Stories from the Field

How Rural Oregonians on the Frontlines have Successfully Organized

Image showing a large crowd of people at the Harney County Courthouse holding signs, many opposing the militias and supporting police.
Both Patriot movement activists and community members that wanted the occupation to end gathered in front of the Harney County Courthouse to express their views. (Photo courtesy of Peter Walker).


  • Josephine County
  • Harney County
  • Grant County
  • Baker County
  • Lane County

They are the Oath Keepers, We are the Peace Makers: Josephine County Offers a Different Vision for the Community

In April 2015, the Oath Keepers of Josephine County began a month-long armed encampment at the Sugar Pine Mine in the rural Oregon county, putting out a national call for “patriots” to come with their guns to support gold miners who were in a dispute with the Bureau of Land Management. The Josephine County Oath Keepers claimed that without their help, the federal agency would burn the miners’ cabins down. A slew of paramilitaries and other Hard Right groups from across the country began posting Twitter updates and YouTube videos of themselves driving out to Josephine County for another Bundy Ranch-style standoff.

Alarmed Josephine County residents, as well as the Rural Organizing Project, began calling neighbors, friends, and community leaders to get their sense of the situation. Some hadn’t heard anything about it, while others were so scared of retaliation that they were unwilling to even come to a meeting. Several folks agreed that, at a minimum, they should learn more about who was coming out to Josephine County and get a grasp on the situation. A meeting time was set and they got to work talking to anyone who would answer the phone, researching the background of Oath Keepers inside and outside of Josephine County, and reaching out to Political Research Associates for support. They formed a group, Together for Josephine, that shared information, news, and updates; invited and brought in new people to every meeting; created resources for the community struggling to understand what was going on; and took action that demonstrated that the community opposed the politics of fear and division.

At the time Josephine County was in the middle of a funding crisis, leading to the slow but thorough dismantling and privatization of important parts of the public infrastructure. The libraries had already become privately operated. County and local police forces outside of Grants Pass, the county’s largest city, were defunded to the point that they were understaffed, ineffective, and, in some cases, dissolving completely. The Oath Keepers of Josephine County were key players in manufacturing this crisis, providing leadership for the No New Taxes campaigns against public safety levies that would fund the Sheriff’s Department. They then argued the lack of public safety infrastructure was an example of government failing the people.
The Oath Keepers’ next step was to help create “community preparedness teams,” which respond to natural and “other” disasters. Superficially, creating any kind of neighborhood response to natural disasters is a great idea. Realistically, these teams really serve as an entry point for concerned residents into Patriot movement activism and ideology.

Initially, the local media coverage of the armed camp at the Sugar Pine Mine parroted the Oath Keepers’ talking points, even as the right-wing media maintained a constant call for more armed volunteers to show up. The result was that many locals thought the standoff involved one miner and maybe a handful of folks causing a stink, while in reality Hard Right groups and paramilitaries were being called to action from around the country. The Oath Keepers used the silence from the community as justification of their actions, saying, “Do you hear anyone complaining? We have the community’s support.”

When the Oath Keepers called a rally outside the Bureau of Land Management’s district office in Medford, Josephine County leaders considered different ways to respond. A counter-rally? What about leafleting neighborhoods? They decided on holding a press conference the day after the rally to ensure that an alternative vision and some critical questions made it into the media.

Over 20 community leaders stood on the steps of the Josephine County Courthouse in front of every newspaper and TV station in the area. Five people spoke: a local business leader, a retired dean of Rogue Community College, a faith leader, a recent transplant to the area, and a long-time resident.
The first speaker started with, “I want to acknowledge that it takes courage to be here today. One thing I think we all agree on is that we should not be afraid or intimidated within our own communities to speak to our neighbors. But that’s where we find ourselves today, and that in itself tells you that what’s happening here is wrong.”

Each speaker took the time to emphasize that there are many, many southern Oregonians working hard to make their communities a better place to live, and that it is a step backward to call for further dismantling of our services when Josephine County is already struggling to stay connected. Each shared their commitment to creating a thriving Josephine County and their vision of the community—a place where folks work together to resolve problems civilly and democratically. The conclusion was clear: let’s end this before anyone gets hurt so we can get back to solving our real problems.

Instead of letting the community hold a press conference unimpeded, the Oath Keepers arrived, including the previous sheriff, Gil Gilbertson, who was also a national leader within the Patriot movement-aligned Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association. The Oath Keepers interrupted the press conference and then followed the press conference speakers, shoving cell phones in the their faces while recording videos of the interactions, all in full view of the local media.

The speakers left the press conference galvanized. The press saw that the people who claim to defend the Constitution attempted to shut down community members trying to speak by intimidating them and shouting over them. They had described how the Oath Keepers were exploiting a local situation to advance a national agenda to recruit, make a name for themselves, and fundraise. Instead, the speakers had offered an alternative vision for the community. The Patriot movement itself saw that paramilitaries weren’t being welcomed into Josephine County as heroes, damaging the Oath Keepers’ ability to recruit supporters. Every TV station and local paper ran a story that not only covered the great points made by community members, but also the disruption by the Oath Keepers.

Other people in the community were inspired by their neighbors boldly naming their values and asked how they could help, as well as offered to write letters to the editor and attend the next meetings. Multiple letters to the editor made it into the local papers calling for neighbors to “disagree without being disagreeable,” encouraging a quick and peaceful resolution that sends the “patriots” back to their home communities, and rallying neighbors to come together to have a longer conversation about how we can create lasting change together.
Together for Josephine created a signature ad for the local paper that began,

We are Josephine County residents working to build a prosperous local economy and a safe environment in which to raise our families. We are active community members, including teachers, farmers, business owners, faith leaders and parents who love our children. Some of us have lived in this beautiful county our entire lives, while many of us have settled here after falling in love with it. We may have diverse opinions, backgrounds and experiences, but we are all privileged to call this place home.

It went on to say:

The events surrounding the Sugar Pine Mine are troubling to us, since it appears that what is in actuality a legal dispute has been construed by some individuals from outside our community as an opportunity to advance their own agenda. Now is not the time for division, fragmentation, or an “every man for himself” attitude, but rather a time for us to come together to create the Josephine County we want and need.
We support a vision of a county where:

  • All can live in safety and without fear or intimidation
  • Democracy thrives and those living in the community decide who represent and speak for us
  • Problems are resolved peacefully through negotiation and with respect for all parties involved

Please join us in making this vision a reality.

Over 100 people signed onto the signature ad within 24 hours.

Finally, after over a month of armed encampments, threats to Bureau of Land Management employees, and intimidation of community members and local elected officials, the Oath Keepers announced they were “standing down.” The Interior Board of Land Appeals issued a stay that prevents the Bureau of Land Management from enforcing its regulations until the process in court is complete, a normal procedure, which the Oath Keepers lauded as a victory. A real victory for all concerned was that there was no loss of life.

Key lessons:

  • People are frightened when they are isolated. Reaching out, bringing them into a safe place for discussion and action, and sharing information is empowering and builds community for the long haul.
  • The Patriot movement’s strategy is to speak for the local community. An organized community group can expose how this is false and change the narrative.
  • Proving that locals aren’t welcoming the paramilitaries as heroes hurts their ability to recruit and sustain their actions.

We Have Our Own Voice: Harney County’s Local Organizing and Statewide Solidarity Actions

Several people on a sidewalk hold a large sign that reads "Peace in Harney" and another that reads "We Love Malheur"
Attendees of the January 30th, 2016 Day of Action called by Rural Organizing Project in Burns, Scappoose, and Albany. (photo: Rural Organizing Project)
A group of people holding signs.  Among them, "Bundy is a terrorist," "No 2 Militia", and "Malheur is for the Birds"
Attendees of the January 30th, 2016 Day of Action called by Rural Organizing Project in Burns, Scappoose, and Albany. (photo: Rural Organizing Project)
A billboard in a snowy landscape reads "We Are HARNEY COUNTY We Have OUR OWN VOICE"
A billboard donated to Harney County features imagery of the Malheur national Wildlife Refuge including a green-tailed towhee. (Photo: Peter Walker)

Rural Oregon made national news after militia and Patriot groups from across the country descended on Harney County, which led to the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. (For more background on the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, see the Introduction to this report.)

For weeks preceding the occupation, brave Harney County residents repeatedly and publicly asked for militia and other Patriot groups to not invade their community. They held community meetings in areas where paramilitary groups refused to stop mobilizing. Local residents were even more alarmed when they saw Patriot movement activists from out of state show disturbing enthusiasm at the prospect of entering into shootouts with law enforcement. They targeted the Harney County sheriff because he was not a Patriot-aligned “constitutional sheriff,” calling for his death, harassing his family, vandalizing his wife’s vehicle, and monitoring his and his family’s movements. Even when the Hammonds, the Harney County ranchers whom the Patriot movement claimed to be supporting, publicly asked them to respect the community’s wishes, they kept on.

On January 2, 2016, a rally in downtown Burns split and an armed group of out-of-state activists, led by members of the Bundy family of Nevada, occupied the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

Harney County residents and community leaders began convening to figure out what to do next, and human dignity leaders from around the state organized in response to the occupation and calls of support coming from their communities.

Resistance from the Very Beginning

While the media reported support for the occupation by a handful of vocal locals, hundreds and hundreds of local residents raised their voices in unison: the armed outsiders need to go home NOW and they can take their tactics of threats, violence, and intimidation with them. Community meetings, led by the local county judge and sheriff, drew hundreds of people, all speaking out and calling upon the occupiers to go home. The Burns Paiute Tribe also spoke out against the occupiers and their goals.

When the Rural Organizing Project learned that paramilitaries and other Patriot groups would converge on Bend before traveling down to the Malheur occupation in Harney County, we reached out to local groups who organize for human dignity in the area. They organized a peaceful demonstration of 20 folks who “greeted” the groups and showed through the local media that some rural Oregonians have a different idea about how we solve problems in our state! They held signs reading “Build Community not Encampments,” “We are a Welcoming Community,” and “We Solve Our Problems Peacefully.”

Statewide Solidarity Actions

The Rural Organizing Project also mobilized solidarity actions with the Burns community recognizing the very real needs of those who live near the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Supporters across the state were invited to donate to the local cancer support program, Communities Assisting Neighbors with Cancer, and the Burns Paiute Tribe’s Tu-Wa-Kii-Nobi after-school “Kid’s House” program. Supporters were also asked to submit a letter to the editor or ad in the local paper expressing their community’s support for the people of Burns and against the armed occupation.

In a Day of Action called by the Rural Organizing Project on January 30, 2016, thousands of people across Oregon took to the streets to tell paramilitaries and other Patriot groups to leave Harney County and to show support for Burns county residents and the Burns Paiute Tribe. Among the communities who stood together to Free Occupied Burns were Roseburg, Prineville, Cottage Grove, Scappoose, Eugene, and Portland, joining Bend, La Grande, and Ashland, all of which held actions during previous weeks.

As one local volunteer with the Communities Assisting Neighbors with Cancer program wrote, “Words cannot express how appreciative our community is for your support. Just the mere mention of your concern brought many of my coworkers, cancer survivors, and community members to tears (and goosebumps)!”

Day of Action in Harney County

On February 1, 2016, hundreds of Harney County residents closed their businesses, took the day off from work, or showed up during their lunch breaks to stand in front of the Harney County Courthouse to make it clear that the paramilitaries were not welcome, did not represent them, and needed to leave. Three hundred and fifty people chanted a simple message to those occupying their community: “You are not our voice!” They held their ground as around 150 supporters of the occupation, the vast majority of whom were from out of town, assembled in the street. Carrying signs condemning local county commissioners and the Harney County sheriff, some people with the paramilitaries began harassing, threatening, and intimidating locals, including shouting in their faces and sticking yellow shooting targets on them. Locals stuck close together, holding the courthouse steps, chanting, drinking hot coffee provided by the local coffee shop, and exchanging stories of what the last month had been like for them.As a result of this big, bold, and loud action that directly confronted and dispelled the armed occupiers’ claim that they had local buy-in, paramilitaries and other Patriot groups struggled to keep morale up within their own ranks. The Pacific Patriots Network had called for daily rallies at the courthouse, but after a couple of events that received zero local support, out-of-towners decided to head home.

These actions and the organizing that made these actions possible created the foundation for future local organizing against the Patriot movement around the state.


January 7th, 2016

The Rural Organizing Project condemns the armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge as a publicity stunt by militia groups from outside of Oregon to further their own ideologically driven agenda. The activities of the occupiers ignore and disrespect the local community’s calls to handle the situation peacefully.

This stunt distracts from the real and pressing economic crisis that the residents of Harney County and much of rural Oregon face. Jobs have disappeared and no new economic engine has replaced the old economies based on natural resources. Public services like schools, libraries, public safety, and public transportation have been defunded for years, leaving communities without basic services. Militia groups in many parts of rural Oregon are using this crisis as an opportunity to grow and recruit new members in the vacuum left from the destabilized infrastructure, positioning themselves as alternatives to public services.

Communities who have been suffering from this economic crisis are now being subjected to an increasing atmosphere of tension and potential violence. We need to focus on meaningful investment in rebuilding public infrastructure so that the residents of Harney County have the support they need on a day-to-day basis. In a county that is so underfunded that many areas do not have reliable access to basic public services, we need real solutions for the community, not distractions.

What Happened in Harney County Should Not Surprise Oregonians

In 2015, a Josephine County domestic violence prevention advocate joined her client in court to seek a restraining order against an abusive ex-husband. The judge granted the order, and then said that he hoped the woman had a gun—because, with only one sheriff’s deputy serving the entire county, the government had no means of enforcing the order.

Following the occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge, and now more recently the investigation of Grant County Sheriff Glenn Palmer, I have heard from countless Oregonians who were surprised at the level of anger and frustration among rural Oregonians. Working in rural communities for the last 25 years, we were not. What happened in Harney County is not an isolated event, nor is it even the first such standoff to happen here within the last year. Militias and so-called patriot groups have grown in power in rural communities in Oregon, largely because of vacuum left from years of woefully underfunded public services and out-of-state groups’ successful anti-tax campaigns.

A succession of permanent funding cuts set the stage for Oregon’s rural crises. In the 1980s, Reagan eliminated federal funding programs for the working poor. In 1990, anti-tax forces won the passage of Measure 5, which fundamentally changed Oregon’s property taxes and public school funding. More recently, rural counties have lost federal timber payments after Congress failed to renew the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act.

While the economies in the Portland Metro, Eugene, and Corvallis are humming again, jobs have not bounced back in rural communities. What this means is in some rural counties 911 calls ring and ring without an answer, because rural counties can’t afford a 24-hour dispatcher. And in some communities, militias like the Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters are responding to residents’ requests for emergency services. Imagine having to decide between inviting an armed militia into your house in an emergency, or simply going without any help.

Funding public services in rural Oregon is significantly more challenging for officials. In Harney County, for example, the effective tax rate has dropped a whopping 25 percent since 1996, reducing resources that would have been used for fire, public safety, schools, and libraries.

As state leaders assess the damage done by the 41-day occupation of the wildlife refuge and reflect on how to prevent such crises in the future, it’s time our leaders create a new covenant for Oregon. Living in our state must come with a shared commitment to fund a baseline level of vital services in every Oregon county. Every Oregonian, regardless of their address, is entitled to 24-hour a day, seven-day a week 911 service with publicly funded law enforcement, public education, and a public library.

No Oregonian should have to fear that a loved one will be followed by a militiaman or worry that their 911 call will go unanswered. It’s time we usher in a new Oregon pact and end the outsized influence armed militias hold in our state.

Key Lessons:

  • Demonstrations create very clear and visible opposition to the militias, dispelling the fairy tales militia groups tell their supporters. We saw people who were recruited to come in from out of town quickly pack up and leave, frustrated because they were promised they’d be welcomed as heroes by locals.
  • Actions and support from around the state breaks isolation and shows the community most impacted that they are not alone.

Grant County Makes Its Opposition Visible

A group of people hold signs opposing the militia and the occupation of the wildlife refuge.
Anti-occupation protesters hold signs in the back of room during a town hall meeting at the senior center on Tuesday in John Day. A group of occupiers was supposed to speak at the meeting, including Ammon and Randy Bundy, before the FBI captured them on Highway 395 outside of Burns. Photo by E.J. Harris

On January 26, 2016, more than seventy Grant County residents showed up with signs to protest a meeting organized by so-called Patriot groups featuring Ammon and Ryan Bundy as well as Grant County Sheriff Glenn Palmer. The meeting was publicly billed as an informational meeting about the Constitution, though it became clear their intention was to set up a “Committee of Safety,” a shadow government that they had attempted to form in Harney County before occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. (For more context, see Section 4D, “Grant County.”)

Grant County Sheriff Glenn Palmer’s involvement as a proud member of the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association raised alarm that a similar occupation could happen in his county, with his support. Locals were already nervous about the sudden influx of visitors who shared the occupiers’ and sheriff’s ideals. Several community leaders decided they could not let this meeting go on unchallenged and put out the call for their neighbors to join them in protest. Their goal was to send a message that Grant County wouldn’t be “easy” for the Patriot movement to organize, and together they succeeded, making it clear that “Grant County says no to militias!”

As the meeting was about to begin, out of state militiamen tried barring the doors to prevent the protesters from entering the meeting hall—but after an exchange about public meeting laws, the concerned local citizens made their way inside. The protesters silently held their signs up high at the beginning of the meeting as people from Nebraska, Wyoming, Arizona, and Kansas got up to speak multiple times in support of the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, the Bundys, and against the Bureau of Land Management and various other government agencies.

Organizers and attendees of the demonstration were amazed to see how many of their neighbors felt compelled to be there and to speak out against the militia. They reached out to each other in the following days and formed a group later adopting the name Grant County Positive Action (GCPA). They came together to set priorities, including the formation of a team to research and stay on top of what the local Patriot groups are doing. GCPA, with support from the Rural Organizing Project, created a leadership team and systems to communicate with their supporters, as well as an action plan that included going to the county court (their equivalent of a county commission) to pass a resolution condemning the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

A first priority was to get county officials to make an official statement against the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupation and the arrival of armed militia groups in Grant County. In February 2016, within a week of their demonstration, GCPA members traveled to Harney County to participate in their rally on the courthouse steps, which faced 150 armed protesters with various paramilitary groups and their sympathizers. The Patriot movement’s affront to Harney County and their elected officials spurred GCPA to pursue a strong statement against the spread of Patriot movement presence into their own communities.

Immediately, GCPA began to attend several county court sessions to relay the intimidation they experienced in Harney County and at the January 26, 2016 meeting, and to ask the commissioners to pass a resolution. The county court drafted and, after three contentious county court sessions, passed the resolution unanimously.

The Patriot movement activists’ next move was to run their own candidate to replace a sitting commissioner. This came as a major blow and a wake-up call for the broader community that had not yet been aware of the external forces acting within the county. GCPA had been investing time in the gradually successful process of educating their neighbors about who was operational in local politics. They created a paid for ad to introduce GCPA to county residents, modeled after Together for Josephine’s signature ad. They started a letters to the editor campaign in their county newspaper. They also scheduled group members to attend and report back on all public meetings, as well as meetings sponsored by Patriot groups who began bringing national spokespeople to Grant County.

In the midst of these actions, Patriot movement groups filed a recall petition against a county commissioner after campaigning hard for 90 days and gathering over 500 signatures. The targeted commissioner chose to not contest the recall and instead let the voters have a say; if the recall were to be defeated, it would send a clear message to those working so diligently to change the sitting county court.

GCPA decided to play a role in the No Recall campaign. They soon learned they needed to register as a political action committee and established a working relationship with the Oregon Secretary of State Office Election Division in Salem so they could follow the election laws and guidelines. GCPA took a role in the vote count process by training and volunteering members to oversee the count. This provided reassurance and support to the county clerk who felt under attack by Patriot movement petition circulators. Additionally, the Harney County clerk chose to come and help observe as a support to Grant County’s clerk. Both of these actions helped to thwart threatening efforts to challenge the vote counting process.

Happily, the recall of the Grant County commissioner was strongly defeated two-to-one. It was a win for democracy and GCPA!

GCPA’s impact was fast and profound in the community. In just a few short months, they raised awareness in the community, shared information so their neighbors could also critically analyze what Patriot groups were saying, and informed the media about why they opposed the Patriot movement coming to town. They successfully shifted the public conversation! Their efforts made it impossible for anyone to think that Grant County unanimously supported their local sheriff and the Patriot movement. What once appeared to national Patriot movement leadership as an “easy” county to take over now became known for its significant, organized resistance to their plans.

Some of their activities included:

  • Consistent presence at county court and city council meetings, public events, and meetings where they publicly condemned the tactics of the Patriot movement.
  • Presenting evidence to county court of the threatening and intimidating letters that residents from Harney County received, revealing the undemocratic and abusive activity that comes to town along with the Patriot movement.
  • Dozens of letters to the editor.
  • Tracking Patriot group activities in Grant County and sharing information via an email list that served as a clearinghouse for news, updates on local organizing, and action alerts.
  • A public declaration of group values through an ad in the local paper.

Key Lessons:

  • Immediate public opposition to Patriot movement activity sends a message that the community will not be easy to organize or to speak for.
  • Using multiple strategies, including engaging the county court and organizing public demonstrations, builds support and credibility across the community.
  • Forming a group creates structure for many people to help make short and long-term plans, actions, and campaigns successful.

Building Community in Baker County: An Electoral Strategy

In February 2016, supporters of the armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge called for a “Rural Lives Matter” rally in Halfway, a small community of just a few hundred residents in Baker County. The rally was organized to memorialize armed occupier Robert “LaVoy” Finicum, who had been killed by police at a roadblock while traveling from the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge to Grant County for a public meeting. The rally attracted several dozen supporters, many from out of town, who listened to speeches by Baker County Commissioners and a deputy in the sheriff’s department who would likely be challenging the current sheriff for his seat.

Community members were shocked to learn of the rally and became afraid they might be the next center of Patriot movement organizing. Inspired by those in neighboring Harney and Grant counties who had taken action, concerned residents held a living room discussion with a dozen folks who shared their concerns to discuss their options. They decided to form the Panhandle Community Alliance.

Panhandle Community Alliance members wrote letters to the editor challenging the ideology of the Patriot movement, and called on community members to support ideas and candidates which brought the community together.

One of the most prominent of the dozens of Patriot-aligned candidates in Oregon’s May 2016 primary was Kody Justus, coordinator of the Baker County Oath Keepers, who was running for county commissioner. Panhandle Community Alliance members visited the county election office to learn more about vote spreads during past county commission races and to gather voter registration lists. By studying the numbers of votes cast in previous county commission races, Panhandle Community Alliance would be able to make a calculated guess on how many would be needed to win this election. What they learned is that county commission elections can be decided by several dozen votes, making it doable for their group to engage voters and make a difference the outcome.

Panhandle Community Alliance members explicitly decided not to campaign for a specific candidate, but instead used the meet-and-greets and voter conversations to have deeper conversations about the issues and the candidates. They reached out to their neighbors, holding conversations about the upcoming election and explaining what was at stake. Meet-and-greets served as a space where neighbors could come together and directly ask the candidates what they stood for, or stood against. Panhandle Community Alliance’s friends and allies in neighboring Baker City took on a similar electoral strategy and communicated with several hundred voters.

When the votes came in, Justus, the Oath Keepers’ candidate, lost the election by 38 votes. The Panhandle Community Alliance had engaged 45 people in their voter conversations.

Key Lessons:

  • An electoral strategy to challenge Patriot candidates can be as simple as talking to your neighbors. In small towns and rural communities where a small number of votes can determine the outcome of elections, even just a few conversations can have a huge impact.
  • In elections, numbers matter. Use data from previous election cycles and voter lists (both available at your county courthouse) to determine the number of votes you need to win and who to reach out to.

Responding to Militia Recruitment in Urban Oregon: Lane County Mobilizes

July 2015 flyer in Eugene sought to recruit a new militia group.
July 2015 flyer in Eugene sought to recruit a new militia group.

One common misconception about the paramilitaries and broader Patriot movement is that it is a strictly rural phenomenon. In our experience, many of the armed supporters who mobilize from out of state come from urban or suburban areas, and some of the strongest paramilitary organizing is happening in and surrounding Oregon’s urban centers. Eugene, Oregon’s third largest city, has seen some of the most explicitly violent militia recruiting in the state.

In July 2015, a number of West Eugene residents woke up to these flyers slid under their doors, in their mail slots, and on their car windshields:

The flyers announce a meeting, in the parking lot of a nearby church, for “Any willing to fight, politically, and physically” to “discuss how to fight against the destruction of our…rights, and tyranny. This is a militia.”

The Rural Organizing Project worked with the Community Alliance of Lane County (CALC), our local member group, to call neighborhood organizations to learn more details. We spoke to staff at the church who said the militia recruiter had called them to invite them to the meeting in their own parking lot, and the church staff informed the militia recruiter that they had called the police. At the militia’s meeting later that week, only two people showed up: a Eugene police officer and someone who wanted to disrupt the gathering.

Meanwhile, we were doing outreach to hold a community response meeting hosted by CALC. We deliberately chose to hold the meeting in a private location where we could ask people to leave if they disrupted it. We sent an email announcement to our area supporters, the city’s Office of Human Rights & Neighborhood Involvement, county and city officials, and the area’s neighborhood associations. People were shocked and outraged when they saw the flyer, and soon thousands of people had seen and shared the community meeting information on Facebook.

Threats began to pour in over email. People said that we would be “straightened out” for talking bad about “Patriots.” It was clear they intended to scare us into cancelling the meeting. We reached out to organizers who had experience doing work to counter neo-Nazi organizing in Oregon in the 1980s and 1990s. They gave us the following advice:

  • Notify the police and ask them to have a presence at our meeting.
  • Put out an announcement as quickly as possible that explains that threats were received, that we requested a police presence, and make clear that anyone with a weapon will be asked to leave immediately.
  • Videotape the meeting so any bad behavior is caught on tape.
  • Close down the meeting if it is disrupted or hijacked.

We jumped into action, emailing everyone we could think of about the threats and offering an invitation-only meeting opportunity if they didn’t feel comfortable attending. We requested that Veterans for Peace offer security and they agreed, lining up several people with a few hours’ notice. The Eugene Police Department offered to have an officer in his vehicle stationed outside of the meeting location.

We set up an hour before the announced meeting time. While the police officer caught up on his paperwork in his car stationed outside, the Veterans for Peace volunteers, wearing their signature shirts, warmly greeted people inside, engaging in conversations with folks they didn’t know to learn more about them. Two security volunteers were posted at the door, asking participants to sign in and completely fill out all contact information, including address, email, and phone number, before entering. If anyone seemed nervous or agitated, security had a conversation with them before letting them in. Participants who had heard about the threats appreciated the eye toward security. Several men no one recognized approached the venue with their chests puffed out; they saw security and decided to turn around and leave instead of engaging with us.

The meeting was tense. Despite the best attempts of a few people to derail the conversation, we were able to share what we had learned so far and what we did not know. We came up with a plan to go door-to-door in the impacted neighborhood with flyers that read “Hate Free Zone” and included a hotline number to report discrimination, intimidation, or hate crimes. Many of the community groups in the room decided to also take action, building up stronger networks, intentionally reaching out to churches and other faith leaders, and brainstorming community building events to bring neighbors together.

Over the next two weeks, two teams of six-to-ten people canvassed the neighborhood, knocking on doors in pairs. Going door-to-door served another critical function: to learn more about what people were seeing in the neighborhood more generally as well as details about the militia’s flyering.
To create the most visibility and exposure possible, we also called the local news stations and newspapers. The evening news included interviews with residents describing how disturbed they were that an explicitly violent militia was trying to recruit them and clearly naming that those were not their neighborhood’s values. The final story told by the media was of a neighborhood building inclusive community instead of accepting the politics of fear of rejection manifesting in a violent militia.

Key Lessons:

  • The Patriot movement is not just a rural phenomenon.
  • Having obvious security at an event can deter opponents from coming in and disrupting it.
  • Door-to-door flyering sends a simple and clear message: militia organizing in this neighborhood is not welcome.
  • A simple press plan will amplify your message and your strategy.