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Friday, March 30, 2007 | Christi Czajkowski, the ousted former spokeswoman for the San Diego Minutemen, giggled at the suggestion that it’s been a tough year for local anti-illegal immigration activists.
“It’s been a bit like ‘Days of Our Lives,’” she said.
Legal Troubles for Minutemen
In the last 12 months, local Minutemen have come under a barrage of legal attacks from within their ranks, local law enforcement agencies and civil liberties groups, shifting the focus from their anti-immigration message onto themselves. Earlier this year, the leader of the San Diego Minutemen, Jeff Schwilk, was publicly accused by Czajkowski, his ex-girlfriend, of beating her up and stealing videos she shot for the group. She is now suing him for $700,000 in damages.
This week, Schwilk and another local Minuteman were named in a defamation suit brought by a former American Civil Liberties Union activist. Since November, the San Diego Police Department has been searching the homes of three prominent anti-illegal immigration activists — including Schwilk — as part of an ongoing investigation into vandalism at a north San Diego migrant camp.
And earlier this week, the San Diego City Attorney’s Office stepped into the fray, filing nine misdemeanor criminal charges against a Los Angeles-based Minuteman. Finally, the board of directors of the national Minuteman Project ousted its Orange County-based founder last week, accusing him of stealing $400,000 in donations.
The San Diego Minutemen sprang into the public eye last summer when they began regularly picketing day labor sites where migrant workers congregated hoping to find work. Schwilk forged a team of like-minded volunteers and the San Diego Minutemen became a regular sight on the streets of Rancho Peñasquitos, Encinitas and other neighborhoods where migrant workers were known to gather.
Spurred on by a radio talk show host, the Minutemen began videotaping both the migrants and the contractors and individuals who pulled over to pick them up for work. Their stated aim was to name and shame those who contributed to what they saw as the foreign invasion of American soil.
As the Minuteman activities grew in frequency and pitch, an opposition group of activists, led by the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation and the ACLU-backed San Diego Legal Observer Coalition, began to shadow the Minutemen, monitoring their activities and matching them video camera for video camera.
The result was an Internet-based jousting match of videos that played out on websites like YouTube.com, MySpace.com and others established specifically to promote one side of the immigration debate or the other. Minutemen posted videos of alleged harassment by the legal observers, while the legal observers fired back with videos of Minutemen losing their tempers, barging aside migrants and using foul language.
In some of that footage, activists holding cameras face off against each other in a sort of high-tech game of cat-and-mouse. As one camera turns, the other turns with it and neither side backs down.
Last fall, some of the web postings, e-mails and videos turned personal.
San Diego attorney Daniel Gilleon, who has represented the side opposite the Minutemen in various legal actions, claims that two of the most active anti-illegal immigration activists in San Diego began targeting a young ACLU-backed activist in September. Joanne Yoon, who was then a student at San Diego State University, had been filming many of the Minutemen at their rallies and protests.
Gilleon’s suit alleges his client was targeted and defamed by Schwilk and a Fallbrook-based activist named Ray Carney. The suit alleges that Carney and Schwilk “defamed Yoon by publishing on the internet unprivileged false statements that imputed to Yoon a want of chastity, and tended to expose her to hatred, contempt, ridicule, obloquy, and cause her to be shunned or avoided.”
Specifically, in a series of e-mails that Gilleon says were sent between Schwilk, Carney and others, Yoon was referred to as an “anorexic ACLU slut.” Gilleon also alleges that Carney posted a photograph of Yoon with three Latino men on a website accompanied by several lines of defamatory words. Among the insults posted on the site is the contention that Yoon is a “skank,” who “beds down” on “a daily basis” with “those little brown Border Hoppers.” The post also offers “$50 to ‘Anyone’ who finds her home address.”
Gilleon is asking the court to award his client $1 million.
Carney calls the suit a waste of the court’s time. He likened the exchange of e-mails to schoolyard bickering. He said the activists on both sides have needed a thick skin to get through the last year or so.
“I was brought up in the sixties, when we had an expression: ‘Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never harm me,’” he said.
“I guess Joanne Yoon missed that in kindergarten,” Carney added.
Schwilk, who said he respects Yoon and thinks she is a “class act,” was equally dismissive of the lawsuit and characterized it as the latest in a long line of intimidations, most of which he blames on the ACLU, even though the group opposes the Yoon suit.
“We have nothing to hide,” he said. “We expect this from the ACLU. They want to stop us and they will throw out anything they can to stop us.”
Schwilk has other personal and legal concerns. A couple of months after the alleged defamation, pro-migrant activists called San Diego Police Department officers to a Carmel Valley migrant camp. SDPD northeastern division Capt. Jim Collins said a number of the migrants’ possessions had been slashed, apparently with a knife. He estimated the damage that was caused at about $600.
Claudia Smith of the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, who arrived at the camps shortly after the vandals had left, said that dozens of items were damaged, from clothes to shoes to the migrants’ shacks themselves. She said the attack sent a clear message to the migrants that they are not welcome.
The SDPD launched an investigation. About two weeks later Czajkowski was identified in a lineup by a migrant worker as part of the group who conducted the vandalism. Shortly afterwards, Czajkowski’s home was searched by detectives, who removed her computers, camera equipment and files.
Last week the Police Department served warrants at the homes of Schwilk and another activist, Julie Adams. Adams is a Rancho Peñasquitos resident who lives near the migrant camps and has been particularly vocal about the presence of the migrants in her neighborhood.
Several hundred migrants live in the canyons around Rancho Peñasquitos and Carmel Valley. The men live in shacks made of tarpaulins and tomato stakes and have no access to running water, electricity or sanitation.
Collins declined to comment further on the investigation, which he said is ongoing.
Czajkowski laughed at the suggestion that she tore through migrants’ possessions. She said she has taken food and clothing to the migrants, and that she couldn’t even kill a spider.
The self-proclaimed “Minutemom” said the investigation into the vandalism led to her eventual split with Schwilk. That drama played out on television screens around San Diego County thanks to Czajkowski’s ever-present video camera.
Czajkowski said once the investigation into the vandalism attack was under way, she was urged by Schwilk and others to deny that she was with them, in the vicinity of the migrant camps, on the day the camps were attacked. She said that as a result of her cooperation with the police, she was branded a traitor by the rest of the San Diego Minutemen.
The animosity between Schwilk and Czajkowski came to a head during an altercation at Schwilk’s house on Super Bowl Sunday this year. Czajkowski caught the argument on camera and posted it on the Internet. In the footage, Schwilk brandishes what looks like a can of beer. After comments by Czajkowski, Schwilk starts to scream obscenities at her and advances toward her menacingly as she backs out of the room.
Czajkowski claims that Schwilk beat her up just after that footage was taken. Shortly after the incident, Schwilk filed a restraining order against his ex-lover. That order was struck down by a judge in early March. It was replaced by a civil lawsuit that Czajkowski filed against Schwilk claiming $700,000 in damages resulting from Schwilk’s alleged physical abuse.
“It’s probably a good thing for me that Anna Nicole Smith died when she did,” Czajkowski said. “Otherwise my private life would still be all over the media.”
Schwilk dismissed Czajkowski as “a nobody.”
“She’s nothing, she’s just somebody who just happened to be involved with the San Diego Minutemen,” he said.
John Matthew Monti, a Minuteman from Los Angeles, also ran into legal troubles after an altercation with a group of migrant workers in Rancho Peñasquitos in November.
Monti claimed he was attacked by a group of eight migrant workers who took offense to him photographing them. He said the men tried to steal his camera and that one attacked him from behind. The City Attorney’s Office disagrees. They say it was Monti who attacked the group of migrants and then made up a false police statement afterwards.
Monti said the city attorney’s case is evidence of a conspiracy by the Police Department to target Minutemen. As proof, he noted that the District Attorney’s Office passed on the case. Lea Fields, the deputy city attorney who filed the suit, said the evidence supported the misdemeanor charges — which are handled by the city attorney. Felonies are prosecuted by the district attorney.
Monti said the people who know him will come to his defense. He said that as a bilingual teacher of immigrant children, most of whom are Latino, he rejects any claims that he’s a racist or that he is guilty of a hate crime.
“They’ve turned this around on me,” he said. “Everybody knows me, I’ve tutored their kids. My class is a newcomers’ class and I work with those kids to see them transition to another level.”