In May 2020, a leader of the recent wave of anti-Lockdown protests against government issued Covid-19 directives and ReOpen America founder, Suzzanne Monk, told journalist Shane Burley that the next step of their protest movement was to reach out to sheriffs departments. ReOpen America, one of hundreds of organizations that attracted far right groups to protest stay-at-home orders, is a national Political Action Committee that formed in April and has since endorsed protests to “Re-Open” in Oregon, Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania. While their organization is new, the idea of influencing sheriffs to defend a particular group’s interests is not. There is a well established strategy on the far right including in the patriot movement, among Christian Reconstructionists and in the sovereign citizens movement, as well as in the KKK before them, to pressure elected officials of the lower magistrate, particularly sheriffs, to defy state and federal orders that don’t reflect their values. ReOpen America’s efforts to align the militarized political protesters in their movement with law enforcement is likely to lead to the types of injustices against marginalized communities that have occurred when such alliances were forged historically. Refusing to enforce stay-at-home orders and calling them “tyrannical,” undermines the institutions meant to protect public health and those most vulnerable to the virus — particularly Black, immigrant, and low income communities.
To Monk’s advantage, there is a pre-existing network of right-wing sheriffs who have adopted a decades-old legal theory of county-level sovereignty. These sheriffs, who refer to themselves as “constitutionalists,” argue they have a legal and ethical duty to refuse to enforce state and federal policies and laws they believe to be unconstitutional. The legacy of these “constitutional” actions is rooted in anti-desegregation efforts and refusal to cooperate with civil rights enforcement, environmental regulations, and other dubious efforts to assert local priority under the law. Their flagship organization, Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA), was founded during the Obama administration by former Arizona Sheriff Richard Mack. From their point of view, public health measures intended to prevent the unchecked spread of the coronavirus are acts of government tyranny, and those who protest and resist them deserve the protection of the sheriff. The legal theory in question is self-serving for the sheriffs involved and contradicted by well-established principles of constitutional law. Such claims for “local control” are, however, extremely convenient for organizers like Monk.
In fact, ReOpen America’s website directly links to constitutional sheriffs and militia resources in their call to action page. Their six point plan to “get America back to work” starts with contacting your local sheriff to encourage them to stand up for the constitution. ReOpen America directs readers to National Liberty Alliance’s, a nationwide sovereign citizen group closely aligned with CSPOA, website on the power of the county sheriff. The site features a copy of an 84-page Sheriff’s Handbook, CSPOA founder Sheriff Richard Mack’s five part youtube video series on the power of sheriffs, and the militia organization, Oath Keepers’ video on “not obeying orders to blockade American cities, thus turning them into giant concentration camps.”
Unfortunately ReOpen America’s strategy coincides with at least 60 sheriffs spread across more than a dozen states, who are publicly opposing restrictions issued by governors, according to reporting by the Marshall Project. A number of the sheriffs are directly linked to CSPOA, and others have historical ties to the broader Patriot movement, a loose network of organized militia, the so-called sovereign citizens movement, and conservative “constitutionalists” who promote right-wing decentralization, particularly regarding the economy and federal regulations.
One such sheriff, Michigan’s Barry County Sheriff Dar Leaf is a close ally of CSPOA and has become a hero of Michigan’s anti-Lockdown protests. Dar Leaf represents a predominantly White and rural county of Michigan, which had only 57 reported cases of COVID-19 and one related death as of May 17. Leaf spoke out against Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s stay at home order on Fox News and Friends, where he described the order as unconstitutional; seemingly harmlessly, he said he wanted to allow people to go out on motor boats in his county. Four other northern Michigan sheriffs issued a letter to the Governor, also stating that they wouldn’t enforce her order because it was unconstitutional, three of whom have also participated in CSPOA activities.
After Dar Leaf’s appearance, he agreed to be a featured speaker at a May 18 anti-Lockdown rally in Grand Rapids, called “American Patriot Rally-Sheriffs speak out.” Organized by one of the groups who organized the April 30 anti-Lockdown protest in Lansing where armed protesters entered the state capitol building, American Patriot Rally organizers specifically asked people to come to the Grand Rapids event armed. Their upbeat promotional video for the event portrays photoshopped images of Governor Gretchen Whitmer against a backdrop of former Communist leaders, conflating her COVID-19 health orders with Stalinism and echoing themes raised by Republican public officials who grossly compared government stay-at-home orders with the Holocaust and Nazism.
CSPOA, an organized network of sheriffs and militia, has mostly stayed in the background since the Trump administration took office, with the exception of supporting policy initiatives like second amendment sanctuary resolutions and ordinances. Since Covid-19, however, there appears to be an uptick in their activity. On October 12, 2019 Dar Leaf was one of over a hundred activists, sheriffs, chiefs of police, and rank and file officers who gathered for the “Lawmen for Liberty” conference in Mesa, Arizona, the first convening organized by CSPOA since Trump took office. The convening featured a number of prominent constitutional sheriffs and patriot movement leaders, including Sheriff Mack, Stewart Rhodes of the Oath Keepers, Tony Mace who led New Mexico’s second amendment sanctuary resolution efforts, former Elkhart, Indiana Sheriff Brad Rogers, Barry County Sheriff Dar Leaf and Washington State’s Klickitat County Sheriff Bob Songer, who was awarded with CSPOA’s sheriff of the year “for his exemplary dedication as a constitutional sheriff.” The latter has since become a national leader of the Patriot movement for refusing to enforce Washington state Governor Inslee’s shelter in place order.
Sheriff Songer’s defiance of Washington’s shelter in place order was well documented by Charles Bethea in a recently published article for the New Yorker. Bethea notes how Sheriff Songer received an email from CSPOA founder Sheriff Richard Mack in April, 2020, calling the coronavirus a “Panicdemic.” Soon after, Songer forwarded an email to the Washington Sheriffs Association, urging sheriffs to support the U.S. constitution and not allow Governors to override their liberties. The email was sent on the same day that anti-Lockdown protestors held a rally at the capitol featuring, “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Covid 19!” signs.
Songer has a 100-resident strong sheriff’s posse, common among constitutional sheriffs, and has openly supported the Bundys according to someone interviewed by the New Yorker. He was celebrated by CSPOA at their national convening after his refusal to enforce Washington’s state law I-1639, which requires increased background checks on sales for automatic rifles and makes 21 the age limit for purchase of a semiautomatic rifle. He was one of at least 20 sheriffs in the state who refused to enforce the initiative, but Songer went even further, saying he would attempt to prevent other agencies from enforcing it in their counties as well.
In Bonner County, Idaho, another rural and predominantly White county, Sheriff Daryle Wheeler, who has participated with CSPOA since 2013, was one of several elected officials in the region who publicly urged the Governor to reverse the state’s stay-at-home order, and perpetuated dangerous antisemitic theories in the process. In a letter to Gov. Little, Wheeler said the order was unconstitutional since the novel coronavirus was “nothing like the plague.” Wheeler also included a conspiracy theory filled letter written by the Florida-based Alfie Oaks in his correspondence with Gov. Little. The letter says government responses to the coronavirus have been manipulated by so-called “Globalists (aka New World Order)” through the World Health Organization in order to destroy small businesses and the U.S. economy as a ploy to get the Trump administration out of office.
The thinly-veiled antisemitic conspiracy theory of blaming “Globalists” which is often a code-word for Jewish people, was echoed by Idaho’s state legislator of that region, State Rep. Heather Scott. In April, 2020, Scott shared a video newsletter on Redoubt News’ Youtube channel, a far-right media outlet tied closely to the sovereign citizen’s movement, calling on residents to defy the Governor’s shelter in place order. In her newsletter, she blames “global and socialist agendas” for killing small businesses in the town and calls government orders to shelter in place tyrannical. Scott has been a longtime friend of Patriot movement leaders, including State Rep. Matt Shea, a figure within CSPOA and the Patriot movement who came under investigation by Washington State House of Respresentatives for domestic terrorism. Scott calls on county sheriffs to nullify, or not enforce, the stay-at-home orders and asks people to “stand up, speak up, show up against tyranny at all levels. Stand firm on your god-given rights.”
In Bonner County, the community has mostly been spared so far of the novel coronavirus, with a total of 4 confirmed cases and zero deaths as of May 19, 2020. But, in the state more broadly, cases have more than doubled just in the past month and Northern Idaho healthcare workers responded to Wheeler in the local press, asking him to reconsider his stance. They reminded him that the local hospital only has 4 ICU beds, and would quickly be unable to adequately serve the community in the event of even a minor outbreak.
While some sheriff departments have figured out ways to dramatically shift policies and decarcerate to mitigate the local impacts of the global tragedy, others are doing exactly the opposite. Constitutional sheriffs’ defiance of stay-at-home orders signals alignment with far-right movements that openly seek to exacerbate distrust in the federal government, while propping up conspiracy theories that scapegoat vulnerable communities. Since about two-thirds of Americans expressed declining trust in the Federal government, according to a 2019 Pew Research Center report, constitutional sheriffs and the far-right networks that surround them have a strategic advantage.