Minutemen supporters attack anti-racist counterdemonstrators, Oct. 4, 2006.
Photo: David Brabyn/SIPA Press

Karina García was one of the Columbia University student leaders who confronted the Minutemen in October 2006. This article is based on a talk she gave as part of a national speaking tour.

On Oct. 4, 2006, Jim Gilchrist, founder of the anti-immigrant Minuteman Project, came to speak at Columbia University. Shortly into his speech, protesters took to the stage with immigrant rights and anti-racist banners. 

The confrontation onstage between student protesters and Minutemen supporters was videotaped and soon became national news. Both the liberal and right-wing media circuits covered the unfolding controversy, and pundits across the political spectrum tendered their personal opinions on the subject. 

In fact, the story reached such a wide audience that at the time of this writing, a U.S. News and World Report poll listed the Columbia protest as the top vote-getter as “College Story of the Year.”

One thing that the media has largely neglected, however, is the fact that on very short notice, hundreds of people came out to demonstrate—in the rain—outside the auditorium where Gilchrist was speaking. They made it clear that students at Columbia, the surrounding Harlem community and the people of New York City would confront the voices of racism, fascism and violence with militant and sizeable protest. That is an important part of the story. The Minutemen had almost no support inside or outside the auditorium. 

As a matter of fact, the Minutemen forces were so weak and pathetic, their organization so tiny and unviable, that it might be tempting to conclude that a protest movement focused on them is disproportionate. Aren’t they just a marginal expression of provocation? And might it not be better, that logic goes, to simply ignore them? 

The people who came to demonstrate that night and those of us who initiated the protest inside and outside the auditorium understand that the Minutemen, despite their numerical weakness in New York City, constitute a very real threat. 

Photo: Zuma Press

The ultra-right Minutemen and the right-wing media

In the United States, there has always been a very fine line—which is easily crossed—between the right and what is referred to as the “ultra-right.” 

When Minutemen leaders are brought to Columbia University by the College Republicans or are hosted by any other mainstream right-wing political organization, they receive funds to speak. 

This money goes to pay not only for guns and ammunition. It funds their propaganda campaign, which is waged with the support and likely coordination of large corporate financiers and media outlets. 

If it was only the Minutemen that we were facing right now, they would indeed be a negligible force. But the Minutemen are an armed vanguard for a movement based on xenophobia and racism that is given voice virtually every night on CNN, on Lou Dobbs’ show and from Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly. Through mass market media, they mold public opinion in a slick demagogic appeal, first and foremost to the middle class, but even to some sectors of the working class. 

The aim of this campaign is to channel the growing anger, resentment and anxiety that exists in the United States because of unemployment, depressed wages and the loss of benefits, including health care and pensions.

All of these phenomena, which are in fact the direct consequence of capitalist globalization, are now being blamed instead on the 12 to 15 million undocumented immigrant workers, who have been driven from their homes and their villages by the very same process of capitalist economic globalization. They have been driven to migrate to the United States in search of jobs in order to simply feed their families. 

It is, in our analysis, not the Minutemen themselves, but an organized tendency within the very fiber of contemporary capitalism to divert the middle class and working class with all of their grievances into racist and fascist xenophobic movements. 

These movements are directed not against the real enemy of the working class— which would be the banking and corporate elites—but instead toward the sector of workers who by virtue of their “illegal” status in society are the most vulnerable to attack. 

How the Klan was reborn

Such movements have existed before in U.S. history. Take, for example, the Ku Klux Klan. Almost everyone today recognizes the KKK as a terrorist organization responsible for thousands of deaths, the majority of its victims being African American. 

Los Angeles protest against the Minutemen, July 8, 2006
Photo: Bethany Malmgren

The KKK is a representative of a homegrown fascist movement in the United States. Formed in the wake of the Civil War, it was largely non-existent as an organization by the beginning of the 20th century. But the Klan was reborn and became a mass organization by 1915. At that time, it was reborn as an anti-immigrant movement in addition to maintaining its legacy of the most virulent anti-Black racism. 

The focus of the Klan propaganda was against African Americans, immigrants as well as Jewish people in the United States. The Klan and their anti-immigrant movement were treated as a legitimate voice in the political discourse in 1915. They had the active and open support of U.S. president Woodrow Wilson, and their message was portrayed favorably in notoriously racist movies like “Birth of a Nation.” 

In other words, the Klan used the tools of the mass media to reinvent itself. The Klan would have gone nowhere without the support not only of the U.S. president but of significant sectors of the U.S. corporate and political establishment. That fine line between the ultra-right and the “legitimate”—that is, corporate and politically sponsored right wing—was so easily crossed that the distinction was essentially irrelevant. 

By 1926, just 11 years after the rebirth of the KKK, 40,000 Klansmen marched right down Pennsylvania Avenue in the heart of Washington, D.C., wearing full Klan regalia, including the white hoods and robes associated with gruesome racist violence. 

In the 1920s, racist lynch mobs took to the streets in cities like Tulsa, Okla., and East St. Louis, Mo., and hundreds of African American people were massacred in their hometowns. 

The Klan proceeded in the 1920s to carry out lynchings against African Americans in the South, against labor organizers who attempted to bring the message of the union to southern factories and mills and against socialist and communists who were working to merge the struggle between civil rights and labor rights. 

Progressives fight back

It was only in the 1930s that the epidemic of lynching went into a temporary eclipse. The U.S. labor movement had awakened, beginning a crusade for mass industrial union organization, uniting Black and white workers in a more expansive way than ever before.

In response to the civil rights movement of the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s, the KKK carried out many bombings of homes and churches and carried out targeted assassinations. In 1964, Klansmen, working with the local police, pulled civil rights workers Michael Schwerner, James Cheney and Andrew Goodman from their car and murdered them by the roadside.

Although such violence continued without pause, the KKK as an organization had become increasingly marginalized. They had been beaten back by the stupendous rise of the mass movement for civil rights, which took place in tandem with the movement against the war in Vietnam, for women’s rights and for progressive change within the United States. 

With the election of Reagan as president in 1980, understood to be from the ultra-right at the time, the progressive era of the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s came to its symbolic end. Immediately, the Klan began a new period of frenetic organization, particularly in Texas and in other southern and southwest states as part of their reinvention efforts. 

They again made anti-immigrant propaganda the cornerstone of their rebirth campaign. Blaming immigrants for all the economic woes of middle-class white people in the South, the Klan launched the first civilian Border Watch in 1977. These patrols—led by Klan grand wizard David Duke and California leader Tom Metzger—received extensive media coverage, but never recruited significant enough numbers to become a lasting project.

Still, within a few years, both Metzger and Duke—as leaders of the white supremacist movement—had entered into mainstream electoral politics. Metzger won a Democratic primary in a San Diego congressional district, and Duke won a seat in the Louisiana state legislature before losing a bid for the governor’s seat.

The Klan’s reinvention effort enjoyed support from significant sectors of the ruling establishment. Ronald Reagan symbolically began his 1980 campaign in the small Mississippi town of Philadelphia. 

The symbolism of this decision may be lost on some, but not on the forces of extreme racism, fascism and, in particular, the KKK. Philadelphia, Miss.—a town of 7,000—was known for only one thing. It was precisely there that Schwerner, Cheney and Goodman—the three slain civil rights workers—were murdered by the Klan and police. The distinction between the two institutions was purely formal. At night, the police took off their blue uniforms to don their white hoods and robes. 

So as to leave nothing to doubt, Reagan further pledged his commitment to “state’s rights”—widely interpreted as opposition to Black civil rights and desegregation. A year later he was sworn in as president.

Klan meets militant opposition

Despite this reinvention effort, the mere appearance of the KKK in the 1980s generated mass militant protests by Black, Latino, Native American and white progressives. 

The Klan was literally beaten to a pulp and crushed from Austin, Texas, to Washington, D.C. In Decatur, Ala., in 1983, as part of this Klan revival, the KKK opened fire on civil rights demonstrators as they were marching. But to their shock and amazement, young African American men—a number of whom had fought in Vietnam—returned the fire. 

Within one week, after a national call for support in Decatur, tens of thousands of people descended on the town to show that any manifestation of the KKK would be met with massive opposition. These impressive displays of solidarity and militancy were critical in stopping the reemergence of the Klan.

In short, at each stage in the last 100 years of U.S. history, the Klan and the forces of fascism and extreme racism have increased for two reasons. One, they receive support from sectors of big business and corporate media. And two, they rise or decline in direct correlation to the rise or decline of the progressive mass movement in the United States.

The ultra right and white supremacist movements—that is, homegrown fascist movements here in the United States—have made a decision. They have calculated that the Nazi swastika and Klan robe are too discredited to ever again become effective symbols. Their mere presence invokes mass hatred and militant opposition. 

History will show that the new anti-immigrant movement in general, and the Minuteman Project in particular, are the reincarnation of this ultra right movement. It is attempting to camouflage its white supremacist core by using a different name and different costumes and with the sprinkling of faces of people from oppressed communities amongst their ranks. 

But through the camouflage, the slightly altered slogans and modified icons, we can identify the same fascist core. Instead of the Klansmen in the hood and robe, we now have the Minutemen with the rifle, posing at the U.S.-Mexico border as the supposed guarantors of the “American way of life.” 

A lesson from Germany

Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933 not through a coup d’etat, not through a seizure of power, but through an election. How did this happen?

Sectors of the German capitalist economic establishment who reviled and marginalized Hitler just eight years before his final triumph, opted for the fascist solution in the early 1930s under conditions of mass unemployment and economic depression. They formed a coalition with Hitler as a way to crush the German labor movement, which was in the main pro-socialist and pro-communist. 

Until then, German society had been considered the beacon of progressivism and enlightened thinking. Yet, the right-wing economic and political establishment of Germany crossed that fine line between the right and the ultra-right in order to maintain its political power during a period of great social upheaval. 

These are lessons we have to put into practice. The people cannot rely on the police or the media, and certainly not the government, to stop the rise of fascism in the United States. Only the mobilization of the people themselves can alter the political climate to guarantee the stopping of these ultra-right movements. 

We do not have to wait for another time period in order to understand the violent core of the message of the Minutemen when they post armed vigilantes at the border, and when they, with their media friends Lou Dobbs and Bill O’Reilly, successfully demand the expansion of the death wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. 

Border vigilantes and the death wall force innocent working people—Mexicans, Salvadorans, Guatemalans and others—deeper and deeper into the torturous desert, where many perish. Their only motivation, here considered a crime, is to seek a remedy to the crushing poverty imposed on them and their families. 

We do not have to wait for the Minutemen to be able to bring thousands of fascist vigilantes all in the same place in order to understand with complete clarity that their success would constitute an historic defeat not only for Latinos, not only for immigrants, but for all sectors of the working class in the United States. 

When we took the stage and showed our opposition to the Minutemen on the evening of October 4th, we did so because we recognized that this organic tendency toward fascism cannot be ignored. We can and we must defeat the Minutemen. Sí se puede y sí se pudo!