Section I: Looking at the Patriot Movement

By Spencer Sunshine


The armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge outside of Burns, Oregon, from January 2 to February 11, 2016, thrust Oregon’s Patriot movement into the national headlines. While most of the occupiers were from out-of-state, Oregon’s movement specifically provided the groundwork for the occupation, and was in Burns to help build off it politically. All over the state, Oregonians are struggling to figure out how to handle the armed Hard Right activists in their midst who are building paramilitary units, making inroads into the Republican Party, and threatening those who criticize their movement.

Today’s Patriot movement is the successor to the 1990s militia movement, which had also swept the Pacific Northwest. Today, the core groups are united by a common political origin: a radical, right-wing interpretation of the Constitution that derides federal power and is hostile to environmentalism, a political worldview based on conspiracy theories, a penchant for forming paramilitaries, and a strategy of refusing to implement various laws. They often set up parallel structures that mimic real governmental ones.

They are right-wing populists who feel that, as a group, they are losing power, and embrace a “producerist” worldview that holds up “productive” citizens (such as ranchers or loggers), scoffs at unproductive elites (like environmentalists and bankers), and derides others as lazy, sinful, or subversive (including immigrants, refugees, and Muslims). Their simple solution to the economic problems rural areas face is to transfer federally owned land to states or counties, which they hope will lift restrictions on its use. They say they represent “the people,” but few people are actually involved. Some are apocalyptic, preparing for the collapse of governmental and business structures by learning subsistence farming and survivalist tactics, and by creating their alternative faux-governmental structures, which they hope will take the place of existing ones after a natural disaster or economic meltdown. Using Patriot movement political rhetoric and imagery, they create undemocratic forms that bypass, rather than try to strengthen, the often weakened democratic structures that exist.

 Patriot movement propaganda is often based on vague threats of coming civil war and foreign invasion. Source: Facebook.

Patriot movement propaganda is often based on vague threats of coming civil war and foreign invasion.
Source: Facebook.

The movement seems to operate with an “inside/outside” strategy: some parts of the movement work inside of established government structures to change them, while others work outside the system to undermine it.

Definitions vary as to how broad the Patriot movement is; some scholars include groups as mainstream as parts of the Tea Party. To support the Oregonians struggling to understand this arcane movement, this report focuses on the core factions operating in their state today: the militias, Oath Keepers (who recruit former and current members of the military, law enforcement, and first responders), Three Percenters (a name drawn from the claim that only three percent of colonists fought in the American Revolution), and Sovereign Citizens, as well as the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, which seeks to recruit county sheriffs to the cause.

These groups are often armed and advocate defying federal laws they think are unconstitutional. In Oregon, they are often embedded in the political life of rural counties, including the six focused on in this report—Baker, Grant, Josephine, Harney, Crook, and Deschutes counties. And yet the specifics of their worldview are often not well understood, even to their neighbors. You will learn about the particularities here: their ideas about county sheriffs having the power to ignore federal law, desire to promote the political dominance of county governments, use of “community service” to present themselves as civically minded, creation of their own “grand juries” and “judges” to wage their idea of justice, and about the history of the movement, which goes back decades.

Even before the Malheur occupation, the movement’s influence had mainstreamed into local and state governments, aided by a lurch to the right inside the Republican Party. The Patriot movement’s aggressive political actions are inspiring mainstream groups and emboldening new legislation and recruiting drives. This is especially worrisome as the Patriot movement’s toxic politics negatively impact people of color, Muslims, refugees, immigrants, and LGBTQ people, and the Patriot movement is hostile to environmental and economic justice concerns.

The Patriot Movement: A Brief History and Overview

There are thousands of Patriot movement activists in Oregon and several dozen groups. This includes local affiliates of the Oath Keepers, Three Percenters, militias, as well as law enforcement members, elected officials, Sovereign Citizens, and fake judges and courts. Indeed, it seems that Oregon has one of the most developed, active grassroots movements in the country.

They regularly find allies among Tea Party groups, the John Birch Society, Gun Owners of America, the Tenth Amendment Center, and the American Lands Council—the latter of which is funded by the fossil fuel billionaires Charles and David Koch to promote the transfer of public lands out of federal hands.

But the armed movement is not new, and its history reaches back to the founding of Posse Comitatus in 1971. This racist and antisemitic group emerged from the right-wing tax protest movement, the racist Christian Identity religion, conspiratorial anticommunism, and armed Hard Right vigilantes like the 1960s Minutemen. Posse Comitatus helped forge an idiosyncratic reading of the Constitution, taught that the county sheriff was the highest official who could interpret the law, advocated paramilitary formations, and opposed environmental restrictions. It later had a revival when it recruited some members of the 1970s and 1980s farmers’ protest movement.

The militias sprang into existence in the early 1990s after the devastation of some rural economies including those like Oregon’s relying on the timber industry, and standoffs with federal agents at Ruby Ridge and Waco. The militias, which picked up Posse Comitatus’s basic political positions and organizing forms, were locally based paramilitaries. They often focused on conspiracy theories about the need to resist a global “New World Order,” black helicopters, and a coming United Nations’ invasion. The movement grew very quickly after 1994, and became infamous in 1995 when some members bombed a federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people. But the movement seemed to flourish under a Democratic president, and soon after George W. Bush’s election, it faded to a murmur.

Immediately after Barack Obama’s election in 2008, a new wave of the Patriot movement emerged. This reincarnation included new political forms alongside old-style militias. It also followed decades of the movement trying to make its politics appear more mainstream and palatable.

Originally the Patriot movement’s 2008 revival was closely associated with the Tea Party, which emerged at the same time. In addition to President Obama’s election, Texas congressman Ron Paul’s 2008 Republican presidential primary campaign was a major organizational spark, including for the Oath Keepers’ founder Stewart Rhodes. The reasons for this revitalized movement include the economic collapse—and the federal bank bailouts and economic stimulus package which followed; the rise of the Tea Party and Sarah Palin’s candidacy for vice president, which knocked a substantial part of the Republican Party off its regular moorings; a related revival of conspiracy theories, including “Birther” allegations that Obama was not born in the United States; and more general Islamophobia and anti-immigrant xenophobia—as well as a continuing irritation with the first Black president, and a liberal, to boot. Other grievances included neoconservative foreign policies (including a disenchantment with the Afghanistan and Iraq wars) and commitments to transnational free trade agreements. The Patriot movement has focused on recruiting returning veterans and from the new, more aggressive gun culture—fostered by the hysterical propaganda about “Obama is coming to take our guns!”

While embedded in almost all-White organizing, the movement lacks the open appeals to White racial purity that could still be heard in some of the 1990s militias; this may have been the result of a self-conscious shift. Current leaders who have links to organized racism are usually members of the older movement, such as Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association founder Richard Mack and Larry Pratt of Gun Owners of America. While the Patriot movement’s goals were consciously formulated as racist positions by Posse Comitatus—i.e., empowering county sheriffs to ignore civil rights laws as being unconstitutional—they are given a different reasoning by today’s activists, but have the same potential effect. Many of the specific conspiracy theories that were only one step away from antisemitism are gone, buried deep underneath, or supplanted by the more socially acceptable Islamophobia. This allows the Patriot movement to dodge many of the accusations of White supremacy and antisemitism that continued to damage the reputations of the 1990s militias. This change adds an additional difficulty for progressives in developing talking points about the Patriot movement’s race politics and alerting people to the problems it contains.

Meanwhile, the mainstream of the Republican Party has shifted dramatically to the right, and with it much of its base, creating a fertile organizing climate for the Patriot movement. The presidential candidacy of Donald Trump—in particular with his immigrant bashing and rabidly Islamophobic rhetoric—has mainstreamed ideas that used to be in the margins. A sense of unease over the future of the United States is prevalent at the end of Barack Obama’s presidency. The rise, not just of Trump—but also the strong run of democratic socialist Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary—shows that Americans are looking outside the generally accepted parameters of U.S. political discourse and considering different options. On the Right, this means they are warming up to previously taboo expressions of bigotry and the use of political violence. The Patriot movement was long a political outlier on a national level, although in the West its ideas were more mainstream on the local and state levels. Now, in the national Republican Party, the Patriot movement’s ideas are mainstream on a national level—even if its tactics are still on the fringe.

The new Patriot movement groups since 2008 are:

The Three Percenters, cofounded by militia veteran Mike Vanderboegh in late 2008, was developed as a more decentralized version of the militias, in order to avoid government infiltration. Anyone can declare themselves a Three Percenter, although there are also regional and national groups. The name refers to the disputed number of American colonists who took up arms during in the Revolutionary War.

Three percent flag
The Three Percenter flag was among those flown at the start of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupation.

The Oath Keepers was founded in 2009 by Stewart Rhodes, an aide to former Texas Congressman Ron Paul, and is the most mainstream of the Patriot movement groups. It is a traditionally organized membership-based group of current and former law enforcement, military, and first responders. They pledge to disobey orders they see as unconstitutional. They embrace staple 1950s and 1960s anticommunist conspiracy theories, claiming that the federal government is preparing to seize privately held firearms, impose martial law on the states, and put Americans in “concentration camps” before allowing foreign armies to invade.

The Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA) was founded in 2010, and is led by former Arizona county sheriff Richard Mack, who is also on the board of the Oath Keepers. CSPOA is affiliated with the Oath Keepers. CSPOA says, “Sheriffs and Officers who follow the Constitution line by line possess the power to shield against the Federal assault on American Citizens rights.” Mack believes that county sheriffs have the power to decide which laws are constitutional, and therefore should be enforced. CSPOA says, “Very few people realize that the Sheriff has the legitimate authority to prevent federal agents from entering the county—or the power to throw them out once they are there.” It looks like its members see themselves as a force inside the U.S. government trying to pull down the current system from within. In Oregon, Grant County Sheriff Glenn Palmer is a former leader in the organization; during the armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, he met with some occupiers.

The influence of Sovereign Citizens also took off again after 2008; they follow the made-up legal theories of Posse Comitatus. They believe they are exempt from most laws, regulations, and taxes. They have been known to file false liens against judges and others who they have been in conflict with; some Sovereign Citizens declare themselves “judges” and/or establish “citizen’s grand juries” or “common law grand juries,” where they hold kangaroo trials against government employees or others they disagree with. A guilty conviction can be a green light for kidnapping or assassination. Now even some former county sheriffs are declaring themselves to be Sovereign Citizen-style “marshals.” Similar to these are the Committees of Safety, which are Patriot movement groups which mimic a local government structure, and lay claim to any number of powers.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Patriot movement’s peak was in 2011, and then declined for several years, before suddenly growing by a third in 2014.(1)“Anti-government militia groups grew by more than one-third in last year,” Southern Poverty Law Center, January 4, 2016, The likely reason for this reversal is the conflict between Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and the Bureau of Land Management in April 2014; when authorities came to seize his cattle due to nonpayment of grazing fees, he called in armed Patriot movement groups, which pointed weapons at federal officers, causing them to retreat. Until February 2016, no charges were filed in this standoff. During this delay, the movement portrayed the standoff as a successful case of them putting into action their plans to hold off the federal government with paramilitary units—something that had not happened before. This apparently helped revitalize the flagging Patriot movement, which in turn attempted to replicate the victory in Oregon.

The Patriot movement’s presence in Oregon quickly became visible. In April 2015, the owners of the Sugar Pine Mine in southwestern Oregon’s Josephine County became involved in a dispute with the Bureau of Land Management. The agency had asked the miners to file a plan of operations, or appeal, if they wanted to continue to work the claim.(2)Tay Wiles, “Sugar Pine Mines: The Other Standoff,” High Country News, February 2, 2016, Instead of replying to the notice with their paperwork, the miners called in the Patriot movement activists, who flooded in from both the surrounding areas and out-of-state to establish armed camps. This spurred on the creation of the Pacific Patriots Network as an umbrella group to facilitate cooperation between Oregon and Idaho groups. Network members then traveled to Lincoln, Montana in August 2015 to help establish armed camps at the White Hope Mine there. They also organized the initial march in Burns, which the Malheur occupation came out of. They are now active in supporting those facing charges because of it, as well as supporting energized Patriot movement members in the Republican Party.

Members of the Oath Keepers patrol the Sugar Pine mine near Grants Pass, Oregon. (Photo courtesy of Shawn Records)
Members of the Oath Keepers patrol the Sugar Pine mine near Grants Pass, Oregon. (Photo courtesy of Shawn Records)

It was the Sugar Pine Mine armed camps that prompted the state’s Rural Organizing Project to more closely track Oregon’s Patriot movement with Political Research Associates, resulting in this report and activist resource kit.

For years, conservatives have attempted to either privatize or transfer federally owned lands—over 50 percent of the land in some western states—to state or county governments, in order to circumvent environmental regulations regarding logging, mining, and ranching. On January 2, 2016 in Oregon, Patriot movement activists held a march in Burns, a remote town in Harney County near the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, to protest an unusual prison sentence against two ranchers who had long been wrangling with the federal government; Dwight and Steven Hammond, father and son, had been sentenced under terrorism laws for starting fires, one of which was on the federal refuge where they had grazing rights.

At the end of the march, a small group of armed activists from other states occupied the headquarters of the nearby Malheur National Wildlife Refuge—including Ammon and Ryan Bundy, brothers whose father’s ranch in Nevada was home to an armed standoff against the Bureau of Land Management in 2014, and Jon Ritzheimer (a well-known Islamophobic organizer). They demanded the Hammonds be freed, and the refuge be transferred out of federal hands. The occupation lasted 41 days and attracted intense national media coverage. Two fake “grand juries” were held or planned by those associated with the occupation, and a number of self-proclaimed “judges” weighed in, arguing that federal laws had no power.

While most occupiers were from out-of-state, and no Oregon group officially supported the occupation, individual Oregonians joined it. Oregon supporters also channeled supplies to the occupiers.

Neighboring Grant County Sheriff Glenn Palmer also appeared supportive of the occupation. In January 2016, Sheriff Palmer, who had already met with occupation leadership twice, was slated to appear with Ammon Bundy and other Malheur occupiers who were traveling to Grant County to help establish another group to act as a shadow government. The occupiers were arrested en route, and Robert “LaVoy” Finicum was killed when he refused to surrender and charged at law enforcement.

More than two dozen people involved in the 2014 armed standoff at the Bundy Ranch, including Cliven Bundy, were then also arrested on conspiracy and weapons charges. The first trials for the Oregon occupation including for Ammon and Ryan Bundy, started on September 13, 2016.(3)Maxine Bernstein, “Oregon standoff: 9 guilty pleas up ante for Ammon Bundy, 16 others,” Oregonian, July 23, 2016,

Patriot movement beliefs

There are a number of core beliefs of the Patriot movement that are deeply problematic:

  • Transfer of federally owned lands. The Patriot movement believes that the Constitution does not permit the federal government to own mostpublic land. They prefer transferring them to the county level as a way to circumvent environmental restrictions. The 2016 national Republican Party platform advocates the transfer of federal lands to the state.
  • Unrestricted gun ownership. The Patriot movement opposes all new gun restrictions, and ideally would like to oppose all existing ones. The Umpqua Community College mass shooting in October 2015 occurred in Roseburg, Oregon, where the county sheriff already signed a CSPOA-inspired letter and has publicly criticized gun regulation as a response to mass shootings.
  • Anti-immigrant xenophobia and Islamophobia. Oath Keepers and Three Percenters have been actively involved in vigilante border militias, blocking buses of immigrants who have already been detained, holding anti-refugee rallies, and spreading virulent anti-Muslim rhetoric. Now they add guns to this volatile mix; armed protests have been held outside mosques. Jon Ritzheimer, one of the high-profile Malheur occupiers, is a well-known Islamophobic organizer; and the 3% of Idaho, one of the paramilitaries active in Burns supporting the occupation, has organized several anti-Syrian refugee demonstrations in Idaho.
  • Nullification and coordination. The notion that federal laws can be ignored by local governments, on either the county or state level, dates back to advocates of slavery in the 1820s. A similar idea that relies on this is known as “coordination.” In the Hard Right reading of this concept, county-level governments can declare themselves legal equals to the federal government in land use matters, giving them veto power. In Oregon, several county commissions, two CSPOA sheriffs, and even a mining district have invoked this version of coordination.
  • Libertarian economics and hostility to the federal government. The Patriot movement is hostile to most forms of federal government regulation and wealth redistribution, which correct for social and economic inequities. This includes, but is not limited to, progressive positions on racial equality, LGBTQ rights, and environmentalism. The Patriot movement is largely driven by libertarian economics, and frequently devolves into conspiracy theories about the Federal Reserve. While social issues about LGBTQ rights and abortion are not a focus for them, they will occasionally intervene on the conservative side; for example, in September 2015 the Oath Keepers offered to guard Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who refused to issue same-sex marriage licenses.
  • Implicit racism. The Patriot movement is implicitly racist in its approach to social problems. Its members have become increasingly hostile to the Black Lives Matter movement. In one egregious example, in November 2015 a Three Percenter supporter shot five people at a Black Lives Matter encampment in Minneapolis. There is a consistent underlying idea that when the Patriot movement talks about the United States and the Constitution, it is assuming White, patriarchal, heterosexual, and Protestant norms—even if the movement does not explicitly organize around these notions. Their actions support the maintenance of the social status quo, while they simultaneously oppose most attempts to address these power imbalances.
  • Anti-environmentalism and climate change denial. In addition to their general opposition to environmental regulation, many Patriot movement activists deny human-created climate change. They frequently draw on a conspiracy theory that the non-binding United Nations resolution about sustainability called Agenda 21 dislodges U.S. sovereignty and is the secret power behind environmental and public land-use initiatives as simple as building local parks. Both the Oregon and national Republican Party platforms denounce Agenda 21.
The Patriot movement claims that Article 1, Section 8, Clause 17 of the U.S. Constitution prohibits the federal government from owning most public lands. The courts do not back this view. Photo courtesy of Shawn Records.
The Patriot movement claims that Article 1, Section 8, Clause 17 of the U.S. Constitution prohibits the federal government from owning most public lands. The courts do not back this view. Photo courtesy of Shawn Records.
Central Oregon Constitutional Guard member Andrew Bedortha demonizes Muslims on social media. (Source: Facebook).
Central Oregon Constitutional Guard member Andrew Bedortha demonizes Muslims on social media. (Source: Facebook).

Spreading a Culture of Political Violence

The Malheur occupation is rooted in the political culture of violence that the Patriot movement is based on. Unregulated gun ownership is one of their primary goals, and many of their political forms are paramilitary units. Their political actions include occupations, protests, camps, and marches while armed; and there are frequent threats towards elected officials, progressive activists, critics, and even each other. One flashpoint has been SB 941, an Oregon law signed in May 2015 barring gun ownership on some mental health grounds and requiring background checks by licensed dealers even for individuals who receive a gun from another private person.

Many in the movement believe that there is a plot to disarm the civilian population as a first step in allowing a foreign invasion of the United States. To them, the militias are a last line of defense against a looming threat to the nation. They also believe that the Second Amendment is the cornerstone of the Constitution, and claim it does not allow for any kind of gun restrictions. Public displays of weaponry are therefore an affirmation of their political beliefs. Many see the Constitution as legally allowing the Malheur occupiers to have guns while occupying a federal building.

The organizing in Burns led to an epidemic of threats against community members, including the county sheriff and his family, a faith leader, federal employees, state troopers, a leader of the Burns Paiute Tribe, and even the Oregon governor. Many fled the county for their safety, including the sheriff’s wife. The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge manager was whisked out of town and the employees were told to leave.(4)Amanda Peacher, “Malheur Refuge Manager: ‘It’s 1 Big Mess’,” Oregon Public Broadcasting, March 2, 2016. Across the state, progressive political events, governmental hearings, and even community discussions have been disrupted and sometimes cancelled. The Rural Organizing Project has been the target of numerous threats. Where the Patriot movement goes, violence follows.

Beyond specific individuals who are targeted, this kind of activity has a chilling effect on political speech. One Oregon activist who was threatened, for example, told me that it was “just not worth it” to continue to speak out against the Patriot movement. As the occupation in Burns dragged on, many locals were too tired and too afraid to continue to speak out. And as a reputation for violence and intimidation precedes it, the movement can sometimes silence critics without even having to threaten them.

 Patriot movement leaders claims the Malheur occupation influenced a decision about a natural gas pipeline. (Source: Facebook).

Patriot movement leaders claims the Malheur occupation influenced a decision about a natural gas pipeline. (Source: Facebook).

The Patriot movement also fosters a more general culture of violence outside of regular movement activism, which can be seen by the constant drumbeat of arrests of its members for various violent crimes—in addition to those related to the Bundy Ranch and Malheur Refuge conflicts. In December 2015, a Three Percenter was arrested with a firearm and homemade explosives on the Arkansas State University campus. Jerad and Amanda Miller, who had gone to the Bundy Ranch, killed three people in Las Vegas in June 2014, before dying in a shootout. In November 2015, Freddy Crisp is alleged to have murdered fellow Patriot movement activist Dale Potter, a veteran of the Bundy Ranch. And in a similar case, in January 2016, Vincent Smith shot and killed his friend, Charles Carter.(5)Jared Strong, “Militiamen’s political spat ends with gunshot,” Daily Times Herald (Carroll, IA), November 19, 2015. In Medford, Oregon a Three Percenter was arrested for threatening President Obama in April 2016.(6)Matt Jordan, “Neighbors react after Medford man arrested for violent threats,” KOBI-TV NBC5 / KOTI-TV NBC2, April 29, 2016, These are just a tiny fraction of the total number of people arrested in the movement for violent crimes.

Right-Wing Paramilitaries and the Republican Party: A Movement/Party Dynamic

There is a complicated dynamic between the Republican Party and the Patriot movement. The Patriot movement shares many of the same political positions as a large part of the Republican Party. While the party’s national leadership is largely distant from direct ties, as we will see, local and state Republicans are often integrated with the Patriot movement. The Malheur occupation drew the support of many Republican officials, a number of whom came to visit in person. Tim Smith, the former chair of the Harney County Republican County was the head of the Ammon Bundy-formed Committee of Safety during the occupation. Ken Taylor—treasurer of the state-level Republican Party and chair of the Crook County GOP, at least until mid-2016—recorded the founding of the Committee of Safety and promoted the group, even as Ammon Bundy and his colleagues were threatening the Harney County sheriff. Josephine County Oath Keeper Joseph Rice, leader of the Sugar Pine Mine armed camps, went to the 2016 Republican Convention as an Oregon state party delegate. The Malheur occupation also seemed to spur legislative attempts to attempt to gain control over federal lands.

At a Trump campaign stop in Eugene, Oregon, two of his supporters sport shirts with the brand of LaVoy Finicum’s ranch. (Photo courtesy of Peter Walker)
At a Trump campaign stop in Eugene, Oregon, two of his supporters sport shirts with the brand of LaVoy Finicum’s ranch. (Photo courtesy of Peter Walker)

Inroads to Local Governments and Law Enforcement

The Patriot movement is having an outsized influence in comparison to its relatively small numbers on a national scale. Its talking points have spread so far that it is frequently difficult to tell which officials are actually adherents, which are influenced by their perspectives, and which have been influenced by these political positions through political movements similar to the Patriot movement.

The more mainstream elements of the Patriot movement are directly tied to a number of town, county, and state-level governments, in Oregon and elsewhere. In Oregon, State Representative Dallas Heard visited occupied Malheur on January 9, 2016 on a trip organized by the Patriot-movement-aligned Coalition of Western States. Other members of the state house and senate appeared alongside Oath Keepers and Three Percenters at rallies opposing SB 941, the new gun control law, in May 2015. During his speech, Three Percenter cofounder Mike Vanderboegh threatened civil war against the Oregon state government over the new law. In a number of Oregon counties—including Josephine, Crook, Harney, Grant, and Baker—Patriot movement activists have run for office directly, and a few hold office.

Of particular concern is the influence of the Oath Keepers and CSPOA on law enforcement officers, especially county sheriffs; at one point, two-thirds of Oregon county sheriffs appeared on a list of sheriffs who opposed gun control measures, earning accolades from the CSPOA. The Oath Keepers encourage sheriffs and police to practice a form of nullification, hoping to get them to refuse to enact gun-control laws in particular. Having lost many battles at the federal level on social issues, the Patriot movement is moving towards advocating local resistance to implementing progressive legislation and federal rules.

Impact on Rural Society

The Patriot movement is laying deep roots in certain segments of rural society, especially in the West, as well as among veterans, many of whom feel abandoned by the government and are looking instead to community-based initiatives outside of a government structure. The stagnant economies of rural Oregon—whose wealth, largely based on natural resource extraction, dried up in the 1980s and 1990s—are prime areas for resentment. This is especially true in counties where the federal government controls much of the land; in Oregon as a whole, it controls 53 percent, and in Harney County, where the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is located, it controls a whopping 75 percent.(7)Carol Hardy Vincent, Laura A. Hanson, and Jerome P. Bjelopera, “Federal Land Ownership: Overview and Data,” Federation of American Scientists, December 29, 2014, 4,; David Johnson and Pratheek Rebala, “Here’s Where the Federal Government Owns the Most Land,” Time, January 5, 2016,; “Harney County Property Ownership,” Harney County,

In Josephine County—due to a decline in federal funds and low property tax rates—county law enforcement is too understaffed to even respond to all emergency 911 calls. There the Oath Keepers are establishing disaster response teams, as well as forming and grooming community watches and militias as usable alternatives. In addition to the paramilitary units, their grassroots initiatives appear to be attracting a larger number of women and even families, in comparison with the 1990s militia movement.

Patriot groups are clearly speaking to a social and psychological void in rural communities that feel abandoned by the federal government. But the movement’s libertarian-style anti-tax, anti-federal government positions will only intensify the problems of unemployment, homelessness, and lack of social services that plague rural communities.

However, it should be noted that the movement is not an exclusively rural affair. The structures of the Oath Keepers and Three Percenters, and fixation on gun rights, can easily adapt to urban settings. Even in New York City, one can find members of both groups—just as there were militias there in the 1990s.

Since the movement holds reactionary views on so many social issues, and its use of violence is so openly tolerated, we can expect its successes to further racial and economic inequality, environmental destruction, and antidemocratic processes—both for people in small towns and rural areas, as well as in the cities.

What follows shows the linkages between the national movement, its history, and the Patriot movement in Oregon to help progressive activists navigate this complex political terrain.

Confronting White Nationalism

It would be easy to dismiss racist White nationalism as limited to fringe groups on the extreme edges of civil society, but this is sadly not true. Organized White supremacist groups do not cause prejudice in the United States — they exploit it. What we clearly see as objectionable bigotry surfacing in racist social and political movements is actually the magnified form of oppressions that swim silently in the familiar yet obscured eddies of “mainstream” society. Racism, sexism, and fear of LGBTQ people, Mexicans, Muslims, and Jews still persists as forms of supremacy that create oppression. Thus these forms of prejudice defend and expand inequitable power and privilege whether or not there is activity by organized White supremacist groups.

White nationalism saturates our lives in the United States — from our major political parties, to the so-called Patriot movement — all the way out to violent armed insurgents. We need to confront the color line that bestows on White people unfair advantages. We need to revoke that grant of privilege by working to correct the injustice that still stains our nation with the spilling of blood. As the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. warned us, either we build comminity or we will face chaos.

-Chip Berlet


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