America's militiamen resurgent since Obama election
The men file silently down the narrow snow-covered path, each in winter camouflage, eyes forward and rifle ready. This is not a unit of the US armed forces or the National Guard, the dozen or so men are members of the Southeast Michigan Volunteer Militia (SMVM), regular citizens banded together, they say, to defend their country, neighbourhoods and, above all, the US constitution. Since the election of Barack Obama as the country's first African-American president, membership in the militia has doubled.
"If you have an armed populace, that always curtails any government trying to tread on that populace," said one of the militia's team leaders, a 36-year-old lorry driver, who asked to be identified only by his call sign, Madhatter. Madhatter points out some of the men who have recently joined the group. LFB, a middle-aged steel mill worker and army veteran, and his son; Tom M, aka Bubba, also an army veteran and his 24-year-old son, an active duty marine who served a tour in Fallujah in Iraq; and Solo, an enthusiast of the conservative Tea Party grouping, who describes himself as a libertarian.
The area where they are holding this weekend training session is a stretch of densely wooded private property just south of the Huron National Forest on Michigan's Lower Peninsula. "Most of the folks here are strict constitutionalists," Madhatter said. "Ultimately, everyone seems to feel that if we returned to those original values we wouldn't be in the trouble we're in." A series of recent studies and reports appear to confirm that Madhatter is not alone in that belief. Although most of the militia's members eschew the phrase right wing and cringe at being called extremists, the growth in the SMVM's ranks mirrors the proliferation of fringe right-wing movements since the 2008 election.
"We're seeing a real explosion on the radical right wing and I think it is very clearly linked to the demographic changes in the country - the economic situation and the rise to power of a black man," said Mark Potok, of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), one of the nation's most respected civil rights organisations, which tracks radical right-wing activity. Mr Potok heads the SPLC's project on hate and extremism, and last summer, wrote a report warning of the resurgence of various types of far-right movements. The organisation lists the SMVM as one of these groups.
Nearly six months later, Mr Potok says the trend has continued. He notes the existence of 350 extreme, anti-immigration groups, like the border-patrolling Minutemen, and a steady rise in race and religion-based hate groups. As for the growth of militias, according to SPLC figures, the number of groups has tripled over the past year. "What we're seeing is the second iteration of the militia movement," he said. "The resurgence of the militia movement of the 1990s."
The number of militia members is difficult to nail down. In the 1990s, some estimates were in the tens of thousands. The SMVM, a very local group, often has about 60 people attend its meetings. Militias - some more visible, like the SMVM, and others more clandestine and radical - gained notoriety in the mid-1990s, after the Oklahoma City bombing. The 1995 bombing, America's most destructive terrorist attack before September 11, 2001, left 168 people dead and was carried out by Timothy McVeigh, who sympathised with the militia movement's agenda.
The initial movement was driven by fears of increased taxes and stricter guns laws under Bill Clinton, and inspired by infamous stand-offs between civilians and law enforcement officials, such as the siege in Waco at the Branch Davidian compound in 1993. The Michigan Militia, of which the SMVM is the primary branch, was founded in 1994. "Ideologically, they're primarily anti-government - anti-federal government - animated by a welter of completely groundless conspiracy theories," said Mr Potok.
Members of the Michigan militia are well aware of the SPLC's work and the popular view many Americans hold of militias as a radical collection of right-wing extremists training in the backwoods. They defend their movement and training by citing the "militia clause" and second amendment to the US constitution, which is the right to bear arms. But militia members note the stigma can be difficult. Brian O, aka D-Day, says he lost some friends when he joined the militia.
Following the release of the SPLC's report last year, the SMVM issued a response criticising the organisation for what they believed was a slur of the militia and its activities. "There's really not a streak of bile running through this group. These are really nice people. What we'd love to see is the country return to a limited constitutional government. That can't be seen as extreme," said Lee Miracle, or Weapon M, the militia's elected leader and a postal worker, who penned the response.
"We think that a well-armed, well-trained society is a safe one. We think that an armed, trained citizen is a good one," Mr Miracle said. Around the campfire, as the snow falls, the men speak of their families, hunting trips and books and movies they have recently seen or read - most with a survivalist strain like Cormac McCarthy's The Road and The Postman by David Brin. But over the next couple of days, certain views are expressed that are well out of the mainstream. One man speaks of a global governing alliance between the Council on Foreign Relations, the Bilderberg Group and other primary actors. More than one member questions the legitimacy of the president's citizenship and most fear the advent of heavy ammunition taxes and gun restrictions imposed by the United Nations or the US attorney general, Eric Holder.
Solo, the middle-aged man who joined last year, notes that he sought out the militia due to fears of racially-driven unrest in Michigan's poor, largely black urban areas like Detroit. "About a year ago it was about inauguration time for the president. I was told there would be some civil unrest by people from different ethnic groups - it led me to want to be more prepared than I was," he said. Every man present at the training is white, and the only woman is a University of Michigan PhD candidate who is studying right-wing militias for her dissertation.
Madhatter, who has become a sort of spokesman for the group, argues that despite the different ideologies and fears of its members, the militia defends Americans' rights against terrorism, crime and the threat of invasion, but above all, tyranny. "The constitution is the be all and end all. If the government is progressing in a way that is unconstitutional then they do have to be brought back into line," he said. "There's a number of ways of doing that whether it be petitioning the government through courts, through elections, anything of that nature; and the way it was originally set up hundreds of years ago is that a militia is in place to make sure the people have those avenues open to them. We're here as a deterrent to tyranny."
Madhatter says the militia's "tripwire", the moment at which it would act militarily, would be if the government encroached on freedom of speech or the press. Mr Miracle, the group's leader, suggests this may have happened if the government went ahead with a plan to order mandatory H1N1 vaccinations this past year. "Mandatory? I'm not against vaccinations, I'm against mandatory things - Too many people said 'You're not going to mandatorily vaccinate my kids 'cause then I mandatorily vaccinate you with some nine millimetre. We'll trade vaccinations and see who wins'."
The willingness of groups like this to act is what alarms Mr Potok and many mainstream Americans. "When very fearful people come to believe in completely groundless conspiracy theories, some sliver will act," he said. Above all, he notes, many people in the militia movement and across the spectrum of the far-right feel as though they are being disinherited and marginalised in their own country. "I'm not suggesting that every person in their group is an unrobed Klansmen or a secret Nazi," Mr Potok said. But, he added, "A lot of people are thinking in the back of their minds, this is not the country my white, Protestant forefathers built."
* The National