On Jan. 2, 2016, a group of armed men took over a wildlife refuge in rural Oregon. They claim that the occupation is about protecting farmers and ranchers from the tyranny of the federal government, but some people accuse them of being radicals or even terrorists.
This series is an attempt to provide a better understanding of the situation by looking at some of the factors that led up to it.
Editor’s Note: Ammon Bundy and four of his followers were arrested Tuesday night following a highway confrontation with state and federal agents that left one other occupier dead. Two more occupiers were detained in Burns shortly afterwards but a number of militiamen are still holed up in the wildlife refuge, however.
Part 4: THE MODERN ANTIGOVERNMENT MILITIA MOVEMENT
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Modern antigovernment militias — like the one occupying the Malheur Wildlife Refuge right now — are rooted in the ideologies of Posse Comitatus, a radical antigovernment group founded in 1970 by a man named William Potter Gale.
After retiring from the army in the mid 50s, Gale became a minister for a fringe ideology known as the Christian Identity movement. It taught, among other things, that Jews were the offspring of Satan and black people were subhuman creatures. By wedding these racist teachings to the growing anti-tax movement in America, Gale created a message that resonated with a lot of people — especially white conservatives who felt that the progressive policies of the 60s had been a stab in the back.1
“The federal government had been influenced by the Civil Rights movement, they were starting to pass ecological laws,” explains Spencer Sunshine, a PhD researcher who has been studying Far Right groups in America for more than 20 years now. (Editor’s Note: Sunshine also spent five days in Harney County earlier this month documenting the occupation firsthand.) “Before, right wingers were supporting the federal government because they thought it was acting in their interest, and then they realized that it was … not going to act in the interest of white supremacy anymore. So they started to become anti- federal government.”
Posse Comitatus — latin for “power of the county” — was all about shunning federal and even state-level government in favor of local control. “Their main idea was that the county sheriff was the highest legitimate authority [or] elected official,” Sunshine explains. Under this “county power” system, people who disagreed with federal policies like civil rights laws and income tax could simply ignore them. The Posse also encouraged people to form armed militias all across the country and advocated for the use of so-called “citizen’s grand juries” in place of traditional courts.1 These radical ideas would form the foundation of the modern militia movement.
Posse Comitatus enjoyed reasonable success in its first few years, but it wasn’t until the early 80s that the group really took off. The catalyst: the US agricultural crisis.
“In the 80s there was a big farm crisis because of changes in international financial structure. A lot of American farms started to go bankrupt,” says Sunshine.
In the mid-70s, the United States had expanded exports to the Soviet Union, including grain and other other agricultural products. Anticipating higher demand, the Carter Administration encouraged farmers to plant more crops and invest in new technologies to boost production.
To do this, many farmers took out sizable loans, expecting to pay the money back within a few years. Unfortunately for them, the government’s plan backfired: the rapid increase in production led to huge surpluses, driving farm prices into the dirt. Then, in late 1979, the Federal Reserve raised interest rates, making life even harder for farmers by swelling the cost of their loans.1
For Gale and the Posse, the agricultural crisis was a golden opportunity for recruiting. The anger farmers felt towards the Carter Administration was a perfect opening for the Posse’s antigovernment views, and the actions of the Fed made their anti-Semitic rhetoric sound a lot more reasonable to farmers who were drowning in debt. “They said it was Jewish bankers in New York that were stealing the farms of the good, white, salt of the Earth farmers,” Sunshine explains.
In the early 80s, Gale and his followers traveled through the farm belt, sharing the Posse’s ideas with anyone who would listen. They also piggybacked off the success of the American Agricultural Movement, which was founded in 1977 to lobby the Carter Administration on behalf of farmers.
Posse Comitatus lost steam in the second half of the decade, as the liberal farm movement — which went out of its way to combat their racist propaganda — increased in popularity. But the Posse’s success in exploiting the agricultural crisis had demonstrated an ancient, yet powerful strategy: using social and political conflicts to spread antigovernment ideas, especially in rural America. The tactic would be emulated by militia groups for years to come.
“In the 90s, this same idea … the same political forms and the same argument about the federal government, came back as the militia movement,” Sunshine explains, “but it was no longer strictly a white supremacist movement.” There were still white supremacists involved, of course, but many in the movement avoided overt racism in the hopes of attracting more people. According to Sunshine, the militias of the 90s were mainly comprised of, “conspiracy theorists, Christian Rightists, anti-abortion activists, [and] various kinds of right wing libertarians…The majority of people were not white supremacists, but they came out of the white supremacist movement,” he says.
After its resurgence in the early 90s, the antigovernment militia movement died down again during the latter half of the decade. But the movement has made a major comeback in recent years, thanks in large part to the election of Barack Obama.2 The number of antigovernment “Patriot” groups in America has skyrocketed since Obama took office, from 150 in 2009 to more than 1,000 today. Armed antigovernment groups are also on the rise. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center3, there are at least 276 such militias operating within the United States today — an increase of nearly 40 percent from 2014.
“Today we have the Patriot movement,” Sunshine says. “They use many of the same forms and the same arguments [as earlier militia groups] but… they’ve jettisoned the ideological white supremacy, even while keeping the forms that white supremacists had set up.”
Among the most enduring of these “forms” is the Posse’s strategy of latching onto social conflicts, especially ones that attract the attention of news cameras. Members of the 3%ers and the Oath Keepers (two of America’s largest right-wing militias) were among the hundreds of men who showed up to support Cliven Bundy in 2014. Both groups are also present in Oregon today4 — in fact, the rally that preceded Ammon Bundy’s takeover of the wildlife refuge was actually organized by 3%ers, who accuse Bundy of hijacking their event.
Armed Patriot groups also made an appearance during the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri5, and led a monthlong occupation of an Oregon mine last April after locals had a minor land dispute with the BLM.6 All of these events have one thing in common: they gave radical antigovernment militias a hook to hang their politics on.
Make sure to come back tomorrow for the conclusion of this series!
1. Hate Group Expert Daniel Levitas Discusses Posse Comitatus, Christian Indentity Movement and More (Southern Poverty Law Center)
3. Antigovernment militia groups grew by more than one-third in last year (Southern Poverty Law Center)
4. There’s Another Armed Group In Burns And It’s Not The Bundys (Oregon Public Broadcasting)
6. Oath Keepers Descend Upon Oregon With Dreams of Armed Confrontation Over Mining Dispute (Southern Poverty Law Center)