Minutemen to Spread Wings
Several months after their self-proclaimed success reducing the flow of immigrants across the Mexico-Arizona border, leaders of the Minutemen are pledging that come Oct. 1, 15,000 volunteers will begin a month-long vigil along both the U.S.-Mexican and U.S.-Canadian borders.
Chris Simcox, the head of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, a network of groups and individuals, many of them armed, said in mid-July that the volunteers are signing up to "man observation posts and conduct foot and horseback patrols."
Devin Burghart, who monitors anti-immigrant movements with the Illinois-based human rights group, the Center for New Community's Building Democracy Initiative, is not surprised by the growth of the vigilante movement -- or its potential for internal strife.
"We are seeing a similar trajectory today with the Minutemen movement that we saw with the militia movement in the early 1990s," Burghart told me.
Burghart maintains, however, that the Minutemen are in a much better position than the militias were because "they appear to be mostly relying on a number of already established anti-immigrant networks and activists to spread the word."
Twelve years ago, the Militia of Montana, the Michigan Militia and a number of other like-minded groups appeared to spring up out of nowhere. In short order, they captured the nation's attention as well as the media's spotlight.
Militia leaders such as Montana's John Trochmann and Michigan's Norm Olsen became oft-quoted spokespersons for what was at first portrayed as an amorphous collection of anti-government activists.
"In the early 1990s, it didn't take long for new militia groups to start springing up, many of which weren't even organized by the originators of the concept," Burghart pointed out.
"The establishment of local militia groups took on a life of its own, becoming somewhat of a mass movement. Even older and pre-existing Christian Patriot groups started calling themselves militias. It sounds like we could be on the verge of that happening with the Minutemen phenomenon."
Growth of the militia movement came to a sudden halt after the bombing of the Joseph P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City in April 1995 -- a blast that killed 168 and injured hundreds of others.
The arrest, conviction and subsequent execution of Timothy McVeigh signaled the beginning of the end for the militias; the ensuing media spotlight caused membership to decline, interest to wane and the militias disappeared from the headlines.
"The Minutemen of today and the militias of a decade ago have many commonalities ideologically," Burghart said. "Despite all their 'law-and-order' rhetoric, they both rely on illegal paramilitary vigilantism and intimidation to push public policy."
"They both appear to be expressions of Middle American Nationalism -- the notion that 'middle Americans' are being squeezed from above by the economic elites, and from below from the multicultural hordes that are sucking the lifeblood from the productive middle."
"Both the militias and the Minutemen create a demonized 'other' based on citizenship status: The militias had the 'sovereign citizen' concept, which divided people into (white) state 'sovereign' citizens and so-called '14th Amendment' citizens. The Minutemen do it on the basis of perceived immigration status."
He noted that, "both are rife with conspiracy theories. For example, the militias were concerned about the New World Order, while the Minutemen have La Reconquista, which contends that there is a secret plot to re-conquer the American southwest for Mexico."
Moreover, both the militias and the Minutemen have something in common with the Posse Comitatus, an anti-Semitic white supremacist group that sprung up in the 1970s. Latin for "power of the county," the Posse Comitatus was founded in 1971 by retired army lieutenant colonel William Potter Gale.
Gale "believed that all white, Christian men had an unconditional right to take up arms to enforce the principles of a 'Constitutional Republic,' and challenge various 'unlawful acts' of the federal government, including integration, taxation and the federal reserve banking system," Daniel Levitas, the author of The Terrorist Next Door: The Militia Movement and the Radical Right (St Martin's Press, 2002), told me via email.
Devin Burghart pointed out that in their day, the militias received support and cover from elected officials, including Idaho's Republican Congresswoman, Helen Chenowith.
"These days, the Minuteman Project has received positive reviews from California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo, as well as the House immigration reform caucus," he noted. Even New Mexico's Democratic Governor, Bill Richardson, has been reported to have requested a meeting with Minetemen leader Chris Simcox.
In late July, just before Congress went off on its summer break, Texas Republican Representative John Culberson, along with 47 other legislators, introduced the Border Protection Patrol Act, H.R.3622.
The bill would create a Border Protection Corps empowered to "use any means and any force authorized by state law to prevent individuals from unlawfully entering the United States."
Burghart maintains that Minutemen activities have received rather benign treatment by the mainstream media. "The media has helped create this situation by turning a couple of bigoted anti-immigrant vigilantes into superstars overnight," he said. "This is another similarity with what happened in the 1990s with the militia movement."
Unfortunately, said Burghart, "Few reporters took the time to verify the claims of the Minuteman Project -- about its leadership, about immigration issues in general, and about their activities. They reported all of its propaganda as fact."
"For example, they let it get away with saying there would be thousands of supporters on the border, when in fact, only 140-160 people actually showed up. The Minutemen were significantly outnumbered by reporters in Arizona."
The media has "virtually ignored the Minutemen's racism, the illegality of their actions and the potential danger they could create, and instead have treated them like they are latter day heroes."
In many of the press reports he has monitored, Burghart found that "there were very few critical voices being heard." When there was criticism the story "most often contained a quote from a lone -- generally Latino/a -- voice 'complaining' against this huge movement that draped itself in the American flag."
Although there were not any significant violent incidents in April, when the Minutemen assembled along a 32-kilometre stretch of the border separating the U.S. and Mexican states of Arizona and Sonora, as the movement spreads its wings and embraces thousands of unmonitored volunteers, violence seems inevitable.
"Like other paramilitary misadventures, the Minutemen are inspired by the wrong-headed notion that individual citizens have an unconditional right to use weapons and intimidation to enforce their particular interpretations of law and the Constitution," Levitas said.
Like the Posse Comitatus and the militias before it, the success of the Minutemen "is derived from the ability to join racism and right-wing militancy with more seemingly acceptable frustrations about immigration policy. Its downfall will be in the criminality of its leaders and the inevitable violence that follows in its wake."
Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange.com column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.
Other Recent Articles by Bill Berkowitz
Other Recent Articles by Bill Berkowitz