To investigate anti-immigrant militias, Shane Bauer spent days and nights along the border between Mexico and the United States, dressed in camouflage gear, with a radio on his shoulder and a Ruger Mini-14 rifle in his hands. To find out why thousands of prisoners had begun a hunger strike throughout the country, he wore the uniform of a guard in one of the oldest and most feared private prisons in the deep South.
For Shane Bauer, journalism is not just a matter of principles, but of putting it all on the line. If it’s necessary to get involved, personally and literally, to uncover something, he doesn’t hold back.
Bauer is a 36-year-old formerly Berkeley student and an investigative journalist for Mother Jones, one of the most important voices of the progressive media. He’s worked extensively in the Middle East for several U.S. newspapers and spent almost two years in an Iranian prison from 2009 along with other two freelance journalists. Bauer, who was this year among the guests at the International Festival in Ferrara, has investigated some of the most disturbing aspects of the reality of his country, where violence, a fetish for weaponry and ideologies of hate are now dominating the scene, making up the portrait of a violent society, where one could die every day almost by accident.
A war reporter in the Middle East and an investigative journalist at home — how did you go from one to the other?
When I returned to my country after spending time in Kurdistan, Iraq, Syria and Iran, I realized that only undercover work would allow me to get the information I wanted and shed light on uncomfortable or complex realities. There were ongoing riots and hunger strikes in various prisons, and I realized that I could document what was happening only if I got into those places. The same thing happened with the militias: Only from inside could I understand what was brewing in those environments. It wasn’t even difficult. For the job of prison guard, I sent an application and they hired me in a couple of weeks, and in order to contact the militias I created a Facebook profile and got to know the militia members through it. Nobody asked me too many questions. I certainly took a risk, but in the end everything went well.
Saying no to immigration has brought Trump to the White House; you spent months among the members of the “3% United Patriots” militia along the Mexican border. Are these dangerous groups, and how are they tied to politics?
The “patriotic” paramilitary militias were born in the first half of the ‘90s, but experienced a spectacular revival after the election of Obama. There are also white supremacists among their ranks, but, more than the racial issue as such, their true obsessions are illegal immigrants and the fear that the authorities might regulate the possession of rifles and handguns. They are mostly working-class white males, xenophobic and anti-Muslim, and also hostile to movements like Black Lives Matter and the feminists movements. They have little trust for politicians, with Trump the only exception, and are preparing for the worst, training like an army.
In 1995, the ones responsible for the Oklahoma City massacre emerged from similar groups. Is that a story likely to repeat itself?
That terrible attack that took 168 lives was committed by people who were opposed to Washington and to the president at the time, Bill Clinton, while nowadays the extremists seem to fit in with the White House. I am rather worried about conflict within society, that the racists would start fighting with those who oppose them, as happened in Charlottesville on Aug. 12. And the wide circulation of weapons can do the rest, fueling new massacres of innocent people, as it happens every week.
You also covered a recent gathering of the Alt-Right. Is that environment so removed from that of the militias?
In that case, we are dealing with young people from the middle class, often college students, who have long had the goal of an ideological reworking of the old white supremacism. The groups of the Alt-Right are operating on campuses and on social media, mixing up references to American history and to the new European Right. It is therefore a different environment from that of the militias, even if today, thanks to Trump, all these different worlds end up fighting for the same things: against the Left, against immigrants and against Muslims.
Before infiltrating the militias, you were a prison guard for four months at a private prison in Louisiana. Did this help you understand a little more about your country?
Definitely: that it is a violent and unjust society. That prison is located in a poor county of a state that is one of the poorest in the country. The most desirable jobs are at the sawmill, Walmart and the prison. Life in the prison was hard, governed only by the logic of profit. The salaries of the guards were starvation-level, and ill prisoners were not taken to hospital because otherwise the prison had to pay the cost of the treatment. There was very little staff, often kids barely out of school. I saw a lot of violence, but mostly neglect, also on the part of the management. The head of the guards kept saying, “What’s the point of risking your life for less than $9 per hour? If the inmates want to stab each other, let them do it.”
But is there still room for investigative journalism in the America of “fake news” and Trump?
Actually, I think it’s precisely at this moment that such work can take on an even greater significance. Whenever information on a subject of public interest cannot be obtained otherwise, going undercover becomes the only way. The investigations about private prisons and about the militias could not have been done in any other way. I believe that our role as journalists is to demand accountability from those in power about what they are up to. And perhaps now is the best time to do this.
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