Vigilante Man, 2005 Style

— Mike Davis

“The local people whipped themselves into a mold of cruelty. Then they formed units, squads, and armed them — armed them with clubs, with gas, with guns. We own the country. We can’t let these Okies get out of hand.” —John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

THE VIGILANTES ARE back. In the 1850s they lynched Irishmen in San Francisco; in the 1870s they terrorized the Chinese throughout the West; in the 1910s they murdered striking Wobblies in California, Washington and Montana; in the 1920s they organized “Bash a Jap” campaigns; and in the 1930s they greeted the Joads and other Dust Bowl refugees to California with teargas and buckshot.

Vigilantes have always been to the American West what the Ku Klux Klan has been to the South: vicious and cowardly bigotry organized as a self-righteous mob. Almost every decade, some dismal group of self-proclaimed patriots mobilizes to repel a new invasion or subversive threat.

Their wrath has almost always been directed against the poorest, most powerless and hard-working segment of the population: recent migrants from Donegal, Guangdong, Oklahoma or now, Oaxaca. And their rant, as broadcast daily on dozens of AM hate radio programs in California and the Southwest, is still the same as described by Steinbeck in 1938:

“Men who had never been hungry saw the eyes of the hungry ... They said, ‘These goddamned Okies are dirty and ignorant. They’re degenerate, sexual maniacs. These goddamed Okies are thiefs. They’ll steal anything. They’ve got no sense of property rights.’”

The most publicized of today’s vigilantes, of course, are the so-called “Minutemen” who began their armed patrol of the Arizona-Mexico border — appropriately — on April Fool’s Day. The Tombstone, Arizona-based group is the latest incarnation of the anti-immigrant patrols that have plagued the borderlands for more than a decade.

Vowing to defend national sovereignty against the Brown Peril, a series of shadowy paramilitary groups, led by angry ranchers and self-declared “Aryan warriors” — and egged on by rightwing radio jocks — have harassed, illegally detained, beaten and probably murdered immigrants crossing through the desert cauldrons of Arizona and California.

The folk hero of the vigilante movement is Roger Barnett, the proprietor of a 35-square-mile border ranch in Cochise County, who boasts that he has “apprehended” almost 12,000 immigrants over the last seven years. Last October, Barnett, carrying an assault rifle and accompanied by attack dogs, terrorized the family of a Douglas Navy veteran whom he suspected of being immigrants.

Local authorities have consistently failed to act against Barnett and other vigilantes, despite charges by Mexican authorities that ranchers shot several unarmed immigrants near the border hamlet of Sasabe in June 2000. Border rights groups dispute with the Border Patrol whether some of the corpses found in the desert over the last few years were murdered by vigilantes or Mexican gangs.

The Minutemen Project — headquartered at Miracle Valley Bible College — is both theater of the absurd and a canny attempt to move vigilantism into the mainstream of conservative politics. Its principal organizers — a retired accountant and a former kindergarten teacher, both from Southern California — mesmerized the press with their promise of a thousand heavily-armed super-patriots confronting the Mexican hordes eyeball-to-eyeball along the international border in Cochise County.

In the event, they turned out perhaps 150 sorry-ass gun freaks and sociopaths who spent a few days in lawn chairs cleaning their rifles, jabbering to the press, and peering through binoculars at the cactus-covered mountains where several hundred immigrants perish each year from heatstroke and thirst.

From one perspective, it was a silly ending to an obvious publicity stunt. Armageddon on the border was never very likely, if only because undocumented immigrants read or hear the news like everyone else.

Confronted with the Minutemen and the hundreds of extra Border Patrol sent to keep them out of trouble, campesinos simply waited patiently on the Sonora side for the vigilantes to get sunburned and go home. Then the normal, deadly business of the Border resumed.


Yet it would be a mistake to underestimate the impact of this incident on Republican politics. For the first time, the Bush administration is feeling seriously embattled — not by Democrats (they would never be so impolite), but by incipient rebellions on its own flanks.

The unpopularity of Bush’s proposed privatization of social security has provided so-called “moderate” Republicans (think Colin Powell and John McCain) with an unexpected lease-on-life to contest the presidential succession in 2008. More importantly, the activist grassroots of the party, especially in the West and the South, is aflame with anger about the president’s proposed guestworker treaty with Mexico, as well as his larger strategy of wooing Latino voters.

The anti-Latino backlash which that evil sorcerer, former California governor Pete Wilson, helped summon to life in the early 1990s (culminating in immigrant-bashing Proposition 187), has failed to quietly die away as Karl Rove and other Republican strategists might have wished.

Over the last decade, instead, the campaigns against immigrant social rights and the use of Spanish in schools, which originated in California, have been successfully exported to Arizona, Colorado and Southern states with growing Latin American populations.

In the name of “homeland security,” Republican activists around the country are currently pushing hard to compel local police to enforce national immigration laws: raising the specter of racial profiling on an industrial scale. The supposed menace of Mara Salvatrucha and other transnational Latino gangs has been evoked as a terrorist threat in the backyard.

Like earlier anti-abortion protests (which culminated, of course, in rightwing terrorism), the vigilante movement offers a dramatic tactic for capturing press attention, galvanizing opposition to immigration, and shifting the balance of power within the national Republican Party.

Vigilantes hope to force the government not just to seal borders, but to surveil and police immigration in every sphere of daily life.  To the discomfort of the White House, moreover, the Minutemen have found an ardent admirer in Sacramento. In an interview on one of his favorite rightwing radio shows (28 April), Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger praised the vigilantes as heroes:

“I think they’ve done a terrific job. They’ve cut down the crossing of illegal immigrants a huge percentage. So it just shows that it works when you go and make an effort and when you work hard. It’s a doable thing.”

Later, after furious Latino leaders accused him of “scapegoating and immigrant bashing,” Schwarzenegger defiantly reiterated that he would welcome the help of the Minutemen on the California border. (As he so often does, the governor followed this with the non-sequitur reassurance that he was a “champion of immigrants.”)

Back to the Hate Swamp

If the governor sounds like he is channeling his “inner Nazi,” it is because he is desperate. His hulking celebrity is no longer a novelty, and Schwarzenegger is dogged everywhere he goes these days by the angry nurses, schoolteachers and firefighters whose budgets he has slashed. In recent months, his rating in opinion polls has fallen by 20 points and the ghost of Gray Davis now shadows his future.

So Arnie has gone back to the same dismal swamp of hate radio and angry white guys in pickup trucks where he won the governorship in 2003. The issue then was drivers’ licenses for illegal immigrants. (How would we know that Bin Laden himself wasn’t tooling down the Hollywood Freeway?). Now it’s the right of citizens to “help the Border Patrol” or, if need be, to render Western justice themselves to the alien invaders.

The Minutemen and another abscess growth, Friends of the Border Patrol, are both promising to bring “tens of thousands of volunteers” to patrol the San Diego- Mexico border this fall. Supporters of immigrant rights, in turn, are mobilizing to confront the vigilantes.

A foretaste of things to come occurred in mid-May when the same hate-radio jocks who had interviewed Schwarzenegger urged their AM listeners to join a protest against a supposedly “treasonous” public artwork in the blue-collar Los Angeles suburb of Baldwin Park. (An inscription on the arch designed by celebrated artist Judy Baca reads: “This land was Mexican once, was Indian always and is, and will be again.”)

Baldwin Park is 70% Latino and the protestors from “Save Our State” (a parent group of Proposition 187) had to be rescued by riot police from the anger of local residents

What will happen when the nativists carry guns? With a Vigilante Man in the governor’s mansion in Sacramento, the next provocation might be tragedy not farce.

ATC 117, July–August 2005