In April of 2005, I spent a week on the US-Mexico border to report on the Minuteman Project. If you’re lucky enough to have forgotten the ragtag group, they came to the border because, in the words of their founder, Jim Gilchrist, our country was being “devoured and plundered by the menace of tens of millions of invading illegal aliens.”
Gilchrist was able to attract about 100 people, an impressive achievement considering many of the volunteers came from far away and had to cover their own expenses. Much of this was, no doubt, due to Gilchrist’s natural charisma, square jaw, and frequently exposed shoulders.
But Gilchrist wasn’t just a physical specimen with hairy forearms. The retired accountant had earned a degree in journalism, and used his locution skills to rally the troops, as in this early manifesto:
“Future generations will inherit this mutated form of the United States of America, consisting of 100 different sub-nations, speaking 100 different languages, and promoting 100 different cultural agendas…It will be tantamount to a sack of marbles, with each marble colliding with the other marbles, as each culture scrambles for dominance of its culture over all others.”
As should be obvious, with mutated marbles scrambling around on their little marble feet in the struggle for dominance in the sack that has become the United States of America…well, clarity was never Gilchrist’s strong suit.
ON MY FIRST day in Arizona, I arrived at Minutemen headquarters–a desolate bible college about ten miles from the border–and passed a man wearing extremely thick glasses who was screaming into his cell phone about the lack of “perimeter security.” On the back of his jacket was a large red cross; he told me that he was the Medical Operations Officer.
Later that evening, a young man named Mike, standing 6’ 6” and wearing a bullet proof vest over camouflage fatigues, came into the room I had reserved (I was one of two “embedded” journalists). He offered me his second bulletproof vest. I declined.
“There are Mexicans crossing the border right now,” he said. I agreed, but stated that I was nonetheless going to type up notes without body armor, as was my habit. He nodded and told me that beer wasn’t permitted on headquarters, then grabbed the bottle I offered and drank it quickly. Before leaving, he remarked that “this here is the elite group of Minutemen.”
Eventually, the second member of the media showed up, a friendly photojournalist recently returned from six weeks in Iraq. He couldn’t figure out why so many people were walking around with body armor. “In Iraq, I only wore a vest one day,” he told me. “What are these guys expecting—incoming?”
Over the next two days I visited both sides of the border, chatting with Minutemen and migrants. When not exploring, I hung out at the bible college, listening to the volunteers talk about the AR-15’s and armor piercing bullets they had brought along for the occasion. On the third night, I ran into Mike in the bathroom. He was wearing two side arms and the vest. “You want a gun?”
“Why would I want a gun?”
“They’re hitting us tonight.”
“Who knows? Mexicans. The MS-13 gang. It’s fucking credible. A shoot-out is on the way. We’re on high alert!”
I followed Mike into the hallway, where the Medical Operations Officer was engaged in an animated conversation with a portly member of the John Birch Society. Mike interrupted, jabbering about the Mexican threat and a shootout and the need to join the other dozen folks who were already heading to the border. I expected the Medic to tell Mike to calm the fuck down. Instead, he pushed up his glasses and squinted. “Get me a gun and body armor, and let’s roll.”
Five minutes later, most members of the elite group had taken off. Thankfully, I learned the next morning that they hadn’t encountered anyone at the border. In retrospect, it seems obvious that I should have alerted the police. What if they had come across a group of a dozen migrants in the dark, armed only with bottles of water and backpacks? It’s pretty easy to imagine a scenario in which they heard some twigs snapping underfoot and opened fire. It’s remarkable that the Minutemen didn’t end up slaughtering each other.
WHICH BRINGS ME to Lou Dobbs, and yesterday’s news of his departure from CNN. For months he had been the target of the Basta Dobbs campaign to oust him from the network for his inaccurate reporting about immigrants. Recently, with the campaign picking up momentum, Dobbs reported that someone had fired a shot at his house in New Jersey. He placed blame on “fringe ethnocentric groups” who had “created an atmosphere and been unrelenting in their propaganda,” leading to, of all things, anger, hate, and vitriol. (Yes, those are Dobbs’ exact words.)
More likely, it was a hunter. But hearing Dobbs’ complain about an atmosphere of hate that could lead to the shooting caused me to think back on the Minuteman experiment. Here is Dobbs on Gilchrist and his crew of weapons-obsessed yahoos:
“I support the Minuteman Project and the fine Americans who make it up in all they’ve accomplished, fully, relentlessly, and proudly.”
Indeed, Dobbs was a folk hero to many of the people I interviewed in Arizona–including the men who went screaming into the desert with guns a-blazing. But what we’ve now learned is that while Dobbs can dish out a lot of hateful and inaccurate propaganda against undocumented immigrants, he’s not so good at taking it. After years of spreading false information and serving as a sort of prophet to groups like the Minutemen, he’s folded under the pressure created by a group of articulate and engaged immigrants and their allies. The timing is perfect, too, as the debate around immigration reform is sure to heat up in the coming months. With Dobbs out at CNN, that debate promises to be more rational, compassionate, and–above all–based on facts.
I’ll end with words straight from Dobbs himself:
“If anybody thinks that we’re not engaged in a battle for the soul of this country right now, you’re sorely mistaken.”
He’s right, and the soul of our country just got cleaned up a bit.