mexican border proves that Minutemen are more concerned about Latino immigration than they are about border security.

Williams emphasizes this in his closing remarks.

"What we're doing up here is important to Minutemen everywhere, because of the charge that we are racist," Williams tells them. "You know, Chris really impressed upon me, while he was up here, how important this was to everybody else."

The Washington Minutemen are incapable of adequately answering Latinos' concerns about racism and scapegoating within their movement because their entire existence is predicated on blunting such issues. Their critics might welcome dialogue, but when it comes to this cultural chasm, there are no real bridges in sight.

Rather than being a setback, though, this seems to actually energize most of the Minutemen. Before they wander out into the darkening rain for their homes, though, Williams offers some last thoughts.

"Those people weren't interested in a dialogue Thursday night about our shared interests," he says. "We do have a shared interest in getting the deadheads off their butts in Washington, D.C. We want something besides platitudes. We would rather have our congressmen kissing our ass than kissing each others' ass."

Though not exactly an olive branch, it might have been a start.

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