This an excerpt from Up in Arms: A Guide to Oregon’s Patriot Movement co-published with Rural Organizing Project.
Militias and Gun Rights
CLAIM: Committees of Safety are governmental structures with decision-making powers.
REPLY: Committees of Safety do not have any legal authority and do not appear anywhere in either the U.S. or Oregon constitutions. They are Patriot movement formations designed to carry out their political views while mimicking governmental forms to convince potential followers that they have legitimacy and power.
Despite claiming to be “democratically elected,” movement groups often appoint or select members of Committees of Safety to provide a local “front” for a national Patriot strategy. These committees take advantage of real frustrations people have with government agencies to make vigilante actions seem respectable. Unlike the justice system, however imperfect it is, there are NO avenues to hold vigilante Committees of Safety accountable to all voters. An accountability process that all can agree on is key to a just democracy.
CLAIM: Self-appointed judges and so-called “common law grand juries” can indict, try, convict, and sentence people, including elected officials, federal employees, and business owners.
REPLY: Like Committees of Safety, “common law grand juries” have no legal standing, having been dreamed up by people who share a common ideology. The real legal system is based on the U.S. and state constitutions, and federal, state, and local statutes passed by elected legislative bodies, with over 200 years of legal precedence. Historically, the legal system has been subject to a lot of abuse and favoritism. “Common law courts” take advantage of the frustrations many feel to engage in harassment and intimidation of individuals these self-appointed groups decide to persecute. On the other hand, many people who have become true believers in the Sovereign Citizen movement have not fared well in the courts when their ideological beliefs run smack into the reality of the real world justice system. Changing the abuses of the current judicial system is the work of democracy, using the democratic tools of education, open debate, and political action.
CLAIM: The occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge was a legal and nonviolent occupation by peaceful protestors, just like Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, or the Civil Rights movement.
REPLY: The Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and Civil Rights movements did not vow to “not to be taken alive,” and did not argue their actions were lawful or constitutional. In fact, they planned to be arrested and jailed. Many laws were broken by the occupation; the argument that they were not is based on the Patriot movement’s fantasies that all gun restrictions are illegal and that the federal government cannot legally own the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge land. These arguments do not have any legal backing.
The right to “peacefully assemble and petition the government for redress of grievance”—to protest—is a right of the people that predates the founding of our government. That is why it was included in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. As such, peaceful protest is as much a part of governing the United States as is Congress, the courts, or the presidency. Inherent in this right is that peaceful protesters may have to face arrest from unjust authorities, as one way to right an unjust law. Carrying weapons to a protest means it is no longer a protest, but an act of intimidation with a very clear implied threat of violence. The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupiers were armed. Federal employees of the wildlife sanctuary were intimidated from coming to work by these armed occupiers.
CLAIM: Social justice organizers shouldn’t silence the Patriot movement; all events should allow open carry—otherwise they are infringing on people’s rights.
REPLY: Organizers, with all different kinds of politics, have the right to choose whom they are working with. Patriot movement activists who come into progressive circles, but who do not share the larger political values of the movement, do not have a constitutional right to join private events or to defy gun restrictions. This particular argument has been used by Patriot-types to disrupt and derail progressive organizing. We should not allow people who do not share our values to participate if their primary intention is to cause disruptions, or to advance a political agenda which is not part of our already shared values.
CLAIM: Environmentalists have destroyed rural economies by locking the land up. Opening up public lands to more ranching, logging, and mining will bring back jobs.
REPLY: Rural Oregon has been in a recession for over 30 years. Businesses have shut down, jobs have been lost, and people have lost homes and had to move. Schools and libraries were closed and services cut to the bone. The Great Depression of the 1930s only lasted about a decade. Why has nothing been done to rebuild the rural economy?
Prosperity was a late arrival to rural Oregon. Before World War II, loggers were dehumanized and treated like a disposable workforce, and mill workers were subject to the same bad working conditions that all American factory workers endured. The New Deal helped to create the prosperous Oregon we remember from the 1950s and 1960s. The federal government funded the electrification of rural Oregon. After World War II, it subsidized the housing industry, creating a vast market for timber products cut from national forests. Labor unions were legalized, allowing workers, for the first time, to get a fair wage for their work.
But by 1981, federal deficits due to the Vietnam War and two oil boycotts created a terrible round of inflation in the United States. To bring inflation under control, interest rates were raised to over 18 percent, making loans, including mortgages, more expensive. Home building crashed, along with the entire timber industry. When the economy recovered by the mid-1980s the timber industry was crippled. In the new era of deregulation and easy credit, the timber industry was attacked by corporate raiders who sold off whole production lines, broke the unions, cut wages, eliminated job security, and saddled the companies they bought with debt.
A few years after all this happened, some environmentalists won lawsuits to protect endangered species on public lands. While the damage to the economy had happened years before, the “spotted owl” and “tree huggers” became convenient scapegoats for industry and politicians alike.
Opening up federal lands to cut-and-run logging and other natural resource extraction-based industries will not revive our rural economy. Before the New Deal helped to bring rural Oregon out of the Depression, we had the era of the Robber Barons, King Timber, dust bowls, and permanent poverty. Those are the “good old days” that some people want to bring back. Those who would sell off the remaining national forests for private profit are proposing to do the opposite of what we need to build a prosperous rural Oregon.
It was government assistance and planning that pulled rural Oregon out of the Great Depression. To revive our economy today, we need a new plan and more government support—not less. The new plan should revolve around conservation-based logging, domestic production, clean energy production, and restoring the forests and waterways that everyone depends on, including city people. City prosperity depends on the bounty, the clean water, air, forests, and fields of rural Oregon, and the city must pay its fair share, not turn its back on its rural neighbors.
CLAIM: Muslims are undermining our civilization and bringing Sharia law to the United States.
REPLY: First, we’ve seen these types of arguments before when Roman Catholics and Jews came to this country in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. All of these groups assimilated and became part of the fabric of American society. Second, U.S. Muslims are a small and marginalized minority, and have nowhere sought to impose Sharia law on non-Muslims, although they may be trying to live according to it. As legal scholar Noah Feldman explains, Shariah refers to God’s divine and unchanging blueprint for human life, and Muslims see humans as its flawed interpreter.1
Oregon acted on people’s suspicion of newcomers before in the 1920s, but then it was Roman Catholics; they were the main target of state’s Ku Klux Klan. One persistent conspiracy theory held that Catholics were more loyal to the Pope than to the U.S. government. So under popular pressure, Oregon outlawed Catholic schools, an action that was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court. This is now recognized as a shameful part of our history, like racial segregation. The campaign against Muslims will eventually be viewed as just as shameful.
CLAIM: Syrian refugees are ISIS sleeper cells and not properly vetted.
REPLY: The United States has very tough immigration screenings compared to other countries. In a one-and-a-half to two year process, they are vetted by the National Counterterrorism Center, the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center, and the Departments of State, Defense, and Homeland Security. The government takes their fingerprints and life histories; then trained U.S. officials interview each one to verify that they are really refugees. They take another step for refugees from Syria to verify why they fled their homes.2
These Syrian refugees are fleeing a country devastated, in part, by ISIS—not spreading the group’s ideology. If you are against ISIS, you should be helping its victims, not forcing them to return to Syria where they may be killed by the group.
CLAIM: The county sheriff is the highest elected law enforcement authority. Therefore, sheriffs have the ability to decide which laws are constitutional. They can also tell federal agents to leave their county and/or these agents must have the sheriff’s permission to execute warrants or make arrests in their county.
REPLY: This idea was originally cooked up by White Supremacists who opposed the Civil Rights acts of the 1960s. They wanted to abolish laws that guaranteed social equality, protected the environment, and allowed federal income tax. They thought they could convince county sheriffs to resist implementing these laws. While county sheriffs are not obligated to enforce certain regulations passed by federal agencies, they have no legal right to decide which local, state, and federal laws are constitutional, and thus enforceable. They also have no legal right to prevent federal agents from performing their duties.
CLAIM: Only the “Organic Constitution” should be followed.
REPLY: The “Organic Constitution” ignores all of the amendments of the Constitution after the Bill of Rights, the first ten passed during the Revolutionary era. To refuse to accept the other amendments is to allow slavery (the Thirteenth Amendment abolished it), remove citizenship from freed slaves and their descendants, and other guarantees of birthright citizenship (Fourteenth Amendment), and get rid of guarantees of equal voting rights for citizens (Fifteenth Amendment). It would also get rid of the federal income tax (Sixteenth Amendment), and remove the guarantee of the right to vote for women (Nineteenth Amendment).
CLAIM: The “Tenth Amendment” has been trampled upon.
REPLY: The Tenth Amendment reads, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” When the Hard Right invokes the Tenth Amendment, it is code for “state’s rights”—especially the idea that most federal government regulations and landholdings are not legal, and should be the province of state governments. This was the rallying cry of the Confederacy and the segregationists.
CLAIM: This is a country of laws, and federal regulations are not laws. The Constitution is a document that was written for the common man and made to be easily understood.
REPLY: Over the last two hundred years, our political system has changed. The Civil War, a life and death struggle to end slavery, came about because of critical flaws in the original Constitution that protected slavery and slave-owners. The Constitution was forced to adapt. Over time, the federal government has taken on a greater role in regulating the economy and protecting the civil rights of all. The courts have ruled that this evolution has been legal, and in fact this change has taken place in governments around the world. When someone claims the Constitution is “written for the common man,” prepare to hear a special Patriot movement version of the Constitution that would roll back civil rights, environmental protections, the rights of union members, and other victories of the movement for greater democracy.
CLAIM: Article 1, Section 8, Clause 17 of the Constitution says the federal government can only own “ports, forts, and ten square miles” of Washington, D.C.
REPLY: This clause says that Congress shall have the power “To exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten Miles square) as may, by Cession of Particular States, and the Acceptance of Congress, become the Seat of the Government of the United States, and to exercise like Authority over all Places purchased by the Consent of the Legislature of the State in which the Same shall be, for the Erection of Forts, Magazines, Arsenals, dock-Yards, and other needful Buildings.”
This passage is the mantra for Patriot movement activists who believe the federal government is not allowed to own most public lands, or cannot own them without prior permission of state governments. But the courts have ruled since the late 1800s that the federal government has the right to hold public lands. Despite the claims of the Patriot movement, in the U.S. political system, the Supreme Court—not county sheriffs, self-proclaimed judges, or Hard Right activists—are the ultimate arbiter of what is constitutional and what is not.
CLAIM: Federal land should be transferred to state or county governments.
REPLY: The land transfer movement is a backdoor maneuver to overturn environmental protections. While supporters claim this will revitalize rural economies, it is really a drive to exploit lands that belong to all the people, for private profit. By transferring the costs of maintaining the lands onto smaller local agencies, including police, fire suppression, and maintaining roads, those lands become more vulnerable to corporations whose revenue is often far bigger than local government budgets. As local agencies prove unable to maintain the lands, the call to sell them outright will be inevitable. It is just a disguised land grab.
CLAIM: Our tyrannical federal government is attempting to ban private gun ownership, after which it will put us in FEMA camps.
REPLY: Various forms of this conspiracy theory have been around for decades: the notion that some shadowy force is about to turn the United States into a tyrannical authoritarian state. If Democratic presidents were going to take our guns away and put us into camps, wouldn’t it have happened by now?
CLAIM: We live in a Socialist country.
REPLY: In Patriot movement lingo, socialism is any kind of regulation of markets. Even mild market regulations, including minimum wage and health and safety laws, as well as civil rights guarantees, such as same-sex marriage, are considered “socialism.” Almost all industrialized countries are “socialist” according to these criteria.
CLAIM: Agenda 21 (and 2030 Agenda) is a plan to take over private land under the ruse of environmentalism and drive rural people into the cities.
REPLY: Agenda 21 is a non-binding United Nations resolution, signed by George W. Bush, that encourages new development to take environmental sustainability into consideration. Instead, right-wing conspiracy theorists say that Agenda 21 is a secret United Nations plan to work through the federal government in the name of environmentalism to seize land from farmers and other rural people so it can control of the country and institute a socialist dictatorship. The real Agenda 21 is now superseded by the new, and also non-binding, 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The plan for global domination is sure taking a long time.
The reality is that global temperatures and species’ extinctions are spiking, and environmental regulations lag far behind the destruction of the natural world. In addition, total federal landholdings are actually shrinking—not growing.
CLAIM: The government is seizing private land to exploit the minerals there (like uranium and gold), which will be given to China to pay off debts.
REPLY: This is a common claim, usually tied in with the Agenda 21 conspiracy theory. Some said the government’s conflict with the Hammond family was an attempt to seize their property which contained uranium. Similar claims were heard about the Sugar Pine Mine: the federal government ordered the miners to cease and desist because it wanted their gold. In fact, the Hammonds have kept their property, and there is no uranium on the land (it is in the next county over). Even if there had been, it seems like there must be an easier way for the United States to pay back international debts than illegally seizing private land and then transferring it to a foreign government. This xenophobic conspiracy theory is complete with a foreign villain (China) who is taking away from the patriotic little guy (largely White U.S. miners and ranchers).
|1.||↑||Noah Feldman, “A Lesson for Newt Gingrich: What Shariah Is (and Isn’t),” New York Times, July 15, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/17/opinion/sunday/a-lesson-for-newt-ging…|
|2.||↑||“4 Things to Know About the Vetting Process for Syrian Refugees,” NPR, November 17, 2015,www.npr.org/2015/11/17/456395388/paris-attacks-ignite-debate-over-u-s-refugee-policy.|