November 16, 2009

CNN's Jim Acosta this morning filed the first part of a three-part report on the return of the militia movement, something we've been tracking regularly here at C&L.

The piece, unfortunately, is like a lot of mainstream reportage on the movement -- that is to say, reporters "parachute" in to a location (in this case, southeastern Michigan) and provide a facile report that's about toe deep in content. As with so many such reports, it's typically susceptible to swallowing whole the mythology that militia members like to toss up for mainstream consumption.

In this case, Acosta willingly transmits the main purpose of the militia movement -- which is to say, remaking genuinely extremist belief systems as mainstream and legitimate. Lee Miracle, the Michigan group's leader, is portrayed as just a gee-shucks ordinary guy concerned about his constitutional rights.

But then there were the other members, and it was clear there was the usual undertow of unhinged paranoia present -- along with clear statements that they were motivated by fear of a Democratic president, and particularly Obama:

ACOSTA (voice-over): Training for what depends on who you ask, but this militia member, who didn't want to give his last name, worries the government will eventually take away his gun rights.

"BRIAN", SOUTHEAST MICHIGAN VOLUNTEER MILITIA: Well, any time we get a Democratic president in the office, people become concerned, including myself and we get a resurgence out here.

ACOSTA: Others just don't like President Obama. So, you don't trust him?

MICHAEL LACKOMAR, SOUTHEAST MICHIGAN VOLUNTERR MILITIA: In short, I think he could be dangerous for the nation.

While overall it gives a pretty warm and fluffy view of the militias, it's not a thoroughly bad report; it at least manages to quote the SPLC's Mark Potok, who points out how they are driven by a combination of anti-liberal animus and wingnutty paranoia:

MARK POTOK, SOUTHERN POVERTY LAW CENTER: The truth is, is that these groups are popping up like mushrooms after a spring rain.

ACOSTA (voice-over): Earlier this year, Mark Potok with the Southern Poverty Law Center put out a report warning of a surge in militia activity that came with the election of President Obama. Since that report was issued, Potok says his staff has counted 100 new militia groups across the country.

POTOK: There really is this kind of terrible fear mixed with fury about the idea that President Obama is somehow leading a kind of socialistic, you know, takeover of America.

In Acosta's on-air segment after the report, he talked it over with John Roberts and Kiran Chetry, and noted that, as it was in the 1990s, the militias are being driven by fear about both gun rights and Obama generally:

ROBERTS: All right. Is it all about gun rights then?

ACOSTA: A lot of it is about gun rights. A lot of it is about distrust. They just don't trust this president. They think he is out to peel back rights and the gun issue is their big ones. You know, we should mention that the gun control issue specifically is really unrealistic in many ways. Because the Obama administration knows and Democrats know that it will be political suicide for them to go after gun control measures. In fact, the attorney general indicated just recently that he's not even going to go back to the assault weapons ban that was enacted during the Clinton administration.

Then they ran one of their phone-in polls:

CHETRY: We also want to know what you think. Are militia members patriots or are they extremists? And o you think that your rights are slipping away or do you think that these militias go too far? Join us tomorrow and we're going to have part two of Jim's piece.

At the CNN/amFix blog, Acosta described what the next two parts will look like:

Not to worry, says the group's leader Lee Miracle. A military veteran and postal worker, yes postal worker, Miracle says he urges respect for the president.

He's out to change the way the world views militia groups. We get an up-close look at his family in part two of our series. A family Miracle refers to as "Lee and Kate plus eight plus a gun rack." That's because they have eight kids and 22 guns in the house. And the kids take part in militia day.

In part three of our series, we go to Las Vegas to go behind the scenes with an organization called "Oathkeepers." It's a group of ex-law enforcement officials and military veterans who say they've sworn an oath to the Constitution, not the president. The president they're referring to, of course, is Mr. Obama.

The ADL released a report today about the growing rage in the American landscape, of which the militia movement is a significant part:

While anti-government anger has certainly spurred the rapid growth of these groups, modern technology has also played a role in the ability of militia groups to form and recruit, especially the use by militia groups of social networking sites such as MySpace to spread their message and recruit new members (and inspire new groups to form). One result of these developments, though, is that the 2009 version of the militia movement is more loosely organized than its predecessor, and many of the individual groups are considerably smaller. Many militia groups have no more than around 10 regular members. Some groups are essentially “Web only” and conduct little real world activity.

In addition to the groups, there are increased numbers of people who identify with the militia movement, and may even attend various trainings or events, but do not officially belong to any particular group. These unaffiliated members now make up an important part of the movement.

The militia movement is a major source of anti-Obama and anti-government hostility, and a major audience for the extreme conspiracy theories revolving around FEMA, martial law, and gun confiscation. Because the militia movement has had a fairly strong association with criminal activity, especially related to illegal weapons and explosives, or conspiracies to use them, the resurgence of this movement is a matter of some concern to law enforcement.

It's not a surprise that militias are ordinary-seeming -- that is, after all, their entire purpose. CNN needs to do a report that scratches beneath this surface.

I described the underlying dynamic in my 1999 book, In God's Country: The Patriot Movement and the Pacific Northwest,:

The focus at Patriot meetings varies according to who’s talking, usually revolving around the keynote speaker. At Richard Mack meetings, the emphasis is on gun control and recruiting law-enforcement officers to the Patriot cause. Gene Schroder and Gary DeMott sessions revolve around ``constitutional law’’ and the ``common law’’ courts. And at MOM meetings and others like them, the emphasis is on confronting the New World Order by forming militias.

In all of them, though, the message remains essentially the same: The world is rotting at the seams. The American way of life, embodied in the Constitution, is threatened by forces conspiring to enslave the world. Only by forming an armed Patriotic resistance can their plans be thwarted.

By challenging the mainstream view -- that the world is essentially a safe place, that the nation is, in general, functional, even if it has problems -- the Patriots persuade their followers to place themselves outside the rest of society. Simultaneously, they offer a social structure of their own, drawn together by a Patriot sensibility that informs every aspect of the followers’ lives: legal, religious, even business behavior becomes an expression of their beliefs.

This is how people are drawn into the alternative universe of the Patriots, a world in which the same events occur as those that befall the rest of us, but all are seen through a different lens. Anything that makes it into a newspaper or the evening broadcast -- say, flooding in the Cascades, or the arrival of U.S. troops in Bosnia -- may be just another story for most of us, but to a Patriot, these widely disparate events all are connected to the conspiracy. Believers tend to organize in small local groups. They all have similar-sounding names -- Concerned Citizens for Constitutional Law, Alliance for America, and the like. They play host to the touring Patriots, the local leaders nervously introducing their admired guests. These groups operate out of the public limelight, on a low-level communications system: a combination of mailings, faxes and even Internet postings all advertise the meetings locally and regionally. Rarely does an announcement make the local mainstream press.

Most of the Patriots’ real recruiting takes place before the meetings, by word of mouth. It usually works like this:

John, a Patriot, tells Joe, a co-worker at his plant who’s going through a divorce, that he can find out ``what’s really going on’’ by attending a militia meeting. The Patriots, Joe is told, have answers to the moral decay that’s behind the way men get screwed in divorce cases.

Joe attends. He thinks the New World Order theories might be possible. He buys a video tape, maybe a book. It all starts to fit together. So this is why he hasn’t been able to get ahead in the world economically, he tells himself. He attends another meeting. Pretty soon he’s getting ``Taking Aim’’ in the mail.

Joe tells his neighbor Sam about the Patriots. Sam is dubious, but he’s been having a hell of a time paying his taxes, and Joe passes on what he knows about the Internal Revenue Service and the Federal Reserve from the Patriot literature he’s read. Sam is intrigued. He reads some of Joe’s material. He goes to the next meeting with Joe. A month or two later, Sam starts drawing up papers to declare himself a ``sovereign citizen.’’

Sam goes to a picnic outing at his parents’ house. His older brother Jeff, an engineer at Boeing, asks Sam about the ``sovereign citizen’’ stuff. Sam explains. Jeff, too, is dubious, but he also happens to be a gun collector and sometime hunter, and he’s received mailings from the National Rifle Association that lead him to wonder if there isn’t something to this whole militia thing. When Sam starts talking about how the government is out of control, passing unconstitutional laws like the Brady Bill, Jeff tunes in. A month later, he, too, sits in on a Patriot town-hall meeting.

One by one it builds. Any of a number of vital issues -- land use, property rights, banking, economics, politics, gun control, abortion, education, welfare -- can serve as a drawing card. In many cases, they are deeply divisive, polarizing matters that the mainstream fails to adequately address.

Once recruits pass through any of these gateways into the Patriot universe, they are drawn further, inexorably. What once seemed like a screwed-up government has become monstrously, palpably evil. Then they learn about Patriot legal theories from people like the Freemen or from Schroder and DeMott:

* The Federal Reserve is bankrupt, a front for a phony system, run by private corporations, of printing money that really only helps keep rich bankers awash in cash.

* The Internal Revenue Service is illegal. Federal taxes actually are strictly voluntary.

* You can exempt yourself from paying federal taxes by filing a statement declaring yourself a ``sovereign citizen.’’ This ostensibly frees you from obligation to the United States -- which Patriots say is just an illegal corporation based in Washington, D.C. -- by nullifying your participation in the federal citizenship status established by the 14th Amendment.

* This distinction, arguing that only the 14th Amendment extends federal citizenship to minorities, forms the basis for the Patriots’ contention that only white male Christian property owners enjoy full citizenship under the ``organic Constitution.’’

* In fact, the only valid U.S. Constitution is this ``organic Constitution’’ -- that is, the main body of the Constitution and the first ten amendments, or the Bill of Rights. Patriots believe the remaining amendments either should be repealed or were approved illegally anyway. In any case, they would end the prohibition of slavery (13th Amendment); equal protection under the law (14th Amendment); prohibitions against racial or ethnic discrimination (15th Amendment); the income tax (16th Amendment); direct election of Senators (17th Amendment); the vote for women (19th Amendment); and a host of other constitutional protections passed since the time of the Founders.

* Establishing ``sovereign citizenship,’’ or ``Quiet Title’’ (which similarly declares a person a ``freeman’’), exempts a person from the rules of ``equity courts,’’ which means you don’t have to pay for licenses, building permits, or traffic citations, not to mention taxes.

* The only real courts with power are the ``common law’’ courts comprised of sovereign citizens, which have the power to issue rulings and liens against public officials they deem to have overstepped their bounds. If these officials fail to uphold the common-law courts, they can be found guilty of treason, and threatened with the appropriate penalty: hanging.

It is at this end of the Patriot universe that much of its deeper agenda is revealed. When Patriots talk about ``restoring the Constitution,’’ what they often have in mind is a campaign to roll back protections embodied in a wide range of amendments, as well as establishing a reading of the Second Amendment radically different from the one traditionally accepted by the U.S. court system.

It also is at this end of the universe that the charges of divisiveness and racism often leveled at the Patriots take on some weight. Plainly, the constitutional rollbacks would return the American system to a time when racial justice was not a considered concept. Not surprisingly, this is where the Patriots most closely resemble, and arguably are directly descended from, openly racist and anti-Semitic belief systems like those found in the Ku Klux Klan, the Aryan Nations, and the Posse Comitatus.

Most of these views are often dismissed by the mainstream legal profession as simple nonsense promoted by crackpots. And for the most part, the Patriots’ legal theories completely disintegrate when factually examined in the cold light of day. Nonetheless, the movement’s ranks continue to grow, and the mainstream courts, particularly in rural jurisdictions, now are faced with a sudden deluge of ``common law’’ documents that throw an already overburdened system into a tangle.

All the same, there is no law against being a crackpot. Otherwise, hundreds of Elvis sighters and UFO abductees would be rotting in prison cells alongside the Patriots, most of whom also are quite free to spread their conspiracy theories. The concern, rather, is what happens when the agenda of the Patriots, constructed out of an insular, paranoiac view of reality, tries to assert itself in the mainstream world. If their form of ``republic’’ comes to be, most of society’s current protections against racial injustice would vanish. Believers’ attempts to effect this agenda is certain to come into real conflict with mainstream Americans. Moreover, when Patriots begin to threaten public officials with hanging and other kinds of bodily harm, the potential for violence enters into the picture.

``What is going on in our society when somebody can come up with an idea like this, and a package of materials like this, and attract 200 people to a community meeting?’’ wonders Ken Toole, director of the Montana Human Rights Network. Toole has attended many of the sessions.

``To me, it's almost like a canary in a coal mine, and it's very indicative of how negative and hostile we've become about ourselves -- that somehow these people have managed to objectify the government at all levels, blame it for all kinds of things, and look for a way to kind of focus that anger.’’

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