[Cross-posted at Hatewatch.]
Waving American flags and several large black banners emblazoned with their movement’s “III% Idaho” logo, a crowd of about 100 like-minded antigovernment extremists crowded onto the steps of the Idaho Capitol in Boise to protest the state’s ongoing program to help resettle Muslim refugees from Syria.
“Now, refugees coming from Islamic hotbeds of terrorism, don’t you think that poses a threat to Idaho communities?” shouted III% of Idaho spokesman Chris McIntire into a bullhorn.
“YEAH!!!!” shouted the gathered protesters.
Across the street, however, a slightly smaller crowd of about seventy counter-protesters gathered in a park facing the Capitol steps. And their message was clear from the large banner they unfurled: “We Welcome All Refugees to Boise.”
That group was organized by members of the local Interfaith Alliance, and came together more or less spontaneously in the days before the gathering. Other signs read: “Idaho is Too Great to Hate” and “Love One Another."
Their presence clearly got under the skin of the “III Percenters.” At one point, McIntire’s rant against the refugees was interrupted by a loud cheer from the crowd across the street. Seemingly annoyed, he flicked on the siren on his bullhorn, which evoked a cheer from his compatriots. Throughout the rest of his speech, he kept referring to “those on the other side.”
Brandon Curtiss, president of III% of Idaho, directed his ire at the counter-protesters. “This isn’t some made-up crap we’re spewing out here, like they’re leading you to believe across the way. Are we racist?” he shouted.
“No!!!” the crowd responded.
“Look among our crowd at how many diverse people are in here,” Curtiss continued. “All colors, races, creeds, and religions are here. Do you see racists?”
“No!!!!” cried the crowd.
“That’s what they want you to believe over there,” Curtiss said. “But that’s not what we do. We stand for our rights!” Another cheer.
“And it ain’t gonna happen on three percent of Idaho’s watch!”
The object of their ire was the College of Southern Idaho’s refugee resettlement program, which has been helping people fleeing war- and conflict-torn countries resettle in the Twin Falls, Idaho, area for some 30 years. In recent months, as word spread that the program planned to take in several hundred refugees from Syria’s bloody civil war, resistance to the program has become a hot political topic in the Magic Valley, much of it reflective of the recent nationwide tide of Islamophobia.
“The refugee program poses several risks,” McIntire declared to the crowd on Sunday. “I understand the sentiment about being a humanitarian effort, however, the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation have stated numerous times that the refugees coming in from Syria and other failed states cannot be properly vetted. That means that their identities cannot be properly verified.”
Indeed, federal authorities have identified gaps in the ability to complete background checks on Syrian refugees, but despite coverage from right-wing media suggesting that they pose a security risk, the reality is that these refugees will receive an extraordinary amount of screening before entering the U.S. relocation program. One study found that while the concerns about terrorism might be legitimate, the reasons for fear are wildly exaggerated, and in fact only fuel the potential for real terrorism further down the road.
Jan Reeves, director of the Idaho Office of Refugees – which oversees the state’s four resettlement agencies (including CSI’s) – explained to the Idaho Statesman that it’s difficult to assure people about security because the checks on refugees are confidential.
“It’s hard to convince people that they’re adequate and will prevent the wrong people from having access to the refugee program without being able to be specific about what those checks entail,” he said.
That hasn't assured the “III Percenters,” which first made their presence felt in the controversy over the refugee program when they organized a march in Twin Falls on Oct. 17, which drew several dozen participants.
At that march, Curtiss explained the group’s rationale for becoming involved in the issue in an interview with the antigovernment website The Voice of Idaho.
“That’s what we want to do, we want to take care of Idahoans first, and we are tired of them taking the dwindling resources we already have for the state of Idaho, and funneling that over to refugee programs to help these guys coming in here, and ignoring our Idaho citizens – our homeless, our veterans, our students that need help here first. We’re not against refugees, what we’re saying is, we need a better process,” he told TVOI’s Michael Emry.
“They’re draining our dwindling resources that’s already in place and not looking out for Idahoans first, or U.S. citizens for that matter,” he added.
At Sunday’s gathering, McIntire similarly complained about the lack of funding for veterans and the homeless, as well as student loans. “We need to strengthen our communities before we invite individuals who cannot be properly identified,” he insisted.
One of the chief complaints of the “III Percenters” is the claim that such terrorist organizations as the Islamic State (ISIS) have vowed to manipulate the refugee crisis by placing “sleeper” terrorists among their ranks.
“Now, there are many terrorist organizations out there who have stated numerous times that they will manipulate the refugee crisis to spread radical Islam,” McIntire told the crowd on Sunday. “We are seeing this in Europe. We have seen it for the past several months, where refugees are rioting in the streets, they are waving Islamic flags, they are praying to Allah, they are demanding Sharia law, which includes the second-class treatment of women!”
“Not in Idaho! Not in Idaho!” replied the crowd.
Across the street, the reaction was very different. “I just couldn’t believe that these people were claiming that these refugees who are fleeing from ISIS were actually ISIS terrorists,” said one of the counter-protesters, a woman dressed in a Muslim headscarf, gesturing at the interfaith supporters. “I’m glad to see people stand up that kind of insanity.”
The main source for this claim is Brigitte Gabriel of ACT! for America, an extremist anti-Muslim group. A video of a Gabriel speech to the Family Resource Council (an anti-LGBT hate group) in which she makes describes a Muslim plan for a takeover of the United States is promoted on the TVOI site, and cited at 3% of Idaho’s Facebook page.
Indeed, despite the III Percenters’ outspoken insistence that they’re not an extremist organization, much of the substance of their dubious claims about the refugee program has extremist origins. Given the group’s history to date, that’s perfectly in keeping with their antigovernment “Patriot” background.
The Idaho group is only the local affiliate of a broader (though hardly numerous) national movement that takes its name from the notion that only 3 percent of the people living in the colonies took part in the American Revolution – thus, the name is intended to invoke the would-be combatants in a “second American Revolution,” as its proponents like to proclaim.
The movement is largely the brainchild of Michael Vanderboegh, the onetime militiaman who in recent years has been specializing in incendiary rhetoric supporting the notion that any attempts at federal gun control will spark a new civil war, or better yet, a new revolution.
Indeed, just about any kind of federal action inspires such warnings from Vanderboegh. “The health care law carries … the hard steel fist of government violence at the center,” he declared after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act. “If we refuse to obey, we will be fined. If we refuse to pay the fine, we will in time be jailed. If we refuse to report meekly to jail, we will be sent for by armed men. And if we refuse their violent invitation at the doorsteps of our own homes we will be killed — unless we kill them first.”
He also freely suggests imminent violence. A 2012 post at his blog, Sipsey Street Irregulars, titled “Vote,” advised going to the polls but added: “At least later on you can say you tried everything else before you were forced to shoot people in righteous self-defense of life and liberty.”
In the past year, the III Percenters have formed an open alliance with the similarly extremist Oath Keepers, especially as Vanderboegh has shown up at anti-gun-control protests in Washington state and elsewhere, giving speeches in which he threatens violent revolt. The alliance originated at the Bundy Ranch standoff in April 2014, where the Oath Keepers and “III Percenters” joined arms in what became an internal revolt at the encampment in Nevada. (One of the hangers-on at the Bundy Camp, Jared Miller, listed the “Three Percenter Nation” as a favorite on his Facebook page sometime before he and his wife went on a murderous cop-killing rampage in Las Vegas two months after the standoff.)
Brandon Curtiss and his band of Idaho “Patriots” have played a large role in solidifying that alliance. In April of this year, Curtiss and several of his compatriots participated in an Oath Keepers “call to action” in southwestern Oregon, supporting a pair of local mine owners who claimed the Bureau of Land Management was threatening to destroy their property.
Curtiss and several members of his group participated in a protest outside BLM offices in Medford, and he was present when a group of local Oath Keepers showed up to harass a group of local citizens who were concerned about the presence of the militiamen bristling with guns in their community.
Joining Curtiss in Medford was a noteworthy figure from the Bundy Ranch: Eric “EJ” Parker, a Nevada native who now lives in central Idaho. Parker was notorious for having been photographed aiming his sniper rifle at federal agents from a nearby freeway at the height of tensions during the standoff. At one point, Curtiss, Parker and mine owner Rick Barclay posed for a shot of the three men flipping off the camera in what was apparently a message aimed at local media in Oregon, which Curtiss posted on Facebook.
Parker was present at Sunday’s rally in Boise, standing on the steps just to McIntire’s right and leading the applause whenever possible.
Curtiss’ organization has participated in other “Patriot” protests, notably driving up to Lincoln, Mont., to participate in another would-be Bundy-style standoff with the federal government (this time the U.S. Forest Service) over mining rights. Much like the Oregon “standoff,” it largely went away with a whimper after it became clear the miners were indeed receiving their full due process under the law. The Idaho “III Percenters” also participated in a nationwide “call-out” to patrol military-recruitment stations, showing up at a mall in Boise with their long arms.
Despite this background, Curtiss and McIntire insist that their group has no extremism in their agenda.
“Our voice needs to be heard,” Curtiss told Emry in his Twin Falls interview. “We need to be clear here: We’re not doing this because we hate the refugees, we’re not racists or anything like that. We believe they need help. But there needs to be a process in place, and we need to be sure we have the resources available to help them, and that they go through proper vetting and security-type program before they come in here. So we know who they are. And right now there’s no system in place.”
Those reassurances did little to persuade their opposition across the street Sunday, particularly a small cluster of black-clad young anarchists, some of whom wore face masks, and who screamed loudly at the “Patriots” as they attempted to close their rally with an off-tune rendition of the national anthem. They had taken up a position at an adjoining park across the street from the Interfaith gathering, next to the crossing the marchers would have to use to depart the Capitol.
Curtiss took to his bullhorn to denounce them as “cowards” before reminding his troops not to respond to them as they filed past them on the way back to the park where their march originated. And most of the marchers remained muted as they walked in close proximity past the black-clad youngsters, who flipped them off silently.
Curtiss, in turn, couldn’t resist hitting the button on his bullhorn’s screeching siren as he walked past them. But a couple of other men wearing “III% Idaho” gear stood nearby reminding everyone: “Let’s keep it professional, folks.”
A handful of the Interfaith protesters lingered afterward, talking among themselves about the need to organize well for such events. “I think they got our message,” said one of the organizers afterward.
“The Three Percenters aren’t finding especially fertile ground in Boise for their anti-refugee message,” Jan Reeves of the Office for Refugees told Hatewatch afterward. “There’s a solid base of support for refugee resettlement here, and in Twin Falls as well. And the spontaneous turnout on Sunday to quietly oppose their radical agenda is testimony to that.”