The Patriot Movement, Past & Present

The evolution of the current Patriot movement can be viewed as having developed over the past several decades. This report will examine its evolution in three stages: 1) Posse Comitatus, 1971–mid-1980s; 2) militia movement, 1990s–early 2000s; 3) the present wave of the Patriot movement, 2008-2016.

Scholars describe how broad or narrow the Patriot movement is in different ways. For example, Berlet and Lyons include both right-wing conspiracy theory groups like the anticommunist John Birch Society and armed groups promoting antisemitic and White supremacist themes. For them, the 1990s militia movement was the “armed wing” of the Patriot movement.(1)Ibid, 288–89, 287. Unless otherwise noted, this report will simply describe the post-2008 resurgence of militant right-wing groups as the “Patriot Movement” to differentiate it from the 1990s militia movement. These are primarily the five groups outlined below: the Oath Keepers, Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA), the Three Percenters, Sovereign Citizens, and militias. (There is a sixth group of Hard Right Mormons, as well.)

The terms “paramilitaries” and “militias” will also be used in specific ways. Militias are locally based, armed groups that claim to be the people’s mechanism to defend the country and the Constitution. Paramilitaries include militias, but also include other kinds of armed, political formations that are not part of any official governmental apparatus, including vigilante border patrols and decentralized forms like Three Percenters.

Stage 1: Posse Comitatus, 1971—1980s

The Posse Comitatus (Latin for “power of the county”) started in 1971 as a decentralized White supremacist and antisemitic movement; it set the original template that the militia and Patriot movements have continued to follow.(2)This argument is set out by Daniel Levitas in The Terrorist Next Door: The Militia Movement and the Radical Right (New York: Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Griffin, 2002). This group was conceptualized by William Potter Gale, a Christian Identity minister. (Christian Identity is a racist, antisemitic, and homophobic religion that teaches that the “real” Israelites are White people, that Jews are the “children of Satan,” and that people of color are “mud people.”) Gale fused his religious beliefs with ideas from anticommunist conspiracy theories, right-wing tax protesters, and Hard Right paramilitaries such as the 1960s Minutemen.

Unlike others in the organized White supremacist movement who were turning towards neo-Nazism, with its European symbols and references, Gale used traditional U.S. political and legal language. He claimed that the U.S. Constitution was a White, Christian document that had been perverted by the Jewish-controlled government. His other idiosyncratic readings of legal history later gave rise to the Sovereign Citizen movement, including schemes for counterfeiting and fraud.

Gale also apparently developed the proposition that the county sheriff was the “only legal law enforcement officer,” and so could decide which laws to enforce.(3)William Potter Gale, cited in ibid, 109. This would allow them to ignore the new civil rights laws, in particular. This idea is common in the Patriot movement today, although its racist origins are overlooked. Posse Comitatus also advocated the formation of “citizens grand juries,” made up of movement members. The group also advocated that its “Christian Patriot” members form “citizens militias” to help put their ideas into action.

Posse Comitatus was deeply anti-environmentalist as well. In 1974, the Posse Comitatus group in Klamath County, Oregon, threatened to have their fake grand juries try state legislators if they didn’t repeal an environmental act.(4)Levitas, The Terrorist Next Door, 133. Daniel Levitas, who has written the most complete history of the movement, said that, “Unlike most other right-wing groups that shared similar beliefs, the Posse succeeded at joining its conspiracy theories, bigotry, and zest for violence to more mainstream issues, such as banking, land-use planning, environmental regulations, property rights, gun ownership, and race.”(5)Ibid, 10.

In the 1970s Posse Comitatus was popular in the western states, and its most important propagandist, Henry Lamont “Mike” Beach, was based in Portland, Oregon. In 1976, the FBI estimated there were between 12,000 to 50,000 Posse Comitatus members in 78 chapters across 23 states.(6)James Ridgeway, Blood in the Face, second edition (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1995), 133. This number is likely to be inflated.

A new wave of Posse Comitatus activism in the early 1980s gained traction during the farm crisis, when many small farmers lost their land due to inflation making their mortgage and other debts difficult to pay, and changes in the international agricultural industry. Some members of the American Agriculture Movement, which helped to lead protests, fell under the Posse Comitatus’s spell, and started blaming an international Jewish conspiracy for their problems. Members attended bomb-making and paramilitary trainings with Posse Comitatus members. High-profile shootouts with law enforcement ended up creating movement martyrs such as Gordon Kahl.(7)Levitas, The Terrorist Next Door, 218–20. By the mid-1980s, the movement had as many as 15,000 activists and seven-to-ten times as many supporters,(8)Ibid, 9. but it soon faded as the Ku Klux Klan revival and neo-Nazi movement took center stage in White supremacist circles.

But the influence of the Posse Comitatus lingers today in the Patriot movement. Both movements see oppression not as something that happens based on race, sex, gender, or even class, but rather as happening to the (largely white, largely male part of the) rural population; conceive of the federal government as a tyrannical force acting against this group’s interests; propose armed action to be taken against it; and share an end vision of a radically transformed legal and political system. This is what gives the Patriot movement the tone—even when it has broken with the specific ideology—of the armed White supremacist underground.

In addition to the Posse Comitatus, the John Birch Society has had a significant influence on today’s Patriot movement. While many of the political organizing forms were forged by the Posse Comitatus, many of the current movement’s ideas are taken from the John Birch Society. Founded in 1958, it is the archetypical Hard Right anticommunist group. While using ideas based in antisemitism and White supremacy, the John Birch Society was careful never to blame Jews as such, and did not make open appeals to White racial purity, even while opposing the Civil Rights movement. They promoted the idea that there was a conspiracy to undermine the United States from within and without; John Birch Society founder Robert Welch called then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower a “conscious, dedicated agent of the Communist Conspiracy.” One official John Birch Society publication said the “real nature” of the United Nations “is to build One World Government (New World Order).”(9)Cited in Berlet and Lyons, Right-Wing Populism in America, 180, 179. The John Birch Society is still around today, and its theories are staple Patriot movement beliefs. Starting in the early 1990s, it promoted anti-environmentalism and worked to limit federal land ownership.(10)Berlet and Lyons, Right-Wing Populism in America, 185; Michael O’Keefe and Kevin Daley, “Checking the Right: (Conservative Backlash Against the Environmental Movement),” Buzzworm, May 1993, 38–44. Today it also champions the role of the county sheriff as interpreter of the Constitution.

The group has had a revival of interest in recent years; its president spoke at Ron Paul’s “Rally for the Republic,” a counter-rally against the 2008 Republican National Convention in Minneapolis. Another John Birch Society member spoke at the 2013 CSPOA conference.(11)Brian Farmer, “Ron Paul’s ‘Rally for the Republic’,” New American, September 17, 2008,; Political Research Associates, “Profiles on the Right: Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association,” Political Research Associates, November 22, 2013, The group also sponsored the 2012 “Utah’s Freedom Conference,” which featured many Patriot movement activists speaking about land transfer, “sound money,” and religion.(12)“Thanks to Our Sponsors:,” Utah’s Freedom Conference, 2012,

Stage 2: The Militia Movement, 1992—2001

In the early 1990s, many of political ideas and organizational forms of Posse Comitatus were revived in what became known as the “militia movement” (which now dropped both the “Christian” from Patriot, and “citizens” from militias). The tragedies at Ruby Ridge and Waco became rallying cries for the movement.

White separatist Randy Weaver, an affiliate of the racist Aryan Nations group, lived in a remote part of the northeastern Idaho panhandle. Federal agents tried to turn him into an informant, using an illegal gun sale against him. When an arrest warrant was eventually issued, he retreated to his remote cabin with his wife and children. FBI agents laid siege to the cabin, and in a tragic series of events, Weaver’s wife and son—as well as an FBI agent—were killed. The surviving Weaver family members eventually won a $3 million wrongful death lawsuit.

Then, in February 1993, the ATF raided the compound of David Koresh’s Branch Dividian sect, located outside of Waco, Texas. Koresh had been accused of having illegal guns, as well as sexually exploiting minors. The ATF raid led to a shootout in which four federal agents and six sect members were killed. This was followed by a siege, almost two months long; as part of it, federal authorities used psychological warfare on the Branch Dividians. In another terrible series of events, during the final assault the compound caught on fire; in the end, a total of 80 Branch Dividians (including 21 children) died, in addition to the four federal agents.(13)Berlet and Lyons, Right-Wing Populism in America, 290–91.

The deaths at Waco and Ruby Ridge both involved raids for violations of guns laws and deaths at the hands of federal authorities. Together with the 1993 Brady Bill, which introduced strong new restrictions on gun sales, a variety of Hard Right activists became incensed at federal overreach, which was seen as advanced implementing a “New World Order” of global control.(14)Kenneth S. Stern, A Force Upon the Plain: The American Militia Movement and the Politics of Hate (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997), 71, 97, 108–9. Together, these events became the catalyst for the new militia movement.

This movement was based on Posse Comitatus’s basic political positions and organizing forms. The “militias” were locally based paramilitaries, often organized at a state level, and professing conspiracy theories about a global New World Order, black helicopters, and a coming United Nations invasion. (Often these theories were derived from antisemitism, although usually they no longer named “the Jews” as the active agent of the conspiracy.) The militias also became intertwined with the “Wise Use” movement, which started as a corporate-funded backlash to the successes of environmentalism in the 1980s.(15)Alan Feuerjan, “The Ideological Roots of the Oregon Standoff,” New York Times, January 9, 2016, For a more general overview of the 1990s militias and land use issues, see chapter 11 of Stern, A Force Upon the Plain, 119–32. See also Tarso Ramos, “Wise Use in the West: The Case of the Northwest Timber Industry,” in Echeverria & Eby eds, Let the People Judge: Wise Use and the Private Property Rights Movement (Island Press, 1995), and Ramos, “Extremists and the Anti-Environmental Lobby: Activities Since Oklahoma City,” report published by Western States Center, 1997,  And, Ramos, “The Wise Use Radicals: Violence Finds New Bedfellows” Western States Center News, fall 1995.

The connection between organized White separatists and the 1990s militia movement has been hotly debated by scholars. Early meetings, such as the 1992 Estes Park conference, brought together Aryan Nations’ Louis Beam and Richard Butler, racist Christian Identity preachers like Pete Peters, and mainstream gun rights advocates like Larry Pratt. Also present was John Trochmann, who later founded the important Militia of Montana; he, was part of the support group for Ruby Ridge’s Randy Weaver—itself led by Beam.(16)Beam also led the support group, United Citizens for Justice. See Tom Burghardt, “Leaderless Resistance and the Oklahoma City Bombing,” Public Good Project, originally published 1995, On Trochmann, see Leonard Zeskind, Blood and Politics: The History of the White Nationalist Movement From the Margins to the Mainstream (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2009), 361–63. However, as the movement got into full swing, only a minority of its members were followers of organized racist movements. The militia movement drew members from a variety of political trends, including gun rights activists, right-wing tax protestors, survivalists, Right libertarians, conspiracy theorists, anti-abortion activists, the Christian Right, Wise Use activists, Sovereign Citizens, and other advocates of county supremacy and states’ rights.(17)Chip Berlet, “Hard Times on the Hard Right: Why Progressives Must Remain Vigilant,” Public Eye 16, no.1 (Spring 2002): 8,

The movement grew very quickly starting in 1994, and became infamous on April 19, 1995 when two militia movement members, Timothy McVeigh (who was part of the neo-Nazi wing) and Terry Nichols (who was not), killed 168 people with a fertilizer bomb at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. The attack was apparently a revenge attack for the Waco massacre, and possibly for the execution of racist Patriot movement member Richard Snell, as well.(18)April 19 is an important day for the Patriot movement. It is the date of the Battle of Lexington and Concord, which set off the American Revolution; of the Waco tragedy; the day the death penalty was carried out on Richard Snell, who had committed two murders and was a part of the explicitly racist and antisemitic wing of the 1980s Patriot movement; and, of course, of the Oklahoma City bombing. On Snell, see Levitas, The Terrorist Next Door, 5–7; Zeskind, Blood and Politics, 82–83. The militia movement had 20,000 to 60,000 members, and up to 5 million who sympathized with its core idea that secret elites had a plan for imminent tyranny.(19)Berlet and Lyons, Right-Wing Populism in America, 288, 89.

The mass casualty bombing scared off moderates and attracted radicals to the movement; its membership peaked in 1996, but declined soon after.(20) “The Rise and Decline of the ‘Patriots’,” Southern Poverty Law Center, The more moderate members, however, took some of the militia ideas into mainstream circles.(21)Thanks to Travis McAdam for this insight. It seems like the Patriot movement flourishes under a Democratic president who it can claim is a secret traitor to the nation. Soon after George W. Bush’s election, the militia movement faded into a murmur. The reasons for its collapse included a more robust economy in the later 1990s, increased attention from law enforcement, internal organizational issues, and the failure of its dire predictions to happen—not just of looming federal repression, but also millennial concerns around the year 2000. By the early 2000s, many members left the movement for other kinds of activism, such as libertarian economics, gun rights, and opposition to federal regulations and global trade agreements.(22)Chip Berlet, “Hard Times on the Hard Right: Why Progressives Must Remain Vigilant,” Public Eye 16, no.1 (Spring 2002): 11,

Another important group at the time was Police Against the New World Order, founded by former police officer Jack McLamb. In the 1990s, he recruited police officers to refuse orders to enact what he claimed was a coming totalitarian system led by a secret global elite, which would be implemented in the year 2000, and would start by outlawing private gun ownership. In truth, his ideas were just thinly veiled racist and antisemitic conspiracy theories. McLamb was present at Ruby Ridge and worked with Bo Gritz, an important paramilitary and survivalist leader.(23) Operation Vampire Killer 2000: American Police Action for Stopping the Program for World Government Rule (Phoenix: America Citizens & Lawmen Assoc., 1992); for his trip with Gritz, see Zeskind, Blood and Politics, 305. Although creating secretive, subversive Hard Right political organizations which recruit police and military members is not a novel idea, McLamb’s group is important as a direct precursor to the Oath Keepers and CSPOA.

Stage 3: The Patriot Movement, 2008—present

Three Percenters

With the election of President Barack Obama, there was a sudden revival of the Patriot movement—a name that, by 1995, those inside the militia movement were using to refer to themselves.(24)David A. Neiwert, In God’s Country: The Patriot Movement and the Pacific Northwest (Pullman, WA: Washington State University Press, 1999), 3. This reincarnation included new political forms, alongside the remaining old-style militias. The Three Percenters, co-founded by Alabama militia veteran Mike Vanderboegh in late 2008, was developed as a more decentralized version of the militias in order to avoid government infiltration.(25)David Neiwert has identified Chris Kerodin as the other main co-founder. For Kerodin’s Idaho citadel project, see Bill Morlin, “Convicted Extortionist a Key Figure in Idaho Citadel ‘Patriot’ Project,” Southern Poverty Law Center, January 18, 2013, The name is based on their claim of the number of American colonists who actively fought in the Revolutionary War, and implies that a numerically small movement can engage in a successful armed revolutionary struggle.

Anyone can declare themselves a Three Percenter, although there are also state and national groups. Adherents say they will refuse any new gun restrictions.(26)For more on the Three Percenters, see Spencer Sunshine, “Profiles on the Right: Three Percenters,” Political Research Associates, January 5, 2016, The Three Percenters tend to be more aggressive and violent than other Patriot movement groups. For example, several took part in the armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, and many more came to Burns at the time. Ideologically it is hard to tell them apart from the Oath Keepers, except that Three Percenters tend to be far more publicly Islamophobic.

Partly because of the decentralized nature of this movement, it is difficult to estimate how many people identify as Three Percenters. In September 2015, the president of Oregon III% claimed to have 1,000 members in the state.(27)Facebook post, September 2015. Screenshot in possession of author. The Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights analyzed 264 closed online Three Percenter groups. Before December 2014, there were an estimated 12,000 members, which increased to almost 70,000 by the end of 2015. In January 2016, during the Malheur occupation, the numbers jumped again to 85,000.(28)The article says that there was “54% of identifiable support in the South, compared to 18% in the West, 17% in the Midwest, and 11% in the Northeast,” and that “83% identify as male, while just 17% identify as female.” See Devin Burghart, “Oregon Standoff Fuels Growth of the Three Percenters (IREHR),” February 3, 2016, IREHR,

David Samuel Hill, President of Oregon III%, explains the group’s structure, membership numbers, and relationship to law enforcement in September 2015:

Screenshots above from David Samuel Hill’s facebook post may not be readable. Here is the text:

The Oregon III% is a groups at [sic] is about preserving our constitutional rights. We are also a group that is about prepping, patriotism, education, community support, volunteering, and more.

We are a unique organization that has had a lot of ups and downs. We have come a long way in less than one year. Under a year ago we had less than 200 members, one president with no supporting executive staff, two zone leaders that where [sic] sharing zone 1 and no real way to respond to any situation other than a chaotic and unorganized effort. Today this organizaiton looks very different. We have almost a complete executive staff, zone 1 and 4 are doing well, and zone 2 is coming up and our membership is about 1000 members with varying degrees of activity and abilities. We respond as a team to threats to our society both man made and natural. Our team extends beyond what you see as the Oregon III%. Oregon III% is also part of the 3%ers. The 3%ers is our national affiliation. Like us the national 3% also went through a leadership change this year. And we have their support in what we need to run this state, free of interference and they offer support when larger issues present themselves. We are also part of the PPN or Pacific Patriot Network and have a close working relationship with other patriotic, prepper and training groups.

We have also made several big steps in our endeavor to preserve freedom for people in our group, in the PPN and other peoples’ freedom. We have made a stand at 2A rallies, the 941 rally, Operation Gold Rush, Operation Big Sky, Operation Protect the Protectors/Guardian Angel and more. We have also engaged in supporting our communities with having responded to a domastic issue and also a criminal trespassing issue. We are getting uip to 3 calls a week for assistance from various members as our level of capability has increased and our reputation has grown. We should all be proud of these events.

Law enforcement is one area that we have to make the biggest gains on “the home front.” These are the men and women that can say “I will not enforce unconstitutional laws, or other unlawful orders.” On Operation Protect the Protectors we gained a lot of respect from the community law enforcement that we came into contact with. We gained this respect by our professional dress and conduct on site along with our discrete carry of firearms. The news even made a special mention of our conduct. And then there was the domestic event that we responded to. A few days after the event a report was filed with the local police department. In the report it claimed that a bunch of gun toting gangsters kidnapped subjects. As the investigation continued the report was filed as false because the officer investigating the event also was an officer that was at Operation Protect the Protector and knew the people that had responded to the domestic event.This officer, by knowing the good character and professional mindset of the individuals that perform security ops dismissed the charges. Law enforcement is vital to our presence in our communities, to our operations and more. They have blocked the BLM, EPA and other agencies from committing illegal, immoral and unconstitutional acts. We want to have and support a constitutional law presence in our communities, counties and states. Most law enforcement individuals care very much about their job, their commjnities that they live and serve in and value our constitution. Yes, it is sad that we only hear the bad stories, and most of those stories are blown out of proportion by a reckless and careless reporting of the “news.” Remember how we are portrayed in the media? So take another look and think about it before reacting. WE WILL NOT HAVE A GOOD RELATIONSHIP WITH LAW ENFORCEMENT IF WE BAD MOUTH THEM OR THREATEN THEM. They are not the king’s servants, or the Gestapo or any of that other bad mouthing garbage. Talk like that will not be allowed on the site and if an individual resorts to behavior like that will be immediately dismissed from the group and will be blacklisted from the other groups in the PPN. Talk like that destroys our reputation, and the progress that we have made and may even negate what we have done to help others keep their freedoms and property. Talk like that also pushes away members of Oregon III% that are law enforcement members. Think before you act. Let’s be the example of how to act. If you do encounter unconstitutional laws, or officers that need help with the constitution please don’t get into a fight. Bring it to admins attention and we will get to work on it. We have a lot of resources and when we do things right we end up with more members, more freedom, and law enforcement that are constitutional allies.

Violence surrounds Three Percenters. A number of them were Malheur occupiers.(29)These include Jon Ritzheimer, Jason Patrick, Sean Anderson, Scott A. Willingham, Darryl William Thorn, and Eric Lee Flores. See Tim Dickinson, “Meet the Militia: The Zealots, Cowboys and ‘Rogue Infidels’ of the Oregon Insurgency,” Rolling Stone, January 7, 2016,; “Anatomy of a Standoff: The Occupiers of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Headquarters,” Anti-Defamation League, 2016,; Stan Milam, “Conference Focuses on Limited Government,” GazetteXtra, October 15, 2012,; Maxine Bernstein, “First Oregon Standoff Defendant Pleads Guilty,” Oregonian/OregonLive, May 12, 2016,; Eric Lacitis, “For Tulalip 22-year-old, a life gone haywire after Oregon standoff,” Seattle Times, March 7, 2016, In 2010, Vanderboegh called for throwing bricks through Democratic Party office windows—a call that was acted on. Numerous adherents and sympathizers have been arrested for violent crimes—including the 2015 shooting of five Black Lives Matter activists in Minneapolis.(30)Sarah Kaplan, “Minn. man accused in Black Lives Matter shootings reportedly subscribed to ‘sovereign citizen’ subculture,” Washington Post, December 1, 2015, In December 2015, Three Percenter Brad Bartelt was charged with driving a truck onto the Arkansas State University campus with a homemade bomb, while carrying a gun.(31) Arturo Garcia, “Alleged Arkansas State gunman was investigated for saying he was ‘suicidal and homicidal’ online,” Raw Story, December 10, 2015, In April 2016, Oregon Three Percenter John Martin Roos was arrested for threatening President Obama.(32)Matt Jordan, “Neighbors react after Medford man arrested for violent threats,” KOBI-TV NBC5, April 29, 2016,

Idaho Three Percenter Sean Anderson was one of the last four people to surrender at the Malheur Refuge. (Photograph courtesy of Spencer Sunshine).
Idaho Three Percenter Sean Anderson was one of the last four people to surrender at the Malheur Refuge. (Photograph courtesy of Spencer Sunshine).

Oath Keepers

The Oath Keepers were founded in 2009 by Stewart Rhodes, a lawyer (although he was disbarred in December 2015) and a former aide to U.S. Representative Ron Paul from Texas.(33)“Public View Docket,” case number PR 14-0698, State of Montana Office of the Clerk of the Supreme Court, The group is registered as a 501(c)3.(34)“Oath Keepers,” entity number E0559982009-3, Nevada Secretary of State, Richard Mack is listed as one of the directors. It is a dues-paying, membership group of current and former law enforcement, military, and first responders—although others are allowed to join as “associate members.”(35)“About Oath Keepers,” Oath Keepers, 2016, The Oath Keepers claim to have 40,000 members, although the Anti-Defamation League estimates the real number is “at least” 2,000.(36)“The Oath Keepers Anti-Government Extremists Recruiting Military and Police,” Anti-Defamation League, September 16, 2015,

Members pledge to disobey orders they see as unconstitutional. The Oath Keepers’ ten “Orders We Will Not Obey” illustrates their reliance on 1960s anticommunist conspiracy theories which the John Birch Society made into staples of the Hard Right, and used by the militia movement as well. The Oath Keepers apparently believe the federal government is about to:

  • seize all privately held guns;
  • suspend privacy rights;
  • detain right-wing activists as “unlawful enemy combatants”;
  • impose martial law on the individual states, before invading them;
  • “blockade American cities, thus turning them into giant concentration camps”;
  • round citizens up and force them into “detention camps”;
  • allow foreign troops to invade the United States;
  • confiscate privately held possessions—including food; and
  • end the right to free speech.(37)“Oath Keepers: Orders We Will Not Obey,” Oath Keepers,

The Oath Keepers’ national leadership is imbued with libertarian economics and conspiracy theories. They have locals all over the country, which have a high level of autonomy, although the national group will sometimes step in to direct their organizing or discipline local groups.

The Oath Keepers are the most mainstream of the Patriot movement groups, and they often intentionally soft-sell their actual politics. The group loudly denies being a “militia” but has increased its paramilitary activities in recent years. In Texas, they have held armed marches; in both 2014 and 2015, armed members went to Ferguson during the demonstrations; and members went to the armed encampments of the Bundy Ranch in Nevada, Sugar Pine Mine in Oregon, and Montana’s White Hope Mine. They formed Community Preparedness Teams, which include armed members. In July 2014, they also sent members to Murrieta, California, to help right-wing activists who blocked buses transporting undocumented immigrants. (This, however, was not an armed action.)(38) In Murrieta, the immigrants had already been detained by ICE and were being temporarily moved to a facility in that town. For Texas, see Murdoch Pizgatti, “Oath Keepers Co-Sponsors Armed March,” Don’t Comply, May 14, 2013,; for Ferguson in 2014, see Manny Fernandez and Alan Blinder, “On Rooftops of Ferguson, Volunteers Patrol, With Guns,” New York Times, November 29, 2014,; for Ferguson in 2015, see Sarah Larimer and Abby Phillip, “Who are the Oath Keepers, and why has the armed group returned to Ferguson?,” Washington Post, August 11, 2015,; for Bundy Ranch, see David Neiwert, “Back at the Bundy Ranch, it’s Oath Keepers vs. Militiamen as Wild Rumors Fly,” Southern Poverty Law Center, April 30, 2014,; for Sugar Pine Mine, see Tay Wiles, “Sugar Pine Mine, the other standoff,” High Country News, February 2, 2016,; for White Hope Mine, see Marshall Swearingen, “Dispatch from White Hope Mine dispute in Montana,” High Country News, August 12, 2015,; for Murrieta, see Larry Diffey, “Oath Keepers Joins Coalition Supporting Hundreds of Protests Against Illegal Immigration on July 18-19. Members Encouraged to Participate,” Oath Keepers, July 17, 2014, In July 2015, the Oath Keepers’ “Protect the Protectors” program had members “guard” military recruiting stations including several in Oregon, after a possible Islamist “lone wolf” attack in Tennessee.(39)Stewart Rhodes, “Oath Keepers National Call to Action: Help Us ‘Protect the Protectors’ by Guarding Recruiting and Reserve Centers,” Oath Keepers, July 21, 2015,

Oath Keepers participated as individual members at the march in Burns on January 2, 2016 in support of the Hammond family, and many stayed in the town during the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in order to build support for their movement’s politics.(40)Rice stressed that Oath Keepers at the march—which included board member Richard Mack—participated as individuals, not as representatives of the group; telephone interview with author, July 17, 2016. The national group later lent its support those efforts. (See appendix II.)

The Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers (CSPOA)

Former sheriff, Oath Keeper, and CSPOA founder Richard Mack one of of several Patriot movement speakers who came to Prineville, Oregon after the Malheur occupation.
Former sheriff, Oath Keeper, and CSPOA founder Richard Mack one of of several Patriot movement speakers who came to Prineville, Oregon after the Malheur occupation.

The CSPOA was founded in 2010 by former Arizona Sheriff Richard Mack, who is also on the board of the Oath Keepers. (CSPOA is officially affiliated with the group as well.)(41)Although the first CSPOA conference was not until 2012, its website was active as of August 2010. See Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, CSPOA says that, “Sheriffs and Peace Officers are the last line of defense standing between the overreaching Federal Government and your Constitutionally guaranteed rights.”(42)“Who is The CSPOA?,” CSPOA.ORG, Elsewhere, Mack is more explicit about what this means, saying that a sheriff:

reports directly to We the People, and so he is sovereign in that regard, because he reports directly to the other sovereigns. And that’s why the sheriff is the ultimate authority. He’s not a bureaucrat from Washington, DC; the president of the United States cannot tell your sheriff what to do. And so certainly none of the other auxiliary departments underneath the president can tell the sheriff what to do, and that includes the IRS, the EPA, OHSA, FBI, DEA, any of those agencies cannot tell the sheriff what to do. But, when they’re in his sovereign jurisdiction, he can tell them what to do. The question is: Will he?(43)HighCountyNews, “WestObsessed: SagebrushSheriffs2 23 16,” Soundcloud, podcast audio,

Mack says CSPOA is “the army to set our nation free.”(44)Julia Harte, “The army to set our nation free,” Center for Public Integrity, April 18, 2016, In one of the CSPOA’s early appeals, it said, “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.”(45)“To Serve and Protect the People and Our Rights: Just One Chance,” Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, Rather than upholding the law, the organization appears to be designed as a “fifth column” inside the U.S. government, aimed at pulling down the current system from within. Its vision for the country’s future appears to one in which federal laws and regulations become like Swiss cheese. Instead of guarantees of equal treatment under the law and equal political participation, the country would resemble a Mad Max film, where the laws in each county will be based on the sheriff’s whim.(46)See Neiwert, In God’s Country, 4.

This approach to the law was formulated so that county sheriffs could reject the Civil Rights acts and environmental laws. It also implied that if sheriffs decided amendments after the original ten were unconstitutional, they could be rejected. This includes the Fourteenth, which guarantees citizenship to freed slaves and native-born children of immigrants; the Sixteenth, which allows the federal income tax; and the Nineteenth, which guarantees women the right to vote. Posse Comitatus’s Gale, for example, thought that the Fourteenth Amendment was not ratified properly, and so a county sheriff could reject it—thereby denying citizenship to most African-Americans.(47)Levitas, The Terrorist Next Door, 82. Starting in the 1980s, it became common for the Christian Patriot movement to argue that there were two classes of citizenship: white people were “sovereign,” “organic” citizens; while most people of color were merely “Fourteenth Amendment citizens.”(48)Zeskind, Blood and Politics, 80–81; Neiwert, In God’s Country, 34, 82, 156.

It is difficult to say how today’s Patriot movement activists see this question; it is not the subject of public discussion. Josephine County Oath Keeper Joseph Rice and Malheur Refuge occupier Jon O’Shaughnessy have both said that a sheriff must accept all the amendments.(49)Joseph Rice, telephone interview with author, July 17, 2016; Jon O’Shaughnessy, in person interview at Malheur occupation, January 14, 2016. It is worth noting that the “Pocket Constitutions” that Patriot movement activists hand out (including at the Malheur occupation), which is edited by W. Cleon Skousen, include all the amendments. See The Constitution of the United States (National Center for Constitutional Studies, 2016), Mack said the potential of a county sheriff to reject an amendment was “not part of what we do…it’s not one of our key issues.” However, he affirmed that in his schema, a county sheriff could reject the Fourteenth Amendment, although they “would have to investigate it and come up with a reason and show the public why he felt that way.”(50)Richard Mack, telephone interview with author, August 20, 2016.

Former sheriff, Oath Keeper, and CSPOA founder Richard Mack spoke in Burns, Oregon during the Malheur occupation.
Former sheriff, Oath Keeper, and CSPOA founder Richard Mack spoke in Burns, Oregon during the Malheur occupation.

Mack became a Patriot movement hero in the 1990s when the Supreme Court ruled in his favor in a lawsuit that said that local law enforcement did not need to conduct background checks required by the Brady Gun law. He also ran, unsuccessfully, for both the House and Senate.(51)Erika Eichelberger, “Sheriff Richard Mack Aims to Save America From Gun Control,” Mother Jones, February 8, 2013,; Ryan Lenz, “Former Arizona Sheriff Richard Mack Seeks ‘Army’ of Sheriffs to Resist Federal Authority,” Southern Poverty Law Center, November 11, 2012,‘army’-sheriffs-resist-federal-authority. Like others of his political generation, he has direct connections with White separatists like Randy Weaver; Mack even contributed a foreword and a chapter to one of Weaver’s books.(52)Richard Mack, foreword to Randy Weaver, Vicki, Sam, and America: How the Government Killed All Three (Orem, UT: Sunrise Publishing, 2003). Since the 1980s, the organized racist movement has been divided between White separatists and White supremacists. The separatists seek to create an all white ethno-state, usually in the Pacific Northwest. The supremacists want to rule the whole country, and usually propose expelling people of color. Where the 1990s militia movement had connections to organized racist currents, they were usually to the White separatists. Mack was also close to the racist and antisemitic Jack McLamb, founder the Police Against the New World Order. In a 2014 obituary on the old CSPOA website, Mack calls McLamb his “friend and mentor” and “the original Oath Keeper.”(53)Richard Mack, “Friend and Mentor Jack McLamb Passes Away,” CSPOA.ORG, January 17, 2014,

Mack has mainstream ties as well. He is close with Utah State Representative Ken Ivory, a well-known advocate of transferring public lands out of federal hands. (Ivory is the former head of the American Lands Council and currently the head of Federalism In Action. He has spoken at a CSPOA conference and signed one of their resolutions about the proper role of federal employees.(54)Eric Ethington, “Armed Resistance,” Salt Lake City Weekly, August 26, 2015,; “CSPOA Resolution,” CSPOA.ORG, Mack has spoken at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, D.C., and has run for office. He was a lobbyist for the Gun Owners of America, and is currently a member of the Coalition of Western States, a Patriot movement-aligned group made up of activists and elected officials.(55)CPAC 2013, “America’s Future: The Next Generation of Conservatives” (conference schedule), Wall Street Journal, 6,; Political Research Associates, “Profiles on the Right: Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association,” Political Research Associates, November 22, 2013,; John Sepulvado, “GOP Politicians Planned and Participated in Key Aspects of Refuge Occupation,” Oregon Public Broadcasting, March 18, 2016, Mack was in Burns, Oregon for the January 2, 2016 march that preceded the Malheur occupation. He spoke to Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward twice about the Hammonds—once in November, and once the day after the occupation started.(56)Bill Morlin, “‘Constitutional Sheriff’ Richard Mack Hoping to Capitalize on Oregon Standoff,” Southern Poverty Law Center, February 16, 2016,‘constitutional-sheriff’-richard-mack-hoping-capitalize-oregon-standoff; Dave Ward, “Sheriff’s Report—Dave Ward OR Standoff: Part II,” Spokane Talks Online, podcast audio,; see 18:00–20:00.

The CSPOA claims to have the support of more than 400 sheriffs, and Mack boasts of 5,000 members (including citizens who are not law enforcement). At one point, their website hosted a list of 485 sheriffs who they saw as upholding the Constitution and opposing new gun restrictions—although the list’s introduction made clear that not all were members;  the last posted list has only 59 sheriffs, some of whom are no longer in office.(57)CSPOA, “Growing List of Sheriffs Saying ‘No’ to Obama Gun Control,” Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, May 14, 2016, The resolution that Ivory signed has 908 signatories, including around 80 who were listed as current law enforcement.(58)Mark Potok and Ryan Lenz, “Line In The Sand,” Southern Poverty Law Center, June 13, 2016,; “CSPOA Resolution,” CSPOA.ORG, January 2014,

Sovereign Citizens

The last of the Patriot movement groupings are the Sovereign Citizens, who continue the fake legal tradition of Posse Comitatus. They believe that their version of the law—usually a combination of Christian scripture, English common law, and the U.S. Constitution—is the true law, whereas the legal system, as we know it, is not. This was originally designed with a specifically racist intent; today, many Sovereign Citizens believe the Fourteenth Amendment does not apply to them, and recognize only the “Organic Constitution” (which includes the preamble, and only the first ten amendments).(59) A good overview of the movement is “The Lawless Ones: The Resurgence of the Sovereign Citizen Movement,” Anti-Defamation League, 2012,

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) says that, “Although not all sovereigns subscribe to or even know about the theory’s racist basis, most contend that they do not have to pay taxes, are not subject to most laws, and are not citizens of the United States.”(60)Larry Keller, “Evidence Grows of Far-Right Militia Resurgence,” Southern Poverty Law Center, August 30, 2009, They are known to refuse using drivers licenses and file false liens against opponents. Sovereign Citizens have also created their own their parallel government courts and juries, which indict, try, and sentence (including to death) individuals which have crossed their path, usually elected officials or federal employees.

The movement also seemed to have revived around the 2008—possibly spurred by desperate homeowners and others hurt by economic recession. (In some cases, Sovereign Citizens have taken over foreclosed and other unoccupied houses, and filed paperwork to claim them as their own.(61)Montana Human Rights Network, “Right Wing Roundup: The Return of Freeman and ‘Sovereigns,’” Human Rights Network News 21, nos. 1–2 (January 2011) 12–13, 15, Around the country, Sovereign Citizens have been involved in numerous armed confrontations with police, including the killing of three Baton Rouge police officers in July 2016.(62)“Sovereign Citizens Movement,” Southern Poverty Law Center,; Tammy Webber, Jesse Holland, and Eric Tucker, “Baton Rouge Police Shooter Said He Was ‘Sovereign Citizen’,” ABC News, July 18, 2016, Sovereign Citizens have been active in Oregon for decades, and the Malheur occupation spurred on the creation of fake courts and actions by self-proclaimed judges. In 2011, the SPLC estimated there were 100,000 “hard-core sovereign believers” and twice as many sympathizers.(63) “Sovereign Citizens Movement,” Southern Poverty Law Center,

Hard Right Mormons

The Malheur occupation thrust a small subgroup of the Patriot movement into view, as well. Cliven Bundy and his family—including sons Ammon and Ryan, who took part in the Malheur occupation—follow a Hard Right version of Mormonism, as did some other Malheur occupiers, including Robert “LaVoy” Finicum.(64)For more on this, see Chris Zinda, “The 50-year leap: Of theo-constitutionalists and theme parks,” Independent (St. George, UT), April 18, 2016,; Chris Zinda, “The 50-year leap, part two: Of echo chambers and sagebrush rebels,” Independent (St. George, UT), April 25, 2016,; John Sepulvado, “Explainer: The Bundy Militia’s Particular Brand Of Mormonism,” Oregon Public Broadcasting, January 3 (updated January 5), 2016,; Jason Wilson, “What Is the Link Between the Oregon ‘Militiamen’ and Mormonism?,” AlterNet, February 3, 2016,; Carli Brosseau, “Oregon standoff: What does Mormonism have to do with the U.S. Constitution?,” Oregonian/OregonLive, February 16 (updated February 23), 2016,
It should be noted that while these political views align with standard Patriot movement ones, their reasoning and motivations apparently diverge. (Ryan Bundy, for example, told a reporter at the refuge, “My Mormonism plays a large part in what I do…the biggest part.”)(65)John Sepulvado, “Bundy: We’ll Leave Occupied Buildings If Community Wants Us To,” Oregon Public Broadcasting, January 4 (updated January 5), 2016, The linkage is so controversial that two days into the occupation, the Church of Latter Day Saints condemned it, saying the takeover “can in no way be justified on a scriptural basis.”(66)The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, “Church Responds to Inquiries Regarding Oregon Armed Occupation,” The Church of Jesus Church of Latter-Day Saints Newsroom, January 4, 2016,

This politicized version of Mormonism was promoted by figures such as Ezra Taft Benson, a president of the Church of Latter Day Saints, and W. Cleon Skousen, author of the 1958 anticommunist book The Naked Communist. Both of them were close to the John Birch Society. CSPOA’s Richard Mack said he was “converted” to his present day politics after hearing Skousen speak in 1984, and right-wing conspiracy theorist Glenn Beck is another fan of Skousen.(67)On Mack, see Ryan Lenz, “Former Arizona Sheriff Richard Mack Seeks ‘Army’ of Sheriffs to Resist Federal Authority,” Southern Poverty Law Center, November 11, 2012,‘army’-sheriffs-resist-federal-authority; on Beck, see Sean Wilentz, “Confounding Fathers: The Tea Party’s Cold War Roots,” New Yorker, October 18, 2010, A popular version of the “Pocket Constitutions” that Patriot movement activists hand out was edited and annotated by Skousen.(68)Nigel Duara, “Oregon armed protesters invoke the Constitution — annotated by a conspiracy theorist,” Los Angeles Times, January 21, 2016, “Skousenite” Mormonism appears to be more popular in Utah and Nevada, especially around the small Independent American Party; outside of the Malheur occupation, it has not been reported as having any influence in Oregon.