Do It Yourself Border Cops
By Devin Burghart
After highly publicized "maneuvers" in April 2005 on the Mexico/Arizona border, the Minutemen anti-immigrant vigilantes have spawned at least forty new groups in more than a dozen states.1 Attracting volunteers and well-wishers from all over the country, the Minutemen are the latest and largest in a string of vigilante efforts to "secure" the border against the entry of undocumented immigrants.
Border Watch – Klan Style
The strategy of border vigilantism as a political spectacle did not originate with the Minutemen Project, Glenn Spencer's American Border Patrol, Ranch Rescue, or even the militia groups that inspired Chris Simcox, a cofounder of the Minutemen. Instead, the "men of this calibre" who hatched the idea were leaders in the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in the ‘70s.
The Klan Border Watch was launched on Oct 16, 1977 at the San Ysidro, Calif., Port of Entry by Grand Dragon Tom Metzger and Imperial Wizard David Duke, who claimed that the patrols would stretch from California to Texas. The Klan aimed to recapture its "glory" days in the 1920s, when its nearly 4 million members backed the 1924 National Origins Act. This law institutionalized racism as part of official U.S. immigration policy until the passage of the Immigration Act of 1965.
While predicting that thousands would participate, only dozens materialized for that event almost 30 years ago. But while Duke saw the Klan Border Watch as a necessary part of "the battle to halt the flow of illegal aliens streaming across the border from Mexico,"2 it was more importantly a way to "arouse public opinion to such a degree that they [the Federal Government] would be forced to better equip the beleaguered U.S. Border Patrol."3
Meet the Minutemen
The two men who initiated the Minuteman Project (which now also includes MinutemanHQ and the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps) are Chris Simcox and James Gilchrist.
At 43, Simcox is the younger man, but he's been involved with "secure the border" activities longer. For 13 years, Simcox taught kindergarten at the Wildwood School in Los Angeles, a wellrespected private academy known for both its academic rigor and commitment to tolerance and diversity.4 After 9/11, however, Simcox's life reportedly "fell apart." He lost his job and his family, which at least one writer speculates led inexorably to his anti-immigrant mania.5
In January 2003, the bone-thin, hyperactive Simcox was arrested by federal park rangers as he was hunting for undocumented immigrants armed with a loaded pistol, a digital camera, walkietalkies and paramilitary gear.6 In May 2004, he was convicted of carrying a concealed weapon on federal land while tracking migrants and lying to a federal officer about it and sentenced to two years probation. 7
Following the conviction, Simcox continued to organize civilian border patrols and intensify his call for the militarization of the border. He has on many occasions made disparaging remarks about Mexicans, for example blaming Mexican immigrants for a laundry list of ills, including spreading tuberculosis in public schools. He is also prone to conspiracy mongering, alleging that Red Chinese troops are spread out along the U.S.-Mexican border, poised invade. In a similar vein, Simcox claims have hidden in terror on a mountainside while spying on a column of trucks guarded by men with assault rifles. Convinced that he was witnessing an invading army—nationality unclear in this case— he reported it to federal agents, who informed him that what he had seen was drug smugglers.8
Besides his solo patrols seeking undocumented immigrants in the hinterland of Arizona, Simcox unsuccessfully tried to form his own local anti-immigrant vigilante organizations, including the Tombstone Militia.
In a characteristically bombastic statement to the Washington Times, Simcox
seemed to invite federal intervention into his paramilitary activities: "I dare the President of the United States to arrest Americans who are protecting their own country. We will no longer tolerate the ineptness of the government in dealing with these criminals and drug dealers. It is a monumental disgrace that our government is letting the American people down, turning us into the expendable casualties of the war on terrorism."9
Yet Simcox's "militia" was going nowhere fast—other than piquing the interest of white nationalists like Samuel Francis— even after he renamed it the less vicious sounding Civil Homeland Defense.10 Foreshadowing the exaggerations he would later make about the numbers of people the Minutemen would put on the border, in 2003 he was prone to claim 600 members of his group, while other residents of Tombstone, Tombstone, Ariz., had a different perception. A main street bartender told reporter Max Blumenthal, "Chris can only get a threeman patrol going," adding that "the kind of people who want to join his group can't even pass a background check."11
Simcox's fortunes didn't start to turn until he partnered with James Gilchrist. A 57-year-old Vietnam Vet and retired accountant from Orange County, Calif., Gilchrist is the organizational brains behind the Minutemen. He got religion on ad hoc border defense after hearing Simcox speaking as a guest on rightwing talk radio in the fall of 2004.12 Gilchrist called up Simcox after the broadcast and volunteered to help him organize volunteer civilian border patrols.
Making good use of the internet, Gilchrist targeted his appeals to veterans, ex-Border Patrol agents and others receptive to messages calling for them to "serve" their country, appealing to their sense of patriotism and frustration with the status quo.
Under Gilchrist's guidance, the Minuteman Project has tried rhetorically to distance itself from both paramilitarism and racism. Yet Gilchrist himself is prone to conspiracy mongering, as evidenced by these remarks from June 2005:
From what I have seen in videos, to me there is a clear and present danger of insurrection, sedition and succession by those who buy into the fact that this really is Mexico's territory and doesn't belong to the United States and should be taken back.13
Gilchrist's words are a succinct statement of the so-called reconquista conspiracy theory which holds that Mexico is quietly infiltrating a fifth-column of revolutionaries into the United States with the purpose of territorial conquest. Moreover the infiltration is being accomplished with the treasonous collusion of various "liberal elite" institutions, e.g. the Roman Catholic Church and the Ford Foundation, and the applause of muddle-headed multiculturalists.
Gilchrist's conspiracist formulation of the problem he sees with undocumented immigration is only an extreme form of the basic xenophobic arguments repeating the time-tested formula of bigoted fear-mongering. In the early years of the twentieth century it was the "yellow peril"—which led to laws excluding those of Asian descent from immigrating to the United States.
In a May 2005 speech to a meeting of the California Coalition for Immigration Reform, a hardcore anti-immigrant group which promotes the reconquista conspiracy theory, Gilchrist said, "I'm damn proud to be a vigilante."14 He believes that, "Illegal immigrants will destroy this country."15At a Memorial Day 2005 "summit" of anti-immigrant leaders in Las Vegas, Gilchrist commented, "Every time a Mexican flag is planted on American soil, it is a declaration of war."16
A petrochemical engineer and the driving force behind the organization of a Texas Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, Bill Parmley discovered that ideas such as donating box drinks to the sheriff's office to give to captured, dehydrated immigrants were not particularly popular. "Let the (expletive deleted) die," commented one of his erstwhile compatriots.17
While some like Parmley have quit in disgust, the anti-immigrant paramilitarism of the Minutemen has attracted numerous longtime far-right activists into the movement. In Alabama, for instance, the state head of the Alabama Minuteman Support Team is lead by militia leader Mike Vanderboegh.18
It's not surprising to see militia activists joining the Minutemen, given Simcox's original border "militia." Beyond the obvious appeal, ideologically, today's Minutemen share many commonalities with militia groups of the 1990s. Not only do they share a common lineage extending back to white supremacist formations of previous decades, both are expressions of [white] Middle American Nationalism – the belief that "middle Americans" are being squeezed from above by the economic elites, and from below from the multicultural hordes who are sucking the lifeblood from the productive middle.
Both militia groups and the Minutemen posit a demonized "other" based on citizenship status. The militias had the "sovereign citizen" concept, which divided people into [white] state "sovereign" citizens and second-class, so-called "14th Amendment" citizens. The Minutemen do it on the basis of perceived immigration status.
Minutemen leader Gilchrist has attempted to parlay his Minutemen notoriety into political gain by turning to white nationalists. Gilchrist entered the October 4 special election for the California 48th District Representative seat as an American Independent Party (AIP) candidate. The AIP was created to support the 1968 campaign of arch-segregationist George Wallace, AIP was founded by William K. Shearer, who also served on the National Executive Committee of the white supremacist Populist Party in the 1980s.19
Gilchrist's move to a non-mainstream
party like the AIP is not new for antiimmigrant
activists. To express dissatisfaction
with GOP fence straddling on the
immigration issue, many anti-immigrant
activists have participated in third parties
before, including Pat Buchanan's 2000
Reform Party campaign. During his recent
campaign, Gilchrist portrayed himself as
a true Reaganite conservative, in an attempt
to pull the GOP rightward and make antiimmigrant
sentiment a key campaign issue.
He was able to win 14.4% of the vote, finishing
third in a 17 person field, forcing a
Devin Burghart is director of the Center of New Community's Building Democracy Initiative. This article is excerpted from his September 2005 report: Shell Games.
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