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Minuteman Divisions

Photos by Juan De Dios Garcia Davish

Early one recent Sunday evening, standing in the shade of the oak trees outside the VFW hall in Campo, California, Sally wrung her hands. “I don’t understand why there isn’t more people out here. I really don’t.” A round woman with graying blond curls, Sally (who asked me not to print her full name) had driven from her home in El Cajon to this tiny high-desert town about 50 miles west of Calexico to help out with the first of California’s three competing Minuteman Project–inspired civilian border-militia efforts. Journalists and protesters easily outnumbered the Minutemen on July 16, the first day of the project. Less than two dozen people showed up the next day, and fewer than 10 were lazing around the parking lot as Sally walked off toward her car. “I think it’s just a shame,” she said, and shook her head. The poor turnout may have had something to do with the fact that late last month, Jim Chase, the project’s organizer, told San Diego’s North County Times that he was fed up with all the factional infighting and was calling the project off. It may have been because, until the middle of last week, Chase concealed all logistical information about the project on an inaccessible “secret page” of his Web site. The idea, he said, was to confuse “the enemy.” It didn’t work — only Chase’s partisans failed to show. It may also have been that Chase can’t seem to get along with anybody for very long. For all the momentum the anti-immigrant movement has gathered in the months since the Minuteman Project concluded — with knockoff vigilante efforts forming from Texas up to Michigan — ego clashes, turf battles, tantrums and flameouts among a rogue’s gallery of would-be chieftains have kept the latest wave of resurgent xenophobia fragmented and, for now at least, largely ineffective. Jim Chase is an excitable man with short, white hair and a round, boyish face. An ex-Marine, he was wounded on six separate occasions in Vietnam and, as he put it, “came home on my back.” He found a job with the Postal Service, but retired in 1997 after suffering “what you call a post-traumatic-stress breakdown” for which he was briefly hospitalized. “Now I function pretty normal,” Chase said. “They tell me it’s incurable and blah blah blah, but I function just fine in my opinion.”

Chase now buys and sells real estate, collects his pension and has time to spare to devote himself to battling illegal immigration. By his account at least, Chase was part of the leadership of the Minuteman Project, and spent parts of March and April in southern Arizona. He was forced to return to his home in Oceanside two weeks early after he “fell off a cliff” and broke his arm. Shortly thereafter, Chase began organizing his own mini-Minuteman project, which he dubbed the United States Border Patrol Auxiliary. Factional wrangling has provoked him to change the name several times. It’s now called Border Watch, but in various spots on his Web site, the group still goes by the names California Minutemen and USA Minutemen. Chase’s rhetoric is considerably more militant, and militaristic, than that of his Minuteman precursors. His language occasionally reverts to jargon more appropriate to Saigon circa 1968 than to the far reaches of eastern San Diego County. (“Do not wear your guns in towns or hamlets.”) Until a day or two before the July event began, the site advised volunteers to bring baseball bats, machetes and “stunt guns” in addition to sunscreen and lawn chairs. And where the Minutemen allowed volunteers to bring only handguns, Chase is allowing rifles and shotguns as well. “I’ve been in many firefights,” Chase explained. “If I’m down there and I’ve got my pistol and they start popping my people, well, I’m going to have to start popping back, and I won’t have the range with a pistol.” Precisely whom he means by “they” is never quite clear, but one gets the distinct sense that it doesn’t matter much. Arrayed against him, as he sees it, are the “coyotes, illegal migrants, colonizing illegal aliens, illegal alien felons, al Qaeda members [and] Ninja-dressed drug smugglers” who are sneaking across the border, as well as the evil stooges of the “Open Border Lobby” (“OBL,” for short) and quite a few people who agree with him entirely. As he parsed it on his Web site, “If you are against us you are scum or just stupid beyond comprehension. Change sides fool. Lets not let OBL criminals kill the goose with the golden egg so our grandchildren suffer their foolishness. United We Stand!” It’s a curious kind of uniting, this, but it’s in the air these days, and it’s been part of the standard operating procedure of the anti-immigration right for years. Before the Minuteman Project won them national attention, the leaders of the various vigilante efforts active in southern Arizona — Chris Simcox of Civil Homeland Defense (later, along with Jim Gilchrist, a co-founder of the Minuteman Project), Jack Foote and Casey Nethercott of Ranch Rescue and Glenn Spencer of American Border Patrol — frequently and colorfully sniped at one another in the press and on the Internet. So it was no surprise that the same June e-mail that announced the Minuteman Project was “going national” also took the time to spend four full paragraphs denouncing Jim Chase. “Mr. Chase has no authority to use the Minuteman Project name,” it read, “which is proprietary to Jim Gilchrist of California. Neither does Mr. Chase have Mr. Gilchrist’s permission to trade upon the Arizona Minuteman Project’s April record in any future border watch initiatives.”

 

Now a retired accountant who lives in a gated Aliso Viejo subdivision with his wife and two elderly Chihuahuas, Jim Gilchrist served in the same Marine unit in Vietnam as Chase, though not at the same time. By his own account, Gilchrist was sent spiraling into a post-traumatic-stress meltdown by the September 11 attacks, and emerged with an all-consuming obsession about the dangers of illegal immigration that led him, in the fall of last year, to come up with the idea for the Minuteman Project. A small, nervous man, with an almost pitiable tendency to get lost in the current of his own rhetoric, Gilchrist seems to really like people, and, politics aside, it’s hard not to like him back. But already in the first week of the Arizona Minuteman Project, rumors were flying that Chris Simcox couldn’t stand him, and that the animosity was mutual. Both did their best to put a good face on the matter and denied they’d had a falling out. More recently, Gilchrist admitted with all possible tact that there was a “lack of communication” between him and Simcox. “He would make a decision and not clear it with me, and I would be upset. I would make a decision and not clear it with him, and he would be upset. It caused a rift.” Chase, who takes every opportunity to mention that he was “third in command” in Arizona (Gilchrist concedes that he was “one of the original organizers”), remembers it differently. Simcox, he said, fired a series of volunteers whom Chase and Gilchrist considered blameless, and Gilchrist failed to stand up to him. Eventually, the two sequestered themselves in separate headquarters 25 miles apart. “It got to be where I got word that one of [Simcox’s] people was coming down to fire one of my people,” Chase said. Gilchrist, Chase said, promised to “cut Chris off at the knees when we finished. That’s what he said he was going to do.” He didn’t. Ever conciliatory, Gilchrist patched things up with Simcox. “We talk at least once a week now to prevent that from happening again,” Gilchrist told me in mid-July. The two did split though, with Simcox taking control of something called Minuteman Civil Defense Corps Inc., charged with organizing future border-watch efforts, and Gilchrist presiding over his own Minuteman Project Inc., which will go after companies that employ undocumented workers. It is, Gilchrist said, in the “embryonic stage.” Through all the post-Minuteman infighting, Gilchrist has worked hard to downplay the divisions in the movement, admitting for now only that “it gets a little discouraging. It requires baby-sitting.” He even made a brief, supportive appearance in Campo two Saturdays ago, despite Chase’s record of mouthing off to reporters about his weakness of character. Gilchrist’s refusal to publicly take sides — to be specific, Chase’s side — and his docility in the face of conflict, Chase conjectured, is a symptom of Gilchrist’s PTSD. “I’ve encouraged him to get more treatment.” Andy Ramirez was pointedly not present in Campo and most likely will not be dropping by. “I fail to see what will be accomplished by [Chase’s] operation,” he huffed on the phone. Ramirez, who describes himself as a “third-generation American of Mexican descent” — his great-grandparents, he’s quick to insist, “came over legally” — is organizing his own border watch, called Friends of the Border Patrol, scheduled to launch in mid-September. He isn’t sure yet if he’ll be coordinating at all with Chris Simcox, whose four-state Minuteman Project expansion will be taking off October 1. “I need to sit down with my command team and discuss it,” Ramirez said. Given his past record of cooperation with would-be allies, it seems unlikely. On May 18 Ramirez issued a “press release” on one of his four Web sites announcing that he had received “several alarming e-mails” from Jim Chase “that indicate his outfit being more of a militia-like type of organization.” The e-mails, Ramirez wrote, were in addition “absolutely disrespectful to our chairman, Mr. Andy Ramirez.” “We shall not have anything to do with his organization under any circumstances,” Ramirez concluded. The dispute apparently started when Chase enthused to Ramirez about recruiting “snipers” to stake out the border. Chase later said he merely meant combat veterans with reconnaissance training — “I would never put snipers on the border with the intentions of shooting someone, never,” he insisted — but Ramirez took him literally. Ramirez also took issue with Chase’s brief-lived plan to team up with Ted Hayes, the founder of L.A.’s Dome Village homeless encampment, to truck bands of urban have-nots down to Campo, a strategy which Ramirez called “absolutely dangerous.” “Many homeless people have psychiatric illnesses,” he said. Ramirez himself comes off as only slightly more level-headed than Jim Chase. A one-time “semi-pro” hockey goalie who was forced to retire when he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, Ramirez directs no less than three political organizations, none of which appear to involve many people other than Andy Ramirez. (When I called the telephone number listed for the Friends of the Border Patrol headquarters, Ramirez’s mother answered.) But if Chase is far out on the Chuck Norris edge of the Minuteman spectrum, Ramirez is going for a gentler brand of vigilantism. On the issue of weapons, he takes a more moderate approach than even Simcox and Gilchrist did. In September, he promises, “The only people armed will be law enforcement.” His relative moderation and eagerness to accommodate the political mainstream has brought Ramirez into conflict with others on the militant fringe of the movement. Soon after Ramirez blasted Jim Chase online in May, Chase was contacted by a young man from Ventura named Joe Turner. If you want dirt on Ramirez, Chase told me, “You really ought to talk to Joe.” But Joe Turner is the only one of his compatriots clever enough to surmise that airing dirty laundry to a reporter from an alternative weekly may not be the best way to further his cause, and he did not respond to my attempts to contact him. When I last spoke to him — on a street corner in Baldwin Park, surrounded by a handful of his anti-immigrant comrades, dozens of riot police and hundreds of angry Chicano counter-protesters — Turner would say nothing more than, “Andy Ramirez and I don’t get along.” Comfortably at home on the message boards of his Web site, SaveOurState.org (not to be confused, Ramirez said, with one of the groups he directs, which he insists is “the real Save Our State”), the 28-year-old has been more candid. In one posting he called Ramirez an “opportunistic snake.” In another, he wrote, “The guy is only in it for himself and his own glory.” The sniping began in January, when Ramirez published a press release denouncing a rally Turner was planning at a day-laborer pickup site in Redondo Beach. The protest was one of several that Turner’s group has organized at sites where immigrant laborers gather. It was also behind the KRCA billboard protests as well as two small but highly contentious demonstrations in Baldwin Park over the language inscribed on a monument to the area’s indigenous past. Turner’s tactics have been confrontational from the start. “SaveOurState.org,” he writes on the Web site, “is committed to creating a New Paradigm, one that consists of one singular tenet: the transference of pain.” In his press release, Ramirez denounced Turner’s “racism and neo-Nazi thuggery,” pointing to an earlier Internet posting in which Turner wrote, “Bring your bats, fellas. If we are lucky, we are gonna need them. PING!” Ramirez and Turner later met to attempt a reconciliation. “I didn’t leave pleased with the discussion,” Ramirez said. He responded with another press release: “There’s no room for such nonsense in our organization,” he wrote. The astonishing thing about this most recent wave of anti-immigrant mobilization is that despite deep fractiousness, an almost comical level of disorganization and the slapstick tendencies of their leaders, they have managed to touch a nerve. As spectacle at least, they haven’t yet exhausted the media’s patience, or the public’s attention. I asked Jim Chase if he thought all the infighting wouldn’t set his movement back. “We probably should have taken care of it within our group,” he admitted, but then asked with a chuckle, “What’s the saying in Hollywood — it doesn’t matter what you say about me as long as you keep talking about me?”

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