Minuteman to Tea Party: A Grassroots Rebranding

Last August, more than 600 right-wing activists gathered for a Tea Party Nation rally on private land near the U.S.-Mexico border in Cochise County, Arizona. Fluttering in the desert breeze were hundreds of tiny American flags attached to a border fence of 15-foot-tall rusty poles.

Sheriff Joe Arpaio at a Tea Party Nation rally on the border last August

Rally speakers included Tea Party candidates for the US Senate and House of Representatives, as well as marquee names from Arizona's anti-immigration movement. The headliner was Fox News favorite Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the swaggering lawman whose ski-masked deputies terrorize suspected "illegals" in controversial round-ups, and whose idea of a good photo op is the forced march of shackled Latino immigrants down a city street.

Arpaio shared the stage with Arizona State Sen. Russell Pearce, the chief architect of Arizona's infamous Senate Bill 1070.

“We have an invasion going on that's going to destroy this Republic,” Pearce said.

“USA!” came the chanted reply. “USA!”

Grinning on the sidelines behind mirrored sunglasses was Glenn Spencer, the leader of the border vigilante group American Border Patrol and the owner of the Tea Party Nation rally site.

Spencer's founding of American Border Patrol in 2002 pre-dated the first Minuteman “civilian border patrols” by three years. Before his ranchland became a Tea Party rallying point it served as both meeting grounds and temporary housing for high-ranking members of various border vigilante factions. Minuteman American Defense leader Shawna Forde lived on the property in an RV owned by Spencer in the summer of 2008.

The following May, Forde masterminded the home invasion murders of a nine-year-old girl and her father in Arivaca, Arizona. Two weeks after the slayings, a SWAT team arrested Forde on murder and conspiracy charges as she was leaving American Border Patrol headquarters. (There is no evidence Spencer had any prior knowledge of the murders.)

Spencer informed Media Matters that he travels almost weekly to speak at Tea Party events, and that his ranch, the onetime vigilante outpost where Forde took shelter, is now a Tea Party rallying point. “Plans are for Tea Party groups to come to the ranch every week from now on,” he said. “They are really fired up over the border issue.”

Despite his association with Forde and his well-documented history of bigoted ranting and “reconquista” conspiracy mongering, Spencer is a rising star in the Tea Party movement.

He's not alone.

Glenn Spencer at his ranch

Over the past two years, more than a dozen former border vigilante leaders have taken on key roles in the Tea Party movement. Some, like Spencer, continue to maintain their hard-core nativist personas. Others have sought to separate themselves from their Minuteman identities in pursuit of mainstream political legitmacy.

“The Forde killings really made the whole movement sordid and these guys [Minuteman leaders] needed to find somewhere else for their ambitions,” said Heidi Beirich, co-director of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project, which tracks extremist groups. “Rebranding themselves as Tea Party figures is their effort to stay relevant. They saw the rising populism as a good thing to latch onto, so they just toned down their anti-immigrant messaging a bit and synced themselves with the larger Tea Party agenda.”

Internal rivalries and financial scandals had already crippled the anti-immigration vigilante movement by the time of the Arivaca murders. The murder of a child begging for her life at gunpoint by Shawna Forde generated massive negative publicity for the entire Minuteman movement and hastened the decline of once-powerful vigilante outfits like the Minuteman Project and the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps.

The Tea Party offered a broader political agenda that appealed to rank-and-file Minutemen. Their concerns over border security and non-white immigration had been equaled if not displaced by distress over the financial meltdown and the election of President Obama.

As Spencer explained, “Many of the so-called Minuteman groups died off, mainly due to lack of focus of the organizations. Sitting on the border in a lawn chair does not fire the hearts of men. Those who were drawn into the political arena by the border issue naturally gravitated towards better organized groups of people concerned with the overall failure of our government to work in the interests of the people, of which the failure to secure the border is just one example.”

Last August, the Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights published a report, Tea Party Nationalism, that examined in-depth the leadership structures, finances and nationalist politics of six organizations at the core of the Tea Party movement.

The IREHR report documented several examples of Minuteman leaders morphing into Tea Party figures. Among them:

  • Eight state chapter leaders of the Patriot Action Network (The IREHR report refers to Resistnet, which has morphed into Patriot Action Network), the second largest Tea Party group in the country, are former state chapter leaders of either the Minuteman Project or the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps.
  • Tea Party Express event organizer Kristinn Taylor is the former media spokesperson for the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps.
  • The two leaders of TeaParty.org (also known as 1776 Tea Party) transitioned into their roles directly from top leadership positions with the Minuteman Project. TeaParty.org head Stephen Eichler was the executive director of the Minuteman Project and Tea Party.org co-director Tim Bueler was its media director before they assumed control of Tea Party.org in the fall of 2009. Bueler is also the publicist for birther and North American Union conspriacist Jerome Corsi. The IHRER report describes Tea Party.org as “the one national [Tea Party] faction most directly connected to the Minuteman Project and the anti-immigrant movement.”

Other notable instances of Minuteman leaders taking up the Tea Party banner include:

  • Minuteman Civil Defense Corps vice-president Al Garza announced in August 2009 that he was resigning to form and lead a new group, The Patriots Coalition, which rapidly evolved into a Tea Party organization. Joanne Daley, a southern Arizona Tea Party organizer, registered The Patriots Coalition with the Arizona Corporation Commission and serves on its board of directors. The group's motto: “Our country has two enemies: Those who want to destroy us from the outside and those who attempt it from within.”
  • Jeff Scwhilk, founder of the San Diego Minutemen, one of the most overtly racist Minuteman groups during the movement's 2006-2008 heyday, toned down his rhetoric and tactics while rebranding himself and his organization in 2009 as the SoCal Patriot Coalition a network of 25 self-declared “pro-American patriot groups.” They include Tea Party organizations like the Vista Tea Party Patriots and the SoCal Tax Revolt Coalition, as well as several “open carry” pro-gun groups. Schwilk used to rail against “wetbacks” and “invaders.” Now his group's website warns of “well-funded socialists, elitists, and globalists... working hard to take your freedoms, sovereignty, and your hard-earned money.”
  • Tim Donnelly, the former California state chapter leader of the Minuteman Project, was elected to the California State Assembly last November as a Tea Party Republican representing the Inland Empire region. On the campaign trail, Donnelly declared his allegiance to the Tea Party movement while touting his Minuteman credentials. His twin campaign slogans were “Patriot, Not Politician” and “Send a Minuteman to Sacramento.”

In August 2005, five months after he first packed a pistol on the border as a Minuteman, Donnelly published a fiery online editorial headlined "Tell Me No Lies" that became a manifesto for the border vigilante movement. The piece was often posted or passed around at Minuteman gatherings. It foreshadowed the imprecise anger and fear of the Tea Party movement.

“Time and time again, we are told that illegal aliens just come here seeking a better life,” Donnelly wrote.

“We are told that it is illegal to hire them, but you cannot ask their status to determine if they are here illegally.

”We are told that the government must learn how to better serve it's new constituents by hiring interpreters, further diluting resources already stretched to the breaking point.

“We are told the illegal alien is now a resident of our communities, entitled to all the protections of the law, but none of its penalties.

”We are told that 'diversity' is a goal, and although it is unclear when we will reach this utopian dream, it involves more Hispanics and fewer of everyone else.

We are told anyone who does not go along with the above program (or pogromme) is a racist,' 'xenophobe' or a 'vigilante.' These terms are used interchangeably by people for whom English is an optional language.

We are told that American culture does not exist, and even if it did, it is not worth defending because it is 'racist.'


“We are told that raping young girls, marrying extremely young girls, ogling women in an aggressive manner and using a child as a human shield are all cultural differences that we must learn to accept.


“As an American, I am not accustomed to being 'told' anything. In fact, it is 'we' who generally do the telling.

”'We the people' are finished listening."