Sheriff Paul Babeu made it clear Friday he wants an armed group of neo-Nazis to stay out of Pinal County, but acknowledged there is nothing he can do to stop them.
The sheriff was concerned with reports that the group, led by J.T. Ready of the National Socialist Movement, was planning to set up camp this weekend in the vast desert south of Phoenix to hunt for drug and human smugglers.
“Not only did we not ask for, we do not want any activity by a neo-Nazi, racist group,” Babeu said in a phone interview Friday afternoon. “This group that’s here — it really is not helpful.”
However, the sheriff also acknowledged the group had a right to be on public land as long as they don’t commit any crimes. “If they want to go out there, there are certain rights that some people have.”
None of Babeu’s deputies will actively track the group, the sheriff said, but he plans to keep in “constant contact” with his lieutenant in the area as well as 911 dispatchers in case anything goes wrong.
Babeu also said he personally canceled a number of appointments this weekend to monitor things more closely. “I’m going to be in the area,” he said. “We take all this information very seriously.”
Ready, who is leading the excursion, could not be reached for a response to Babeu’s comments. However, he said in a voice mail message was already out in the desert all day and was planning to hold a news conference Saturday afternoon.
Just three weeks ago, Ready was spotted at a tea party rally in Tempe, handing out fliers calling for landmines to be placed along the U.S.-Mexico border to put a stop to illegal immigration. The fliers carried Ready’s name and the letters “N.S.M.” — or National Socialist Movement, the nation’s largest neo-Nazi organization.
During multiple television interviews this week, Ready showed off a large collection of guns, ammunition, tear gas and other equipment he plans to take with him into the desert.
In a comment he posted Friday on this website, he said his gathering was part of a “war” to “take back these areas” from groups he considers “narco-terrorists.”
Ready has a history of armed confrontation with immigrants. In 2006, he cornered a Hispanic man on a dead-end street and ended up opening fire with a .38 revolver after he said the man shot at him with a BB gun. Ready was not arrested or charged in the incident.
Bill Strauss, who leads the Phoenix office of the Anti-Defamation League, said hate groups like Ready’s are growing in prominence thanks in part to the fervor over the immigration debate.
“They are growing, yeah,” Strauss said. “They’re growing as a result of the economy. And the election of President Obama. And certainly immigration.”
But Strauss also noted that they have been unable to go mainstream, despite efforts to recruit at many of the right-leaning anti-government rallies that have spread across the U.S.
Strauss noted that many in the mainstream have pushed away these kinds of hate groups.
The Arizona Republican Party, for instance, used to have Ready in a leadership role as a precinct committeeman before finding out about his racist beliefs. They have since disavowed him.
Also, state Sen. Russell Pearce, the immigration hardliner and Republican who sponsored Arizona’s new immigration law, used to count Ready as an ally but has since distanced himself from his fellow Mesa resident.
Pearce eventually saw Ready’s allegiance as “an embarrassment,” Strauss said.
In terms of the kind of vigilante justice Ready and his group are now trying to create, Strauss said it’s important for police to send a strong signal against that, too.
“I think law enforcement should be very clear and very loud in sending the message that they don’t want untrained citizens enforcing the law,” he said.
That was exactly what Babeu, the Pinal County sheriff, appeared to be doing Friday after learning about Ready’s racist beliefs.
A Republican, the sheriff has emerged as a growing figure in the immigration debate in recent months. He has often appeared alongside fellow Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, including in a television commercial in which they called for the U.S. government to finish “the danged fence” along the Arizona-Mexico border.
When contacted about Ready’s group on Friday, the sheriff at first stuck to his political talking points, sending out a written statement that blamed President Obama for the broken immigration system and called for more troops along the southern border.
The statement went onto say he appreciated the “support and offer to take up arms and patrol” from Americans nationwide, but that it “would not be helpful.” He asked all civilian groups to stay home.
But after being pointed to the flier Ready was handing out at the tea party rally on May 29, Babeu called Heat City to send a stronger message. He wanted to be clear that his appreciation of support did not extend to hate groups.
“This last week we have gotten about 100 calls and emails a day by people across America,” Babeu said. “But not this group. I’ve never had contact with this group.”