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8.28.2009

southern poverty law center special report: return of the militias

In late 1995, I heard Morris Dees speak in New York City. Dees is the co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights and social justice organization that has its roots in the early days of the US civil rights movement.

Dees was speaking about the rise of right-wing extremism in the US. The SPLC had been sounding the alarm for years about the rise of dangerous militia groups, and now, at last, the public was listening. Dees described his reaction, earlier that year, when he heard about the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City: "Where's Tim McVeigh?"

Immediately after that bombing, which killed 168 people and injured almost 700 more, US media pundits declared the incident carried all the hallmarks of Middle East terrorism. Of course once the white, homegrown McVeigh was produced as a suspect, that talk was quietly dropped and forgotten. And after September 11, 2001, Oklahoma City was itself forgotten.

While US wingnuts raise the spectre of a socialist in the White House, many of us know that the US has never been in danger of a takeover from the left, either in ideology or in practice. The real danger to US democracy has always been from the right.

The America I grew up in has an authoritarian streak as wide as the land west of the Hudson and east of Las Vegas. Its love affair with violence shocks the world on a regular basis. Its citizens are largely ignorant, and easily led. Its good people are battered and struggling, or fractured and disorganized, or overwhelmed with helplessness, or all of the above.

And it houses within its borders a small army of angry revolutionaries. Although they purport to be anti-government, they are also confused and ignorant. It's not difficult to imagine "patriot militias" being harnessed into service of something much bigger, more powerful and more dangerous than they are.

From the SPLC.
The 1990s saw the rise and fall of the virulently antigovernment "Patriot" movement, made up of paramilitary militias, tax defiers and so-called "sovereign citizens." Sparked by a combination of anger at the federal government and the deaths of political dissenters at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and Waco, Texas, the movement took off in the middle of the decade and continued to grow even after 168 people were left dead by the 1995 bombing of Oklahoma City's federal building — an attack, the deadliest ever by domestic U.S. terrorists, carried out by men steeped in the rhetoric and conspiracy theories of the militias. In the years that followed, a truly remarkable number of criminal plots came out of the movement. But by early this century, the Patriots had largely faded, weakened by systematic prosecutions, aversion to growing violence, and a new, highly conservative president.

They're back. Almost a decade after largely disappearing from public view, right-wing militias, ideologically driven tax defiers and sovereign citizens are appearing in large numbers around the country. "Paper terrorism" — the use of property liens and citizens' "courts" to harass enemies — is on the rise. And once-popular militia conspiracy theories are making the rounds again, this time accompanied by nativist theories about secret Mexican plans to "reconquer" the American Southwest. One law enforcement agency has found 50 new militia training groups — one of them made up of present and former police officers and soldiers. Authorities around the country are reporting a worrying uptick in Patriot activities and propaganda. "This is the most significant growth we've seen in 10 to 12 years," says one. "All it's lacking is a spark. I think it's only a matter of time before you see threats and violence."

A key difference this time is that the federal government — the entity that almost the entire radical right views as its primary enemy — is headed by a black man. That, coupled with high levels of non-white immigration and a decline in the percentage of whites overall in America, has helped to racialize the Patriot movement, which in the past was not primarily motivated by race hate. One result has been a remarkable rash of domestic terror incidents since the presidential campaign, most of them related to anger over the election of Barack Obama. At the same time, ostensibly mainstream politicians and media pundits have helped to spread Patriot and related propaganda, from conspiracy theories about a secret network of U.S. concentration camps to wholly unsubstantiated claims about the president's country of birth.

Fifteen years ago, the Southern Poverty Law Center wrote then-Attorney General Janet Reno to warn about extremists in the militia movement, saying that the "mixture of armed groups and those who hate" was "a recipe for disaster." Just six months later, Oklahoma City's federal building was bombed. Today, the Patriot movement may not have the white-hot fury that it did in the 1990s. But the movement clearly is growing again, and Americans, in particular law enforcement officers, need to take the dangers it presents seriously. That is equally true for the politicians, pundits and preachers who, through pandering or ignorance, abet the growth of a movement marked by a proven predilection for violence.

Part Two: The Second Wave

Part Three: Nativists to 'Patriots'

Did they ever go away? 75 plots, conspiracies and racist rampages since Oklahoma City

Download the report (pdf).

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