In April 2015, the Rural Organizing Project received a call from a local leader from rural Josephine County in southwestern Oregon. The local media was reporting that militants were maintaining an armed roadblock to a gold mine as a way of taking on the federal government. The coverage was mostly positive, explaining that the Oath Keepers, the central group in leadership, was a mere veterans’ organization.
Folks who reached out to us saw something very different – armed people from outside of Oregon coming into Josephine County, claiming to speak for the community, while openly wielding automatic rifles, putting forth conspiracy theories, and making demands of local agencies and elected officials. When those with the most guns assert the right to speak for any community, it is an affront to democracy. Many local residents and neighbors immediately recognized it as a serious threat to their sacred community. They asked us, “What can we do?”
Josephine County turned out to be the first in a string of small towns and rural communities in Oregon facing armed confrontations, attempts to take over local governments, and militants bullying political opponents with the aim of silencing criticism. We knew a struggle for the hearts and minds of rural Oregon was underway and our response needed to be swift and decisive. Our beloved communities were under siege.
The Rural Organizing Project brings over 25 years of experience supporting rural Oregonians to respond to local threats to democracy. In order to equip communities to better understand and effectively engage with this new threat, we knew it was essential to do our research. We knew that context and information on the so-called Patriot movement’s vision and goals, and tools and resources would be crucial companions as local leaders bravely organize and speak out for the greater good of their communities.
To that end, we asked longtime friends and allies at Political Research Associates (PRA) for background information to complement our organizing and the research already compiled by ROP staff and leaders. PRA offered support, and quickly produced profiles of key Patriot groups for us to use with local activists and media. As the threat from Patriot paramilitaries continued, we found ourselves in regular contact with PRA fellow Spencer Sunshine, a longtime analyst of White supremacist and neofascist movements. Together we conceived of the project that evolved into this toolkit to answer these key questions: Who are the players in the Patriot movement? What are their strategies and tactics, their vision for our communities, and their worldview? And how do we take on their demands of our communities and local governments?
In this toolkit, we share the collective expertise of our network of thousands of rural activists, including stories of courageous rural community organizing and practical suggestions for those who feel like they have fallen through the looking glass into a strange new world. Collected here are lessons our network has learned during the rise of the militia movement in the 1990s until now, from the fights before and the fight we are in now.
Serious challenges to human dignity occur all too frequently. Over the years, the Rural Organizing Project’s network has taken on the White supremacist Aryan Nations trying to take over small towns, religious fundamentalist groups trying to force schools to teach a narrow curriculum, anti-immigrant ballot measures that demonize immigrants, and the harassment of our neighbors for their race, religion, sexual orientation, gender, class, and political opinions.
This moment is no exception. Many rural Oregonians feel the tension of being perilously close to crisis or disaster. Every few months the news reports that we are overdue for a massive earthquake, and every summer brings another round of terrifying forest fires. Economic uncertainty looms large. Our communities have been systematically defunded and neglected for decades. Our libraries, schools, post offices, and small town businesses in many communities are closing, forcing residents to travel further and further to take their kids to school, buy groceries, find work, or to simply access services. Families are hurting and more vulnerable than ever, working multiple low-wage jobs to make ends meet. Within this climate of instability and fear, Patriot groups and paramilitaries are positioning themselves to be the solution.
When a few people try to advance the politics of fear and exclusion by using armed force in a small community, democracy is threatened. The network of autonomous, all volunteer, community-based human dignity groups that make up ROP act as moral compasses to lead their communities. Rooted in the values of self-determination, human dignity, and economic, racial, and social justice, we can chart a course forward that brings our neighbors together to develop collective solutions that benefit us all. Over the past 25 years, we have witnessed the power of ordinary people leading their communities through crisis, whether that crisis is a natural disaster, economic distress, or a hate crime. Today, as this guide goes to print, scores of rural Oregonians are coming together to battle for the well being of their communities, despite retaliatory threats and intimidation.
This toolkit is created in their honor; to offer our collective intelligence to help guide all who stand with them and to encourage them to carry forward the work of creating the tangible reality of an inclusive democracy and justice and liberty for all.
Rural Organizing Project
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” —Margaret Mead