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The Militia Movement — Extremism in America

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The Militia Movement

Origins: Mid-to-late
Prominent leaders: John
Trochmann (Montana), Ron Gaydosh (Michigan), Randy Miller
(Texas), Charlie Puckett (Kentucky), Mark Koernke (Michigan),
Carl Worden (Oregon), Gib Ingwer (Ohio)
Prominent groups: Kentucky State Militia,
Ohio Unorganized Militia Assistance and Advisory Committee,
Southeastern Ohio Defense Force, Michigan Militia (two
factions using the same name), Southern Indiana Regional
Militia, Southern California High Desert Militia-and many
Outreach: Gun shows,
shortwave radio, newsletters, the Internet
Ideology: Anti-government and
conspiracy-oriented in nature; prominent focus on
Prominent militia arrests:
Multiple members of the following groups have been
arrested and convicted, usually on weapons, explosives, or
conspiracy charges: Oklahoma Constitutional Militia, Georgia
Republic Militia, Arizona Viper Militia, Washington State
Militia, West Virginia Mountaineer Militia, Twin Cities Free
Militia, North American Militia, San Joaquin County

The militia movement is a
relatively new right-wing extremist movement consisting of armed
paramilitary groups, both formal and informal, with an
anti-government, conspiracy-oriented ideology. Militia groups began
to form not long after the deadly standoff at Waco, Texas, in 1993;
by the spring of 1995, they had spread to almost every state. Many
members of militia groups have been arrested since then, usually on
weapons, explosives and conspiracy charges. Although the militia
movement has declined in strength from its peak in early 1996, it
remains an active movement, especially in the Midwest, and continues
to cause a number of problems for law enforcement and the
communities in which militia groups are active.
The Militia Movement Today

The militia movement is the youngest of the major right-wing
anti-government movements in the United States (the sovereign
citizen movement and the tax protest movement are the two others)
yet it has seared itself into the American consciousness as
virtually no other fringe movement has. The publicity given to
militia groups in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995,
when the militia movement was erroneously linked to that tragedy,
made them into a household name. Even comedian David Letterman
frequently joked about the militia; in 1999, for instance, his list,
"Top Ten Signs You’re Watching a Bad Disney Movie," included "It’s
called ‘The Little Right-Wing Militia That Could.’" Indeed,
reporters, pundits and politicians alike have used the term so
frequently that it is often tossed about carelessly as a synonym for
virtually any right-wing extremist group.

Yet the militia movement is neither generic nor dismissible as a
comic subject. If militia groups were not, in fact, involved with
the Oklahoma City bombing, they have nevertheless embroiled
themselves since 1994 in a variety of other bombing plots,
conspiracies and serious violations of law. Their extreme
anti-government ideology, along with their elaborate conspiracy
theories and fascination with weaponry and paramilitary
organization, lead many members of militia groups to act out in ways
that justify the concerns expressed about them by public officials,
law enforcement and the general public.

Origins and Ideology: Seventeen Little

In a sense, the militia movement is both old and new. On the one
hand, militia groups are the latest in a series of periodic flings
the extreme right has had with paramilitary organizations. On the
other hand, however, the militia movement formed under a unique set
of circum-stances that gave the movement a character, orientation
and purpose distinct from its prede-cessors.

The extreme right in the United States has long had a fascination
with paramilitary groups. Before World War II, right-wing and
fascist groups such as the Silver Shirt Legion and the Christian
Front marched across America. Later, the Cold War ushered in a new
wave of paramilitary organizations like the California Rangers and
the Minutemen. In the 1980s, survivalists and white supremacists
formed a variety of paramilitary groups ranging from the Christian
Patriot-Defense League to the Texas Emergency Reserve to the White
Patriot Party.

The militia movement is heir to the right-wing paramilitary
tradition, but it is heir, too, to another tradition, the
anti-government ideology of groups like the Posse Comitatus. The
Posse developed an elaborate conspiratorial view of American history
and government, one that claimed the legitimate government had been
subverted by conspirators and replaced with an illegitimate,
tyrannical government. Posse members believed that the people had
the power and responsibility to "take back" the government, through
force of arms if necessary. As a result, many Posse figures engaged
in paramilitary training. Most notable among these was William
Potter Gale, a Christian Identity minister who was one of the
founders of the Posse. In the 1980s, he appointed himself "chief of
staff" to the "Unorganized Militia" of a group known as the
Committee of the States. Gale’s appropriation of the term
"unorganized militia" is significant; it is a statutory term in
federal and state law that refers to the nominal manpower pool
created a century ago when federal law formally abandoned compulsory
militia service. In using the term, Gale implied that his
organization was not only legal but that it was, in fact, a
constitutional arm of the government. This argument would be
amplified by later militia proponents (Gale himself died in the late
1980s) who claimed that militia groups were: (a) equivalent to the
statutory militia; (b) not, however, controlled by the government;
and (c) in fact, designed to oppose the government should it become

What turned the concept into reality in the early 1990s was a
series of catalysts that angered people on the extreme right
sufficiently to start a new movement. Although some militia movement
pioneers had been active in other anti-government or hate groups
earlier, most militia leaders were in fact new leaders, people who
only recently had been so motivated that they were willing to take
action. The events that angered them ranged from the election of
Bill Clinton to the Rodney King riots to the passage of the North
American Free Trade Agreement. More than any other issue, though,
the deadly standoffs at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in 1992 and Waco, Texas,
in 1993 ignited widespread passion. To most Americans, these events
were tragedies, but to the extreme right, they were examples of a
government willing to stop at nothing to stamp out people who
refused to conform. Right-wing folk singers like Carl Klang
memorialized the children who died at Waco with songs like
"Seventeen Little Children." These events provided new life to a
number of extremist movements, from Christian Identity activists to
sovereign citizens, but they also propelled the creation of an
entirely new movement consisting of armed militia groups formed to
prevent another Ruby Ridge or Waco.

The fact that both the Ruby Ridge and Waco incidents involved
illegal firearms added considerable fuel to the fire that formed the
militia movement. Many militia members and leaders were radical
gun-rights advocates, people who believed that, in fact, there could
be no such things as illegal firearms and whose anti-government ire
was formed in large part because of fear and suspicion of imminent
gun confiscation. In the early 1990s, several prototype militias had
emerged in Connecticut and Florida on the basis that members of the
"militia" were exempt from federal gun laws. In 1992, Larry Pratt,
leader of a radical gun- rights group and an advocate of the
formation of militias, issued a statement in the wake of the Rodney
King riots urging the Los Angeles Police Department to "take
advantage of what the Founding Fathers called the unorganized
militia" in order to forestall further unrest. Many people initially
joined the fledgling militia movement largely as a way to protect
more aggressively their right to bear arms; even today, gun-related
issues dominate many of the newsletters published by militia groups.

The final element forming the militia movement was a vast
fascination with conspiracies. Conspiracies were easy to accept for
people who believed that the federal government deliberately
murdered people at Ruby Ridge and Waco and that door-to-door gun
confiscation could begin any day. But the militia movement not only
accepted the traditional conspiracy theories, it created a host of
new ones; combined, they described a shadowy movement intent on
creating a one-world socialist government no matter what the cost.
This "New World Order," using the United Nations as its primary
tool, had already taken over most of the planet. The United States
was still a bastion of freedom, but its own government was
collaborating with New World Order forces to strip Americans slowly
of their freedoms in preparation for the final takeover. The
government was erecting large numbers of concentration camps in
which to place American dissenters; meanwhile, the number of United
Nations troops secretly encamped in national parks grew by the
month. Stickers on the backs of street signs would guide the New
World Order to strategic points, while the authorities enlisted
urban street gangs to help enforce gun confiscation. "The Federal
government and the press is [sic] fighting a war against independent
thinking Christian patriots," wrote Christian Identity adherent and
militia supporter George Eaton in 1993. "The reason they have
targeted patriots is simple; they will not conform or submit to the
New World Order."

The combination of anger at the government, fear of gun
confiscation and susceptibility to elaborate conspiracy theories is
what formed the core of the militia movement’s ideology. Although
there were white supremacists in the movement, and although groups
and individuals within the movement often made common cause with or
at least tolerated hate groups, the orientation of the militia
movement remained primarily anti-government and conspiratorial. The
militia movement appealed to many radical libertarians just as it
appealed to traditional proponents of extreme right-wing causes.
There was room even for African American militia leaders like J. J.
Johnson of Ohio and Leroy Crenshaw of Massachusetts, whose shared
anti-government views allowed them to break bread with racist and
anti-Semitic adherents of Christian Identity.



History and Activities: Private Armies,
Public Wars

Not surprisingly, some of the earliest leaders of the militia
movement had personal associations with the standoffs at Ruby Ridge
and Waco. Linda Thompson, an Indianapolis lawyer who decided
unilaterally to represent the Branch Davidians during their
standoff, went on to appoint herself "acting adjutant general" of
the Unorganized Militia of the United States in 1993. Until her call
for an armed march on Washington, D.C., fizzled in 1994, she was
quite influential, particularly through the videotapes she produced
alleging government complicity at Waco. More lasting in influence
was a friend of Randy Weaver, John Trochmann, who with his brother
and nephew formed the Militia of Montana in January 1994.

Thompson and Trochmann, along with other militia pioneers and
supporters, helped other groups to form. Active militia groups arose
in Ohio, Idaho, California, Florida and many other states. None grew
so fast as those in Michigan, loosely formed into an umbrella group
known as the "Michigan Militia," headed by a pastor and gun shop
owner, Norm Olson. Militia activists recruited at gun shows, held
public meetings in libraries and schools, and broadcast on shortwave
radio, where talk-show hosts such as Michigan militia leader Mark
Koernke were particularly popular.

The militia movement grew rapidly throughout 1994, drawing little
attention until that fall, when civil rights groups such as the
Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center released
reports and articles on the new movement. By the following spring,
the militia movement had finally begun to receive scrutiny by law
enforcement, the media and the public. Then the Oklahoma City
bombing on April 19, 1995, created an entirely new environment.
Several suspected links between the bombing and militia groups in
Michigan — later proved to be unfounded — unleashed a storm of
publicity about the militia movement around the country. The militia
for the first time faced the harsh glare of the spotlight. Overall,
it did not fare particularly well. Some groups disbanded in the wake
of the bombing, while other groups splintered. Norm Olson was kicked
out by his own followers after he told reporters that the Japanese
government had been involved in the Oklahoma City bombing.

However, the overall result of the bombing and its attendant
publicity was actually a rise in the militia movement, because the
media attention informed many potential supporters that such a
movement actually existed. As a result, the militia movement grew in
numbers and activity all through 1995 and into 1996. The militia
even managed to "strike back" at times, as when, in the summer of
1995, several militia leaders drew publicity to the Good Ol’ Boys
Roundup, a yearly festivity in Tennessee for federal and local law
enforcement officers at which various racist and off-color
activities had taken place. Two federal agencies were forced to
launch investigations of the event as a result, while militia
leaders claimed that the media had been wrong all along — it wasn’t
the militia movement that was racist but, rather, the federal
government. (The investigations ended up revealing that the racist
activity was committed by local Tennessee law enforcement officers.)

By early 1996, virtually every state had at least one group, and
most states had several. The movement had attracted the attention
not only of the media but also of law enforcement, however, which
had begun to discover signs of significant criminal activity. As
early as 1994, members of the Blue Ridge Hunt Club, a nascent
Virginia militia group, had been arrested on a variety of weapons
charges. The following year an Oklahoma Christian Identity minister
and militia leader, Ray Lampley, was arrested along with several
followers for conspiring to blow up targets ranging from government
buildings to the offices of civil rights organizations. But in 1996,
a series of investigations resulted in a number of major
militia-related arrests, generally on illegal weapons, explosives
and conspiracy charges. In April 1996, several members of the
Georgia Republic Militia were arrested, followed in July by a dozen
members of the Arizona Viper Militia. Later that same month, members
of the Washington State Militia found themselves in custody, while
in October members of the West Virginia Mountaineer Militia were
arres-ted on weapons charges and in connection with plans to blow up
an F.B.I. fingerprinting facility. These arrests, not surprisingly,
had a depressing effect on the movement.

Other events in 1996 and 1997 also served to weaken the movement.
The most ambitious attempt to network militia groups together, the
Tri-States Militia, collapsed in 1996 when it was revealed that its
leader had been accepting money from the F.B.I. In March 1996, the
F.B.I. surrounded the Montana Freemen, a sovereign citizen group, in
remote eastern Montana, then arrested them following an 81-day
standoff. Although a few militia members traveled to Montana to
support (or aid) the Freemen, by and large the movement failed to
respond, a fact that embittered some of the more radical members.
(This scenario would be repeated the following spring when the
militia failed to come to the rescue of the besieged Republic of
Texas near Fort Davis, Texas.) Lack of response on the part of the
militia movement caused a number of radical members to splinter away
at the same time that some of the less hard-core members were
leaving because of the increased arrests. By the fall of 1996, the
movement had clearly faltered, and several prominent early leaders
dropped out, including Idaho militia leader Samuel Sherwood; he
disbanded his group in September, complaining that "the whole
movement is being distorted on one side by the press and the media
and taken over by the nuts and the crazies on the other."

Some militia activists attempted to buck the tide by establishing
militia umbrella groups, most of which lasted only a few years. More
radical members eschewed elaborate militia organizations and
attempted to go it on their own. In Michigan, a group of militia
members, allegedly kicked out of the Michigan Militia for being too
radical, formed a group first called the "Goof Troop," then, with
more dignity, the North American Militia. Members planned to bomb a
large number of targets in Michigan, including a federal building
and an I.R.S. building; they constructed a variety of pipe bombs and
even discussed assassinating various government officials. By 1998,
five members of the group had been arrested and convicted on
multiple charges; leaders Brad Metcalf and Randy Graham received 40-
and 55-year sentences, respectively. In Missouri, a group of
extremists from several different states, led by Bradley Glover of
Kansas, met at a gathering of the "Third Continental Congress," but
decided that this umbrella group was not radical enough for them.
They struck out on their own, planning to attack United States
military bases that they suspected were training New World Order
troops. Members were so committed that they sold their businesses
and homes in order to have plenty of money and be completely mobile.
The first planned attack would occur against Fort Hood, Texas, on
July 4, 1997 — the day that the military base hosts an annual
"Freedom Festival" attended by 50,000 men, women and children.
Luckily, good police work on the part of the Missouri State Highway
Patrol and the F.B.I. detected the plans and prevented a tragedy;
Glover and a companion were arrested on July 4 at a campground near
Fort Hood. Eventually seven people were arrested in connection with
the group.

Among those unwilling to go as far as to launch attacks against
the government, one of the most popular tactics was the "militia
confrontation," whereby groups would identify some perceived "victim
of government" and come to their rescue. "Victims" might range from
barricaded criminals to people about to be evicted from their homes.
Militia members saw in these interventions a chance to fulfill the
roles they had defined for themselves after Ruby Ridge and Waco:
intervening between a "tyrannical" government and the citizenry.
Prominent militia confrontations included interventions in
Coushatta, Louisiana, in 1996, involving a "sovereign citizen"
physician wanted for nonpayment of child support; in Hamilton,
Massachusetts, in 1998, in support of a husband and wife about to
lose their mansion to the F.D.I.C. for nonpayment of a loan; and in
Indianapolis, Indiana, in 2000, where militia members and others
camped out at an extremist-connected church, the Indianapolis
Baptist Temple, whose property was in danger of being seized (until
church leaders themselves, fearing violence, asked the militia to
leave). And, in fact, though no confrontation has yet been violent,
the threat of violence is implicit every time armed paramilitary
groups confront the government — it would take only an accident or
error of judgment to cause a tragedy.

Beyond Y2K: Camouflage and Conspiracy

The number of militia groups declined after 1996, as did militia
activity. Patterns of criminal activity, however, remained more or
less constant: militia members continued to get themselves in
trouble with the law on a regular basis. As the millennium wound to
a close, federal agents arrested Florida militia leader Donald
Beauregard, charging that he and others had plotted to destroy a
nuclear power plant and other utilities as well as law enforcement
offices (Beauregard eventually struck a plea deal). And in one of
the only Y2K-related criminal acts in the United States, two San
Joaquin County Militia members were arrested in Sacramento,
California, on weapons charges; they had allegedly plotted to blow
up a propane storage facility. More recently, in December 2000,
Western Illinois Militia leader Dan Shoemaker received a four-year
sentence on counts of aggravated intimidation, threatening a public
official and unlawful use of weapons, following an incident in which
he threatened law enforcement officers who tried to talk him out of
plans to march through two Illinois towns carrying a rifle.
Shoemaker had earlier promised to shoot anybody who tried to stop
him. Other militia groups have made veiled threats related to
current and future firearms legislation.

Perhaps recognizing the decline that has taken place in the past
several years, a number of militia leaders have taken steps to
rejuvenate the movement. They have been aided by the fact that,
though the number of militia groups has declined, they have not
declined evenly. In many areas of the country, the militia movement
remains as strong, or nearly as strong, as it was at its height. In
particular, the Midwest remains a source of active and fairly large
militia groups. In Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Kentucky,
active militia regularly meet and train. Perhaps the most active
militia group in the country recently is the Kentucky State Militia,
led by Charlie Puckett.militia The KSM has benefited from hosting twice-annual militia
gatherings during the Knob Creek, Kentucky, machine-gun shoots. At
the April 2001 event, the KSM even managed to attract two Kentucky
state legislators to address the attendees, despite the fact that
the KSM Web site had urged readers to "track down" a fellow
legislator and "bring plenty of ammo." In a letter to followers
after the weekend event, Puckett told supporters that the recent
meeting "was a fantastic success, and in many ways marked a critical
turning point for the efforts of the militia movement in resecuring
for ourselves and our descendants the ideals of liberty…bequeathed
to us as our birthright."

The Kentucky State Militia has also held trainings out of state
in an effort to help rejuvenate the movement. In states like
Pennsylvania and Texas, militia leaders have held gatherings
designed to reorganize and re-energize the movement in those regions
as well. Whether or not such efforts will be successful is uncertain
— it is possible that only another high-profile incident like Ruby
Ridge or Waco could raise the militia movement to its earlier
height–but it appears to be in no danger of disappearing. New
militia groups continue to form, and in some states, like Georgia
and West Virginia, where groups virtually disappeared following the
major arrests in 1996, the movement has become active again. As long
as it is active in any substantial way, criminal activity seems
likely to continue.


Two members of the Kentucky State
Militia training in August 2000. The Kentucky militia welcomes
women, as here on the

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