WE LIVE IN A STATE with a sharply divided identity. There’s the Oregon of the I-5 corridor, the Portland-Salem-Eugene trinity with its über-green living, its abortion clinics, bicycles, indie rock, and gay mayors. This is the Oregon most people know: a liberal, increasingly insular biodome constantly replenishing itself with creative transplants from California and New York City. But outside of this crunchy little ventricle, the rest of the state runs various shades of red. Barack Obama may have crushed John McCain in the 2008 presidential election by 1,037,291 to 738,475 total votes, but when you break Oregon down by county, McCain steamrollered the future president 23–13, with most of those outposts of Republicanism lying in the state’s eastern and southern reaches.
It’s in towns like Ontario and Baker City and Lakeview, where wide-open swaths of rugged land spread out like the backdrop of a Peckinpah Western, that the militia movement first took hold in the Northwest in the early 2000s. And while it never died out completely, now, nearly a decade later, the sometimes sardonic, sometimes bitter, sometimes militant antigovernment sentiment that spawns such groups is once again on the rise in Oregon. And buoyed by the mobilizing power of the Internet, the white-hot rhetoric of Fox News, and, potentially more important, the galvanizing public protests of the nebulous antigovernment Tea Party movement, the anger and frustration of a newly disempowered Right could shatter the seals on the liberal biodome like never before.
There may be only around 70,000 registered Republicans in Multnomah County (compared to 250,000 Democrats), but they’re proving their ability to mobilize en masse. When local conservative radio host Victoria Taft exhorted listeners of her eponymous KPAM show to show up in droves for last year’s Tea Party tax-day protest at Pioneer Courthouse Square, Portland answered with a crowd that Taft estimated to be between 5,000 and 7,000 people—the fifth-largest gathering in the country that day (the Oregonian reported a crowd of approximately 1,000).
Such gatherings, of course, are part of a long American tradition of venting political dissatisfaction. But the rising anger over our country’s direction also has more ominous edges. This past August, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a nonprofit legal organization, issued a report titled “Return of the Militias” that documents the recent and sudden surge in antigovernment militia activity across the country. During the past two years, one law enforcement agency has documented the creation of at least 50 new militia groups, ranging from individuals spewing hatred about the government in general and the president in particular, to friends on private websites, to far more imposing armed bands made up of present and former police officers and soldiers. Over that same period of time, the bureau’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (a prerequisite for a legal gun purchase) has reported well over 12 million checks—more than in any year since background verification went into effect in 1998.
The SPLC identified six local organizations with militia or antigovernment leanings: the Oregon Militia Corps, a seemingly web-based entity in Portland; Emissary Publications in Colton, which specializes in books and tapes about the New World Order; the Southern Oregon Militia, which boasts a membership of 800 based in and around Eagle Point; Freedom Bound International, which runs web- and podcasts on topics of individual freedom from Klamath Falls; the Constitution Party in Aurora, whose platform urges citizens to arm themselves “for the public safety”; and the Stayton-based Embassy of Heaven, a “Christian patriot” outfit based solely on a God-centric rule of law. Only two states—California and Texas—had a larger number of such groups.
Mike Caputo, a supervisory special agent with the FBI, is aware of the SPLC report, but, at least so far, categorizes the groups as simple acts of assembly and free speech. “[We’re] very interested in any kind of intelligence to better understand the threat [of domestic terrorism],” he says. “However, I can’t give any concrete examples of increased militia activities in Oregon. The reality is that we’re talking about First Amendment–protected activity, which means we do not track it.”
But while the means and methods of the growing Tea Party and militia movements may differ, the revolutionary rhetoric coming from both camps is increasingly similar.