Burn, Baby, Burn!
With her silver power-mullet, support hose, and ankle-length leopard-print skirt, Laine Roberta Lawless is a cross between Ma Barker, Dog the Bounty Hunter, and South Park school-bus driver Mrs. Crabtree (minus the bird in her hair). Actually, Lawless, 57, is more like the Carrie Nation of the anti-illegal-immigration movement, but instead of smashing up bars with a hatchet like the temperance battle-ax of yore, Lawless' shtick is barbecuing Mexican flags.
Which is what she did last December 16 in front of the Mexican consulate in Phoenix, but not until she had finished her megaphone-enhanced diatribe about the hordes of illegals invading this country.
"This foreign infestation has grown to the point where the illegals among us victimize an American citizen every 17 seconds," she spewed to an assemblage of curiosity-seekers, counterprotesters, and more than a few of Phoenix's finest in plainclothes. (Lawless later admits that the foreign-infestation factoid is the concoction of a confederate, a "distillation" of disparate sources.)
There was tittering in the crowd as she continued her gas-bagging about Americans being the unwitting prey of the brown tide.
"Mexico actively promotes illegal immigration and routinely interferes with the internal affairs of the United States," she read from a black notebook in her left hand, as her bearded buddy, Don Pauly of the Emigration Party of Nevada, held signs touting anti-immigrant stats and advertising Lawless' self-produced DVD, How to Burn a Mexican Flag. "This is an outrage! Why are more American citizens not joining with me here today to protect American sovereignty?"
A girl's voice cried out from the crowd, "Because you're a racist nut!"
Lawless paused to let the laughter die down. Photogs snapped away. Lawless persevered, at one point yelling to a group of men across the street that included Rusty Childress, owner of the Childress auto mall in Phoenix and a well-known anti-illegal-immigration booster who hosts a regular Thursday-night meeting for like-minded folks at his Kia dealership. Childress was videotaping the event from a distance, refusing to join Lawless and Pauly, which pissed off Lawless big-time.
"I want to know what's the matter with the men of Phoenix," she barked. "Aren't your balls big enough to stand here with me and burn the Mexican flag?"
The answer was, apparently, not. Childress, et al., did not cross the street and help out. So Lawless resumed her rant.
"We are asked who will pick our vegetables, who will do your landscaping, and who will clean your toilets," Lawless screeched. "My response to that is, 'We will!' I don't have a problem cleaning my own toilet. I do it every week."
And so it went. Mexican immigrants are destroying the country, bankrupting our public hospitals, dumbing down our schools, and forcing us to speak a handful of Spanish words whenever we get a roadside taco. Before you know it, we'll all be eating churros and wearing big-ass straw sombreros! Where will it all end? Sarcasm aside, Lawless is deadly serious. In her mind, she's at the forefront of the second American revolution, one that will drive illegals from the land, defeat the "communists" of what she calls the "Open Borders Lobby" (her movement's pet term for their opposition), and eject from power the hypocritical politicians who've allowed the "invasion" of the United States from Mexico. To help effect this result, she's formed her own organization, Border Guardians (www.borderguardians.org), which is devoted to gathering intelligence about the movement's enemies and promoting pyromaniacal protests involving Ronson lighter fluid and swaths of red, white, and green polyester.
But Lawless is the odd gal out, even in the screwy, cobbled-together world of self-made experts, Sunday soldiers, and putative patriots that is the anti-illegal-immigrant movement. The Bay Area transplant's a lesbian pagan, a former high priestess of a Dianic Wiccan outfit named the Sisterhood of the Moon. In fact, she once placed a hex on homophobic orange-juice-hawker Anita Bryant. And though both the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League have made hay linking her to neo-Nazis, she remains a pro-choice feminist in a movement fueled in part by high testosterone and backward, archconservative he-man values.
Her flag burnings in Tucson and Phoenix have made international news, drawn the denunciations of the Mexican government and local officials, and caused her to be reviled and ostracized by activists on both ends of the political seesaw. Yet, Lawless' oft-loony views and activities are belied by the spirited, well-read conversationalist who dreams of writing screenplays for Hollywood and whose psyche may be best explained by fan fiction she penned in tribute to one of her all-time-favorite TV shows: Xena: Warrior Princess.
Her gun-totin' extremism has led her to patrol with minutemen near the border and make pals with advocates of racial violence and hatred. On the other hand, she counts women of many nations and colors as former flames. These contrasts conspire to create one of the most intriguing and frustrating personalities of the anti-illegal-immigration movement, frustrating because Lawless won't squeeze nicely into the cubbyhole assigned her, no matter how hard you make her try.
"We're saying no to the New World Order. No to charity. No to economic ruin," intoned Lawless, working herself into a libertarian lather at the Mexican consulate. "And no to Mexican occupation of our sovereign nation!"
Moments later, Pauly squirted lighter fluid all over a Mexican flag and Lawless bent over to light it. They both spat on it as it burned. Afterward, Pauly, hardly the sharpest hoe in the barn, engaged in a debate with a Mexican-American counterprotester he had accused earlier of being an "anchor baby" that is, a child born in America to illegal-immigrant parents.
"We'd like anchor babies from Ireland to go back home, too," he assured the girl. "We don't care. We want all immigrants gone. We don't want noncitizens in this country."
It doesn't seem to bother Pauly that so-called anchor babies are de facto American citizens, but then, this is a guy who, according to Reuters, has called for the sterilization of Mexican women and for illegal immigrants to be shot on sight by Border Patrol snipers. He's not the sort to bother with facts, especially when they don't uphold his own prejudices.
"America is full," he informed the girl. "We want to clean it up."
When she asked why, he let her know it's because he needs the room to shoot his gun.
In any case, the freak show was over, and people cleared out. That eve, Pauly and Lawless shared a catered turkey dinner with about 80 assorted neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers at the National Vanguard's annual Winterfest event, which also featured speeches, white-power poetry readings, and bagpipe and guitar recitals. For attending the racist fete, the Anti-Defamation League will denounce Lawless in a press release as "just another anti-Hispanic bigot using the border issue to forward her own hateful agenda."
A few months later, Lawless remains unapologetic about supping with supremacists, saying she went there out of curiosity. She compares it to the perverse pleasure she gets as a pagan watching fire-breathing Bible-thumpers on cable:
"I sometimes like to watch televangelists for fun, but that doesn't make me a holy roller, now does it?"
Bill Straus, regional director of the Arizona ADL, isn't buying Lawless' excuses, even though he agrees she's not the run-of-the-mill anti-immigrant activist.
"Sometimes in Arizona, don't you have the feeling that somebody went to Central Casting for some of these characters?" he asks, jokingly. Still, Straus regards Lawless and her flag burning with a wary eye, and as proof of the ADL's own warnings about Mexican-bashing nativist-nationalists.
"ADL issued a report on the border in '03," explains Straus. "We were accused by some of crying wolf. We were talking about the ability to attract extremists that this immigration issue's always had even legal immigration. As these people come out of the woodwork, we try to expose them, generally through a press release. Laine Lawless is one more example."
Straus says he doesn't consider the pistol-packin' Lawless any more dangerous than anybody else trying to use the immigration issue to advance an agenda the ADL regards as "whites only." But he does perceive burning the Mexican flag as a possible incitement to violence.
"She knows what she's doing, and she's playing to her audience," Straus insists. "Unfortunately, there are some people who are going to rally to her."
December 16, 2006, in Phoenix was not the first time Lawless cremated Mexico's national symbol with a little help from her friends. The first time was on April 9, 2006, in front of Tucson's Mexican consulate. Present with her were Tucson activists Russ Dove, a bearded, potbellied former militia group member who looks like he'd be more at home ridin' a Harley, and Roy Warden, who likes to draw a circle around himself, dare his opposition to enter, and promise to blow the freakin' head off anyone who tries. Fortunately, the paunchy, middle-aged Warden hasn't killed anybody, but he was found guilty of assaulting a teenager last year at one of his "don't step foot in my perimeter" parties. The case is currently on appeal.
Despite being a rather modest affair, the April 9 incident made the wire and drew the ire of the Mexican government, whose Foreign Relations Undersecretary, Lourdes Aranda, stated in a news conference, "We consider any provocation or vandalism of national symbols to be unacceptable." But you can't expect someone who changed her name to "Lawless" sometime in the late '90s to heed the dictates of a foreign official. (For the record, she says she was inspired by a co-worker who'd named herself "Outlaw," and was not trying to ape the last name of heartthrob-for-lesbians Lucy Lawless, though it's very likely that the actress playing "Xena" put the bug in her brain.)
Lawless & Co. followed up with a two-flag-burnin' demonstration in Tucson's Armory Park on April 10, a day of nationwide pro-immigrant rallies with Mexican immigrants waving American flags and chanting, "Sí, se puede" ("Yes, we can!") in the streets. Tucson's Mexican-American population swelled Armory Park with about 15,000 marchers. But what they didn't count on was Lawless and her ragtag band of buds yelling, "No, you can't!"
The footage of the April 10 Tucson rally is easily the most watchable part of Lawless' 89-minute documentary How to Burn a Mexican Flag, which she produced and edited from her laptop computer in the RV trailer she calls home, and which she sells for $14.99 via her Border Guardians Web site. The rest of the cottage-industry doc mostly features a gussied-up Lawless, a do-rag-wearin' Russ Dove in granny glasses, and a few other talking heads. Dove, Lawless, and the rest portray themselves as freedom-lovin' patriots who're victims of reprisals for their anti-Mexican stances, but this largely comes off as self-serving back-patting and boo-hooing on their part.
Lawless regards many of her pro-immigrant enemies as liars, "communists," and "traitors." Of the Tucson Mexican consulate, she states, "There is much evil in this building." And for those Mexicans and Mexican-Americans who've responded to her with the slogan, "European go home," she points out that they are of partial Spanish descent, then makes them a rather lurid offer.
"Which half of yourself would you like to send back to Europe?" she asks, rhetorically, while still in talking-head mode in the vid. "Maybe I can help you figure out how to cut yourself up and send the white half of yourself back [to Spain]."
Where the Lawless DVD turns car-wreck captivating is during its footage of the carnival-like protest that she, Russ Dove, and Roy Warden engage in as 15,000 pro-immigrant marchers mass in Armory Park. Lawless, who's wearing body armor beneath a white tee shirt that reads "Proud Nativist American," sometimes sports a Fidel Castro-style military hat and at other times a brown-and-beige-camouflage military helmet that lends her an air of Michael Dukakis circa 1988. Dressed all in white, Dove keeps his mouth duct-taped shut in some personal vendetta against modern political correctness, while occasionally dancing a jig over a Mexican tricolor that's about to be Kentucky-fried. Warden, a pudgy, fanny-packed loudmouth with rose-colored glasses and white hair, makes sure that the three ringleaders have a large-enough space within which to perform, warning journalists and others to "get out of our space, you are provoking us!"
Once a circle is established, pro-immigrant-rights "peacekeepers" ring the protesters, arms locked, facing out so as to keep the mostly Chicano crowd from being incited to violence against Lawless and her crew. Several others are in Lawless' bunch, and some of them are holding a large Border Guardians banner. Warden then launches into a bizarre, bellicose tirade that includes denunciations of Catholic-priest pedophiles, cries of "Viva Zapata!" and ceaseless jibes at Mexican-Americans in attendance, encouraging them to return home and make a revolution in their native land. His crackpot harangue eventually turns horror-movie grotesque.
"Land must be paid for with blood," Warden shouts to the pro-immigrants crowd beyond his circle. "And if any invader tries to take this land from us, we will wash this land with blood. We will nurture our soil with oceans and oceans of blood."
In contrast to Warden's surreal jeremiad, Lawless' strident, uncompromising remarks during her speech that day seem almost civilized, even when you grant that they immediately precede the torching of two Mexican flags.
She opens by assuring the crowd that the protest "is not an act against any legal American-Mexicans" in the United States, nor is it an aggression against Mexicans in Mexico. Rather, "Our protest today is directed solely toward the Mexican government and any of its citizens illegally present in the United States." Still, considering the makeup of the crowd that day, this is hardly a warm and fuzzy sentiment.
Lawless' speech berates Mexico as a hostile foreign entity with nefarious designs on U.S. sovereignty. She doesn't exactly take it easy on Mexican nationals in America, either. To those proud of their Mexican heritage, she says, "If you love Mexico so much, go home!" To those without the proper paperwork, her comments are practically a declaration of war.
"To those of you who think you can get over on us because of a corrupt, sold-out government, traitorous politicians, and greedy corporations and globalists, we say, 'No, se puede!' 'No, you cannot,'" she shrieks, eyes narrow in anger. "We Americans have had enough. We are not going to sit idly by watching you invade our land and reduce our country to lawlessness and ruin."
Warden reclaims the bullhornto announce that they're about to burn "two flags of Mexico, two flags that are symbols of your oppression."
He and Dove make quick work of the first flag, then Lawless, wearing her olive-green Castro chapeau, steps in to fire up the second with her lighter. A woman's voice can be heard from outside the circle, urging the pro-immigrant-rights people not to look at Lawless and to stay away from her group. At some point, a 16-year-old girl tosses a plastic water bottle into the circle, and what follows threatens to turn into a riot. Tucson police move in and begin to escort the teen out of the park, sometimes shoving those who seek to help her. As they move to the street, the crowd follows in a tense parade, and a few of the young men present end up scuffling with officers, and the cops bust out some pepper spray. Six immigrant-rights marchers are arrested. A day later, Warden is cited for assault, reckless burning, and disorderly conduct, but he's acquitted by a judge in November.
Of all the demonstrations throughout America on that day, Tucson's was a rare exception in which violence flared. Tucson's April 10 Immigrant Rights Coalition complained that the city shouldn't have allowed Lawless and the other counterprotesters into the park that day, but the Arizona ACLU's executive director, Alessandra Soler Meetze, told the Tucson Citizen, "In this case, safety is a likely pretext for censorship."
Kat Rodriguez, a coordinator for the Tucson Latino-rights organization Coalicion de Derechos Humanos (or "Human Rights Coalition"), still blames the cops for letting Lawless and other anti-immigrant activists into the park. Rodriguez believes that Lawless' goal is similar to Warden's. They want to incite violence by burning the Mexican flag.
"Burning the flag is a First Amendment right," concedes Rodriguez. "There's nothing illegal about it. But what's her intention in doing that? When you burn any flag when you burn the American flag, for instance you're going to stir up strong, strong feelings. And they're not going to be friendly feelings. It's going to create animosity and division, and that's what they counted on April 10. They were laughing when the mayhem broke out."
Indeed, Lawless and her cohorts assert that what happened on April 10 proves that they're not the violent ones. But burning flags, like burning crosses, is one of those things guaranteed to garner a response and attention from ally and foe alike. For Lawless, burning flags has meant a path to infamy, the sort of recognition she's unlikely to have drawn otherwise.
Lawless would be the first to admit that burning the Mexican flag wasn't her idea. Rather, the concept came to her via that mustachioed,blackhearted talk-radio personality Michael Savage. Seems the nationally syndicated, San Francisco-based jock known for such New York Times best sellers as Liberalism Is a Mental Disorder and The Savage Nation, as well as for his puerile on-air rants let loose on his March 27, 2006, show. He showered invective on Mexican immigrants and exhorted listeners to ignite the Mexican national banner.
"That's right, burn the Mexican flag on your street corner," urged Savage in his hyperagitated style. "Show what you care about, show that you won't take it anymore, show that you're sick of everybody pushing us around like a pitiful, helpless giant of a nation that is out of control because we have nothing but corruption and rot at the highest level.
"Do that," Savage raged. "Burn a Mexican flag for America. Burn a Mexican flag for those who died that you should have a nationality and a sovereignty. Go out into the street and show you're a man. Burn 10 Mexican flags if I could recommend it. Put one in the window upside down and tell them to go back where they came from."
Savage referred to the immigration problem as "an invasion by any other name," and remarked that, "We, the people, are being displaced by the people of Mexico." He lamented that he was only a radio host, but if he were "more than one man," he would organize a massive Mexican-flag burning. "Then I would like to see how our hardworking brethren would react, our friends from the south," he carped, contemptuously. "Let us see how they would react."
This foam-mouthed philippic was brought on by massive pro-immigrant marches in California in which the Mexican flag was unabashedly waved. In response to such cavils, subsequent demonstrations featured Old Glory rather than the colors of the homeland. But Laine Lawless, a longstanding Savage fan, heard the howl of her icon and obeyed.
"I was listening to Michael Savage one day," she tells viewers in How to Burn a Mexican Flag. "And I heard him rant and rave in his inimitable style, 'There should be Mexican flags burning from every street corner in America.' And I thought, 'Yeah, he's right, why don't we do it here in Tucson?'"
Lawless had been in the movement for a few years already, having done a brief stint with Chris Simcox and the Minuteman Project before falling out with Simcox and eventually registering her own Border Guardians Web site in 2005, after working on the concept during much of '04. After living on a ranch in Cochise County, a hotbed of anti-immigrant fervor, she had ended up parking her Chevy SUV and her RV trailer in Tucson, hooking up with the likes of Dove and Warden.
She's always been a talk-radio enthusiast, and can discuss the nuances and niches of personalities as diverse as Tom Leykis, Howard Stern, and Dr. Laura, but Savage held, and holds, a special fascination.
"I like his passion," Lawless says of Savage in one of several interviews with New Times. "When he does a radio show, it's exciting. It gets you stirred up inside."
As odd as it may sound, Savage and Lawless share a few significant characteristics. Each has left his or her heart in the Bay Area in Lawless' case, Daly City, just to the south of San Francisco, where she spent 20-plus years of her life. Both have changed their last names to labels of what they long to embody. Lawless refuses to own up to her pre-'90s last name, though a routine background check suggests her birth name may be Roberta Dill, a more prosaic moniker than her current handle. Similarly, it's widely known that before Savage was Savage, he bore the less-intimidating name Michael Weiner, under which he earned his doctorate in epidemiology and nutrition science from the University of California at Berkeley, going on to become a famed herbalist and author of many books on the subject. And both Savage and Lawless passed through periods of lefty-ism before their sharp turns to the right. Savage once swam naked with Allen Ginsberg and counted Lawrence Ferlinghetti as a friend. Lawless admits that she was an ardent member of the gay-liberation movement of the '70s. She remains a pagan, consulting tarot cards and crystals for purposes of divination not practices typical conservatives cotton to. And, of course, there's that bit about laying a curse on anti-gay '70s orange-juice queen Anita Bryant.
"It wasn't an issue of, 'I want bad things to happen to her because she's a homophobe,'" Lawless conveys of the curse she and 10 fellow gay pagans enacted. "It was like we need to defend ourselves and our community . . . I remember reading the next month that she made herself so unpopular with her homophobic crusade that she was reduced to panhandling at revivals."
Ironically, Savage is, like Bryant was in the day, known as an A-1 gay-basher. But this doesn't bother Lawless too much. She pretty much picks and chooses what she wants from Savage's ideological cafeteria.
"When he goes off on his homophobic rants, and he talks about how gays are perverts and stuff like that, and how we're destroying society, I just have to turn him off," Lawless relates. "And if I don't turn the radio off, I turn him off in my head until he starts to say something interesting."
Taking Savage's orders on flag-flaming has led Lawless to the unique position of being vilified by members of both the left and the right. In her documentary, she discusses at length how various social agencies and gay-friendly groups will have nothing to do with her anymore. She complains about how one far-left pro-immigrant news organization "outed" her as a lesbian and a pagan in the movement, "which I don't really believe to be relevant to my political activities." And even pagans have problems accepting her. For instance, one female shaman refused to do "journeying" a practice that involves a trance-like state in which one can summon guides from the spirit world with Lawless after learning of her flag burning.
Lawless seems genuinely disappointed by such personal consequences of her anti-Mexican activism. Yet, she saves her most vicious words for the gay community.
"They're all brainwashed communists in one way or another," she states. "Liberals, socialists, or outright communists. I have a friend who's a communist, who's a lesbian, who won't speak to me anymore since I burned the Mexican flag. I've tried e-mailing her. I made jokes about it, like, 'If you're dead, can you just call me and let me know?'"
It's not just pagans and liberals who want to keep Lawless at arm's length. Other anti-illegal-immigration activists are quick to distance themselves from Lawless' antics, however gently. Lawless' friend Yeh Ling-Ling, director of the Diversity Alliance for a Sustainable America, is one. As a naturalized, Vietnam-born U.S. citizen of Chinese descent, Ling-Ling is a star in a movement that relishes any non-Caucasian as a participant. Ling-Ling came down from Oakland to be at a Freedom Riders protest at the Sandra Day O'Connor U.S. Courthouse in downtown Phoenix on January 13. Freedom Riders is an anti-immigrant motorcycle group, and the protest was in support of two Border Patrol agents who the anti-immigrant movement believes were railroaded over the shooting of a drug smuggler in Texas.
Lawless showed for the protest, of course, carrying a Mexican flag which she merely stood on and spat at instead of setting afire. She bitched about not being asked to speak, and blamed this on her nemesis, Chris Simcox, who was present. But even Ling-Ling, who seemed happy to see her, and lunched with her later in the day, couldn't totally get with Lawless' whole flag-burning deal, though she did offer a rationalization.
"I understand her anger," proffered the petite Asian activist. "I wouldn't do such a thing myself. Many Mexican radicals have said, 'The U.S. is our land, this is stolen land.' So you can see why some Americans are very angry, and to express their extreme anger, since our federal government is not responding, they have to resort to this kind of action."
Chris Simcox of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps is more direct in his criticism of Lawless, reflecting a war of words between the two militants that's been ongoing for some time now. Simcox scoffs at Lawless' flag burnings as pure publicity stunts.
"It's bringing attention to yourself," he asserts. "P.T. Barnum would be proud of people like that. It creates a sideshow which does nothing to advance our cause. All it does is taint us negatively . . . We just want the borders secure and the laws enforced."
Lawless decries Simcox's Minutemen as wimps who've gone soft, been bought off, and will not engage the movement's enemies in battle. Whenever Mexicans take to the streets, "We'll burn a Mexican flag," she promises, although she admits that her Border Guardians group does not keep a membership list, and that, basically, she is Border Guardians, plus the 30 or so associates she can call on at any given time. Yet, the double-edged sword of her flag burning has marginalized her at the same time that it's made her more prominent. Nowhere is this more evident than in her battles with the Southern Poverty Law Center, the most dogged of anti-racist organizations in America.
Based in Montgomery, Alabama, the SPLC is perhaps best known for its battles with the Ku Klux Klan, but the nonprofit civil rights organization keeps a close eye on all suspected racist and hate groups, including those agitating against Mexican immigration along the border.
In an article published April 19, 2006, not long after Lawless began her flag-burning ways, the SPLC accused Lawless of sending an April 3 e-mail to neo-Nazi Mark Martin, an Ohio "SS Commander" of the National Socialist Movement, with a list of violent suggestions for intimidating illegal Mexican immigrants. According to the story, titled "Going Lawless," Martin then posted the suggestions to several white-supremacist bulletin boards.
Online next to the article, the SPLC posted a PDF file of the e-mail, with Lawless' e-mail address and a header that reads "How to GET RID OF THEM." The sender informs the addressee that "I'm not ready to come out on this, but I think my ideas are good and should be shared . . . Maybe some of your warriors of the race would be the kind of ppl willing to implement some of these ideas. Please don't use my name. THANKS."
Eleven suggestions follow, "some legal, some not-so," as the message states. The not-so-legal recommendations for encouraging Mexicans to "self-deport" include: sabotaging the radio towers of Spanish-language radio stations; stealing the money of "any illegal walking into a bank or check-cashing place"; discouraging Spanish-speaking children from attending public school ("Be creative," it says); intimidating voters at polling places; and pursuing an "anonymous propaganda campaign warning that any further illegal immigrants coming here will be shot, maimed, or seriously messed-up" when they cross the border. One idea on the list is truly sinister in its vagueness:
"Make every illegal alien feel the heat of being a fugitive and a person without proper status," it reads. "I'm sure there are many creative ways to do this. I hear the rednecks in the South are beating up illegals as the textile mills have closed. Use your imagination . . ."
Though the message contains her e-mail address, and though she admits to having corresponded with Mark Martin in the past, Lawless has since denied on several occasions that she authored the e-mail. During a December appearance on Charles Goyette's KFNX-AM 1100 morning show, she repeatedly claimed she had not made statements attributed to her in what turned into a highly contentious segment of the Phoenix jock's radio program. In conversations with New Times, she even went so far as to imply that she had been framed by the SPLC.
"Contrary to what the SPLC thinks, it's not like I have contact with Nazis who get together and plot how we're going to get these little brown people out of our country," insists Lawless, despite her December 16 appearance at the National Vanguard's Winterfest. "That shit is so not happening.
"I looked at the e-mail, and it didn't have full headers on it," she continues. "I thought this is creative writing, probably at its best. I couldn't have smeared myself better unless I'd written it."
Mark Potok, editor of the SPLC's magazine Intelligence Report, says the racist-hunting organization stands behind the article. Potok believes Lawless sent the e-mail, despite her disavowals.
"She apparently denies to some people that she sent an e-mail to the National Socialist Movement, but she has no problem agreeing that she attended a neo-Nazi rally," Potok points out, commenting that regarding the e-mail, "Laine Lawless has never, ever told us that the story was untrue. She's obviously said that to other people, but she has never asked for a retraction, or a correction, or told us that it wasn't so."
Lawless counters that even the FBI must know the electronic missive is a fake, otherwise why hasn't the agency contacted her about it? But when pushed to declare whether she agrees with what the e-mail advocates, she makes a surprising defense of its declarations.
"Everything on that list except for two things is perfectly legal," she contends. "Reporting and observing, turning in illegal aliens, what's illegal about that? That's what the Minutemen do."
And as for the part about robbing illegal aliens at banks and check-cashing places, well, that didn't mean all illegal aliens.
"It seems to me that, as far as I can tell, the suggestion for depriving people of their money was talking about smugglers smuggling money," she says. "They took that totally out of context, and they placed it as beating up Mexicans and robbing them. That wasn't it."
Lawless swears she has no truck with neo-Nazis, because they don't like gays, and she vehemently rejects the racist label others apply to her pointing out that she's had many friends of other nationalities and skin colors.
"My prolific relationships with other women have spanned various ages and races over the years, starting when I was 19," Lawless gushes after being asked about an affair with a Filipina that was confirmed through another source.
In general conversation, Lawless drops the occasional Yiddish expression, makes comments like "I sure do miss black people" (referring to the paucity of African-Americans in Phoenix), and says she longs for the "really cheap ethnic restaurants" of the Bay Area. Lawless never slips into outright ethnic slurs, and at a counterprotest to the anti-Prop 300 protest in Glendale during the BCS Championship Game last month at University of Phoenix Stadium, she only spouted vulgarity when addressed with vulgarity.
However, when arguments flared between a handful of Hispanics and the handful of counterprotesters she was leading, she took great pleasure from the confrontation, asking, "Isn't this exciting?" at one point. Later, as both sides were dispersing, she noted a crushed Dr Pepper can on the ground, lamenting, "See how they throw trash on the ground? It's just like this on the border." Still, this ain't exactly the same as prancing around in a Klan hood screaming, "White power!"
Lawless' views on race can be opportunistic, though. Last year, KPHO Channel 5 had reporter Morgan Loew pretend to join the Border Guardians, filming Lawless with a hidden camera. In the footage, which can still be viewed at KPHO.com, Lawless confesses matter-of-factly that she would accept racists into her group.
"What we need right now is bodies," she tells Loew, unaware that he's an undercover reporter. "At this point, I don't even really care if they're racist as long as they're not obnoxious to people of color who are also in the group."
Lawless claims she was just testing Loew to make sure he wasn't a bigot, and he failed because he showed no reaction when she made her remark. Good try on Lawless' part, but her cover story strains credulousness. It's more likely that the KPHO broadcast was a glimpse of the Laine Lawless that's rarely on public display, one that on occasion takes a realpolitik view of her less-savory colleagues.
One of those less-savory colleagues was Roy Warden, whom Lawless broke with after Warden pushed a teenager at a June 2006 protest in Tucson outside the Mexican consulate there. Sixteen-year-old Arturo Rodriguez had the temerity to step inside the boundary Warden had set up for his protest, part of the wild-eyed activists standard operating procedure. As Rodriguez filmed Warden with his video camera for a short film he would later post online at Panleft.org (http://panleft.org/screen.php?videoSrc=warden_assault.mov), Warden shoved and threatened him. You stay the fuck out of our area, you got that? Warden yelled at Rodriguez in the video. You step in there again and Ill put a bullet in your fuckin head!
Lawless was present during the confrontation and actually videotaped it, but after Warden was cited for assault and making intimidating threats, Lawless refused to help with his defense. Warden shared their resulting e-mail exchange in a much-forwarded Internet message declaring that Lawless had put a hex on him. Lawless October 4, 2006, e-mail to Warden is a real eye-popper:
You are a fucking prick, a misogynist, a homophobe, an animal abuser who throws his poor female cat in heat against a wall to silence her, and an evil man. You deserve the support or help of NO ONE. Any testimony I might give in an open court would not be to your advantage. What do you want me to do, show my video of you assaulting a minor child, and then say, yep, he did it? You fool! You think just because ppl are around you, it gives you the right to push them around like they are pieces on a chess board? Go join the pushy Mexicans in the Open Borders Lobby your tactics are more morally compromised than theirs, and at least they can put on a peaceful face, which you dont bother with. Im not in your game, you son of a bitch, and I will not be dominated by you. No man has ever succeeded in that, and you wont be the first.
Though Warden has since been found guilty of assault involving the June fracas and Lawless has sworn off dealing with him, Don Pauly, who has espoused violence in the past, remains in her good graces. As for Chris Simcox, whom she worked for in 2003 or 2004 at Simcox's Tombstone Tumbleweed newspaper, he's her bête noire. She regards him as a traitor to her movement.
But roles are reversed this time. Simcox kicked Lawless to the curb and will have nothing to do with her now.
Simcox admits Lawless helped out in Tombstone for about three months, but it was eventually decided that Lawless, true to her name, perhaps, was too radical for the minutemen. According to Simcox, Lawless didn't pass his movement's "vetting process," which supposedly includes a background check and "keeping an eye on the individual" for a while.
"After a couple of months, her rhetoric got to the point where it was not meshing with our procedures," says Simcox. "It was a little too aggressive. The rhetoric was negative. And we severed ties with her."
Lawless is an "embarrassment" to his movement, and her tactics are self-aggrandizing, he states. He also cops to sending a 2005 e-mail to Don Pauly (another person with whom Simcox says he's cut ties), wherein he suggests Lawless is an agent of the feds or of the very "Open Borders Lobby" that she routinely decries.
"Please stop referring to Laine Lawless as a member of the Tombstone Militia, Civil Homeland Defense," writes Simcox, using a former name for his organization. "Laine was vetted and outed long ago as a person who was intent on encouraging citizen groups to step outside the law. We are suspicious that she is a plant working for the government or working for the open borders crowd to get people to make racist comments so they prove we are racists."
But the backbitingonly gets fiercer! Lawless returns fire on Simcox by alleging that he's actually the government plant, having been "turned" by the feds after he was busted for a handgun violation in 2003 in a national park. She also suggests that "The Little Prince," his nickname among detractors, has been compromised somehow by the consulting firm Diener & Associates, which partnered with Simcox's group last year to assist with fund-raising campaigns. Recently, Lawless has produced a 30-page report she's been hawking to the media with her accusations about Simcox and Diener & Associates, which Simcox laughs off.
"Boy, she has a fertile imagination," he says, chuckling.
Still, Hell hath no fury . . .
Simcox is one of Lawless' favorite targets. She likes to call him "Shitsocks" or "Shamcocks," and she growls that "he has backstabbed pretty much everyone in this movement that's not kissed his ass or given money to [the Minutemen]." Her only sin, she claims, was that she was critical of comments he'd made about Cochise County on an Internet chat board.
"He posted something to Border Birdies about, 'Yeah, Cochise County is a wonderful place to live and raise your kids,'" recalls Lawless. "And I said, 'Chris, what are you talking about? You've been saying all this time that it's terrible what's been happening to Cochise County, blah, blah, blah.' He didn't like that. Do not be critical of The Little Prince. You will be paid back. He expects to be obeyed. He's a control freak."
Until their falling-out, Lawless says she admired Simcox, and wanted to help him market his movement, advising him to set up at gun shows and target contributors through e-mail fund-raising. She says she assisted at Simcox's office, helped design a tee shirt, and penned articles for the Tombstone Tumbleweed.
"I also told him his Web site sucked," she confides. "My not being able to participate in the Minuteman project was payback for that."
As proof that Simcox has snitched to the FBI in the past, she has tapes of her visit to the Cochise County FBI office in Sierra Vista, a visit requested by the FBI. Lawless takes her tape recorder with her and records her talk with agents. FBI agent Brian Witt questions her about a March 1, 2005, post to a Yahoo! Group named Border War, wherein Lawless encourages other posters to put their guns where their mouths are.
Witt seems to acknowledge that the conversation with Lawless is just a formality and, at some point, Simcox's name comes up as the person who alerted the FBI to this particular Web thread, though Witt doesn't go so far as to say that Simcox ratted on Lawless.
Simcox, for the record, denies he's a government agent, but he does acknowledge speaking to the FBI about certain individuals, though not about Lawless specifically.
"We have worked with them in making sure that we screen out people thoroughly," Simcox states carefully. "And they've provided assistance for that."
In an e-mail screed that serves as a sort of introduction to links to the audiotapes online, Lawless lets the reader understand her view of informants of any stripe.
"I will never turn anyone on my side in," she pledges. "Anyone who does is a snitch, and should be dealt with as a snitch. Everyone knows what that means. I do not have to explain it."
So what do you make of a cantankerous ol' biddy who travels the Southwest in a Chevy pulling a cramped RV trailer that contains her cats, Booger and Patty, two pistols, a guitar, and the assorted knickknacks and accouterments of a Dianic Wiccan: necklaces sporting ravens and pentagrams, amulets featuring the Norse goddess Freyja, and a handbill for a pagan temple in Cactus Springs, Nevada, illustrated with the lion-headed Egyptian goddess Sekhmet? All this from a gal who gets her kicks setting a match to butane-drenched Mexican flags.
As nefarious as her political views and activities may seem to those just to the left of Vlad the Impaler, she's not a dolt. She holds a degree in English literature from San Francisco State University, though she says that "it never did me any good." She'll talk your ear off about any number of subjects, from Margaret Thatcher and Diana Rigg in The Avengers to Desperate Housewives and why she finds the concept of gay marriage distasteful. Moreover, she can be amusing, like when she rattles on about how she wished she'd been born a gay man: "All those willing partners!" Or when she sexually sizes up one of her enemies, in this case Pima County legal defender and Derechos Humanos firebrand Isabel Garcia.
"She's nice looking, I'd take her," Lawless avows of the attorney. "She'd have to do something with that long hair, though, like put it up. Believe me, I know about sleeping with women with long hair."
Lawless' laugh is a high-pitched cackle likely to burst forth when you make the most outrageous observation of her. Her tastes are pedestrian, lower-middle-class. She prefers to graze at restaurants like Sweet Tomatoes when she can, always careful to nab that senior discount. Eatin' high on the hog is a rare midday meal at Black Angus Steakhouse. She can be, by turns, sardonic, suspicious, gossipy, and coarse. Ask her a question she considers stupid over dinner and she might fling her food at you with her fork.
By her own account, her childhood sounds as though it was staid, conservative, bourgeois. Her father was in the military; she won't say which branch. Her mom was an English teacher who passed away at the age of 91 two Christmases ago.
"My mother spent her whole life searching for security," says Lawless. "I've spent my life taking risks. We're different people in that respect."
She lived in Daly City, California, for 22 years until 2000, when she decided to hit the road. Her income before that came from a variety of jobs. She worked for the phone company, as a cab driver, a termite inspector, a clerk. Post-2000, she roamed the Western states until she gravitated to Arizona, drawn by the illegal-chasin' thrills to be had in Cochise County. How she's afforded her vagabond lifestyle parking the RV trailer in Tucson, then Colorado, then Phoenix, and in Hereford since the beginning of the month is a mystery. Rich she ain't, and she constantly complains about looking for a job. Maybe she has a nest egg somewhere. Who knows? She pleads poverty when you query her about it.
Lawless' "conversion" to anti-illegal-immigrationism came through the intervention of a pal named Terry, whom she met at a gun show. (Her interest in firearms has spanned 30 years, she says.)
"He worked on me for a couple of years," explains Lawless. "Until I realized that the media wasn't giving me the real story."
She'd read about what was happening in Cochise County, and the adventure of it all appealed to her, inflaming her inner warrior that for so long had been yearning to breathe free under the civilizing influence of San Francisco's urbanity. In Cochise, she'd be able to camp out, shoot her pistols with impunity, go on "patrols" for "invaders," rough it with the guys. She could finally become what her surname had always implied, "Lawless."
In her mind, she'd be just as tough and courageous as her favorite TV character, Xena, her devotion to whom, she grudgingly admits, may have a little something to do with why she chose the same last name as the actress who played the "warrior princess," Lucy Lawless.
An online report from the 1997 Northern California Hercules & Xena Fest sums up Lawless' situation at that time:
"Laine Lawless is a 47-year-old single lesbian living in San Francisco who loves to write alt fan fiction, and is currently writing a screenplay set in ancient times featuring strong female protagonists. An avowed Hardcore Nutball Xenite, Ms. Lawless cannot make up her mind whether she wants to be Xena or marry her."
Next to the description is a photo of a younger, softer Lawless with a wide grin, dressed in a Smokey the Bear hat and wielding a bullwhip. The screenplay mentioned here was Amazons and Slaves. But Lawless now concedes it's probably too "lesbian" to get produced. Currently, she's laboring on a prison-break sci-fi manuscript she's calling Crosscut.
Nevertheless, it's her Xena fan fiction that offers the most insight into Lawless' persona. In a series of seven short stories with titles such as "Dark Heart" and "Xena and the Moon Goddess," Lawless follows the travels of the muscular Xena as she kicks male butt and engages in torrid, explicit sex with her femme lover Gabrielle. For what they are, the stories are not badly written.
"The whole program Xena: Warrior Princess was like a dream come true for us lesbians," enthuses Lawless. "Here you have this warrior woman who can beat up men who can beat up anyone, actually, who rides a really great horse. She's a hot babe. She has many skills. She's a psychic. She has kind of a tortured past, but that just makes her a little bit more interesting. And here she is with her sidekick, who just happens to be a woman. I mean, are you kidding me? This is like every lesbian's fantasy."
Truly, the show enjoyed a devoted lesbian following during its six seasons, from 1995 to 2001. Xena's orientation was mostly implied in the series, however. And her affection for Gabrielle was never as R- or X-rated as it is in Lawless' raunchy tales, which you can still find posted on AUSXIP.com, "The Australian Xena Information Page."
Like Xena, Lawless is a pagan who worships Artemis (Diana), goddess of the hunt. Lawless is fond of the raven as a symbol, and sees ravens as a good omen, as does Xena. Like Xena, Lawless is not afraid to confront men, and sees herself as a fearsome warrior. Xena and Lawless are mistresses of many weapons, such as the whip. Guns had not been invented in Xena's time, of course, but Lawless has a concealed-weapons permit for her Browning Hi-Power and her Mauser HSc.
"I feel like I've been a warrior all my life," she affirms. "I've always been fighting for something or another, and I've stood up for certain things when other people wouldn't."
Still, the road she's chosen has been long, weary, and lonely. Lawless remains Gabrielle-less. Her incendiary, often repulsive opinions regarding Mexican immigrants do not exactly endear her to the average lesbian her age who's wanting to spoon. How long she'll commit herself to mocking the national symbols of America's neighbor to the south remains an open question. Currently, she's hanging out in Hereford after her stint in Phoenix. Next stop: the Big Easy for Mardi Gras. While in Louisiana, she'll collaborate with a writing partner on the rest of Crosscut, she says. But you can expect her to be back. The battle's in her blood. And southern Arizona is where the action's at for those obsessed with border issues.
"Just make sure you say that I don't hate anyone," advises Lawless, in direct contradiction to the fiery image of her emblazoned on her DVD, How to Burn a Mexican Flag. "It takes too much energy for me to hate."
Which sounds weird coming from Lawless, considering that her claim to fame is a symbolic act of hate: relentlessly burning the flag of one of America's allies and strongest trading partners as a means of fomenting discord and ill will.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.