Montana Freemen Trial May Mark End of an Era

Montana Freemen trial may mark end of an era

They were the so-called Freemen. For years, they had buried local judges, sheriffs and county attorneys in a forest of paper. Treatises on the Magna Carta, phony court judgments and computer-generated financial instruments — all claimed the government had no jurisdiction over their persons or property.

Then a small army of FBI agents laid siege to the remote, 960-acre farm the Freemen occupied in Garfield County, Mont. Bristling with their own armed patrols, two dozen men, women and children with enough food and fuel for months of survival seemed poised to turn routine arrests for fraud and conspiracy into a Waco-style disaster.

For 81 days, they held out at the place they called Justus Township, ground zero on the white supremacist landscape. Local politicians and luminaries such as Colorado State Sen. Charles Duke and paramilitarist Bo Gritz tried to negotiate a surrender. Journalists broadcast the Freemen's message to every corner of the country.

Finally, on June 13, 1996, the Montana Freeman gave themselves up to the government.

In April, six angry Freemen became the first to go to trial on charges related to the siege and the phony documents they'd generated. Two others who had pleaded guilty to similar charges last September testified at the trial. Five of the six were convicted.

Now, 14 of the Montana Freemen — including the leading figures — face a May 26 trial in a Billings federal courtroom on conspiracy and fraud charges.

A Hall of Mirrors
The Freemen are unlikely to cooperate with the judge or their own court-appointed attorneys. If the judge allows it, they will introduce an Alice-in-Wonderland defense where the "state of Montana is not the State of Montana" and the "united States is not the United States of America."

They aren't mere "Fourteenth Amendment citizens" whose rights are granted by the federal government in Washington, D.C., the Freemen are expected to claim. They are "American nationals" — sovereigns like the kings of Olde England — whose rights come straight from God. They will attempt to turn the courtroom into a hall of mirrors.

Prosecutors will offer a plainer view.

Government attorneys are expected to present a blizzard of evidence to prove the defendants defrauded government agencies, banks, other businesses and even their own Montana neighbors. Prosecutors have reportedly gathered 200,000 documents, 5,000 audio tapes and 172 videotapes.

"The volume of paper and documentation in the Freeman case will make the McVeigh trial look like a parking ticket," says Ken Toole, director of the Montana Human Rights Network in Helena.

The Freemen trial may mark the end of the period of heightened Posse Comitatus-type activity (see Roots of Common Law) that followed the Randy Weaver and Waco debacles of 1992 and 1993. During this period, common-law courts and militias popped up from North Carolina to California. At the same time, the group now known as the Freemen established themselves in the central avenues of Montana community life.

Authorities shied away from making arrests for fear of provoking an armed conflict. Before the siege at Justus Township, the Freemen had come dangerously close to their goal of establishing themselves as a dual power, with authority rivaling that of local and federal governments. At one point, a local mayor actually became part of the Freemen.

Mass Resistance
The core leaders — particularly LeRoy Schweitzer, who had run a Montana crop dusting business until running afoul of the IRS in the mid-1980s — employed a strategy that might be called "mass resistance." Unlike members of terrorist cells who operate clandestinely, the Freemen propagandized publicly at well-attended community meetings and in court appearances.

Their mass resistance approach was similar to that of the racist Posse Comitatus, which recruited heavily in the 1970s and 1980s among farmers who were suffering through a severe agricultural crisis.

Mass public resistance to the federal government — attended by widespread resentment of gun control, land and environmental regulation and chronic rural dislocation — was greater in the early 1990s than during the Posse's heyday a decade earlier.

By 1994-95, the Freemen's Montana garrisons became the most important way stations in a network that stretched from the Northwest to the Midwest, and south to Oklahoma and Texas (see The Poison Spreads).

The Freemen's profile in the movement grew as businesses and government agencies accepted their phony bank drafts, reinforcing their spurious claims about the banking system. Schweitzer added his own, rapid-fire interpretation of the Uniform Commercial Code. An estimated 800 followers flocked to the Freemen's classes, and the group became a main stage event, not just another cranky sideshow.

Their white supremacist views and legal mumbo-jumbo spread through common-law courts, jural societies and related groups around the nation.

Now, the May trial, combined with other prosecutions (see Crackdown), could mark the end of this mass resistance trend. While common-law and militia activity is likely to continue, the strategy of mass resistance is unlikely to attract any new mass following.

Look instead for clandestine terrorist cells to emerge on one side of the movement (see Bombs, Bullets and Bodies) and renewed attempts to reach a mainstream constituency on the other — all aiming to establish the same white Christian republic (see White Nation).