America’s new militia movement: Patriot groups explode under Obama

Occupation of Oregon federal facility highlights growth in armed anti-government groups

As armed men continue to occupy a federal complex in an isolated corner of rural eastern Oregon, refusing to leave until their demands are met, the national spotlight has returned to political groups ideologically opposed to central government.

Decades after early 1990s violent incidents involving the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, and the Weaver family in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, the federal government appears reluctant to engage the self-styled militiamen holed up since Saturday at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters, 30 miles south of Burns, Oregon.

Authorities may be prepared to wait patiently to end the siege without violence, as happened with an 81-day standoff with the Montana Freemen group that ended peacefully in 1996.

But at the moment, Ammon Bundy and at least a dozen other men — who call themselves the Citizens for Constitutional Freedom — are forcefully occupying federal property.

Though the group in Oregon is small, the number of similar groups has grown exponentially since President Barack Obama was first elected to the White House in 2008, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which tracks their growth.

There are now more than 1,200 active anti-government groups, including over 276 armed militias (a 37 percent increase over 2014), and sovereign citizen coalitions that do not recognize the U.S. government’s jurisdiction, the SPLC said.

Citizens for Constitutional Freedom

The group at Malheur cites opposition to the reimprisonment of members of the Hammond family — accused of setting ablaze federally managed land on which it had grazing rights, with the fire spreading to 139 acres of public land — as the main reason for its campaign. But the Hammonds have distanced themselves from the militia that has acted in their name.

The group also hopes to call attention to its missions of reducing federal ownership of land in every county and state and promoting what it sees as individual Americans’ rights under the Constitution.

A similar dispute over vast expanses of Western territory last captured national attention in 2014, when federal authorities faced down 1,000 militiamen in a two-month standoff with Bunkerville, Nevada, rancher Cliven Bundy, Ammon Bundy’s father, in a failed effort to force payment of Bureau of Land Management grazing fees. That effort lost momentum among many mainstream conservatives when the elder Bundy expressed racist views about black Americans.

Activists such as Pete Santili gather Jan. 2 to support the Hammond family.

Oath Keepers

One of the highest-profile anti-government groups in the patriot movement of late, the armed organization claims some present and former members of American law enforcement and the U.S. military. The association says its duty is to defend the Constitution and is most widely known for sending four riflemen to protect property during racial unrest in Ferguson, Missouri. While some individual Oath Keepers in Oregon reportedly joined the protests in Burns before the seizure of the federal building, the national leadership has warned its members not to get involved, saying the Hammond family did not ask for help.

The group claims 35,000 members nationally but rejects the militia label and is not considered a hate group by the SPLC. In September 2015, Oath Keepers offered protection to Kim Davis, the Kentucky county court clerk who refused to grant marriage licenses to gay couples. In August 2015, the group conducted what it called a security operation in Montana along with other groups protesting against the U.S. Forest Service.

The group’s adherents flocked to southwestern Oregon ostensibly to protect property rights at the Sugar Pine Mine in April 2015. However, one of the mine’s co-owners, Rick Barclay, despite being at odds with the Bureau of Land Management, called for de-escalation of the “spectacle caused by social media and ‘keyboard commandos’ whooping it up.”

Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association

The group seeks to dismantle federal land ownership by advocating “county sheriff supremacy” and recognizing sheriffs as the “highest law enforcement authority,” above and beyond the power of the federal and state governments.

Most legal experts repudiate its interpretation of the law. And so does the watchdog group Center for Western Priorities, which has accused some local elected leaders, such as Utah state Rep. Ken Ivory, of colluding with anti-government organizations. Ivory is considered the most notable public official supporting public land seizures.

Local militias 

Across America, the number of local militias has exploded since 2008, when there were only 42 such groups. Now there are almost seven times that number. 

In Oregon, armed groups listed by the SPLC include the Oregon Militia Alliance and Oregon Watchmen. In Montana the Militia of Montana and Yellowstone Plainsmen are among the anti-government militias. Groups in other states include the Indiana Sons of Liberty, the Kansas State Militia and the Michigan Patriot Alliance.

Some of the anti-government groups and local citizens’ councils emphasize white, Christian roots. Many vehemently oppose federal environmental restrictions and seek to uphold the Constitution by force. Most oppose what they call the new world order and often fuel Sept. 11 conspiracy theories.

Even state legislatures have been influenced by conspiratorial fears of the U.S. being overrun. Citing Agenda 21, a U.N. resolution on sustainable development, local militias say the world body intends to seize American land with a “secret plan to destroy property rights.” Some land activists rally against a perceived global socialist plot to push white farmers into urban centers before sending them to concentration camps on the eve of a hypothetical Chinese invasion.

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