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Everything We Learned from Embedding with an American Militia

What motivates a bunch of white guys to go into the woods and practice military drills?
May 26, 2016, 2:00pm

"First of all, if your country is in a civil war you stay there to fight," Lee Miracle told me at the kitchen table of his town home somewhere near Detroit. He's a Michigan militiamen and I asked him to elaborate on why his group rejects the idea of Syrian refugees coming to his state.

"You don't leave old people and little kids and women behind, and these refugees—you can see all of the footage—these are generally fighting-age males," he said before explaining exactly how he feels.

"What we should do is install them some testicles and send them back."

By all appearances, Lee is a taxpaying citizen, a very caring and providing father to his children—even if his multiple firearms and libertarian views clash with the mainstream. Miracle also happens to be a member of a militia who the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a nonprofit foundation judiciously tracking militias and a smorgasbord of white power and hate groups across America, keeps its eye on.

It's worth noting that Miracle, a popular character in the Michigan militia, actually calls the SPLC "a discredited extremist left-wing group" in a YouTube rant denouncing one of the foundation's reports on militias.

Following the latest standoff between militiamen in Oregon and federal authorities, I figured I'd head to embed with and make a doc about the most OG militia in America: the Michigan Militia. During the 90s, the Michigan militia reportedly had 10,000 members and a camo-clad Norman Olson, one of its leading figures, testified in a Senate subcommittee on terrorism preaching the rights of US citizenry to arm itself. Those were basically the glory days of militias.

Instead of getting the newsy perspective on the Michigan Militia, I really wanted to know who these guys were and what motivated them to shoot guns in the woods for an entire weekend in negative degree temperatures. I didn't really know what to expect, except that I'd have to pop off massive rifles and participate in their winter exercise, codenamed "Snow Dog."

Whether the SPLC agrees or not, militias are about as American as apple pie and handguns, and they appear throughout modern US history. For example, various militiamen of the Revolutionary War were the perfect embodiment of an armed citizenry rising up to defy the tyranny of the British Crown (think Mel Gibson in the jingoistic classic The Patriot), or Teddy Roosevelt and the "Rough Riders" fighting Spanish colonialism in Cuba before he became that overly macho president—which were also basically a militia.

Since the prospect of a group of dudes carrying weapons in a paramilitary set-up across the country needed to be addressed, the Militia Act of 1903 helped establish the parameters of what actually constitutes a real militia and give the feds more authority over them: that includes things like the National Guard, the Naval militia, and any veteran of the armed forces. It also set out that all healthy males between 17 and 45 is in a de facto citizen militia. Militiamen I've met were adamant they were just performing their duties as citizen soldiers of the United States.

History books aside, militias and militiamen can also be involved in some pretty awful things. Other than being a group of mostly men hoarding weapons and ammunition, they've become synonymous with hardline Second Amendment advocates and domestic terrorists like Timothy McVeigh, who allegedly attended some Michigan Militia meetings in the early 90s before killing 168 people in the infamous Oklahoma City bombing.

It was right around that time the militia movement enjoyed a resurgence after incidents such as Waco and Ruby Ridge highlighted the firepower of the federal government over its citizens. Since those events, the fringe far-right became totally inflamed and they haven't really stopped being pissed off about the modern liberal democracy.

Militias are on the rise again and some say they are a potential domestic terrorism threat. Naturally, groups like the "patriots" led by Ammon Bundy who took over a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon in February (ending with one militiamen getting gunned down by law enforcement), or The Oath Keepers who showed up armed at protests in Ferguson, have attracted the attention of the authorities. One militiamen I met in Michigan went so far as to say FBI agents have shown up to his group's meetings and taken him out for dinner to discuss the militia's operations.

That said, a lot of the guys I met were just nice, regular suburban white guys with some far out opinions and a bit of paranoia about the US government. Imminent threat? Likely not, but there are certainly more hardcore militias out there with individuals who not only hate the feds, but would do something about that hate. And recent history agrees: Those types really do exist.

Where this all goes in the next few years is anyone's guess. With the rise of Trump and other fringe right-wing movements around the world, it's fair to say militias may be symptomatic of the same larger political trends. Whether it was recession causing job loss, the election of another Democrat President bent on gun control, or the disenfranchisement of rural Americans from the urban yuppies running politics—many militiamen have a healthy distrust of the federal government. Some believe in staying vigilant against the prospect of Chinese communists dropping out of the sky Red Dawn-style, "shit hitting the fan" or total societal decay.

And according to one militiamen I spoke to, "I don't think the government need fear us at all," before pausing.

"Other than, if they stick their nose out just a little too far."

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