Farm Crisis Fuels Anti-Government Movement
"I don't even know if I should say this," says Oklahoma City psychologist Glen Wallace regarding the explosion that destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah building killing 168 people, "but the minute that bomb went off, I suspected it was because of the farm crisis. These people (farmers) have suffered so much." Wallace, who has spent much of his professional life counseling depressed farmers, could only hope he was wrong.The United States has lost more than 700,000 small- to medium-size family farms since 1980. For the 2 percent of America that makes its living from the land, this loss is a crisis that surpasses even the Great Depression. For the other 98 percent - those who gauge the health of the farm industry by the amount of food on our supermarket shelves -- the farm crisis is a vaguely remembered headline from the last decade -- but not for long. The farms are gone, yet the farmers remain. They've been transformed into a wildfire of rage, fueled by the grief of their loss and blown by the winds of conspiracy and hate-filled rhetoric.By the tens of thousands these farmers are being recruited by the anti-government movement. Some are being enlisted by the Freemen and Christian Identity groups that comprise the most violent components of this revolution of the heartland.Detractors of these violent groups such as Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center blame them for everything from the Oklahoma City bombing to the formation of militia organizations to influencing Pat Buchanan's rhetoric. They may be right.But the real question remains unanswered. Why has a religious and political ideology that has existed in sparse numbers since the 1940s, suddenly -- within the last 15 years -- become the driving force in the rapidly growing anti-government movement which boasts hundreds of thousands of members ranging from tax protesters to armed militia members?The answer is economics in the form of the farm crisis. What was for two decades a war of agricultural policy has become a war of guns and bombs and arson.At the center of this conflict is the "Justice" movement, a radical vigilante court system which will likely affect all our lives on some level in the future. It may have touched us already in the form of the Oklahoma City bombing.Freemen/Identity common-law courts are being convened in back rooms all across America, and sentences are being delivered. Trials are being held on subjects ranging from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms' handling of Waco to a person's sexual preference or race. And the sentences are all the same -- death.We may never prove the Oklahoma City bombing was the result of a secret common-law court, but we can show it was the result of some kind of sickness, a "madness" in the rural parts of our nation.Unless we move quickly to address the economic problems which spawned this "madness," we are likely entering the most violent time on American soil since the Civil War.A REASON FOR 'MADNESS'"I am a 46 year old mother of three children. We have lost two farms since 1980, my mother-in-law's farm as well as our own. We were forced to sell 160 acres of land that was very special to us. It was homesteaded by my husband's great grandfather."My husband became completely consumed by our circumstances caused by the farm crisis. He left me." When you are confronted with these kinds of thoughts, along with circumstances out of your control that destroy the things you cherish, I believe one might consider taking their own life. -- Speaker No. 2Tonkawa, Okla., town meeting on rural stress 1991 (names were not given for fear of retaliation from lenders)It's 2 in the morning when the telephone rings waking Wallace, the Oklahoma City psychologist. The farmer on the other end of the line has been drinking and is holding a loaded gun to his head. The distressed man tells Wallace that his farm is to be sold at auction within a few days. He goes on to explain that he can't bear the shame he has brought to his family and that the only way out is to kill himself.Within hours Wallace is at the farm. This time the farmer agrees to go into counseling; this time no one dies. Unfortunately, that's not always the case. Wallace has handled hundreds of these calls through AG-LINK, a farm crisis hotline, and many times the suicide attempts are successful.A study conducted in 1989 at Oklahoma State University determined suicide is by far the leading cause of death on America's family farms and that they are the direct result of economic stress. The study showed that farmers took their own lives five times more often than they were killed by equipment accidents which, until the study, were considered to be the leading cause of death."These figures are probably very conservative," says Pat Lewis who directed the research. "We've been provided with information from counselors and mental health workers that suggests that many of the accidental deaths are, in reality, suicides."Wallace, who was one of those mental health workers, agrees. "The known suicides are just a drop in the bucket. We have farmers crawling into their equipment and being killed so their families can collect insurance money and pay off the farm debt. They're dying in order to stop a foreclosure." This economic stress has been caused by 20 years of government refusal to enforce the anti-trust laws which once protected the small farmer. Now, with only six to eight multi-national corporations controlling the American food supply, farmers and ranchers have no choice but to sell their products to these monopolies, often for less than their production costs. In 1917, wheat was $2.14 a bushel. In the last five years prices have dipped as low as $2.17 a bushel, yet costs are a hundred times higher now than then.As if monopolies weren't enough of a problem, the federal government is foreclosing on many of the loans it made to farmers in the '70s. As many bitter farmers will tell you, the only reason most of these loans exist is that the government's Farm Home Administration (FMHA) agents sought farmers out during that time and encouraging them to borrow. The government agents told them that the value of their farms was inflating faster than the current interest rates and that to turn down a loan was a poor business decision. These "helpful" FMHA lenders received bonuses and trips based on how much money they lent. But when land values tumbled in the '80s the notes were called and the farms foreclosed. Ironically, bonuses are now awarded based on an agent's ability to clean up the books by foreclosing on bad loans.In Oklahoma, the government is foreclosing on Josh Powers, a farmer who took out a $98,000 loan at 8 percent in 1969. According to Powers, that same loan today has an interest rate of 15 percent - almost twice as high as when the note was first issued. The angry farmer claims that he's paid back more than $150,000 against the loan, yet he still owes $53,000 on the note. Says Powers, "They'll spend millions to get me, a little guy, off the land -- while Neil Bush just walks away from the savings and loan scandal." The 1987 Farm Bill allowed for loans such as this to be "written down," allowing farmers to bring their debt load back in line with the diminished value of their farm . The purpose of the bill was to keep financially strapped farmers on the land. Unfortunately, this task of debt forgiveness was left to the whims of county bureaucrats with little or no banking experience.As Wallace points out, "Imagine the frustration when a small farmer sees the buddy or family member of one of these county agents getting a $5 million write-down at the same time the agent is foreclosing on them (the small farmer) for a measly $20,000. It happens all the time. When these little farmers complain, they're given this telephone number in Washington. It's become a big joke in farm country. I've even tried to call it for years. You get this recording and nobody ever calls you back. These farmers are literally at the mercy of these county bureaucrats and some of them are just horrible people."According to Wallace, thousands of people have died as a result of the farm crisis, but not just from suicides. The psychologist says the number of men and women who have died of heart attacks and other illnesses -- directly as a result of stress brought on by foreclosure -- dwarfs the suicide numbers. These deaths are often viewed as murder in farm country. Last month Boulder Weekly went to western Oklahoma and met with a group of farmers who have become involved in the Freeman/Identity movement. This meeting demonstrated not only their belief that the government is to blame for their loss, but also the politics that evolve from that belief."They murdered her," says Sam Conners (not his real name) referring to the government. The room goes silent as the gray haired 60-year-old stares out the window of his soon-to-be-foreclosed farmhouse. In his left hand he holds a photograph of his wife who died of a heart attack in 1990. "She fought 'em as long as she could," he continues, "but she finally gave out. Even when she was lying there in a coma and I was visiting her every day -- bringing my nine-year-old boy to see his mamma everyday -- they wouldn't cut me no slack. All they cared about was getting me off my land so they could take it. But I tell you now, I'm never gonna' give up. They'll have to carry me off feet first and they probably will."The other men in the room sit quietly as they listen to Conners' story, their eyes alternating between their dirty work boots and the angry farmer. When he's finished, one of the other men begins to speak.Tim, a California farmer who looks to be in his early '30s, describes his plight: another farm, another foreclosure, more anti-government sentiment. Only this time, the story is filled with the unmistakable religious overtones of the Christian Identity movement; one world government, Satan's Jewish bankers, the federal reserve, a fabricated Holocaust, a coming holy war. "This kind of injustice is going on all over the country," says Tim. "It's what happened to the folks in Montana (referring to the Freemen) and it's what happened to me. That's why LeRoy (Schweitzer, the leader of the Justus Township Freeman) was arrested. He was teaching people how to keep their farms and ranches. What they really want is to control the Christians."COMMUNITY PSYCHOSIS"I'll tell you about a thing I had to deal with in the last year. I had a neighbor come by and he had a gun with him. He said, 'I'm on the way to see my lender and I've got this gun. I plan to use it.' I did everything I could to keep that gun there at my place. But he took it with him. - Speaker No. 5Tonkawa, Okla., town meeting on rural stress, 1991As far back as 1989, Wallace -- then director of Rural Mental Health for Oklahoma -- was beginning to see the birth pangs of today's heartland revolt. In his testimony before a U.S. congressional committee examining rural development, Wallace warned that "Many debt-ridden farm families will become more suspicious of government, as their self-worth, their sense of belonging, their hope for the future deteriorates. ... There is a loss of relationships of these communities to the state and federal government....Farm-dependent rural areas are suffering what I could call community depression. We have communities that are made up now of collectively depressed individuals, and the symptoms of that community depression are similar to what you would find in someone that has a long term chronic depression."Wallace went on to tell the committee that if the rural economic system remained fragile, which it has, the community depression could turn into a social and cultural psychosis, which he described as "delayed stress syndrome." Wallace believes this transition is now a reality. "There are regions of the country where the farm crisis has created pockets of poverty in rural communities and where large numbers of individuals are suffering from this syndrome." He also warns that even if government acts immediately to ease the economic situation in farm country, rural people will be affected by this psychosis for decades to come.In 1989, Wallace could only guess how this community psychosis would eventually express itself. Today, he has seen his worst fears realized. "We knew the anti-government backlash was just around the corner, but we didn't know exactly what form it would take. You can't treat human beings in a society the way farmers have been treated without them organizing and fighting back. It was just a matter of time."Losing a farm doesn't happen overnight. It can often take four to six years from the time a farm family first gets into financial trouble. By the end, says Wallace, these families are victims of chronic long term stress. "Once a person is to that point," he explains, "there are only a few things that can happen."One, a person seeks help -- usually through a church or the medical community. Two, they can't take the pain and they commit suicide. They hurt themselves. Three, they become psychotic. They lose touch with reality. They basically go crazy. And last, they become psychotic and turn their anger outward. They decide that since they hurt, they're going to make others hurt. These are the people that wind up threatening or even killing their lenders or FMHA agents. They're also the ones that are most susceptible to a violent anti-government message."Unfortunately, psychotic personalities looking for support can find it in the wrong places. "Any group," says Wallace, "can fill the need for support. Not just good ones. Identity, militias or any anti-government group can come along and fill that role. Add their influence to a personality that is already violent towards others and you have an extremely dangerous individual."THE MIND OF THE FARMER"It's just like the deal where the captain goes down with the ship. It's not like they wanted to. I just think the ship's captain after 30 or 40 years at sea, they kind of take their ship as seriously as we take our farm. Telling a guy after his ship goes down that, well, you can get you a job somewhere else. Don't worry about it. I don't think they'd go with that. The captain of the USS Oklahoma shot himself after Pearl Harbor. Even though his ship was tied up right where it was suppose to be. He went ahead and shot himself because he lost his ship. He didn't have no where else to go." -- Speaker No. 8 Tonkawa, Okla., town meeting on rural stress, 1991Wallace says that most people don't understand the mindset of farmers. "They ask, why don't farmers just get a new job or why does losing a farm cause someone to kill themselves or someone else?" Another rural psychologist, Val Farmer, has written often on this subject. In an article in the Iowa Farmer Today, he explained why farm loss affects its victims so powerfully."To lose a farm is to lose part of one's own identity. There is probably no other occupation that has the potential for defining one's 'self' so completely. Those who have gone through the loss of a family farm compare their grief to a death in the family, one of the hardest experiences in life."Like some deaths, the loss may have been preventable. If a farmer blames himself, the reaction is guilt."On the other hand, If the loss is perceived to have been caused by the actions and negligence of others, then the farmer is racked with feelings of anger, bitterness and betrayal. This feeling extends to lenders, government and the urban public."Val Farmer goes on to explain, "The stress intensifies with each new setback: failure to cash flow, inability to meet obligations, loan refusal, foreclosure notices, court appearances and farm auctions." He concludes that "these people start grasping at straws -- anything to stave off the inevitable."Wallace agrees with Farmer and believes the anti-government message is one such straw. "When you reach the point where you're willing to kill yourself, anything sounds good. When these groups come along and tell a farmer that it's not his fault, it's the government's fault or the bank's fault, they're more than ready to listen. These groups are preying on sick individuals."It's no wonder that groups like the Freemen, We the People and Christian Identity have found such enthusiastic support. They claim to offer a way out for desperate men and women.The media has repeatedly described the exploits of Freeman/We the People members: millions in hot checks, false liens and refusal to leave land that has been foreclosed by banks and sold at auction.Members of the press, including the alternative press, have commented on the fact that what all these people seem to have in common is that they are unwilling to pay their bills. But that analysis is at best partially true and at worst dead wrong.What most of these radical anti-government people have in common -- and what most government officials refuse to acknowledge -- is that they were, first and foremost, unable to pay their bills. It was only after being unable to pay that they took up the notion of being unwilling to pay.These farmers are the canaries in the coal mine of America's economy. They are in effect monitoring the fallout from the ever widening "gap" between the classes. The canaries are dying and that bodes poorly for the rest of us in the mine.Both Farmer and Wallace agree that, as a rule, farmers have an extremely strong and perhaps unhealthy sense of morality when it comes to paying their bills. They suffer from deep humiliation and shame when they can't fulfill their financial obligations. Wallace says, "It's only natural that they would embrace an ideology that comes along and says they are not only not bad for failing to pay their debts but rather are morally and politically correct to not pay their debts. It's a message that provides instant relief from the guilt that's making them sick."In much the same way, only more dangerous, Christian Identity offers a way out for stressed farm families. Identity teaches that Whites and Native Americans are God's chosen people and that Jews are the seed of Satan. Identity believers see a conspiracy of "Satan's army of Jews" taking control of banks, governments, media and most major corporations and destroying the family farm in order to control the food supply. Failing farmers become soldiers in a holy war under orders not to give up their land or money to the Jewish enemy."You can't imagine how much mental energy it takes to live that way," says Wallace. "Should I end it all or should I get even, end it all or get even, over and over again for days and months on end without sleep. It becomes impossible to make rational decisions. Then someone comes along and tells you God wants you to get even and you believe them."AND JUSTICE FOR SOME"If anyone kills a person, the murderer shall be put to death at the evidence of witnesses. Blood pollutes the land and no expiation can be made for the land for the blood that is shed ... except by the blood of him who shed it."- Pete Peters/Identity pastor (quoted by Peters from the Book of Numbers in the Old Testament in response to the murder of Randy Weaver's family members at Ruby Ridge)The renegade legal system known as the "Justice" movement is now estimated to be in more than 40 states. It seems to have as many variations as the fractional anti-government movement that created it. Some mainstream Patriots hold common-law courts at venues where the press and those accused of crimes are invited to attend. Sentences from these publicly held trials usually result in lawsuits, arrest warrants, judgments and liens.Across the nation, thousands of public officials including governors, judges, county commissioners and legislatures have been the targets of this new "paper terrorism." In most cases they are found guilty of cavorting with the enemy: the federal government. But there is a darker side to this vigilante court system, one that deals out death sentences in its quest to deliver justice and create a new and holy government.In his book Gathering Storm, Dees describes Identity this way: "There is nothing 'goody, goody' or 'tender' about Identity. It is a religion, a form of Christianity, that few churchgoers would recognize as that of Jesus, son of a loving God. It is a religion on steroids. It is a religion whose god commands the death of race traitors, homosexuals, and other so-called children of Satan."In the remote western Oklahoma farmhouse, Freeman/Identity farmers discussed the Justice movement. One man who had recently lost his farm to foreclosure explained their court system."What you're seeing right now is just the beginning of taking back our country, the true Israel. The Bible says that we're to be a just people. Where is justice in this country? Our judges turn loose rapists and murderers and put farmers in jail. We're about justice. Why would anyone be afraid of that?"We're holding courts right now in every part of this land. We're finding people guilty and we're keeping records so we can carry out the sentences. It's the citizen's duty and right to hold common law courts. It's the militia's job to carry out the sentences."The farmer goes on to explain that it's because Identity doesn't believe in prisons that nearly all serious offenses are dealt with by capital punishment.When asked how these death sentences would be carried out, he says, "There's a part of the militia that's getting ready to start working on that (death sentences). I think they're ready to go now. You'll start seeing it soon."Perhaps we already have. Was the Oklahoma City bombing only the largest and most recent example? When asked, the men in the room state emphatically that they have no first hand knowledge of the bombing -- even though some of them were questioned by the FBI within days of the deadly explosion. They say they don't condone it because so many innocent people died. But they agree that it may well have been the result of a secret court sentence. The court could have found the ATF guilty for any number of actions -- including Waco and Ruby Ridge -- and the militia foot soldiers, in this case presumably McVeigh and Nichols, the two suspects charged with the bombing, may have simply followed orders to carry out the sentence. Whatever the case in Oklahoma City, it seems likely that this new and radical system of vigilante justice can't help but produce similar catastrophes.The process that gave us that bomb was likely the result of the same stress-induced illness that is tearing our country apart one pipe bomb or burned-down church at a time. Comprehending and healing that illness is our only hope for creating a future free of more bombs, more death and destruction.