Meet your local anti-government extremist groups

With violent rhetoric surging since Trump’s election, it helps to know your neighbors.

 

Since the election of President Donald Trump, a steady stream of right-wing street rallies have brought together an array of extremist groups — from white supremacists to self-styled militias that espouse anti-government ideologies.

Meanwhile, investigations continue into the Trump team’s potential collusion with Russia during his presidential campaign, raising the prospect of impeachment or indictments. Roger Stone, a former adviser and longtime confidant to Trump, recently told a reporter with TMZ that an impeachment of the president would cause “a spasm of violence in this country, an insurrection like you’ve never seen.” Stone also supported Trump’s recent pardon of former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was convicted in federal court for criminal contempt. Stone is now urging a pardon for Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who is about to go on trial for leading an armed confrontation with federal employees. Given Stone’s insurrection statement, the push for presidential pardons in spite of federal court orders, and a spike in hate or bias incidents following the election, it’s worth understanding some of the key players of anti-federal ideology, hate and extremism in the West today.

Oath Keepers          

The Oath Keepers are one of two of the most well known of the country’s 165 or so militia groups. They are named for the oath that members of the military or police take to defend the Constitution from enemies foreign and domestic. You might see the oft-armed Oath Keepers in camouflage battle dress uniforms posturing as peacekeepers or security at “free speech” rallies.

Oath Keepers were among the militia groups that showed up to support Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy during the 2014 armed standoff with the Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service. They also spent weeks in the fray in Burns, Oregon, during the 2016 armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

You might also see them doing community service, running security for your local Republican, Libertarian or Tea Party events, or in the mix at a variety of emergency situations from the 2015 riots in Ferguson, Missouri, following the killing of Michael Brown, or the aftermath of hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

The Oath Keepers are fixated on apocalyptic scenarios. The Southern Poverty Law Center, a progressive organization that tracks extremist groups, calls the Oath Keepers’ core tenets “a set of baseless conspiracy theories about the federal government working to destroy the liberties of Americans.” For instance, they are committed to “NOT obey any order to blockade American cities, thus turning them into giant concentration camps.”

Yale Law School graduate Stewart Rhodes founded the Oath Keepers in 2009. The group now claims 30,000 members and specifically recruits current and former members of the military and law enforcement. 

In recent months they have tried to distance themselves from the white supremacist and nationalist movements emboldened since Trump’s election. For instance, Oath Keepers nixed their plans to attend a right-wing rally in San Francisco in August because the organizing group, Patriot Prayer, couldn’t promise white nationalists wouldn’t show up. Similarly, the Three Percent leadership told its members to “stand down” after anti-racist activist Heather Heyer was killed during protests organized by white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August.

Danny Vanderschelden, a member of the Oath Keepers, pictured in Josephine County, Oregon, in 2015. Oath Keepers comprise current and formerly serving military, police, and first responders, who pledge to “defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic."
Brooke Warren/High Country News

Three Percent

Like the Oath Keepers, the Three Percent are Second Amendment activists and one of the most well known militia groups today. Their network is less centralized than the Oath Keepers’, with individuals using the name to create loosely affiliated local groups across the country. 

In 2008 Michael Vanderboegh of Alabama, who died last year, founded the Three Percent. The group takes its name from the unsubstantiated claim that only three percent of American colonists took up arms against the British. Vanderboegh was a fierce critic of gun control laws, the SPLC reports: “In the wake of the 2012 Newtown, Connecticut, school massacre, he warned in emails sent to more than 1,000 employees of the Connecticut State Police that they risked ‘initiating hostilities’ if they tried to enforce the state’s tough new gun control law.” 

Three Percent members participated in the 2014 Bunkerville standoff, in support of the Bundys. Vanderboegh said after the incident: “It is impossible to overstate the importance of the victory won in the desert today. The feds were routed.” Eric Parker, a defendant who will appear alongside Cliven Bundy in court for the standoff in October, is a former vice president for the Three Percent of Idaho. “The militia were shopping for a cause,” when the Bunkerville standoff happened, says J.J. MacNab, an anti-government extremism expert.

A Three Percenter spokesman Chris McIntire distanced the group from the Malheur occupation, at the time saying, “We didn’t make any calls to arms nor plan or advocate any form of armed uprising.” But like the Oath Keepers, they lingered in the nearby town of Burns, Oregon, during the occupation, posturing as peace-keepers or even mediators between law enforcement and the occupiers.

Three Percent and Oath Keepers are just two of the most well-known of 623 far-right anti-government groups operating nationwide today. That number is down from 1,360 in 2012, according to the SPLC. Yet as of last year, multiple armed groups were active in every Western state, from the Washington Light Foot Militia to the Arizona State Militia.

Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association           

In 2011 former Arizona sheriff Richard Mack created CSPOA, which asserts that county sheriffs represent the supreme law of the land, superseding federal law enforcement. As of last year, the group claimed 4,500 members, including 200 sheriffs. The constitutional sheriffs movement has been particularly strong in Western states, where local and county officers can have tense relationships with federal land agencies.

Two prominent CSPOA sheriffs recently made national headlines for their ties to Trump. Last month Trump used his presidential authority to pardon former sheriff Joe Arpaio, who helped found the CSPOA. “Trump does seem to buy into the idea that sheriffs are the highest law enforcement of the land,” MacNab says, “which signals to the anti-government extremist movement that he’s one of them, though I don’t know if he’s one or not.”

Another CSPOA member, former sheriff David Clarke, of Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, was rumored to be in the running for a position at the White House last month. Clarke was a vocal supporter of Trump during the campaign last year. He has since taken a position with the pro-Trump America First Action PAC. 

According to Politico, Michael Barkun, an expert on political extremism, calls the CSPOA philosophy “radical localism” because “it valorizes and exploits subnational sources of power. In theory, that kind of localism could be a vehicle for many kinds of politics, but in practice constitutional sheriffs and their followers tend to occupy the edges of anti-government conservatism.”

Border militias

Independent militia groups have sporadically patrolled the U.S.-Mexico border for many years, aiming to stop drug smugglers, human traffickers and undocumented immigrants from entering the country, where they say federal border patrol agents aren’t doing their job. The movement dwindled in the late-2000s. One of the most well-known groups, the Minutemen, which once claimed 12,000 members, is now defunct. But other groups around the country still operate in the area, as Mother Jones chronicled through undercover reporting with the Three Percent United Patriots last year. Another organization, Arizona Border Recon, founded in 2011, may now be “the only vigilante group with a continuous presence on the Arizona-Mexico border,” Arizona Republic reports.

While militia members describe positive relationships with the federal government and see themselves as the eyes and ears of U.S. border patrol, there have been many reports of paramilitary groups getting in the way of the feds and local officers. According to the Arizona Republic, Santa Cruz County Sheriff Tony Estrada “is a vocal critic of Arizona Border Recon, saying such groups can do more harm than good to local law enforcement’s efforts ability to police their jurisdictions.”

Sovereign citizens

This movement emerged in the 1980s, based on a mix of anti-Semitic and anti-government beliefs. Sovereign citizens see government institutions as illegitimate and are known for evading taxes and resisting judicial authority by filing unnecessary court motions with fringe legal theories, or putting liens on judges to ruin their credit ratings as a form of protest. (A sovereign citizen appears to have recently filed a lien for $1.5 million against U.S. District Court of Nevada judge Gloria Navarro, for her dealings with the federal case against the Bundys.) In 2011, experts estimated about 100,000 hard-core sovereign citizens existed nationwide. “In the late 2000s and early 2010s, most new recruits to the sovereign citizens’ movement are people who have found themselves in a desperate situation, often due to the economy or foreclosures, and are searching for a quick fix,” the SPLC reports. “Others are intrigued by the notions of easy money and living a lawless life, free from unpleasant consequences.” While sovereign citizens represent a distinct movement, there is some overlap with other so-called “Patriot” groups, which include militias and a variety of other far-right organizations. 

Hate groups

Aside from these typical Patriot groups, the West is home to a large number and wide variety of hate groups. According to the SPLC, the number of hate groups grew from 784 to 917 between 2014 and 2016; within that, anti-Muslim groups rose sharply, from 34 to 101. Hate groups can be found in every Western state, ranging from the white nationalist American Vanguard in Utah, Arizona, California and Washington, to the anti-Muslim Treasure Valley Refugee Watch in Meridian, Idaho, and the anti-LGBT Family Watch International in Gilbert, Arizona.

Many of these groups have existed in the West for a long time, and it remains unclear how they will grow or change now that a candidate many of them supported is in the White House.

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Tay Wiles is an associate editor for High Country News.