Thursday, October 27, 2005

A Rainy Day With The Dreaded Minutemen

Well, we live in a trailer at the edge of town. You never see us, because we don’t come around. We’ve got 25 rifles, just to keep the population down.
- Neil Young, `Revolution Blues’.

Two old guys in a little travel-trailer with a leaky roof, drinking coffee, content with one another’s company and the affections of three little dogs - a shihtsu, a miniature daschhund, and a pug. No Confederate flags. No Ak-47s. No Christian Patriot mugs. Not even any beer.

That’s what you find if you go looking for the command centre of the Washington State Minutemen. It's a trailer in a field just a short drive south of the Canada-U.S. border at Blaine, a white guy who’s not quite as quick on his feet as he once was, and a Metis, originally from St. Boniface, Manitoba. They sit in the trailer and chat by walkie-talkie with about a dozen grandparents parked in cars and campers at a series of roadside spots along the border between Blaine and Sumas.

That's it.

If you subscribe to a Fox News version of the world, you might be surprised to find no well-formed battalions of disciplined young patriots patrolling the rolling hills and woods of Whatcom County, protecting America’s porous northern borders against the threat of terrorists from British Columbia who are making plans to slip into the United States and blow stuff up, as any fool knows.

Similarly, in the “No One Is Illegal!” conception of reality, you can well imagine that if you drive down that same quiet country road a few minutes from the 266 exit off the I-5, you’ll soon find yourself surrounded by a private army of half-witted right-wing vigilantes, white supremacists and dangerous, heavily-armed hate-mongers whose self-appointed mission along the border is a cover for their real agenda, which is to inflict violence and suffering upon people of colour.

The problem is that in the real world, all you'll find is a couple of old guys in a trailer, or maybe not, because they might be out making the rounds of their fellow Minutemen volunteers, parked on backroads along the border between Blaine and Sumas. The volunteers get lonely. They run out of coffee. They get nervous. The other day, a U.S. Border Patrol officer popped by a Minuteman post to say that five people were hiding in some bushes on the Canadian side, apparently intending to make dash across the line, so the volunteers should keep their eyes peeled. It was hugely exciting. But nothing came of it.

Some of the volunteers persist in the exotic American custom of lawfully possessing handguns, but mainly they’re armed with binoculars. They keep an eye out for pot smugglers headed south, or gun smugglers headed north, and if they see something odd they call the Border Patrol. If it turns out that their vigilance results in the apprehension of some whackjob from the Army of Mohammed, then hey, righteous. High fives.

. . . But I'm still not happy, I feel like there's something wrong. I got the revolution blues. I see bloody fountains, and ten million dune buggies, comin' down the mountains.

Well, I'm sorry for you, but I'm afraid that’s all there is. Besides, I suffer from a condition of my own. I’m Canadian, I’m some kind of socialist, and I confess to an affection for Yanks that is usually tempered by the degree to which I can be confident that they're safely at home and seeing to their own affairs. It’s a bit like that same Neil Young song:

So you be good to me and I'll be good to you, And in this land of conditions I'm not above suspicion. I won't attack you, but I won't back you.

It was in this frame of mind that I spent a rainy afternoon the other day wth those two guys in the trailer with the leaky roof.

The white guy was Tom Williams. He's the 64-year-old State Leader of the Washington Minuteman Detachment. Born in San Diego. Lives in Deming, a little town nearby on the Nooksack River. Williams served in Vietnam with the U.S. Marines. He’d learned Spanish from his buddies in high school, so he got a Marines’ job as a linguist. Then he got a psychology degree, did duty evaluating comissioned-officer candidates, and later specialized in post-traumatic distress disorder. Took up a civilian career as a trauma counselor, a position on the board of directors of the International Society of Traumatic Stress Studies, spent some time with the National Organization of Victims Assistance, and ended up incapacitated by the suffering of his own clients. It was the kids, mainly. They get to you.

The Metis guy was Claude LeBas. He's Williams’ right-hand man, the Minutemen “intel officer” whose job requires a familiarity with the operation of walkie-talkies and cellphones and other such paramilitary know-how. Barrel-chested. Ponytail. At 60, he’s the youngest of the Washington Minutemen regulars. LeBas was in in Vietnam in the early 1960s, a Canadian soldier in a small international contingent that was engaged in the “police action” that rapidly became a full-scale American war. When Canada pulled out, LeBas stayed, became an American citizen, joined the Marines, and in his later civilian life he worked as a field officer with the U.S. Customs, then took early retirement after suffering a stroke and undergoing a triple bypass heart operation. Ask him how he ended up in the Minutemen and you get a sheepish smile. Williams answered for him: “Actually, Claude wasn’t going to do it until he knew I was going to for sure, and, well, he knows I can’t take care of myself so good, so. . . .”

Here’s Williams on being right-wing: “I don’t even listen to Rush Limbaugh.” On being a vigilante: “We don’t take the law into our own hands anymore than you do when you report a drunk driver.” On leading a militia: “You figure you’d have to be armed or something to be a militia, right?” On being a racist: “I’m not a racist.” He'd stopped smiling. “Racism pisses me off.” He was quiet, and then: “It increases my heart rate when I think about that.”

Williams has a thing about wildflowers. That's how he got tangled up with the Minutemen. He was down in Arizona looking at flowers, and he met some former marines who’d gone to join up with the Minutemen there. They’d just started their ridiculously controversial citizen-patrol operations to protest the ongoing consequences of the Bush administration’s underfunding of border security: More than a million people sneak into the United States across the Mexican border every year. After Williams satisfied himself that the Minutemen weren’t just a bunch of gun nuts, he reckoned “it would be fun to ride around the desert in a nice jeep,” and one thing led to another.

But there are nightmares involved in all of this.

That otherwise reasonable Americans will end up doing Block Parent duty with fieldglasses in the woods along Washington state’s border with British Columbia can be explained at least partly by the visions that have been haunting them in recent years.

They tune into Seattle’s KIRO 7 television news and "investigative reporter” Chris Halsne tells them that Hezbollah and Hamas and al Qaida and 52 other terrorist groups and “hundreds of seasoned terrorists” are busy in British Columbia with plans to use Canada as a "launching pad" to swarm into the United States and slaughter innocent Americans. Halsne has reported that al Qaida is selling drugs in the streets of Vancouver. He has reported that some of these terrorists have already slipped into America because Washington's ill-defended border is "an open gate."

These same reasonable people sitting in the front seats of their pickup trucks at the dead-ends of roads branching off "H" Road between Sumas and Blaine can read in their newspapers that their president promised 2,000 new border-guard positions after 9-11, but managed to scare up the cash for only 400 or so.

Behind Bellingham City Council's panicky resolutions admonishing the Minutemen, there are even more nightmares. Long before 9-11, Washington state had already endured fright-making encounters with heavily-armed survivalists and backwoods neo-fascists. It should come as no surprise that Bellingham is not immune to the intellectual and political paralysis so many Americans seem to suffer whenever they find themselves in situations where terms like "race" and "national security" are being freely tossed around. Some people hear "Minutemen," and right away they see "Branch Davidians," and a compound in Waco, in flames. It's the way things work.

But if you want to make more elaborate sense of all this, go ahead and consult the Northeastern Federation of Anarchist Communists if you want. On their way out to pick fights with the Minutemen in Vermont, they might stop long enough to explain to you that national borders are really just a form of racism. And Vancouver’s anti-Minutemen “No One Is Illegal!” protesters will tell you the same thing. They’re against the very existence of the Canada-U.S. border. They say the only reason it’s there is to allow the white race to assert its illegitimate claim of entitlement to North America.

With all the fantasist gibberish infecting the discourse about race and borders, it's no wonder that there's a threat of White Power sociopaths being drawn into the discussion. That's another thing that worries Tom Williams and Claude LeBas.

To his credit, Williams isn't afraid to be candid about how the Minutemen enterprise got so bent out of shape, so fast: “It’s race. Race has been coupled with border protection, and then suddenly you’ve got people who don’t want our borders protected, and it goes crazy.”

The news media feed the pathology, and round it goes.

Marc Cooper, of the Nation and the L.A. Weekly, has found a similar disparity between what happens in the real world and the media's account of the Minutemen on the Mexican border. He points a way out: “Now more than ever, the public needs news media that are serious, thoughtful and analytical, not compliant suckers for the wound-up partisans and pandering politicians who are increasingly likely to inflame or obfuscate the issue with goofball dog-and-pony shows.”

If that's too hard for you to get your head around, then go right ahead, wet your pants, set your hair on fire, and join the chorus. Here's your song sheet:

I hear that Laurel Canyon is full of famous stars. Well, I hate them worse than lepers, and I’ll kill them in their cars.

Marc Cooper's reports on the Minutemen can be found here (the headline advising the Minutemen to "march north" was just an unfortunate coincidence of sorts) and here, and Marc's excellent web log is here. My Georgia Straight column on the subject (which is also topped with a strangely funny headline) is here. For amusement, KIRO 7's contribution to the declining standard of "investigative journalism" in the matter of terrorism can be found here. Neil Young, a great Canadian and one of my heroes, has been on temporary loan to the United States for some while now. His homepage is here, and the lyrics to that great tune `Revolution Blues' are here.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

An "unsurpassable urgency" in Darfur

Eric Reeves reports: “A series of extraordinarily dire warnings have recently been issued by various UN officials, a last desperate attempt to force the international community to take urgent cognizance of Darfur’s deepening crisis. Full-scale catastrophe and a massive increase in genocidal destruction are imminent, and there is as yet no evidence that the world is listening seriously.

"The US in particular seems intent on taking an expediently blinkered view of the crisis . . . But European countries and other international actors with the power to speak the truth are little better; the absence of an effective voice emerging from the Blair government is especially dismaying in light of British willingness to intervene in Iraq.

“Even so, there is no possible escape from the most basic truth in Darfur: Khartoum’s National Islamic Front, ever more dominant in the new `Government of National Unity,’ is deliberately escalating the level of violence and insecurity as a form of `counter-insurgency’ warfare, with the clear goal of accelerating human destruction among the African tribal populations of the region.

In failing to respond to this conspicuous and now fully articulated truth, the world is yet again knowingly acquiescing in genocide. But as the shadows of Auschwitz and Treblinka, Bosnia, Cambodia, and Rwanda fall more heavily over Darfur, we cannot evade this most shameful truth: we know---as events steadily, remorselessly unfold---more about the realities of ethnically-targeted human destruction in Darfur than on any other previous such occasion in history. So much the greater is our moral disgrace.”

According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, the Darfur ceasfire is “falling apart,” and and the African Union peace force is “hopelessly under-manned, under-equipped, and the world appeared to have lost interest” (Reuters, October 21, 2005).

Hundreds of thousands dead, millions of refugees, and things are getting worse. Donating to aid groups isn’t going to be enough.

The International Crisis Group reports that the European Union partnership with the African Union in Darfur is failing: “If Darfur is to have stability anytime soon, and the two organisations are to fulfil their ambitions to be major players in crisis prevention and crisis resolution, AMIS [the African Mission in Sudan] must get more troops and a more proactive, civilian-protection mandate . . .”

There's more at the Genocide Intervention Network and at Sudan Watch .

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Myth, Martyrdom and the MacKinnons

Among the many dead from the rebellions, coups, and countercoups that wracked the Dominican Republic during the 1960s, there was a Canadian priest, Arthur MacKinnon, the seventh of nine sons of a Cape Breton coal miner. He is remembered among many Dominicans as Padre Arturo, the martyr.

Despite the several conflicting accounts of the priest’s death, they all agree that on the night of June 22, 1965, Padre Arturo was killed in a barrage of gunfire on the outskirts of the village of Monte Plata. It was a dark time in the country’s history. Only a few weeks before, the United States government declared the Dominican Republic to be on the brink of a communist takeover, and thousands of American soldiers had invaded.

Had he lived, Padre Arturo would have been a paternal uncle to 35-year-old Vancouver journalist J.B. MacKinnon, pictured above. Instead, the dead priest became a mythic figure in MacKinnon’s boyhood imagination, the rebel hero of MacKinnon family lore: a blood sacrifice, a martyr to the cause of the poor and oppressed. Padre Arturo’s legend lingers in a similar way in parts of the Dominican Republic. He’s a little bit of Che Guevara, the dashing young Argentine whose military genius helped win the Cuban revolution, and a little bit of Oscar Romero, the assassinated “people’s bishop” of El Salvador.

MacKinnon, an award-winning travel writer, was never quite satisfied with the myth. He wanted the truth about his uncle, and he wanted to reconstruct it from the old-fashioned stuff of facts. So he set out to attempt that, and the result is Dead Man in Paradise (Douglas & McIntyre, $22.95). It’s a bit like a John le Carré spy thriller and a bit like a Raymond Chandler detective novel, but it’s also a stirring memoir, and a testament to the enduring virtues of literary journalism, besides.

MacKinnon had little to work with at the outset. There was just the family story, some letters, a diary, newspaper clippings, and other such bits and pieces. To these he added autopsy reports and inquiry findings, and what soon became evident was that no one had come close to resolving the mystery of Padre Arturo’s death. Still, MacKinnon reckoned he had to try, and he spent several months asking unwelcome questions in the Dominican Republic, methodically reconstructing scattered shards of evidence into a compelling case of his own.

The story winds through old graveyards and kitchen-table conversations with his uncle’s surviving comrades, and it snakes through the homes of decrepit generals and the offices of coup-era politicians. Everybody holds a small piece of the puzzle, and the narrative trajectory of Dead Man in Paradise is the same story that slowly revealed itself to MacKinnon, with all its twists and turns, revelations and blind alleys, disappointments and surprises.

“I wanted everything to come out of what I saw, tasted, heard, and smelled…I didn’t try to see what clever things people were doing in this year’s books, and I don’t use pop-culture references,” MacKinnon said during a recent conversation. “I just wanted to maintain the authentic experience.”

Still, even after MacKinnon makes flesh and blood of him, Padre Arturo loses nothing of his heroism. But it’s not the grand heroism of a mythic figure. It’s the quiet heroism of ordinary people in times of war and revolution. Arturo was no zeal-consumed Che Guevara. He was no Oscar Romero orator. He certainly wasn’t a Mother Teresa, content to comfort the dying. He was a old-fashioned working-class Catholic from Cape Breton who saw a grievous offence against God in the violence and suffering being visited upon the Dominican poor.

MacKinnon is no Catholic, but he is no stranger to myth, either. His father and one of his four brothers did duty in Nicaragua as peace activists, and his childhood involved the rituals of church-basement slide shows about oppression in El Salvador and Guatemala.

Myth is a dangerous thing, MacKinnon points out.

“The big lesson for me in the Dominican Republic was the way this stuff lingers,” he says. There are people still in hiding, 40 years after the violence of the 1960s, for instance. Blood feuds persist, old grudges carry on, and wars rage in memory, from generation to generation.

It’s those deep cultural currents that tend to go unconsidered in the ongoing argumentation about military intervention in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan, MacKinnon says.

“The weight of history, the weight on the future—these things never seem to come into the discussions,” MacKinnon says. “I don’t even like to think about how that stuff is going to play out in personal stories . . .thousands of stories playing out in personal ways, for so, so long.”

J.B. MacKinnon appears in conversation with Charles Montgomery and the Vancouver International Writers Festival’s Hal Wake on Thursday (October 20) at 8 p.m. at the Waterfront Theatre.
( this article ran as my fortnightly Chronicles column in the October 13 edition of the Vancouver weekly, The Georgia Straight )

Monday, October 10, 2005

Finally, Shoulders to the Wheel.

After a tepid start, Canada is finally showing some resolve in coming to Pakistan's aid following Saturday's earthquake.

Apart from that, the news isn't getting much better: Initial estimates of 200,000 homeless appear to have underestimated by a factor of ten. It's looking more like 2.5 million homeless now. This is the worst disaster in Pakistan's history, and one of the most lethal earthquakes in history. Already, 20,000 people are believed to be dead.

Over the weekend, Prime Minister Paul Martin took a drubbing for coming up with a mere $300,000 in relief aid. By Monday, Canada's contribution was boosted to $20 million. This is still only a beginning, and Canadian citizens are still needed to contribute on their own to the hard work underway in Pakistan. You can help through UNICEF by donating online here or World Vision Canada here or the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies here.

In a joint communique Monday, Foreign Affairs Minister Pierre Pettigrew, International Cooperation Minister Aileen Carroll and Defence Minister Bill Graham confirmed the $20 million relief package. In response to a specific request from the Government of Pakistan, part of the effort will go to the dispatch of Canadian Forces aircraft from Afghanistan with 21 tonnes of winterized blankets on board. Canada will also respond to appeals from the UN, the Red Cross and Red Crescent, and also from Canadian non-governmental organizations, for immediate shelter, food, clothing, water and sanitation. Funds will also be committed to longer-term reconstruction.

There are a variety of Canadian NGOs weighing in. Here's a list of possibilities. To keep up to date on international relief efforts, Relief Web is a great source.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Save Your Breath. There's Work To Do Now.

At 9:00 a.m. local-time, Saturday, October 8, a 7.6 - magnitude earthquake hit northern Pakistan.

Early reports put the dead in Pakistan and neighbouring regions of India and Afghanistan at between 20,000 and 30,000 people.

Tens of thousands more are injured. Hundreds of thousands are homeless.

For the worst off, it’s always the first few hours that count. For thousands more, getting help in the first few days is a matter of life and death. You can put your shoulder to wheel right now by donating directly through UNICEF Canada, at their South Asia Earthquake page or through World Vision Canada , which has field experience in the area and is trying to reach survivors, as I write this, with food, water, medicine, blankets, tents, and so on.

The Government of Canada is donating $300,000 straight away, sensibly split between the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (Canadians can contribute directly here ) and the Canadian High Commission in Pakistan, where diplomatic staff will be able to respond quickly to emergency needs.

In his October 8 statement, Prime Minister Paul Martin explained that the money would come from a fund set aside in the February 2005 budget, “and is therefore built into the existing fiscal framework.”

For those less interested in whether the Prime Minister has properly budgeted for this expenditure than in having him hurry up and send more money, you can tell him so, directly. Here’s his email address:

But put your own shoulder to the wheel first. Save the talking for later.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Locked & Loaded for Galloway

Journalist and activist Brett Lock has cast a helpfully cold light on George Galloway, the "outspoken" and "left-wing" British MP who recently upbraided Canadians for sending soldiers to Afghanistan on the grounds that by doing so, we were merely helping the Yanks and the Brits do the devil's work in Fallujah.

Galloway, MP for Bethnal Green and Bow, came to Mississauga September 17 to tell us: "I'm amazed that so many people in Canada believe they're not a part of this crime. . . your soldiers in Afghanistan are doing the dirty work of George W. Bush and Tony Blair."

It didn't take much sleuthing on Lock's part to discover that Galloway himself is no stranger to the devil's work and has been keeping some rather sordid company of his own. By Lock's lights, it's not too much of a stretch to say: Respect candidate would execute gays.

Lock is referring to Dr Mohammed Naseem, who ran as a candidate for Galloway's Respect party. Dr. Naseem bankrolled Respect's election campaign, providing a third of its election war chest, and serves on Respect's executive committee. Dr. Naseem also acts as the "home affairs spokesman" for the Islamic Party of Britain, about which Lock reports:

"They would ban gay organisations, or to put it in their words, they would “safeguard public decency by preventing any public advocacy for homosexuality”. Any violation of this law would fall under “public incitement”, which leads us to their next point – how to deal with public displays of homosexuality or “lewdness witnessed by several people” as they quaintly put it. The penalty for that is death!"

It's all there at Lock & Load