Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Minuteman history

A little history, perhaps, is in order to help bring into focus just what the problem with the Minutemen is. As I just got done explaining, they do represent an open endorsement of extremist vigilantism by leading media and authority figures.

It should be clear that the Minuteman Project's origins lie with so-called "border militias," whose activities have been documented many times here. These "militias," it must be understood, are direct products of the far-right Patriot movement that produced the same "movement" in the 1990s.

One of the symbolic ways this shows up is in the project's name: 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".

Finally, a thorough review of its core of support -- from the white-supremacist American Renaissance and Aryan Nations to less noxious but nonethless 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.

Especially when you consider the most recent previous incarnation of another organization claiming the "Minuteman" name -- namely, 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.

Regular readers will recall that Keith Gilbert recently cropped back up in the news in Seattle recently.

There's no association at all between Chris Simcox's modern-day border-watch organization and DePugh's. But if recent history is any harbinger, their claim to the real Minutemen's legacy is as troubling as it is specious.

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