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Brash Evangelist

Thanks to an Obsession with Immigration, Glenn Spencer has Ended up on a List of Hate Groups. Is His a Courageous Voice in the Wilderness--or the Whine of a Hatemonger?

July 15, 2001|Patrick J. McDonnell | Patrick J. McDonnell is a Times staff writer

On a cloudless morning in Westwood, Glenn Spencer is talking about treachery. The new leaders of the United States and Mexico are poised to meet amid a feel-good public relations buildup that has enraged Spencer, self-styled crusader against what he calls Mexico's reconquista of California and the Southwest. News reports breezily convey the prospect of relaxed borders, a new amnesty for illegal immigrants and expanded free trade. It is no less than treason to Spencer, a 63-year-old former computer consultant from the San Fernando Valley, now a brash evangelist in a holy war of his own design.

He has called his brothers and sisters to Westwood to rally in protest. "Stand up for America or kiss it goodbye," he warned them in an insistent e-mail dispatched to thousands of "loyal Americans" nationwide, urging them to mobilize here. "This is your last chance, and the media will be there!!!"

Alas, no more than 60 make it to Wilshire Boulevard today. Some hoist Old Glory and placards proclaiming "Close the Border" or "No Deal With Narco State." A cadre of mostly young men and women denounce Spencer's legions as Nazis and fascists. Worse, the only broadcast medium present is Spanish-language television, which inevitably will portray Spencer as a Latinophobic demon. It is hard to shake the impression of an older generation tilting at windmills only a few years after standing triumphant.

Once, Spencer and his allies who yearn to shut the country's doors appeared to have tapped into a political and social lodestone. With the backing of then-Gov. Pete Wilson, they championed the passage of Proposition 187, a landmark California ballot initiative that became a nasty referendum on the state's demographic transformation. The message of "restrictionists" such as Spencer was unambiguous: The "invasion" of poor Mexicans and Central Americans was costing Americans jobs, dragging down public schools, despoiling the environment, spreading disease and exacerbating sundry other social problems.

Emboldened, Spencer transformed his Sherman Oaks basement into a full-time, high-tech command post to spread the anti-immigration gospel. He used the Internet and a privately financed radio show to circulate ominous warnings about Mexico's "demographic war" against the United States. He proudly personified the angry white man of the shut-the-border crowd. Critics denounced his message as racist and delusional. Spencer paid them no mind. He foresaw millions of converts--only to see his temple founder.

The recession ended, the economy boomed anew, and with that the anti-immigration engine backfired; it had become too harsh for its own good and had lost its most potent fuel: high unemployment. Today, lawmakers and social scientists regularly celebrate the economic vitality and cultural verve that immigrants have brought to places such as New York City, Silicon Valley and Southern California. Now, Glenn Spencer seeks out new converts in states thousands of miles away, places where resentment against immigrants is only starting to build.

It is easy to dismiss Spencer as a purveyor of hate on the loony fringes of the immigration-control movement, a contrarian voice rejecting the tide of demographic inevitability so evident in the new census. Yet Spencer can also be seen as a man who gives voice to a crude but deeply felt discontent. He is the next-door neighbor who has gradually rebelled against the unsettling sense of change coming too fast. To his sympathizers, not all of them white, Spencer is the man courageous enough to breach one of L.A.'s biggest taboos: He identifies and articulates the collateral damage from mass immigration that has jolted established communities--and to hell with the high-minded, supposed benefits of immigration. Their unease is captured in one phrase: It's like a foreign country.

"It's not the state I was raised in anymore," says Kevin Knox, 51, a third-generation Californian and substitute teacher who has come to the Westwood rally.

The rise and stall of Glenn Spencer is a peculiarly California saga of a suburban guy who becomes obsessed and consumed by an issue--and ends up on a list of hate groups. It illustrates how harsh voices can emerge when the inevitable anxiety associated with dramatic demographic change is largely ignored by policymakers and the news media, who are inclined to dismiss it as racist. "When we don't allow for the moderately disgruntled," warns Gregory Rodriguez, senior fellow at the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan public-policy institute in Washington, D.C., "it makes the marginally angry more powerful."

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