In 2008, there were 150 vigilante groups in the US. Today, there are more than 1,000
Civilian militias are cropping up across the USA, motivated by the desire to maintain law and order without relying on traditional means. Armed vigilante groups are already carrying out attacks, creating no-go areas and occupying government buildings
The first thing Cliven Bundy hears is the menacing drone of the rotor blades. Gingerly, he pushes back the curtain and peers out of the window. His suspicions are confirmed: nine helicopters are circling above his ranch and an armada of police officers have surrounded the property. Two hundred law enforcement officials, including several snipers, train their sights on the 67-year-old’s property – but Bundy isn’t fazed. He smiles to himself. He’s prepared for this: in the past few days hundreds of government opponents from all over the country, including dozens of heavily armed militiamen, have made the pilgrimage to Bunkerville in Nevada to support him in the fight against Washington. “They have my cattle and now they also have my sons,” the old man says, as he loads his rifle. “The war begins tomorrow.”
HOW DO YOU GET 200 FEDERAL POLICE OFFICERS TO FLEE?
What sounds like something out of the Wild West is actually the culmination of a 20-year private feud between a farmer and the authorities. A dispute that has now developed into an all-out ‘civil war’ between the militia and the US government.
It all began mundanely enough. For decades, Bundy had grazed his cattle on land officially belonging to the US government. But as the rancher steadfastly refused to withdraw his herd and pay grazing fees to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) – his arrears had spiralled into the millions – the federal police eventually got involved. They seized 400 of his cattle and arrested Bundy’s son, Dave. For the farmer this was the final declaration of war.
The standoff lasts nearly a week. It seems only a matter of time until the first shots are fired – until out of the blue the police release the cattle and retreat. “We wanted to avoid an escalation,” explained Neil Kornze from the Bureau of Land Management. But what the government official doesn’t realise is that the ‘Farm Wars’ mark just the beginning of a new era of armed resistance against the incumbent government.
“They have my cattle and now they also have my sons. The war begins tomorrow.” CLIVEN UN Y rancher
HOW MANY MILITIAS ARE THERE IN THE USA?
Since Barack Obama’s election as US president the number of anti-government ‘patriot’ groups has exploded, rising from 150 organisations to around 1,000 in 2015. Many experts on extremism are convinced that Bundy’s triumph has only strengthened the development of civilian militias. “We believe these armed extremists have been emboldened by what they saw as a clear victory at the Cliven Bundy ranch and the fact that no one was held accountable for taking up arms against agents of the federal government,” says Heidi Beirich from the Southern Poverty Law Centre. “When the federal government was stopped from enforcing the law at gunpoint, it energised the entire movement.”
According to the BLM, there were over 50 incidents described as “serious confrontations with antigovernment overtones”, in the four years between 2010 and 2014. Among them were politically motivated attacks: in 2013 a man in Arizona was charged with attempted murder after he shot two BLM officials, and in Oregon a person threw firebombs at employees in a BLM camp.
At the forefront of this movement are a group called the Oath Keepers. Founded in 2009, the organisation has around 30,000 members, many of whom have served in the armed forces or police. The group has vowed to “protect the constitution from all enemies at home and abroad” – especially the Second Amendment, which guarantees every American the right to bear arms. Whenever there’s a conflict involving illegal immigrants, African-americans or government representatives, you can be sure the militiamen will turn up with their bulletproof vests and assault rifles. Already active in 47 US states, they were also present at the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. “They claim that they are just a group of upstanding citizens who want to protect the constitution, but that’s not true,” says Mark Potok, an expert on extremism. “The Oath Keepers are throwing oil on the fire and there’s a real danger of this fire spiralling out of control.”
IS THE STATE’S MONOPOLY ON THE USE OF FORCE INCREASINGLY LIMITED?
The Oath Keepers are just the tip of the iceberg: other militias, like the Arizona Border Recon, arbitrarily patrol the Mexican border to hunt down drug couriers and illegal immigrants, while civilian armies like the North Florida Survival Group (NFSG) equip children with assault rifles to prepare them for the apocalypse, which they believe to be imminent. What connects all of these groups is their lack of trust in the government. They see themselves as the only true guardians of the constitution, particularly the named amendments. “The government is trying to get rid of all of our weapons,” says ex-cop and NFSG leader, Jim Foster. “We are patriots just trying to protect our right to bear arms. We are the custodians of the American constitution.”
Extremism experts believe the formation of such groups is symptomatic of the transformation that America is currently undergoing – towards a society that has abolished the rule of law of the states. No one embodies this mentality quite so extremely as Donald Trump. According to Mark Potok, the Republican nominee has electrified the radical right – and in inciting hatred against Latinos, Muslims and America’s own government he has bestowed legitimacy on groups like the Oath Keepers. “Trump sounds more like the leader of a lynch mob than of a great nation like ours,” says US politician Nihad Awad.
The rest of the world isn’t immune from this form of extremism. This year has seen an increasing number of militia-style attacks on migrant camps in Calais, France, while as recently as mid-april five members of the Freital neo-nazi group in Germany were arrested. The rap sheet against them included attempted murder. Of even more concern are the numbers of guns on the streets. In January, 300 small firearms licences were applied for in Cologne following disturbances during the city’s new year celebrations. This compares with 408 applications made during the whole of 2015.
And in June, British MP Jo Cox, who campaigned for her country to leave the European Union, was shot and murdered in broad daylight by an assassin with links to far-right organisations.
A continent that’s home to a growing number of civilian militias who plan to take the law into their own hands? The parallels are obvious. The difference between the situation in the USA and Europe is that in Europe, the militias have yet to declare war on their governments.