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In the popular imagination, the militia movement of the '90s was a paranoid pack of racists plotting terrorist attacks. The University of Hartford historian Robert H. Churchill calls this "the narrative of 1995," a storyline cemented after McVeigh bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City that year. "In this narrative," Churchill writes in To Shake Their Guns in the Tyrant's Face, a perceptive new study of the militias, "the militias and the Patriot movement took on the guise of a perfect, racist 'other,' and the threat they posed was best articulated by Morris Dees' apocalyptic vision of a 'gathering storm.'"
This vision was pushed by a collection of groups dedicated to tracking the radical right, notably Dees' Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League. It dominated the media. "In news coverage, popular novels, episodes of Law and Order, and movies such as Arlington Road," Churchill writes, "the public became well acquainted with the archetypal militiaman, usually portrayed as warped by racial hatred, obsessed with bizarre conspiracy theories, and hungry for violent retribution." In Searching for a Demon, a detailed 2002 study of how the movement was portrayed, the Indiana University sociologist Steven Chermak summed up the militiamen's media image: They were "irrational terrorists—a dangerous, growing outsider threat that needed eradicating."
The figures who crafted this image often traced the militia movement to a single weekend in 1992, when Peter J. Peters, an anti-Semitic preacher associated with the racist Christian Identity movement, organized a gathering of the far-right tribes in Estes Park, Colorado. About 160 people reportedly attended, one of whom, John Trochman, later played a significant role in the militia milieu. By this account, the militias were a direct sequel to the violent racist underground of the 1980s, represented by such groups as the Aryan Nations and the Order. (The latter was a terrorist gang that robbed banks, counterfeited money, and murdered a Jewish talk radio host.) If the militias didn't seem to express the same set of concerns, that was merely a mask. In The Eliminationists, published this year, the Seattle-based journalist David Neiwert—one of the movement's most prominent critics—claims the militias were "specifically geared toward mainstreaming some of the basic tenets of [the racist right's] worldview."
Churchill offers a more persuasive origin story. By his account, the militias overlapped with the older, broader populist right, but their origins were distinct. The movement began to congeal not in 1992 but in the early months of 1994, as activists reacted to the lethal federal raid on the Branch Davidian church in Waco, Texas. Rather than tracing the phenomenon back to groups like the Order, Churchill uses a series of case studies to explore the long American tradition of armed resistance to intrusive government.
The militias of the 1990s, he argues, were reacting primarily to the rise of paramilitary police tactics. Their causes célèbres—the disastrous standoffs in Waco and in Ruby Ridge, Idaho—were only the most visible examples of what could go wrong when policemen regarded themselves as soldiers rather than peace officers. The militias formed and grew, Churchill writes, as their members "came to the conclusion that the federalization and militarization of law enforcement had created a paramilitary culture of violence." He backs up his interpretation with many quotes from militia figures, including, significantly, denunciations of the beating of Rodney King and the rape of Abner Louima, a Haitian man whom New York police sodomized with a broomstick in 1997.
A decade and a half later, paramilitary policing has proven far more deadly than paramilitary dissent. Neither McVeigh nor his accomplice, Terry Nichols, turned out to be a member of a militia. After the Oklahoma City attack, a Michigan Militia spokesman said his group's closest contact with the bombers had come when James Nichols, Terry's brother, showed up to speak during the "open forum" portion of a meeting. By that account, Nichols attempted to distribute some literature, urged everyone to cut up their drivers' licenses, and was eventually asked to leave. *
After Oklahoma City, a few figures on the fringes of the militia milieu were nabbed for planning attacks. These plots—by the most generous definition of militia, there were about a dozen of them—bolstered the anti-militia narrative, but the details of the schemes reveal a much more complicated picture. Several of the plans originated with the government's own infiltrators. Many of the "militias" involved were tiny operations run by hotheads who'd been expelled from more established militia groups. And most important, in at least three cases the conspirators were arrested after militia members themselves got wind of the plans and alerted police.
Patriots and Racists
While the press sometimes described the militia movement as a simple continuation of the 1980s racist right, the leaders of the older groups weren't so quick to recognize the new crew as their children. "They are not for the preservation of the white race," Aryan Nations chief Richard Butler complained to the New York Post reporter Jonathan Karl in Karl's 1995 book The Right to Bear Arms. "They're actually traitors to the white race; they seek to integrate with blacks, Jews, and others."
That's not to say that members of the racist right didn't join militias, make an effort to recruit from the militias, or try to capitalize on the militias' notoriety. Some of them appended the word militia to their groups' names in the 1990s, giving us organizations like the tiny Oklahoma Constitutional Militia, led by an anti-Semite who'd been kicked out of the mainline militia movement. But even as bigots sometimes appeared in militia circles, so did blacks, Hispanics, and Jews. Churchill divides the militia movement into two distinct though sometimes overlapping tendencies: the constitutionalists and the millenarians. The former organized in public, emphasized gun rights and other civil liberties, and saw themselves as a deterrent to repression and abuse. The latter often organized in secret cells, emphasized elaborate conspiracy theories, and saw themselves as survivors in the face of a coming apocalypse. The millenarians were more likely to tolerate racists, while groups in the constitutionalist wing sometimes went out of their way to pick political fights with white supremacists.
To understand just how oversimplified the story of militia racism was, look back to a nearly forgotten scandal that erupted the same year as the Oklahoma City bombing. For a decade and a half, it was discovered, federal, state, and local law enforcement officials had been attending an event in Tennessee called the Good Ol' Boys Roundup. A Department of Justice investigation found "ample evidence of shocking racist, licentious, and puerile behavior" at the gathering, including a sign saying "No Niggers" and a self-appointed group that stopped drivers to announce that they were "checking cars for niggers."
What does this have to do with the militia movement? It was the Alabama-based Gadsden Militia that learned about the event, infiltrated it, and exposed it to the press, eventually triggering the official investigation. Faced with racist cops, those militiamen didn't see allies in the belly of the beast. They saw another government abuse to be exposed.
Militia critics nonetheless went through incredible contortions to paint anti-government populists as bigoted thugs. A representative text here is the 1996 book A Force Upon the Plain, written by the liberal attorney Kenneth Stern. Stern essentially argued that when militia members weren't racist themselves, they were racist dupes. When their conspiracy theorists fretted over an international cabal led by Freemasons, the Illuminati, or the Trilateral Commission, Stern suggested, they were really imagining a cabal led by Jews. Their theories, he wrote, were "rooted in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion," the infamous anti-Semitic forgery, because the worldviews were structurally similar. "The militia movement today believes in the conspiracy theory of the Protocols," Stern concluded, "even if some call it something else and never mention Jews."
This argument resembled Woody Allen's syllogism: "Socrates is a man. All men are mortal. Therefore, all men are Socrates." And Stern's history was as bad as his logic. The Protocols did not emerge until the late 19th century and was not widely popularized until 1903. Anti-Masonic theories were common throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, and the first anti-Illuminati hysteria broke out in 1797.
An even odder argument held that the militias were, in effect, a gateway drug. Stern attributed this idea to Ken Toole of the Montana Human Rights Network, who compared the movement to a funnel. People enter it for many reasons, he acknowledged—to protest taxes, regulations, gun control, or some other policy. But as they're sucked in, they begin to embrace conspiracy theories and revolutionary rhetoric. At the far end of the funnel are the hardcore bigots. Not all the militiamen are at the funnel's eye, Stern conceded, but that was where they were heading.