Monday, May 09, 2005

The new vigilantes

Vigilantism has a bit of a mixed history in America. In some places and contexts, it is thought of fondly as a kind of citizen-imposed form of law and order. In others, though, it is nothing less than the murderous face of mob rule.

Which face, do you think, the Minutemen will reveal over time?

Now, if you go to Montana, you may be surprised to learn that, in many regards, the state's notorious vigilantes of 1864-1885 are viewed rather benignly, as icons of Old West-style law and order. There's an annual Vigilante Parade in Helena, and my wife's Helena High yearbooks are named The Vigilante. The state's highway patrolmen have the number "3-7-77" -- which was the still-mysterious calling card of the old vigilantes -- embroidered into their shoulder patches.

No doubt, that was the kind of image the Minutemen, with their claim to be a "neighborhood watch," was hoping to conjure. And sure enough, the nation's media largely obliged.

However, as Mike Davis argues in Mother Jones (in a penetrating look at the Minutemen), there is a darker side to all this:
The Minuteman Project -- picturesquely headquartered at Tombstone's Miracle Valley Bible College -- is both theater of the absurd and a canny attempt to move vigilantism into the mainstream of conservative politics. Its principal organizers -- a retired accountant and a former kindergarten teacher, both from Southern California -- mesmerized the press with their promise of a thousand heavily-armed super-patriots confronting the Mexican hordes, eyeball-to-eyeball, along the international border in Cochise County.

In the event, they turned out perhaps 150 sorry-ass gun freaks and sociopaths who spent a few days in lawn chairs cleaning their rifles, jabbering to the press, and peering through binoculars at the cactus-covered mountains where several hundred immigrants perish each year from heatstroke and thirst. From one perspective, it was a silly ending to an obvious publicity stunt. Armageddon on the border was never very likely, if only because undocumented immigrants read or hear the news like everyone else. Confronted with the Minutemen and the hundreds of extra Border Patrol sent to keep them out of trouble, campesinos simply waited patiently on the Sonora side for the vigilantes to get sunburned and go home. Then the normal, deadly business of the border resumed.

Yet it would be a mistake to underestimate the impact of this incident on Republican politics. For the first time, the Bush administration is feeling seriously embattled -- not by Democrats (they would never be so impolite), but by incipient rebellions on its own flanks.

As Davis points out, the Minutemen have positioned George W. Bush -- whose proposal, nonetheless, is radical in that it for the first time separates immigration from citizenship -- as the seeming moderate in all this. Democrats, typically, have remained silent on the sidelines. Sensible and realistic discussion of immigration issues, as a result, is nowhere to be found.

Into this vacuum are leaping opportunistic politicians like Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose predilection for countenancing the ugly side of the American psyche surfaced during the election, largely disappeared, but has now resurfaced:
In an interview on one of his favorite rightwing radio shows on April 28, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger praised the vigilantes as heroes. "I think they've done a terrific job," he said. "They've cut down the crossing of illegal immigrants a huge percentage. So it just shows that it works when you go and make and effort and when you work hard. It's a doable thing."

Later, after furious Latinos leaders accused him of "scapegoating and immigrant bashing," Schwarzenegger defiantly reiterated that he would welcome the help of the Minutemen on the California border. (As he so often does, the governor followed this with a convenient non sequitur -- reassurance that he was a "champion of immigrants.") If the governor sounds like he is channeling his "inner Nazi," it is because he is desperate. Schwarzenegger's hulking celebrity is no longer a novelty, and he is dogged everywhere he goes these days by angry nurses, schoolteachers, and firefighters whose budgets he has slashed. In recent months, his rating in opinion polls has fallen by 20 points and the ghost of Gray Davis now shadows his future.

Not surprising, then, that Arnie has returned to the same dismal swamp of hate radio and angry white guys in pickup trucks where he won the governorship in 1993. The issue then was drivers' licenses for illegal immigrants. (Otherwise, how would we know that Bin Laden himself wasn't tooling down the Hollywood Freeway?) Now, it's the right of citizens to "help the Border Patrol" or, if need be, to render Western justice themselves to the alien invaders.

Interestingly, Schwarzenegger had remained largely mum on the subject of immigration previously. But his support for the militiamen is also curiously timed.

According to a Los Angeles Times report, the California contingent of the Minutemen is poised to run an initiative that would give their efforts official sanction:
California would create its own border patrol of more than 1,000 officers and volunteers under a possible 2006 ballot initiative introduced Wednesday by conservative activists and a state assemblyman.

The California Border Police Act was submitted to Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer for legal review Wednesday, the first step in getting it qualified for next year's June ballot.

Its main sponsor is Assemblyman Ray Haynes, a Republican from Murrieta, who must collect 600,000 valid signatures for the initiative to qualify.

"The federal government has proven itself incapable of securing our borders, so it is time for Californians to step up and take matters into our own hands," Haynes said.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is not connected with the initiative effort and is not commenting on it, his office said.

Political consultant Dave Gilliard, who is organizing the signature-gathering effort, said the new immigration police force would report to the governor and hire 1,000 to 2,000 new officers at an estimated cost of $300 million. It also would allow the state to train volunteers to patrol the border.

The interesting aspect of this initiative is that, if it makes it on the ballot, it very well may appear alongside a group of Schwarzenegger-backed initiatives arising from the governor's power struggle with the state's public-employee unions. It will be well worth watching to see if "Arnie's Army" crosses over to support for the Minutemen in the process.

Of course, what's most disturbing about all this is that it provides cover and sanction to the most noxious kinds of white supremacists and other right-wing extremists. As the SPLC just reported:
On April 2, as the month-long effort got under way, the Minuteman Project held a protest across the street from the U.S. Border Patrol headquarters in Naco, Ariz. Prominent among the demonstrators were two men who confided that they were members of the Phoenix chapter of the National Alliance — the largest neo-Nazi group in America. One of the two, who sat in lawn chairs throughout, held a sign with arrows depicting invading armies of people from Mexico — a sign identical to National Alliance billboards and pamphlets, except without the Alliance logo.

The presence of Alliance members was not much of a surprise, and there were likely more than that pair. "We're not going to show up as a group and say, 'Hi, we're the National Alliance," Alliance official Shaun Walker told a reporter in the run-up to the protest. "But we have members ... that will participate."

In fact, National Alliance pamphlets were distributed in Tombstone and this predominantly Hispanic community just two days before the Minuteman Project got going. "Non-Whites are turning America into a Third World slum," they read. "They come for welfare or to take our jobs. Let's send them home now."

Many other white supremacists had promised to attend, including members of the neo-Nazi Aryan Nations, but it was difficult to know if they showed up.

One well-known extremist did appear. Armored in a flak jacket and packing a .38-caliber snub-nosed revolver, Joe McCutchen joined other volunteers patrolling the barbed wire fence separating the United States and Mexico near Bisbee, Ariz.

The NA members interviewed in the story offered a fairly revealing insight into their participation:
The day after the Minuteman rally in Naco, the two Alliance members there -- one of whom identified himself as "Sam Adams" -- were assigned to an observation post about a mile from McCutchen's location. They arrived there after a 10-minute "training session," driving to the post as they blasted white power music.

"We understand why Gilchrist and [project co-organizer Chris] Simcox have to talk all this P.C., crap," said one. "It's all about playing to the media. That's fine. While we're here, it's their game and we'll play by their rules. Once Minuteman's over, though, we might just have to come back and do our own thing."

Most disturbing of all, perhaps, was the way the mainstream media simply played along, and thus were played for fools. Mark Potok, who co-authored the SPLC report, 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.

However, it's worth observing that the right-wing dynamic for self-destructive infighting is also rearing its head. 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.

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 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 Montana. As the history of the 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. As I've described previously, this was the real face of vigilantism:
In 1866, the violence 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 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, as in the Lige Daniels case, 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." It 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.

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