Friday, July 22, 2005

The Zigzag March of the Minutemen

One of the most disturbing trends we've observed this year has been the growing mainstream acceptance of the Minutemen, who represent a real incursion of right-wing extremism into the broader body politic. As we've noted, this includes endorsements of their activities both by public officials and the media.

The most recent advancement of this trend came from a top Border Patrol official (the same, it should be noted, who endorsed the Minutemen previously) saying his agency was considering giving official sanction to the Minutemen or similar groups:
The top U.S. border enforcement official said Wednesday that his agency is exploring ways to involve citizen volunteers in creating "something akin to a Border Patrol auxiliary" -- a significant shift after a high-profile civilian campaign this spring along the Arizona-Mexico border.

Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Robert C. Bonner told The Associated Press that his agency began looking into citizen involvement after noting how eager volunteers were to stop illegal immigration.

"We value having eyes and ears of citizens, and I think that would be one of the things we are looking at is how you better organize, let's say, a citizen effort," Bonner said.

He said that could involve training of volunteers organized "in a way that would be something akin to a Border Patrol auxiliary."

Bonner characterized the idea of an auxiliary as "an area we're looking at," and a spokeswoman said it hadn't been discussed yet with top Homeland Security officials.

A day later, his superiors at the Department of Homeland Security backed away from any such proposals [via Talk Left]:
"There are currently no plans by the Department of Homeland Security to use civilian volunteers to patrol the border," spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said in a statement. "That job should continue to be done by the highly trained, professional law enforcement officials of the Border Patrol and its partner agencies."

This mainstream support, uncertain as it may be, has helped the movement continue to spread, even to places with no discernible international borders, like Tennessee:
MORRISTOWN, Tenn. -- A volunteer movement that vows to guard America from a wave of illegal immigration has spread from the dusty U.S.-Mexican border to the verdant hollows of Appalachia.

At least 40 anti-immigration groups have popped up nationally, inspired by the Minuteman Project that rallied hundreds this year to patrol the Mexican border in Arizona.

"It's like O'Leary's cow has kicked over the lantern. The fire has just started now," said Carl "Two Feathers" Whitaker, referring to the fabled start of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Whitaker, an American Indian activist and perennial gubernatorial candidate, runs the Tennessee Volunteer Minutemen, aimed at exposing those who employ illegals.

Critics call the movement vigilantism, and some hear in the words of the Minutemen a vitriol similar to what hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan used against Southern blacks in the 1960s.

The Minuteman Project has generated chapters in 18 states -- from California to states far from Mexico, like Utah, Minnesota and Maine. The Tennessee group and others like it have no direct affiliation, but share a common goal.

"I struck the mother lode of patriotism or nationalism or whatever you want to call it," said Jim Gilchrist, a Vietnam veteran and retired CPA who co-founded the Minuteman Project 10 months ago. "That common nerve that was bothering a lot of people, but due to politically correct paralysis ... everyone was afraid to bring up -- the lack of law enforcement."

At the Department of Homeland Security, whose authority includes patrolling borders and enforcing immigration laws, response to Minuteman-type activism is guarded.

"Homeland security is a shared responsibility, and the department believes the American public plays a critical role in helping to defend the homeland," agency spokesman Jarrod Agen said from Washington. "But as far doing an investigation or anything beyond giving us a heads-up, that should be handled by trained law enforcement."

As the story notes, the uglier side of the Minutemen's base of support already has begun manifesting itself:
A group leading patrols of the California border raised concerns from the U.S. Border Patrol last week when they urged volunteers to bring baseball bats, mace, pepper spray and machetes to patrol the border. They backed off the recommendation, but insisted on another weapon when they started patrols Saturday: guns.

"The guns are for one reason -- to keep my people alive," said Jim Chase, a former Arizona Minuteman volunteer who is leading the effort.

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. We saw this recently in the internal squabbling that erupted between various factions of the Minutemen:
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.

You have to read the whole thing to see how absurd the sniping gets. 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 Minutmen, 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."

Meanwhile, of course, Simcox's national organization keeps bubbling along, despite all the zigzags. According to a news release on its Web site, its plans to organize patrols in four states -- California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas -- for the entire month of October:
Join fellow Patriot-Minutemen in October for a four state month-long Border Patrol to observe, report and protect the US from illegal immigration in all southern border states is the new National Organization for the original Minuteman border project. It is the only group authorized by Chris Simcox and Jim Gilchrist who organized the first border watch.

Contact us immediately to learn about upcoming missions. We are expanding to California, Texas and New Mexico on the southern border. Requests from activated volunteers on the northern border with Canada - Maine, Vermont, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Idaho and Washington State are creating new operations, this is truly an exciting time for Patriots!

"Congress and the U.S. Senate continue to drag their feet on securing our borders with U.S. military and National Guard troops. Meanwhile, thousands of illegal immigrants cross our southern border every week.

Note, if you will, that this release specifically identifies the Minutemen as part of the Patriot movement -- that is, the movement that brought us militias in the 1990s. Indeed, the Minutemen are a direct offspring of an earlier "border militia" movement that was organized by Patriots.

However, you would be hard-pressed to find a mention of these extremist origins -- as well as the pervasive influence of extremists within its leadership and its membership -- in the recent love letter to the Minutemen that appeared in the right-wing Washington Times. The report offers fulsome details on the upcoming fall campaigns, as well as the Minutemen's supposed accomplishments to date:
More than 15,000 volunteers will man observation posts and conduct foot and horseback patrols this fall along the Mexican border from Texas to California and in seven states along the Canadian border in a new Minuteman vigil to protest what organizers call the government's lax immigration enforcement policies.

Chris Simcox, who heads the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, said volunteers from throughout the country who are "concerned that the U.S. government must be made to act and take control of our borders" are signing up in record numbers for the new monthlong patrols set to begin Oct. 1.

"We want a secure U.S. border and an end to the blatant disregard of the rule of law regarding illegal immigration," Mr. Simcox said. "Nearly four years after the September 11 attacks on America, we should be doing a better job of securing our borders.

"Our government is more concerned with securing the borders of foreign lands than securing the borders of the United States," he said.

Now, you'll want to take the numbers they predict on the border with a large mine of salt. They predicted 10,000 for the Arizona watch and came up with something far short of that (some media observers counted only around 2,500, at best, though of course the Minutemen's "official" numbers are around 8,000).

Simcox's insistence that the Minutemen's mission is focused on securing borders for the "war on terror" doesn't hold a lot of water, either. Most of the Minutemen, when interviewed, tend to talk about how their hometowns and neighborhoods are being overrun with criminal Latinos. It's about Latino-bashing, and the "war on terror" talk is just a fig leaf.

Indeed, Simcox himself will start talking this way if you let him go long enough, as one reporter did:
"It's a public safety issue because 30 percent of crimes are committed by aliens," said Simcox, who cites no source for the statistic. "There's an explosion of vicious gangs with no respect for human life that target us because of soft laws."

Perhaps in keeping with how things have actually gone so far for the Minutemen, their most recent patrol in California -- organized by Jim Chase, one of the splinter-group leaders -- once again featured more media folk and protesters than actual Minutemen.

Another report of the same event included some worthwhile observations from the people who came there to protest -- and an interesting response from the Minutemen:
Meanwhile, down a dirt road at the hilly, rugged border fence, protesters barbecued food, chanted and prayed, and stayed out of the sun. When they spotted border watchers, the protesters massed around them, telling them to go home.

"There's no place for you in California," said Bruce Cooley, of Los Angeles. "You are contributing to the deaths of people who are trying to cross to feed their families" back home.

One border watcher, who refused to give his name as he climbed into his Jeep, outfitted with a dirt bike, said he would be back. "It's intimidating to have all those people yell at you," the San Diego resident said. "But we'll come back tonight and just sneak up on them."

Yeah, that open daylight can be an annoying thing.

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