During the Oregon standoff, where a group of US citizens calling themselves the Citizens for Constitutional Freedom, seized control of a federal wildlife refuge in protest of harsh sentences being given to members of a ranching family for allegedly allowing fires set on their property to spread on to federal land, Ron Paul posed a question: Is the event isolated, or a sign of things to come?
It is becoming increasingly apparent that the Oregon standoff was the latter.
As the Washington Post writes, there is a significant movement among US citizens that are demanding that the federal government adhere to the Constitution, and stop what they see as systematic abuse of land rights, gun rights, freedom of speech and other liberties.
One example of this movement is a group in Oregon that calls itself the Central Oregon Constitutional Guard. The group refers to themselves as patriots, and is made up of people from all walks of life. The organization describes itself as a "defensive unit against all enemies foreign and domestic", mainly because they believe the government is capable of unprovoked aggression against its own people.
Deep in the heart of a vast U.S. military training ground, surrounded by spent shotgun shells and juniper trees blasted to shreds, the Central Oregon Constitutional Guard was conducting its weekly firearms training.
“The intent is to be able to work together and defend ourselves if we need to,” said Soper, 40, a building contractor who is an emerging leader in a growing national movement rooted in distrust of the federal government, one that increasingly finds itself in armed conflicts with authorities.
Those in the movement call themselves patriots, demanding that the federal government adhere to the Constitution and stop what they see as systematic abuse of land rights, gun rights, freedom of speech and other liberties.
Law enforcement officials call them dangerous, delusional and sometimes violent, and say that their numbers are growing amid a wave of anger at the government that has been gaining strength since 2008, a surge that coincided with the election of the first black U.S. president and a crippling economic recession.
Soper started his group, which consists of about 30 men, women and children from a handful of families, two years ago as a “defensive unit” against “all enemies foreign and domestic.” Mainly, he’s talking about the federal government, which he thinks is capable of unprovoked aggression against its own people.
The group’s members are drywallers and flooring contractors, nurses and painters and high school students, who stockpile supplies, practice survival skills and “basic infantry” tactics, learn how to treat combat injuries, study the Constitution and train with their concealed handguns and combat-style rifles.
“It doesn’t say in our Constitution that you can’t stand up and defend yourself,” Soper said. “We’ve let the government step over the line and rule us, and that was never the intent of this country.”
Law enforcement officials and watchdog groups are branding such organizations as anti-government extremists of course, and even trying to marginalize the groups by giving them nicknames such as "Y'all Qaeda" and "Vanilla Isis", and the groups have even earned the designation of "domestic terrorists." Despite the attempts to downplay the groups, the number of like minded organizations has grown from 150 in 2008 to about 1,000 now, and estimates peg the number of supporters in the hundreds of thousands. The movement had been emboldened by the 2014 standoff at Cliven Bundy's ranch in Nevada, where federal agents faced off with hundreds of armed supporters of Bundy in a dispute over the rancher's refusal to pay fees to graze his cattle on federal land - the agents eventually stood down.
Law enforcement officials and the watchdog groups that track the self-styled “patriot” groups call them anti-government extremists, militias, armed militants or even domestic terrorists. Some opponents of the largely white and rural groups have made fun by calling them “Y’all Qaeda” or “Vanilla ISIS.”
Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors extremism, said there were about 150 such groups in 2008 and about 1,000 now. Potok and other analysts, including law enforcement officials who track the groups, said their supporters number in the hundreds of thousands, counting people who signal their support in more passive ways, such as following the groups on social media. The Facebook page of the Oath Keepers, a group of former members of police forces and the military, for example, has more than 525,000 “likes.”
President Obama’s progressive policies and the tough economic times have inflamed anti-government anger, the same vein of rage into which Donald Trump has tapped during his Republican presidential campaign, said Potok and Mark Pitcavage, who works with the Anti-Defamation League and has monitored extremism for 20 years.
Much of the movement traces its roots to the deadly 1990s confrontations between civilians and federal agents at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and in Waco, Tex., that resulted in the deaths of as many as 90. Timothy McVeigh cited both events before he was executed for the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people, and said he had deliberately chosen a building housing federal government agencies.
Now a “Second Wave” is spreading across the country, especially in the West, fueled by the Internet and social media. J.J. MacNab, an author and George Washington University researcher who specializes in extremism, said social media has allowed individuals or small groups such as Soper’s to become far more influential than in the 1990s, when the groups would spread their message through meetings at local diners and via faxes.
The movement received a huge boost from the 2014 standoff at Cliven Bundy’s ranch in Nevada, where federal agents and hundreds of armed supporters of Bundy faced off in a dispute over the rancher’s refusal to pay fees to graze his cattle on federal land.
When federal agents backed down rather than risk a bloody clash, Bundy’s supporters claimed victory and were emboldened to stage similar armed face-offs last year at gold mines in Oregon and Montana.
The latest confrontation that has taken place was in Burns, Oregon, where armed occupiers, led by Cliven Bundy's sons, took over the headquarters building of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Ultimately, the standoff ended with multiple arrests, and even the death of the group spokesman Robert "LaVoy" Finicum, who was shot by the FBI after an incident at a roadblock in the area. BJ Soper, founder of the Central Oregon Constitutional Guard says he tries to be the calming voice of the growing movement, knowing there are many hot heads that fall within its ranks; a voice clearly much needed. After the standoff at the wildlife refuge, two members splintered off and went on to kill two police officers in Las Vegas, leaving a note saying "This is the beginning of the revolution."
In January, dozens of armed occupiers, led by Bundy’s sons Ammon and Ryan, took over the headquarters buildings of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near rural Burns, Ore., an action that resulted in the death of Robert “LaVoy” Finicum, an occupier who was shot by state troopers.
Soper has been in the middle of all of it. He says he has tried to be a more moderate voice in a movement best known for its hotheads. He spent a month living in his RV at Burns, trying to talk the occupiers into standing down.
Two days after Soper’s last visit to the refuge, Finicum was killed in an operation in which the Bundys were arrested. An independent local investigation concluded that the shooting was justified, although the U.S. Justice Department is investigating several FBI agents for possible misconduct. Soper considers Finicum’s death “murder.”
That kind of talk is “a big deal,” said Stephanie Douglas, who retired in 2013 as the FBI’s top official overseeing foreign and domestic counterterrorism programs. “Free speech doesn’t make you a terrorist just because you disagree with the government. But if you start espousing violence and radicalizing your own people toward a violent act, the federal government is going to take notice.”
Shortly after the Bundy ranch confrontation, two of Bundy’s supporters who had been at the ranch, Jerad and Amanda Miller, killed two police officers and a civilian and also died in a Las Vegas shooting rampage. Police said the couple left a note on the body of one the officers they had shot point-blank.
It said: “This is the beginning of the revolution.”
BJ Soper has described his reasons to to start the Central Oregon Constitutional Guard as being simply that he used to be oblivious to everything that was going on, but after the Bundy Ranch incident, he decided to get more involved and make a difference. Soper's understandable skepticism about the government gets rather intense, taking views quite outside the norm, entertaining that the government had a hand in 9/11, that the government is mandating vaccines that cause autism, and that the United Nations wants to reduce global population through a program called Agenda 21. All of which spurred Soper's desire to create the group, and prepare his family for any possible scenario through weapons training and emergency food storage.
“I lived like 90 percent of Americans, oblivious to everything that was going on, from the time I was 18 until the Bundy Ranch happened,” he said. “I just said, ‘I can’t sit back and do nothing. I’ve got to get involved.’ I feel responsible for where we’re at, because I’ve done nothing my entire life.”
His response was to start his Central Oregon Constitutional Guard, which he said was partly to protect against the government, but partly a way to get back to a simpler America.
“As a kid, life was easy,” he says on the group’s website. “No worries. Very little threats. I would ride my bike around all over the neighborhood for hours on end. Play with friends and show back up for dinner without worry.”
Critics say such talk is naive nostalgia for a 1950s America that wasn’t ever really such a homespun paradise in the first place. And they say the groups that have sprung up in response are far more dangerous than Soper and others want to make them seem.
“The idea that he needs to face down the government with weapons I think is really, really wrong,” Potok said. “They don’t really say that, but I think that is what is right under the surface.”
Soper’s research also led him to some of the Internet’s favorite conspiracy theories, including a purported U.N. plot to impose “One World Government.” And Soper, like most in the patriot movement, became a believer.
He suspects that the United Nations, through a program called Agenda 21, wants to reduce the global population from 7 billion to fewer than 1 billion. He said the federal government may be promoting abortions overseas as part of that plot, and also may be deliberately mandating childhood vaccines designed to cause autism because autistic adults are less likely to have children.
Soper said he could not rule out the possibility that the U.S. government was behind the 9/11 attacks. He suspects that the government and the “medical community” have had a cancer cure for years but won’t release it because cancer treatment is too profitable for pharmaceutical companies.
“I’m not saying that’s the case,” he said, “but I like to look at all avenues.”
Soper knows those ideas sound crazy to many people, but, he said with a laugh, “It shows I just don’t trust my government.”
Alex McNeely, a 25 year old drywaller found the patriot group online, and joined the group to feel that he was helping defend the country. And in a textbook example of how words can cause many to take action, echoed the sentiment of many conservative pundits who claim Obama is a socialist who is trying to fundamentally change America. The group is conservative, and generally supports Trump, although anyone other than Hillary would suffice. One of the men indicted by the Bundy ranch case is Gerald DeLemus, who was New Hampshire co-chair of Veterans for Trump and was named by the Trump campaign as a New Hampshire alternate delegate to the Republican National Convention In Cleveland.
“There’s this D.C. mentality that if you stand up for your rights, you’re dangerous and anti-government,” said McNeely, who has an AK-47 assault rifle tattooed on his forearm. “But if I’m denied my rights, what else can I do? Am I just going to stand there and take it, or am I going to do something?”
In the Constitutional Guard, McNeely said, “I feel what we do is stand up for people who don’t have the means to stand up for themselves. I have an overwhelming desire to help people.”
McNeely considered joining the military when he graduated from high school, but he turned 18 the month Obama was elected in 2008, and, because of Obama’s “socialist” policies, “I wasn’t going to accept him as my commander in chief.”
“I don’t like that he wants to fundamentally change America,” McNeely said.
The group members are conservatives, do not like former secretary of state Hillary Clinton and generally support Donald Trump. Soper said he would prefer just about anyone over Clinton but would not cast a vote for president this year. He said he thinks casting his vote is “a waste of time” because Oregon’s politics are dominated by Democrats.
Everyone in the group keeps 30 days worth of food and emergency supplies on hand, and group members learn gardening and raising livestock. They camp, and learn survival tactics, including how to fashion a shelter, find food and water, and make a fire. The group is preparing for anything, and that includes economic collapse.
“I don’t know that it’s all that far-fetched that we have an economic collapse,” he said. “The dollar is a pretty scary investment anymore. China’s buying up all the gold. When people get hungry and thirsty and can’t feed themselves, they get desperate.”
Soper reiterates every chance that he gets that he does not want violence, however in his reality, he believes that if common sense doesn't get restored in the government, people will get hurt.
"The last thing I want is violence" Soper said. "But I hope they see that if we continue down this path, we're going to have more bloodshed in this country."
As he writes his sheriff upon learning of the news that more people had been arrested in connection with the 2014 standoff at the Bundy Ranch, Soper airs his concerns, and ends the letter in a very dramatic fashion:
"People are being detained without due process" he said. "These are not our American values."
"I pray we find some sense of it again, otherwise a very dark future awaits us, and it is not very far down the road." Sheriff, he said, "People are going to die."
As America becomes even more fragmented, more fractured, and more polarized, and, as both the GOP and Democratic primaries have shown, with ever more people calling for true change to take place, the establishment may be under pressure to finally act for change, even if the change is at first, very painful - something 8 years of relentless central bank intervention has desperately tried to prevent. If the government chooses not to act, a violent future may await America as the people themselves rise up once more to recreate what was once the freest and most admired nation on earth.