Some call them militia. They call themselves patriots.
In the United States, many local militias are armed and have taken issue with some government policies.
After spending a year with groups in Oregon, Montana, Nevada and Idaho protesting what they describe as government overreach, I’ve decided not to label them at all.
In April 2015, I was assigned to cover the Oath Keepers during a tour of the Sugar Pine gold mine in Oregon after the group of former cops, military, firefighters and other first responders had risen to prominence during a standoff in Nevada over land rights.
The Oath Keepers promise to defend the Constitution of the United States at all costs, protecting it from what they deem “all enemies – foreign and domestic.”
Sugar Pine’s owners and some members of the Oath Keepers had offered me and another journalist a tour of the mine grounds. The owners told me that they wanted to be positively portrayed by the media. When they tried to insist I only cover them in certain ways, it resulted in a heated debate over freedom of the press.
The relationship was tense when we entered the mine, but nothing could prepare any of us for what happened next. The other journalist had a stroke and within minutes I was driving a truck as fast I could down a dirt mountain road with three Oath Keepers in the truck bed desperately trying to keep him awake.
Two parties used to having lots of control – the media and the militia – suddenly had none.
Right there, trust was formed.
That trust helped me enormously when more than six months later, I arrived at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon to cover what would become a 41-day stand-off between brothers Ammon and Ryan Bundy and the federal government. The armed men had taken over the wildlife center to demonstrate against what they believed was the government’s abuse of power over land rights in the West.
It was clear that media access would be limited, but one of the men I had met at Sugar Pine called the Bundy family asking them to make an exception. Eventually, I was granted access through the back entrance.
The Oath Keepers and Three Percenters formed an umbrella group called the Pacific Patriots Network to facilitate communication between the Bundys, other occupiers in the refuge and law enforcement.
Oath Keepers president Stewart Rhodes said the group did not support the refuge takeover. “We thought it was a very bad idea. We thought it was bad both strategically and also tactically, thought it was a mistake.”
Once inside, my first question to Ammon Bundy was, “Why did you do it? You are now facing a federal sentence.” Dressed in jeans and a flannel jacket, he said he believed that what he was doing was not only just – it was necessary.
I have since attended tactical defense training sessions, fired guns and camped out with members of those groups in Oregon, Idaho and Montana. I’ve also spent time with men and women who didn’t identify with any specific group but a larger movement that they say is defending the U.S. Constitution.
Over time, my reservations and skepticism about their movement grew into a complex understanding.
These groups talk a lot about self sufficiency, and I found myself listening with some empathy when they spoke about where the country is headed. “There’s more riots happening, more crime happening, we don’t necessarily know what is going to happen with the economy,” says Jason Van Tatenhove, the national media director of the Oath Keepers.
Van Tatenhove lives in the mountains of Montana and takes great pride in living simply and sustainably.
“I don’t think there’s any dooms day scenario coming down right on us, but it’s always better to have these skills and not need them than to need them and not have them,” he said.
I grew up in Utah and spending time camping out in Idaho and Montana, eating chili made with deer meat, all felt familiar.
What felt new, however, was putting my camera down and learning how to shoot semi-automatics.
There was never any drinking during the training, but away from the weapons and serious talk, we did share a few drinks and I learned about their lives at home, personal relationships and their kids.
Last week, a federal court jury acquitted Ammon Bundy and six of his followers of conspiracy charges stemming from the takeover of the Oregon wildlife center.
The groups see the ruling almost as a green light to further question government.
They say they are even more confident in the constitution and all the more eager to protect it. They believe no matter the outcome of the presidential election, there’s going to be social strife and they’ve won the right to fight against it.
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(Reporting by Jim Urquhart; Editing by Melissa Fares and Diane Craft)