The Oct. 4 protest at Columbia University against Minuteman Project founder Jim Gilchrist revealed a dangerous reality in American politics. A substantial sector of the conservative political establishment and media has chosen to stand openly with an armed vigilante group that has well-documented links to far-right, neo-Nazi, and white supremacist groups. Under the guise of defending Gilchrist's freedom of speech, Fox's Bill O'Reilly, scores of right-wing radio commentators, and even Mayor Michael Bloomberg have portrayed Gilchrist as the innocent victim of raving Columbia students. Some civil libertarians have joined the chorus in calling for the protesters to be penalized or disciplined.
To set the record straight: Gilchrist's decision to terminate his talk had nothing to do with the supposed violation of his free speech rights. When we walked on stage with anti-racist banners calling for immigrant rights, we withstood a violent attack by Gilchrist's supporters. We were the ones who were punched and kicked. It was our banners that were ripped from our hands and torn to shreds. When Gilchrist walked offstage, it was because he and the Minutemen were isolated in the overwhelmingly pro-immigrant rights audience. Less than a week later, I appeared on Pacifica's Democracy Now program with Gilchrist. This time, he was safely tucked away in his Irvine, Calif. studio. Within minutes, he cut the debate short, refused to answer questions, and hung up. The Minutemen insist on an absolutely pristine environment so they can espouse their program of organized violence without challenge.
The real issue with the Oct. 4 protest was not free speech, but the presence of an armed group which espoused hate and took advantage of our University to legitimize its violent activities. The Minutemen, however, are not just espousing racist ideas. The presence of armed vigilantes on the border has only one purpose: to instill fear among poor Mexican families desperate for work. As the daughter of Mexican immigrants, I know the depths of this fear in our community. The families who are chased deep into the desert-where many perish-are not running from their shadows. The Minutemen and their supporters claim that they have never engaged in a violent act. In a world without witnesses or fingerprints, only the desert knows whether this is true.
Their thuggish intimidation isn't just reserved for immigrants at the border. At any given time, day laborers face the possibility of abuse and harassment.
The Southern Poverty Law Center and other groups have documented the overlapping membership between Minuteman and white supremacist groups like the National Alliance. "We understand why Gilchrist and former project co-organizer Chris Simcox have to talk all this P.C. crap," a National Alliance member at a Minuteman event told the SPLC in an April 22, 2005 report. "It's all about playing to the media."
There are those who argue that these groups are part of a "radical fringe" and that the best way to address them is to give them the same respect and legitimacy as any other political group. There are a number of problems with that approach. First are the dangerous similarities between the Minutemen and fascist and racist groups. Like the Ku Klux Klan, for example, the Minutemen's real strength is not in numbers but in the extent to which they can inspire fear among one sector of the society-in this case, among undocumented immigrants. More ominously, the Minutemen's combination of the threat of violence with xenophobic scapegoating has parallels with Hitler's Nazis in the late 1920s. With U.S. society today facing the instability of growing casualties in an unpopular war in the Middle East and the looming possibility of economic recession, anti-immigrant scapegoating can gain dangerous resonance and must be challenged. It is almost universally recognized that more Germans should have taken advantage of their own free speech to challenge Hitler's fascist movement before he came to power. We who protested against Gilchrist on Oct. 4 stand in that tradition.
Yet the biggest problem with the argument to "ignore the fringe" is that the Minutemen are in fact not isolated. That was proven in the reaction to Gilchrist's decision to cut his speech short. The conservative media howled as if one of its own had been attacked. The truth is that Gilchrist and his group play an important role in the broader campaign to roll back the rights of immigrants that began last year in Congress with the draconian Sensenbrenner bill that would criminalize millions of immigrants and their families. The anti-immigrant political rhetoric depends to a large degree on Gilchrist's pistols "on the ground."
As one of those who took to the stage to protest Gilchrist, I am proud to say that he and other racist and fascist groups are not welcome at Columbia. © Copyright 2007 Columbia Daily Spectator