Remember way back in April when creepy paranoids Jim Gilchrist and Chris Simcox, fabricators of the Minutemen Project, fooled the laziest mainstream media outlets into marketing a couple hundred ignorant, cranky crackers as the vanguard of a bold, new movement of polite vigilantes concerned about immigration issues? In the dominant discourse, the Minutemen's disavowal of racism went unchallenged. Even the impotent Governator, trying to hustle some California far-right brownie points, felt comfortable claiming the Minutemen were doing a “terrific job.”
For the most part, only astute monitors of hate groups, anti-racist coalitions and independent journalists identified the glaring similarities between the Minutemen and previous racist vigilantes of the Southwest such as the Klan Border Patrol of the early '80s, whose members bragged to an undercover police infiltrator that they'd beheaded and buried clandestine border crossers. But when the hurricanes blew in, and the 2,000th soldier in Iraq blew up, the Minutemen media blitz blew away.
The Minutemen themselves didn't, however. Gilchrist came in third, running as an independent in the O.C.'s 48th congressional district primary race in October, receiving nearly as many votes as Democratic candidate Marilyn Brewer, and though he lost the Dec. 6 special election, he polled a disturbing 25 percent.Two nights after the loss, a beaming Gilchrist told border-obsessed Lou Dobbs on CNN that he will announce at the end of January his plan to run again.
Meanwhile, he and Simcox have continued to organize and encourage border rallies and expand their ranks to include even more pistol-toting rednecks to sit in lawn chairs, chug Coors Light and courageously point out poverty-stricken job-seekers to the Border Patrol, whose ambivalence toward such “help” is well-documented.
The racists have also begun to branch out to the non-border states, where they spy on folks being hired for jobs they themselves would never do. At this point, the Minutemen have perhaps enough members to fill a section of the bleachers at a rodeo, but they won't release a list of their members, so it's almost as hard to count them as it is to count the men, women and children who've died or disappeared as victims of vigilantes at the border since hate groups began patrolling it in the 1920s.
Back in the day, in order to prevent the growing Mexican/Jewish conspiracy to force white Christian Americans into eating tortillas and bagels instead of Wonderbread, the San Diego chapter of the KKK “began to merge with like-minded organizations such as The Silver Shirts League, The MinuteMen and the White Guards.”
You read it right. According to Carlos Larralde and Richard Griswold del Castillo, in their essay on the legacy of our hometown Klan in The Journal of San Diego History, a local, anti-immigrant, racist group identified itself as the Minutemen more than 70 years ago. Turns out our current crop of self-proclaimed defenders of America are by no means the first racists to appropriate the moniker of the young Massachusetts militiamen of the American Revolution-they're just the first to closet their racism.
How racist were the old-school Minutemen? L. David Russell, who actually criticizes Larralde and del Castillo for a lack of nuance in attacking the KKK, in his Copley Award-winning thesis on the San Diego Klan, agrees with them on at least this point: the Minutemen of the 1930s were a “militaristic, Nazi-inspired [group] dedicated to missions of violence” whose “obvious” similarity to the KKK was “racism.” The Minutemen were even worse than the Klan? Wow.
OK, but have any other local, white supremacist, immigrant-hating groups called themselves Minutemen since then? Why, yes, and, as my uncle used to say, reading from the Passover Haggadah, “I'm so touched by your question.” Seattle-based independent journalist and author David Niewert in his “Orcinus” blog, describes the 1960s incarnation of the Minutemen as extreme right-wingers who stockpiled weapons for an impending war between the white descendants of Adam and the communists who'd taken over the U.S. government. Their founder, Robert De Pugh, a felon convicted on charges of weapons stockpiling and child sexual molestation, led the Minutemen in terrorist acts, allegedly including schemes to blow up summer camps and put cyanide in air-conditioning ducts at a United Nations building in New York. Their plot to bomb a city hall building in Redmond, Wash., got De Pugh and his Minute-henchmen nabbed by the FBI and sent to prison.
Oh yeah, and they really, really didn't like Jews or people of color. For example, one Minutemen member, neo-Nazi Keith Gilbert, wound up in San Quentin in 1965 for hording 1,500 pounds of dynamite in his Glendale home, with which he planned to assassinate Martin Luther King Jr. Years after his release, in the 1980s, he gained some more notoriety for spitting on a mentally retarded black girl.
Anti-fascist researcher Dave Emory argues that the Minutemen of the '60s were “the most important of America's paramilitary organizations” and a “prototype and direct precursor of the modern militia movement [that] overlapped many domestic fascist organizations, such as the American Nazi Party, the Christian Defense League, Ku Klux Klan and National States Rights Party.” That overlap is well-represented by 1960s Minutemen member and local crackpot Tom Metzger, leader of the White Aryan Resistance, former Grand Dragon of the California Klan, and felon convicted in 1990 of inciting skinheads to murder an Ethiopian man in Portland, Ore.
Metzger bemoans today's Minutemen for going “out of their way to claim not to be racist. They are hypocrites of the worst order. They go on and on that they want no racists among them. What a joke.” Metzger must be delighted that members of racist groups like the National Alliance show up at Minutemen rallies and fly swastika flags; that Bill Parmley, former Texas Minutemen leader, quit a few months ago and denounced the Minutemen as racists, citing comments made by members in support of shooting and dehydrating border crossers; and that our local Minutemen leader, Oceanside's Jim Chase, admitted that his armed patrolling attracted “rogue” elements, likely responsible for the shootings that wounded two men at the border this summer.
What's in a name? Sometimes a hell of a lot. Simcox and Gilchrist claim that their Minutemen “have no affiliation with, nor... accept any assistance by or interference from separatists, racists or supremacy groups or individuals,” but that's lip service, public relations, a scam-and some mainstream media and right-wing politicians have fallen for it. They quote Sam Adams and paste illustrations of American revolutionaries on their website, sidestepping nearly a century of border-patrolling, immigrant-bashing, like-minded, bloodthirsty Nazis calling themselves Minutemen, as if they could start over fresh with the same name-not to mention tactics-and supposedly expunge it of its racist heritage.
But names gain their meaning in real, not ideal, contexts. Nobody would believe your swastika tattoo represented a lucky Indian sun sign if you were a white, jack-booted, skinhead leader of an Oi! band. Think a Muslim political party could call itself “Al-Qaeda, but not that Al-Qaeda?” It just means “foundation,” right? Wrong. It means flying planes into buildings in the same way Minutemen means harassing and attacking people at the border. Names, words, symbols and signs get wrecked. Ignoring their history is disingenuous.
No doubt, if they had contrived a less historically dubious euphemism like “Citizens in Favor of Building a Giant Electric Fence Around the U.S.A.,” the vigilantes still would've attracted separatists, racists and supremacy groups because, as we all know, that's who vigilantes are. But that they can so un-problematically call themselves Minutemen proves that these assholes are either closet Nazis or selectively ignorant of U.S. history or, most likely, both.
D.A. Kolodenko resides in Ocean Beach, teaches writing at several local colleges, lives with a Senegal parrot named Mango, drinks scotch and votes Democrat. “Presently Tense” will appear semi-regularly in these pages. Write to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.