[UPDATE: Corrected the location of Gogebic Taconite.]
Imagine taking a hike in your local woods and coming upon characters toting semi-automatic weapons, dressed in camo and wearing masks. Then imagine finding out they are militia-movement followers hired by a mining operation to protect against "eco-terrorists."
That's what's been happening to people living in northern Wisconsin lately. And these are the kinds of guys people are encountering in the woods:
The first of these goons to show up on behalf of the Florida-based mining company -- Gogebic Taconite, or GTAC -- that wants to rip these woods apart were employed by an outfit from Arizona called Bulletproof Securities. Then they quickly vamoosed when it emerged that they were not licensed to operate in the state of Wisconsin.
In short order, a new set of goons appeared as security for GTAC's President, Bill Williams, in his recent appearances in Wisconsin. And these men were wearing the logos of a Patriot/militia organization called the Watchmen of America -- though true to the "leaderless resistance" model of action these "Patriots" espouse, the Watchmen's organizational leaders are denying any involvement, while in effect conceding that members may be operating in Wisconsin without their approval.
Kate Sheppard at Mother Jones has been on the scene and monitoring these developments:
Local activist Rob Ganson, 56, first came upon three heavily armed guards while leading a small group on a hike to view the mining site. (The drilling site is on private land, but the owner has been given a tax break in exchange for keeping it open to public use.) The guards, said Ganson, carried semi-automatic guns, were dressed in camouflage, and wore masks covering their faces. "As you can imagine, it was quite a shock for five middle-aged people out for a walk," he said. Ganson tried to engage the guards, but was "met with stony-faced silence." He was alarmed but managed to grab a few photos of the men. "I was thinking if the worst scenario happened, at least there would be photos on my camera."
After they determined that the guards worked for Arizona-based Bulletproof Security, Ganson and the other activists posted their photos of the guards online, drawing local and national news coverage of the mine, a proposed four-mile-long, 1,000-feet-deep open pit operation in Ashland and Iron counties. In June, the company began exploratory drilling in the region for taconite, a type of iron ore used in steel.
... Last Wednesday, the mining company, Gogebic Taconite—G-Tac for short—a subsidiary of the West Virginia-based Cline Group, pulled the armed guards after finding that the security firm lacked permits to work in the state. A spokesman for the company has said that the Bulletproof guards will be back once they're properly licensed.
"Basically almost every environmental protection and public health protection you could think of is eliminated under this bill."
One of the activists in the area, however, told Mother Jones on Monday that a new group of armed guards—including one whose shirt bore the insignia for Watchmen of America, a militia group active in at least 21 states—was on patrol last Thursday, the day after Gogebic Taconite pulled the Bulletproof guards.
This was followed shortly by heated denials from the Watchmen:
On Tuesday, Mike Freebyrd, CEO of Watchmen of America, told Mother Jones that the new guards are not working for his organization. "The Watchmen of America is not a security company that provides commercial security services and we are not involved in any way in the security operations with respect to GTAC mining operation in Wisconsin, nor do we sanction or approve of any of our members doing so while wearing our patches or logos," said Freebyrd via email. "We sell many promotional materials including T-shirts, stickers, patches, pens, etc. to our public supporters, therefore we have no control if a person wears our logos while conducting activities which are not conducive to our true representation."
These denials are not particularly meaningful. After all, the Patriot/militia movement has been characterized by a "leaderless resistance" strategy that encourages individual "lone wolf" and small-cell action in which organizational leaders can plausibly deny responsibility and thus avoid any consequences for the actions of followers and colleagues.
As Mary Catherine O'Connor at Outside reports, this is all taking place in a context where the mining officials are labeling local protesters "eco terrorists" and using the flimsiest of pretexts to bring in militia-style thugs to intimidate the locals.
Let's hope Americans remember that in Italy and Germany, fascists first gained political traction and moved out of the fringe of politics in the 1920s when they were hired by large landowners and businessmen as thugs to beat up and harass union organizers and land reformers, all under the rubric of calling them "communists". This is an ominous development indeed.
Here's more from local TV station WDIO (source of the above video).
The Arizona Republic has a brief rundown of Bulletproof, the Scottsdale outfit that showed up with the masked guard unit and then fled.