History and Activities: Private Armies, Public Wars
Not surprisingly, some of the earliest leaders of the militia movement had personal associations with the standoffs at Ruby Ridge and Waco. Linda Thompson, an Indianapolis lawyer who decided unilaterally to represent the Branch Davidians during their standoff, went on to appoint herself "acting adjutant general" of the Unorganized Militia of the United States in 1993. Until her call for an armed march on Washington, D.C., fizzled in 1994, she was quite influential, particularly through the videotapes she produced alleging government complicity at Waco. More lasting in influence was a friend of Randy Weaver, John Trochmann, who with his brother and nephew formed the Militia of Montana in January 1994.
Thompson and Trochmann, along with other militia pioneers and supporters, helped other groups to form. Active militia groups arose in Ohio, Idaho, California, Florida and many other states. None grew so fast as those in Michigan, loosely formed into an umbrella group known as the "Michigan Militia," headed by a pastor and gun shop owner, Norm Olson. Militia activists recruited at gun shows, held public meetings in libraries and schools, and broadcast on shortwave radio, where talk-show hosts such as Michigan militia leader Mark Koernke were particularly popular.
The militia movement grew rapidly throughout 1994, drawing little attention until that fall, when civil rights groups such as the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center released reports and articles on the new movement. By the following spring, the militia movement had finally begun to receive scrutiny by law enforcement, the media and the public. Then the Oklahoma City bombing on April 19, 1995, created an entirely new environment. Several suspected links between the bombing and militia groups in Michigan -- later proved to be unfounded -- unleashed a storm of publicity about the militia movement around the country. The militia for the first time faced the harsh glare of the spotlight. Overall, it did not fare particularly well. Some groups disbanded in the wake of the bombing, while other groups splintered. Norm Olson was kicked out by his own followers after he told reporters that the Japanese government had been involved in the Oklahoma City bombing.
However, the overall result of the bombing and its attendant publicity was actually a rise in the militia movement, because the media attention informed many potential supporters that such a movement actually existed. As a result, the militia movement grew in numbers and activity all through 1995 and into 1996. The militia even managed to "strike back" at times, as when, in the summer of 1995, several militia leaders drew publicity to the Good Ol' Boys Roundup, a yearly festivity in Tennessee for federal and local law enforcement officers at which various racist and off-color activities had taken place. Two federal agencies were forced to launch investigations of the event as a result, while militia leaders claimed that the media had been wrong all along -- it wasn't the militia movement that was racist but, rather, the federal government. (The investigations ended up revealing that the racist activity was committed by local Tennessee law enforcement officers.)
By early 1996, virtually every state had at least one group, and most states had several. The movement had attracted the attention not only of the media but also of law enforcement, however, which had begun to discover signs of significant criminal activity. As early as 1994, members of the Blue Ridge Hunt Club, a nascent Virginia militia group, had been arrested on a variety of weapons charges. The following year an Oklahoma Christian Identity minister and militia leader, Ray Lampley, was arrested along with several followers for conspiring to blow up targets ranging from government buildings to the offices of civil rights organizations. But in 1996, a series of investigations resulted in a number of major militia-related arrests, generally on illegal weapons, explosives and conspiracy charges. In April 1996, several members of the Georgia Republic Militia were arrested, followed in July by a dozen members of the Arizona Viper Militia. Later that same month, members of the Washington State Militia found themselves in custody, while in October members of the West Virginia Mountaineer Militia were arres-ted on weapons charges and in connection with plans to blow up an F.B.I. fingerprinting facility. These arrests, not surprisingly, had a depressing effect on the movement.
Other events in 1996 and 1997 also served to weaken the movement. The most ambitious attempt to network militia groups together, the Tri-States Militia, collapsed in 1996 when it was revealed that its leader had been accepting money from the F.B.I. In March 1996, the F.B.I. surrounded the Montana Freemen, a sovereign citizen group, in remote eastern Montana, then arrested them following an 81-day standoff. Although a few militia members traveled to Montana to support (or aid) the Freemen, by and large the movement failed to respond, a fact that embittered some of the more radical members. (This scenario would be repeated the following spring when the militia failed to come to the rescue of the besieged Republic of Texas near Fort Davis, Texas.) Lack of response on the part of the militia movement caused a number of radical members to splinter away at the same time that some of the less hard-core members were leaving because of the increased arrests. By the fall of 1996, the movement had clearly faltered, and several prominent early leaders dropped out, including Idaho militia leader Samuel Sherwood; he disbanded his group in September, complaining that "the whole movement is being distorted on one side by the press and the media and taken over by the nuts and the crazies on the other."
Some militia activists attempted to buck the tide by establishing militia umbrella groups, most of which lasted only a few years. More radical members eschewed elaborate militia organizations and attempted to go it on their own. In Michigan, a group of militia members, allegedly kicked out of the Michigan Militia for being too radical, formed a group first called the "Goof Troop," then, with more dignity, the North American Militia. Members planned to bomb a large number of targets in Michigan, including a federal building and an I.R.S. building; they constructed a variety of pipe bombs and even discussed assassinating various government officials. By 1998, five members of the group had been arrested and convicted on multiple charges; leaders Brad Metcalf and Randy Graham received 40- and 55-year sentences, respectively. In Missouri, a group of extremists from several different states, led by Bradley Glover of Kansas, met at a gathering of the "Third Continental Congress," but decided that this umbrella group was not radical enough for them. They struck out on their own, planning to attack United States military bases that they suspected were training New World Order troops. Members were so committed that they sold their businesses and homes in order to have plenty of money and be completely mobile. The first planned attack would occur against Fort Hood, Texas, on July 4, 1997 -- the day that the military base hosts an annual "Freedom Festival" attended by 50,000 men, women and children. Luckily, good police work on the part of the Missouri State Highway Patrol and the F.B.I. detected the plans and prevented a tragedy; Glover and a companion were arrested on July 4 at a campground near Fort Hood. Eventually seven people were arrested in connection with the group.
Among those unwilling to go as far as to launch attacks against the government, one of the most popular tactics was the "militia confrontation," whereby groups would identify some perceived "victim of government" and come to their rescue. "Victims" might range from barricaded criminals to people about to be evicted from their homes. Militia members saw in these interventions a chance to fulfill the roles they had defined for themselves after Ruby Ridge and Waco: intervening between a "tyrannical" government and the citizenry. Prominent militia confrontations included interventions in Coushatta, Louisiana, in 1996, involving a "sovereign citizen" physician wanted for nonpayment of child support; in Hamilton, Massachusetts, in 1998, in support of a husband and wife about to lose their mansion to the F.D.I.C. for nonpayment of a loan; and in Indianapolis, Indiana, in 2000, where militia members and others camped out at an extremist-connected church, the Indianapolis Baptist Temple, whose property was in danger of being seized (until church leaders themselves, fearing violence, asked the militia to leave). And, in fact, though no confrontation has yet been violent, the threat of violence is implicit every time armed paramilitary groups confront the government -- it would take only an accident or error of judgment to cause a tragedy.