When Cliven Bundy needed help protecting his ranch from federal agents representing the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), he put out a call through his website: “Range War begins tomorrow at Bundy ranch at 9:30 a.m. Bring your signs and horses, and plan to stay as long as you can! We are going to get the job done!”
Hundreds of people descended on a small corner of the Nevada desert at a town called Bunkerville to stand with Bundy, a rancher refusing to pay grazing fees to the BLM. His supporters brought signs and horses—and guns. They included ranchers, ardent libertarians, and Tea Party politicians from Nevada and neighboring states.
Also present—and especially well-armed—were members of the nation-wide militia movement, a loose network of Americans around the country who believe that joining paramilitary groups provides the best defense against “federal government tyranny.”
“When I first arrived, Cliven was just glad to see somebody who wasn’t afraid to carry a firearm around,” said Ryan Payne, the liaison between the Bundy family and the militia movement. “Since then I’ve been coordinating with militia across the country to support their movement to this location in order to meet the Bundy and the militia community’s objectives.”
The militia movement may be familiar. In the 1990s it expanded after federal agents killed civilians in standoffs with fringe elements at Waco, Texas in 1993 and at Ruby Ridge in Idaho in 1992. The anti-government resurgence culminated in the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City by Timothy McVeigh, a militia-movement sympathizer. By the early 2000s these self-described patriots seemed to be fading away.
But the militia movement is back. The standoff in Bunkerville put a public face to the rise in anti-government sentiment among conservatives. What happens next to the militia movement remains to be seen, but many say it has been emboldened by the events in Nevada.
Researchers on the militia movement estimate there are around 250 active groups around the country, up from around 50 in 2007. Mark Pitcavage, who tracks the militia movement for the Anti-Defamation League, estimates there are 5,000 to 6,000 “card-carrying members of organized militia groups” with another 10,000 to 20,000 “with the same ideology of the militia movement but aren’t involved in any particular group.” Activities vary, but militia groups often meet for paramilitary activities that include weapons training.
Untangling the ideology of the militia movement can be tricky. There is no national organization or official charter. Groups are organized on an ad hoc, state-by-state or even county-by-county basis. But one theme resounds: fear of the federal government.
“Every militia’s goal is to peacefully protest and hopefully never have to be a victim or use any force,” says Dax Hodge, co-founder of the Oklahoma Volunteer Militia. “We just want to make sure the Constitution is followed and personal and property rights are respected.”
Many groups engage in extreme rhetoric and subscribe to conspiracy theories, claiming, for instance, that the U.S. government has erected internment camps for U.S. citizens or created pandemics to make the population more vulnerable to government control.
“The core belief of the militia movement is that the rest of the world has essentially been taken over by a globalist one-world tyrannical government that they refer to as the New World Order, and the United States is the last bastion of freedom, but our government is slowly colluding with the New World Order,” says Pitcavage.
Militias and other self-described patriot activist groups have been expanding in recent years. “Since this administration’s taken office it’s really grown,” says Hodge, who formed his Oklahoma affiliate around the time President Obama took office. He says “everything from [Attorney General] Eric Holder all the way down to the media thinking that Obamacare is constitutional” have contributed to the growth.
But Hodge does not solely blame the Obama administration. “I don’t want to sit here and say that it’s this administration. It’s been an erosion over the last 10 years of our liberties and rights, and it’s just not good,” he said.
The growth in conservative extremist groups was flagged as a concern by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in a 2009 assessment that it distributed to police departments around the country. The report, which was made public by WikiLeaks, warned that a stagnating economy, a Democratic president and the possibility of gun control legislation could revitalize the movement that had been moribund since the 1990s. Analysts say that those factors have contributed to the resurgence of the movement.
The same factors also gave rise to another anti-federal group: the Tea Party. Many of the themes that resonate throughout the militia movement can be found in the mouths of Tea Party politicians. Hodge described Tea Party Senators Ted Cruz and Rand Paul as the kinds of “liberty-minded” politicians he can get behind.
But even if the Tea Party bears some resemblances to the militia movement in its conservative themes, there are major differences between those willing to work within the political system and those who see the government as the enemy.
The DHS report divided conservative extremism into two categories, “hate-oriented” and “antigovernment.” (The militia movement falls under the latter category.)
During the standoff on the Bundy Ranch, Nevada’s Democratic Senator Harry Reid had harsh words for the armed militias in his home state. “Those people who hold themselves out to be patriots are not. They’re nothing more than domestic terrorists,” he said.
Is “domestic terrorists” excessive? The militiamen involved in the Bundy Ranch standoff never fired a shot at the federal agents, though they did carry heavy weapons and some observers admit that they feared the standoff could easily have turned violent.
But the militia movement has a long history of being tied up in plotting and committing violence. In one of the most recent cases, in August 2012, two members of a North Georgia militia group were sentenced to five years in prison for planning to blow up federal government buildings.
After the standoff at his Nevada ranch, Bundy lost some of his luster among conservatives after making a racist speech that was caught on tape. But the confrontation clearly emboldened the militia movement.
The Facebook pages of various groups show a huge spike in “likes” around the time the Bundy Ranch burst into the national news. Speaking of his own group in the past few weeks, Hodge said, “It’s been a huge influx in interest. People want to learn more about the movement.”
Some fear the revitalized movement could lead to violence as it did in the 1990s. Whatever happens, it’s unlikely that having secured a temporary victory in Nevada that the militia movement will retreat into the shadows.
“I think they were successful, and they got a lot of attention, and they got their point across. They had a major national platform for their views for a short period of time,” says Catherine Stock, a history professor at Connecticut College and the author of Rural Radicals: Righteous Indignation in the American Grain.
As for what’s next, she suggests, “I think they’d be looking for their next person to take Cliven Bundy’s place.”