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Campo: Good Riddance and Goodbye

by Leslie Tuesday, Aug. 09, 2005 at 5:30 AM
lradford@radiojustice.net

On Saturday, protestors celebrated the defeat of the California Minutemen, and Friends of the Border Patrol introduced themselves.

Campo, CA, August 6, 2005 – Nearly 150 determined protestors, forty or more traveling from Los Angeles and Riverside, rallied under the hot sun of the desert in Campo to bid good riddance at the retreat of the California Minutemen. Scheduled to end their human hunting expedition on Monday, minutemen regulars had, for the most part, snuck off during the previous night to a neighboring ranch. The Good Riddance! Goodbye! demonstration and celebration capped three weeks of protests and actions, which had thwarted the minutemen's efforts to hunt and capture border crossers.

The minutemen had left word with sheriffs that L.A. Chicano gangs would be descending on Campo to attack them, and the sheriffs dutifully asked protestors if they were gang members. A handful of last-minute minutemen recruits remained to fend off the protestors. These remaining California Minutemen, although presumably armed as minutemen have been in earlier confrontations, barricaded themselves behind the cattle gate. Inside their dark refuge they were confined to waving impolite hand gestures at the chanting, victorious protestors. Their own reports indicated their nerves were frayed from facing drug dealers, hostile locals, and the incessent interventions of protestors.

Since July 16, angry twilight confrontations had brought protestors toe-to-toe with the heavily armed vigilantes. Night-time patrols slipped into minutemen caravans, disrupting plans and exposing lookouts. The Buenas Noches Brigade, under the cover of the desert night and armed with noisemakers, blaring music, spotlights, spontaneous dances, and shouts of "Buenas noches, minutemen!", blocked minuteman vehicles, confronted the vigilantes, and alerted border crossers.

James Chase, leader of the California Minutemen, reported to local newspapers that during their three-week stay, "rogue" minutemen had shot and wounded two border crossers–and that he personally had illegally transported two migrants to the Campo Border Patrol station.

Following the rowdy afternoon demonstration at the VFW hall, now-quiet protestors climbed to the border marker at the crest of the bluff overlooking the Gente Unida camp to remember those who had died crossing the border.

A letter from the mother of a border crosser wondered why her son had to die looking for work. Another told of a fifteen-year-old boy who had held his mother in arms in the desert this past June until she succumbed to dehydration.

The mourners began a roll call of the deceased and responded to each name with "Presente." Thirty-two hundred border crossers have died since 1994 when Operation Gatekeeper forced migrants into the deserts and mountains–one migrant has died for every kilometer of the Mexico-U.S. border–most often from heat exhaustion and exposure. The vigil leader, Enrique Morones of Border Angels, cradled a small white cross marked "no identificado" and "no olvidado." He reported 116 deaths in July of this year alone, including one down the road at Mount Signal, nearly double the sixty deaths of July a year ago.

On the border wall were taped images of a fiercely drawn Native man demanding papers from the European invader, a vivid painting of La Virgen de Guadalupe flanked and crowned by symbols from the Mayan calendar, depictions of the Hopi prophecy rock and a bumper sticker declaring the presence of the "indigenous element." Homemade flags for the dead and paper chains commemorated the deceased.

The border marker at the crest had been emended in pink marker to identify the etched words "Mexico to Canada" as Aztlan. Under "Southern Terminus Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail Established by Act of Congress on Oct. 2, 1968" was added "Whose the Immigrant Pilgrim."

The New Minutemen, Not Quite Like the Old Minutemen

Most of the protestors, lost in thought and private conversation, straggled down the steep 500-foot hill and across the dirt road to the Gente Unida camp to begin the celebration. I held back, spending a few minutes at the corrugated twelve-foot sheet-metal barrier that had caused so much suffering, looking across at the cars, tents and blue canopies of the protestor’s camp now lit in twilight below. Behind me, the Border Patrol and sheriffs pulled their vehicles back to their usual observation post on the hill above the protestors.

About a hundred feet down the path, I nearly ambled past a large, unmarked, untagged, newly painted pale yellow pickup truck, with a purchase slip in the rear window. Startled, I looked back to see a middle-aged man in a Polo shirt and a younger man with a shemagh wrapped around his neck counting the cars below.

The following conversation is reconstructed from memory. The younger interloper refused to provide his name, so I here call him Sidekick.

Leslie:

Fifty cars.

Mike:

About forty.

Leslie:

Some around the bend. So what are you doing?

Mike:

We’re with Friends of the Border Patrol.

Leslie:

Andy Ramirez’s group?

Sidekick:

Yeah.

Mike:

[noting my T-shirt] I used to play Christmas concerts at KPFK. Years ago. It's a brick building on Cahuenga, next to the ARCO station. For "Folkscene."

Leslie:

The Larkins' show.

Mike:

Back in 1983.

Leslie:

Strange to think 1983 was long ago.

Mike:

Yeah.

Leslie:

Madonna was big then. Bet you [indicating Sidekick] don't even remember Madonna

Sidekick:

I was born then.

Mike:

Madonna was late 80's.

Leslie:

So why are you here?

Mike:

Come to see Chase’s group and the protestors go at it. Sorry we missed him.

Leslie:

Just reconnaissance.

Sidekick:

Yeah. Chase is out of control.

Leslie:

So you don’t like Chase?

Mike:

He’s crazy. He’s got no discipline.

Leslie:

I know he’s more with Simcox, Gilchrist is with Ramirez.

Mike:

Not exactly.

Leslie:

What is it then?

Sidekick:

It’s on the internet.

Leslie:

About Chase saying he wanted snipers?

[no comment]

Leslie:

And he had them.

Sidekick:

You mean the two immigrants who got shot?

Leslie:

Yeah. Chase said they were rogue minutemen.

[no comment]

Leslie:

So how are you different than Chase? Now Ramirez is saying he’ll have people with guns.

Mike:

Different tactics. We'll be staying in private residences.

Sidekick:

We’re different.

Mike:

Do you support our right to protest?

Sidekick:

He’s the Constitutional guy.

Leslie:

Sure.

Mike:

So what’s your problem with us?

Leslie:

Do you support our right to counterprotest?

Mike:

There's an eighty-nine year-old woman who owns a Colt Python. Immigrants jump her fence, killed four of her dogs, shit in her yard. Is that right? She should be enjoying her old age.

Two protestors, one identifying herself as an independent journalist, had by this time noticed the men and climbed the hill to join us. One took a picture of Sidekick, who demanded she delete it; she refused. Mike volunteered that he had spent time in Pakistan and had traveled the Middle East. Then he repeated the story of the 89-year-old woman packing the .357 magnum for the reporter.

Juan Santos, a regular anti-minuteman protestor, had remained on the bluff and was making his way down when I hastily pulled him aside and told him who the visitors were. He alerted the camp and brought about thirty protestors running up the hill to the site. John, another regular protestor, recognized Mike, who readily admitted he was from Sherman Oaks and had recently infiltrated an L.A.-area anti-minuteman activists' meeting. Mike warned the protestors that they would be surprised at the number of people FBP would be bringing to their border action on September 16.

Sidekick folded his arms on the truck’s door and stuck his head into the cab through the driver’s side window to avoid pictures. A videographer slipped over to the passenger side of the truck and took the startled younger man's picture again. Sidekick crawled into the driver's seat, closed the door, and buried his head in his arms on the steering wheel, hiding his face completely.

When the protestors began chanting "Racists go home!" and "We'll be back, and we'll be bigger!", Mike scurried around to the passenger seat. Sidekick, his scarf now drawn well up under his eyes, threw the vehicle into gear and spun his tires backing up. The newest minutemen tore down the steep hill in a plume of dust, bumping one bystander in their rush to get away from the heckling crowd and rounding a corner down the hill at an alarming speed.

It appears that Friends of the Border Patrol will use more sophisticated intelligence and public relations campaigns than the California Minutemen. FBP's Executive Director Andy Ramirez's "Save Our State" Proposition 187 campaign was noted for such tactics. Ron Prince, co-author of Proposition 187, chairs FBP. It also seems that FBP's unarmed representatives, at least, don't have the arrogance or bravado that marked Chase's armed squad.

The Celebration Continues

The protestors laughed and cheered through a roughcut video of the three weeks of minuteman intervention: the brave antics of the Buenas Noches Brigade, the minutemen turning on their heels and walking away from the protestors. Kids swung fluorescent light sticks, spinning red, green, white, and yellow streaks against the star-laden sky. Music from the home-built, DC-powered amp and speaker system that had frightened away the minutemen now lured protestors to dance. Between tunes, drummers kept up the beat. The camp stoves sizzled with carne asada, beans, and tortillas. Just when it was declared that the paper plates had run out, a last handful magically appeared on an ice chest for the stragglers at the end of the line.

A ranger from the Bureau of Land Management rolled out of the dark and tried to goad the protestors into admitting disappointment at the minutemen's absence. The protestors, savvy and experienced, weren't biting, but, when queried, the ranger offered that he supported the migrant hunters. Asked why he wanted to see armed vigilantes doing the work of law enforcement, he could only explain, "I think they're helping."

I walked away from the campsite for the drive home, away from the spotty glow of Coleman lanterns, and shouted over my shoulder to the lingering crowd, "Buenas noches!" Echoing returns of "Buenas noches" rang through the night, maybe as far as the minuteman camp. I saved my last goodbye for Enrique, who was sitting in his truck talking on his phone and busily scribbling notes before one more night patrol.

My traveling partner, Enrique, and I improvised an off-key and almost-sweet chorus of "See You in September" underscored with both sadness at the circumstances of our autumn reunion and awe at the bravery of so many people.

Driving out, the VFW hall–former home of the minutemen–was dark, the parking lot empty, the gate chained shut.

See you in September.

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