Bronze-level articleMilitia movement

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The militia movement is a United States subculture consisting primarily of disaffected, rural, white, right-wing Christians who believe that the Federal government's authority is either broadly abused or outright null and void. The movement was mostly active in the early-mid 1990s, and appears to be making a comeback as of 2012, though it is not as powerful as it was at its peak.


Well regulated?

They draw their name from the "well-regulated militia" clause of the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution[1] (generally interpreted by others to mean bodies such as the National Guard and state police, assembled and regulated by the states or the Feds). While the militia movement does experience plenty of cross-pollination with white nationalists, anti-Semites, and other elements of the radical right, most observers view this as secondary to the movement's chief ideology — indeed, during the movement's height in the '90s a number of black separatist groups took up the ethos of militias. The militia movement is heavily associated with, and infused with, survivalist rhetoric about impending economic collapse and societal breakdown.

Many of these groups conversely view themselves (or frame themselves to the public) as groups of citizens organized and ready to be called on by local government when needed, and that private citizens' militias such as theirs were the "original intent" of the Founders for national defense and assistance with local law enforcement. This is a half-truth. While it is true that, historically, government agencies (from the local sheriff to the state) have called upon private citizens during times of emergency or temporarily deputized private citizens, and most state constitutions include definitions of the "unorganized militia" as all adult males (usually between a certain age range, 18 to 45) for this purpose, it is a leap of logic to conclude this sanctions the formation of private paramilitary organizations not organized by nor recognized by the government. The concept is "all adult males", not a private group of people holding decidedly fringe views proclaiming themselves "the" militia.

Besides conspiracy theorists and survivalists, the movement also attracted a heavy admixture of whackers during its heyday in the '90s, although most of them left once it became clear the movement was also a magnet for dangerous anti-government paranoids like Timothy McVeigh.

Legality of militias

Most militia groups claim direct lineage from Revolutionary War groups such as the Minutemen, and at least a few claim to be available to their states for defense purposes. However, many, if not most, states have laws against private armies such as these or any sort of paramilitary organization not directly authorized by state or federal government.

Legally speaking, the National Guard (which is not any sort of citizen militia) is considered the "organized militia" under US federal law. The Civil Air Patrol[2] also serves as a civilian auxiliary of the US Air Force. Twenty-two states plus Puerto Rico also have their own "state militias" or "state defense forces"[3] separate from the National Guard and under the sole command of the Governor, though training standards vary wildly. Most state defense forces are very lightly armed, if at all, and work primarily to augment the National Guard for peacetime duties, such as combating wildfires and providing aid to disaster areas. Community emergency response teams (CERTs)[4] serve a similar purpose. In addition, during the Cold War there existed various civil defense and continuity of government programs at the federal, state and municipal levels, though much of this infrastructure has since fallen into disuse.[5]

To the extent that there is a citizen (or "unorganized") militia, it is a concept found in state constitutions used to bridge a gap in federal law declaring all able-bodied males between 18 and 45 to be part of the "militia". Should the "unorganized militia" need to be called to service at the federal level, one might presume that the proper way to do so would be to enact a draft using the Selective Service infrastructure. Things in the US would probably have to be quite bad for it to get to this point, as conscription had been discontinued in 1973. Historically, private citizens have been "drafted" (or "deputized") at the state or local level under the "militia" clause on a temporary basis, usually to help with emergency services, but while this was common in the 1800s it is very rare today. For example (and to show why this isn't that popular anymore), firefighters used to be "drafted" from the local tavern in places where there was no regular fire department, but this inevitably led to problems with arson by unemployed people needing a quick job.

The first wave: the 1990s

The first wave of the modern movement began at a 1992 meeting initiated by fringe preacher Peter J. Peters in Estes Park, Colorado, although they appear to have taken some of their ideology and organizational tactics from two earlier movements, the 1970s/1980s Posse Comitatus, and the 1960s Minutemen. Peters' meeting was initiated in the wake of the Ruby Ridge fiasco and he invited a large number of leaders from both mainstream evangelical Christian and political extreme right circles; most mainstream Christians blew him off, so the attendance wound up reading like a who's who of the extreme right. Among those in attendance were Aryan Nations leader Richard Butler; Texas Ku Klux Klan leader Louis Beam; Chris Temple, who published the Christian Identity newspaper The Jubilee; and attorney Kirk Lyons, who has headed an assortment of white supremacist and neo-Confederate legal defense funds[6]. The purpose of the meeting was to figure out what to do to make sure a Ruby Ridge didn't happen again. Their solution: form citizens' militias.

However, the movement quickly spiraled out of control — and out of the control of the extreme right leaders who initiated it. As with many such movements, the founders talked up the militia concept but then stepped out of the way and went back to what they had been doing before once the ball got rolling. The movement quickly attracted a different set of far-right leaders as a vehicle for their own ends, as well as a smattering of unstables and unknowns who saw the militia movement as a way to make a name for themselves. The government's loosening of shortwave radio regulations in the mid '80s, permitting private religious broadcasters to operate shortwave radio stations, gave the movement a useful outreach tool and propaganda outlet as these broadcasters realized, sometime in the early '90s, that there was money to be made in leasing out airtime to extreme right pundits so crazy that even Rush Limbaugh wouldn't come anywhere near them.[7] Many of these hosts emerged as major militia figures in their own right.

The militia movement's strongest period (as monitored by the Anti-Defamation League[8] and the Southern Poverty Law Center was the mid-1990s during the Clinton administration, and much of its ideological motivation came from perceived injustices perpetuated by governmental authority in cases such as Ruby Ridge and the Waco siege. The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993 and the Federal Assault Weapons Ban of 1994, along with books like John Ross' Unintended Consequences, also motivated conservative gun owners to sign up with such groups, fearing that the government was moving towards the confiscation of personal firearms. In addition, the populist Presidential run of Ross Perot in 1992 and the passage of NAFTA in 1994 motivated angry workers who felt that the government had sold out the middle and working classes to business interests. Finally, the movement also attracted the usual bunch of whackers who took "emergency preparedness" a little too seriously, as well as grown-up little boys who read magazines about mercenaries and needed an excuse to run around in the woods in camo shouting "hoo-ah!" without actually having to meet the physical fitness requirements to join the military. (Couldn't they have just gone hunting instead?)

The bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995 by Timothy McVeigh, as well as a number of clashes with federal law enforcement (notably the confrontation with the Montana Freemen in 1996 and the Republic of Texas secessionist group in 1997), caused a wave of publicity that both brought the movement to its height and led to its undoing. Right-wingers who hadn't heard of militias before but were sympathetic to the movement's goals joined existing groups or started up their own after hearing that there were folks like them who hated Washington and were willing to put their money where their mouth was. On the other hand, many of the casual hangers-on left the movement in droves, perhaps realizing it was a haven for potentially violent, and possibly mentally unstable, political extremists and deciding that they had cold feet and didn't want to be associated with it after all. After peaking in 1996 with 858 active groups, the movement went into a steep decline.[9]

Major (and minor) figures

  • Michigan janitor Mark Koernke, who called himself "Mark from Michigan". Mr. from Michigan was soon giving public speeches and making videos spinning outlandish tales of fleets of mysterious black helicopters being prepared for blue-helmeted United Nations troops to invade the U.S. Koernke then started The Intelligence Report, a show on shortwave radio peddling his same nonsense. He later served a few years in prison for resisting arrest, assaulting police officers and leading police on a car chase, but not without claiming that his former boss at the Republic Radio Network had set him up. More fun than being a mere janitor, I guess (hey, is this guy an example of the same thing?).
  • John Trochmann, who had been at the Peters meeting. Trochmann founded the Militia of Montana, one of the first major militia groups, whose main purpose was to promote the militia concept by selling a mail-order packet of information. The packet included a handbook for how to organize a militia (amusing because, among other things, every page of the booklet had the words TREASON TREASON TREASON TREASON TREASON across the top and bottom margins); a book catalog of the usual conspiracy books and far-right material; and a bunch of photocopies of tanks and military equipment being carried on railroad cars, supposed "evidence" that the United Nations was about to invade the U.S. in the name of the New World Order. The Militia of Montana got heavily involved in Y2K hysteria, which wound up crippling their membership once it turned out to be nothing. They're still around today, though, peddling conspiracy theories about 9/11 and the financial crisis.[10]
  • Indiana attorney Linda Thompson. Formerly a liberal who had done some work for the ACLU, Thompson made a video called Waco, the Big Lie right after the 1993 Waco siege. While not the first significant criticism of the government's mishandling of the events, it made a splash because it was then the most sensational. Thompson soon moved far to the right and went haywire, proclaiming herself "Acting Adjutant General of the Unorganized Militias of the United States", jumping on the "black helicopter" bandwagon, claiming the bar-coded stickers on the backs of highway signs were to guide U.N. tanks after they invaded the U.S., and proclaiming an armed march on Washington, D.C. scheduled for September 19, 1994 during which "all militia units" were to assemble and arrest the entire U.S. Congress for "treason". She later called off the march (after just about every other militia group balked at her insane proposal) and claimed it had only been to drum up publicity.
  • Ron Cole, who was so moved by the Branch Davidian siege in 1993 he converted to Branch Davidianism on the spot, and also started two militia groups, the Colorado Light Infantry and the North American Liberation Army. He soon got involved in the feud among surviving Branch Davidians as to who would take over leadership after Koresh's untimely demise. He and the three other members of his Colorado militia were arrested in 1997 over allegations of possession of machine guns.
  • Robert G. Millar, a Canadian immigrant who had founded a 400-acre compound known as Elohim City in the mountains of eastern Oklahoma in 1973. Elohim City was a popular destination for Christian Identity adherents and other white supremacists, as well as (in one case in 1986) a Canadian woman trying to evade a custody battle. During the '90s, four members of the white supremacist bank robbery gang the Aryan Republican Army lived in Elohim City, and Timothy McVeigh also had some connections to the compound — he had been issued a speeding ticket in the area, and Richard Snell, an Elohim City resident and convicted murderer, threatened that something drastic would happen on the day of his execution. Hours before he was executed, the Oklahoma City bombing was carried out.

Decline and dormancy in the early-mid 2000s

Many militia groups and leaders got involved in the hype surrounding the Y2K problem, using the fear surrounding it as a recruiting tool and pushing it as the date of the end times, the New World Order's ultimate takeover, or whatever their big issue was. When Y2K went out with a fizzle rather than a bang, many of the people hyping it up were left with egg on their faces, and those moderate-but-scared followers that hadn't already left the movement over its propensity for violence now saw no reason why they should stay on.

9/11 was the final nail in the movement's coffin. It split the militias into two camps; while some militia leaders claimed that 9/11 was an inside job, others affirmed their patriotism and offered their support in the war against the "Islamofascists". Furthermore, the presidency of George W. Bush and the political dominance of the conservative wing of the Republican Party meant that most of the movement's causes, such as illegal immigration, had a more respectable outlet in the form of political activism, causing the more mainstream (or at least less militant) members to leave and take up support of political efforts to implement their goals. This only further shrank the group's membership to a small hard-core fringe of true believers. By around 2004, while there were still a handful of groups keeping the concept alive, the militia movement had completely petered out as an organized political force.

However, while down for the time being, the embers on the far-right were still very warm. The middle of the decade saw the rise of anti-immigrant "citizen border patrol" groups like the Minuteman Project (no relation to the Minutemen of the '60s), Ranch Rescue and their many copycats, which grabbed media attention with their armed patrols of the US-Mexico border. The Bush administration's policy in support of immigration reform and Latino outreach, along with 2008 Presidential candidate John McCain's moderate positions on immigration, alienated much of the anti-immigrant right, causing them to grow more radicalized and claim that mainstream conservative politicians had betrayed them in favor of "pandering to the Mexican vote".[11] In addition, the War on Terror and the expansion of the government's police powers in the name of combating terrorism caused many libertarians and paleoconservatives to turn against the Republican Party. While some found common cause with anti-war liberals and left-leaning civil libertarians, others went off the deep end and delved into the conspiratorial world of the far-right.

The second wave: today

The radicalization of nativists and the anti-war right provided the kindling for a rebirth of the militia movement. The sparks came in 2008-09, when the economic crisis, the election of Democratic President Barack Obama, the Tea Party movement and the proliferation of "red meat" from right-wing blogs, talk radio and cable news kicked the "Patriot" movement and its rhetoric back into high gear, leading to a second wave of "traditional" anti-government militias.[12] One group at the forefront of the new movement, the Oath Keepers, specifically recruits military and law enforcement personnel in the interests of "upholding the Constitution", with their list of ten "orders we will not obey" including two references to concentration/detention camps, one to the seizure of civilians' personal firearms, and one to foreign troops on US soil, all major bogeymen of the "Patriot" right.[13] Meanwhile, many of the old anti-government plots are once again coming out of the woodwork.[14][15]

Analogues outside the US

In the aftermath of World War I, the Freikorps paramilitary groups in Germany and German-speaking lands can be seen as having been a European analogue/antecedent to the American militia movement in both actions and ideology. They engaged in violence against communists and Slavic peoples who they saw as having stabbed Germany in the back, the latter in particular in those areas of the Baltic states and Poland with large German minorities. In addition, just like American militias that claim descent from the "minutemen" of the Revolutionary War, the Freikorps had a founding myth in the militias that waged guerrilla war against the French during the Napoleonic Wars. Many Freikorps leaders went on to become high-ranking members of the notorious Schutzstaffel, or SS, though many also opposed the Nazis and were purged in the Night of the Long Knives.

In South Africa, groups like the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB) and the Afrikaner Volksfront (AVF) engaged in violence against anti-apartheid politicians during the '80s and early '90s. The AWB declared war on the government once it entered negotiations to end the apartheid system, and on June 25, 1993, they led an attempt to storm the World Trade Centre in Kempton Park near Johannesburg, where the negotiations were being held.

See also

External links


  1. A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.
  2. wp:Civil Air Patrol
  3. wp:State Defense Force
  4. wp:Community emergency response team
  5. wp:United States civil defense
  6. Southern Poverty Law Center's profile on Kirk Lyons
  7. Sean Hannity, on the other hand, was more than happy to cozy up with neo-Nazi ideologue Hal Turner until it became inconvenient to his rising career.
  9. "Militias 'in retreat'." BBC News, 11 May 2001.
  10. Yes, they have a webshite.
  11. A tradition that they apparently forget goes back to Ronald Reagan, who passed the first "amnesty" bill in 1986 and remarked during his 1980 campaign that "Latinos are Republicans... [who] just don't know it yet."
  13. "The Second Wave: Return of the Militias." Southern Poverty Law Center, August 2009. (note: dead link)
  14. "US 'Christian militants' charged after FBI raids." BBC News, 30 March 2010.
  15. "Georgia men arrested over alleged US ricin plot." The Guardian, 2 November 2011.
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