Surviving a weekend with the Arizona Minuteme
TOMBSTONE, ARIZONA — Unwittingly, for sure. Nevertheless, the organizers of this month’s Minuteman Project — a plan to deploy 1,000 or more volunteers to blockade a portion of the Mexican border — couldn’t have chosen a more appropriate staging ground than this movie-set town totally dedicated to Old West re-enactments.
Last weekend, mustachioed, six-gun–carrying Tombstone Marshals (as the local police call themselves), standing alongside tourist stagecoaches, gathered on the town’s main street with a squad of Wyatt Earp and Clanton Gang impersonators bedecked in period costumes. At their side was a group of dark-uniformed Arizona Rangers, a somewhat elderly auxiliary state police force. What they all had in common were sidearms. Some were real. Some, in the cases of the re-enactors, weren’t.
Completing the cast were the Minutemen. Some of them, a very few of them, were also armed. But all of them were re-enactors in their own right.
Indeed, the Minuteman Project of 2005, which brought out more than 200 reporters and a caravan of satellite trucks to this hardscrabble patch of southeastern Arizona desert, produced more than 1,000 press reports in its first few days, and was pumped up with millions of dollars’ worth of free pre-event hype by the cable networks, was, in fact, one of the great media simulacra of recent times.
Organizers promised that legions of mad-as-hell volunteers would show up this first weekend and spend a month staking out the border with binoculars, radios and guns (for self-defense only, please), doing the dirty work of plugging the border that the federal government refuses to do.
After spending all that money to get the TV trucks out to Tombstone, and after all those reporters had persuaded their editors to let them make the trek to grab the sexy story of yahoos running loose on the border with guns, and after all those editors had cleared the coverage with their desks, almost no one wanted to tell the real story once they got out here: The Minutemen were basically a flop. Despite organizers’ claims that 450 people showed up the first day (befittingly on April Fools’ Day), reporters visibly equaled or outnumbered the actual participants.
At no point could any reporter see evidence of more than 150 Minutemen gathered in one place — even though the first two days of activities were all about concentrating their forces in a pair of protest rallies. There were some notable exceptions in the coverage. The Chicago Tribune’s Michael Martinez was one of the few who dared to state that he could count only 150 participants. The Arizona Republic’s fine border reporter Susan Carroll also pointed out the degree to which the whole project was a media-inflated stunt.
But the bulk of the coverage continued to play along with the fiction that a mass of American citizens had come down here to stand against the immigrant hordes. Just as busloads of tourists cram into three shows a day and pay 10 bucks a head to cheer on the phony gunfighters at the OK Corral, the media, which had already invested so much in this non-story, deployed their most narrow lens magnifying the antics of a small fringe of a few dozen into a Matter of National Significance.
The story of an armed citizen militia was just too juicy to forgo. Even when most of this militia wasn’t armed and it wasn’t really a militia. It’s always dangerous to generalize, but the crowd of volunteers was so small that it reduces the risks of stereotyping. If anything, this was a lawn-chair militia — a disproportionately elderly, disproportionately male, all-white crew whose most ambitious plan was to spend a day or two under an umbrella, sitting in the desert, drinking some cool ones and bitching about illegal aliens. These Minutemen are to real vigilantes — who risk getting shot at while they’re out shooting others — what the Disney Jungle Boat Ride is to Amazon exploration.
Not to say that the project isn’t a magnet for some pretty extreme characters. While Orange County–based Jim Gilchrist, a retired accountant and Vietnam vet, thought up the project, the ground-level commander is radical right-wing populist Chris Simcox. “Enough is enough,” he told me in an interview in front of the Tombstone Tumbleweed, the local newspaper he owns. “We could no longer be suckered into just writing letters to our congressmen. And the feared enemy is not just coming across the border. There’s also the enemy behind our back.”
That would be us. The media.
“My job is to be the tough guy,” he told a gaggle of his supporters on the Tumbleweed’s back patio. “I remind you that the world is watching while we’re doing the most radical thing in the world: standing on the frontline. The media has created a frenzy, a monster . . . looking for vigilantes. There are none. They’re gonna be watching us and they are going to hassle you, scrutinize you. It’s a sad day when you can’t go out to the border and watch the scenery without being called a radical.”
Exactly why should Simcox — who wouldn’t exist without the media — be so angry at the media? A former Los Angeles–area kindergarten teacher, Simcox moved to Arizona three years ago, took over the Tumbleweed and set up his own anti-immigrant militia, the Civil Homeland Defense. His events have never drawn more than a handful of supporters, his professed ideology is a jumble of black-helicopter conspiracy and paranoiac demagogy, and he was convicted last year of a federal weapons charge. But reporters pretty much treated him as a minor rock star this past week, hanging on his every word and handing him long stretches of airtime.
Simcox was quick to claim victory for the project even before it got under way. He took credit for an announcement earlier in the week that the Bush administration was sending 500 more Border Patrol agents to southern Arizona. “We’ve already gotten our message out,” he said. “If the U.S. government doesn’t soon deploy National Guard troops on the border, there will soon be Minuteman Projects popping up everywhere.”
If the message about border enforcement was so important, I asked him, then why didn’t he discourage his followers from bringing guns with them?
“Doesn’t this distract from your core message?” I asked.
“We’ve done this on purpose to show your bias and your vile distortions,” he answered.
“So exposing this media bias is more important than exposing the failure of border policy,” I said.
“Exactly. We don’t discourage the guns on purpose,” Simcox said. “Your reaction exposes the most extreme sort of persecution complex by the media.”
This sort of rhetoric has earned Simcox few friends and scant support in his new hometown. No place in America is more affected by illegal immigration than Arizona, specifically this southern swath of the state. Little surprise that last November, 57 percent of Arizonans voted for the anti-immigrant Proposition 200. With the major population centers of Tucson and Phoenix just a short few hours’ drive away, a close-the-border project like the Minutemen could theoretically draw a huge turnout. Its actual number of participants, less than what a good high school football game would attract, only underlines to what degree Simcox and the Minutemen are strictly marginal even in the most potentially sympathetic atmosphere.
“Simcox has really turned off the whole town,” says one of the Doc Holliday impersonators with a thick Brooklyn accent. “People move here to get away from shit like his.” A number of Tombstone stores have stopped carrying his Tumbleweed and replaced it on the racks with a new rival and more moderate publication, The Reaper.
Over at his frontierlike Dragoon Saloon, the ruddy-faced, cowboy-hatted 45-year-old mayor of Tombstone, Andree Dejournett, was downing a tub’s worth of suds, clearly hoping that this whole episode would quickly pass. “I love Mexico, I love Mexicans,” the mayor said after taking another sip. “I want to see it work where these people have a chance to work, make some money. Let’s work it out. They need us and we need them. It’s a big world, and everybody in it has got to eat. Let’s just work it all out.”
The mayor’s view was hardly the prevailing sentiment as the Minutemen held their first rally on Friday afternoon inside the town’s historic former courthouse. About a hundred volunteers loudly applauded both Gilchrist, the Vietnam vet from Orange County, and Simcox as well as the two visiting dignitaries: Pat Buchanan’s sister Bay and Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo, leader of the House faction that favors the most restrictive immigration policy.
If you sift the rhetoric, it’s evident that the immigration issue in the America of 2005 is strictly a fight among Republicans. It was George W. Bush, not Vicente Fox, who took most of the oratorical fire. “Our message to President Bush is that you have failed our children,” thundered Bay Buchanan, dressed in a stylish pale blue-jeans outfit. “You have failed. You have failed because you allow drugs and criminals to come across our borders! You have failed America!”
Tancredo struck a similar theme, asserting that the Bush administration has a conscious policy of keeping the border open to illegals. “I’m proud of every single one of you,” Tancredo told the crowd. “You are heroes. You are not vigilantes. You are heroes, with each one of you representing hundreds of thousands of Americans.”
Tancredo’s math was off a tick. By my count, there was one person here for every 3 million Americans.
The first truly public Minuteman events were staged Saturday morning in the form of two daylong rallies in front of the Border Patrol stations in Naco and Douglas — about 20 miles apart from each other.
In Douglas, at noon, no more than a dozen Minutemen, in lawn chairs and pickup beds, stood across from a handful of Latino counterprotesters who had driven in from Southern California. When a nose-to-nose shouting match broke out between two men from rival sides, six TV cameras, an equal number of photographers and just as many reporters crowded in, looking for a story, any story.
Down the road in Naco, the Minuteman crowd peaked at about 125 demonstrators (the organizers had boldly predicted that “potentially thousands” would show up). They lined both sides of the remote desert highway leading to the Border Patrol station. They waved American and state flags. Handmade posters read “No Benefit for Illegals” and others denounced “Presidente Jorge Boosh.” A young man with a bullhorn, who said he planned to run for Congress out of San Diego, led a chant of “1-2-3-4 — Close the Border!”
No guns were in evidence. The heaviest armaments, once again, were aluminum-framed lawn chairs that bloomed like wildflowers after a desert rain. Television cameras whirred and reporters’ notepads clicked open as one volunteer after another talked the talk. “So far this is mostly about exposure,” said Minuteman Tom Tuttle. A 58-year-old retired small-business man, he drove out from Chelsea, Michigan, and now stood by his camper handing out interviews. “If this doesn’t work, maybe we’ll have to take it to the next phase. Y’know, containment. More like enforcement.”
“Isn’t that vigilantism?” asked a reporter.
“Yes, if it becomes necessary,” Tuttle answered.
The interview was halted as the young man with the bullhorn rallied the protesters and had them form up in a march.
With flags aloft, they trudged a hundred yards up to the taped-off driveway of the Border Patrol station. “Thank you, Border Patrol!” they chanted. “Viva la Migra! Viva la Migra!” said another refrain.
In an uncommon gesture of openness and accessibility, the Border Patrol (now part of the Department of Homeland Security) had stationed four uniformed public-information officers in front of the station. They were more than eager to push their own story on the assembled army of reporters.
“We absolutely do not support the Minutemen,” said Border Patrol Supervisory Agent Jose Maheda. “This causes a natural hindrance to us that disrupts our work. They keyword here is that we are going to try to go on with our work in spite of these people. Now we don’t only have illegal aliens to look out for, now we have to look out for these other untrained civilians running along the same roads. The worst-case scenario is at night we come upon one of their groups and we surprise them and they’re armed.”
Later that afternoon, I ran into Ray Borane, the much-loved and -respected mayor of Douglas, the border town that sits in the epicenter of the immigrant wave. He was just plain disgusted and couldn’t stop shaking his head. “I just wish they’d go somewhere else,” he said of the Minutemen. “As usual with this stuff, there’s more reporters than anyone else. The media has created this monster by letting Simcox create a hysteria. The fruits of this will be nothing except more aggravation. Nothing whatsoever will change here. In a few days, the media will go home and this will fizzle out.”
The mayor, as usual when it comes to all things related to the border, got it right. Unless, of course, in the next few days someone gets shot.