So­cial me­dia swelling armed ranks of U.S. home­grown, anti-gov­ern­ment mil­i­tants

SundayXtra - - MILITIA MOVEMENT - By Kevin Sul­li­van

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.

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