The Minuteman's 15 Minutes of Fame (Minute 14.5)

At the Arizona border, Infiltrator checks in with Americans who help the government look for illegal aliens

In front of a flapping American flag, screaming into the microphone, a hard-ass fireman from Southern California is angry. No, let's say he's foaming-mouthed pissed off. He directs his attention to the press, evincing even more passionate disgust than the previous speakers had shown at the thought of illegal aliens entering their neighborhood.

"It's the media that's the other half of the problem in this country for not covering the story THE WAY IT REALLY IS!!!!" the hard-ass fireman yells.

Sitting at long rows of picnic tables, the Minutemen -- the civilians who have been so publicly patrolling the Mexican border to spot illegal aliens -- start thunderously whistling and jeering. This is the closing barbecue for the Minuteman Project's monthlong patrol, and they're basically going apeshit.

The hard-ass fireman, a third-generation Mexican-American ("They came in the right way!") is vividly infuriated. The press, apparently, has avoided him as a face of the Minuteman Project, instead focusing on the many, many more white participants, some of whom have been labeled racist in some newspapers.

Taking a quick visual inventory, estimating with complete impartiality, I'd have to say it's pretty fucking white here. Mainly, it's a crowd of hardened elderly white men with big potbellies, some of whom have brought their wives.

The irate third-generation Mexican-American points in the direction of the media -- which, in this case, are composed of myself, several well-groomed local reporters, various photographers, a few documentary crews, and, of course, Fox News -- and screams, "SO WHY DON'T YOU FOLKS PACK UP AND GO SOUTH OF THE BORDER WHERE YOU WANT TO BE CONTROLLED!"

I'm not exactly sure what that means, but the very white crowd (plus one third-generation Mexican-American man) starts throwing out angry taunts and heckles.

"Traitors!"

"Like Bush said, you're either with us or against us!"

"Sorry excuses for Americans!"

"Media bye-bye!"

We, the media, shift uncomfortably from foot to foot, staring at our shoes. (Actually, I think we're expected to take off, running. Honestly, I think someone is going to yell, "GET THEM!")

But wait a minute, Minutemen. Didn't the media make the Minuteman Project? Wasn't the Minuteman Project, in one way, a big publicity stunt to bring attention to its border concerns? And so I ask, Minutemen: Where did the love go?!

The Making of a Minuteman

Before I was faced with the proposition of going south of the border where I want to be controlled, I came to Tombstone, Ariz., to meet the men and women behind the Minuteman Project. (Surprisingly, no Minutekids.) Sure, I heard the news description of vigilantes hunting down illegal aliens like angry villagers chasing the Frankenstein monster. Sure, I heard others saying the Minutemen were a bunch of harmless senior citizens spending their twilight years sitting in lawn chairs along our borders, backed by beloved Gov. Arrrrrnold (who, in Predator, also chased aliens). To me, it just sounded like a big, three-ring, anti-immigration circus, with the Minutemen as the ringmaster under the Mexican-border big top. And I never miss the circus.

With my videographer/drinking buddy Brad in tow, I arrive for the morning Minuteman orientation session, on the 28th day of the Minuteman Project's monthlong jamboree. (Note to readers: The Minuteman Project should not to be confused with the Alan Parsons Project.)

"I'm going to ask you a pertinent question: Are you armed?" a large, intimidating man with a gun strapped across his chest asks us before we enter the office of the Tombstone Tumbleweed newspaper (the local institution of the independent press whose duty is to tell the story how it really is), a few blocks from the historic OK Corral. Though I'm dressed as a Minuteman (but even more so, with aviator shades and matching Army-fatigue shirt/shorts/hat), I do a visual inventory of my body.

Firmly, I answer: "No!"

After a short wait, they allow us into the newspaper's back yard, where 18 people, with serious, almost grim, looks on their faces, are assembled. (All are men, except for a hardened grandmother and the unhappy female part of an unhappy couple.) Most are dressed like me and display nervous uneasiness, as if they are about to be shipped off to war -- and some might not return!

Being members of the media, the photographer and I receive the same warm welcome granted to a fresh outbreak of genital herpes.

"Does anyone feel uncomfortable having members of the media here?" bellows the large, intimidating man as a historic Wild West stagecoach and its horses clop by; there is tense silence as future Minutemen, not sure how to react, turn their heads toward one another. "If anyone feels uncomfortable, raise your hand, and I can ask them to leave!"

No hands go up. I take a chair in the hot sun, behind an old guy whose T-shirt reads "Retired -- I Can Play With My Trains Anytime I Want."

But we're still not in the clear. Making intense eye contact, the large, intimidating man asks, "Do you have any recording devices on you?"

Letting out a nervous chuckle, I shake my head, hoping the tape recorder doesn't fall out of my pocket. The large, intense man has one other demand. "You can't quote me directly!" he says to absolutely no response from me.

"This is not about skinheads. This is not about the KKK," his orientation continues, as if these statements are necessary to weed out trigger-happy fanatics. (I look to see if anyone is disappointed.) "We are here to observe and report."

The Minuteman mission statement is laid out: "The Constitution says protect our borders from the threat of invasion. We have the right to freedom of assembly." The intimidating man points to the gun strapped around his own neck. "If anyone has one of these things -- no monkey business. We're not about this," he sternly states. "No rifles! No shotguns!"

Mustachioed Tex, wearing a cowboy hat and boots, speaks up. "Is that a Minuteman rule or an ACLU rule that you can't return fire if fired upon?"

"We want the operation to be clean," the intimidating man answers.

"If I'm fired upon, isn't that imminent danger?" Tex asks. "I've been fired upon, and it's not a good feeling."

"I can't tell you what to do!" the large man says as the wind flaps his green shirt, exposing his large belly.

A series of relevant Minuteman questions follows.

"How about night vision? What's the visibility?"

"If I have an American flag, should I bring it?"

"Where's the FREQUS?" (At first I think he's referring to freaks and hippie-bashing; actually, he means radio frequencies.)

"Do you know how many contacts they've made?"

After the leader answers, the group's token dumb guy pipes up: "What's better, to have them see us and go around, or shine a light and scare them back to Mexico? What's preferable?"

The answer: Shine a light and let them know you're there.

"What if you shine a light on them, and then they come after you?" the dumb guy asks. He is quickly cut off when he segues into a rambling political diatribe.

"If you don't have a question, can you save it for later?!"

The final rules. "No contact. Anyone has contact, they're gone," our orientation leader stresses, explaining that Minutemen have been kicked out of the project for giving water to illegal aliens who have traveled on foot for days through the hot desert.

The reason?

"You jeopardize the whole program," the large man insists.

"I'm going to look everyone in the eye and I'm going to ask two questions: Do you agree to stick with the rules and what we're about, which is about the Constitution and securing our borders?" the leader says. It's really only one question, but everyone agrees. Then comes an all-important step: the signing of the liability waiver, which includes a final loyalty test for the Minutemen.

"Please don't steal my pens. Please," the large leader pleads. "People have been walking away with them."

How can they secure borders, after all, if they can't secure pens?

Tools for Minutemen

Walkie-talkie.

Video camera. ("If you have a spotting, it's to prove you haven't done anything wrong.")

Border Patrol number set to speed dial on cell phones. (Why speed dial? "We've seen ladies get so excited when they spot nine or 10 of those [immigrants].")

Papa Bear and the Quran

At the last, hot, dusty outpost before the border, I stand among concerned citizens in triple-digit heat, next to a burly guy whose T-shirt reads "Be There in a Minute ... Man!" Most in the group are lone men who came out here on their own, from all parts of the country; they felt a call of duty. Fox News is taping, crew members exuding the attitude that they're the popular kids of the media contingent.

"The Border Patrol managed to seize 17 bundles of cocaine! (Or, as they playfully call it, 'not-pot')," says a line supervisor who has a gray beard and a Fidel Castro hat. Clapping ensues.

The night shift -- 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. -- is the busiest time to patrol, but also the most unpopular, the supervisor notes. "You may get a bit lonely. You might have a few Mexicans to keep you company. The coyotes sit on the hills watching us, where we don't have people," he says, referring to the guides who charge money -- anywhere from $300 to $1,100 on this part of the border -- to lead immigrants from Mexico into the United States. "Since we've come out here, we heard the price has doubled."

There have been problems, though, with the opposition, also known as the ACLU, an acronym that the Minutemen often expand to Anti-Christian Lawyers Union.It's explained that the ACLU is getting desperate; the group has, supposedly, proclaimed on its Web site that it will find "something" wrong with the Minuteman Project. The Minutemen consider the ACLU's opposition to be un-American.

"We got them smoking pot on camera," Fidel says with a sly smile.

We're taken to Papa Bear, another line supervisor; he's wearing tinted shades and slightly resembles the Robert Duvall character in Apocalypse Now. Papa Bear wears a gun prominently on his belt, and there are radio wires and military insignias on his vest. Strangely, this 64-year-old former member of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division drives a Miata.

With clipboard in hand, Papa Bear commences with his briefing. I know it won't happen, but I'd love to hear him say, "I love the smell of napalm in the morning."

"Anyone armed?" asks Papa Bear.

Most hands go up.

"Be cool. If you have side arms, don't touch it unless you are certain that you're about to be killed," Papa Bear says, pointing to a kindly old woman. "Phoebe assisted in a capture after midnight. Thirteen were captured."

Phoebe smiles proudly.

"We spotted a few coming under the wire. We called the Border Patrol. It was great for us to know that actually we got to assist in a tactical maneuver, as opposed to hearing about how someone else did it," he adds. "Made my day. All of us were calm, cool, collected during the operation. But when it was over, you had that prize, that package of 13 captured; the adrenaline was flowing."

A young couple from San Diego are already bored. "There's sure a lot of standing around," one of them says.

Papa Bear explains, "I'm not against a guy coming over here trying to make a buck. I respect that. I respect any man who walks 50 miles through the desert to feed his family."

But Papa Bear's concerned about the dope smugglers, the human flesh smugglers, and, of course, the terrorists. "They found copies of the Quran and Arabic ID cards in the cleanup area," he says.

After the briefing, an old guy with a gray T-shirt tells Papa Bear, "I was in town today, and I almost wanted to catch some of the Mexicans who are already over here!"

"That's enough of that!" Papa Bear says, sharply shutting him down and, once the old guy is gone, adding, "You have to deal with fresh people every day, and some might be a little overzealous on how they want to protect America. And I have to calm them down and get them in line."

To the Border!

We're eight people in seven vehicles following a convoy of large trucks down a dusty dirt road, headed to the Naco Line (so named for the Arizona border town). The bumper sticker on the truck in front of me reads "Charlton Heston Is My President!"

"Are there a lot of rattlers out here?" the concerned grandmother of the bunch asks over the radio.

"Rattlesnakes aren't aggressive if you don't step on them," the Naco Line leader counsels. "They migrate around the corner, and they conceal themselves in the mountains." (I wonder: Is he referring to rattlesnakes or Mexicans?)

"Please move the radio away from your mouth when you talk into it," the Naco leader then advises the old lady. "Don't get stressed. Have fun."

The Naco Line is basically a barbed-wire fence along the border, torn open at numerous spots, in such a way that a blind toddler could crawl through. In fact, I'm shown the now-famous Hannity Hole, where Fox News poster boy Sean Hannity stepped through for his cameras.

"Historically, this is one of the highest traffic areas," the line supervisor says, pointing to a large span of desert and mountains in the distance. The wind embeds dust between my teeth.

What's the relationship between the Minutemen and the Border Patrol, I ask.

"Super-friendly. Last night they let me look through their night scopes," the supervisor says with a giddy smile, but quickly adds, "If you were to cross the border, the Mexican police would love to catch a Minuteman as a trophy. You won't get out of jail!"

And there's a last bit of advice before we're off on our own: "When you leave here, make sure you don't back over any migrants, 'cause they'll be right behind you."

Time to Spot Illegal Aliens!

The group doesn't dramatically jump into action like the A-Team.

"It's actually been kind of boring, because nobody has tried to cross since we've been here," says a Texas trucker who has his rig parked in front of his tent. "But I like camping, so this suits me."

"The big problem I have with it, they're dragging the U.S. down," a guy in an NRA hat shares.

"We're not getting a lot of action, but we're making a lot of new friends," someone from Michigan says. "We're going to make the ice cream run."

This is fun, I decide. It feels almost like illegal-immigration-spotting summer camp.

"I just love being here every minute," says a friendly guy named Ed who shares homemade deer sausage with us in his trailer. His sister is an immigration lawyer; he plans to bike across the country on his 60th birthday.

"If they ask leading questions," he says, explaining his method of dealing with the press, "I'll videotape them, ask where they're from."

He then continues his explanation in a way that almost sounds like a warning: "If you misconstrue me, we'll have a chat. We'll have a chat."

Ed, too, mentions that some Minuteman has found copies of the Quran and Arabic flight schedules. Then a Jeep pulls up and delivers a kindly old lady named Mary, a local rancher who brandishes a pistol on her hip.

"I'm like Teddy Roosevelt," Mary says. "I walk softly and carry a big stick!" She thanks the Minutemen for what they're doing, then makes small talk about jams and jellies.

The Minutedudes

Soon, we learn of a couple of guys from San Jose who caught a rattlesnake and paraded it around on a forked stick. They are considered to be "overzealous" types who might have slipped by the project's weeding-out process. Bypassing a much-anticipated Minuteman ice cream run, we search for and find the Minutedudes, sitting by their car.

"I said I want to touch a rattlesnake's tail. I never touched one before," the dude with glasses remarks, looking at his buddy, who's wearing a Dead Kennedys T-shirt; both are a good 40 years younger than your average Minuteman. "It feels like fingernails."

Taking time off from not exactly pressing commitments -- one is unemployed, the other in the National Guard -- the Minutedudes came here because of what they read in the press. "The newspaper said it was like a war zone down here, that there were militiamen running around, there's firing squads and shit like that," the Minutedude with glasses elaborates. "That's not what these people are about down here."

"Yeah," pipes in his Dead Kennedys T-shirt-wearing buddy. "It's an armed rebellion down here, and no one knows it. George Bush is fucking over everyone, dude." He wildly gestures with his hands, suddenly becoming especially animated. "Some people just see this as old people with guns and shit on the border. But that's not it. If you read the little pamphlet, it's all protesting George Bush. If people knew that, I'm sure you'd have hippies out here. Hippies!"

"I don't want fuckers like Osama bin Laden, and fucking Mohammed Atta, the guy who crashed the plane into the World Trade Center, being smuggled across the border here," the one with glasses elaborates, claiming that he and his friend could get a guided tour of terrorists into America for 20 grand.

Again, there's mention of someone finding a copy of the Quran. (And what's with these lost Qurans? Why do these terrorists have so much trouble holding onto their holy books?!) One of the M-dudes offers his solution to illegal immigration: "I think you catch them, stick them on a chain gang. Give them six months, then send them home."

Overall, the M-dudes insist, they have enjoyed their tour of duty.

"There's a lot of really cool patriots out here," one says.

"There's some hot-ass ACLU chicks," adds the Minutedude in the Dead Kennedys T-shirt.

"Yup!"

The ACLU chicks, though, gave them weird looks, because the two came fully armed. To demonstrate the extent of the arming, the Dead Kennedys T-shirt-wearing dude excitedly puts on his green Army flak vest and gun belt.

"See, we got the whole George Bush thing, we're going to be like, 'Yeah, we hate George Bush, too.' And everyone will be like, 'Oh, cool.'"

Awesome! I almost expect the two to start air-guitaring.

The Opposition

Venturing off the border for a much-needed break from the Minutemen, we enter a Mexican restaurant that is, by sheer coincidence, inhabited by a sea of ACLU volunteers -- all adorned in ACLU "Legal Observer" T-shirts. This is the feared opposition, as mentioned -- and feared, and despised -- by the elderly Minutemen? This ACLU is composed almost entirely of zitty-faced college girls. The Minutemen are letting themselves be picked on by a bunch of hairy-armpitted college girls who most likely scribe their own poetry?! These are the people chosen last in gym class.

It's a sheer battle of the titans.

For example, and I shit you not: Among the rare few males in the ACLU infestation of the Mexican restaurant are two over-the-top effeminate guys who are actually playing patty-cake. Together they chant in singsong voices, hitting each other's hands.

"1-2-3-4!

"We don't want no fucking war!"

I try to make eyes at one of the few cute ACLU girls, flashing a smile. (Cut me some slack, I've been around only Minutemen for the last couple of days.) I'm greeted with the reaction I'd get if I just did a bad smell. Several other ACLU-ers also give me dirty looks. Then it hits me -- I'm dressed exactly as a Minuteman (but even more so). I get the hell out of there before explanations are in order.

But as it turns out, it isn't just the way I'm dressed. The ACLU-ers, like the Minutemen, despise the press. Back on the border, I sense tension as we approach two frumpy girls who are sitting in lawn chairs and wearing "Legal Observer" T-shirts. To break the ice, I give a friendly smile and wave.

"What's your experience been like with the Minutemen?" I ask one of the frumpy ACLU girls, who's reading Pablo Neruda. I explain that I'm an esteemed journalist, mentioning several times that I'm from San Francisco. The girls tense up even further. The one with the huge cold sore on her lip remains utterly closed-mouthed.

"It's been ... kind of unremarkable," she mumbles, barely dignifying me with the effort of forming words. "We heard about the Minutemen, heard they were training people to be legal observers."

"What's your purpose out here?" I ask.

The girls look at each other hesitantly.

"If there was any violation of the law, we would observe it," the head frumpy one says.

"Have there been any violations?"

[Pause] "No ... we say a boring day is a good day."

I ask how they feel about the situation on the border. The one with the huge cold sore sharply cuts in: "We have a policy not to talk about politics, because we are here to observe!"

"We're here for the Minutemen!" adds her frumpy friend.

Strange. An organization focused intensely on the politics of human rights has a policy about not talking about politics?! At least the Minutemen shared deer sausage with us.

The head frumpy girl gets curt now, insisting, "Guys, you're going to have to talk to Ray [the head of the ACLU border operation] about that."

Before leaving, I ask what they do when not legally observing the border.

"Uh ... well ... having a life ... doing normal things ...."

I press further.

The head frumpy one finally confesses to being unemployed, noting, however, that she's taking a Spanish class. I mention, before departing, what we've been told about the rattlesnakes, gesturing to the girls' tennis shoes.

"They can bite through those you know."

Still No Illegal Aliens

The scrutiny of the press turns on me when I ask a lady wearing a homemade macramé bonnet the location of the Minuteman daily briefing. "There's a flier being distributed through Mexico by the Mexican government that says 'Danger: Vigilantes,'" the bonneted lady says, sarcastically waving her hands around. "Big, scary people here!" Then she says, "While here, I've taken pictures of 10 types of birds, 25 types of plants. I have a songbird tape. Yeah, you should be scared of me!"

I am!

Then I'm just awe-struck when the bonneted woman digresses into a rant that approaches sheer insanity: "We really need to work on the diversity out here, because we really haven't had the GLBT [i.e., gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender] community well-represented. Neither has the African-Americans."

Yes, she's actually surprised the gay community hasn't come out in droves to support the Minuteman Project.

"There were three black gentlemen from Tennessee who stayed for a week," clarifies a man from Waco who's dressed as a cowboy. "No Hispanics volunteered. Maybe they didn't want to seem like race traitors." To explain what he means, he animatedly shares his philosophy on race and immigration: "You always hear 'African-American' or 'Mexican-American.' How about loving America first? 'American-American.' 'American-Mexican.' Why is that?"

I shrug my shoulders.

Driving down the dusty border road, I find it fun to wave at the Minutemen, who always joyfully wave back. We park next to a van with two cardboard, hand-scrawled signs in the window reading "Badges. We don't need no stinking badges! WE HAVE THE CONSTITUTION" and "THEY IMPEACHED Nixon & Clinton FOR LESS."

"A boring day is a good day," remarks Ken, oddly echoing what a frumpy ACLU girl said. A truly likable guy with a wry sense of humor, Ken is an ex-cop from Arkansas who, with his long white hair and thick mustache, looks like an old hippie. Recently, he was responsible for stopping 40 pounds of not-pot from coming across the border by reporting movement at an abandoned ranch nicknamed the Naco Hilton. Smoking a pipe, he points to the gun on his belt. "There's no rounds in it. This helped us get this press coverage. That's the reason why we're here, not to use them," he says. "'Oh, men with guns!' That's much better than, 'Oh, men with walkie-talkies -- they might throw them!'"

Ken claims the Minutemen's presence put the "bored" back in "Border Patrol."

"When the Border Patrol first heard we were coming, they said, 'That's great; all we need is a bunch of hillbillies out there, drinking, waving guns,'" he remarks with self-deprecating humor. "But after the third day they knew that was not what it was.

"They thought we'd come out, get all the press, and melt away by the end of the week. They had a pool going, guessing when the last Minuteman would be out there. And almost nobody was guessing past two weeks.

"Because we stuck it out, night after night, day after day, shift after shift, [the Border Patrol] came to have a lot of respect for us."

As we're walking toward the gate of the Naco Hilton, another Minuteman -- one you might describe as an asshole -- drives up, gets mad at us for leaving tracks by the gate, videotapes the license plate on our vehicle, then drives away.

"Do you want to see some garbage left by people who have come by?" asks a male nurse from Utah excitedly; he'd come out to the border alone, despite his wife's disapproval.

"Sure!" I answer enthusiastically. (Maybe there will be a copy of the Quran?!)

We go to the spot. There's a plastic bag weighted down by a rock and one tiny shoe. We stare at it for several seconds. It's a plastic bag and tiny shoe, all right.

The Utah nurse talks about the only major incident so far. "There was this guy. He called himself 'The Jokester.' He made a T-shirt that said 'I Caught an Illegal Alien at the Border & All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt.' The Jokester then found an illegal alien, made him put on the T-shirt, and took photos," the nurse says.

Oh, the laughter!

Huachuca Line, 3:37 a.m.

The night shift is not unlike sitting in one's car and being extremely bored. After a while, though, I get a little jittery, a little shaky, and a little jumpy from drinking loads of caffeine. I start seeing things in the dark void that is the border. (Good thing I'm not armed!)

We get some action. A message comes over the walkie-talkie: "I'm going to move my car. Don't panic if you see some lights."

With a chuckle, another Minuteman replies, "I'll try not to get too trigger-happy."

I push the talk button on my walkie-talkie: "I'M FREAKIN' OUT MAN! I'M REALLY FREAKIN' OUT HERE!"

Silence from the other end. Then, finally, "Do you need some security backup?"

Trying to get my car radio to work, I accidentally flash my car's lights. "There's someone flashing their lights towards the border," an urgent-sounding man going by the call name "Wisconsin" blurts over the radio. He thinks someone might be signaling coyotes.

"Do you want backup?" answers base headquarters.

"CALL IN THE AIRSTRIKE! CALL IN THE AIRSTRIKE!" I scream into my walkie-talkie.

There're more potential sightings: "I just saw some lights. I'm going to go investigate!"

This time it wasn't me. Maybe we've actually spotted our first illegal alien of the evening?! The radio transmits again: "This is Gooseberry Down, just south of you; I didn't see no lights, but I'm walking towards ya."

A few moments later, there're big chuckles over the radio concerning the light. "I just moved my position from in the trees, and it turned out to be the moon."

A couple of seconds later, to add drama to the affair, I scream, "MAN DOWN! MAN DOWN!"

Final Minuteman Briefing

"Don't wear full camouflage wear. We want to present a non-military, non-threatening image for the press" reads a sign outside the door to the cafeteria of a dilapidated bible college that serves as the Minuteman Project's dormitories. Being as I am a member of the press, I'm sure it's OK that I'm dressed head-to-toe in military fatigues.

The 9 a.m. briefing's already in progress, and several heads swerve with suspicion as we enter the cafeteria. At this meeting, there are fewer of the earnest, lovable Wilford Brimley-type Minuteman senior citizens, and more of the hardened older men in the sea of plaid and military green.

Jim Gilchrist, a salt-and-pepper-haired man in charge of the 800 to 1,000 Minuteman volunteers (the number seems to vary, depending on who's talking), takes to the center of the cafeteria.

"We are not common criminals," he says with a tinge of bitterness in his voice. "We are asking for an apology from the president about the Minuteman Project!"

President Bush, it seems, has referred to the Minutemen as vigilantes.

Big applause.

"We are asking the president to meet with us and give a personal apology!"

Bigger applause.

Then, with major bitterness built up from a month of presidential unappreciation, Gilchrist adds, "I don't think we're going to get it."

The bible college cafeteria grows silent.

"If we stop now, we'll be seen as a 30-day dog-and-pony show. We have to continue," he says, his voice rising and his metaphors mixing madly. "We have just lit the fuse to keep this bomb rolling!"

The Minutemen eat this up. A large, steely-eyed man with a bowie knife on his hip moves next to me and looks over my shoulder, intentionally trying to intimidate, eyeballing me as I scribble in my notebook.

"Anyone here with military background?" Gilchrist asks.

A sea of hardened elderly hands rises up in the bible college cafeteria.

"This was a battalion-sized operation. In October, this has to be an army-sized operation!" Gilchrist cries.

"Let's hope we don't have reveille!" an old guy quips. Big laughs. (Ah, Minuteman humor.)

Yes, the Minuteman Project hopes to patrol four Mexican-border states, with further plans to cover the northern borders (fucking Canadians sneaking over, taking our jobs!), plus the grand, overall Minuteman master plan of citizens patrolling in 12 border states.

"This is going from a 1,000-person operation to 12,000," Gilchrist says.

More night-vision goggles will be needed. More infrared. Plans are made to sweep the entire Huachuca mountain range for illegal aliens.

"I'd do that 20 years ago," a large, mustachioed man who has a baby-fat face and is wearing green Army clothes leans over to tell me. "Now I have to bring my blood pressure medicine."

In seeming conclusion, Gilchrist says, "The media is not your enemy." Then, in sincere disgust that trumps the false ending, Gilchrist curses the members of the press who have criticized the Minutemen. "It's dirty journalism!" he says. "They will get theirs from their peers, who will shun them!"

"You're our Patrick Henry!" spontaneously exclaims a patriotic grandmotherly woman to a round of applause. "A 21st-century Minuteman!"

"How about Paul Revere?" suggests an old codger to significantly less applause.

The patriotic woman, taking his lead, puts her hands in the air, riffing, "The Mexicans are coming! The Mexicans are coming!"

The baby-fat-faced man leans in again: "If Bill Clinton were president, he'd have Janet Reno send the FBI to shoot us out!"

Afterward, the steely-eyed hard-ass with a bowie knife on his hip approaches. "I don't think I met you guys," he says, offering a hand and continuing the strong eye contact that is supposed, somehow, to be intimidating.

"I'm part of the media that isn't your enemy!" I crack with my ice-breaking wit. His leathery hands remain in a death hold around mine, gripping a little longer than one should.

Is it dirty journalism to say such a thing?

What Mexico Thinks of the Minutemen

On the Mexican side of the United States Border Station, three vividly angry Hispanic youths and one older woman in a brown beret scream at the cars going into the United States.

"Fuck the Minuteman Project!"

"Chicano Power!"

"Down with the Minuteman Project!"

"Can we help you guys?" asks a worked-up, shirtless protester, gripping the metal border fence, noting our video camera.

I've changed my look, uncovering my dreadlocks. I approach to get their take.

"The Minutemen try to say, 'We're nice, we're peaceful.' But when the media goes away, and the cameras are off, and nobody is watching them, it's a way different story," the shirtless protester says. "Basically, it's kind of messed up."

"We're here to push them away," interjects the older woman, who's a member of the Brown Berets, an organization founded in the late 1960s and one of the most militant groups in the Chicano liberation movement. She thinks the government shouldn't allow the Minutemen to come to the border. "They don't get paid. The government has special people to do that. That's why we've come here," she adds. "If the Minutemen are allowed to be out there, then we should be allowed to be out there. If that's what's going to keep on doing, then that's what's going to happen."

"We're just here to protect our people by any means necessary. With no weapons, with no guns. We come unarmed," the shirtless guy passionately retorts. "We're not here to start no violence. They're the ones who want violence. Not us."

I nod with intense, journalistic professionalism, taking all this in with absolute impartiality -- and suddenly we're overcome by a huge swarm of bees. I take off like a little girl, screaming, "Ah, bees!"

When I regain my composure, the shirtless kid tells me, "We found this guy taking pictures of one of my people with a shirt saying 'I'm not from here. I was captured by the Minutemen by force.'"

The Jokester!

"He made him wear the shirt," the kid says. "That's messed up."

We're told of a peace rally going on in the town square on the Mexican side of the border. We go take a look; the rally's composed overwhelmingly of white ACLU members. Onstage, a waifish guy recites poetry to the crowd about his solution to the border problem. "The graceful way to jump the border is to fly over with golden wings ...."

A smiling, laid-back Hispanic guy with a goatee and a black hipster T-shirt tells me that a Guatemalan gang is also observing the Minutemen. If there's an incident in which a Minuteman happens to kill an illegal alien, the Guatemalan gang will avenge, with three Minutemen paying the price.

"If they call themselves Minutemen, maybe they should be more concerned about their wives," he suggests. "They should put more effort into their personal lives and stop fucking around with people they shouldn't be messing around with."

Our new friend came to the United States as an illegal immigrant. Now he has his residency card and feels the Minutemen are only creating division and tension in the U.S. "What it's doing is creating stereotypes of people thinking now that everyone can be a Border Patrol and reporting everybody," he says. "What it does is it creates this ideology of superiority, that they think they have the right to do this. They put themselves at a position where they think they are authorities at a place where they are not."

In the background, little kids gleefully swing at an M&M's piñata hanging from a tree with a large "M" across the front (or is it a Minuteman effigy?!).

"They're dangerous," he adds. "Not dangerous themselves, but dangerous in the ideologies that they are creating. Most of them are veterans of war, right, and supposedly they fought for this country. But at the same time they are people who don't have anything to do.

"If they can come for a month and sit around with binoculars and cameras, what does that tell you about them?"

Last Minutes of the Minutemen

The Minuteman Project's closing barbecue is a big clappity-clap fest, with a lot of patriotic American flag-waving and God blessing of America. The turnout is good, with a lot of large trucks in the parking lot with a lot of bumper stickers that make profound statements like: "CNN Lies; Don't Worry, the King of England Didn't Like the Minuteman Project Either" and "Hanoi Jane 1972, John Kerry 2004."

Like the last day of a militaristic summer camp for the elderly, there's a lot of handshaking, pats on shoulders, and thanks for coming outs. Television cameras from a variety of news agencies videotape.

A man with one of the group's bigger bellies proclaims to a guy wearing a "Tyranny Response Team" T-shirt, "I got an e-mail from some people in Australia who want to put together a Minuteman Project there, 'cause they got a big illegal problem. They want to secure the coast."

A rotund documentary filmmaker, who just had his camera pointed at someone, gets mad at me. "Don't film me without permission," he whines. Now even the media hate the media.

The closing starts with the Pledge of Allegiance. Then a pastor is brought up to give a valediction in the name of Jesus Christ. (But what about the Jewish Minutemen?!) Some Nuremberg-style cheerleading is kicked off by Minuteman founder Chris Simcox, who's wearing a red button-down shirt and looks like a thinner Jeff Foxworthy. But instead of uttering, "You might be a redneck," he proclaims, "We did this together. We the people. We all inspired millions of people to follow us, so you're all leaders."

If the American flag could smile, it would be grinning from ear to ear, as rows of lunch tables loudly applaud.

"I have almost 20,000 new volunteers that will follow our lead and that will make sure we lead the way," Simcox states firmly. "As I said, the only honorable thing to do at this point is to relieve us of duty by sending out Humvees filled with National Guards to protect our borders!"

Yah! screams the crowd.

There's more. Gilchrist, the bad cop to Simcox's good cop, sarcastically proclaims himself proudto be a vigilante. (Take that, George Bush!)

Yah!

The guy with the beard and Fidel Castro hat announces, "I have stood shoulder to shoulder with heroes of America -- you are it!"

Yah!

A mustachioed guy who works in the office, adorned in a jean vest with red sleeves popping out, feels Bush should hold a press conference and say, "We expect all other countries in the world to respect our borders. Those who do not respect our borders shall be repelled by force if it is necessary!

"If he would do that, it would begin the change. But I'm afraid the president is not a Minuteman."

I think he's expecting a Dead Poets Society-style, slow, building round of thunderous applause, with people eventually standing on the lunch tables, but it doesn't happen. Instead, the guy adds, woodenly, "People ask, 'Aren't you afraid of getting killed?' I tell them, 'Fear is for those who sit home and watch reality television. THE MINUTEMEN HAVE NO FEAR!'"

Yah!

"You ain't seen nothing yet, we've just started."

Yah!

"There's no telling how far this thing will go."

Yah!

After a speaker mentions the Minuteman plan to patrol the California-Mexico border in October, a video camera is shoved in my face.

"What do you think of the situation on the border?" asks a cameraman from the Minuteman Project's own news organization.

"What part of 'illegal' don't they understand!?" I reply, reading my response off the woman's shirt.

An Arizona grandmother goes to the podium, leans into the microphone, and starts screaming, "We want President Bush personally to come out and pick up every bit of illegal alien garbage!"

More yahs. ("Illegal alien garbage" could be taken two ways, the second being very racist. And what about all those aforementioned copies of the Quran?!)

"Mr. Bush, we got your garbage bags, come pick it up!" she says, raising her arms in triumph.

This is the part where it gets really ugly and, with patriotic-adrenaline pumping, the crowd turns on us, the media.

The oldest man here (so old he looks like he's about to fall over), a religious broadcaster since 1961 ("I've been battling the leftists ever since!"), who's wearing an ill-fitting baseball cap, grabs the microphone, sternly raising his voice to the point where I think he might wind up clutching his heart.

"I went into religious broadcasting so I could TELL THEM WHAT I THINK OF THEM!"

Yah!

"The left-wing media is the biggest problem we got in America. If it wasn't for them, our president and a lot of these other politicians would stand up and tell the truth, but they're afraid of these guys!

"But you don't be afraid of them!"

"Don't be afraid!" someone in the crowd repeats. "Don't be afraid!"

"Woo! Yah!"

After the diatribe, a smarmy, well-groomed reporter from Tucson takes flak from several Minutemen who've surrounded him.

"Aren't you that guy who had the hidden camera and walked around?" an old man asks.

The well-groomed reporter defends himself. "I've been on this story since day one, and I've been nonbiased," he says, standing his ground.

It's not pretty when a well-groomed local TV reporter becomes unnerved. In a tizzy, he snaps, "I'm done with this!" He motions to his production assistant and storms off, reporter-panties in a huge bundle. I follow. He gains composure, readying himself to interview a random Minuteman with some well-groomed and ultra-hard-hitting questions. "It started out with protest. It ended peacefully," he says with a big grin and an almost goofy giggle one would expect if he were covering a story on a Teens for Christ community bake sale. "How good is that?"

After the interview, I ask the reporter why he freaked out earlier. He explains the effort he'd put into the story, the depths he'd plumbed. "I came out here. I sat with the Minutemen in the lawn chairs!" he notes.

Looking at the desert dust beneath my fingernails, I ask, "What was the last story you covered?"

"The popularity of Texas Hold 'Em," he says, pausing uncomfortably. "It was sweeps week."

And as a journalistic peer, I know immediately what to do. I shun the well-groomed TV reporter, because what he's just described is, my friends, some dirty motherfucking journalism.

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