Monitoring the Message

The Minutemen pull media strings in Southern Arizona

A thick door bangs shut, stranding a small army of reporters outside towering Schieffelin Hall in downtown Tombstone. Named after ornery prospector, town founder and perpetual icon Ed Schieffelin, the stately old adobe once lured top theater troupes to this raucous frontier outpost. Today, it has simply drawn several dozen reporters and a phalanx of media rigs, their huge satellite dishes gleaming in the bright, southeastern Arizona sun.

Inside the hall, a month-long vigilante soiree called the Minuteman Project is getting underway. The gathering aims to highlight immigration problems along the nearby Mexican border, and particularly here Cochise County, where this year's illegal immigrant apprehensions have already topped 74,000.

The scent of potential violence has proven a powerful media draw. But news people who didn't sign up for this meeting in advance--or pass the project's right-wing vetting standards--are rapidly dispatched to this ramshackle side exit. Now they're crawling over one another, desperate for some kind of scoop. Among them is David Kelly from the Los Angeles Times. Kelly glances at his watch in disgust. "This is a circus," he grumbles, his back pressed against the locked door.

Donna Rossi, a reporter from KPHO News 5 in Phoenix, grips her notepad and watches the jostling throng of reporters. "You have to give the Minutemen credit," she says to Kelly. "They've already achieved their goal by getting all of us down here."

Rossi has a point: Predicting a camouflaged army of 1,000-plus volunteers, the Minuteman Project so far has drawn only a measly 150. But the message these weekend warriors hope to send--that the border is largely unprotected--is amplified by the string of media organizations on site, from Telemundo and Fox News to Tucson's KGUN Channel 9.

Some of their respective reporters have split off, hoping to snag interviews with vigilante stragglers such as Ron Pierce, a Minuteman sympathizer from San Diego. At the moment, Pierce is blabbing up a KGUN reporter, until the microphone is gently weaned away. Retired from teaching communications at the University of California at San Diego, Pierce is gung-ho for the Minutemen, and he's putting President Bush on alert. "We're here to say, 'Mr. Bush, do your job,'" he explains.

That's a sentiment regularly voiced by Chris Simcox, a disgruntled former school teacher from California who is the project's co-founder. Through April, his self-proclaimed patriots will dispatch patrols to the border. At various points, they'll then pull out binoculars, plop down on lawn chairs and wait for northbound smugglers and immigrants. The Minutemen pledge that suspicious sightings will immediately be reported to Border Patrol agents. But those contacts may be testy; project participants also plan protests at Border Patrol headquarters in Douglas and Naco, two towns brushing the Mexican line east of Tombstone.

The project's primary goal, however, is simply getting attention. At this, they have succeeded grandly; President Bush has denounced them, and Mexico's President Vicente Fox labels the Minutemen "immigrant hunters." Fox has even threatened to sue the group.

They've also hamstrung many politicians. Congressmen Jim Kolbe, a Republican representing this border district, is among several key supporters of the Bush administration's immigration-reform program, which includes a guest-worker proposal. But such reform is firmly opposed by the vigilantes, who boast the support of lawmakers such as Rep. Tom Tancredo, a Colorado Republican who's forged a career from attacking what he calls lax immigration policies.

Even the Cochise County Board of Supervisors is split over how to handle this vigilante army on their turf. While two board members advocate a hands-off approach, the third has called for greater restrictions on the Minutemen. In a Feb. 25 press conference, Supervisor Paul Newman proposed that participants obtain special permits--under county zoning laws--for their parley. "Without control, the crowd could turn into (a) mob," Newman said. If the vigilantes were coalescing for a rock concert, the county "could require permits and impose restrictions. We should provide at least as much oversight of this potentially volatile month-long event."

Either way, this resounding buzz marks an auspicious moment for Simcox, a surly man in his early 40s who purchased the Tombstone Tumbleweed newspaper two years ago and immediately transformed it into a mouthpiece for his own militia group, Civil Homeland Defense.

But while critics dismiss Simcox as just another borderland demagogue, he has managed to draw a remarkable crowd, including protesters who have begun dancing and banging pans to disrupt the meeting inside Schieffelin Hall.

On a nearby curb, Tucson writer Chuck Bowden smirks at the chaos. He came down here because a photographer pal from Mexico hopes to capture the vigilantes on film. Now the camera man is snapping away. "I told him it would be like shooting fish in a barrel," Bowden chuckles. "But old Ed Schieffelin would probably take the whole Tombstone thing back if he saw this going on."

Then again, the "Town Too Tough to Die" didn't earn its moniker by fluke. The Minuteman Project might even be good for business, says Teresa Dotson, who hands out brochures and maps in the Tombstone visitors' center. There's not a spare room in town, she says. "But there's also a car show going on, so that could be part of it."

One block south of Schieffelin Hall, Allen Street's tourist shops are taking the ruckus in stride, as they mosey into another day of selling Wyatt Earp mugs, mock gunfights and stagecoach rides. Meredith Drummond is busily changing poop bags behind a tawny pair of draft horses, before they haul the next groaning, gawker-filled stagecoach through town. "Our customers don't even seem to notice the Minuteman thing," he says. Inside the Allen Street Smoke Shop, clerk Earl Moody stands amidst rows of Camels and Marlboros, his brushy cowboy mustache drooping a bit. Moody can't tell whether the vigilantes are heavy smokers. "But I do know that sales are ahead of where we normally are by this time," he says. "I suppose part of that could be due to the Minutemen."

Back at Schieffelin Hall, reporters are still fuming over the wily stagecraft of Simcox and crew, who continue keeping them at bay. Finally, the front door cracks slightly open, and a Tucson Weekly writer is among a small clutch squeezing into the cavernous hall. Suddenly, a woman who calls herself Cindy Kolbe (a cute swipe at disdained Congressmen Kolbe) starts briefing Simcox on these new arrivals. The Tumbleweed publisher stands scowling, beneath a huge, equally taciturn portrait of Ed Schieffelin. He's silent until Cindy mentions the Tucson Weekly. Suddenly, Simcox perks up. "Out!" he orders.

Fortunately, not all is lost in this long-awaited--albeit brief--encounter with the Minuteman chieftain; the Weekly reporter is able to snap several photographs before "Cindy" gets snippy. "Hey," she finally says, "you should be out there photographing all that illegal alien trash."

Then she slams shut the cursed door, and another day on the vigilante beat is laid to rest.

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