There's a Disturbing Trend Behind the Rise of the Oregon Militia

January 3rd 2016

Alex Mierjeski

Soon after armed militiamen claiming to uphold the Constitution broke into and occupied a government building in rural Oregon, activists, journalists, and observers on social media debated how best to talk about the idealist group holed up in the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters: is it domestic terrorism or something along the lines of a "refuge action," as ABC News put it on Twitter?

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But at least one organization was quick to describe the militiamen as part of broader, extreme antigovernment movements, the existence of which skyrocketed following the 2008 election of President Barack Obama.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups, there were about 874 "active extreme antigovernment groups" present in the U.S. in 2014, which was less than a peak during 2012, but many times higher than in 2008 before Obama's election.

In 2008, according to the group, there were 149 so-called "patriot" groups. But in 2009, there were 512, and by 2012, 1,360.

According to a report by the SPLC tracking the timeline of so-called "patriot" groups, there were peaks in activity during the 1994-2000 period, and again beginning in 2009. Those groups are "animated by conspiracy theories about the federal government and its alleged intentions to merge the country into a global government ruled by dictatorial, socialistic elites," the report reads.

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It notes that while traces of the "patriot" movement stretch as far back as the 1791 Whiskey Rebellion, the most notable outcropping was in 2014 at a Nevada ranch overseen by a man named Cliven Bundy — a rancher who disputed federal land use fines and led an armed standoff with federal agents. Some of Bundy's relatives are currently acting as spokespeople at the wildlife refuge standoff outside of Burns, Oregon.

Militia members occupied the wildlife refuge building Saturday night following a larger protest over the federal prosecution of two Burns ranchers accused of burning government-owned land years earlier. Although the two ranchers did not enlist the help of the militiamen, representatives of the "patriot" group told news media that their occupation would not end until the ranchers' sentences were dropped and the federal government release the large swaths of land it controls in the west so that local loggers, farmers, and miners can use it.

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Supporters said that the group was engaging in a "peaceful protest," not an armed insurrection. Maureen Peltier told the Oregonian that some in the group are armed and others are not.

"There is absolutely no armed standoff," she wrote the paper. "They want us to know: They are simply occupying land and a building owned by 'We The People.' Our tax dollars. And that for them, this is a civil peaceful protest."

The SPLC notes that while the number of "patriot" groups has fluctuated in recent years, the percentage of those that are "engage in military-style training" has shrunk.