I’ve reported on-and-off this year on a group of border vigilantes that has made headlines for their mass “arrests” of migrants and asylum seekers, and for their unofficial ties to “We Build The Wall,” the GoFundMe-powered private border wall group.
Through that reporting, I discovered that one of the vigilantes, who goes by the moniker “Viper,” has a little-known pursuit on the side: Wild West re-enactor.
In a call with him today, I asked him about that background. Viper, whose actual name is Steve Brant, told me he’d been involved in historical re-enactments since 1997. He didn’t see any crossover to his vigilante life.
“That has nothing to do with it,” he said. “I’m an Old West re-enactor, yes, but what I do in my personal life is my personal life, I don’t put it out there.”
Brant is a gruff man who was at one point vice president of The Ace High Gunfighters and Co., a gun-slinging re-enactor group, and more recently has performed with another group, The Salt River Regulators.
But Brant was also part of what brought the United Constitutional Patriots — since renamed as a splinter group, the Guardian Patriots — international infamy: Balaclava-clad and carrying a rifle, Brant was one in a small group who made the mass “arrests” of migrants and asylum seekers crossing the border, instructing the migrants to sit and wait until Border Patrol agents arrived.
Here’s Brant in a Getty Images photo from that time, second from the right, just before the dozens of Facebook videos of the mass arrests, posted by then-UCP spokesperson Jim Benvie, went viral:
You can see, in the background of the above photo, the future location of the “We Build The Wall” (WBTW) construction site in Sunland Park, New Mexico.
UCP leader Larry Mitchell Hopkins was arrested on an unrelated gun charge after Benvie’s videos went viral, and Benvie announced that the vigilantes would soften their image somewhat, with civilian clothes and sidearms rather than long guns and camo. He’s continued to film their activities and post them publicly.
I reported recently on the crossover between UCP and We Build The Wall. The connections between the groups go back months, and recent video that Benvie shared on Facebook after We Build The Wall’s ribbon-cutting event showed “Viper” working as de facto security for the group.
“Nobody even knows that’s Viper because he’s out of his uniform,” Benvie said as he panned his camera toward the man. “We’re never off-duty,” Brant said at one point in the impromptu interview.
Over the phone with me, Brant denied any collaboration with We Build The Wall — “We’re two different entities” — and said his team “is comprised of ex-special forces and Green Berets.”
He also repeatedly denied that men on his team pointed guns at migrants, as video highlighted in a report by local outlet KOB4 in April appear to show.
“There is nobody that has ever pointed a gun at anybody,” he said. “We have no reason to. The tactical equipment was used for deterrence to stop these people from breaking the law. That’s all it was used for. There was no round in the chamber, there was no loaded weapon.”
I first found out about Brant’s re-enactment work after The Young Turks’ Ken Klippenstein discovered Brant’s true identity last month. It was contained within a police record of a phone call he made to Sunland Park, New Mexico authorities in April to notify them of alleged threats from another border vigilante.
“Why are we just apprehending them and not lining up and shooting them?” the other vigilante, identified in the police report by different names, allegedly told Brant. (TPM later obtained our own copy of the report from the city, as well as a confirmation that there weren’t other UCP-related police reports on file.)
“I made that report, and I stand by the report,” Brant told TPM on the phone Tuesday. He’s separately told the New York Times, a day prior to the alleged threat, that the other man had arrived at the border that day.
“That’s not why we’re down here,” Brant told me. “I don’t want no trigger-happy people down here. That’s not the cause.”
I re-examined Brant’s past in light of a fascinating New Yorker article published last week by author Valeria Luiselli. In reporting on historical omissions in typical Wild West reenactments, she commented on the border militia movement:
The history of frontier towns like Shakespeare and Tombstone is one in which primarily white populations moved West, claiming territory and forcibly ejecting or killing those who were already there, then defending that territory against “invaders,” who were often the previous inhabitants—that is, Native Americans and, later, Mexicans—and, finally, establishing law. This last stage of frontier history is what is most often mined for reënactments: a Manichean representation of good (white) lawmen vs. bad (white) cowboys, which is ultimately a celebration of the founding of white America. The rest—the part about killing or banishing non-white others in order to defend claimed land—is conveniently elided. But the practice lives on, in a kind of reënactment with very real consequences, in which the protagonists are civilian border patrollers—people who feel they have a right to do whatever they can to keep others, and especially non-white others, out of this land. This vigilantism rests on the myth of the frontier, or on the idea of a place at the very edge of civilization that needs to be conquered and tamed and then guarded—with guns or with walls—against potential invaders, or bandidos.
In an undated letter to the editor published by The Tombstone News, Brant placed himself in this debate, writing that “[o]ur group is one of the important factors in the continuance of reenacting as well as preserving and passing along Old West and Arizona History.
I noticed at least one explicit parallel between the militia world and the Wild West re-enactment scene: Fake badges. In Benvie’s infamous mass arrest videos, vigilantes are sometimes seen falsely identifying themselves as federal agents. The below images are from Brant’s Facebook page. Left, Wild West. Right, border militia:
“President Trump declared a national emergency on the southern border,” Brant told me. “So we put a group together and came down here and have been here ever since.”