Far From Fringe
Minutemen Mobilizes Whites Left Behind by Globalization
By Roberto Lovato
Cross the white picket fence of the Minutemen offices in Tombstone, Ariz., and you're immediately made aware that the Federal Government denied the local media mogul his constitutional right to bear arms. And, the sign on the front door adds, BEWARE of his armed bodyguard who is still exercising his second amendment rights.
"What can I do for you?" asks the wiry, nervous, yet folksy Chris Simcox, the leader and founder of the Minutemen volunteer border patrol when I visited late last summer. After my local guides let him know we were there to ask him about his Minuteman work, his jean and tee-shirtclad body, his baseball-capped head and entire being seemed suddenly to move to the beat of media personality mode; he swaggers into the tour of the home of the Tombstone Tumbleweed, one of the main papers in this former miners settlement, which he was soon to sell. These days, tourists keep their economy pumping with a fascination with the hallowed gunfight that took place just around the corner. The Tumbleweed also doubled as the command center of a movement whose members trace their gun-wielding brand of frontier justice to Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and other heroes of the OK Corral, a movement that has garnered media attention far beyond the 1,200 person circulation (Tombstone's population is 1,504) of California-born Simcox's successful newspaper.
He begins the walk-through by pointing at several snapshots on a wall of Latino immigrants tied up and looking like nervous chickens I've seen in crowded, colorful markets they left in the poorer, war-ridden parts of Mexico and Central America.
"Those are pictures of some of the illegals we caught and handed over to immigration," says Simcox, as if proudly displaying the deer heads adorning more than a few of the homes in the gun and Harleyheavy Tombstone ("The Town Too Tough to Die").
Some civil rights organizations report that the Minutemen have pistol-whipped and, perhaps, even shot, migrants they encounter.
Wanting to ignore the boyish smile that seems to taunt me as a kind of test for my reaction, I point to two inverted flags—one Mexican, one U.S.—on the white wall opposite the pictures and ask him why the flags are placed in that manner. "That's an international distress signal. It's about two governments that aren't doing anything about an urgent problem. So we are," he answers. Before I can process the surprisingly global perspective behind Simcox's statement, he yanks me back down to the dark realities of desert life only 25 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border. "Did you hear about the accident this morning?" Simcox asks me. On our way to Tombstone that Saturday morning, my colleagues and I had in fact driven by the horrific 11-car pileup in which six people (James Lee, 74, and Emilia Lee, 71, of Huachuca City and four undocumented immigrants who remain nameless in local media reports with headlines like "Illegals-Smugglers Crash Kills 6"). But before we could answer, he declared, "It was serious this time: real citizens died."
At a time and environment in which "reality" defines the cutting edge television programming and post-Iraq WMD political debate, the oddly telegenic Simcox's deployment of the "real" works well for a Minutemen organization mainstreaming what was the stuff of sotto voce grumblings in the radical extremist and polite conservative corners of white America. And so does his neat splitting of Citizen and Other. Unfortunately, too many critics of the Minutemen fail to see the nuances behind the sensationalist tactics of his brand of white fear. My encounter with Simcox doesn't fit very well the rather simplistic explanations of the Minutemen as a bunch of new, gun-slinging racists; rather, what the encounter with Simcox and the Minutemen reflects is the need to use a more sophisticated lens than what has passed for critique among activists and thinkers in the civil and immigrant rights communities along with many Latino organizations.
Principal among the unnoticed characteristics of the Minutemen are: a global weltanschauung, a very nuanced media sensibility, and a very dangerous political sense that's managed to spew out onto deserts, towns and cities the subterranean sentiments that serve elite interests, elites who benefit from the racial and class conflicts and division that the Minutemen make an industry of.
The Minutemen are far from being the fringe white men with guns of much media lore; more than an armed movement, Simcox and his cohorts have converted themselves into a nimble, media savvy, network organization for whom the guns are props. Their main goal is not to "protect" the physical borders of the United States: the primary political objectives of the Minutemen have more to do with protecting the borders of white privilege and notions of citizenship being transcended by the global economic—and political—capital. In this sense, the flag waving and other symbolism (i.e., using the Minuteman brand), the perpetual need to generate controversy, the phallic deployment of arms at a time when economic and cultural (ie; women and nonwhites like Latino immigrants) globalization challenges American (especially white male) manhood all constitute a form of (para)psychological OPERATION or "psy-op."
Their tactics also serve the interests of elites like George W. Bush, military industrialists and others as they wrap themselves with, and rally much poorer people around, the flag of extreme nationalism. The corporate and political powers of the information age benefit from the Minutemen whose gunfighter antics targeting border crossers easily distract us from the elite abandonment of U.S. workers and cities (think Katrina) as well as global exploits that transfer more and more dollars into the hands of fewer and fewer people.
That the Minuteman organization is housed out of a newspaper in a tourist town whose primary theatre involves a weekly reenactment of the gunfight at OK Corral is no simple coincidence.
First of all, if they were really fringe, the Minutemen wouldn't get the far-reaching local, national and even international coverage in print and electronic media. That the first Google search of "Minutemen" by many elementary school students will lead the young people to information about Simcox's organization and not the patriots of American revolutionary fame illustrates well the very effective blurring of the "real" that decentralized, tech and media-ready organizations like today's Minutemen manufacture.
Similarly, shifting the Minuteman message— between "citizen" and "illegal alien," "patriot" and "terrorist"—reveals as much about their intentions as their physical movements around the borders of the country. The Minutemen's initial rhetoric of "civilization" versus the "savage" has given way to the more moderated rhetoric of "citizen" ("Concerned Citizens Leading the Effort to Secure our Borders.") versus "terrorist" that has been the main political currency of the Bush moment. In line with this switch, Simcox and his organization have tried to diversify the overwhelmingly white Minutemen to include Latino spokespeople.
Beyond the raw ranting of previous communication, the official Minuteman website now includes opportunistic framing of their work reflected in, for example, this recent headline about their Arizona activities: "Minutemen Civil Defense Corps starts Secure Our Borders operation early to aid Border Patrol helping with Katrina relief." Below this headline is a banner asking web surfers to donate to efforts to benefit the victims of Hurricane Katrina.
Their savvy use of the web and other media, combined with the strategic use of public events, makes the Minutemen more effective than previous racist organizations. At the same time, their mixing of mainstream and old school, anti-Latino, anti-immigrant messages makes their message palatable to an audience, especially aging white males, ravaged by economic and political globalization. Unlike the previous generation of white supremacists who eschewed and even attacked the Federal government (think Oklahoma bombing or Montana militias), the Minuteman strategy complements the anti-immigrant work of local, state and national politicians like California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and U.S. Representative Tom Tancredo (R-CO), who regularly praises them as "heroes."
Again, transitions in Tombstone provide clues as to why the Minutemen are wellpositioned to reach an audience of abandoned workers in search of answers about why the value of their labor is cheapened. Prior to the advent of the now dominant tourist economy in Tombstone, the livelihood of most here was based on silver mining, farming and the military that protected them. Such occupations as explorer, rancher and soldier informed the sense of frontier manhood that current employment with the low wage primary businesses of the region don't. While their names harken to simpler, richer, whiter days in Tombstone and the United States, the region's biggest employers—Adobe Lodge, Best Western Lookout Lodge, William Brown Holster and Old Tombstone Historical Tours—hardly provide the economic muscle that underwrote the frontier days the Minuteman nostalgia speaks powerfully to.
Wearin' guns and cowboy outfits for a living is real different from bein' a "real cowboy"; the Minutemen provide an opportunity for some, mostly aging white men, to root their sense of themselves in the storied—and extremely violent— traditions celebrated in museums, TV shows, movies and video games. Like workers in Tombstone, most workers in American cities, towns and rural areas are reeling from the ravages of free trade agreements, deindustrialization, and other sources of corporate globalization; these trends are simplistically explained away by scapegoating.
Like blacks, Indians and Mexicans of the frontier days, Immigrant Evil Others —"illegals," "gangster thugs," rumored (but still unseen) Latino "terrorists" and other threats conjured by the imaginary of white fear—provide the necessary contrast to the good, white citizen doing his part to defend the "values," "way of life" and "civilization" that the President and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld are feverishly recruiting the children of Latino immigrants to defend. Such a situation recreates the (for some) clear cut frontier era division between "good American" and "bad Other," between "good" Latinos (soldiers, cops, Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez) and "bad" Latinos (gang members, undocumented immigrants, etc.).
In a white populace devastated by the decimation of its cities, towns and job base, a populace whose citizenship is cheapened by a political system based on the transference of tax revenues to facilitate global trade and perpetual war, the workings of the Minutemen provide victims of globalization an opportunity to feel they're "doing something" about their plight. The Minutemen also offer elites an opportunity to develop a new kind of base as they inch the country deeper and deeper into the, for them, fertile soil of national security culture.
Seen from this perspective, the white picket fences and white walls of the Tombstone Tumbleweed provide an appropriate symbol of a movement taking hold in a country in where elite, global interests are gating the physical and mental borders of a populace in the throes of perpetual war.
Rather than explain the labyrinthine realities of this most complex of political and economic moments, elites stand silent while the shock troops of white fear center political—and cultural—debate around more simplistic "us versus them," "good versus bad" dichotomies that harken back to the good ole days that never really existed.
Simcox's "real citizens" are wearing costumes of actors in an old, even ancient story
of domination and plunder at the expense of the barbarian Other.
Roberto Lovato is a writer and member of the Public Eye editorial board.
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