Passions unleashed with Minutemen visit

by Jordan Green

The cofounder of the Minuteman Project, the controversial group that has fielded activists along the US-Mexico border to discourage illegal immigration, electrified Greensboro with his arrival at a tattered High Point Road shopping center without even stepping out of a recreational vehicle that comprised part of the group’s caravan from Los Angeles to Washington, DC.

As throngs of local Minuteman supporters traded insults with a group of boisterous protesters across the street on May 10, 57-year-old Jim Gilchrist, a Vietnam-era Marine and retired accountant, ushered two print reporters into his mobile living quarters.

But the first order of business was security.

‘“I need at least two bodyguards and a regular joe,’” he barked from inside.

Then he launched an attack on the media, focusing special attention on the alt-weekly reporter. The first misconception about the Minuteman Project is that the group is anti-immigrant, Gilchrist said.

‘“I want you to put down that we’re a multi-ethnic law enforcement advocacy organization,’” he said. ‘“I dislike what’s happening to us because of the way the media portrays us. Our black and Hispanic friends are getting attacked for joining us. A sixty-seven-year-old lady was bashed with an aluminum can. Rocks, bottles, eggs ‘—’ we get all of that.’”

The Minuteman cofounder said senators contemplating regularizing millions of illegal immigrants were ‘“bordering on treason,’” called President Bush ‘“tantamount to an alcoholic,’” and wondered aloud whether Department of Homeland Security was involved in a plot to put Minutemen’s lives at risk.

Propping his feet up on a low table, Gilchrist commented on a news report published by the Daily Bulletin in Ontario, Calif. on May 9 that disclosed that US border authorities have arranged to notify the government of Mexico any time the Minutemen assist in apprehending illegal border crossers, or vigilante groups carry out acts of violence against immigrants.

‘“When they’re transferring information about our location to the Mexican government, which is tantamount to the drug cartels, there has to be something underneath,’” he said. ‘“I’m not a conspiracy person ‘—’ I still think there was only one person who shot Kennedy, and that was Lee Harvey Oswald ‘— but there has to be some kind of sinister conspiracy going on.’”

‘“I get threats all the time,’” he added. ‘“Am I scared? No. Do I want to die? No.’”

Gilchrist took note of the protesters across the street, whom he acknowledged had disrupted the Minutemen’s plans for Greensboro.

‘“We use words and the pen to fight,’” he said. ‘“They use words and the pen too, but they go beyond that.’”

From the start, the Minutemen’s stop in Greensboro seemed enveloped in uncertainty, with supporters and protesters alike trying to guess where the group might appear. Despite a report in the News & Record that the rally had been canceled because the owner of American Furniture Market withdrew an offer to host the group in his parking lot, local Minuteman supporters, protesters and an attendant media squad assembled there.

As the two opposing groups grew in number, the face-off took on a raw edge of hostility. The protesters, who were drawn from communist and anarchist groups, from community colleges and university graduate programs in Chapel Hill, held imposing banners urging, ‘“Minutemen get lost’” and ‘“Ni jefes, ni fronteras ‘—’ para anarchismo’” ‘—’ roughly translated as ‘“No bosses, no borders ‘— for anarchism.’”

‘“Amnesty is a prerequisite,’” said 21-year-old Matt Ivey, a member of the International Socialist Organization who plans to attend GTCC in the fall, by way of explaining the protesters’ aims. ‘“When organized labor can stand on both sides of the border, we won’t have this problem. We can say to the bosses: ‘We’re not going to take the wage cuts.’”

The protesters sometimes baited the Minutemen supporters with epithets of ‘“racist,’” ‘“fascist’” and ‘“Klan,’” and cursed them. The supporters sometimes taunted the protesters back, but generally responded by saying the Pledge of Allegiance and singing the national anthem. At one point, when the two groups had squared off on either side of High Point Road, a Greensboro police officer asked the supporters to step back from the roadway.

The supporters, who traveled from as far away as Asheville and Pittsboro, represented a cross-section of the state’s workforce, including school employees, social services providers, factory owners, restaurant employees and corporate managers. Many of them said they welcomed immigrants, but wanted them to respect the law. Some of them disparaged Bush, lashed out against the liberal media, and attacked public schools and social welfare. As a group they conveyed the sense that something has gone dreadfully wrong in America.

Amidst a cluster of Minuteman supporters clutching small American flags, Theresa Greenwell, a Forsyth County Health Department employee who works in the federally funded Women, Infants & Children program, or WIC, nodded in agreement with the assertion made by one of her cohorts that illegal immigrants are imposing a burden on the nation’s social services.

‘“That’s right: I work in a welfare office, and that’s all we have is illegals,’” said Greenwell, who wore a black T-shirt bearing the image of the Pink Floyd album Dark Side of the Moon. ‘“And you should see the gang members with the tattoos on their faces.’”

Later she elaborated in an interview: ‘“I don’t believe they should have those services. They have many babies. You and I couldn’t get the benefits. They’re encouraged by friends to not report their incomes. Their children are obese.’”

When pressed to elaborate on why the children of illegal immigrants should suffer for the transgressions of their parents, she disclosed that she doesn’t much like the idea of social services as a matter of principle.

‘“Social services is a problem for both legal and illegal immigrants because you don’t have value for what you have,’” she said.

As speculation about when the Minutemen might show up circulated through the crowd, Reagan Sugg, who identified himself as being with the Minutemen Civil Defense Corps, began to speak. He gestured toward the group of pro-immigrant demonstrators across the parking lot, and referenced a request by Hispanic community leader Deborah Kelly more than a week earlier that demonstrators put away red flags at a May 1 rally at Governmental Plaza.

‘“May first is a communist holiday,’” Sugg said. ‘“The lady was saying, ‘Put away your red flags; you’re not helping our cause.’ It’s an imported ideology. They’re subverting our country. It’s international socialism, Big Labor and ‘— I hate to say it ‘— Big Religion.’”

He assured the supporters that the Minutemen caravan would be coming soon, telling them, ‘“Your voice will be heard.’”

Then he addressed a variety of subjects. The wall he and some others would like to see built along the US-Mexican border, for one.

‘“Four billion,’” Sugg said. ‘“That’s all it would take to build an Israeli-style border fence. That is pocket change. We’re spending that every day in Iraq.’”

He disputed the notion wielded by detractors that the Minutemen are a violent group of vigilantes.

‘“All we were doing was sitting and reporting to the authorities,’” he said of his experience patrolling the border with the Minutemen. ‘“Make no mistake, the leftists wanted us to be a paramilitary.’”

To another supporter, he said: ‘“Make no mistake, Big Business has a vested interest in depressing wages.’”

Supporters stood on the roadside, displaying their viewpoint to passing traffic. One held a hand-written sign that declared, ‘“Illegal immigration is cultural terrorism.’” Another waved a flag with the words, ‘“Don’t tread on me.’” A Greensboro Fire Department engine cruised by and the driver honked his horn, cheering the supporters.

Just then, two recreational vehicles appeared, then two large pickups with campers. An American-made muscle car of ’60s vintage painted in red, white and blue rolled past, and its driver squawked through a megaphone: ‘“Take a stand. One nation under God. Thank you for coming, Americans.’”

The caravan passed by the crowd, pulling into the Westgate Shopping Center across the street. Their arrival prompted a rush by supporters and media members across High Point Road’s five lanes of traffic to join them.

Greensboro police Capt. Robert Flynt said the Minutemen and their supporters, along with the counter-demonstrators, had permits to demonstrate on the sidewalks. The parking lot across from American Furniture Market is considered a public vehicular area, and since the owners of the Westgate Shopping Center didn’t complain the caravan wasn’t considered in violation of any law.

The Minutemen supporters took particular pride in having a smattering of immigrants and people of color within their ranks.

When the protesters shouted, ‘“Go home, you’re not welcome here,’” Robert Vansteen of Greensboro retorted: ‘“Who’s not welcome? The black guy, the Chinese woman or the Mexican guy behind us?’”

His wife, May, said, ‘“I came here from China. To me, I strongly stand for the [principle] that the laws should be enforced. I came here legally. I worked for a US corporation. I love this country.’”

Another Minuteman supporter, Yadi Brooks of Pittsboro, who like May Vansteen gained legal residency by marrying an American citizen, said she was once an illegal immigrant herself. She said she sympathized with the desire of millions of illegal immigrants to stay in the United States but she didn’t think it was right that they demand amnesty.

‘“I met my husband,’” she said. ‘“I got married. People think just because I got married I turned my back on my people. I’m ashamed of my government in Mexico because they’re telling their own people to cross the border, but they do send back illegal immigrants from Honduras and Guatemala.’”

Gilchrist, the Minuteman Project cofounder, argued that the movement isn’t really against immigrants at all.

‘“Notice that we’ve never said the word ‘immigration’ this whole time,’” he said. ‘“Eighty percent are economic refugees who are being bought and sold like cattle. They’re rapidly expanding our lower class, diminishing our middle class and shrinking our tax base.’”

Gilchrist candidly discussed his aims: build a wall between the United States and Mexico, and deport all illegal immigrants.

The decision by the furniture store to withdraw the Minutemen’s invitation marked the second time the group was forced to change plans for its Greensboro stop, he said. Originally the group was scheduled to hold a rally downtown at Governmental Plaza.

‘“The police department told me a socialist group got in there before us to secure the permit rights,’” Gilchrist said. ‘“This is the first time we’ve had to go to an alternate site.’”

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