Vigilante Man

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The Terminator-cum-governor of California proves himself a champion of immigrant-bashing.

'The local people whipped themselves into a mould 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 terrorised the Chinese; in the 1910s they murdered striking Wobblies; in the 1920s they organised 'Bash a Jap' campaigns; and in the 1930s they welcomed Dust Bowl refugees with teargas and buckshot. Vigilantes have been to the American West what the Ku Klux Klan has been to the South: vicious and cowardly bigotry organised as a self-righteous mob. Almost every decade some dismal group of self-proclaimed patriots mobilises to repel a new invasion or subversive threat.

Their wrath has almost always been directed against the poorest, most powerless and hard 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 programmes in California and the South West, is still the same as described by Steinbeck: '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 goddamed Okies are thiefs. They'll steal anything. They've got no sense of property rights."'

The most publicised of today's vigilantes are the so called 'Minutemen' who began their armed patrol of the Arizona-Mexico border - appropriately - 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, led by racist ranchers and self-declared 'Aryan warriors' - and egged on by right wing radio jocks - have harassed, illegally detained, beaten and murdered immigrants crossing through the desert cauldrons of Arizona and California.

The Minuteman Project is both theatre of the absurd and a canny attempt to move vigilantism into the mainstream of conservative politics. Its principal organisers - a retired accountant and a former kindergarten teacher, both from Southern California - mesmerised the press with their promise of 1,000 heavily armed super-patriots confronting the Mexican hordes along the international border in Cochise County.

In the event, they turned out 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.

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 sunburnt and go home.

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 privatisation 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, has failed to quietly die away as Karl Rove and other Republican strategists might have wished. Over the last decade, instead, the 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 Latin American populations.

Like earlier anti-abortion protests (which culminated in right wing terrorism), the vigilante movement offers a dramatic tactic for capturing press attention, galvanising 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 governor Arnold Schwarzenegger: 'I think they've done a terrific job. They've cut down the crossing of illegal immigrants a huge percentage. So it just shows that it works when you go and make an effort and when you work hard. It's a do-able thing.'

Later, after furious Latino 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 the non sequitur reassurance that he was a 'champion of immigrants'.)

If the governor sounds like he is channelling his 'inner Nazi', it is because he is desperate. His hulking celebrity is no longer a novelty, and Schwarzenegger is dogged everywhere he goes these days by the 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 Democratic challenger Gray Davis now shadows his future.

So Arnie has gone back 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' licences for illegal immigrants (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', 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 be tragedy, not farce.