Hate Group Expert Daniel Levitas Discusses Posse Comitatus, Christian Identity Movement and More

An interview with an expert on the Posse Comitatus

IR: How did the movement grow from there?

LEVITAS: When Gale first developed the Posse, he was based in Mariposa County, in southern California. From there, the Posse spread up the west coast through Oregon and into the Pacific Northwest. By 1974, there were chapters in places like Bonner County, Idaho, and Grays Harbor County and Spokane, in Washington.

A lot of these early chapters were not formed by Gale followers, but by people using paperwork designed by Henry Lamont "Mike" Beach in Portland, who plagiarized Gale's writings.

The Posse gained its first foothold in Wisconsin in 1974. The individual behind that, Thomas Stockheimer, organized a group of Posse followers that August to essentially abduct an IRS agent they lured to a farm. They held him for several hours and assaulted him. A month later, Stockheimer organized nearly 100 supporters to disrupt a hearing of the state Department of Natural Resources in Eau Claire.

In 1975, a Posse group "indicted" a DuPage County, Ill., judge who'd found a member of the group in contempt of court during a divorce hearing. On Sept. 2 of the same year, a local Posse group in San Joaquin County, Calif., brought in 40 armed men in an attempt to stop United Farm Workers organizers from entering one of its member's tomato fields.

Guns were drawn and one shotgun was accidentally discharged. It was a miracle no one was shot.

In March of that year, Richard Butler [the early Christian Identity preacher who had started a Kootenai County, Idaho, Posse unit and now leads the neo-Nazi Aryan Nations] helped lead 50 Posse members in an unsuccessful attempt to "arrest" a city policeman in Couer d'Alene.

The officer was about to testify against a Posse member who was accused of assault with a deadly weapon.

Then, on Aug. 27, 1976, near the eastern Oregon town of Stanfield, seven Posse members armed with guns and dogs tried to take over a 6,000-acre wheat and potato farm to settle a land dispute.

What the Posse did in these early years was to take the issues of land-use regulation and taxes — as well as members' personal problems, such as divorces — and use them to mobilize people in confrontations. This may all seem mild compared to the Oklahoma City bombing, but it signaled that the radical right was arming itself for a violent confrontation.

These were the first alarm bells. But it wasn't until the agricultural crisis of the late 1970s that you really saw the Posse explode.

IR: How did the farm crisis play into all of this?

LEVITAS: The primary problem farmers faced in the late 1970s is that they did not, and still do not, receive prices that covered their cost of production. You had several factors at work. The expansion of exports to the Soviet Union and elsewhere had encouraged farmers to plant "fence row to fence row."

And the Carter Administration's policy was to vigorously encourage farmers to expand their operations and to use new technology to boost agricultural output.

By the end of the 1970s, you had a situation where farmers were overextended on credit. You had massive overproduction, persistently low farm prices and then, on Oct. 6, 1979, the Federal Reserve made its decision to increase interest rates [thus ballooning farmers' agricultural loan payments].

And there was also the [U.S.] embargo on grain exports to the Soviet Union [in retaliation for its invasion of Afghanistan].

For all of these reasons, farmers had their backs to the wall. That gave Gale and his allies the foothold they needed to disseminate their ideology throughout the farm belt. Gale began to travel widely, and by 1982 you had the first broadcasts by Gale and [Wisconsin Posse leader] James Wickstrom over radio station KTTL in Dodge City, Kan.

That's when the Posse really began to spread into the heartland.

The American Agriculture Movement [AAM] was formed in the summer of 1977 with the goal of getting the Carter Administration to raise farm prices. Although many members in AAM's early years were conservatives, they also had a strong populist streak — they favored government intervention to improve the farm economy.

But sadly, almost from the beginning, you had the Posse trying to infiltrate AAM and spread its philosophy of right-wing antigovernment conspiracy theories, race hatred, anti-Semitism and Christian Identity. As the AAM grew, so did the Posse.

IR: So did farmers turn to the Posse's extremism solely because of their plight?

LEVITAS: This was not just a case of going to farmers who were hurting and giving them false explanations for why they were hurting. It was the fact that farmers were getting organized as a political force and were holding mass meetings. It was like a virus.

What the Posse did was put the DNA of its conspiracy theories and Christian Identity philosophy into the cell of the farm movement, which became the carrier for it.

If there had not been a farm protest movement, the Posse would not have spread.

If you were to draw a map of that time, you would see the emergence of Posse activity in Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas, the Midwest. Then, on Feb. 13, 1983, when Kahl shot and killed the two marshals, you would see the full-blown movement. Remember, too, that Kahl was a farmer, yes, but he also was wanted on an outstanding tax warrant.

So again, you have the formula: Christian Identity plus tax protest equals Posse Comitatus. As researchers like Leonard Zeskind pointed out long ago, that was the same formula Gale had masterminded 10 years earlier.

IR: What happened when the liberal farm groups appeared?

LEVITAS: For a period of five years, from 1983 to 1988, there was very, very vigorous competition between the Posse and groups like the Iowa Farm Unity Coalition and the National Family Farm Coalition that tried to directly attack the Posse's conspiracy theories, race hatred and anti-Semitism.

These groups made it very difficult for Posse leaders to meet, even in church basements where years before they'd been treated with the greatest respect.

But by 1989, many of the people who'd been struggling to stay in agriculture, who had been willing to invest themselves politically in the positive farm movement, they were gone. They could only go to so many meetings before exhaustion and economic and political fatigue set in.

You can't sustain a social movement of vigorous social protest for years and years and years. Look at the civil rights movement.