Mike Davis on the Return of the Vigilante

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A few years back, I attended a conference on the Vietnam War and, at one session, found myself listening to the college-age child of Cambodian refugees. Her parents had embarked on a harrowing journey to this country, worked at the worst of jobs, and finally scraped together just enough money to start a small corner store. Now here was their child, eloquently discussing an American-Dream-style future as, perhaps, an international lawyer who hoped to work at the boiling interstices of American commerce in Southeast Asia. I couldn’t help thinking, as I sat there, that there was nothing like an immigrant or an immigrant’s child to remind you of what the American story can sound like at its most inspiring. Of course, I’m the grandchild of a Galician Jew, who ran away from home, arrived in New York harbor in the steerage of a ship with the equivalent of fifty cents in his pocket in a grim winter in the 1890s. He ended up constructing apartment buildings in Brooklyn until his life crashed just before the Great Depression hit.

You would think we would celebrate the immigrant. After all, most of us, or our parents or grandparents, once were. On the other hand, the resistance to immigration has a long, grim, powerful history in this country — of legal constraint, of walls descending, of bitter prejudice, racism, and finally vigilantism. It’s this history in its California guise that Mike Davis considers below. Tom

Vigilante Man
By 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 the 1870s, they terrorized the Chinese; in the first decade of the twentieth century, they murdered striking Wobblies; in the 1920s, they organized “Bash a Jap” campaigns; and in the 1930s, they welcomed the Joads and other Dust Bowl refugees with tear gas and buckshot.

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

Their wrath has almost always been directed against the poorest, most powerless, and hardest-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 one described by John Steinbeck back in the years of the Great Depression:

“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 goddamned Okies are thieves. 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 enough — 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, ordinarily led by racist ranchers and self-declared “Aryan warriors” — and egged on by rightwing radio jocks — have harassed, illegally detained, beaten, and possibly murdered immigrants crossing through the desert cauldrons of Arizona and California.

The Minuteman Project — picturesquely headquartered at Tombstone’s 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 a wedge issue to contest the presidential succession in 2008. More importantly, the activist grassroots of the party, especially in the West and the South, are aflame with anger about the President’s proposed guest-worker 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, campaigns against immigrant social rights and the use of Spanish in schools, which originated in California, have been exported to Arizona, Colorado and Southern states with growing Latino populations.

Like earlier anti-abortion protests (which culminated 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. Moreover, to the discomfort of the White House, the Minutemen have found an ardent admirer in Sacramento.

In an interview on one of his favorite rightwing radio shows on April 28, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger praised the vigilantes as heroes. “I think they’ve done a terrific job,” he said. “They’ve cut down the crossing of illegal immigrants a huge percentage. So it just shows that it works when you go and make and effort and when you work hard. It’s a doable thing.”

Later, after furious Latinos 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 a convenient non sequitur — reassurance that he was a “champion of immigrants.”) If the governor sounds like he is channeling his “inner Nazi,” it is because he is desperate. Schwarzenegger’s hulking celebrity is no longer a novelty, and he is dogged everywhere he goes these days by 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.

Not surprising, then, that Arnie has returned 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. (Otherwise, 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.

With a Vigilante Man in the governor’s mansion in Sacramento, the next Minuteman provocation (“tens of thousands of volunteers blockading the Mexican border this fall”) may prove to be tragedy not farce.

Mike Davis is the author of Dead Cities and the forthcoming Monster at the Door: the Global Threat of Avian Influenza (New Press 2005).

Copyright 2005 Mike Davis