Patriot Movement Paramilitaries in Oregon
Spencer Sunshine, PhD, Associate Fellow at Political Research Associates
This is an expanded version of a talk given at the Rural Organizing Project’s Rural Caucus and Strategy Session in Woodburn, Oregon on June 13, 2015.
The Patriot Movement: From Posse Comitatus to the Oath Keepers
In April 2015, armed right-wing paramilitaries converged on a mining claim in the Galice Mining District near Grants Pass in Josephine County, Oregon. Organizationally, it was a combination of different parts of what is called the Patriot movement: militias, 3%ers, Sovereign Citizens, and the Oath Keepers.
The Patriot movement is a form of extreme right politics that exists between the Tea Party end of the Republican Party and the white supremacist movement.* Generally those in the Patriot movement view the current U.S. federal government as an illegitimate, totalitarian state. They see the militias that they are building—and allied county sheriffs—as political-military formations that will eventually replace much of the current federal government.
Many of their movement’s tactics originate in white supremacist politics, mixed with ideas derived from anti-Communist conspiracy theories of the John Birch Society. According to Daniel Levitas, the group that first espoused many of the basic Patriot concepts was Posse Comitatus, whose founder, William Potter Gale, was a member of the racist Christian Identity religion. In the 1960s, he started to advocate Posse Comitatus (power of the county), based on the idea that the county sheriff is the highest elected law enforcement officer. Gale thought that, in the post-Civil Rights era, the federal government was a totalitarian state run by a cabal of Jews. “County power” would allow people to ignore Supreme Court decisions and federal laws about civil rights and income tax, and allow a return to white supremacy and unfettered capitalism, free from federal regulations. Posse Comitatus also advocated for armed citizens’ militias and crank legal filings, which set the foundation for the formation of militias and Sovereign Citizen ideas, respectively. In 1976, the FBI estimated there were 12,000–50,000 Posse members.
The militia movement formed in the early 1990s. It was focused on conspiracy theories about a global New World Order, black helicopters, and a coming United Nations invasion. Many of these ideas had their origins in antisemitic conspiracy theories about a secret global elite that was conspiring to subvert national autonomy. These New World Order theories no longer named Jews as the active agents of the global conspiracy, but they used the same framework—thereby harnessing the emotional power of the older antisemitic narratives.
White supremacists were deeply involved in the militia movement from the beginning. Racist leaders Louis Beam and Richard Butler (an early Posse member, who also founded Aryan Nations) were present at the 1992 Estes Park, Colorado gathering, a key meeting in the founding of the modern militia movement. White supremacists helped create the militia movement’s structure and public presentation, seeing this as a way to mainstream some of their ideas. They downplayed open racism and cast the federal government as the main problem, as part of an alliance with gun advocates and other right-wing activists such as right libertarians and Christian Right activists who embraced conspiracy theories about “big government” tyranny and political repression. For example, one of the early influential militia organizers was Linda Thompson, an attorney from Indiana, who was not a White supremacist but rather a libertarian.
The government standoffs, both with white separatists at Ruby Ridge in 1992, as well as the 1993 Waco siege, inspired the militias and their movement grew quickly. In the broadest sense it included up to five million people who agreed with its theories, and in the mid-1990s there were 20,000–60,000 active militia members. However, the militias got a bad reputation after Timothy McVeigh (who was part of their neo-Nazi-influenced wing) and Terry Nichols (who was not), killed 168 in the 1995 bombing of Oklahoma City’s Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. After 2000, the militias went into eclipse.
During George W. Bush’s terms the Patriot movement was small; he did not fit the movement’s Manchurian Candidate narrative of a leader who was a sleeper agent for a foreign power, plotting treason against his nation. Obama’s election in 2008 fit nicely, however—with the “birther” conspiracies and accusations that he is a secret Muslim—and the Patriot movement had a sudden resurgence. In 2012, there was a growth spurt in reaction to new discussions of gun control after the Aurora, Colorado and Sandy Hook massacres. There was both a revival of the older Patriot forms and the emergence of new groups: the 3%ers were co-founded by militia veteran Mike Vanderboegh in 2008, and the Oath Keepers were established by Stewart Rhodes in 2009. The focus of this newly revived Patriot movement shifted from global conspiracy theories back to the federal government—a return to Posse Comitatus’s conception.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), there were 874 Patriot groups in 2014; this was down from a peak of 1,360 groups in 2012. Oregon mirrored the national trend. Before Obama’s election 2008, the SPLC reported that there were five or six groups; in 2011 and 2012, this jumped to thirty-one, but in 2013 dropped to seventeen.
Since the 2009 revival, many of the new Patriot movement groups have tried to distance themselves from direct ties to white supremacists, despite some groups being still mired in racism. Even an article on the Josephine County Oath Keepers website admits this, saying “it cannot be argued that there aren’t some very bad people out there forming ‘militias’ based on hatred, bigotry or other negative philosophies” (however, the writers exclude themselves and their affiliated groups from this). I would also like to stress that there are Patriot movement members who are people of color. So while those of us on the left may consider the politics of many Patriot groups to be implicitly racist, with exceptions they are not explicitly so.
The Oath Keepers were founded by Rhodes, a former Ron Paul aide whose connections helped mainstream the group as a libertarian faction. They are a membership-based organization (which in 2014 claimed to have 40,000 members) that recruits current and former members of the military, police, firefighters, and first responders. The organization asks members to disobey orders they believe are unconstitutional. While this position sounds unobjectionable, what it actually means is deeply problematic. The Oath Keepers’ ten point “Orders We Will Not Obey” illustrates their extreme right-wing views. They 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. These are the same paranoid conspiracy theories that have circulated since the early 1960s when the John Birch Society made them staples of the extreme right. In over half a century (including six years of the Obama administration), not a single one has come to pass—but this has not lessened these stories’ effectiveness in mobilizing the extreme right.
In the last few years, the group has moved towards having an active paramilitary wing: they have held armed marches in Texas; deployed armed members to Ferguson, the Bundy Ranch, and Josephine County; and have formed Community Preparedness Teams, which include armed members. (In July 2014, they also sent members to Murietta, California to block buses transporting immigrants who had been detained, although not as an armed action.) Despite this, the Oath Keepers are the most mainstream of the Patriot groups, and they often intentionally soft-sell their actual politics.
The 3%ers share an almost identical ideology to the Oath Keepers, but they were developed as a more decentralized form of militias (which are thought to be heavily infiltrated by the federal government). Their name refers to the percentage of colonists who supposedly took up guns during the American Revolution. While 3%er is a kind of political identity—anyone can claim the label—there are a series of local and national organizations. This group is fixated on gun issues and is very extreme in its approach. Many 3%ers believe the time to fight the federal government is almost here.
Last of the Patriot movement groupings are the Sovereign Citizens, whose telltale marks are all over prior legal filings by members of the Galice Mining District, the group that actually called the Oath Keepers in to Josephine County. Sovereigns come directly out of Posse ideology, which held that African-Americans are not full citizens because the Fourteenth Amendment (which established citizenship for everyone born in the United States, including freed slaves) is not legitimate. One writer says, “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.” They have created their own their parallel government courts and juries, where they try individuals and can sentence them to death—which has included elected officials who have crossed their path. All of this is based on a completely fictitious argument regarding how Constitutional law works. Sovereigns have been involved in numerous armed confrontations with police, especially since the Patriot movement revival. In 2011 the SPLC estimated there were 100,000 “hard-core sovereign believers,” with twice as many sympathizers.
There are direct connections between the 1990s militias and the current Patriot movement. In January 2012, militia veteran and former sheriff Richard Mack—who has worked directly with white supremacists, and is also on the Oath Keepers board—formed a new group called the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA), which is formally affiliated with the Oath Keepers. In 2013, twenty-one Oregon sheriffs were listed on the CSPOA website as sheriff who upheld the Constitution and supported the Second Amendment, although only fourteen of them are still in office.**
Nationally, some of these ideas are starting to mainstream into the state legislatures. In Oregon, both Rhodes and Vanderboegh went to Salem for a May 30, 2015, “I Will Not Comply” rally, and spoke alongside state-level elected representatives in opposition to Senate Bill 941, which requires background checks for private gun sales. In 2010, Vanderboegh called for throwing bricks through Democratic Party office windows—a call that was acted on. In May 2015, Rhodes (while speaking to a crowd that included the Arizona state Senate president) called for Senator John McCain to be tried for treason and executed. One is led to wonder about Oregon’s Republican officials—like State Representatives Mike Nearman and Bill Post, and State Senator Kim Thatcher—who are willing to appear on the same platform as Patriot movement activists who call for violent acts against their legislative colleagues.
What we saw in Josephine County was the miners—themselves involved in a group filing legal work with Sovereign Citizen markings—calling in various parts of the Patriot movement for armed muscle, including the Oath Keepers, militias, and 3%ers. Last year, many Patriot movement activists went to Cliven Bundy’s ranch in Nevada to support his refusal to pay fees for grazing his animals on federal land; they established an armed camp and snipers trained weapons on federal agents. The Oath Keepers wanted to make the Josephine mine a re-run of the Bundy Ranch, but this time under their organization’s total control. In fact, some of the same people from Bundy went to Josephine to participate.
Right-Wing Organizing and Land-Use Struggles in Oregon
Oregon has a long and deep history of extreme right and far right organizing. The state had racial exclusion laws in the nineteenth century and elected a Klan-backed governor in the 1920s. In the 1930s, hundreds of Oregonians belonged to the pro-Nazi Silver Shirts organization, while in the 1940s, Oregonians of Japanese descent were sent to internment camps. In the 1970s, a Portland veteran of the Silver Shirts, Henry Lamont “Mike” Beach, became the most important publicist for Posse Comitatus. Chapters were established in a half-dozen counties, including Lane County, and in 1976 Posse members briefly took over a farm in Stanfield, Oregon.
In the late 1980s, the state was a center for the Nazi skinhead movement. In 1988, Nazi skinheads affiliated with Tom Metzger’s White Aryan Resistance murdered Ethiopian immigrant Mulugeta Seraw in Southeast Portland. White supremacists, including the Aryan Nations, cooked up the Northwest Imperative—a plan to turn several Northwest states, including Oregon, into a white ethnostate. In 1995, Aryan Nations’ plans to make Josephine County the center of an organizing drive were cancelled after an anti-racist march in Grants Pass drew 1,500. In 2010, one of the post-Butler Aryan Nations factions tried to move its headquarters to John Day, Oregon; but this, too, was scrapped after strong local opposition, aided by the Rural Organizing Project (ROP).
The homophobic, Christian Right group Oregon Citizens Alliance was active in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and pushed several state, county, and city referendums, including Measure 9—the opposition to which led to the formation of ROP. Oregon also had its share Patriot groups in the 1990s.
There is also a history of land-use struggles in rural Oregon. Small-town wealth started to dry up in the 1970s and never recovered. In 2007, timber payments were $280 million, but in 2014 were only around $100 million, and will end in two years. Ongoing struggles, especially since the 1990s, over water, forests, and other natural resources have pitted a variety of groups—including Native tribes, environmentalists, and federal agencies—against those on the right who seek to engage in the unregulated exploitation of the environment without larger social or environmental obligations. Patriot groups are often involved in these land-use struggles, including the 2001 Klamath Water Crisis, which militia groups supported and also featured a personal appearance by Mack.
The presence of armed Patriot movement organizing in Josephine County exists in relation to both the deep history of extreme right organizing in Oregon around social issues, and broader fights for unrestricted land use.
Some progressives have sympathies for the Oath Keepers and see them as something like a veterans group that opposes invasive federal rule. One reason for this position is that the Patriot movement often uses producerist narratives.
Producerism is the idea that real worth comes from “productive capital” (concrete labor, like farming or manufacturing) but not “unproductive capital” (abstract labor, such as financial dealings). Producerists scapegoat minority groups, which can be either marginalized or elite—so both the “undeserving poor” and “international bankers” are condemned. (In fact, these can often be code words for people of color on one hand, and Jews on the other.) But if you listen only to the anti-elitist rhetoric—attacking Wall Street banks and international trade deals—it sounds similar to progressive views.
It is a deeply mistaken approach to unproblematically join forces with these political groups. At Political Research Associates we call this the “sucker punch”—progressives are taken in by rhetoric that seems to match their beliefs without realizing that the true aims of these extreme right groups are to dismantle social gains and reestablish an extremely conservative society that will have clear racial, gender, and sexual hierarchies.
Why This Is Important
What has happened in Josephine County is not just a local issue with some kooky miners. It is a canary in the coalmine. At the end of May 2015, neo-Nazi skinheads showed up in Olympia to publicly support a police officer who shot two young, unarmed black men. The fact that both Nazi and armed Patriot groups are able to mount these brazen public displays seems to show that this is a fertile time for extreme right-wing activism.
All of this is also in the context of an increasing tendency for right-wing activists to brandish firearms in order to intimidate their opponents. A few years ago in the Southwest, the Minuteman Project formed a vigilante border patrol, drawing support from Oregon elected officials. Although the group has since folded, it has been followed by other, smaller groups—some of whose members drove up to Josephine County to join the armed camps. In Arizona, armed right-wing groups have shown up to both Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter protests to intimidate them, and more recently, hundreds of armed Islamophobes rallied outside a mosque. (Imagine the outrage if this had happened outside a church or synagogue!) The ability of Patriot movement factions to conduct public, armed actions in Oregon shows how extensive their base of support is, and how weak the opposition is.
The federal government will not take care of this problem. It is widely seen that, since the debacles at Ruby Ridge and Waco in the 1990s, the feds have a long-standing policy not to engage in open confrontation with Patriot groups—although they do monitor them closely. The feds only intervene when they think there is going to be an assassination or bombing.
Although the Oath Keepers do stand up for privacy rights, on practically every other progressive metric they are bad news. Under their influence, systemic racism will continue as it is or get worse. They are deeply anti-immigrant. Armed with climate change denialism and fierce opposition to federal environmental laws, they will not help us deal with the rapidly degenerating environmental situation. Since the Patriot movement’s economic answers are to advocate for more capitalism, economic insecurity and wealth disparity will only increase if their ideas are implemented.
I urge ROP members to take this situation very seriously and see it for what it is: right-wing paramilitaries brandishing weapons in public settings, successfully intimidating the federal government, and winning people to their agenda of returning our society to one dominated by an extreme right-wing mindset. You cannot let this go unchecked.
You have a big task in front of you. You need to halt their advance, turn back their movement, and win the rural areas to a progressive agenda. On one hand, Oregon’s Patriot movement is organized and has momentum. On the other, you have ROP, which is perhaps a unique organization in the country, and a network of people all over who are willing to help you.
* There is no consensus on the meaning of terms like extreme right, far right, and radical right. This essay uses the term “far right” to refer to political actors who explicitly ground their perspective in racial or ethnonationalist claims, and “extreme right” to describe political movements that are radically opposed to the present system, but whose opposition is not centered in racism/ethnonationalism. The Patriot movement has far right elements in it, but exists primarily on the extreme right today.
** The CSPOA website, updated as of June 27, 2015, lists twenty-one Oregon county sheriffs; however ROP researchers showed that seven of these sheriffs were no longer in office. Current Oregon CSPOA sheriffs include: Tom Bergin (Clatsop), Jeff Dickerson (Columbia), Craig Zanni (Coos), Jim Hensley (Crook), Larry Blanton (Deschutes), John Hanlin (Douglas), Glenn E. Palmer (Grant), Frank Skrah (Klamath), Brian Wolfe (Malheur), Jason Myers (Marion), Bob Wolfe (Polk), Boyd Rasmussen (Union), Steve Rogers (Wallowa), and Pat Garrett (Washington). Myers is also president of the Oregon State Sheriffs’ Association, while Palmer is on the CSPOA Council of Sheriffs, Peace Officers and Public Officials.
CSPOA lists the following seven sheriffs who are no longer in office: Mitchell Southwick (Baker), John Bishop (Curry), Mike Winters (Jackson), Gil Gilbertson (Josephine), Phillip McDonald (Lake), Tim Mueller (Linn), and Jack Crabtree (Yamhill).
Last, it should also be noted that there are other Oregon sheriffs using similar language to the CSPOA but who are not listed.
For Further Reading:
See PRA’s “Patriot Movement Resource List” at http://politicalresearch.org/
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Spencer Sunshine, PhD, is an associate fellow at Political Research Associates.