Issue Reporting: How Cheese Crisp Became a Minuteman

THREE POINTS, Ariz., April 2, 2006—Out at Post 15, Timothy Schwartz is telling Liberty he wants his codename to be “Cheese Crisp.”

This is a small matter when you are out here protecting the border, but it can be a critical one.

“Your call sign is ‘Post 15,’ ” Liberty tells Schwartz. “Liberty” is a call sign, too, but Liberty’s one of the boss dudes, so he gets a badass alias.

Schwartz, a high-voltage electrician in Phoenix, is nothing if not a team player, and he submits to being called “Post 15,” though throughout the day, he will radio “This is Cheese Crisp at Post 15 …”

The Minuteman Civil Defense Corps is spending the month of April on America’s northern and southern borders. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of volunteers are expected to come out and stand watch over the line, looking for illegal immigrants. They’re up in Washington and New Hampshire and New York and down in Texas and New Mexico and California and Arizona.

So, who are they?

A quick look at the people picking bacon and eggs off Chinet plates at the morning briefing shows this: The Minutemen—there are about 50 this morning, including several Minutewomen—have an average age over 50. They are mostly retired or own their own businesses. They are fond of the Second Amendment and are carrying side arms openly on their hips or in leg or shoulder holsters, which is perfectly legal in Arizona. Their politics are medium-right to well-done, though the group’s organizers say they have taken pains to keep the white supremacists out. They like pickups over sedans. They have a strong respect for law and order. They have a common vocabulary: I hear the exact phrase “the core values America was built on” 200 times in a day. I hear the word “brazen” as a description of the pro-immigration rallies held around the country in recent weeks more than three dozen times. They use the term “illegal immigrants” exclusively, rather than the more polite “undocumented immigrants” or “undocumented aliens.”

And they are frustrated.

Whatever your feelings about the group, there’s no doubt the Minuteman movement has tapped into something—outrage at the U.S. government and the belief that its leaders have failed the citizens of this country when it comes to immigration and border security. The Minutemen are Coxey’s Army for the 21st century.

Though it is not happening broadly yet, the border-security issue is beginning to create single-issue voters. I spent the better part of a day asking, “If Hillary Clinton ran for president and promised to lock down the borders with 150,000 troops and crack down on companies employing illegal aliens but left all her other positions intact, would you vote for her?” Twenty times out of 26, the answer was yes. The Minutemen are not delusional: Most of them know what they are doing is a statement and not a solution.

The morning briefing (51 illegals sighted by yesterday’s night shift, 16 apprehended by the Border Patrol) breaks up with the admonitions that come every day: Be courteous to everyone, keep your gun holstered at all times, and don’t talk to, touch, or feed the immigrants you spot. Radio back to headquarters, and headquarters will call the Border Patrol.

That’s how 51-year-old Schwartz found himself out at the end of Alpha Line, the daytime string of observation posts the Minutemen have established in the Altar Valley, 40 miles southwest of Tucson.

Schwartz has been involved with the Minutemen for a year and a half. He wanted, he says, to get involved with a group fighting for the rights of U.S. citizens. And he is not alone in this. Nearly every Minuteman I spoke to says the same thing. Schwartz is ardent about what he believes in, and when he departs the oft-repeated line about fighting for citizen’s rights, he gets really passionate. He is not alone in this among the Minutemen, either; when they move off the values topic, they often veer into less image-friendly conversations that sound a lot like “America for Americans.”

“When I drive my pickup into Home Depot’s parking lot, and there’s 15 guys yelling, ‘Pick me! Pick me!’ … I feel like we’re under attack,” Schwartz says. “When I drive down Bethany Home Road [a main Phoenix thoroughfare that runs through both predominantly Anglo and Hispanic neighborhoods] and read billboards in Spanish, when I walk into Wal-Mart and the signs are in Spanish, I feel threatened.”

Wayne Ralph, a retired contractor from Nevada who’s stationed at Post 15 with Schwartz, started worrying about the border 30 years ago when a friend in the Army returned from the Middle East and told him, “The people there are going to turn against us.” As Schwartz talks, Ralph puts his binoculars to his eyes and watches the ridgeline opposite Post 15. Nothing moves.

Down the line a bit, I run into Pete and his friend Mike, who work at a computer company in Tucson and would prefer their last names not be used. Unlike many of the Minutemen, Pete has had a legitimately scary experience on the border. He and his teenage son were out hunting in the mountains south of Tucson last year when they ran into a drug load coming through.

“We had a standoff,” Pete says in low, measured tones, taking a break from his binoculars. “We were 50 yards away from 12 drug mules and three scouts with rifles. That shouldn’t be happening in this country.” Pete tells me he’s disappointed with the country’s leadership and the bills in the Senate. Mike chimes in, never taking his eyes off the horizon. “If this was going on in any other country, the numbers of people coming across a border, we’d call it an invasion.”

“So, are you out here purely as a political statement?” I ask.

Yes, they both say. They know what they’re doing is a drop in the bucket.

I hear on the radio that there’s drama going on a few posts down the line—an immigrant spotting. As I leave, Pete and Mike are discussing building a platform in the back of Pete’s pickup so they can get better elevation for spotting illegals next time they come.

A mile down the road, a mother-and-daughter team who feel overwhelmed by illegal immigrants in their Denver suburb have spotted a group of border crosser, or they think they have. The radio is hot with chatter about other groups moving through. Post 2 has seen a bunch of them, and the Border Patrol was called.

Cheese Crisp is on the radio, too, from Post 15: A pickup with a couple of Mexican guys on radios just came through the post and took a trail south, and about a minute later one of the channels on his radio explodes in Spanish.

The cat-and-mouse game goes on. Or is it just political theater?
April 6, 2006