Anderson County, S.C., Law Enforcement Takes on Antigovernment Extremists

One morning last May, 30 miles north of Abbeville in Anderson County, local radio talk-show host Rick Driver was bantering amiably with a regular caller. The subject turned to County Council meetings, and the caller — identified only as "Ginger" — casually vowed that the next time the council convened, "I'll come with Bible in one hand and a gun in the other."

The remarkable thing about Ginger's threat was that it was anything but remarkable. Since the 1980s, a coalition of common-law "Patriots," far-right Christian activists, neo-Confederates and "not-in-my-backyard" reactionaries have waged a spirited war against county officials working to bring good government and New South prosperity to this traditionally turbulent slice of upstate South Carolina.

County officials half-jokingly call their opponents "CAVE people — Citizens Against Virtually Everything." They estimate there are about 300 such activists in Anderson County.

They come together on Driver's radio show, on the Internet, and at meetings of the Anderson County Taxpayers Association. They hold regular protests outside Town Hall, wielding signs like "County Council = Commie Crooks." They've filed so many sham lawsuits, subpoenas and liens that Sheriff Gene Taylor says he has "a stack at least two feet high."

There have been several threats against county officials and, just since 9/11, five threats to blow up Town Hall.

"They don't like growth, they don't like Northerners, they don't like progress," says a longtime local businessperson who asked to remain anonymous because of past harassment after speaking out. "If you're not one of 'em, you're not worth shootin'."

Sheriff Taylor has long feared just the opposite: that some of Anderson's angry people will start shooting. "I've tried to warn folks about this for years," says Taylor, a Republican first elected in 1988 when he promised to clean up a department so corrupt that in the 1970s, a sheriff and his deputies were convicted of running an auto-theft ring.

"We have people here who sit around all day and listen to Rick Driver and Rush Limbaugh spew their hate-filled rhetoric. Sooner or later, somebody is going to feel like they'll be martyrs and kill somebody. After what happened in Abbeville, nobody can deny that they really will kill people over their nutty beliefs."

Many local extremists are "Patriots" who have been using common-law tactics to bog down local government since the 1970s. The most influential is Robert Clarkson, who calls himself "the South's most famous IRS fighter." Clarkson founded the Patriot Network, which runs common-law workshops throughout upstate South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia and North Carolina.

In an episode that's become all too typical here, two of Clarkson's associates were recently arrested for passing out jury nullification flyers during jury selection for the fraud trial of another Clarkson pal; both protesters refused to give their full names and were jailed. Clarkson subsequently filed "habeus corpus" papers, demanding proof that the men were being held legally.

Clarkson recently got in hot water for claiming to be a lawyer on the Patriot Network's Web site. During South Carolina's Confederate flag controversy, he started Save Our Flag, leading protests around the state with his "main assistant in the Southern Cause," Nelson Waller. Waller serves as vice-chair of the state chapter of the white-supremacist Council of Conservative Citizens. He also contributes fiery rhetoric to the Rick Driver show and to a variety of "Patriot" and secessionist tabloids.

Extremists like Clarkson and Waller are anything but fringe-dwellers in Anderson County. Clarkson, in fact, is currently listed as a precinct chair for the local G.O.P., joining a host of other "CAVE people" active in mainstream politics.

When state Christian Coalition leader Lesley White was ticketed for speeding in 1998, she and her husband, county Republican leader Dick White, issued phony subpoenas to Sheriff Taylor and other law-enforcement officers, ordering them to appear in common-law court for questioning. "For a simple speeding ticket," Taylor says, "I probably had two or three inches' worth of papers from them."

Another Republican stalwart, Ted Davis, was stopped after years of driving around town with a homemade tag on his car that read, "MYCAR1." After he refused to give his identity to officers, they searched his car, according to Taylor, "and we found in plain sight anti-Jewish literature, international drivers' licenses, all that stuff."

Local officials say County Council member Cindy Wilson, the one office-holder popular with local tax protesters, has forced Anderson to fend off lawsuits related to the use of her property.

Driver's radio show provides fuel for these folks' fury. With an impossibly deep voice reminiscent of Don Imus, Driver wakes up Anderson every morning with assertions like "hate is not a crime, folks."

In 1999, Driver recommended a "constitutional amendment" against legislative bodies "meeting more than 15 minutes out of every year." If they exceed the limit, Driver quipped, "we'll line them up and shoot them out back." Driver, who denies any militia or hate-group affiliations, welcomed the NAACP boycott of South Carolina because there would be a "drop in crime as leftists and blacks stay away."

His station, WAIM, once erected billboard advertisements that read, "Rick Driver 7 to 10 am/Liberals in Season," with the "o" in season designed to look like the crosshairs of a rifle.

Sheriff Taylor sued Driver and WAIM for slander in 2000, after being called everything from a cross-dresser to a wife-beater to a burglar. Since Driver agreed to settle the suit out of court, Joey Preston, named national County Administrator of the Year in 2002, has been the prime target.

"They call me Little Hitler, Little Castro, you name it," says Preston. "They track where I eat, who I'm seen with, what I drive, when I come and go. They've done everything but lay down in front of cars to stop progress here."

Taylor, whom Driver mocks as "Clean Gene," recently decided to take himself out of the crosshairs and step down after this year's election. After what happened in Abbeville in December, he hopes future county leaders will understand that they can't overlook the potential for trouble from people like Earl Nash, the local king of common-law filings who "has a sign in his yard just like the Bixbys did: 'no trespassing by the government.'

"One of the biggest dangers is the lone individual or family who've spoken with other people and had their beliefs validated, whether it's on the Internet or on a radio show or at a tax-protest meeting," Taylor says.

"When some guy's on the radio saying all the things you believe, and that somebody ought to do something, you'll probably feel good about doing something. Because you're right, we're right, and all those other people are dead wrong."