Tuesday, January 17, 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

[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. This part will examine the extent to which mainstream conservatives are embracing this extremism.]

Part V: The Mainstream Embrace

The Minutemen have chronically run low on volunteers for all their events. That didn't prevented them from declaring victory anyway, even before they officially wrapped up their three-ring anti-immigration circus in April:
"In just 17 days, the Minuteman Project has successfully sealed the San Pedro River Valley border from illegal activity," Minuteman organizer Jim Gilchrist said on the project's Web site in mid-April, halfway through the monthlong venture.

Gilchrist pointed to a drop in Border Patrol apprehensions in the area as proof: The agency caught about 2,500 illegal immigrants in the Naco area during the first half of the month; agents apprehended nearly 7,700 during the same period last year.

But others weren't so sure:
"They're taking credit for securing the border, and surely no one with any credibility believes that," said Michael Nicley, chief of the U.S. Border Patrol's Tucson sector, which encompasses most of the Arizona border.

... Nicley and others attributed the drop to U.S. agents and the increased presence of Mexican police and members of Grupo Beta, a Mexican government-sponsored organization that tries to discourage people from crossing illegally and aids those stranded in the desert.

Authorities suggested that illegal immigrants are simply going around the Minutemen's lines.

"They are going west of Naco, but they are still trying," said Bertha de la Rosa, a coordinator with Grupo Beta.

But in a way, Gilchrist is right: the Minuteman Project was indeed a success. Not for actually doing anything substantive about immigration. Rather, it's been eminently successful in mainstreaming and legitimizing extremist vigilantism.

While the extremism that is buried deep within the beating heart of the Minuteman movement is disturbing enough, the most disquieting aspect of the whole phenomenon is how avidly it has been embraced by certain elements of mainstream conservatism.

The Minuteman have been touted in the media, which have generally insisted on portraying them as sincere citizens who are trying to defend the nation's borders. They've also been supported by a variety of Republican politicians, as well as officials within the Bush administration.

President Bush himself, however, told reporters this summer that he opposes the Minutemen:
"I'm against vigilantes in the United States of America," Bush said during a meeting in Texas with Mexican President Vincente Fox and Canadian Prime Minster Paul Martin. "I'm for enforcing law in a rational way. It's why we've got a Border Patrol, and they ought to be in charge of enforcing the border."

Simcox said Bush's statement was disrespectful to citizens who simply want to help solve border problems. "We challenge the president to join us and come down and see for himself what's really going on," he told CNN.

Fox has also expressed concern over citizen border patrols. He told reporters he was watching the Minuteman Project carefully and would take action in U.S. courts or international tribunals if any activists break the law.

"We totally reject the idea of these migrant-hunting groups," Fox said. "We will use the law -- international law and even U.S. law -- to make sure that these types of groups ... will not have any opportunity to progress."

"We don't have any evidence or any indication either that terrorists from al Qaeda or any other part of the world are coming into Mexico and going into the United States," Fox said, countering recent statements made by senior Bush administration officials. "If there is any of that evidence, we will like to have it. But as I said, it does not exist."

Those remarks earned an immediate rebuke from Rep. Tom Tancredo, the Colorado Republican who has been the Minutemen's most vocal supporter. But they also were countered by then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, interviewed in the Washington Times, who even went so far as to suggest that President Bush might want to change his tune:
Mr. Hanner: Do you agree with the president that the Minuteman Project on the border right now are vigilantes?

Mr. DeLay: No. I'm not sure the president meant that. I think that they're providing an excellent service. It's no different than neighborhood-watch programs and I appreciate them doing it, as long as they can do it safely and don't get involved and do it the way they seem to be doing it, and that's just identifying people for the Border Patrol to come pick up.

DeLay is not alone. One United States Senator is ready to give them official imprimatur. Sen. Wayne Allard, a Colorado Republican, came up with the idea in mid-April:
A Republican senator said Wednesday the government should consider deputizing private citizens, like the Minuteman Patrol in Arizona, to help secure U.S. borders.

Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo., said the U.S. Border Patrol also should look to local law enforcement and state officials for help along the most porous parts of the U.S.-Mexico line.

"I wonder sometimes if maybe we're not looking too much to a federal solution," Allard told Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff during a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing.

"I happen to believe that those people down along the border that formed the Minutemen organization have some real concerns," Allard said.

A Texas congressman named John Culberson of Houston introduced legislation that would give official sanction, for the first time, to "border militias":
The Border Protection Corps Act, introduced on July 28, would authorize access to $6.8 billion in unused Homeland Security funds to form volunteer border militias that report to their respective county sheriffs.

It is not known when or if the measure would be put to a vote.

Gov. Rick Perry stopped short of endorsing the bill, noting in a prepared statement that illegal immigration was a "pervasive problem."

"Regardless of the mechanism, the federal government must provide a stronger presence along the border," Perry said in the statement issued July 28. "I welcome federal efforts to protect our borders from illegal immigrations and threats from terrorists."

Then there have been the public endorsements by California's Republican governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger.
In an interview on Los Angeles radio station KFI, Schwarzenegger said of the armed volunteers, "They've done a terrific job." According to the Governator, who drew criticism last week when he suggested it was time for the U.S. to "close the borders," the federal government isn't taking border security seriously enough. "Our federal government is not doing their job," Schwarzenegger said. "It's a shame that the private citizen has to go in there and start patrolling our borders."

Schwarzenegger pegged his concerns to the time he watched Fox News footage showing "hundreds and hundreds of illegal immigrants" coming across the border. "I mean, what's that?" he asked.

A couple of months later, Schwarzenegger defended the Minutemen again, comparing them to a "neighborhood watch":
"It's no different than if you have a neighborhood watch person there that's watching your children at the playground," he responded. "I don't see it any different."

We've been hearing nearly the identical line from the mainstream conservative pundit corps -- particularly Michelle Malkin, Sean Hannity of Fox News, as well as Lou Dobbs of CNN -- who have been adamant that the Minutemen haven't a racist bone in their bodies, insisting like Schwarzenegger that they're just a gigantic "neighborhood watch."

Perhaps no one has been more prominent in promoting the Minutemen's image as a group of law-abiding, concerned citizens than CNN's Dobbs, who has made the Minutemen into the symbol of his ongoing campaign on behalf of immigration reform -- meaning he has adopted, essentially, far-right anti-immigrant nativism.

On several occasions, Dobbs' program has featured remarks from Minuteman organizer Chris Simcox, including an extended interview with Simcox that featured some genuinely noteworthy exchanges. Dobbs had reported on his program that the Minutemen were unarmed, and Simcox had to correct this:
DOBBS: And to be clear, you're not permitting any of your volunteers to be armed.

SIMCOX: No, that's not true. I can't do that. We have encouraged them, if you've read our standard operating procedure, that they are to be, again, aware of the laws of the state of Arizona. They're not to carry long arms, because that would make us an offensive -- that would give it an offensive-type attitude.

DOBBS: Well, Chris, let's...


DOBBS: ... be straight up, 1,500 volunteers, untrained, unorganized, and without drill, that is not a reassuring statement that you just made, if you're going to have people with weapons, whether they are sidearms or not.

SIMCOX: Well, Lou, we have -- most of our volunteers are retired law enforcement officers, military veterans, and professional people who -- and not all of them are going to be armed, but the ones that want to be have that right to be.

But we have interaccountability by grouping people together in teams, so that we have people watching each other and making sure that we hold each other accountable. Because this is a political protest, no matter what. We know that. And it would be hypocritical of us to want the government to enforce the laws if we were out there to break the laws.

What was really appalling, though, was the way Dobbs fawned on Simcox, especially at the end:
DOBBS: Outstanding. We wish you all of the success in the world. And you know, you said it at the outset, that it's a shame that it takes activism on the part of citizens. You know, I think that we could also make a counterargument. It's kind of nice to know that Americans still have that activism in their hearts, the capacity to volunteer to do the right thing. And we thank you, Chris Simcox, for being with us.

Nor have the typically "right leaning" media figures been alone in plumping the Minutemen's image. There have been sympathetic portrayals in such diverse media outlets the Ventura County Star, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, all three of which portrayed Minuteman volunteer Joe McCutchen -- an Arkansan with a long record of involvement in far-right causes, including Jared Taylor's American Renaissance and the Council of Conservative Citizens -- as an ordinary "concerned citizen."

Typical of the media treatment was a remarkably nearsighted Monterey Weekly piece that offered the following assessment:
Indeed, it soon seemed that the hysteria over the armed and dangerous Minutemen was much ado about nothing. Retired men and women sitting on the backs of pickup trucks in six-hour shifts, concentrated along a two-mile stretch of border fence eyeing the vacant desert, appeared more like a group on a bird watching excursion than a paramilitary force.

The author of the piece, Andy Isaacson, thus blithely ignores one of the realities about dealing with organizations like the Minutemen: when they're posing in front of the cameras, they're very careful about what they say and how they appear. It's what they're doing and saying when no one is looking that is the problem.

I had a little experience with this in my dealings with a previous permutation of the militia movement. The Washington State Militia, for instance, held public rallies and talked before the cameras about how they were just trying to be a "neighborhood watch" out to protect their fellow citizens. Behind closed doors, as we later learned, they were building pipe bombs and talking about blowing up railroad tunnels as well as their fellow citizens.

The Minutemen's public face works exactly the same: Have your spokesmen work hard to present a sincere and concerned image of ordinary citizens who are just "fed up," while behind closed doors they let their hair down. The core of the Minutemen comprises a corps of True Believers from the extremist right. The leaders spout talk about the "war on terror" in public, but the followers mostly (in private, of course) spout talk about their neighborhoods and homes being "invaded" by criminal brown people.

A good example of this popped up in a recent story out of Tennessee involving a formative Minuteman operation there. Tennessee, of course, has no international border; and so its Minutemen, unsurprisingly, are focused on the "invasion" of Latinos from elsewhere:
Before a meeting in Hamblen County Tuesday night, 6 News asked meeting leader Carl Whitaker if he's operating a hate group, like some people say.

"We're not a hate group. We're a concerned group. We're concerned what's happening," Whitaker says. "If people are here illegally and they want to get legal, we would be glad to try to help them follow through the process. We don't hate anybody."

He says the Tennessee Volunteer Minutemen are working to expose companies that hire illegal aliens and take jobs away from taxpaying Americans. "We've turned in five different places of employment here that are hiring illegals."

But another supporter told a different story. Off-camera, James Drinnon says there are more Mexicans than African-Americans in Hamblen County. But he didn't really say African-American. He used the "N" word.

On camera, Drinnon says, "I think they ought to get them all out. Most of them in here. That's where all the dope's coming from. Most of them's Hispanic."

The kid-glove treatment, in fact, has so largely been pervasive among the media and politicians both. A more recent example occurred recently in Arizona, during a visit by Republican legislators from Colorado to a ranch owned by a figure closely associated not just with the Minutemen, but also bona fide hate groups:
The tour was organized by Glenn Spencer, whose home is about 1,000 feet from the border. He recently organized a number of border-watching activities, including a few with the Minuteman group.

Spencer said he had been a military researcher who worked at the Pentagon before moving to Arizona to set up a nonprofit group that investigates illegal immigration.

He showed aerial photographs and videos of immigrants crossing the border illegally near his home. He also showed visitors a miniature reconnaissance plane with a camera attached to it that he spent $40,000 to develop and build.

"We do this to expose the malfeasance of U.S. border patrol officials, who have failed us in protecting our borders," he said. "What can U.S. citizens do to help? A lot."

Spencer also told the Colorado legislators and a group of Republican political candidates from Arizona about a volunteer who crossed the border into Mexico and brought back a "simulated weapon of mass destruction."

"We did it to see if anybody would try to stop us," Spencer said. "This happened supposedly along the most heavily policed border area in the United States."

There also have been federal officials who have voiced support for the Minutemen. A top Border Patrol official at one point endorsed the Minuteman concept:
"We need more Border Patrol agents, there's no question about that," Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Robert Bonner told members of the House Government Reform Committee. CBP is in charge of the Border Patrol.

Bonner said his team has worked up a proposed increase in agents. He said the number is in the thousands but declined to be more specific, saying he still has to walk the plan through the Homeland Security Department.

... Bonner said CBP also is evaluating the effectiveness of using citizen patrols in a more formal way. He referred to the Minuteman Project, which set up citizen camps along a 23-mile stretch of the Arizona-Mexico border in April to observe and report illegal activity.

Minuteman organizers claim their efforts helped the Border Patrol apprehend 335 individuals illegally trying to enter the country, and deterred others who would have tried.

"The actions of the Minutemen were, I believe, well motivated," Bonner said. "There were no incidents, there were no acts of vigilantism, and that's a tribute to the organizers and leaders of the Minuteman Project."

Bonner later gave outright support to the idea of actually giving the Minuteman concept official imprimatur:
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:
"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."

Bonner retired shortly thereafter.

Next: Standing Up to Them

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