Paradise Lost 

Parsing the Patriot Movement

As public information officer for III Percent Idaho, it's Chris McIntire's job to mold media depictions of his organization—and he's not afraid to put muscle behind his words.

"You can write whatever you want, but I guarantee you this: If it is not in line with the truth, if it is not in line with what we represent, you can expect 2,000 people to crowd these streets to block traffic," he said in a recent interview.

III Percent Idaho and other constitutionalist groups in the so-called Patriot Movement have been front-and-center in media around the country since 2014, when their members traveled long distances to participate in an armed standoff between federal officers and Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy. In July, following a shooting at a military recruiting center in Chattanooga, Tenn., groups such as the Oath Keepers and III Percenters stationed themselves at similar recruitment sites throughout the nation in order to provide security for soldiers. In August, an armed contingent of Oath Keepers showed up in Ferguson, Mo., to protect local businesses against looters and property damage amid unrest between residents and police. The same month, Oath Keepers and III Percent Idaho were in Montana guarding a mine against Forest Service officials seeking to force its closure over non-compliance.

Media reports on what patriot groups call their "operations" have centered on the citizen soldiers' military posturing and rhetoric, with groups like III Percent—which takes its name from the percentage of colonists who participated in the American Revolutionary War—and Oath Keepers finding themselves targets of criticism that their tactics could potentially lead to violence.

For McIntire and other patriots who see their activities as apolitical, professional and service oriented, their public image doesn't reflect who they are. Rather, it reflects broader struggles for the heart of their movement being waged both from within and without.

While the news media has portrayed these groups as potentially dangerous, members have said they receive little attention for their service activities.

"They want to paint us as white supremacists, they want to paint us as racists, they want to paint us as these bitter clingers to an archaic document that don't want to move forward, that are culturally closed off, that are intellectually limited. And that's not true," McIntire said.

Dog and Pony

About halfway through a Sept. 23 forum on the College of Southern Idaho Refugee Center, a bloc of people wearing III Percent T-shirts and a handful of supporters stood and left the CSI Fine Arts Building, one of them shouting, "This is propaganda."

"They were respectful but there were some that shouted things on the way out about it being propaganda. I think the one who shouted out about it being propaganda didn't have a III Percent shirt on but clearly was sympathetic if not affiliated," said Ben Wilson, an activist who drove from Boise to Twin Falls to attend the forum.

According to the Twin Falls Times-News, the forum was "intended as a way to share facts about the controversy over the Refugee Center at the College of Southern Idaho," bringing national and local stakeholders—including Office of Refugee Admissions Director Larry Bartlett and Refugee Center Director ZeZe Rwasama—on stage to discuss the program. They described the center as a longstanding institution with a positive impact on the community.

In part, however, the panelists had been convened in response to a controversial ballot initiative that would dissolve the center and prevent others like it from being established in the future. Proponents of the initiative voiced concern that the center opened a door to terrorism. Its opponents, including the prosecutor tasked with vetting ballot initiatives, have called it legally impracticable while others describe it as xenophobia at best and racism at worst.

Inside the forum and in front of the general public, III Percent Idaho members maintained a professional air. After the forum ended, Wilson saw members of the III Percent Idaho group talking among themselves near the parking lot, where he said they seemed composed and nonthreatening.

Speaking before a friendly audience, however, their tone shifted. III Percent Idaho Vice President Eric Parker called the CSI forum a "dog-and-pony show" whose backers spent money to "bus people in from Boise" to support the Refugee Center. The next day, an official post appeared on the group's Facebook page calling Bartlett a "schmuck pompous little shit weasel." Parker's own comments put a finer point on his denunciation of the forum. For him, the forum silenced legitimate local criticism of the 30-year-old program and failed to give adequate voice to skeptics.

"I think [forum organizers] had a plan going in: I think they were going to look at the questions, which ones they wanted to answer and which ones they didn't," Parker told The Voice of Idaho News, a website affiliated with the Patriot Network. "I was looking for assurances that the citizens of Idaho wouldn't be hurt."

TVOI News has described refugee centers like the one in Twin Falls as "a function of the United Nations and the Socialist International." The site links itself directly to groups ranging from Northwest Liberty University to the John Birch Society and Oath Keepers.

While TVOI News doesn't claim to be apolitical, III Percent Idaho does. Nevertheless, Parker was candid when speaking to TVOI News, issuing a warning about where he sees U.S. refugee policy and the CSI Refugee Center heading.

"I'm not against refugees, none of us really are against refugees," he said. "All this bleeding heart, loving humanitarian[ism], is great, and I'm all for it, but if one citizen of the state of Idaho is hurt, this is on them."

The freedom with which III Percent Idaho shared its view of the Refugee Center with TVOI News is matched by its reluctance to engage more mainstream media.

"First and foremost, you have a horrible track record for truth in reporting. You have an extremely liberal, biased slant that does not portray anyone in an accurate light," McIntire said. "III Percent of Idaho does not believe that Boise Weekly's perspective, stance or tactics align with our goals or our mission statement."

According to Columbia Journalism School Dean Chair Todd Gitlin, who studies relationships between the media and leftist organizations ranging from the New Left of the 1960s to the Occupy Movement, news media have historically presented vocal, radical minorities within conservative groups as the norm.

"When the Tea Party first got launched there were pieces and photos that brought out the racism in some of the placards of some of the Tea Party people, and I remember reading some of them felt burned, that this wasn't typical, that they weren't racist. They felt put upon," Gitlin said.

Instead of reaching out to traditional media to spread the constitutionalist message, attract new members and feud among themselves, Patriot Movement groups in the Information Age have turned to social media where they can more easily reach a friendly audience and resolve internal conflict that could damage their public images.

New media sources have allowed patriot groups and individuals to sidestep journalists and the news, and Gitlin said he has begun to see "ambivalence" toward traditional media among some groups. Still, their sense remains that news coverage lends legitimacy.

"They recognize on some level that the media amplify what they have to say, so they crave that recognition. It helps them recruit, it helps them define themselves before a larger public. On the other hand, they hate the liberal journalist type, they think the media have it in for them," Gitlin said. "In some way, the media are a force they love to hate."

Courting news media comes with other problems for emerging groups with complicated public images, but the emergence of new media has reversed the tide of access: In the past, groups struggled for attention from journalists. Today they shun it, leaving journalists to struggle for insight into the emerging Patriot Movement.

Looking Down from Ruby Ridge

Following a year of high-profile Patriot Movement and militia operations around the country, Institute for Research and Education in Human Rights Vice President Devin Burghart linked these incidents to a broader trend of violent escalation that could end in a firefight between the Patriot Movement and the feds.

"We anticipate that given the trajectory that they're on, there will be more confrontations with these groups for a myriad of issues, whether it be guns or environmental protection or natural resources or a whole litany of issues. Expect to see further armed confrontation to extract a particular political agenda out of the situation," said Burghart, who runs the Seattle office of the Kansas City, Mo.-based organization.

While leaders of III Percent Idaho, Oath Keepers and similar groups have vigorously and consistently denied they are violent, racist or antagonistic toward the government, there is a history of conflict between federal agencies and those who chafe against theirr authority or reject their legitimacy.

A crucial moment in that history has its roots in north Idaho: Ruby Ridge.

What began as an attempt by federal agents to use an illegal weapons charge against Randy Weaver in order to turn him into an informant on the Aryan Nations ended in a siege in 1992 that left three people dead. The event sparked widespread mistrust in federal law enforcement agencies, giving constitutionalists, hardline religious groups and survivalist-oriented groups grist for their conflict with the government.

Ruby Ridge, along with another disasterous siege against religious fundamentalists in Waco, Texas in 1993, helped kick off the Militia Movement by giving the public dramatic examples of federal agencies escalating toward violence. Groups like the Michigan Militia, Militia of Montana and Aryan Nations recruited heavily on the ensuing wave of mistrust for the federal government.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the number of militia groups peaked in 1996 at 858, then experienced a decade of decline. By 2007, that number had fallen to fewer than 140. Nonetheless, key leaders from the movement remained, including John Trochmann of the Militia of Montana, the John Birch Society and Christian Hyman, AKA Chris Kerodin, who recently moved to Idaho from the Washington D.C. area to found the Citadel—a proposed fortified patriot community and arms factory linked to the III Percent organization in the Post Falls area.

"It's pretty clear that what we see are a lot of the same actors that were involved in the 1990s getting involved today," Burghart said.

Figures like Kerodin, however, have not galvanized the Patriot Movement—if anything, their infighting has contributed to fracturing within the constitutionalist ranks. Kerodin has most recently engaged in a war of words over his Citadel development with Alabama Patriot leader Michael Vanderboegh and sovereign citizen James Wesley Rawles, with Vanderboegh noting Kerodin's past convictions for felony extortion. Kerodin has also squabbled with Oath Keepers over the nature of its members' law enforcement and military backgrounds.

"Remember, any active LEO [law enforcement officer] must injure the Constitution every day he is on the job, even if he wears that Oath Keepers tab on his weekend gun range fatigues," Kerodin wrote on his blog.

Personal squabbles have likely limited the influence of figures like Kerodin and Vanderboegh within the Patriot Movement. More important has been the Tea Party, which capitalized on government mistrust and weariness with party politics in the wake of the election of President Barack Obama in 2008. Suddenly, the Patriot Movement had access to a wide base of potential members united in a libertarian, constitutionalist vision for America.

McIntire described III Percent Idaho's appeal as a function of disgust with the government.

"People in this country, with the way that it is going, are looking for an answer, and III Percent Idaho is that answer. Every single patriot who feels lost, who feels disillusioned by their government, who feels disillusioned and disenchanted by their elected officials—they come and they find us," he said.

Soon after Obama's election, the Tea Party expanded its size and influence, creating a bridge between the Patriot Movement and the political arena. According to Burghart, the fear of government underpinning the Tea Party has also come with anger, and the significance of the Tea Party to the Patriot Movement and its constituent groups cannot be overstated.

"I would argue that particularly out here in the West, that you would not have a Patriot Movement today were it not for the Tea Party. The Tea Party has provided the ideas, the momentum and the personnel for what has become the Patriot Movement," he said, describing it as the "paramilitary wing of the Tea Party."

For the Tea Party, the United States is on the brink of constitutional collapse, if it hasn't collapsed already. For the Patriot Movement, there is immediate need for action outside the normal channels of politics to restore the country. In the III Percent Idaho mission statement, the object is a "restoration of the Founding Fathers' Republic and ourselves, which we took an oath to uphold, against all enemies, foreign and domestic."

"It doesn't matter if it's the Forest Service of the BLM or the NSA or the FBI, DEA—it doesn't matter who it is. There's even a lot of nonprofit groups. It doesn't matter if they're Christian or Muslim or nonreligious, whatever, it's not the group[s] themselves, it's the group behind it, who use fear, who use lies and manipulation, who use misinformation to attack another group on no sound basis whatsoever," McIntire said.

The source of the threat is ambiguous, but to III Percenters, the alphabet soup of government agencies, religious groups and media are a network of oppressors that seek to undermine the republic and slander its defenders.

"With the III Percenters in particular what you have are Tea Party ideals combined with a kind of Manichean existential threat that says that it's no longer time to engage in politics, but it's time to start preparing for war," Burghart said. "They're going to be the III Percent that serves as the vanguard and overthrows the government that they see as bringing on so much pain."

Imagining a Service Organization

In late July, Oath Keepers and members of III Percent Idaho trekked to Priest River, where reports surfaced that a Veterans Administration paperwork error declared a local veteran, John Arnold, incompetent to handle his own affairs. A VA representative was tasked with going to Arnold's home, completing an inspection and confiscating his guns.

Prior to making the trip, Oath Keepers of Bonner County Chapter Coordinator Jarrod Garcia contacted local law enforcement to explain why the VA's actions violated Arnold's Second Amendment rights, that the Oath Keepers would travel to Priest River to support Arnold and "[give] them a chance to stand up and do, maybe, what they should have the ability to do."

For Garcia, that meant blocking the VA from taking Arnold's firearms.

"I feel that by having those open lines of communication, it kind of negates that kind of inflammatory criticism that we get," Garcia said.

Oath Keepers are current or retired law enforcement and military personnel who, in light of their oath to support the U.S. Constitution and protect the country, refuse to obey 10 potential orders members feel may be made of them by their superiors.

They refuse, for example, to conduct warrantless searches on American citizens or lay siege to American cities, "thus turning them into giant concentration camps."

Since its founding in 2009, Oath Keepers has been described as an "antigovernment" group by the Southern Poverty Law Center and Burghart characterized its members as "on-the-ground, confrontational shock troops that provide kind of a threat posture" for their armed standoffs with federal officials.

Patriot Movement groups, meanwhile, have struggled against observers and the press to present their organizations as activist and service oriented. Where outside observers see a militia, Garcia sees an image problem.

"People want to put the Oath Keepers' face as a caucasian male with a gun and this that and the other thing, and we're so much more than that, and it seems like people within media outlets want to focus on the issue of race and they want to focus on political issues, and we're an apolitical organization," he said.

The image of the Oath Keepers as a group of armed, white men flirting with violence in places like Ferguson, Mo., and at the Bundy Ranch is a common one. During August protests in Ferguson, a Guardian headline read, "White militiamen roam Ferguson with rifles while black men wrongly arrested."

Garcia said his group doesn't conduct operations in places where they aren't invited. He said the Oath Keepers traveled to Ferguson to perform a public service—one for which group leaders said it was lambasted in the news.

Garcia would prefer the media give more attention to the Oath Keepers' community engagement, which has included support efforts for firefighters on the Cape Horn Fire at Lake Pend Oreille this summer; working security at church events; and teaching classes on topics like canning, fermentation and sustainable living. The group also hosts marksmanship training exercises and presentations on wilderness survival.

For the Oath Keepers of Bonner County, the group's emphasis is on the classes, which are routinely attended by 35-50 people.

"We are doing a lot of great things and it seems that the media doesn't want to pick up on it or hear about it. What can we do as an organization to help foster this rebranding of who we are as an organization?" he said.

Classes hosted by Oath Keepers, Garcia said, highlight the political and social diversity of the Bonner County Oath Keepers. Rather than the violent, racist organization sometimes portrayed in the media, he would like the public to see the environmentalists and liberals who learn about sustainable gardening, canning and other skills through a constitutionalist service organization.

"I think if we weren't Oath Keepers, you'd see that we have a lot in common with a lot of people on the left with regards to sustainable living," he said.

Many Patriot Movement groups engage in similar activities. III Percent Idaho will join Riders Against Domestic Abuse and Rape in Get a Clue—a scavenger game at Lakeview Park in Nampa on Saturday, Oct. 10 as part of Domestic Violence Awareness Month. III Percent and Oath Keepers have also coordinated in north Idaho to collect items like food, water and clothing in areas affected by fire.

McIntire indicated III Percent considers constitutionalist activism its central function—from upholding property rights against illegal search and seizure to defending the right to bear arms.

"We make sure—we make damn sure—that everyone's First, Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth—all of the amendments—are upheld. Anywhere from property rights, freedom of speech, the ability to carry a weapon," he said.

Garcia's efforts are aided by the peculiar politics of the Idaho panhandle. There, the legacy of Ruby Ridge is still fresh.

According to Burghart, the value of individualism and skepticism of the government have contributed to a broad understanding and acceptance of Patriot Movement ideals.

In north Idaho, a mix of former Militia Movement members, anarchists, disenchanted Republicans, rugged individualists and members of a curious public have engaged with the Patriot Movement, and observers worry it will be impossible to avoid future conflict. The Patriot Movement has already trained its guns on law enforcement, and some fear it has been put on a collision course with the government.

"That's a pretty dangerous line to start crossing, and unless folks within those movements start standing up and saying, 'That's unacceptable,' we're going to see a lot more of that kind of activity happening, like in the 1990s," Burghart said.

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