Photo by James BunoanThere were three casualties at the ceremony honoring Minuteman Project founder Jim Gilchrist last Wednesday night—two protesters and the truth about immigration in America.
The protesters, chanting outside the California Coalition for Immigration Reform gathering at the dowdy Garden Grove Women's Center, were run over by a van. They received medical treatment and are expected to lead healthy lives.
The truth about immigration? Prognosis uncertain. Because Gilchrist's message was lost in the post-event fog of war—most news reporters went for the sexier debate over whether (a) the injured protesters had gotten in the way of a driver who merely "panicked" (so says CCIR chieftain Barbara Coe) or (b) the driver deliberately hit the gas to run down a couple of innocent protesters.
The real story is Gilchrist. Broadly hailed as an anti-immigrant nut, he is, in fact, the nicest guy to hold a flag in Orange County for years, and a man whose analysis of what we might come to call the Immigrant Question is almost dead on.
Gilchrist has always said his opposition to illegal immigration is not about race. Speaking at the Women's Center to a cheering, pastel crowd of retiree types—some of whom we last spotted in Arizona in April, where they played hall monitor in a desert dotted with illegal immigrants—he came close to a Marxian analysis. Illegal immigration is, he said, "about your quality of life."
Or you could put it like this: the anti-immigration issue is really about class—about the use of the poor of various citizenships to make big bucks for the rich—and as long as anti-immigration activists keep confusing it with race, the anti-immigration protesters will call them racists.
It says a lot about Gilchrist that the right-wing ladies at CCIR made him a poster out of a photo snipped from the cover of the left-wing OCWeekly.His rhetoric is the same: trim his nominally right politics just a tiny bit, and they look very left.
Except for blaming it all on the illegal aliens.
Without the ill-delivered punch lines—"It took me an hour and a half to drive 25 miles tonight because of those 30 million illegal immigrants!" he said; apparently he was stuck behind all 30 million at the Brookhurst Avenue detour—Gilchrist could have been delivering a leftist college lecture. And the hundreds of kids protesting outside could have been cheering Gilchrist's criticisms of President Bush and corporate exploitation (which he called "slave labor"). Noam Chomsky might say similar stuff, but Chomsky would make explicit the connection that Gilchrist still only implies in attacking illegal immigrants: it's the rich at the root of it. And the rich—the corporate heads who use illegal labor because it saves money and thus makes them profit—love it when Minutemen and MEChA activists call each other pigs across a police line because that doesn't address the real problem at all.
"This is the current state of America," Gilchrist explained. "I'll make it simple: 20 percent poor, 70 percent middle class, 10 percent wealthy. By 2025, it'll be more like 80 percent in poverty and 20 percent with all the toys. And there's no end to this." And he continued: unchecked development is ruining the countryside. Social services are cracking without government resources for support. Housing prices are beyond what anyone could reasonably afford. The paycheck-to-paycheck waltz, same as ever: "We don't have anything left for leisure," he said solemnly.
So far, so good—until he blames a couple of guys from Sinaloa and their 29,999,998 friends, clearing home sites and mowing lawns and sweeping floors for a nonunion less-than-living wage.
But illegal immigrants aren't takingAmerican jobs; American companies are givingthem away at half-price, or outsourcing them overseas if they don't have the stomach to break the law at home—and then they let the taxpayers beneath them pick up the bill.
"It's class, all the way," says Fernando Ramirez. "The solution has to come from the corporations—they're the ones who don't even speak out for their own workers."
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He's a protester from LA, who speaks clearly and calmly just around the corner from a guy pointing at some old CCIR ladies and yelling, "HEY! HEY! LOOK! LOOK AT THE NAZIS!"
And that's why President Bush doesn't like Gilchrist's Minutemen any more than they like him, says another protester: large sectors of the U.S. economy are designed around cheap illegal labor. Zap out that 30 million (as the Minutemen would like), and the companies would blow apart trying to rehire at a legal wage. Business needs illegal immigration and would rather keep the Minutemen and the MEChistas tussling at the border instead of marching on the boardroom.
On Wednesday night, as protesters and police grew louder in the parking lot, Gilchrist went right to the very edge: he announced his plan to go after lowercase-b business, a project called Operation Spotlight that will use retired lawyers and investigators to follow up on (what he said) would be tips from tens of thousands of informants, whistle-blowing on employers who violate existing labor laws. It may start small, but this is what the Minuteman Project is really about, he says: an alternative to political corruption, to dereliction of duty, and to blatant disregard for the rule of law.
"That's the new definition of vigilante," he said proudly. But that could also be a step toward a healthier and more accountable economy that treats its workers—any of its workers—like human beings. And it's also just a new name for the old class struggle. Jim, you must have forgotten to explain that part.