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Last year during season three of VICE on HBO, host Gianna Toboni explored the increasing popularity of American militant groups. She spoke to rancher Cliven Bundy, and trained with members of a militia group called the Three Percenters.
Those interview subjects look eerily significant now: Cliven Bundy's son is the leader of the current militia occupation at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, and the Three Percenters showed up at Malheur on Janurary 9.
But the Malheur occupation hasn't gone very well for the Bundy militia. For instance, the most recent major development was lead occupier Ammon Bundy turning away assistance from yet another militia that had showed up hoping to mediate some kind of resolution—itself a vote of no confidence from his peers.
"It's easy to kind of laugh these groups off," Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center told Gianna Toboni in our documentary, "but we ignore the threat from the American domestic radical right as our peril."Violence in this particular case is a real—though unlikely—potential outcome according to sociologist Amy Cooter, who has studied and immersed herself in militia culture. "With some of the most extreme groups, if they're upset with the federal government, it is always possible that someone else could get caught in either the figurative or the literal crossfire, if they're seen as defending the federal government," she told me in an interview.
But in a wider sense, is the ongoing ascendancy of right-wing militias something we should actually fear? Or should we give them the benefit of the doubt as benevolent protectors of our constitutional rights?
The answer to the second question would be "absolutely not," if I took the Southern Poverty Law Center at face value. For the better part of the last decade, the SPLC has been following what it calls a "second wave" of extremist militia activity in America—one not-so-secretly tied to "anger over the election of Barack Obama." At peak membership, the SPLC had counted 1,274 such anti-government groups, and it continues to monitor their activities closely for hateful motivations.
Graphic from VICE on HBO
That's not to say the SPLC thinks racism is the end-all-be-all of causes for the rise in militia activity. Bill Clinton, the previous Democratic president, saw a militia surge on his watch, but according to the SPLC report back in 2009, "the fact that the president is an African American has injected a strong racial element into even those parts of the radical right, like the militias, that in the past were not primarily motivated by race hate."
In some ways that checks out. Cliven Bundy, the father of current armed occupier Ammon Bundy has expressed views on race that are ass-backwards, if not overtly hateful. Along with race, at least one member of the Oregon occupation has a background of anti-islamic activity. The possibility of radical racists and islamophobes banding together and charging into buildings with assault rifles is a terrifying thought indeed.
But Cooter explained to me that militias have a complex tapestry of motivations. "Militia patterns ebb and flow alongside broader political currents," she said. So while it tends to be true that these groups are smaller when a Republican is president, "that can vary depending on exactly what's going on on both a global and national scale as well." That means militias can be expected to perk up, she said, when things like gun control, and civil liberties are in the news.
That helps explain one confusing incident when members of the right-leaning armed group the Oath Keepers showed up in Ferguson, Missouri during a round of protests over the killing of Michael Brown. Upon their initial arrival, they said they were there to escort some journalists to safety and protect local businesses, but a week later, they were encouraging protesters to arm themselves in order to discourage any further tyranny from law enforcement.
Law enforcement seems particularly afraid of militias, and that's unsurprising considering they're the likeliest targets of militia gunfire. According to Charles Kurzman and David Schanzer of the Police Executive Research forum, a law enforcement think tank, 74 percent of law enforcement agencies list anti-government extremism as one of the top three sources of possible terrorism in their jurisdiction.
That's far from pure paranoia. These right-wing anti-government groups have a history of recent violence. For instance, a Texan named Robert James Talbot was arrested in 2014 for trying to start a revolution that would have involved such blatant acts of terrorism as blowing up government buildings with C-4. But this particular alleged would-be terrorist had also made a Facebook page (now defunct) that, according to the FBI, advertised itself as trying to foment a "Pre-Constitutionalist Community that offers those who seek True patriotism and are looking for absolute Freedom by doing the Will of God, [seek to] restore America Pre-Constitutionally, and look forward to stopping the Regime with action by bloodshed."
In 2014, a former TSA member with allegiance to right-wing anti-government groups tried to take over a courthouse in Georgia, but got killed by a cop. That year also saw an incident in which a man and woman attacked a fast food joint and a Walmart, killing two cops, and leaving two calling cards featuring a swastika and a "Don't Tread on Me" insignia. Eric Frein, a guy who currently faces charges that he killed a state trooper in Pennsylvania in 2014, and then went on the run for 48 days, is a survivalist who is fascinated by the military, and has reportedly admitted that he killed the trooper to "wake people up."
Then of course, 2014 also saw the Bundy Ranch Standoff, the culmination of a 21-year simmering conflict between Bundy and the Bureau of Land Management, which Bundy interpreted as tyranny on a grand scale, later explaining to Toboni:"We don't like them to treat us like England was treating us back 200 years ago. We're not ever gonna allow that again." The conflict culminated in what militia members called "The Battle of Bunkerville."
No one died in the so-called "battle," but about 1,000 militiamen showed up at the Bundy Ranch and aimed guns at about 12 federal agents, at which point BLM surrendered and gave back some of Bundy's cattle. It would be completely reasonable for the Bundys to claim they won a decisive victory against the federal government by pointing guns at them.
Does that mean we should expect more action like this from militias?
"In general, no," said Cooter. The Bundys are exceptionally bellicose, even for a militia, she added. "The relatively small proportion of militias, or militia-like groups that end up in the news are usually the ones we ought to be a little bit concerned about." While there's no formal research that can definitively sort the dangerous militias from the harmless ones, in Cooter's opinion, "only about ten percent of militias—and I think that's overly generous honestly—look like they ought to be cause for concern."
That may sound insane given that the groups are called "militias," but militia membership isn't all guns and camouflage, and all militias aren't created equal. They generally all hate the federal government, love individual liberties, and interpret the Constitution very literally. According to Cooter, though, most are similar to any political action group, meaning they usually work within the existing political system to try and bring about change. "They vote at every opportunity, they talk to their elected representatives, a handful of them even run for office themselves, [and] they do a lot in their communities to try and talk to people about their perspective on things."
Using guns, she says, is something most militia members do in their spare time, like 37 percent of Americans. "For most of them, it's more defensive posturing—in case anyone ever comes after me—as opposed to having any intent whatsoever to ever use that actively against someone else, including the police or the government."
But even if the vast majority of politically active, federal-government-loathing assault-rifle owners have no interest in starting their own private war, focusing on the sane majority to the exclusion of others might be downplaying some real danger. The SPLC says that 2015 saw militia membership increase by one third. Their 2014 report "War in the West" attempts to tie the Bundys beliefs on land use to hate groups that have previously espoused such beliefs.
Ultimately, militia members have a strong difference of opinion with the federal government, and occupying a building to protest government activities could be seen as—if you put on your rose-colored glasses—more akin to an act of civil disobedience than an act of civil war. But then there are those pesky guns, and threats to kill people if things don't go the way they want.
It seems that the only person likely to be killed by a militiaman's bullet would be a law enforcement figure, or someone standing near a federal agent when the shit hits the fan. So the average person's bodily integrity isn't, in all likelihood, in any danger at all. But another victory for the Bundys would probably embolden these groups, and depending on your politics, that might sound like a scary prospect in its own right.
To make matters worse, a lot depends on the reaction of the federal government here. On one hand, they won't want to just roll over like they did at the Bundy Ranch, but then there's that oft-repeated refrain, "They don't want another Waco"—a 1993 siege that was disastrously mishandled, resulting in 82 deaths.
Such a move could, Cooter thinks, radicalize the militia movement even more. "The more government—especially federal government—is seen as stepping over some kind of boundary, whether it's an objective legal boundary or an individual rights boundary, the more likely it is to push people in that direction," she said.
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