Glenn Spencer was late. I had been waiting for 30 minutes outside
the Jumping Jack gas station in Palominas, Arizona, when his green minivan rattled
up beside me. A ruddy-faced man of 67 with a dusty Army cap pulled over his white
hair and a small bruise beneath one eye, Spencer rolled down a window, barked
an apology and zoomed back onto the highway. His German shepherd, Star, panted
on the seat beside him. I followed, and did my best to keep up as Spencer sped
down a series of increasingly rutted dirt roads carved through the mesquite scrub.
He weaved in long, sudden arcs to avoid the larger potholes, kicking up a blinding
cloud of dust behind him.
Pulling at last into a barbed-wire enclosure decorated with a multitude of private-property signs, Spencer stopped in front of his home: a lonely triple-wide hunched beneath a Border Patrol radio tower. He leapt out of the van, light on his feet for a man of his age and girth. Tongue lolling, the dog followed. Spencer pointed to a ridge line a few miles to the west. “My guys are on the way to the mountain,” he announced. “You can’t go with them. Nobody can go with them.”
He swiveled to aim his index finger at one of the antennas bristling from the roof of his home. “See that flat antenna up there? That’s motorized, and I’ll be pointing that at them.” Then he jogged off to the edge of the dirt drive and, chin tucked into his barrel chest, began trudging tight, delicate figure eights in the hard desert soil. “I’ll show you something here,” he said without looking up or pausing from his strange, lumbering dance. “We’ll just walk around, then we’ll go back in the house.”
Inside, Spencer’s home looked like an Ethan Allen showroom: plush new carpets, miniblinds, lots of polished oak. A telescope on a tripod pointed out the bay window toward the Sonoran Desert stretching beyond. Spencer led me through his bedroom, past a sleigh bed, a heavy oak dresser and matching armoire. In the far corner, the suburban furnishings abruptly ended and Spencer’s “work area” began. Three tables had been pushed together and piled with computers, monitors, keyboards, speakers, telephones, coiled USB cables, audio mixers, VCRs, CB receivers, external hard drives, machines I couldn’t identify, all of it jumbled and heaped like a NORAD control room on a getaway drunk. The floor was covered with surge strips, pistachio shells, what appeared to be red-wine stains, more tangles of cables.
Spencer directed my attention to one of the monitors. It was flashing red. The ground sensors buried around the perimeter of the property had detected five intruders in the spot where he had been stomping and twirling outside the house. “It also has the capability of dialing up a pager,” Spencer said, beaming, and offered me a Diet Coke.
Glenn Spencer’s home is 1,100 feet from the Mexican border, and
it is the proximity of that imaginary line that brought him from Sherman Oaks
to Cochise County, Arizona, two years ago. For a decade, Spencer’s had been one
of the loudest, brashest voices in the California anti-immigration movement. The
organization he founded in the early 1990s, Voice of Citizens Together (VCT, originally
Valley Citizens Together, but later changed for a more cosmopolitan appeal), was
one of the main backers of Proposition 187, and in those days Spencer was rarely
far from the cameras. He took the issue further than many of his fellow travelers,
raging over an “illegal invasion” that he saw as no mere accident of global economics
but as a sly conspiracy aimed at the “reconquista” of American territories once
held by Mexico. He has called for all undocumented immigrants (and their American-born
children) to be rounded up and deported, for the banning of all foreign-language
TV and radio broadcasts, for the military to be deployed to guard the border,
for migrants caught crossing to be held in tent cities in the desert. His rhetorical
and ideological excesses were constant enough and bold enough to get VCT labeled
a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Spencer came to Cochise County for the first time in 2000, attracted by the reputation of Roger Barnett, a local rancher notorious for hunting and detaining Mexican migrants on and near his land and, at times, allegedly, assaulting them. (Criminal charges have never been filed against Barnett, though he is the target of several civil suits.) In one case, a migrant named José Rodrigo Quiroz Acosta alleged that Roger Barnett sicced two German shepherds on him and beat him with his fists while the dogs were biting him.
Barnett’s adventures inspired Spencer to found American Border Patrol, a high-tech precursor to the Minuteman Project that sought to embarrass the federal government into further militarizing the border by documenting illegal immigration: Spencer’s “guys” head up into the mountains on ATVs, set up a sophisticated and extremely expensive infrared video camera and a transmitter, and “wait for somebody to show up.” If any migrants are unlucky enough to cross their path, the guys radio the U.S. Border Patrol and Spencer uploads the footage to the Web.
He has also spent much of the last few years working on an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, the “Border Hawk,” a remote-control airplane equipped with a camera, but when I met him in Arizona, he didn’t have all the kinks worked out just yet. “The Border Hawk is very complicated,” Spencer frowned. (The Department of Homeland Security has since purchased two “Predator” UAVs, Spencer recently told me over the phone. “With that we feel we have achieved our objective. We are now going to a different phase. We’ve decided to go into a fixed-wing platform.”)
According to Spencer, he moved permanently to Arizona in 2002 only after a long meditation. “What is the highest and best use of your time?” he asked himself. “Going and making an issue of the border itself.” It likely didn’t hurt that VCT was facing a tax-fraud investigation in California. Spencer rented a large house in a subdivision in Sierra Vista, about 20 minutes northwest of Palominas. He moved his wife of over 40 years out and set up shop. (Spencer refused to answer questions about his family, but when I met him, he was living alone and did not wear a ring.) He was forced out of that house last fall, after the local homeowners’ group won his eviction in court. Technically, he was kicked out for running a business out of his home, but, Spencer insisted, “It was political.”
He may have been right, but other factors may also have been involved. The previous summer, Spencer had been arrested after firing a rifle into his neighbors’ yards. “He was in his home when he heard noises in his back yard,” the Sierra Vista Herald reported. “During that evening, he had consumed three beers.” Spencer initially faced seven felony charges, but ultimately pleaded guilty to one count of endangerment and was sentenced to a year’s probation. “I thought I was acting in self-defense,” he said at the time, an alibi that might apply equally to the last decade of his political life.
Spencer grew up in Los Angeles. His roots are wound deep in the
myth-rich soil of the white California dream. His family migrated west from Missouri
during the Depression: One uncle was a founding member of the Sons of the Pioneers,
the cowboy singing group that spawned Roy Rogers, and his father was the songwriter
who wrote the theme for Gunsmoke. One of Spencer’s brothers is a minister.
Another is a retired LAPD commander. “I have another brother who was an engineer,”
Spencer told me proudly, “brilliant man, helped design the smart bomb.”
When I asked him about the L.A. of his childhood, Spencer’s eyes brightened. As we spoke, he swiveled in his chair from one machine to another. With a few keystrokes he drew up footage of old news broadcasts on one of the monitors, infrared video of frightened-looking migrants stumbling through the mountains on another. He answered the ever-ringing phone — “American Border Patrol, hello? Hello? Hello?” He dialed his Internet provider to complain that his service was down. He scratched the dog’s back and rubbed its snout and answered the squawking radio when the guys on the mountain called in at last to say that they were “in position.”
“Hollywood was like a little Midwestern town, like the Bible Belt,” Spencer reminisced. A shaky image of tracks in the desert dirt began to shimmer on one of the monitors. “Okay, I got it,” Spencer said into his radio. “Just hold it still . . . Did you take the monopod with you?” He swiveled back to face me: “I grew up during the war. It was a magical time. Everybody was fighting and working together, it was rah-rah-rah, patriotic. You just can’t believe what America was like then.”
He lived in East Hollywood (“it’s all Mexican” now), then in a house on South Oxford Street in what is now Koreatown but was then a comfortably middle-class white neighborhood. “I had a wonderful life there. We had an almost idyllic childhood.” Spencer worked at Rocketdyne for a while, then at the Pentagon during the Vietnam War, crunching numbers. He ran a seismic-imaging company in Montana, then returned to L.A. to start a graphic-design business. In the 1980s, he began writing letters to the L.A. Times, nothing wild or inflammatory, just the my-two-cents ramblings of a man who felt entitled to be heard. He wrote about the Iran-contra scandal (“Ollie is a good, if not overachieving, Marine . . . Casey was the loose cannon”), the question of whether monorails should be built on the freeway medians (emphatically: yes!).
By 1990, whites had become a minority in L.A., and Spencer was becoming increasingly concerned with illegal immigration. He started Valley Citizens Together to bring attention to the issue. “I am not a racist and I understand that things change,” Spencer explained. “What really got me, though, was the Rodney King riots. I watched as TV helicopters zoomed in on the people who were tearing down my old neighborhood. They weren’t black. They were Hispanic. They were Mexicans.” Spencer paused to answer the phone. “American Border Patrol? Yeah. Oh, hi, Hank. Good. The guys are on the mountain tonight.”
He hung up the phone and continued: “That really did it for me. I mean, I watched
these people who were in the country illegally” — his voice went high on
the word, and stayed high — “ransacking, and looting, and burning down my old
neighborhood. And I said, ‘What is going on here?’”
The next few years would be busy ones. Spencer fell in with the group of activists who drafted Proposition 187. He transformed his hillside home in Sherman Oaks into an organizing hub for the anti-immigrant initiative. It was an uphill battle, he thought, but “much to my amazement, it passed.” The victory, though, was less than decisive. The initiative stalled in the courts. The economy improved and the public’s attention swayed. The momentum dissipated. Gray Davis replaced Pete Wilson, and killed 187.
Spencer kept fighting. Camcorder in hand, he stalked gatherings of prominent Latino politicians and scholars, heckling and gleefully collecting evidence of the reconquista in progress. For a few years he had a privately financed radio show that aired on 18 stations. He traveled to lecture and rabble-rouse at immigration hot spots like Farmingville, Long Island, where local whites were in a furor about the Mexican day laborers living among them. (“He’s Not Here To Help,” warned Long Island’s Newsday in a lengthy cover editorial.) He started a Web site, which he still maintains, called American Patrol, on which he daily posts a dozen or more articles pirated from the media and the Net, complete with commentary — border and immigration news (“More whining over the deportation of illegals”) as well as just about any snippet he can find involving crimes committed by Latinos (“Ransom suspects captured [Mexicans, of course]”).
It increasingly appeared a losing cause. America was getting browner every day, and even the new Republican president seemed willing to contemplate some form of amnesty. Then the same California Republican Party that had brought Pete Wilson to power for two consecutive terms selected Bill Simon, a relative moderate on immigration, as its gubernatorial candidate. “That was a low point. I really felt that there was absolutely no hope,” Spencer said.
Shortly thereafter, Spencer abandoned California for the wide-open skies of Cochise County, which, following intensified INS operations in San Diego and El Paso, had become the newest front in the immigration battle. (Last year the Border Patrol arrested more migrants in one 261-mile stretch of Arizona desert than in the rest of the country combined.) “I saw what happened to California. I saw what happened to Los Angeles,” said Spencer, shaking his head. “It is destroyed. It is sinking. Sinking.”
When I asked Spencer to sketch out his nightmare situation, should all his high-tech efforts fail, he didn’t have to think. He had his answer ready. All it would take is a small border incident. Imagine, he said, that federales in Ciudad Juárez are chasing a drug-cartel chieftain as he flees north in an SUV toward the border, and an American tourist family in a similar SUV happens onto the road, where they are killed by mistake by the federales. Then the narco charges the border with the federales still behind him, and a gun battle erupts with confused American border officials. Soon the word gets out: “ ‘Take El Paso!’ So 100,000 Mexicans rush in and take El Paso.” The unrest spreads. “The Mexicans in Los Angeles revolt. They riot. Then suddenly they’re burning Los Angeles. They move into Calexico, Douglas, Naco . . .”
“When might this happen?” I asked.
Spencer spun away from his computers to face me. His cheeks and throat were flushed. “About tomorrow.”
But the tide appears to be turning. The same year that Spencer moved
to Sierra Vista, another recent L.A. exile, named Chris Simcox, issued a “call
to arms” from the prefab Old West tourist town of Tombstone, about 20 miles to
the northeast. A former schoolteacher unhinged by a lasting post-9/11 meltdown,
Simcox announced the formation of the “citizen border-patrol militia” that, by
the fall of 2004, would evolve into the Minuteman Project.
Leaning in to scratch Star behind the ears, Spencer was quick to insist that “There’s no jealousy or turf thing. People think there is. There isn’t.” He did not neglect to add, though, that he launched American Border Patrol five months before Simcox “came on the scene,” and went on to hint that he was “very much concerned about the demeanor and character” of some of Simcox’s followers. “These are militia types.”
Spencer has been generous, nonetheless, in his assessment of the Minuteman Project. “It will go down in the history books as a major accomplishment,” he told me. “The plan to draw attention to the border worked.” Now, with Minuteman imitators appearing in California, Texas and New Mexico, with a baldly anti-immigrant immigrant in the California governor’s chair, and with grassroots nativist groups staging protests at day-laborer sites all over Southern California, the momentum seems to be picking up again. “There is renewed hope.”
But even now, with xenophobic paranoia freshly abloom from Washington to Sacramento, Glenn Spencer was cautious. “The battle is not won,” he warned. “Not by a long shot.” The mayoral victory of the man whom Spencer has referred to over the years as “Mechista Boy” and a “Rabid Mexican Menace” stung. Antonio Villaraigosa has long been the object of some of Spencer’s most vicious attacks. “Villaraigosa Takes Orders From Mexico City To Finish the Job of La Reconquista,” ran a typical American Patrol headline in 2001. More recently, Spencer has called on Governor Schwarzenegger to “nullify the mayoral election and place Los Angeles under state control.” Otherwise, he warned, “We have a train wreck on the way.”
Doubts in hand, Spencer plans to return to California in September to participate
in a Minuteman-knockoff border watch east of San Diego organized by a group called
Friends of the Border Patrol. “We’re in the process now of raising the money to
equip a used Cessna with a pan-and-tilt camera and a five-watt transmitter that
will enable us to transmit images up to 30 miles,” Spencer enthused. He was almost
giddy at the prospect. “These new high-resolution cameras,” he laughed, “they’re
incredible. Wait till you see the pictures we’ve got!”