Ben Ehrenreich

When I Published My Book About Palestine This Year, I Learned How Death Threats and Abuse Became Normalized

Ben Ehrenreich’s critically acclaimed book, The Way to the Spring: Life and Death in Palestine, was published in June 2016. 

Keep reading... Show less

Resistance to Housing Foreclosures Spreads Across the Land

"This is a crowd that won't scatter," James Steele wrote in the pages of The Nation some seventy-five years ago. Early one morning in July 1933, the police had evicted John Sparanga and his family from a home on Cleveland's east side. Sparanga had lost his job and fallen behind on mortgage payments. The bank had foreclosed. A grassroots "home defense" organization, which had managed to forestall the eviction on three occasions, put out the call, and 10,000 people -- mainly working-class immigrants from Southern and Central Europe -- soon gathered, withstanding wave after wave of police tear gas, clubbings and bullets, "vowing not to leave until John Sparanga [was] back in his home."

Keep reading... Show less

The Guerrilla War Against Cheap Lettuce

If you drive far enough south in Douglas, Arizona, you eventually hit the wall. You'll pass through tidy avenues lined with new ranch homes and the stately old brick houses built for mining officials back when Douglas was a company town, when there were jobs here besides those offered by the Border Patrol, Wal-Mart, and the prison up the road. But this is the Sonoran desert, despite the lawns, and minitornadoes of red dust keep whipping themselves up in the streets and just as quickly dissolving. Then the avenues give way to a long, straight unpaved road, then a drainage ditch, and then the wall.

Constructed of adjoining rectangles of corrugated steel built to serve as landing strips for American planes in Vietnam, the wall climbs at least ten feet high for miles to the east and west, a rust-colored scar on the surface of the desert. When it passes through a wash, the landing mats are replaced by tall rectangular steel girders filled with cement, spaced just widely enough that water can pass between them, but not human limbs. Through those spaces, you can see into Mexico--more red dirt and skinny ocotillos, a thirsty-looking cow, a makeshift grave of piled stones and plastic orange flowers, the same blue sky.

If you linger here for more than a moment, the lenses on the Border Patrol camera towers will spot you, or you'll trip a magnetic sensor or a seismic one, and one of the nearly 10,000 Border Patrol agents stationed along the 2,000-mile southern boundary will roll up behind you in a Jeep, lights flashing. If you are allowed to drive on, big-eared desert hares will leap in front of your tires, and more dust devils will rise and twirl to the right and to the left. Then the wall will block your view again until, without warning, about five miles east of town, it comes to an abrupt end, and nothing but a few sad strands of torn barbed wire remain to bisect the enormity of the desert.

It's hard not to laugh out loud: all this mad fuss over so much nothingness. What are we so afraid of?

How it all began

Jim Gilchrist's home is a good nine-hour drive from the barren stretch of Arizona desert about which he has become so insistently concerned. Despite this distance, Gilchrist has for months now been planning to erect a human fence along the imaginary line separating the United States from Mexico, to station volunteers armed with binoculars, radios, and often pistols at quarter-mile intervals in an effort to protect what they and Gilchrist understand to be America from all that it is not. Gilchrist is a retired CPA, and lives with his wife and two aging Chihuahuas in a modest yellow stucco town house behind the walls of a gated subdivision in Orange County, California. Nearly all of the surrounding streets have Spanish names (Calle Cortez is not far), and even the car washes have Mexican-tiled roofs.

It is late March, and the Minuteman Project won't begin for another week, but Gilchrist's phone is already ringing every few minutes with calls from ABC News or Congressman Tom Tancredo's office. One of the Chihuahuas dozes on the couch in a mauve-and-cream-themed living room cluttered with ceramic angels, artificial roses, and framed New Testament verses. (His wife, Gilchrist explains, is the religious one.) A small man with hooded gray-green eyes, a quick smile, and a nervous laugh, he strokes the dog beside him and talks about being wounded in Vietnam on a dirt road just south of Khe San.

"I think about that place every single day," he says. A bullet struck his rifle, sending fragments into his face, head, shoulder, elbow, and arm. "We had nineteen men in our company killed that day. Their bodies were just laying in the trail."

The thread of Gilchrist's ramblings is loose and somewhat frayed, and before long he moves on to the last time he was in Arizona, about twenty miles west of Douglas, patrolling the border road with Chris Simcox, then the editor of the Tombstone (Ariz.) Tumbleweed, and, with Gilchrist, the co-founder of the Minuteman Project. On the other side of the barbed-wire fence, they came across three coyotes, as the guides who smuggle migrants across the border are called. "One of the guys must've been only seventeen," Gilchrist says. "He needed braces; I remember that. They were friendly and everything, but they knew what we were there for. Our interpreter told them, 'We're not here to hurt you.'" The coyote answered, "Well, I got ninety-five people back there, and we're coming in tonight.'"

"He even told us," Gilchrist muses with a laugh. "It was funny. It was somehow silly. Here we are on the other side of the barbed wire, and we're giving them a gallon of water. We did everything but shake their hands. He said, 'We need agua.' So we gave them the gallon of water and they said thank you.

I said, "De nada." And the young one, he was about seventeen, he seemed to be so sincere."

Gilchrist shakes his head in amazement at it, this simple interaction, stripped briefly of any shielding rhetoric. He doesn't seem to know what to do with it, so he quickly returns to the comforts of rhetoric. Gilchrist's colleagues along the Arizona border will later repeat and repeat again the same arguments and many of the same phrases ("economic invasion," "a nation of laws"). The degree of rationality, nostalgia, and overt or implicit racism will fluctuate from Minuteman to Minuteman, but the basics will remain the same. By taking American jobs and bringing down wages, immigrants are destroying the American middle class. By taking advantage of government services, they are draining our wealth. They will bring us all down. They are criminals and terrorists. Most of this is demonstrably untrue, but it offers a tidy enough account to explain most of the dislocations brought about by the current state of global capitalism.

Then there's "the stack of marbles"--Gilchrist's semifunctional metaphor for what's replaced the old melting pot model, "where the cultures are banging against each other, each marble seeking dominance over the other marbles." Beginning sometime in the 1980s, Gilchrist says, he began to feel "something like a disorientation." The country no longer looked the same. He began writing to his congressional representatives to express his concerns about illegal immigration. His anxieties grew. When 9/11 came, Gilchrist was devastated. "That was the turning point." He started spending a lot of time on the internet and read as much as he could.

Gilchrist came across an article about Chris Simcox in American Legion magazine. Simcox, a former elementary school teacher, had lived in Los Angeles until the fall of 2001, when he landed in the Western theme-town of Tombstone, Arizona, with a bad case of the post-9/11 freakouts. After the attacks, he told the Los Angeles Times two years ago, "For a while, I wouldn't talk to anyone if they couldn't recite the Pledge of Allegiance." He lost custody of his teenaged son after his ex-wife objected to his signing the boy up for handgun training. He has since opted for a calmer, revised version of his narrative: He packed up and took what he now calls a "vacation" to Organ PipeCactus National Monument in southwest Arizona. Simcox says he encountered large groups of migrants at every turn, even "drug caravans coming in."

He tried to join the military, then the Border Patrol, but was told he was too old. He pitched stories to mainstream media outlets but found no takers. So he washed dishes for a while and acted in one of the local Old West shows as a bumbling gunslinger named Shame. He eventually found a job at the Tombstone Tumbleweed. Within six months he bought the paper and quickly transformed it into a mouthpiece for his anti-immigrant views. In October of 2002, Simcox issued "a public call to arms."

"Enough is enough!" the Tumbleweed shouted. "Citizen border patrol militia now forming!"

According to the Arizona Daily Star, two volunteers showed up to Simcox's first training session, and twice as many journalists. Simcox was undeterred and now boasts that the group he founded, Civil Homeland Defense, is responsible for turning over more than 4,000 undocumented immigrants to Border Patrol. (His critics claim that number is hypertrophically inflated.)

A few months after reading the American Legion article, Gilchrist heard Simcox interviewed on the radio. Intrigued, he checked out the Civil Homeland Defense website, then gave Simcox a call. He offered to travel to Arizona to lend a hand and to try to recruit some volunteers. He sent out a group email early last October and soon put up a website of his own, dubbing the effort the Minuteman Project.

Asked to fill in the blanks between his reaction to the 9/11 attacks and the evolution of the idea for the Minuteman Project, Gilchrist leaps to his feet and races through a door in the kitchen into the garage. One wall is covered with framed black-and-white photographs of young men in military fatigues. "He's my lieutenant," he says, pointing to one photo, the pace and pitch of his voice rising with each word. "He was killed. These two were killed. He's still missing in action. He died. He was shot in the back by a sniper. He's dead. These are all friends of mine. This is me 36 years ago." Gilchrist hustles upstairs to his office. "9/11 comes along and I'm back there," he says, meaning Vietnam. "I'm sort of back there all the time, but really back there."

Displayed on the walls are a framed image of a man weeping, leaning against the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, a drawing of Ronald Reagan in a cowboy hat, and a photo of a young Jim Gilchrist in Marine dress uniform. For days after 9/11, Gilchrist says, he couldn't sleep. "I could hardly even walk," Gilchrist says. "I remember walking up and down the stairs real fast, up and down, up and down, telling my wife, 'We're going to go to war, we're going to go to war, these kids are all going to get killed, our nephew Russell, he's gonna get drafted, we're going to war!'" And that's it: that's as rational an explanation as it is possible to draw from Jim Gilchrist on the source of his obsession with the border. He talks more, for hours more, spinning off the usual lines about the burden undocumented immigrants put on the hospitals and how even traffic is worse, but the only answer he supplies that makes even the briefest solid sense is that confession of flashback psychosis, raw panic, insomniac fear.

Rallying the Minutemen

By 9 a.m. on April 1, two news trucks are already idling in the dirt parking lot beside the old Masonic lodge in Tombstone. Three more are parked across the street. It was here, in Schieffelin Hall, 122 years ago almost to the day, that the residents of Tombstone gathered to gripe about the military's failure to protect white settlers from Apache raiders. A posse of "Tombstone Rangers" set out on horseback and, failing to find any hostiles, fired blindly at members of a pacified tribe, then hightailed it back to Tombstone. Fortunately for all, every bullet missed.

The settlers' fears have hardly abated though the Apaches are long gone. At this hour not many cowboys can be seen either, even in Tombstone, where at any given moment a good percentage of the local population is dressed as Doc Holliday or Calamity Jane. Twenty Minutemen are scattered about the lot, talking to the cameras about the need to seal the border before the Mexicans steal every last job. Most are potbellied, mustached men on the far side of middle age wearing camouflage baseball caps and holstered sidearms. The guns, a nasty local history of vigilante violence, and the fact that the Aryan Nation website listed the Minuteman Project as a featured "White Pride Event," have been enough to get a lot of people worried that someone, be it Minuteman or migrant, might get hurt, and the anxiety has seeped into the newspapers and television news shows. But there are so few Minutemen around this morning that the reporters, who for the moment outnumber them about four to one, are beginning to grumble that the whole thing may be an elaborate April Fool's gag designed to demonstrate the gullibility of the press.

Sue Voss, a small permed woman in a denim shirt, struggles to light a cigarette in the wind. She's a retired phone company technician from Tucson and is here, she says, because she's afraid of who and what might slip across the border when the government's not watching. She had long been concerned about illegal immigration, but "September 11 was the kicker."

She got involved with the effort to pass Proposition 200, the so-called "Protect Arizona Now" initiative, a steroidally enhanced knockoff of California's Proposition 187 that not only denies most government services to noncitizens but requires state employees to report undocumented immigrants. It was approved last fall by 56 percent of Arizona voters. Like many of her colleagues, Voss does not think that the connection between fears of terrorist attacks and the desire to cut off benefits to immigrants requires any special explanation.

Late last year, Voss heard about Simcox and Gilchrist's call for all patriots to descend on southern Arizona throughout the month of April to "surprise ILLEGAL immigrants on trails heading north" and "suggest" that they "sit and wait for USBP... to come and pick them up." Voss first volunteered a few months ago and has been coming down to Tombstone to help out with preparations ever since. "I am terribly proud to be part of this movement," she says with a shy, earnest smile. "I think you're seeing true America here."

Several dozen reporters mill about, sticking microphones at a few white men with guns on the edge of a dusty parking lot packed with SUVs. Of course she's right.

Tombstone was never much of a town. It sits in a particularly drab patch of desert on top of a history no more colorful or violent than that of most other Western towns. There were silver mines at one point, but since the late 1920s Tombstone has been skating by on a mythic version of Western history, a tourist-friendly monument to a past that never was. Allen Street, the main drag, is a full-scale clapboard-and-stucco model of every eight-year-old's Wyatt Earp fantasy, complete with costumed gun-toting baddies and "authentic Indian collectibles." Genuine buzzards circle overhead.

By early afternoon, the Minutemen have locked themselves inside Schieffelin Hall. A small group of protesters keeps the reporters company outside. They wave hand-lettered signs that read "You're the immigrant" and "Who's illegal, Pilgrim?" Black-hatted Arizona Rangers guard the doors.

Inside, about a hundred Minutemen sit stiffly on wooden benches. Most are male, and almost all are white. Jim Gilchrist is standing at the front of the hall, squeezed into a tight tan suit that makes his head look like an accident visited upon his shoulders. Simcox is a few feet away, pacing the aisle with a video camera. Forty-four, goateed, and handsome in an aw-shucks sort of way, he purses his lips and squints with a studied Lee Marvin intensity.

Gilchrist blushes as the Minutemen applaud, then introduces the first speaker: Bay Buchanan, Pat's sister. She addresses President Bush, who is not here. "You have failed us. You have failed our children. You are allowing criminals to come across this border, terrorists, drugs. Mr. President, you have failed America."

The Minutemen whistle and stamp their feet. Tom Tancredo is next, the congressman from Colorado who is apparently hoping a political career built on immigrant-bashing will land him in the White House. (He's been visiting Iowa and New Hampshire lately, and will soon splash his way into the news by declaring that in the event of any major terrorist attack on American soil, the U.S. should bomb Mecca.) Tancredo is a tan, smooth-voiced man with neatly trimmed gray hair. He tells the Minutemen they are "American heroes" and reassures them that, despite appearances to the contrary, "You are not a small group. There are literally hundreds of millions of Americans who feel as we feel."

If Tancredo is overstating the case, he's not entirely off. This may be a media stunt, but there's something very real behind it, one of the periodic tides of nativism that washes over American politics whenever the economy sinks, bolstered this time by a huge and unhealthy dose of al Qaeda nuke-in-a-backpack hysterics. Copycat versions of Arizona's Proposition 200 are in the works in at least twelve other states, some as far from the border as Washington and Virginia. In the first three months of 2005, the white supremacist National Alliance went on a pamphleting spree, leaving racist and anti-immigrant literature on lawns and doorsteps in fourteen states from California to New Jersey. In late March, they hit Douglas, Sierra Vista, and Tombstone, warning that "Non-whites are turning America into a Third World slum." Last year, Samuel P. Huntington, riffing off such dodgy old tropes as the Jewish Question and the Negro Problem, published an essay titled "The Hispanic Challenge" (which became a section of his book Who Are We?: The Challenge to America's National Identity), expressing a racially insular white nationalism with astounding candor. ("There is no Americano dream," he concluded. "There is only the American dream created by an Anglo-Protestant society.") Still more worryingly, he was taken seriously.

So the sound of stamping feet that accompanies Tancredo's ovation is more than a little chilling. The effect is only magnified by Chris Simcox's closing remarks. He speaks in a surprisingly gentle voice, stressing the importance of the "S.O.P.," the ten-point Standard Operating Procedure he has drafted, which goes over everything from staying sober while on duty (point two) to picking up your trash (point nine). "We are going to be held accountable to the letter of the law in every way imaginable," Simcox says. "You must show the greatest restraint."

Before sending his men off to take up their posts along the border and protect the homeland from everything outside it, Simcox ends on an ominous note. He narrows his eyes and speaks very slowly. "The government cannot allow this to succeed," he says. "The agent provocateur is out there. Maybe even in this room." The Minutemen stand. They clap and hoot and stamp some more.

Our xenophobic nation

"In the West there was a panic when the migrants multiplied on the highways," John Steinbeck wrote in 1939. "Men who had never been hungry saw the eyes of the hungry. Men who had never wanted anything very much saw the flare of want in the eyes of the migrants. And the men of the towns and of the soft suburban country gathered to defend themselves; and they reassured themselves that they were good and the invaders bad, as a man must do before he fights." Of course The Grapes of Wrath was about migrants from Oklahoma, not from Michoacán and San Salvador. Long before the Okies left the Dustbowl, fear of outsiders had a well-established pedigree. But there is nothing timeless in the most recent outbreak of xenophobia. This current rash belongs to us alone, to this unsteady moment of empire in crisis and slippery transnational economics.

Until 1875, no federal law existed restricting immigration to the United States. A law drafted that year kept out felons and Chinese women, and another in 1882 excluded the men. It was only at that point that America began to notice its southern boundary, and then only out of fear that the Chinese might sneak in through Mexico. The Border Patrol wasn't founded until 1924, and before 1929 it wasn't even a crime to circumvent border authorities and slip into the U.S.: the concept of the "illegal" immigrant did not exist.

While the rhetoric of nativism has hardly shifted a comma in a century and a half--the Irish, the Chinese, the Italians, the Mexicans, they're taking all the jobs, they're criminals and drug-runners, they're corrupting our culture--its current manifestation, with its obsessive focus on the southern border, didn't begin to take form until the mid-1970s and early 1980s, when downturns in the Mexican economy and wars in Central America sent a new wave of migrants north. Xenophobia has been rolling ever since, fading in prosperous years, blooming in bad times.

Thus the recession of the early '90s brought us Buchanan for President, Pete Wilson, and Proposition 187. In 1993, in what came to be known as Operation Hold the Line, Silvestre Reyes, then the Border Patrol chief in El Paso, began concentrating agents in the urban center of his jurisdiction and thereby dramatically reduced the number of crossings between El Paso and Ciudad Juarez. (Reyes retired from the Border Patrol soon after to run for Congress. He won.) The next year, the Clinton administration launched Operation Gatekeeper, which poured resources into securing the border in urban sections of San Diego County. Feeling the pinch on both sides, migrants have increasingly been forced to cross through more isolated and inhospitable areas. Most cross through the Arizona desert. In 2004 the Border Patrol arrested nearly half a million immigrants crossing the 261-mile border of its Tucson sector--more than in all the other border states, both north and south, combined. In 1995 not a single migrant was found dead by Border Patrol in Arizona. Since then, more than 3,600 people have died crossing into the United States from Mexico.

No system functions without a certain degree of inefficiency, a calculable quantity of waste. That holds true for the massive global circulatory system of migratory desperation that sends Pakistanis to Dubai, Ethiopians to Rome, Burmese to Bangkok, Turks to Berlin, and Mexicans and Central Americans to garment factories in Los Angeles, poultry plants in Tennessee, tomato fields in Florida, restaurant kitchens, construction sites, suburban lawns, and cribsides from Seattle to the Carolinas. And it is one of the strange ironies of our time that, as Jennifer Allen, an immigrant-rights activist based in Tucson, puts it, "the borders are more open now than they ever have been. With the passage of NAFTA and other subsequent side agreements, capital goes back and forth, goods go back and forth, services go back and forth. The only way that the border is closed right now is for workers."

For the moment, at least, it suits no one in power to change that. American politicians can squeeze political capital from the latest crisis at the border, mouthing the rhetoric of homeland security and the war on drugs while making sure that corporate agriculture and industry have a reliable influx of cheap, easily replaceable laborers. (Last fall, the head of the Western Growers Association complained to Border Patrol that rigorous enforcement at a Yuma highway checkpoint was keeping lettuce pickers from the fields. The checkpoint was promptly closed.) The Mexican government gets a convenient escape valve to let off the political pressures that accompany so much poverty, not to mention the benefit of the remittances wired by migrant workers to their families at home, which in 2003 surpassed the revenue Mexico earned from oil.

Until about five years ago, there was no border wall in Douglas, just a tattered chain-link fence with holes big enough that trucks could (and sometimes did) drive through them. Today, Douglas often feels like an occupied city. In some parts of town and at some times of day, every third vehicle you pass on the road is a white and green Border Patrol Jeep, Humvee, pickup truck, or Ford SUV. They have a shiny new $28 million station just outside of town, and in recent years have been able to count on a steadily growing budget for personnel, fencing, helicopters, and a multitude of high-tech toys. Walls have gone up in the other border towns too, slicing neat steel lines through the perimeters of Naco and Nogales, and if Border Patrol has its way, they will carve a corrugated barrier along the entire length of the state.

'I thought I was acting in self-defense.'

The Minutemen's first trophy walked into their hands on the evening of March 31, hours before the project officially began, on the grounds of the Miracle Valley Bible College in Palominas, forty minutes southwest of Tombstone. It was there that many of the Minutemen were lodging, put up for a small fee by Miracle Valley's current proprietor, a Pentecostal minister named Melvin Harter. Built half a century ago by the evangelical preacher Asa Alonso Allen--who was said to be able to change the dollar bills in his pocket into twenties through the power of prayer alone--Miracle Valley briefly captured national headlines in 1982. An African-American holiness congregation had moved down from Chicago three years earlier and found the locals less than welcoming. Paranoia built on both sides, culminating in a shootout between parishioners and police that left two people dead and seven wounded.

Smoking a cigarette in the Bible College parking lot, bats diving through the night air above his head, Jim Gilchrist talks about the young Guatemalan migrant who, lost and alone in the desert at night, saw from afar the illuminated cross glowing on the roof of the Miracle Valley chapel. He hadn't eaten in three days and walked toward the cross in search of Christian charity. He found the Minutemen. They gave him a blanket, cupcakes, Snickers bars, and a quart of water. "He said 'thank you' in English as he got into the Border Patrol truck," Gilchrist says proudly.

Not everyone has been so lucky. One morning in January 2003, José Rodrigo Quiroz Acosta stepped onto a highway in Douglas and flagged down a pickup truck. He had been walking for days and was ready to surrender himself to the mercy of strangers. The truck happened to be driven by Roger Barnett, a Douglas rancher who owns the local propane and towing businesses. When Quiroz approached to ask for water, Barnett allegedly opened the tailgate of his truck, releasing two German shepherds. While the dogs were biting Quiroz, Barnett allegedly grabbed him by the hair and punched him repeatedly in the face and head. Eventually he called Border Patrol, and Quiroz was dragged off and deported.

The Cochise County Sheriff pressed no charges against Roger Barnett for assaulting José Quiroz. Nor has he been charged in the dozens of other cases in which Mexican nationals allege they were detained or abused by Barnett, who has become an iconic figure in the anti-immigration movement. Tom Tancredo, in front of Congress no less, has called Barnett a "homeland hero." Well before the arrival of the Minutemen, Barnett's reputation had made Cochise County (named for the defeated Apache chief) a magnet for extremist border activists.

In 2000, Jack Foote and Casey Nethercott, the gun-crazy leaders of the now largely defunct anti-immigrant group Ranch Rescue, launched "Operation Raven," their first paramilitary exercise in the county. It mostly involved dressing up in khaki fatigues and toting weapons on ranches around Douglas. Operations Owl, Hawk, and Thunderbird followed. (Participants received merit-badge-like "mission patches" as souvenirs.) Chris Simcox, of course, showed up in late 2001, and in 2002, onetime Proposition 187 spokesman Glenn Spencer emigrated from the San Fernando Valley to Cochise County, where he launched his own group, American Border Patrol. He lives just 1,100 feet from the border, surrounded by fences and ground sensors in a fully wired prefab home from which he maintains two websites and dispatches young men on ATVs into the mountains to broadcast live infrared video footage of border crossers over the internet.

None of Barnett's admirers work together or even get along, but they walk the same ideological trails and are joined by a tendency to get in trouble with firearms. Foote was arrested last year on weapons charges, and Nethercott served five months in federal prison after a standoff with FBI agents in the parking lot of a Douglas Safeway in which one of his comrades was killed. He is now serving a five-year sentence in a Texas jail on a separate charge. Simcox is on probation for concealing a loaded pistol on national parkland. And Spencer was on probation for most of last year--he pleaded guilty last January to endangerment charges after firing a rifle into his neighbor's garage. He received a year's probation. He had heard noises coming from his backyard, he told the Sierra Vista Herald at the time. In an unusual moment of contrition that could one day serve as an epitaph for the entire nativist movement, Spencer summed up the situation: "I thought I was acting in self-defense."

Angry white men on the front lines

"Forget about WMDs," says Rick Biesada, nodding knowingly at the sagging barbed wire strung a few yards away. "It's nothing for one of these guys with a communicable disease to come across the border." Mexicans, confides Biesada, are bringing "all types of social diseases," from chlamydia to syphilis. "But the frightening thing is the leprosy."

Today is April 3, the first official day of the Minutemen's border watch. A Vietnam vet with a tough Chicago accent and Semper Fi tattooed on his tricep, Biesada shares a lookout post with the brothers Thatcher, Richard, and Robert, tall and short. The three men stand listlessly in the dirt. Robert's thirteen-year-old-son sits beside them, glum and sheepish in a low folding chair. The Thatchers silently scan the horizon to the south. They are among the 857 registered Minutemen that Simcox and Gilchrist will claim actually showed up to volunteer. That number may even be accurate, though there never appear to be more than about 150 present at any one time.

They will not, as originally planned, "surprise illegals" and make them wait for Border Patrol. Apparently realizing that such tactics could constitute unlawful imprisonment, Simcox and Gilchrist chose to implement a strict "no confrontation" policy: Minutemen are instructed to do nothing more than sit tight and call the Border Patrol if they spot any migrants.

There aren't many to spot. The Mexican government and human rights groups have been working for weeks to get the word out, telling would-be border crossers to avoid the twenty-three-mile stretch that the cazamigrantes (migrant hunters) plan to stake out. (In fact, between two locations--here along the border road near Naco, and the highway at the base of the Huachuca mountains south of Sierra Vista--they barely cover five miles.) And the Minutemen are hard to miss. They make no attempt to hide themselves. Flags wave from their antennae, and their pickup trucks shine like a line of mirrors in the sun.

Biesada owns a small trucking company and blames undocumented workers for wrecking the unions in Chicago for "diluting our sovereignty" and for being criminals. And lepers. The Thatchers are roofing contractors from Huntington Beach, California. The taller one says that immigrant labor has driven wages down, making it hard for contractors who only hire citizens to compete. The shorter Thatcher recalls southern California in the '60s. "You wouldn't believe how good it was when I was a kid," he says. "It was about the best place you could live."

Now, Thatcher says, anger rising in his voice, "They run out their tamale carts like they do in Tijuana. I call the police and they won't do nothing about it. It's embarrassing. It's just not right."

It gets worse. "My brother, one day he walked out, and what was going on? A Mexican guy was going to the bathroom right in the middle of his lawn!" Thatcher bends at the knees, squatting in illustration. His face goes red with outrage. "This is supposed to be our country!"

Biesada jumps in and goes on for a while about the "nanny state," unjust domestic violence laws, and how there's no real patriotism anymore. He goes on long enough that the Thatchers begin peeking through their binoculars again. I get ready to move on to the next outpost down the line, but before I can take a step away, Biesada blurts, "I banged Hillary in 1967!"

He gives me a copy of his memoir, a self-published paperback titled Angry White Male and the Horse He Rode In On. On the cover, a drunk-looking Biesada sits perched on a Harley. And there it is, on page 64: "She whispered something about being Hillary from Park Ridge, like it was supposed to mean something, but to me she was just another score."

He signs the title page: And Justice For All.

Hot on the trail of the narco-druglords

Standing alone beside his pickup truck on the shoulder of Highway 92, Jim points his binoculars into the dry foothills of the Coronado National Forest. "We're eyeballing a possible smuggler," he says. An affable general contractor with bright eyes and a squirrel-gray beard, Jim asks me not to print his full name because he fears reprisals, he says, from the Salvadoran street gang Mara Salvatrucha. He points to a pass in the hills to the west. "This is one of the hottest spots in the nation for feeding hard drugs into the United States of America."

More reliable sources than Jim report that mainly marijuana comes through here, but no matter. Early this morning, Jim saw a man park his truck down the road and hike up into the national forest carrying a large backpack. Hardly unusual behavior, but, Jim says, squinting tightly, "We suspect him of being a resupplier." Also this morning, "a lady with Arizona plates" stopped her car, Jim says, dropped a few McDonald's bags and water jugs on the shoulder, and drove off. "We took them into our camp and they were still warm, so hell, we went ahead and ate them and drank the water. How is that for an insult?"

Asked if he doesn't worry about migrants dying of thirst, Jim scoffs. "We don't care--these are narco-druglords! These are traffickers! They're killing people by the millions in the cities."

A car and a truck roll up and three grey-haired men get out, among them Joe McCutchen, a red-faced septuagenarian in a peach-colored golf shirt. Everyone shakes hands. Except for some trouble with the radios (they must have a scout up there with a jammer, Jim concludes), nothing's happened since the hamburger incident, so Jim regales the newcomers with theories about where the president was when he was supposed to be in the National Guard. (Flying drug runs in Central America, of course: "He was a pilot.") The gossip turns to neurotoxins, and Jim, who grew up in nearby Bisbee, tells the others how to identify the Mojave rattlesnake. "Remember, I was a Boy Scout in Cochise County," he says, and laughs, "I never lynched one illegal Mexican the whole time."

"Damn the bad luck!" cackles McCutchen and, as if foreseeing his words in print, glances at me coolly and mutters in a thick Arkansas drawl, "I'm really getting sick of hearing bigot, racist, all that."

A little research reveals, by the by, that Joe McCutchen is not just a brutish-minded freak. Despite an eccentric habit of writing anti-Semitic letters to his local newspapers, he is a semirespectable member of his community. He owns a small chain of pharmacies and heads a group called Protect Arkansas Now, which hopes to float a clone of Arizona's Proposition 200 for Arkansas voters soon. He very well may win.

Tilting at the wrong windmills

What Hunter Thompson once wrote of a completely different constituency of unpleasant men applies equally well to the Minutemen: "They are not all vicious drunks, and not all mental defectives either. Some are genuinely confused and frightened at what seems to be the End of the World as they know it. And this is sad, too..." Sad not only because they are scared and broken men, and painful to be around, but because their anger, anxiety and grief seem to be the flavors of the day, and trebly hard to bear for that. And sad because while they are delusional about many things and wrong about most--the majority of undocumented immigrants, it should be said, do pay taxes, and as a group put more money into the economy in taxes than they take out in services--they do have some things right.

The good union jobs for which the American working class fought for so many years are largely gone. The stable white-collar work world is no longer at all stable. And the responsibility lies with decades of decisions made by the Minutemen's heroes (Reagan) and antiheroes (Clinton, the current Bush) alike, and most of all with the corporate powers those men so loyally served. The Minutemen were sold a dream, a newsreel fantasy of a nation undivided and strong (need I say white?), in which work equals pride, class doesn't matter, and we can all sleep soundly knowing someone's got our back.

They cannot admit that they were conned. Somebody ran off with the goods. And the only people around to take the blame are the ones already on their knees picking lettuce, pruning hedges, scrubbing toilets and floors, many of whom were pushed to risk their lives crossing the border by the same global economic forces that brought the Minutemen down to guard that overburdened length of wire.

In the end, the vast majority of Simcox and Gilchrist's followers are spared the discomfort of confronting their fears, except from afar through the lenses of their binoculars. At the end of the month, the Minutemen claim that their calls to the Border Patrol resulted in the apprehension of 335 migrants. (They will later claim that their presence prevented the entrance of no fewer than 60,000 others.) They have not, as many people feared they would, shot anybody or even held anyone against their will. This record of nonconfrontation is spotted by only one brief encounter that was, in its giddy, tragicomic way, characteristic of the effort as a whole.

A gangly twenty-four-year-old Minuteman named Bryan Barton spotted a twenty-six-year-old migrant from Mexico named José Antonio Aboytes Sepúlveda wandering on the side of the highway. Aboytes had lost his sister and girlfriend in the desert, and had been walking alone for two days. As a friend videotaped the encounter, Barton fed Aboytes cereal, and gave him a $20 bill and a T-shirt reading "Bryan Barton caught me crossing the border and all I got was this lousy T-shirt." Then he turned him over to Border Patrol, who dropped him unceremoniously back across the line. Neither the Border Patrol nor the Mexican consulate were able to discover what had become of Aboyte's sister and girlfriend.

Lettuce is still cheap

The southernmost row of headstones is not two hundred yards from the border wall and barely a hundred from an awning under which a Border Patrol truck sits idling. Here, in the Douglas Cemetery, near the center of town, the wall is only slightly more intimidating than an ordinary fence: just high steel posts, tightly spaced and painted beige. If you look close, you can see weld scars where the fence has been cut away and repaired, and repaired again.

Even from this distance, you can see into the backyards of the homes on the other side, in Mexico, just a few feet from the wall. When the corpses of migrants found in Cochise County can be identified, as is usually the case, the coroner turns them over to the Mexican consul in Douglas, who arranges for their repatriation. If they cannot, and it cannot even be determined that they are citizens of Mexico, the coroner delivers the remains to the funeral home just across the way from the cemetery, and they are interred here. Small birds chase each other from grave to grave. Butterflies flit among bright artificial roses. If you walk through the cedar-lined alleys, past sturdy marble headstones and crosses of wrought iron and modest wood, at the northern edge of the graveyard, you will find a cluster of low stone slabs reading either "Unidentified Male" or "Unidentified Female." Fifteen have been buried in this red dirt since 2002. They are what is missing from this story and from the stories the Minutemen tell themselves.

Lettuce is cheap. Hotel rooms are clean. All over America, lawns are trim and magically green. Grown men lie shaking in their beds. Not everyone makes it.

On the Freedom Bus

The original Freedom Riders -- the civil rights pioneers who in 1961 struggled for integration in the Jim Crow South -- were greeted in Southern cities with brass knuckles, bombs and handcuffs. By comparison, the labor organizers, workers and activists on two New York-bound buses taking part in the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride have received warm welcomes everywhere they've gone.

In Palm Beach, Phoenix and Tucson, hundreds turned out to greet the riders, who left Los Angeles on September 23 to form part of the caravan of buses from 10 cities that converged in Washington this Wednesday in an attempt to bring attention to the plight of immigrant workers and spearhead a new movement for immigrant rights. It wasn't until the buses stopped at a Border Patrol checkpoint in Sierra Blanca, Texas, about 70 miles southeast of El Paso, that they received the sort of inhospitable greeting that many immigrants to this country have come to expect.

It was a little past 7 when the buses slowed to a halt at a permanent immigration checkpoint in the Sonora Desert town of Sierra Blanca. The stop was no surprise -- the ride's organizers had prepared for it by contacting the immigration service before the ride began, requesting that the buses be allowed to pass unchallenged. They also prepared the riders, who went through three hours of "solidarity training" in Los Angeles before the trip began. To prevent the INS from singling out undocumented immigrants, the riders stowed all official identifying documents in the buses' cargo bins. Riders carried a badge with their name and photograph on one side and a message to law enforcement on the other: "To Whom it May Concern: I am a participant in the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride, a peaceful campaign by citizens and immigrants in support of equal rights for all workers. I wish to exercise my right to remain silent."

When two green-uniformed Border Patrol officers boarded each bus and began asking passengers to state their citizenship, they responded with a chorus of "We Shall Overcome," and by holding up their ID badges with the message facing out. As Dan Gregor, the group's attorney, negotiated with Border Patrol officials, the riders kept singing in their seats for nearly two hours. At a little after 9, officers again boarde d the bus, repeated their questions, and, again receiving no answers, asked the riders to step

off the bus. Officers led them in small groups into the Border Patrol station, where they were held in small, crowded cells and questioned individually.

"We were told we could be arrested if we didn't answer their questions," says the ride's director, Maria Elena Durazo. But no one, she adds, said a word. The riders continued singing, clapping and chanting in the cells until Border Patrol agents marched them, still singing, back onto the buses.

An hour later, at 10:45, three and a half hours after the buses were first stopped, the station's gray-mustached officer in charge, incongruously named Michael Jackson, told Gregor that everyone was free to go. Jackson would not say why the group had been released, but according to Durazo, the riders had contacted politicians and religious and community leaders as soon as the buses were stopped, asking them to demand that the INS release the riders promptly. "The decision was not made locally," says Gregor. Jackson, he says, told him repeatedly over the course of the morning that he was waiting to hear from his superiors.

While driving out of San Antonio early the next morning, Hilda Delgado, the Freedom Ride's media liaison, announced to the group that the INS had been telling reporters that the riders had been given drinks and snacks while they were detained, and had only been released after everyone had shown officers documentation of their legal residency. No one laughed for long.o

Watching the Watchdogs

"Any and all things you think might be human rights violations, record on this sheet." The instructions came from Muslim Public Affairs Council(MPAC) organizers at the Federal Building downtown on Friday. They were giving volunteers stacks of questionnaires and their uniforms for the day: bright yellow T-shirts emblazoned with the words "Human Rights Monitor."

Blue-helmeted U.N. soldiers haven't been called into American cities just yet, but there was enough outrage last month over the first phase of John Ashcroft's Orwellian-titled "special registration" program -- which many activists characterize as a roundup of Muslim men -- that a grassroots version of a peacekeeping force sprang up to watch the second phase of the process last week. Volunteers from churches, synagogues, anti-war groups and Islamic organizations all over Southern California stood by Friday to witness non-resident males from 12 Muslim countries and North Korea report to immigration authorities.

The monitors' presence was as much symbolic as practical, an attempt to focus attention on the program, which during its last go-round gave them serious reasons for concern: Hundreds of men and boys over 16 from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria and the Sudan arrived voluntarily to be registered last month, only to be arrested and shipped off to detention centers in San Pedro and Lancaster. Many of the arrested were in the United States legally, awaiting final decisions on their green card applications. The INS refused to release information on how many men they had detained, and will not say how many are still in detention.

"We haven't been getting any information," MPAC organizer Susan Attar said Friday as protesters milled about on the sidewalk and an impromptu prayer circle formed a few yards away. "They will only tell us that they can't tell us."

On this Friday, information was just as difficult to obtain. Part of the monitors' purpose was to track people as they came in to register, and determine how many came back out. When she arrived at 6 in the morning, Attar says, about 200 people were lined up outside the Federal Building. About half of those, she estimated, were coming in for their registration interviews. But Attar and the other monitors were unable to produce an exact tally because building security guards and INS officers refused to let them approach the waiting registrants. "They wouldn't let us talk to them," Attar says. "They told us to move to the sidewalk." A few phone calls to higher-ups convinced officials to relent but by the time that happened all 200 had entered the building.

Francisco Arcaute, the local INS spokesman, declined to say how many had registered locally by the end of the day on Friday, or how many had been detained. He deferred the issue to a Justice Department official in Washington, who did not return repeated phone calls. Those wanting more information were left to rely on news reports that boiled the issue down to the simple fact that this month's registration process went smoother than December's public relations debacle.

Smooth might not be the word Muslim immigrants would choose as they waited for INS bureaucrats to determine their fates. Conscious of the bad impression left last month -- even the major dailies considered it poor etiquette to invite people over and then refuse to let them leave -- the INS did bring in additional personnel to handle this month's registration. They even stocked extra computers. And this time around, though the INS had buses ready at a loading dock behind the Federal Building -- and, according to MPAC's Salam Al-Marayati, "There were people who went in and never came out" -- only those who were entirely out of status seemed to be arrested, not those with applications pending. What's more, some of those arrested were bailing out within hours, rather than spending days in Lancaster.

Even so, much of the relative calm might be attributed to the fact that none of the countries listed in the most recent registration order -- Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Eritrea, Lebanon, Morocco, North Korea, Oman, Qatar, Somalia, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen -- boast immigrant populations comparable in size to the local Iranian-American community forced to register in December. By all accounts, fewer people registered this month, which meant that far fewer could be detained. Attar is convinced that the effects of last month's heavy-handed approach by the Justice Department also contributed to the low turnout -- after the initial morning lineup few others showed up as the day progressed -- and will result in many people being labeled criminals for the simple act of failing to register.

"People are not coming for three reasons," she said. "One, they don't know about it. The Department of Justice needs to do its job in terms of publishing this. Two, they don't think it pertains to them. And three, they're scared."

In the end, Attar and her fellow volunteers had nary a human right to monitor and the immigration service got to present a proud spectacle of smoothness.

Operation Miscue

It is a perfect, late-winter Saturday in Huntington Beach. The Santa Anas have scrubbed the sky an almost violent shade of blue. Volleyball players leap about the sand, surfers frolic in the waves, lowrider trucks and Harleys cruise PCH. Ambling toward the pier, a group of girls in bikini tops and cutoffs encounters Jeff White, a thickset man with small blue eyes and a graying blond goatee. He is handing out fliers alongside two more modestly dressed teenagers who hold between them a giant full-color poster of the severed head of an aborted fetus. "Abortion Is Choice," the caption reads. The bikini girls cringe.

"Disgusting pigs," one of them says.

White responds with a tight-lipped smile, "That's Mr. Disgusting Pig."

Today, accompanied by a few hideously gory posters and a dozen or so Christian teens, White is vastly outnumbered by the masses here assembled to worship the decidedly pagan gods of sun, sea and flesh. But a decade ago, the Zeitgeist flitting about his shoulders, White was at the very center of one of late-20th-century America's most heated battles. He was one of Operation Rescue's top organizers, part of founder Randall Terry's inner circle, and was routinely mobilizing hundreds and sometimes thousands of people for mass sit-ins in front of abortion clinics all over the country. Today, White is the head of Survivors, an anti-abortion youth group he founded in 1998 (the name implies that every child born since the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision is a survivor of abortion), which parades on the pier once a month. He's still doing what he's been doing in one form or another for almost two decades: fighting, as he puts it, for the babies.

That fight, whether configured in the language of life or of choice, of the body of Christ or of the wombs of living women, occupied America for much of the 1990s and has worked its way into the very fiber of our contemporary civil discourse. The trajectory of Jeff White's activism over those years mirrors the fate of the movement he once helped to lead, that bizarre hybrid beast, a radical, grassroots, far-right, Christian movement which borrowed its tactics and much of its rhetoric from the civil rights and anti-war struggles of the 1960s. Its story is littered with all the paradoxes of American civil life, with hopes both great and petty, with pieties and hypocrisies equally grand, with ashes and rubble and too many corpses and lives destroyed. It is a story that is day by day still being told and telling itself, its battles not yet over, its victors and losers for now still undetermined. It's not too soon to ask, though, whether the movement's visibility has declined and its crowds dispersed because they overreached and self-destructed, or because they're winning.

For Jeff White it began in the mid-1980s, when he grudgingly caved in to his wife's demands that he watch the film The Silent Scream at church. Before that, he says, "I was against abortion, but I was not an activist. I may have even been antagonistic toward an activist kind of mindset." To his surprise, he says, "When I saw the reality and horror of abortion, it just changed my heart." It was one of those falling-off-your-ass-on-the-road-to-Damascus moments, an experience of revelation similar to those described by others who would go on to devote their lives to fighting abortion. It brought with it a newfound certainty that a great evil existed in the world, a conviction grand enough to elevate a staid suburban life to a plane of biblical absolutes.

Within a few years White had sold the BMW parts store he ran in Santa Clara and devoted himself full time to the cause. The strict demands of Operation Rescue's battle cry, "If you believe abortion is murder, then act like it," appealed to him, and, whether you agree or not about abortion, the motto's integrity merits some respect. I do not believe abortion is murder and have a hard time entertaining a notion of human life abstract enough to include an embryonic growth, but if I believed as White does, and as all who call themselves pro-life claim, that every abortion kills a living human being, that an undeveloped fetus is no different from my 5-month-old niece, I hope that I would be out in the streets with the believers, and not simply content to vote Republican, write my congressman and wait for a Supreme Court justice to die.

The issue, of course, is larger and more complicated than that, but for White and others like him, it seemed that simple. His commitment and ambition pushed him quickly through the organization's ranks, from Southern California director to national tactical director and police liaison. He joined one of a small circle of men who helped Randall Terry put abortion on the evening news again and again throughout the late '80s, organizing massive blockades at clinics around the country. Protesters chained themselves to doors, hurled themselves in front of patients' cars, hollered "baby-killer" as loud as they could, fell on their knees and prayed, did whatever they could to stop what they saw as the greatest holocaust the world had ever known. White was arrested, by his own reckoning, more than 60 times, and spent, all told, about 18 months in jail. He has been slapped with legal judgments adding up to more than $1 million, which will prevent him from ever drawing a salary or owning anything in his own name again. It was all, White now insists, done out of passion and love of God: "Why would I sell my business?" he asks. "Why would I take my family on the road? Why would I go to jail? Why would I miss my daughter's birthday, my son's birthday, my daughter walking? All these things happened while I was in jail. Why would I be in jail during Thanksgiving? Why would all these men and women do those things?"

Sitting in the shade at the base of the pier, as his teen allies stand beside their posters a few yards away, passively absorbing jeers from passersby, White reminisces about the fruit of that passion, what he calls "the largest civil rights movement in the history of the United States." Operation Rescue, White says, "was a movement of the Holy Spirit. Things happened in Operation Rescue that were beyond normal, that spread like a wildfire." For instance, he says, in 1991, thousands of anti-abortion activists descended on Wichita, Kansas, intending to shut down a clinic operated by Dr. George Tiller. He closed his doors for a week, hoping they'd go away. On a Saturday night, White says, Operation Rescue decided to stay. "The next morning we had 80 churches open their doors for speakers. Now I challenge you, go tell somebody that you're a speaker of any sort and try to get them to open their church to you tomorrow. You can call hundreds of churches and you might get one, but in 12 hours, 80 churches opened their pulpit. That's a movement of the Holy Spirit. If you were secular, you would say it was a popular uprising, where somehow through the night, it passed from pastor to pastor and home to home so that the next morning thousands of people were on the street. How did that happen?"

Attempts to repeat the fervor of that "Summer of Mercy" -- which saw more than 2,600 arrests over six weeks -- in Buffalo, and later in Baton Rouge and Houston, failed miserably. Wichita was the anti-abortion movement's last hurrah. There would never again be a successful large-scale "rescue," as the mass sit-ins were called by their participants. By 1991, Operation Rescue was already in shambles. Randall Terry had left, dethroned by factional infighting led by White and a handful of others. Over the years, the group would splinter into regional fragments, its leaders and its tactics rejected by the fundamentalist mainstream and reviled by secular America as surely as taunts of "Assholes!" are shouted at White's Survivors from about every 20th passing SUV. Last summer, when Operation Rescue's successor, Operation Save America, threatened to shut down George Tiller's clinic once again as part of a "Summer of Renewal," only a few hundred die-hard activists showed up in Wichita. No one was arrested, the clinic stayed open, and the protests barely made the news. The Holy Spirit, it seems, had gone elsewhere.

THERE ARE A LOT OF WAYS TO EXPLAIN THE DISSOLUTION of the grassroots anti-abortion movement. You can point to the bickering and backstabbing among the leadership, to the movement's abandonment by mainstream fundamentalist leaders like Jerry Falwell, or to the increasingly effective response of pro-choice groups, which, by the early '90s, were able to muster large numbers of activists to engage in "clinic defense," escorting patients and clinic staff in and out of the building, keeping the doors unblocked and the clinic open. You can speculate about the cultural factors that spurred -- and later ceased to spur -- a group largely composed of middle-class white men to aggressively declare themselves the protectors of America's unborn children and the guardians of the nation's wombs. But, says Frederick Clarkson, author of Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy, "There's no sociological analysis that stands up to the raw fact of incarceration."

In the early days of the movement, police were hesitant to arrest anti-abortion protesters. Those arrested were usually let off with a slap on the wrist, often to the extent that they were able to get arrested and released several times over the course of a single blockade. After a few cities were overwhelmed by Operation Rescue's antics, police, prosecutors and judges began to get tough, seeking felony convictions and handing out more serious sentences. By 1990, White says, it was already clear to the Operation Rescue leadership that the methods that had been grabbing them headlines -- the highly confrontational mass sit-ins -- could not be sustained much longer. "How many times can you get arrested and go to jail and keep your job?" he asks. "It was a middle-class American movement. Seventy-thousand people got arrested. [The National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) puts the number at just under half that.] That's great. But how many times can you do that?"

By the early 1990s, clinics and pro-choice groups were also learning to use the law to hurt Operation Rescue financially. In 1989, the National Organization for Women sued Operation Rescue under the federal anti-racketeering RICO laws, and others began to seek restraining orders to prevent anti-abortion activists from approaching clinics or harassing patients and staff. When they violated the orders, which -- convinced that they had only God's laws to answer to -- they invariably did, they would be sued and frequently slapped with enormous judgments. Randall Terry and his officers grew adept at juggling their finances to avoid collection, but the debts eventually caught up to them. Operation Rescue has been forced to change its name twice, first to Operation Rescue National and later to Operation Save America, to avoid paying judgments. Jeff White's Operation Rescue of California, which he founded after the breakup of the national group, was forced out of business by an $880,000 judgment won by a San Diego lawyer in 1995.

Until then, White had tried various tactics. "I've never done anything because I'm disappointed that something else didn't work," he claims. But each new strategy clearly attempted to make up for the failings of previous ones, and, perhaps not coincidentally, each one was more aggressive than the last. As early as 1992, White had begun organizing what he called Minuteman Strike Teams, small groups that would blockade a clinic unannounced, then leave when police arrived. "We found that when we did rescues with 500 people in front of a clinic, one in three would close. When we did rescues with 40 people and went to three in a day, one in three would close," White says. "So it was tactically a much better option, without the arrests." It was also, of course, one of the only options available to a group that could no longer muster protesters by the hundreds. One Northern California pro-choice group referred to White's minuteman teams as "paramilitary formations," describing them as "extremely aggressive, tactically sophisticated and physically violent."

In 1993, White, Randall Terry and one other man staged a minuteman strike of their own in Los Angeles. They spontaneously dropped in on the Her Clinic on Figueroa, pushing their way through the doors and, according to one patient, "screaming in a loud voice at the patients" in the waiting room. One clinic volunteer later testified that the three refused to leave the clinic and that he was punched by White, who countered that it was he who was punched and that he was forcibly prevented from leaving.

At around the same time that he formulated the minuteman tactics, White and his Operation Rescue of California launched its "No Place To Hide" campaign. The idea was to picket in front of the homes of physicians who perform abortions. Troy Newman, who now heads Operation Rescue West, was then one of White's colleagues (the two have since parted ways). Protesters would go to doctors' homes, Newman recalls on the phone from Wichita, where he's recently moved his family from San Diego, "and we would pray for them, we would hold signs exposing them to their community . . . We would create fliers warning, 'Your neighbor is an abortionist,' or 'Unwanted in this neighborhood,' or 'Beware, so and so is a child killer,' and we'd couple his name and address, and if we could get it, a picture of him, with pictures of aborted babies."

Operation Rescue of California published an "Abortion Buster's Manual," which provided instructions for digging up dirt on doctors. "You are at war against people who make big money cutting live babies into squirming pieces," it read. "There can be no mercy in a war against this kind of enemy. If your digging leads to your local abortionist losing his practice or even his license, feel good!!"

With intimidation as their goal, the "No Place To Hide" protests invariably got ugly. In 1994, White and other activists began protesting every Friday morning in the driveway of Dr. Michael Morris in the town of Crestline, not far from White's home near Lake Arrowhead. Morris reported being followed and boxed in by protesters' cars on the twisting mountain roads he drove to work, being forced to "run the gauntlet" of jeering, threatening protesters as he left his home in the morning, and, on one occasion, being detained and assaulted by White and four others as he attempted to write down the license plate number of a protester's car. White told the story differently in a police report, asserting that Morris pushed protesters and became more agitated when White tried to make a citizen's arrest for battery.

THE COURTS RULED IN FAVOR OF Morris, granting him an injunction that forbade White and his companions from coming within 15 feet of Morris or driving within three car lengths of him. Morris declared in documents submitted to the court that "I suffer from mental anguish and anxiety due to my fear of being murdered or seriously injured."

He had good reason to fear. The sole motivation for the "No Place To Hide" campaign, according to Newman, was to dissuade doctors from performing abortions, to make it unpleasant enough for them that they would just give up. "If there weren't more abortionists," the logic went, "there wouldn't be any abortions taking place." By the mid-1990s, some activists were taking that theory all too literally.

THE LOS ANGELES OFFICES OF THE Feminist Majority Foundation are in an unmarked brick building on Third Street. When you push the buzzer, a voice speaks through the intercom, "Hi, can I help you?" Depending on your answer, and your image on a video monitor a couple yards inside the door, you may or may not be allowed to enter. In the conference room down the hall, one wall is decorated with framed, blown-up photos of early-20th-century suffragette marches. The wall beside it is lined with dozens of shoebox-size filing cabinets. One is labeled "Marches," another "Anita Hill." There are boxes labeled "NOW," "Parental Consent" and "RU486," and there are boxes labeled "Stalking & Intimidation," "Arsons & Bombings," "Murders & Shootings."

It's part of the legacy of the anti-abortion movement that security is taken so seriously even here, in the middle of an affluent Westside commercial strip. Because it's not just clinics that have been targeted: In 1984, the National Abortion Federation's Washington offices were firebombed. Katherine Spillar, the Feminist Majority's executive vice president, says there has never been an incident of violence here, though there have been threats. Between 1989 and '91, this office was the center of resistance against Operation Rescue's "Holy Week" assaults on Los Angeles clinics. "We mobilized over 10,000 people in Los Angeles and trained them how to literally put their bodies between the extremists and the clinics to make sure that patients and doctors and health-care staff could get in," Spillar says. As a result, she says, Operation Rescue's attempts "to position themselves as the new civil rights movement of the '90s" failed. "Instead, what became clear so quickly, especially when we would be out there, arms linked, protecting the clinics, is that they were the bullies."

Bullies, in some cases, is putting it mildly. Abortion opponents have been destroying clinics since a few years after Roe v. Wade: There have been 41 bombings at clinics that provide abortions since 1977 and 167 acts of arson. In the early 1990s, as the "rescue" movement ground to a halt, the violence began to escalate. Since 1991, there have been 17 attempted murders of doctors and clinic employees. And since the 1993 shooting of Dr. David Gunn in Pensacola, Florida, seven people have been murdered by abortion opponents, including three doctors. Bulletproof glass is now the norm at clinics that offer abortions, and high-profile physicians wear bulletproof vests on their way to and from work. Despite it all, White claims emphatically that "There is no organized movement of violence within the pro-life movement. It doesn't exist. It's totally a fabrication for fund-raising for the other side."

Organized or not -- and Spillar insists it is -- the violence has forced pro-choice activists like Spillar into law-and-order stances rarely encountered among liberal feminists. Spillar at times takes up an almost Giulianiesque "broken-windows" theory of anti-abortion crime, praising police for understanding that if they "allow" picketing "then the next thing is the blockades, and then it escalates to following people to their homes." The "worst of the violence," she says, has occurred in jurisdictions where police tolerated picket lines "and looked the other way, thinking it's their right to be out there protesting."

Since the 1990s, the Feminist Majority, NARAL and the National Abortion Federation have been lobbying for tougher laws and stricter enforcement to fight the anti-abortion movement. In 1994, Congress passed the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, known as the FACE Act, which made crimes against abortion providers felonies and gave the federal government clear jurisdiction over anti-abortion activists who jump from state to state. Throughout the '90s, several states and cities (including Los Angeles) passed "buffer zone" laws, forbidding protesters from coming within a certain distance of a clinic. In 1998, after the murder of Dr. Barnett Slepian, pro-choice groups convinced then--Attorney General Janet Reno to establish a federal task force devoted solely to investigating crimes against abortion providers.

Over the last few months, Spillar and other pro-choice leaders have been cheering Attorney General John Ashcroft's promises to crack down on domestic terrorism. Substitute "the Army of God" (an organization -- for which journalists usually reserve the term "shadowy" -- which has taken credit for numerous acts of violence against abortion clinics and employees) for "al Qaeda," and their rhetoric at times mirrors that of Bush-administration hawks. "Unless you close down the network that is funding and aiding and abetting and orchestrating," Spillar says, "you're never going to really get rid of this violence." A quite justified fear of violence has pushed the inheritors of '60s radicalism into an equivocal and ironic stance, as they mime the conservatives of that era who pilloried the SLA and the Weather Underground to justify crackdowns on student radicals. While Ashcroft mounts the most frightening assault on civil liberties since Joseph McCarthy, the pro-choice leadership take their opportunities where they can. The Feminist Majority has even prepared a document titled "Similarities Between Domestic and Global Terrorists," which draws some obvious parallels among fundamentalists the world over, but goes on to compare clinic-bomber Eric Robert Rudolph's alleged smalltime marijuana dealing to the Taliban's involvement in opium production.

Those parallels, the real ones anyway, are worth mentioning. Because for most anti-abortion extremists, it's not just about abortion. What's actually at stake is often obscured when the abortion debate is reduced to biology -- to the intractable and ultimately academic question of when life begins. The real fight is whether biology is relevant at all, and whether secular, humanistic values have any place in American civil life. "This is a spiritual battle," says Flip Benham, the Dallas-based preacher who currently holds the reins of Operation Save America. "It's not about reproductive rights, it's not about homosexuality, it's not about condom pass-outs -- it's about who is Lord and whose laws reign." Troy Newman agrees: "We're about societal reformation," he says, "returning to the values that made this country what she is." Newman and Benham have their own take on just what those values are. "What makes us great is not that we're diverse," Benham says of America. "What makes us great is that we have a rock-solid foundation in Jesus Christ."

That is a sufficiently disturbing statement for those of us who are not Christians, and for Christians who are not biblical literalists like Benham and Newman. The threat of physical violence is also still very real, and still spawns an atmosphere of fear in reproductive-health clinics across the country. The violence has fallen off considerably since its peak in the mid-'90s, and no one has been killed in the United States since Slepian's assassination in 1998, but a clinic security guard was fatally shot in Australia last summer, and a doctor was stabbed in the back while entering a Vancouver, Canada, clinic in July 2000. A bomb went off at a Washington clinic as recently as last June, and the lobby of a Michigan Planned Parenthood was set afire in January 2001. Last year, Clayton Waagner escaped from jail and, in postings to the Internet, promised to kill 42 abortion providers. He has taken credit for mailing hundreds of fake anthrax threats to abortion clinics last fall. Waagner was arrested last December, but Nancy Sasaki, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood--Los Angeles, says the mere presence of protesters, no matter how diminished their numbers, is enough to inspire fear. "You don't know that one of them couldn't be one of those crazies," she says. "So it doesn't matter that they're not chaining themselves to the doors anymore. The fact that they're there and they're still yelling at you and you can hear and you can feel their anger and their hatred for what you represent to them [means] the threat is there."

The violence has also caused its share of damage within the anti-abortion movement. In 1994, anti-abortion extremists organized a conference in Chicago. In attendance was Paul Hill, there to push a biblical justification for the murder of abortion doctors. Just a few months later, Hill would kill a physician and his escort in Pensacola, Florida. Thirty-four people, including Joseph Foreman, at the time a close associate of Jeff White, ended up signing a statement declaring "the justice of taking all godly action necessary to defend innocent human life including the use of force." Flip Benham, in his trademark Texan twang, recalls attending the conference to argue against the proponents of "justifiable homicide." "I can remember beseeching them in the name of Jesus to cease and desist from their heresy," Benham says. "That led to a great and much-needed split in the group."

Benham's move, and his insistence that his followers publicly condemn violence, was at least as important as a PR strategy as it was a principled stand. The belligerence of Operation Rescue's tactics had already alienated a good portion of American fundamentalist ministries, and Benham had every incentive to distance what was left of the group as far as possible from anyone who refused to openly condemn violence (which included White, who, though he insists his own commitment to peaceful protest is absolute, says, "I believe that what I am doing is right, but in my heart of hearts, I don't know that in God's eyes it's not going to come up short. So I don't condemn").

Regardless of any attempts at damage control, in the mid-'90s, Operation Rescue "took the brunt of the heat" for the escalating violence, says Troy Newman. "It became very, very unpopular within churches and on street corners to say that you were pro-life, because if you said you were pro-life, all of a sudden people equated you with being a bomber and a murderer."

TIM AND TERRI PALMQUIST LEARNED that lesson well. Tim, sitting in the lobby of the Bakersfield "Life House" -- a blue A-frame just across the street from the only clinic in all of Kern County that provides abortions -- remembers a brighter era, before violence and factionalism slowed the movement to a crawl. A tall man with a red beard and tired blue eyes, he was in Wichita in 1991 with Terri, his wife. "You had the feeling," he says, "that we had got the momentum going here, and abortion was going down and it was going down fast."

Back then, Tim and Terri regularly took part in Operation Rescue actions, traveling around the state and participating in, by Terri's estimate, about 30 clinic blockades. Terri, Tim says, has a gift for what people in the movement call "sidewalk counseling," confronting women as they approach family-planning clinics to talk them out of having an abortion. "Most of the time my wife was out there sidewalk counseling, and I was watching the kids," Tim laughs. (The Palmquists have nine children. Large families are the norm in the anti-abortion movement: Jeff White has 10 kids.) "Throughout the rescue period there were times that she did let me do something, but most of the time it was her, because she is just more effective in terms of being able to talk one-on-one with the women."

The Palmquists originally wanted to stage a rescue in Bakersfield, says Terri, a small woman with brown frizzy hair, dressed in khakis and Winnie the Pooh sneakers. They decided against it, though, once the sentences started getting tougher. "When we sidewalk counsel," she says, "one or two babies are saved every time I'm here, so it's really more effective one life at a time than to spend a whole bunch of time in jail." They ruled the possibility out completely in 1993. That year, the Family Planning Associates clinic in Bakersfield was burned to the ground, along with the entire office complex in which it stood. (In the same month, two other clinics in Illinois and Pennsylvania were burned, and a bomb exploded at a clinic in Newport Beach.) The Palmquists were out of town when it happened, at an Operation Rescue leadership meeting in Florida, but right after the fire, Terri says, "They were showing our pictures on the news, trying to blame us for it."

They were never even questioned by police, Terri says, but they nonetheless lost the support of most of Bakersfield's Christian community, "because they didn't want to be associated with pro-lifers who burned down the clinic." The arson was never solved. Four years later, after the clinic moved to its current location, across the street from the Palmquists' "Life House," Peter Howard, a Bakersfield anti-abortion activist who had taken part in prayer vigils with the Palmquists, drove a truck loaded with propane tanks and gasoline through the clinic's glass doors. The fire was put out before any serious damage was done; Howard was sentenced to 15 years. The two attacks have effectively alienated the Palmquists from the portion of Bakersfield's Christian community that wasn't already turned off by Operation Rescue's confrontational tactics. "It's been a constant struggle, especially dealing with the churches and pastors, to help them understand what we're doing, that it's not something that they should be afraid of being associated with."

Despite the setbacks, the Palmquists have continued to focus on sidewalk counseling, though since they began leasing this house in 1998, they've been offering free pregnancy tests as well, which takes up a good deal of their time. Throughout the afternoon, anxious Latina teenagers shuffle through the door to be tested. Between tests and counseling sessions, Terri explains her methods. She stands on the sidewalk outside the clinic next to a sign like the ones White brought to Huntington Beach. "When they're going in, I just will say, 'Hi, my name's Terri. Is there something I can do to help you? Are you going in here? We offer free pregnancy tests over here, and if you're thinking about abortion, I just want you to know that I'll adopt your baby, I'll help you in any way I can.'

"Most of them just ignore us," Terri admits, but if they do agree to come inside, or if they come in off the street for a pregnancy test, she sits them down in a room lined with inspirational posters and framed photos of sleeping infants. She tries to talk to them about the problems in their lives that led to their thinking about ending their pregnancies, and shows them the video, about half of which depicts an abortion, followed by a few minutes of tiny red severed fetal legs and hands being poked and jiggled, for maximum gross-out effect, with tweezers and forceps. Terri says that 98 percent of the women who stay till the end of the video decide against having an abortion.

Before they go she gives them a Zip-loc bag filled with baby paraphernalia: a tiny knit hat or booties, a picture frame and a rubber ducky. "I tell them that if they come back with their baby, we'll give them some clothes and stuff, if they need any maternity clothes." In this manner, she says, she and other volunteers dissuade two or three women a week from getting an abortion out of the approximately 75 who she says go in seeking the procedure. Until the previous week, Tim had arrayed 75 white crosses on the lawn in front of the house, one for each "baby" they fail to "save."

Asked if after the high hopes of the late '80s and early '90s, they are ever disappointed at how little has changed, and how long and hard they've had to work, Terri admits that it is "frustrating to think that we did come close. I think we came real close, and then God came down and blessed the effort, and then because of the price to keep it up or whatever, people decided not to do it." She won't admit, though, to feeling defeated. "We have our days," Terri says, "but for the most part we've just hung in there."

Tim, on the other hand, jumps at the chance to talk "about wanting to give up," as he, unprompted, puts it. "It's been a constant crisis going on for so long," he says. "It keeps you constantly on the point of saying, 'I don't know if I can handle this,' but that's just where we have to depend on God and say, 'God, we need your strength to be able to make it through this.' Because on our own I would have given up a thousand times -- I probably have given up at least a couple hundred, and then Terri brought me back."

NOW, TIM SAYS, THEIR WORK IS MOVING in a new direction. "We feel that God may be leading us to do some things that we haven't done before." The Palmquists are turning their energies inward, toward the Christian community that has kept them at a distance for so many years. "What we want to do is be able to mobilize the churches," Tim says. "The first thing is for the churches to recognize that this is their concern." To that end, the Palmquists have been trying to keep track of the church backgrounds of the women they deal with, and eventually to put together a database that they can show to pastors so they can say, "Well, you know what? We've had three girls from your church this year come here, and this is something that affects your church."

The Palmquists are not alone in this newfound focus. Troy Newman again and again cites the figure that 70 percent of the women who have abortions are Christian. "The problem is really internal," he concludes. Today, Newman says in his theatrical salesman's voice, there "is less emphasis on the tactic of going down and rescuing, sitting in front of the door of an abortion clinic, picketing an abortionist in his neighborhood or running for office even. We need to start with ourselves. Jesus said take the log out of your own eye before you can remove the speck in your brother's eye. So you know what that means? We need to stop killing our own children."

Speaking of logs and specks, it's worth mentioning that the anti-abortion movement has itself been repeatedly torn asunder by some fairly un-Christian behavior. Jeff White insists that the early squabblings within the ranks of Operation Rescue -- which led to a coup of sorts, in which White and Joseph Foreman attempted to unseat Randall Terry -- "were not ego trips." Every argument, he says, occurred "because we loved God and we loved each other." Since then, there's been a series of splits, alliances forged and broken, with plenty of bad feelings left behind. Newman and White once worked together, but today Newman jumps at the chance to leak the allegation that White has an unreported income: "He's got a judgment hanging over his head for a million bucks, so he keeps pretty low," Newman confides, adding, "He's got his own business, I don't know if he wants anybody to find out what he does." White denies this. "It's kind of weird that he would even say something like that," he says.

Flip Benham, who cites Scripture like other men stutter, displays equally little eagerness to turn the other cheek to an old comrade-at-arms. White, he says vaguely, "has often lied and done a lot of foolish things." Benham refuses to explain what sort of foolish things he means, and adds, "There was a falling out long before the violence issue. Jeff White wanted to be king, and nobody wanted him there."

Benham was also instrumental in the final downfall of Randall Terry, who, in the years since he left Operation Rescue, would flirt with the militia- and white supremacist--linked U.S. Taxpayers Party, broadcast a right-wing Christian radio show, run for Congress (and lose miserably) in upstate New York, and wage battles against gay rights and so-called child pornography (by leading a boycott to pressure Barnes & Noble to stop selling Jock Sturges' coffee-table photo books). Shortly after Terry left his wife in 1999, Benham posted a plea on the Operation Save America Web site beseeching the faithful to "Please Pray for Randall Terry," who had fallen into sin. Terry was ostracized by the few supporters he had left, and lost his radio show. He now sells used cars in upstate New York and is attempting to remake himself as a country crooner, hawking his CDs -- which feature such tracks as "Got It Bad for You" and "The Holy One" -- on the Internet.

If anti-abortion forces have proved themselves adept at intra-Christian bickering in the past, they are now making it an official focus of their work. Newman's Operation Rescue West has joined Flip Benham's Operation Save America in launching a project they call "Establishing BloodGuilt" to, in Benham's words "remind the church of her responsibility to stand in the gap." Though that project was officially launched in January for the 29th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, activists in Wichita last summer briefly abandoned their positions in front of the clinic and marched on several churches, protesting their tolerant stands on abortion and, in at least one case, on homosexuality. Terri Palmquist promises that if Bakersfield churches "slam the door in our face," she and Tim and their scattered followers will have to move their picket lines and oversized signs from the sidewalks in front of the clinic to those in front of the churches.

Part of this more insular focus, Newman admits, stems from disillusion at the fickleness of the national mood. "There was a lot of early enthusiasm. We thought that if we could just sit in front of the door of an abortion clinic a couple of times, abortion would end. That's when we began to realize that Americans have no staying power for difficult issues," Newman says. "We're beginning to think of this battle as long term. It could happen in our lifetime, but we can see reformation and revival happening in our children's lifetime." Substitute revolution for those other R words, and he sounds every bit the exhausted midcentury Marxist.

Despite the shift, though, anti-abortion activists haven't entirely given up on the public at large. Clinics all around the country still have regular picketers, the Palmquists still stand on the sidewalk across the street, and Troy Newman hasn't given up on what he calls "education." Newman's Operation Rescue West now sponsors "Truth Trucks," which cruise the freeways of Southern California, and occasionally tour the rest of the country, their trailers plastered with oversized images of aborted fetuses. (Robert Rudnick, the driver of one such truck, was arrested last year outside a clinic in Birmingham, Alabama. Police confiscated three handguns and two shotguns from the truck. Newman denies any connection to Rudnick. No charges were filed.) "If America is going to support abortion on demand," Newman says, "she's going to view the decapitated heads of the children she helped kill on a regular basis to the point where they are sickened by it."

IN THE END, NEWMAN'S AND THE Palmquists' disenchantment is probably best understood as indicative of an age-old American David-and-Goliath complex, of a Christian delight in persecution, or of the inevitable result of their impossibly absolutist expectations. Because even if the extremist wing of the movement they represent has been isolated and enfeebled, their cause has rarely looked brighter. If the public has repeatedly shown itself to be more pro-choice than not -- a fact illustrated by Richard Riordan's and Elizabeth Dole's pragmatic stands on abortion -- it is nonetheless harder now than at any point in the last two decades to get an abortion in America. More than 800 clinics, hospitals and private doctors' offices have stopped performing abortions. In most rural areas, there's simply nowhere to go: 84 percent of American counties lack even one abortion provider. What pro-choice activists call "guerrilla legislation" has been quietly passed at local, state and federal levels to deny public funding of abortion and slowly but effectively chip away at choice with mandatory waiting periods and parental-consent requirements. And of course, with Bush in the White House and the remaining pro-Roe Supreme Court justices aging rapidly, legal abortion is on shakier ground than ever.

Back at the beach, Jeff White is not holding his breath. "I don't take solace in politicians," he says. He is also steadfastly optimistic. "A lot of the pro-life movement is down in the mouth," White admits. "I don't know why." As if to answer him, a blond head leans out the window of a passing white pickup and screams, "Get outta here!" White shakes his head. "The last time I was here, there was a guy thumping me on the chest," he says. It's happened enough times that whenever anyone approaches, White says, he immediately assumes that they're going to try to hit him. "It actually happens far less than you would imagine."

Either way, he doesn't let the jeers and blows get him down. "Historically, it's when the other side appears as if they have all the cards that it can change in a flash, the whole center of the battle." He points to the teens working with him a few yards away, all members of Survivors, which White says has been gaining momentum, growing "in leaps and bounds." The kids are recruited at local churches, and it's in the enthusiasm of these unusual teens, who are willing to give up a beautiful Saturday to be ridiculed by strangers, that White places his hope. He talks about the "high-intensity activist training camp" he runs for youth each summer, and about their tours of college campuses -- "the battleground for the hearts and minds of the next generation" -- where they do much the same thing they are doing right now, standing around in public places trying to win converts with their gruesome posters. "It's just a trickle now," White promises, "but it will become a flood."

BRAND NEW STORIES

Don't Sit on the Sidelines of History. Join Alternet All Access and Go Ad-Free. Support Honest Journalism.