This is the first installment of a three-day series on extremist elements participating in the Oregon takeover.
White supremacists have been documented among the armed group holding the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon, but their presence isn’t a surprise to anyone who pays attention to the patriot movement. Racism, anti-Semitism, and separatist organizing have been part of that movement for over a quarter-century. Events at Malheur are not taking place in a vacuum. The residents of Burns, Oregon are right to be worried, for the sons of welfare rancher Cliven Bundy may present their occupation to the world as a ‘wise use’ campaign, but it is not, and there are elements within its ranks whose presence should alarm us all.
Two weeks ago, Oregon Public Broadcasting discovered that David Fry, who seems to serve as the Bundy group’s webmaster and social media presence, is also an outspokenly-racist anti-Semite and militant enthusiast of Adolf Hitler. Hate group monitors have documented at least five different white supremacist tattoos on Rance Harris, who has ’88’ inked on two fingers as a numerical symbol for ‘Heil Hitler.’ Their apparent solidarity with the Bundy cult especially resonates with me after watching the critically-acclaimed documentary Welcome to Leith, which tells the disturbing story of white supremacist Craig Cobb’s 2012 almost-successful attempt to take control of a small North Dakota town. Like the situation at Malheur, law enforcement agencies were unwilling to intervene.
Cobb is best known for learning of his own black ancestry from a DNA test result that was announced by British talk show host Tricia Goddard. Buying a dozen lots in Leith before anyone knew about his views or his plans, Cobb unfurled his Nazi banners once the locals found out who he was. These events were certainly not the first example of white nationalists trying to carve out ethnic enclaves in the northwestern United States, and one cannot draw a straight line from Leith to Burns. But they are nevertheless linked in the minds of at least two of the armed militants at Malheur who dream of dismantling the federal power to enforce civil rights laws, and thus sympathize with the goals of the Malheur occupiers to end federal control of lands.
Harris, the man with ‘Heil Hitler’ symbols on his fingers, also took part in another armed Oregon land use ‘uprising’ that the Oath Keepers militia organized against the Bureau of Land Management during 2015; he wouldn’t have participated in either of these scenes unless he felt the current wave of land use extremism in the American west was a part of his own struggle for racial supremacy.
How did this happen? Here is an extremely compressed version of the process which led to this moment. It helps to visualize the ‘patriot’ movement as a blender where libertarianism, survivalism, right wing stupidity, and messianic Christian beliefs were combined with racial and national prejudices to produce a curious admixture, with the results cooked by militant fervor into an absurd and deranged pie.
Observing the collapse of the Soviet Union during his term of office, President George H. W. Bush used the words “New World Order” to describe his hope that the Cold War would give way to a more egalitarian international system. For ardent right wingers steeped in the rhetoric of the John Birch Society, however, Bush might as well have eaten a baby on live television. It was a boom time for paranoid styles on talk radio, where a more earnest kind of reactionary impulse was straining to escape the shadow of Reagan’s conservatism. It is important to note that this movement saw both Bush and his successor, Bill Clinton, as two heads of the same imaginary ‘New World Order’ hydra, for the ‘patriots’ were galvanized by incidents under both administrations in 1992 and 1993.
The first event was the siege at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, where federal authorities surrounded Randy Weaver’s survivalist homestead in what was its usual aggressive manner — no different than, say, the way the American Indian Movement was treated at Wounded Knee in 1973. Five people were killed at Ruby Ridge, including Weaver’s wife, son, and an FBI agent. Although Weaver was an adherent of the racist Christian Identity movement, the crisis had begun when he was charged for selling sawed off shotguns, so the incident alarmed the broader survivalist and 2nd Amendment communities as well as the white power crowd.
Simultaneous to this emerging solidarity, technological changes were opening new avenues to circumvent traditional media. Some of this was pure marketing: along with gold coins, quack health products, and freeze-dried apocalypse food, right wing talk radio shows advertised hand-cranked shortwave radios as the perfect means to escape government control of the airwaves once the inevitable hand of tyranny came down, and any number of fringe voices started simulcasting shortwave signals alongside the AM and FM bands to capitalize on the cachet. But serious changes were also happening. An eclectic mix of survival enthusiasts, conspiracy mongers, racists, anti-Semites, and militia hobbyists had begun to find one another on electronic bulletin boards. The internet would eventually become their primary means of communication, with effects as revolutionary as the telegraph, though far greater in scope.
More than a year before the first Netscape browser made the internet accessible to a mass audience, however, there was an entire network of fax trees already in place acting as a kind of Pony Express — and its membership is a perfect example of our topic.
Gary Hunt showed up in Waco during the 1993 Branch Davidian siege claiming to hold a power of attorney for David Koresh. Taking place just weeks after Clinton’s inauguration, it was the second galvanizing event that created the modern ‘patriot’ movement. Above is a picture of Hunt taking a phone call in his Waco motel room. Although he never presented any proof of his claims to represent Koresh, Hunt was faxing handwritten messages every day to thousands of list members during the siege. Founded by Kenneth Vardon — who retired just two years later, and died almost exactly one year ago — the Las Vegas-based American Patriot Fax Network (APFN) blended fringe conspiracy theories with classic John Birch Society tropes and a variety of right wing paranoid themes.
In the two years that it was most active, Hunt and Vardon built up their network in part by assimilating smaller fax networks of white supremacists and Christian Identity believers, both extremist groups having strong presences in the Idaho region where federal marshals had confronted Randy Weaver. At the height of its popularity, the APFN was influential enough to be written up in False Patriots: the Threat of Anti-Government Extremists, a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center which noted one APFN user with a solidly-racist leadership record:
A longtime anti-Semitic Identity minister and close associate of the late William Potter Gale, Wickstrom organized terrorist training for the Posse Comitatus during the 1980s. He served time in prison as the result of his antigovernment activites, including a conspiracy to distribute counterfeit money to fund an underground guerrilla “army.”
Still alive, 74 year-old Wickstrom is one of the few remaining leaders of the now-defunct Aryan Nations movement. As the SPLC explains, his once-promising white power career began as a grassroots phenomenon by pandering to the worst impulses of rural whites left behind by the Reagan economy.
For a time in the early ’80s, Wickstrom was one of the hottest haters in the country, preaching Yahweh’s word across the Great Plains and the upper Midwest and stirring up an army.
America’s farmers, in the grip of a devastating crisis, were a vulnerable audience. The government had urged them to expand their operations, then slapped them with a spike in interest rates. Banks called in loans. People lost farms, and Wickstrom’s hard-core combination of antigovernment teachings and Bible-based racism drew substantial crowds. The fervently anti-Semitic, antigovernment Posse Comitatus grew in strength.
Wickstrom told them their economic hardship was part of a plan to destroy God’s chosen people — the “White, Western Race” — and pointed to the Bible.
He told them debts and taxes were illegitimate and pointed to the Constitution.
Wickstrom was not an outlier, nor was his ardent call for the destruction of constitutional authority in the Constitution’s name. In an essay on the origins of the modern ‘Patriot Movement,’ longtime observer Richard Abanes notes that the APFN featured other notorious members right beside him.
Although the network has since branched out to include nonracist patriots and conservative Christians, it still sends out a steady stream of anti-Semitic materials.
A 1995 Los Angeles Times investigation found that several racist organizations belong to the Patriot Fax Network. Members supplying and receiving information include: the Arizona Patriots, a militant CIM group; Guardians of American Liberty, led by Stewart Webb, who made a series of threatening anti-Semitic phone calls from the mid-1980s to the 1990s; and CIM leader James Wickstrom, who in 1984 was convicted on two counts of impersonating a public official and one count of bail jumping.
While newsletter faxing has disappeared with the advent of websites such as Stormfront and the Daily Stormer, the APFN has a living descendant of sorts in the American Patriot Friends Network, an active Yahoo group. Hunt is still actively supporting the ‘patriot’ militia movement. After Schuyler Pyatte Barbeau, a participant in the uprising at Bundy Ranch in 2014, was arrested on a federal firearms charge in December, Hunt leaped to his defense. Inspired by Cliven Bundy’s standoff with the Bureau of Land Management, Hunt updated his “Organizational Plan for Militia Response” to no small fanfare across the full spectrum of armed anti-government extremists.
The week prior to the Cattle Unrustling, on Saturday April 12, 2014, had its difficulties, all of which were surmounted. After that day, some command problems arose, and were quickly resolved by agreement with all the parties thereto. The concept of “shared command”, based upon Councils of War, prevalent in the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, were adopted for the purpose of diversifying command and creating a coordinated effort.
In the future, as events unfold, we may arrive at a point where a command structure, based upon performance of someone who has truly demonstrated his abilities, in conflict as well as in peace, may ascend to the position we have learned to understand as “supreme commander”. Until that time, we must wait and watch, trusting that someone will demonstrate his abilities to take that position. Until that time, we should be able to successfully defend our rights and Constitution, in an organized manner, as outlined herein.
White supremacists have proven to be an abiding influence on the ‘patriot’ movement. Signaling their intentions to hold a ‘common law grand jury‘ at Malheur, the Bundy gang has invoked the bizarre belief system of so-called ‘sovereign citizens’ who take libertarian, anti-government ideology to weird extremes, especially whenever they are held to account before the law. Of course, the first ‘common law grand juries’ were introduced in the 1980s by the white supremacist Posse Comitatus and anti-Semitic Christian Identity movements. One of the intended side-effects of including white supremacists and hate groups in the ‘patriot’ movement has been the normalization of their ideas even among those who detest racism. This ongoing process is still controversial within the movement today. Scholar and researcher Chip Berlet describes some of the curious results in a chapter of the 2001 book Right Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort.
The host of the Sturbridge meeting was Leroy Crenshaw, an African American. Crenshaw, a hunter since he was a child, was primarily concerned with defending gun ownership rights and other aspects of what he saw as increasing government tyranny. Crenshaw introduced [Militia of Montana leader John] Trochmann by acknowledging that there were differences of opinion in the room about racism and antisemitism. He said he was personally uncomfortable with some of Trochmann’s views, but he was more uncomfortable with the views and actions of the government. Crenshaw noted that there were members of the Posse Comitatus present and that he had problems with some of their views, but he welcomed them to hear Trochmann as a matter of courtesy, since Trochmann was being attacked by the same liberal government and media they all opposed. In a private conversation, Crenshaw was asked about his participation in a movement where there was racism and antisemitism that made him uncomfortable. “There is racism and antisemitism wherever I look in our society,” replied Crenshaw, “it’s no different in this group.”
[…] Activists in the Northwest reported that racism and antisemitism were more pronounced among the militias they encountered. In the Midwest, some militias split into two factions over the issue of racism and antisemitism. Sometimes members with bigoted views were asked to leave by the majority faction. Racism and antisemitism were woven into the Patriot narrative, but in many cases this was unconscious and unintentional. In other cases far-right activists hid their overt racist and antisemitic views to recruit from, or take over, Patriot and militia groups. This complexity led some to indict all militia members as closet neonazis, while others, out of ignorance or expediency, sanitized the movement by trivializing evidence of racism and antisemitism.
In short, white supremacists have always been an uncomfortable, but omnipresent partner in the larger militia movement because they stand in solidarity with other types of participants on so many crucial points. White power activists want to own powerful weaponry, resist ‘federal tyranny,’ and defy ‘the system’ by replacing it with one that puts power in their own hands. Rance Harris and David Fry are not some strange, new development in this story, they are its inevitable new chapter.