Since this is the season for intensive pre-election-year planning, we have to be worried about the public relations victory achieved by the Minuteman Project in Arizona. In five weeks time, they have gone from "vigilante" to "brave and caring." And in the process they have staged a powerful wedge issue for 2006.
The public relations success of the Minuteman Project shows up in a poll from Arizona that reports 57 percent approval for the border action, but please note first of all how nicely the question is asked: "The Minuteman Project is a group of citizen volunteers who have been patrolling the Arizona-Mexico border to watch for people coming into the United States illegally and reporting them to the U.S. Border Patrol. Do you support or oppose the Minuteman Project?"
The first line of challenge to the public relations victory of the Minuteman Project is to ask how the organization is best described: as a group of "citizen volunteers" or a group of "armed vigilantes"?
Standing next to the President of Mexico on March 23 -- one week before the Arizona border action began -- USA President George W Bush was asked about "those people who are hunting migrant people along the border" and he answered: "I'm against vigilantes in the United States of America. I'm for enforcing law in a rational way. That's why you got a Border Patrol, and they ought to be in charge of enforcing the border."
Never mind for the moment how Bush's appeal to the principle of "rational law" along the USA border is a blatant contradiction to his dismissal of "rational law" everywhere else. Does the President this time have good reason to make his claim? Is the Minutemen Project a threat to "rational law"?
One way to determine if a person is acting as vigilante or volunteer is to see if the person is coordinating his or her law enforcement activities with relevant law enforcement agencies. Neighborhood Watch Committees for example operate under supervision of local police. Is this the same relationship we find between the Minuteman Project and the USA Border Patrol?
"The Border Patrol administration chose to have no contact with our project other than quickly responding when we reported an illegal crossing," said one Minuteman vigilante in an interview with Sher Zieve.
"To be 100% straight up with you and your readers," said another Minuteman vigilante in an interview with La Shawn Barber, "some of our folks are going to be armed. This is something that is really hard to understand if you have not worked near the border. Having a weapon is not only legal, itâ€™s stupid not to have one. Most of the ranchers donâ€™t go out without a pistol on their belt."
So we have it from the horse's mouth: the Minutemen (unlike your average neighborhood watch committee) were not operating under supervision or control of the relevant law enforcement agency, yet they were carrying weapons in an organized effort to enforce criminal law. Now what part of vigilante do we not understand?
To be sure, the Minutemen have so far operated a very disciplined vigilante activity, confining themselves strictly to observation and reporting. But they are armed vigilantes nevertheless, not simply "citizen volunteers" as characterized in the Arizona poll.
It is strange to google news reports about Minutemen and find so many headlines that reinforce their well-crafted "volunteer" image. It is doubly strange to wonder why the media behave this way in clear dismissal of the President's preferred "vigilante" language.
If we consider the media's widespread disregard for the President's framework when he discourages vigilantism along the USA border yet recall their nearly unanimous adoption of his language when he called upon vigilantism in global arms inspection, we get a brand new theory for media bias. It was never the President himself that the media favored all those years, it was simply the vigilante attitude. When it comes to selling news, media love lawlessness best.
Indeed, if world audiences did not respond well to images of rogue tough guys taking law into their own hands, we would not have the current Governor of California to consider, who made a movie career playing to vigilante appeal and who now hopes he can achieve the same star power as an elected powerhouse. On that score alone, how could we argue that he is wrong?
Yet when Hollywood celebrates a vigilante for movie entertainment, they usually make sure that the hero is an underdog type who is beset by forces more powerful, well connected, and deadly. Therefore, in order for Schwarzenegger to trade on his image as vigilante hero along the Mexican border, dramatic formula requires him to adopt the Minuteman characterization of Mexican immigration as deadly foe. And this is where the moral structure of Minuteman vigilantism collapses into racist pandering, exploiting fearful images of collective evil on the move. In Hollywood terms, Schwarzenegger the politician is no Terminator. Instead he now offers a reprise of Birth of a Nation, the movie where the Klan rides in to save the USA from Negro rule.
When the Arizona poll asked what people thought about the Army reservist who held seven illegal immigrants at gunpoint at a highway rest stop, the results returned a significant wedge with 44 percent approving, 41 percent disapproving. Again, the phrasing of the question raises difficulties. When a person is described as an Army reservist, was he on duty or off? If he was off duty, what relevance is his status as a reservist? But if he was on duty why was HE arrested for aggravated assault? So we wonder why the question must describe the alleged perp as an "Army reservist"?
Both questions in the Arizona poll are phrased in ways that tend to pre-legitimize vigilante actors as either "citizen volunteers" or "Army reservists." Yet responses to the question about the obviously criminal activity of the rest stop vigilante demonstrates that armed confrontation with illegal immigrants in America is capable of producing a significant wedge. So we must attend to this incubator of ugly politics before something more terrible grows.
An April 29 report from the Associated Press signals that Minuteman politics is being tested for Texas. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who is widely rumored to be considering a run for Governor says of the Minuteman Project that, "these people have shown a commitment and a caring that should be acknowledged here in the United States Senate."
As Damu Smith counseled a gathering of Texas peace activists in February, these wedge issues work against progressives only when we lose our grip on the larger agendas. If progressives fail to meet people with comprehensive responses to the experience of common life, then the wedge issues begin to look like they are causes of political weakness, although they are only symptoms. Crime and security are palpable issues, but they need not generate politics of criminalization, suspicion, or crackdown.
Do progressives have inclusive answers when it comes to policies that will help workers and citizens feel better about their chances in the world? Do Texas progressives have something more significant to offer than the retirement of Republican hammer Tom DeLay?
Finally, it will be interesting to see if political passions for vigilante actions persist now that the Minutemen have announced plans to go after employers who hire illegal immigrants. What this means, I fear, is not some transformative confrontation with corporate power, but busloads of workers heading South.
Greg Moses is editor of the Texas Civil Rights Review and author of Revolution of Conscience: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Philosophy of Nonviolence. His chapter on Civil Rights under Clinton and Bush is collected in Dime's Worth of Difference, edited by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair.