Paramilitary Groups Threaten Our Democracy

By: Eric K. Ward

White nationalists, neo-Nazis, and members of the alt-right with body armor and combat weapons gathered at the August 12, 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Credit: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

A couple weeks ago, anti-government paramilitary groups in Oregon succeeded in shutting down our democratic institutions, helping block the passage of historic climate legislation by threatening violence on elected representatives and law enforcement officers. As these groups’ track record in our region and beyond makes clear, these threats are very real and serious, and our government officials, law enforcement agencies, and business leaders need to treat those as such.

When Republicans in the Oregon Senate fled the state in order to prevent the passage of a clean energy jobs bill aimed at reducing emissions and addressing climate change, the militia group Three Percenters vowed to “provide security, transportation, and refuge for those Senators in need,” leading similar groups to activate throughout our region.

Days later, the Oregon legislature had to cancel its legislative session over concerns of paramilitary activity, with state police warning that “the safety of legislators, staff and citizen visitors could be compromised,” should lawmakers show up to work to represent their districts. This is not how a democracy works, and we can’t let tactics of violence and intimidation deprive Oregon voters and residents the representation they deserve in our democratic institutions.

This is hardly the first time that Three Percenters have deployed these tactics to influence political outcomes, threaten officials, and sway our elections. Days ahead of the 2018 midterms, Three Percenters in Georgia threatened violence in the event that Stacey Abrams succeeded in becoming the first black female governor in the country.

After voters in Washington state approved, by nearly 19 percentage points, a new gun safety law, Three Percenters threatened state Attorney General Bob Ferguson and called on followers to make a citizen’s arrest. “We WILL fight you. We WILL win… or we will die,” their statement read. “We are willing to give our lives for this cause. Bring it on!”

And in Portland, Oregon, the Multnomah County Republican Party has allowed Three Percenters and Oath Keepers to serve as their private security. Members of the same militia groups were present at the infamous “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where Heather Heyer wasmurdered by a white nationalist.

These anti-immigrant and anti-government paramilitary groups are very serious, and so are their threats. One such group, Sheriff’s Posse Comitatus, emerged fifty years ago in Portland, Oregon and has since spread throughout the country.

Posse Comitatus agitates against a supposed Jewish conspiracy, generally opposes federal taxation, and uses violence and threats to achieve its political goals. The group has advocated that public officials who do not share their vision “be removed to the most populated intersection of streets in the township and, at high noon, be hung by the neck, the body remaining until sundown as an example.”

Paramilitary groups influenced by Posse Comitatus have a long history of utilizing threats of violence and intimidation to undermine local government institutions and the principles of representative democracy. Law enforcement agencies must exhibit leadership and learn from the lessons of Ruby Ridge and the 2016 stand-off at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, located in Paiute Tribal lands.

As today’s Three Percenters follow in the footsteps of the Posse Comitatus in using violence and intimidation for political ends, it’s critical for us to provide our support to local residents and those most directly affected.

It is the obligation of the State of Oregon to resolve the ongoing usurping of representative democracy and ensure our elected representatives can work without interference from unelected, anti-democratic militias and their threats of intimidation. Oregon depends on it.

Eric K. Ward is Executive Director of Western States Center, a Portland-based organization working to strengthen inclusive democracy through building movement, developing leaders, shifting culture and defending democracy.

Based in the Pacific Northwest and Mountain States, Western States Center works nationwide to strengthen inclusive democracy.

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