Social media swelling armed ranks of U.S. homegrown, anti-government militants
REDMOND, Ore. — BJ Soper took aim with his AR-15 semi-automatic rifle and fired a dozen shots at a human silhouette target. Soper’s wife and their 16-year- old daughter practised drawing pistols. Then Soper helped his four-year- old daughter, in pink sneakers and a ponytail, work on her marksmanship with a .22-calibre rifle.
Deep in the heart of a vast U.S. military training ground, surrounded by spent shotgun shells and juniper trees blasted to shreds, the Central Oregon Constitutional Guard was conducting its weekly firearms training.
“The intent is to be able to work together and defend ourselves if we need to,” said Soper, 40, a building contractor who is an emerging leader in a growing national movement rooted in distrust of the federal government, one that increasingly finds itself in armed conflicts with authorities.
Those in the movement call themselves patriots, demanding the federal government adhere to the Constitution and stop what they see as systematic abuse of land rights, gun rights, freedom of speech and other liberties.
Law enforcement officials call them dangerous, delusional and sometimes violent, and they say that their numbers are growing amid a wave of anger at the government that has been gaining strength since 2008, a surge that coincided with the election of the first black U.S. president and a crippling economic recession.
Soper started his group, which consists of about 30 men, women and children from a handful of families, two years ago as a “defensive unit” against “all enemies foreign and domestic.” Mainly, he’s talking about the federal government, which he thinks is capable of unprovoked aggression against its own people.
The group’s members are drywallers and flooring contractors, nurses and painters and high school students, who stockpile supplies, practise survival skills and “basic infantry” tactics, learn how to treat combat injuries, study the Constitution and train with their concealed handguns and combat-style rifles.
“It doesn’t say in our Constitution that you can’t stand up and defend yourself,” Soper said. “We’ve let the government step over the line and rule us, and that was never the intent of this country.”
Law enforcement officials and the watchdog groups that track the self-styled “patriot” groups call them anti-government extremists, militias, armed militants or even domestic terrorists. Some opponents of the largely white and rural groups have made fun by calling them Y’all Qaida or Vanilla ISIS.
Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors extremism, said there were about 150 such groups in 2008 and about 1,000 now. Potok and other analysts, including law enforcement officials who track the groups, said their supporters number in the hundreds of thousands, counting people who signal their support in more passive ways, such as following the groups on social media. The Facebook page of the Oath Keepers, a group of former members of police forces and the military, for example, has more than 525,000 “likes.”
U.S. President Barack Obama’s progressive policies and the tough economic times have inflamed anti-government anger, the same vein of rage into which Donald Trump has tapped during his Republican presidential campaign, said Potok and Mark Pitcavage, who works with the AntiDefamation League and has monitored extremism for 20 years.
Much of the movement traces its roots to the deadly 1990s confrontations between civilians and federal agents at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and in Waco, Texas, that resulted in the deaths of as many as 90. Timothy McVeigh cited both events before he was executed for the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people, and he said he had deliberately chosen a building housing federal government agencies.
Now a Second Wave is spreading across the country, especially in the West, fuelled by the Internet and social media. J. J. MacNab, an author and George Washington University researcher who specializes in extremism, said social media have allowed individuals or small groups such as Soper’s to become far more influential than in the 1990s, when the groups would spread their message through meetings at local diners and via faxes.
The movement received a huge boost from the 2014 standoff at Cliven Bundy’s ranch in Nevada, where federal agents and hundreds of armed supporters of Bundy faced off in a dispute over the rancher’s refusal to pay fees to graze his cattle on federal land.
When federal agents backed down rather than risk a bloody clash, Bundy’s supporters claimed victory and were emboldened to stage similar armed faceoffs last year at gold mines in Oregon and Montana.
In January, dozens of armed occupiers, led by Bundy’s sons Ammon and Ryan, took over the headquarters buildings of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near rural Burns, Ore., an action that later resulted in the death of Robert (LaVoy) Finicum, an occupier who was shot by state troopers.
Soper has been in the middle of all of it. He says he has tried to be a more moderate voice in a movement best known for its hotheads. He spent a month living in his RV at Burns, trying to talk the occupiers into standing down.
Two days after Soper’s last visit to the refuge, Finicum was killed in an operation in which the Bundys were arrested. An independent local investigation concluded the shooting was justified, although the U.S. Justice Department is investigating several FBI agents for possible misconduct. Soper considers Finicum’s death “murder.”
That kind of talk is “a big deal,” said Stephanie Douglas, who retired in 2013 as the FBI’s top official overseeing foreign and domestic counterterrorism programs.
“Free speech doesn’t make you a terrorist just because you disagree with the government,” she said. “But if you start espousing violence and radicalizing your own people toward a violent act, the federal government is going to take notice.”
Shortly after the Bundy ranch confrontation, two of Bundy’s supporters who had been at the ranch, Jerad and Amanda Miller, killed two police officers and a civilian and also died in a Las Vegas shooting rampage. Police said the couple left a note on the body of one the officers they had shot point-blank.
It said: “This is the beginning of the revolution.”
Until two years ago, BJ Soper was a creature of ESPN.
Settled down after spending much of his 20s as a professional rodeo rider, he lived with his second wife and their two daughters on a pastoral plot of land with horses, dogs, cats, chickens and a majestic view of the snow-capped Cascades.
He spent his days building sheds and doing other small carpentry jobs and his weekends watching sports on TV. He played softball. He hunted and fished. He followed his mother’s advice and stayed away from politics: She taught him young that registering to vote was just a way for the government to call you to jury duty.
Then the TV news was filled with footage from the Bundy ranch, and he was shocked. Government officials said Bundy had been abusing grazing rights and refusing to pay his fees for two decades, so they finally sent in armed agents to round up his cattle grazing on federal land. Officials said they had shown great restraint and patience with Bundy. But to Soper, it appeared they were bullying him.
He wondered: “Do we really have federal armed agents out there pointing guns and threatening to kill people over cows? What in the hell is going on here?”
He started doing research on the Internet and quickly tapped into what seemed to be thousands of voices arguing that the federal government had lost track of the constitutional limits on its power.
“At that point, I had heard of Waco, Texas, and I had heard of Ruby Ridge, and quite honestly, I thought, ‘Oh, that’s just a bunch of crazies up there, and they got in a gunfight with the government,’” he said. “But that’s not the truth.” The more he read, the more convinced he was that the government was “out of control,” and he was amazed by the number of people who felt the same way.
“I was very disappointed with myself,” he said. “I realized that we’re here in the predicament that we’re in as a country because my generation, and my parents’ generation, have done nothing. We let this happen. We got used to our cushy lives where everything’s easy. We have forgotten what’s really important. We’ve forgotten what liberty and freedom really mean.”
It was like being shaken out of a lifetime of slumber, he said: “Before 2014, I was blind. I wasn’t awake. I wasn’t paying attention. But Bundy Ranch woke me up.”
Suddenly, his weekends watching the San Francisco 49ers or the Portland Trail Blazers seemed like anesthesia numbing him against real life.
“I lived like 90 per cent of Americans, oblivious to everything that was going on, from the time I was 18 until the Bundy Ranch happened,” he said.
“I just said, ‘I can’t sit back and do nothing. I’ve got to get involved.’ I feel responsible for where we’re at, because I’ve done nothing my entire life.”
His response was to start his Central Oregon Constitutional Guard, which he said was partly to protect against the government, but partly a way to get back to a simpler America.
“As a kid, life was easy,” he says on the group’s website. “No worries. Very little threats. I would ride my bike around all over the neighbourhood for hours on end. Play with friends and show back up for dinner without worry.”
Critics say such talk is naive nostalgia for a 1950s America that wasn’t ever really such a homespun paradise in the first place. And they say the groups that have sprung up in response are far more dangerous than Soper and others want to make them seem.
Soper brushes Kalley’s hair at their family’s home in Redmond, Ore., in March.