Peas in an Oregon Pod: Right-Wing Paramilitaries & The GOP

About Spencer Sunshine

The Republican Party of Multnomah County, Oregon (which includes Portland) disregarded public outcry when it passed a resolution last week to allow private, paramilitary groups to provide security functions at GOP events. Chairman James Buchal said they would work with two groups—the Oath Keepers and Three Percenters—that are part of the Patriot movement. This heavily armed Hard Right political movement is famous for the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, and armed confrontations in Nevada in 2014 and in southeast Oregon in 2016. Giving semi-official sanction to an armed and unaccountable paramilitary opens the door to legally tolerated extra-parliamentary violence, and helps link radical right-wing elements directly to the mainstream.

What Is the Patriot Movement?

The Patriot movement seeks to undermine democratic structures, often through threats and use of violence, and its political views are rooted in various conspiracy theories. It promotes radical, right-wing decentralization, particularly regarding the economy and federal regulations. Many members support the legally spurious idea that county sheriffs can decide which laws to enforce, and they frequently form paramilitary groups. Last, they are deeply opposed to progressive social movements.

The Oath Keepers, led by disbarred lawyer Stewart Rhodes, is a national organization of current and former military, police, and first responders that formed in 2009. The Three Percenters, launched in 2008, are more a decentralized grouping—individuals can declare themselves to be Three Percenters, although groups exist as well—and they are frequently more extreme in their views and practice. Together, these two groups are the most important armed groups in the Patriot movement.

Both the Oath Keepers and Three Percenters have been part of numerous armed encampments and standoffs with law enforcement, including in Nevada at the Bundy Ranch standoff in 2014, and at the Sugar Pine Mine encampment in southwestern Oregon in 2015. Both groups were also part of a “buffer zone” between law enforcement and armed Patriot movement members who occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters outside of Burns, Oregon in January and February 2016. (A handful of Three Percenters took part in the occupation itself.) In Oregon, Patriot movement activists have a history of harassing and making threats against progressive organizers, which have included property invasions, and disruptions of events; elected officials and law enforcement have also been threatened. Rhodes has gone so far as to call on his “civil defense units” to “fight in the street” against “these radical Black Lives Matter people and the black anarchists, the black flag anarchists.”

Since February 2017, Oath Keepers and Three Percenters have acted as security or otherwise attended events where neo-Nazis and other avowed white supremacists have been in attendance. These have included a rally in Lake Oswego, a suburb of Portland. Oath Keepers have also appeared at rallies alongside fascists from Identity Evropa both in Berkeley in April 2017, as well as in New York City in June. Also, at an April 2017 rally Pikeville, Kentucky, Oath Keepers helped law enforcement protect neo-Nazis from protesters as they were leaving a rally.

Patriot movement paramilitaries have also acted as security at events held by elected officials in Washington State. For example, a video shows well-known activist Ken Barker among those guarding a Republican Party meeting in Colville in May 2017, which was attended by U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA).

Links Between the Patriot Movement and Republican Party in Oregon

As I documented in Up in Arms: A Guide to Oregon’s Patriot Movement, a report jointly issued in 2016 by Political Research Associates and the Rural Organizing Project, Patriot movement paramilitaries have close ties with the Oregon Republican Party. A number of Oregon elected officials have appeared at Patriot movement events, including ones where paramilitaries sported firearms. They have included State Senator Kim Thatcher and State Representatives Bill Post and Mike Nearman. In February 2015 in Salem, they even appeared alongside Three Percenter co-founder Mike Vanderboegh (now deceased) as he openly threatened “civil war” against the administration of Oregon Governor Kate Brown. There are also a number of county-level officials, such as Grant County Sheriff Glenn Palmer, who are directly tied to the movement.

In addition to officials who are Patriot movement sympathizers, in Oregon the movement attempted to take over the Republican Party structure itself during the spring 2016 elections. Between fifty and a hundred movement activists were elected Precinct Committee People, the lowest position in the party. At the June 2016 Oregon Republican Party state convention, at least five Patriot movement activists and sympathizers were elected to state party positions or as delegates to the national convention.

The movement failed to overtake the state GOP leadership, however. Paramilitary leader Joseph Rice recently came in a distant second to become the state GOP leader. Rice was a Trump delegate at the 2016 Republican Convention; at that time he lead a group that was still called the Oath Keepers of Josephine County, which was described as the national group’s “flagship” organization. Three Percenter Tim Harris also ran for Vice Chair in the 2017 party election—although he received only 1 percent of the vote.

Oath Keepers in Distress in Oregon

The Oath Keepers have had major defections in Oregon. Rice’s group broke away from the national organization in the fall 2016, changing their name first to Citizen Patriots of Josephine County, and then to Liberty Watch of Josephine County. Rice told the Southern Poverty Law Center that potential members “would not join the group as long as Stewart Rhodes was in charge.” Two state leaders also left the Oath Keepers over Rhodes’s insistence they attend a June 4, 2017 rally in Portland.

This supposed “Free Speech” rally occurred after Jeremy Christian—who had attended a ultra-nationalist rally (also masquerading as a free speech rally) in Portland’s Montavilla neighborhood in April 2017—murdered two men who intervened against his Islamophobic and racist harassment of two young women on mass transit. Thousands protested the June 4 march.

Rhodes Strikes a Deal

The agreement with the Multnomah County GOP apparently was struck by Rhodes himself. He was in touch with both Buchal and the Portland Police Department to coordinate with them before the June 4 rally. At the event, Buchal encouraged the crowd-—filled with Alt Right activists, Patriot movement paramilitaries, and fascists from Identity Evropa and the Traditionalist Worker Party—to get involved with the Republican Party. At the rally a Patriot movement activist also attracted national attention when he assisted law enforcement in arresting a counter-protester.

The Multnomah County GOP’s contract with private paramilitaries is yet another step in legitimizing unaccountable paramilitary violence in support of a Trumpist Republican Party. This is particularly troubling as the Oath Keepers’ leader has called his armed followers to “fight in the streets” against political opponents, long before Trump’s election.

Hiring Oath Keepers and Three Percenters won’t prevent violence, but in fact will invite it. And it helps form an unbroken link in the chain between neo-Nazis and the Republican Party.

Further readings:

Spencer Sunshine, Ph.D. (associate fellow) researches the Patriot movement, unorthodox fascist currents, left/right crossover movements, and left-wing antisemitism. He is the lead author of the 2016 report Up In Arms: A Guide to Oregon’s Patriot Movement, which is a collaboration between PRA and Oregon’s Rural Organizing Project. Follow him on Twitter at @transform6789.