Militias in America, 1996

It's been a year since a bomb exploded in Oklahoma City, awakening like a jarring alarm clock a world with little idea as to just how ugly hate's manifestations could get. Last April, the mainstream media, having missed the story of growing militia activity in the United States, looked to the alternative press and experts who have long tracked the far right for insights into something that these individuals and outlets were long onto. We recently asked a few of these people about militias in America today -- how the flurry of media coverage has affected the movement, what to expect from the on going stand off between the FBI and the Freemen of Jordan, Montana, how the rise of the right and the coming election fits or doesn't fit into the militia game plan, and what we can expect in the years ahead. Below, they share their thoughts.YOU CAN ALWAYS GET WHAT YOU WANTBeth Hawkins, Managing Editor, Detroit Metro Times, Detroit, MIOn October 12, 1994, the Detroit Metro Times published Hawkins' "Patriot Games," one of the first comprehensive examinations of the Michigan Militia. After the bombing, she wrote a follow-up piece, "Damage Control," widely circulated in the alternative press.What seems most inescapable about the Michigan Militia is that if self-styled militia commander Norm Olson had planted the bomb himself, the militia couldn't have designed a more perfect outcome. In many instances in the months following the tragedy, the neopopulist uber patriots have gotten exactly what they wanted from their country. A year later, one can only look at their rhetoric and acknowledge, sadly, how their prophesies proved to be self-fulfilling. In its formative days, the militia used popular anger over the ATF's deadly standoff with white separatist Randy Weaver to galvanize support for itself. And wouldn't you know it, in the months following the bombing, Congress reopened the Ruby Ridge issue, inviting Weaver to its podium where he gave a poignant, heart wrenching description of the murders of his wife and son. Likewise, the militias used underground videos of the conflagration two years ago in Waco, Texas, to win supporters among a populace repulsed by government violence. The militias sought -- largely in vain outside their own circles -- to vilify Janet Reno and the ATF. Even though there had already been myriad hearings and investigations into the ATF assault on the Branch Davidian complex, stirred by alleged bomber and militia sympathizer Timothy McVeigh, Congress obliged and reopened that chapter. In the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing, bipartisan support grew for the anti-terrorism bill. The bill was rife with civil rights-stomping rhetoric: broad wiretapping authority, loosened habeas corpus provisions, power of the Secretary of State to designate any foreign group as "terrorist," and other broadening of government power at the expense of liberty and personal freedoms. Nothing could have fallen into the hands of the militia more perfectly. Just as they predicted, the militia had emerged as the vilified group they had characterized themselves to be for a year before the bombing, persecuted by Clinton and his big, bad civil-rights hating government. But as much as they got what they wanted, the horror of the bombing also paved the way for the militia's self-destruction. A year later, the Michigan Militia finds itself fractured into half a dozen cells more reminiscent of feuding guerrilla bands than a cohesive paramilitary entity. Headline-dominating for a few weeks last year, the arch-conservative patriots were all but gone from the public radar screen. Until the standoff between federal forces and the Montana Freemen came to a head, that is. Because of that, Olson is back on the talk show circuit describing what he sees as the evils that provoked the Freemen to hole up on a ranch in Montana. But a recently scheduled rally in support of the Freemen drew just eight demonstrators, rather than the caravans of hundreds Olson and others had predicted. Olson couldn't even muster statewide agreement among his former comrades-in-arms about whether or how to leap into the Freemen fray. The Michigan militia, it seems, is a quintessentially American political institution: it imploded precisely because it was far more articulate in its complaints about the status quo than it was at expressing its vision for a better America.ARMED AND STILL DANGEROUSScot Nakagawa, organizer, National Gay & Lesbian Task Force's "Fight the Right" program, Portland, ORI think mainstream coverage of militias has focused on the more sensational aspects of the militia movement and mainly vilifies extremism. The coverage overall has served to scare people and alert them to an outside terrorist force that although homegrown, has little to do with the fabric of life in this country. It's like warning people who work in Hormel meat packing plants that they may lose fingers by showing them films in which rabid rats jump onto the line and start chewing at workers' extremities, rather than by saying that its arisk you take because of the nature of the job. Today, I see the militia movement as strong, but not as an unassailable force -- of course, they carry guns. [But] they remain a relatively marginal phenomena, though less and less so all the time. They have made real in-roads through anti-environmental activism, and are especially successful in the Northwest -- in part because of this and in part because their populist and libertarian strategy is particularly appealing in the West. I see the militia as a very scary phenomena more for what they represent, in terms of the rise of the right, than as a force unto themselves. However, that doesn't mean that they won't become one. In the next year or five years I expect we will see the militia movement move in a little on the white left and try to cause some splits, I see them moving in on mainstream politics a bit more -- through the Wise Use movement and through third party formations such as the National Taxpayer Party, the gun owners lobby, and through the candidacies of people like Perot and Buchanan, who wittingly or unwittingly provide these folks with vehicles and points of entry.THEY DON'T ALL WEAR SHEETSLoretta Ross, director, Center for Human Rights Education, Atlanta, GAThe media had a dual effect on the militia movement: it drove away many of their soft core members -- people who were angry at the government, but didn't like the bombing in OKC, don't like armed confrontations, and were scared. What has replaced them is more hard-core people. You see people leaving the Klan and other far-right groups and coming to the militias. They think the militias are more serious, that they're ready to start the war right now. So the numbers are not changing, but the replacement of those in the ranks has been with vigilante types. They've been aching for these recent confrontations with law-enforcement -- they've been flagrantly breaking the law for a number of years. The government just decided to finally do something about it. If somebody black had done what the Freemen have, it wouldn't have taken the government nearly as long to respond. These groups are begging law enforcement to come prove the unfairness of the government, to be martyrs -- who just happen to be crazy about guns. I think we can expect more confrontations with law enforcement, more threats directed at government employees, particularly from the anti-environment movement. And I would be surprised if there wasn't more anti-abortion violence. This Aryan Nations guy I was talking to said the biggest hate group out there is the Republican party; and I had to laugh when he said it, but in a sense he's right. When you look at the hatred coming out of the mouths of Pat Buchanan and Newt Gingrich about anyone who's not like them -- straight white males -- is it a stretch to include them in the definition of the far-right? We published a book at the Center for Democratic Renewal a couple of years ago called They Don't All Wear Sheets -- and it's true, they don't.ANOTHER FAR RIGHT STRATEGYRobert Crawford, researcher, Coalition for Human Dignity, Seattle, WAThe Coalition for Human Dignity recently released a report titled "Guns and Gavels: Common Law Courts, Militias and White Supremacy."In terms of far right strategies, we've seen a growth of outlaw "common law courts" from the middle of last year on. Militia groups, like the Freemen of Montana, use these courts to "indict" government officials and law enforcement agents. To do this, they send out liens, sometimes called "True Bills," to people who have displeased them. These liens are written as confessions, with a long list of crimes. If the accused doesn't sign, he or she is found guilty in absentia and the militia group issues a warrant or fine, and, sometimes, death threats. Leaders in the use of common law courts are the militia groups in Montana, especially the Freemen, and the United Sovereigns of America, headquartered in Del City, Oklahoma, not far from Oklahoma City. These groups are rooted in white supremacy and a vision of common law courts as a kernel of their true goal: a white Christian republic. Common law courts were originally invoked by the Posse Comitatus, a violent racist and anti-semitic group, in the mid-1970's. This was the first time common law courts were used as part of a far right judicial strategy. Both the militias and the common law courts are strategies for the broader Christian Patriot movement, which uses a racist constitutional interpretation to argue that only whites should be citizens. We found common law courts in 30 states, most with ties to the Chrisian Patriot movement and militias. The Montana Freemen are pretty radical and dedicated to idea of confrontation. Hopefully the stand off there can be resolved without bloodshed. Violence is a logical outgrowth of the beliefs of these people, and has been since the Ku Klux Klan started in the 1860s.Guns and Gavels is available from CHD, 503-281-5823

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