Hate group expert Daniel Levitas spent eight years in the Midwest researching and developing community responses to the Posse Comitatus, the Christian Identity movement and other hate groups.
Hate group expert Daniel Levitas spent eight years in the Midwest researching and developing community responses to the Posse Comitatus, the Christian Identity movement and other hate groups attempting to recruit farmers and rural residents in the 1980s. He has worked with several research and watchdog organizations, served as an expert witness in state and federal courts and published extensively in his field.
Levitas is also the author of a forthcoming book on the Posse Comitatus, its history since the early 1970s and its relationship to the current antigovernment "Patriot" movement. The Intelligence Report interviewed Levitas about the roots of the militia movement and the history of the Posse.
The interview started with his overview of the phases of the Posse Comitatus' organizing history.
INTELLIGENCE REPORT: Can you describe the roots of the present-day antigovernment movement?
LEVITAS: While the roots of the so-called Christian Patriot movement and the Posse Comitatus can be traced back to the 19th century and even earlier, the present trend really got its start nearly 30 years ago, in the early 1970s. The Posse Comitatus, which is Latin for "power of the county," was originally founded by William Potter Gale in 1970.
But the movement did not gain significant momentum until Gale was able to join his Christian Identity beliefs [a racist theology identifying Jews as the literal progeny of Satan and blacks as subhuman] with the growing anti-tax movement in the United States.
The first phase, when Gale developed all these theories about "citizens' government" and the Posse Comitatus, was in the early to mid-1970s. In reality, Gale's ideas were really nothing more than verbal flourishes used to disguise old-fashioned vigilantism.
The second phase started in the late 1970s, when Gale and his allies were able to take advantage of the agricultural crisis brewing in rural America and use it to disseminate Posse ideology throughout the farm belt.
The third phase was after the Posse really came into public view in 1983, with the killing of two federal marshals by [Posse adherent and tax protester] Gordon Kahl in North Dakota. After that, everybody knew the Posse was trouble with a capital T. The negative publicity it got, combined with aggressive state and federal prosecutions, dealt a significant blow to Posse recruitment.
At around the same time, you also had a whole series of liberal groups spring up whose goal was to organize farmers in a positive way to combat the economic crisis and to dispel the notion that there was an international Jewish banking conspiracy behind the farm crisis [as the Posse argued].
Gale died on April 28, 1988. Coincidentally, by the next year or so both the Posse and the liberal farm groups had largely collapsed. Farm foreclosures had continued and hundreds of thousands of farmers had been driven off the land throughout the 1980s. There were just fewer farmers to organize.
IR: How was all this related to the current antigovernment movement?
LEVITAS: If you look at the philosophy of today's militias, common-law courts and county supremacy movement, it is absolutely inseparable from the original concepts set forth by Gale almost 30 years ago.
What the Posse has done to survive between then and now has been to be very flexible and to inject those ideas into whatever social conditions exist and use those conditions opportunistically.
IR: Please trace the development of the Posse and its antecedents in some more detail.
LEVITAS: There have always been tax protesters in the United States, going back to before the Declaration of Independence. But the right-wing tax protest movement didn't really take off until the 1930s, largely as a conservative reaction to [President Franklin D.] Roosevelt and the Democrats.
It was a movement that was laced with anti-Semitism and beliefs about Jewish banking conspiracies, but by and large it lacked the hard edge of Christian Identity that Gale eventually gave it.
Gale published his first Posse manifesto in 1971, recommending the organization of local Posse groups throughout the United States and declaring the county sheriff was the only legal law enforcement officer. Gale and the Posse pioneered so-called common-law court methodology by "indicting" people in Oregon, Idaho and elsewhere using "citizens' grand juries."
The first known case of a citizens' grand jury issuing a written threat was in 1972, in a conflict between a tax protester named George Kindred and state revenue authorities in Ingham County, Mich. A Posse group there issued a notice threatening the local sheriff and law enforcement authorities for their enforcement of a state tax order.
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.
IR: Then came the birth of the modern Patriot movement. How did that take off?
LEVITAS: When the militias first began to appear, one of the principal issues they used to recruit followers was gun control. The earliest meetings of some militia groups in Montana were sparked by right-wing Christian Patriot activists, many of whom had come out of the Posse movement.
They used issues like gun control to hold public meetings which attracted hundreds of people, along with themes like environmental regulation and concerns about the United Nations and America being a sovereign nation.
That's one of the reasons the Posse has been so successful. It has used a range of issues to fuel its own metamorphosis and growth. It's true that the Posse and other hate groups have benefited from economic distress. But that is not necessarily the driving force behind the movement.
People are recruited into these groups and movements based heavily on the power of ideas.
There's a consistency of theme and form and message in today's so-called Christian Patriot movement. Ten years before the Montana Freemen were printing sight drafts on their computers, you had Posse members using the same kinds of fake financial instruments to help farmers supposedly pay off their agricultural debts.
The religious philosophy the Freemen embraced was the same old, tired, bigoted idea that Gale and Wickstrom and Stockheimer paraded up and down rural America beginning in the 1970s. Today's militia movement has nothing new or original in it.
IR: The Posse Comitatus was explicitly racist and anti-Semitic, but much of the modern Patriot movement is not. What percentage of so-called Patriots are racist?
LEVITAS: If we were to count those people who regularly attend common-law court meetings, who are subscribers to one or more of the radical right's publications, who have traveled to a major conference or survivalist expo and who have taken some kind of step to embrace this philosophy — non-payment of taxes or giving up their driver's license, for instance — I would say that practically every one of those people are racist or anti-Semitic, whether they admit it or not. They are by definition hard-core followers.
But there are thousands of other people who have come to a meeting now and then based on the appeal of issues that have nothing to do with anti-Semitism or racism. The success of the Patriot movement is not based on an up-front appeal to race hatred. It's based on an overt appeal to broadly attractive political and social issues.
IR: So where is the movement at now?
LEVITAS: The movement has become more militant and the death toll has increased. It's truly ready and willing to wage war against the government. Previously, there was a clearer division between the "patriotic" Posse Comitatus and the revolutionary neo-Nazi movement.
Over the past 10 years, that distinction has faded. One of the most dangerous trends we've seen is the transformation of the Posse movement into something today that is more willing to embrace an armed and violent revolutionary philosophy.
IR: How can law enforcement deal with this radicalism?
LEVITAS: That is an important question, but I think more important is how this movement affects the society we live in. How does it affect race relations? How does it challenge the operation of democracy? What potential do these ideas have to reach a broader audience? In the early 1970s, hard-core opposition to affirmative action really was limited to the purview of the Klan.
It was not commonly held that affirmative action was an affront to white people. Now that idea has broad appeal.
Unfortunately, not that many people have gone out and organized in communities around bread- and-butter issues in rural America. When the residents of a town in Montana are looking for a political outlet for their ideals and frustrations, if the militia is ready and waiting with pamphlets and videotapes, it's only a matter of time before a number of people go in that direction.
You have to have some kind of positive magnet out there, a really vigorous alternative. People don't have to be suffering or in bankruptcy to need this. They might just need to improve their quality of life, to express their ideals. Until such a movement develops and takes root in rural America, the so-called Christian Patriots will have a captive audience.
Human rights groups have their work cut out for them for many years to come. That's for sure.