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(en) US, The Agitator Index - Report on the Minuteman Project By Seán and Luis, Phoenix

Date Tue, 16 Aug 2005 11:46:39 +0300

Note: This report does not represent the work of the Phoenix
Ruckus and only reflects that work of two members who participated
in the ACLU Legal Observer Project. The report contains three
sections. The first outlines the history of the Minuteman project in
Arizona, describing the individuals and groups involved. The second
section provides an analysis of the ACLU Legal Observer Project,
looking into both the strengths and weaknesses of the effort. The
third and final section contains a general overview of the future work
needed around anti-immigration efforts in the Southwest.
The Minuteman in Arizona

In early spring of this year, the fringes of the far right were abuzz
with talk of the “Minuteman Project,” a group organized by
Jim Gilchrist, a retired Orange County accountant, and an
ex-elementary teacher named Chris Simcox. Gilchrist promised to
“do the jobs the government won’t do,” namely, control
the tide of immigrants crossing the Arizona-Sonora, Mexico border.
A few months later, the Minuteman captured the attention of the
national media and claimed that they would have at least 1500 armed
volunteers to patrol a 23 mile stretch of the border between Sierra
Vista and Douglas, Arizona, over the span of the entire month of
April. To charges that they were a group of racist, potentially violent
vigilantes masquerading as concerned citizens, they answered that
they had a “screening process” set up to filter out
“extremists” and that they also maintained a strictly
hands-off policy toward any migrants they may encounter. They
likened themselves to a “neighborhood watch” group rather
than a lynch mob (never mind the historically racist roots of most
neighborhood watch groups), and even went as far as to compare the
group’s supposed commitment to nonviolent protest to the
tactics and teachings of Martin Luther King and Gandhi.

Though obviously more media-savvy than their predecessors, the
motives and methods hardly seem new. The border area of Southern
Arizona has had a long history of violence and racism directed at
undocumented Mexican immigrants by white ranchers and carpet
bagging white supremacist militia types. The most infamous case in
recent memory occurred in August 1976, when Patrick and Thomas
Hanigan, two Douglas ranchers, brutally tortured three Mexican
men who they encountered on their land. The inaction on the part of
the courts to prosecute the pair (and the conviction five years later of
one of the brothers for the robbery, but not the abuse of the men
they attacked), brought much public attention to how deeply the
racism at the border ran. However, the case did little to prevent other
vigilante acts from occurring along the border. Similar cases in
recent years in the Douglas area involving notorious rancher/towing
company mogul Roger Barnett and Casey Nethercott, as well as the
increasing number of competing “citizen patrol” groups in
the area, illustrate that the number of vigilantes itching to “teach
the illegals a lesson” is multiplying.

The Minutemen correctly realized that the naked racism of folks like
Barnett and the white supremacist paramilitary posturing of groups
like American Patrol don’t play as well in Middle America as it
used to. In a clever attempt at gaining national attention and set the
agenda on immigration issues, the Minuteman leadership cloaked
their racist agenda by invoking the rhetoric of national security.
According to them, they were “defending America from
terrorism.” To carry out their “defense” work, they
focused on the illegality of those sneaking across the border. This
proved to be fruitful rhetoric, one that (unfortunately) worked better
then they probably expected.

In the month of April, approximately 300 Minuteman volunteers
descended on Arizona. They came from all over the United States,
including California, Texas, and as far away as New Zealand. The
Minuteman themselves were a motley crew, made up mostly of
retired white people and white supremacists. While the Minuteman
organizers repeatedly exclaimed that they were free from
“extremists,” the reality was that quite a few members of
neo-fascist and white supremacist organizations were able to join the
Project and participate without a problem. They also attempted to
use the Minuteman as recruiting grounds. However, it is doubtful
that they found too many enthusiastic ears among the several
hundred, mostly retired border watchers.

We see the real danger not in these white supremacist groups, but in
the how the Minuteman successfully captured the attention of the
national and international media and was able to send a
“softer” racist message masked as a “national
security” issue, to the praise of prominent politicians like
California governor Arnold Schwarzeneggar and pundit Pat
Buchanan. The danger, then, is that the Minutemen will influence
the national agenda, setting a tone for how the right and the liberal
left deal with immigrant issues in the next decade. This is already
evident at the state level in Arizona, where state legislators are
passing racist laws attacking immigrants. We expect that these same
laws will spread laterally across several states and horizontally to the
federal level in the coming year.

The Minuteman Project also had an impact on white national groups
who were left encouraged by their efforts. For instance, several white
supremacists groups have already declared they would invade the
border on the Fourth of July, showing up with an arsenal of
weapons. And here in Arizona we are already experiencing a rise in
anti-Latino sentiments, such as the case of the off-duty solder
Patrick Haab holding seven Mexican men at gunpoint or the
reported increase of police harassment of day laborers across

The climate in Arizona (and many other states for that matter) is rife
with anti-immigrant sentiment and has already led to an increasingly
draconian wave of bills aimed at stripping away the few rights that
undocumented immigrants hold. Unfortunately, the Minutemen
have successfully used the actions of sympathetic politicians to their
advantage, lending them a modicum of legitimacy, which they now
hope to use as a launching platform into national politics. In Arizona
alone, we have over 27 anti-immigration bills that stem, in part, from
the Minuteman impulse. These bills aim to exclude undocumented
workers from their right to a language, work, education, and
The Legal Observer Project

In the spring, Ray Ybarra, a law student from Stanford Law School,
with the help of the Arizona chapter of the ACLU and the American
Friends Service Committee, initiated a project aimed at mitigating
the effects of the Minuteman on undocumented workers. He called
his efforts the Legal Observer Project. The goals of the Project were
threefold: to serve as a deterrent to any migrant abuse, to document
any abuse that does occur for civil and criminal cases, and to
highlight the real human tragedies that occur along the border.
Overall, the project has several strengths and some significant

Credit is due to the organizers and participants of the Legal Observer
Project for their willingness to place themselves in a potentially
dangerous situation. The Minutemen were mostly armed and had, in
the previous months, threatened participants of the Project. Their
courage should be noted.

Similar to Copwatch, the Legal Observer Project stood to document
and deter any potential abuse of people crossing the border. But the
Project was also more than just about documenting human rights
violations. It served to warn the Minuteman they did not have carte
blanche in their efforts to repress migrants. As such, the Project
stood as the only organized resistance to the Minuteman. Also like
Copwatch, the Legal Observer Project was organized to resist white
supremacy at a grassroots level, with one important difference. The
Project did not directly confront the state or its apparatus of control.
However, it did confront those people who are now seeking to
influence the control mechanisms of the state through public

The month-long commitment to monitoring the Minutemen
Project’s activities was visible to both the media and the
Minutemen volunteers themselves. It showed the Minutemen that
there was in fact an organized, committed opposition to the
movement they represented and it presented the media with an
alternative view on the situation at the border. Ybarra was very good
at consistently presenting the Minutemen in the context of white
supremacy and the history of vigilante attacks against Mexican
migrants at the border. This was a necessary and important part of
the project because the Minutemen needed to be held accountable
not only for their potential violence, but for the very real racism that
they were actively manifesting and fomenting by “patrolling”
the desert in search of “illegals.”

Sadly, Ybarra’s anti-racist stance resulted in internal tension
within the ACLU, who did not want to bring up the “race
card” for fear of alienating Arizona residents. In the weeks
leading up to the Project, the Arizona ACLU even went as far as
threatening to pull out of the project. To Ybarra’s credit, he told
the ACLU that the Project would continue, with or without the
ACLU. This liberal waffling was also present in several left leaning
border organizations, such as Border Action Network (BAN). BAN
has sent out notices asking activists not to participate in the Project,
since, according them, it would only provide the Minuteman with
more legitimacy. In our view, this was an inaccurate reading of the
situation on the part of BAN, leaving the Minuteman mostly
unchallenged by local organizations.

While not aiming to undermine the Legal Observer Project or the
work of Ray Ybarra, we must also acknowledge some serious
weaknesses to the Project. First, the project followed primarily a
top-down model, rather than building from the ground up. Several
key groups and organizations working on border issues in Arizona
were not contacted directly by the Project leaders, leaving important
potential allies unconnected. Having these organizations work in
conjunction with the Legal Observer Project would have helped the
efforts greatly. More significantly, the Project was not rooted in an
established community, mass movement, or with people directly
affected by border issues. Instead, many of the participants were
highly educated, somewhat privileged folks. For instance, on one
weekend the majority of the Legal Observers were students of either
Stanford Law School or Prescott College (an expensive liberal arts
college in Prescott, Arizona).

The point here is not to minimize the work of these individuals, but
to point to lack of border town community involvement. This could
easily be corrected in future projects, since there is ample evidence
suggesting that border town people in Mexico and the United States
were against the Minuteman. In fact, Mexican Citizens organized a
boycott of border towns, refusing to legally cross the border to do
their daily shopping, resulting in significant revenue drop in
American border town commerce. This type of boycott could help
turn large numbers of people against the Minuteman.

Second, there was a fundamental problem with the nature of the
legal mentality within the Arizona ACLU. They saw the Project only
in relation to the law and civil liberties, narrowly defined as freedom
of speech. To them, the project was about documenting possible
legal violations, while still “protecting” the freedom of
speech of the Minuteman. To Ybarra’s credit, he vehemently
refused to follow this rhetoric. However, he still seemed to view the
project from the standpoint of a lawyer rather than an organizer or
Third, the legal mentality inherent in the project made for limited
tactics. That is, focusing on documenting possible human rights
violations blinded organizers to other means of resistance, such as
direct action, civil disobedience, mass boycotts. Perhaps a broader
set of tactics and ideological positions would have been beneficial.

Forth, the message going out to the public could have been more
radical. As it stood, two messages came from Project leaders. The
first was a civil liberties argument, stating that the ACLU was
making sure that all civil liberties were respected. The second was a
harder edged anti-racist message, one that pointed to the long
history of abuse at the border. However, neither of these messages
directly connects the state to the problem. In other words, it seemed
like the state was a neutral agent in what was going on at the border.
We feel that a more radical message would have asked not only for
the protection of civil liberties and acknowledgement of racist
history, but also for the abolition of the border itself. Like the
abolitionist who agitated for the end of slavery, we should be
agitating for the end of the border.
The future

The Minutemen in Arizona is symptomatic of much larger issues. It
represents an attempt at hiding what are clearly racist attacks on
immigrants behind the veil of national security issues and the war on
terror. Unfortunately, this might be a potentially successful strategy
that could result in draconian laws across various states seeking to
abolish Spanish, eliminate day-labor centers, and limit healthcare
services to migrant communities.

The good news is that we are also witnessing a rebirth of resistance
from the Chicano community in Arizona. On April 5, 2005, with the
help of Phoenix Ruckus, some 300 day laborers and university
students walked 19 miles to the Arizona capital to protest the
upsurge of anti-immigration legislation accompanying the

On May 10, several Latino organizations and workers participated in
a day-long labor boycott. Another labor boycott is being planned for
mid-July. We feel that these tactics have potential for organizing the
Latino community and for having an impact on many businesses in
the Phoenix and Tucson areas that depend on undocumented
immigrants for their labor (such as the construction industry).

Also in the works is a proposed boycott of the entire state of Arizona,
called by a national network of day laborers. We feel that this boycott
also has the potential for being a powerful instrument for organizing.
So far, the planning of the boycott is primarily a grassroots effort
with consultas involving Latino communities all across Arizona.
This boycott really has a bottom-up strategy that could result in
mass mobilization. It is for this reason that the Phoenix Ruckus is
participating in these efforts.

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