Last summer, Minuteman Project co-founder Jim Gilchrist appeared on CNN's Larry King Live to defend Arizona's notorious immigration crackdown law, SB 1070.
The law requires that local and state police officers check the immigration status of any individual they encounter in the course of their law enforcement duties who the officer reasonably suspects to be an immigrant in the country illegally.
Pressed by CNN host Larry King to explain what sort of criteria officers might legitimately use, Gilchrist said, "Responding to an officer, 'No hablo English, Gringo go back to Europe.' Obviously there's an issue there that probably the person may be illegal and perhaps the officer should pursue that."
King identified Gilchrist as the founder and president of the Minuteman Project. That's half-true. Gilchrist is co-founder of the Minuteman Project, the nativist group that popularized the concept of placing armed but untrained civilian volunteers on the U.S.-Mexico border to discourage immigrants from entering the country illegally. But he's not been the group's president since February 2007 when the Minuteman Project board of directors fired Gilchrist for allegedly stealing donations.
Gilchrist promptly launched a new organization called Jim Gilchrist's Minuteman Project, which is little more than a website promoting Gilchrist.
Long after he was being drummed out of the civilian border patrol movement he played a major role in creating and despite repeated revelations of the white supremacist ties of his followers, including murderer Shawna Forde, Gilchrist continued to be invited to speak at universities and appear on major cable news shows. He's been treated by the media as a legitimate authority on immigration issues and often misidentified as the current president of the Minuteman Project.
Last campaign season, Gilchrist further raised his profile by endorsing and stumping for at least ten Republican state and national candidates who sought his help in burnishing their tough-on-immigration credentials. Through all this, Gilchrist has continued to deny that he misappropriated funds. On the issue of white supremacists involving themselves in the movement he played a major role in creating, however, Gilchrist expresses regret.
"Racial supremacists have been a thorn in my side from day one," he told me earlier this year. "They existed in the Minuteman movement, but they had no legitimate reason for being there, because they do nothing to promote equal treatment under the law for all, which after all was our main goal."
"I've said it before, and I'll say it again, that I am very, very disappointed and saddened at the outcome of the Minuteman Project and the citizen border watch movement," Gilchrist said. "All these different organizations and groups just started calling themselves Minuteman this or Minuteman that and unfortunately it turned out that some of the people involved in them had sinister intentions."
I witnessed Gilchrist's frustration with hate group members on full-tilt display during a Minuteman rally in Washington D.C. held in February 2006. Gilchrist was speaking on the steps of the U.S. Capitol when his face suddenly contorted with rage.
"Nazis go to hell!" he yelled.
Striding toward Gilchrist were members of the National Socialist Movement, a neo-Nazi group. They wore polished knee-high jackboots, brown shirts, black ties and swastika armbands.
Gilchrist was apoplectic. "Nazis go to hell!" he repeated. And then a variation: "Go to hell Nazis!"
It was one year after the launch of the Minuteman Project. Gilchrist was nearing the pinnacle of his power as ringmaster of the Minuteman circus. His group had garnered international media hype, spawned more than 40 imitators and ladled gas on the fire of the already resurgent American nativist movement. Later that year the Minutemen and their allies would play a key role in derailing immigration reform legislation proposed by a bipartisan coalition of Democrats and influential Republicans, including then-President George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain.
But for all his success, Gilchrist had a Nazi problem. Everywhere he went neo-Nazis seemed to follow.
It started with the very first Minuteman civilian border patrol action held April 2005 in southern Arizona. I signed up as a volunteer in order to report on the event from the inside, and during my five days there I met two self-professed neo-Nazis who identified themselves as members of the National Alliance, and one who said he was representing Aryan Nations.
Later that year I reported that members of the National Alliance had worked phone banks for Gilchrist's unsuccessful congressional campaign, and I observed Nazi skinheads distributing racist leaflets at his campaign rallies in Orange County and Sacramento. I interviewed a former Gilchrist campaign volunteer turned whistle blower who said that Gilchrist and his campaign manager were fully aware of the campaign workers' extremist ties, which Gilchrist denies.
Throughout 2005 uniformed (costumed, really) members of the NSM were a frequent presence at rallies where Gilchrist spoke. They showed up less to support the Minuteman leader than to crash the party, leach media coverage and voice their agenda to what they perceived to be friendly crowds.
The D.C. rally marked their first appearance at a Minuteman event in 2006. About 50 nativist hardliners had gathered on the steps of the Capitol after a morning of lobbying to listen to speeches by Gilchrist and pro-Minuteman congressional representatives Tom Tancredo and Steve King.
As the neo-Nazis closed the distance, camera crews and print journalists flocked toward them. Gilchrist began howling into his microphone about "criminal invaders." It wasn't clear to me if he meant Latino immigrants or the NSM members. The latter snapped off sieg heil salutes and began chanting through bullhorns, "Deport all non-whites, legal or illegal!"
A band of anarchists with bandannas over their faces had been lazily counter-protesting the Minutemen by holding up a sign that read, "Change your name, you're still the KKK." Suddenly fired up by the intrusion of bona fide neo-Nazis, the anarchists confronted the NSM members, shouting in unison, "They're our brothers, they're our sisters -- immigrants are welcome here!"
Struggling to be heard over the rising din, Gilchrist launched into a tirade against "politically correct mind control." Minutes later, about 20 African-American men and women dressed in black turtlenecks with matching beret and leather jackets marched toward the steps, fists raised, shouting, "Black Power!" The New Black Panther Party had arrived.
Gilchrist made a tactical retreat. His enormous, pony-tailed bodyguard shoved a news photographer to make way.
One year later, Gilchrist was pushed out of the Minuteman movement with similar disregard. The board of directors of the Minuteman Project fired Gilchrist for allegedly diverting $400,000 in donations to his congressional campaign and to promote his book Minutemen: The Battle to Secure America's Borders, which Gilchrist co-wrote with Jerome Corsi, one of the authors of Unfit for Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry, and now a leading birther conspiracy theorist.
Board members further accused Gilchrist of embezzling $13,000 from the Minuteman Project to pay his personal legal fees. In all, they said, as much as $750,000 was missing from Minuteman Project bank accounts, and Gilchrist, who'd previously made his living in accounting, either could not or would not explain where it went.
Gilchrist has never been charged with any crime related to Minuteman Project finances and continues to deny that he misappropriated funds. "I'm not hiding the money. I don't have any secret bank accounts in Switzerland or some tropical island," he told me. "The most I'm guilty of is being a little careless with paperwork. At the time all this money was supposedly going missing I was doing hundreds of media interviews along with spending hundreds of hours organizing Minuteman [events]. I didn't have time to cross all the 't's and dot all the 'i's."
Three of those interviews were for The Political Cesspool, an unabashedly white nationalist weekly syndicated radio program broadcast from Memphis, Tennessee. The program's "Statement of Principles" describes the show as "pro-White," and its host, James Edwards, has claimed that "interracial sex is white genocide." Political Cesspool routinely features prominent Holocaust deniers, neo-Confederates, and white supremacists like David Duke. However, unlike Duke and other repeat Cesspool guests, Gilchrist did not express any overtly or crudely racist beliefs during his appearances on the show, and to my knowledge never has in his many television, radio and print interviews.
To the contrary, Gilchrist often proclaims himself a follower of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., especially when pressed by interviewers on issues of violence and race.
When he assumes that he's speaking directly to fellow nativists, however, Gilchrist has been known to strike a militant tone. He promoted the first Minuteman Project border vigilante muster in April 2005 with materials calling on patriotic Americans to "do the job our government refuses to do" and "protect America" from "tens of millions of invading illegal aliens who are devouring and plundering our nation."
That kind of rhetoric struck a chord with neo-Nazis and other white supremacists who began chatting up their plans to sign up for the Minuteman Project's first action in racist online forums like Stormfront. Gilchrist responded by announcing that white supremacists were banned. He claimed the Minuteman Project was working with the FBI to check the backgrounds of all volunteers, but when I checked this with the FBI, the agency flatly denied it had anything to do with the Minuteman Project. Whatever measures Gilchrist attempted to keep out neo-Nazis, they didn't work.
On the second day of the month-long April 2005 border action, a Country Music Television news producer interviewed Gilchrist on camera standing in front of the border fence. Also behind him, positioned like props by the producer, were the two National Alliance members and myself.
I'd met the neo-Nazis the day before at a kick-off rally held outside the Border Patrol headquarters in Naco, Arizona. They invited me to join their patrol group, which they'd dubbed Team 14, a reference to the white supremacist axiom the 14 Words ("We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.") On the border, our watchpost was marked with signs bearing National Alliance symbols. One of the National Alliance members had a life rune, the neo-Nazi group's symbol, tattooed on his neck, along with C.S.A., which stands for Confederate States of America.
The CMT interview, which never aired, captured a fired-up Gilchrist reveling in the blitz of media coverage he'd generated. "We are not racists," Gilchrist said on camera. "We don't endorse racism, and we're not a hate group. We've told white supremacists they're not welcome here, and we've kept them out. The only hate group members here are from the ACLU."
ACLU legal monitors filmed the Minutemen but kept their distance.
"The ACLU are no different from white supremacists," Gilchrist said. "They're a clear and present danger. They have the same mentality that murdered Martin Luther King, and they want to kill us. Literally the ACLU wants to kill us by invoking violence. We've been vilified and castigated as ghoulish monsters, as gun-toting, baby-killing war machines.
"We are not in favor of violence, and we don't hate immigrants. We don't have any problem with Mexicans. If they come into the country legally, we want them here. We want America to be a melting pot of all different kinds of people, where every race, color and creed is blending together."
"We are a peaceful demonstration. We're doing this peacefully, the way our founding fathers wanted us to. We don't need baseball bats and tire irons and guns and flamethrowers and bulldozers to wipe people out and level villages. We can do this peacefully, the same way Martin Luther King sought justice for American blacks. We're followers of Gandhi and Martin Luther King..."
At that point the neo-Nazis behind Gilchrist stalked off in apparent disgust and I followed. The filming ended.
Neo-Nazis continue to maintain a presence in what's left of the border vigilante movement. Last year while Gilchrist was stumping for Republican candidates, Arizona neo-Nazi J.T. Ready was recruiting online for a summertime border vigilante operation he called "the Minuteman Project on steroids."
Ready is one of the last high-profile Minuteman holdouts. The movement has largely disintegrated over the last two years as many of its leaders and untold rank-and-file volunteers transferred their allegiance and financial support to various Tea Party groups. The death knell for the movement as a mainstream political force occurred in the summer of 2009, when members of Minuteman American Defense, a Minuteman Project splinter faction, shot to death a nine-year-old girl point blank as she begged for her life in Arivaca, Arizona. They also killed her father.
Asked if he bears any responsibility for those killings, Gilchrist said, "Absolutely not. I had nothing to do with them and I condemn them as I do all such mindless violence."
Gilchrist likewise denies accusations of financial shenanigans regarding his 2010 political endorsements that were first reported by Politico's Ben Smith last May. According to three campaigns whose accounts are backed up by emails and other documents, a Gilchrist representative asked them for fees in excess of $6,000 in exchange for the Minuteman leader's endorsement, and told them they would need to hire a consulting firm closely linked to Gilchrist in order to secure his continuing support. In at least one instance, Politico revealed, Gilchist endorsed the campaign's opponent after talks over money broke down.
"I don't sell my endorsements," Gilchrist said. "If anyone in my camp asked for anything, it was to cover travel costs, and that's it."
Gilchrist was cagey when I asked him if he planned to endorse or campaign for candidates in the 2012 elections. "If I am asked, and I expect that I will be, I will do as I've always done which is take a close look at their positions and then make a decision as to whether I can support their candidacy as being right for America," he said.
Should Gilchrist continue to reinvent himself as a political agent, he may need to once and for all distance himself from white supremacists. In February, Gilchrist posted this comment to the Political Cesspool website: "I remember the Political Cesspool program very well. It has a done a great job in bringing information to the public about events critical to preserving our domestic tranquility and heralded stature as a nation governed by laws, not mobs. Carry on [Cesspool host] James Edwards!"
It was signed, "Jim Gilchrist, President, the Minuteman Project."