The slogan 'Think Globally, Act Locally' takes on new meaning as the tiny LaVerkin, Utah adopts the anti-United Nations, conspiratorial beliefs of the radical right.
LAVERKIN, Utah -- This Independence Day, the LaVerkin City Council had planned to skip its regularly scheduled meeting. The councilmen in this town of 3,400, only a few miles from spectacular Zion National Park, intended to enjoy the holiday.
But just before the holiday, Councilman Gary McKell received a phone call asking whether he could attend a meeting nonetheless. He said he figured he could.
"I've never been to an honest-to-goodness tent revival," McKell says today, "but now I know what it must feel like."
Almost two dozen townspeople stood to testify, to shake their hands in the air and to slap each other on the back. They weren't there to praise God, though, but to condemn a rather unlikely enemy: the United Nations.
The official minutes give some sense of this extraordinary meeting. "If [the] U.N. had power, we would all be facing death," one man declared. Others agreed that the United Nations "is not for peace but for war," "a threat to the country," "anti-God, anti-family," "evil." One asked whether his audience would be "servants of God or slaves of Satan."
Hardly skipping a beat, a man explained that until the United Nations met its supposed global population targets, it planned for "382,000 people ... to be killed each day." A woman presented her conviction that "all members of Congress are communists." Another argued simply that "there [are] strange people here already and [I don't] want more strange ones."
Later, the councilman who introduced the ordinance, Al Snow, held up a map of the United States. "Everything in red on the map is controlled directly or indirectly by the U.N.," he exclaimed. "We may only have two years of freedom left in this country."
The ordinance they were debating was part of a broader isolationist campaign to get America out of the United Nations — a campaign supported by at least one congressman known for his sympathy for antigovernment causes — and it was blunt.
It would ban the U.N. from LaVerkin. It would force U.N. supporters to post signs reading "United Nations Work Conducted Here." The ordinance was meant, its enthusiastic supporters explained, to protect the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
And over McKell's stunned opposition, it passed — three votes to two.
"[The United Nations is] after our way of life, our freedom, and our use of public lands. ... We feel that the sovereignty of our great nation is in jeopardy," LaVerkin Mayor Dan Howard wrote. "This has all gone on long enough."
Little LaVerkin had become the mouse that roared.
The Politicians Join In
The story of LaVerkin is unusual, but it's not unique. The so-called "Patriot" movement that helped popularize such issues has been in steep decline since 1996, but concerns about these issues have remained strong in many areas.
Increasingly alienated by what they perceive as their waning sovereignty — a sense that faraway forces are controlling their fates — local officials around the country are looking for ways to fight back. And the United Nations — which has sought to limit handguns and taken other stands unpopular with many Americans — is a favorite scapegoat for people with understandable fears and grievances about the role of global and federal government.
But it is not the only one. Resuscitating many of the themes that animated the militia movement, officials and others far away from the cosmopolitan east and west coasts have taken a number of confrontational stands that seek to challenge the authority and intentions of federal and global officials.
Not far from LaVerkin, the town of Virgin, Utah, officially requires its citizens to own firearms. Washington City has demanded a repeal of the 17th Amendment, hoping to return the election of U.S. senators to state legislatures.
Late this summer, Utah's Republican Party joined in, demanding a pullout from the United Nations. The party even considered, however briefly, secession from the United States.
And it's not just Utah. The campaign against the U.N. — and the larger movement that includes strident opposition to government regulation in general — has reached cities in several states.
An ordinance similar to LaVerkin's became law in tiny Bingham, N.M., this August. (Unincorporated Bingham's mayor is Clayton Douglas, editor of The Free American, a magazine popular among militiamen.)
In fact, via the Internet, LaVerkin activists are in close touch with far-right campaigns nationwide, coordinating strategies and even raising money for them.
The anti-U.N. ordinance itself was first proposed by Texan Daniel New as part of his larger campaign to get America out of the U.N. It was New's son, Michael New, who became the darling of antigovernment militias and other Patriot groups when, in 1996, he was court-martialed and given a bad conduct discharge from the U.S. Army for refusing to participate in U.N. activities.
Resolutions opposing the Clean Water Act passed in Macon and McDowell counties in North Carolina. And a fierce fight has developed in Klamath Falls, Ore., over enforcement of the federal Endangered Species Act.
These campaigns have roots in the bitterly anti-environmentalist Wise Use movement of the 1980s and 1990s, and in antigovernment hotbeds like Catron County, N.M., where elected officials, calling federal agents "a clear and present danger," tried during the 1990s to evict the U.S. government from public lands.
Finally, there is Ron Paul. The Republican congressman from Texas has long been a favorite of America's militia and other Patriot groups, and his stand on the United Nations isn't going to cost him any such supporters. This year, once more, he introduced his perennially doomed American Sovereignty Restoration Act — a bill that would take the United States out of the United Nations.
In a Quiet Town, 'Unspecified Naughty Language'
In most respects, LaVerkin is just a friendly, patriotic, one-stoplight town in the high Utah desert. The streets feel open and easygoing; children playing outside wave to passing cars. Sitting at a booth inside the Sunrise Market, one is struck by the warmth of the postman, the ranchers, the city officials who drop in to drink coffee and swap stories.
In LaVerkin, people get along pretty well and things are usually quiet. A volume of local history recorded only two events in 1984; one was an allegation that a police officer had used "unspecified naughty language."
It is certainly not the case that everyone here supports the anti-U.N. ordinance. "We all think it's pretty silly," says Emily Hudson, a woman in her 20s working in LaVerkin's main grocery store. "We don't really understand why the city council did it. It seems to me that all the nations working together is a good thing."
Yet LaVerkin makes no secret of its politics. This overwhelmingly Mormon town is, like the church, extremely socially conservative. (Church doctrine officially maintained the inferiority of blacks until 1978, and it continues to oppose equal rights for gay men and lesbians.) LaVerkin citizens seem almost unanimous in their zealous opposition to abortion and taxes, and their support for gun and property rights.
And they have, if anything, only become more vocal on these issues as the town's population doubled over the last 10 years — a major influx of newcomers that may help explain the fears of locals that they are losing their way of life.
Council member Daren Cottam concedes that his vote for the ordinance wasn't directly related to the U.N. "I saw this ordinance," Cottam says, "as a way of making a statement against environmental radicalism and gun control."
LaVerkin's anti-U.N. ordinance also seems to some to fulfill a famous prophecy of Mormon Church founder Joseph Smith. The time would come, Smith prophesied, when the Constitution would "hang by a brittle thread" and the Mormons would "step forth and save it."
Clearly, many LaVerkinites see themselves as the heroic saviors of American freedoms. There is, however, at least one part of the Constitution that's not universally popular.
"The Fourteenth Amendment has done a lot of damage," insists Al Snow, the councilman who introduced the anti-U.N. ordinance. "It wasn't meant to apply to the States." The Fourteenth Amendment guarantees equal protection under the law.
A Town With a History
LaVerkin and Washington County which encompasses it have attracted more than their share of high-profile radicals and survivalists.
In the early 1980s, LaVerkin was the site of a proposed 240-unit underground condominium development to be called Terrene Ark I. Each unit was to come complete with blast-proof doors, a decontamination chamber, 24-hour security to protect against invasions and a four-year supply of freeze-dried food stuffed into the ceilings and walls.
The promoters, who hoped to turn a profit on fears of the coming end times, were not worried about a negative reaction from the town.
Many locals agreed with the premise that the end was nigh. "Some people who live here are nervous" about the development, explained the LaVerkin town recorder at the time, "but the majority are for it." Ultimately, the project only completed one room.
But even so, locals say, some residents of LaVerkin and neighboring Virgin today keep camouflaged trailers up in the hills, packed with guns, ammo and food — a refuge in case of civil war or economic collapse.
Through the 1980s, Washington County was home to members of the Posse Comitatus, a violently anti-Semitic tax protest group, and members of the Invisible Empire, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. At one point, Posse members tried to establish a haven from American taxes and laws that they called Zion Township.
During the 1990s, LaVerkin also was ground zero for neo-Nazi Skinhead Johnny Bangerter and his white supremacist Army of Israel, a group that at one point declared it would turn nearby Zion National Park into an all-white homeland.
A chapter of the ultraviolent, white supremacist Hammerskin Nation was located in Washington County. One LaVerkin resident has been awaiting trial for years on an alleged federal tax fraud and "constitutional history" scheme called Association de Libertas.
And, in 1997, on the other side of Washington County in Gunlock, Utah, investigators nabbed Idahoan Chevie Kehoe, leader of the white supremacist Aryan People's Republic and mastermind of a gruesome, cross-country murder spree.
'A Menace to Society'
"Why now? Why are smaller communities talking about issues like [revoking the 17th Amendment]?" asks Victor Iverson, a LaVerkin councilman who supported the anti-U.N. ordinance. Then he answers his own question. "I think we feel disenfranchised by the federal government, and that's an eerie feeling. ... We're not in any way trying to be isolationists."
A huge part of that perceived disenfranchisement is sparked by resentment of the growing power of government, especially with respect to the environment.
Fully 60% of Utah's land area is owned by the federal government, and millions of additional acres are held by state and county governments. Locals were infuriated by then-President Clinton's decision to establish the nearby Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
Public use of the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve also has been restricted to protect an endangered species of tortoise. Several years ago, environmental groups fought unsuccessfully for parts of LaVerkin to be designated the "Scenic Corridor" to Zion National Park and have their use restricted by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
Perhaps most enraging of all to locals was the nomination of Zion National Park to become a United Nations World Heritage Site.
Kelly Wilson was the second city council member to vote against the anti-U.N. ordinance; by LaVerkin standards, he is a moderate. But Wilson's feelings about environmentalists are clear.
"As far as I'm concerned, the Sierra Club, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, even the Grand Canyon Trust are a menace to society," says Wilson. "I think they couldn't care less about the environment. They just want to stop growth and pursue their own agendas. I don't know what's motivating them ... unless it's just to gain control."
Will the Real U.N. Please Stand Up?
Whatever complaints LaVerkinites may have, a large number of citizens and elected officials have been swept up in classic, outlandish conspiracy theories that originated on the far right.
To all appearances, their grievances are with their more liberal fellow Americans and with the federal government — not with the United Nations. So why does LaVerkin identify the U.N. as the culprit?
"That's a good question," concedes Kent Neal, owner of a hamburger restaurant on State Street. "How can we make the connection that the United Nations is behind it all?
"Well, it's exactly the same as the case here with our trailer park people. Sometimes, trailer park people come in here and I can tell by the way they're talking and thinking that they are trailer park people. And later I find out they're trailer park people.
"That's just like the U.N. How many people could be so stupid about managing their forests? It must be coming from the U.N."
The accusations LaVerkin brings against the United Nations are remarkable. The U.N.'s "New World Order" is a "killing machine" that has "brought about and controlled every war" since World War II, opined one letter-writer to the local paper. It is an "octopus" created "by a group of Soviet KGB masters under the direction of the Soviet Comintern," wrote another.
Shauna Johnson, a local rancher, explained that the U.N. controlled vast areas of the United States. "As part of their Biosphere Plan, they are going to clear out all the people from those areas," she said. "And the way they are going to do that is by destroying the economy. That's exactly what so-called 'environmental' organizations are trying to do."
"It's just laughable," says Professor John Brehm, chairman of the Department of Political Science at the University of Chicago. "The United Nations has none of the intentions that people in LaVerkin are claiming, and it's not nearly that powerful. The U.N. is under-funded, under-organized, under-equipped and is scarcely able to contain a small conflict in Macedonia."
Clearly, LaVerkin was fertile ground for discontent with the United Nations. But the anti-U.N. ordinance would never have come about if not for LaVerkin's ties to much broader networks of far-right activists.
Locals say that on-line groups and publications like Frontiers of Freedom-People for the USA, freedom.org, Sovereignty International, Ecologic, freedom.org, The Sierra Times, the John Birch Society's New American and others keep them in touch with similar campaigns across the country. Some locals have raised money for the protesters in Klamath Falls.
Activists in LaVerkin deepened their nationwide connections last year, after the neighboring town of Virgin passed its ordinance requiring each household to own firearms. Awash in newfound fame, Virgin activists were invited to be guests on antigovernment radio shows in Texas. The town even was given a free Web site on a "Patriot-owned" server.
When Daniel New went looking for towns to pass his anti-U.N. ordinance, Virgin and its neighbor LaVerkin were obvious choices. Armed with the fame of his son — Michael New was a hero to many LaVerkinites and other Americans who fear a totalitarian plot in favor of world government — Daniel New had been campaigning for five years to get the United States out of the United Nations. He has promoted his ordinance in at least four communities.
Last June 20, two weeks before the law was adopted on July 4, he made his pitch to the LaVerkin city council. In the interim, anti-U.N. councilmen reportedly kept the ordinance very quiet.
"The people who set this up sprung it on the rest of us," says Councilman McKell. "They showed up with all their supporters and all their ducks all in a row. There was virtually no debate."
The actual author of the ordinance text is Herbert Titus, the 1996 vice-presidential candidate of the far-right, isolationist U.S. Taxpayers Party (now called the Constitution Party).
According to the Web page of the Patriot group Americans for Constitutional Integrity, Titus worked with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) after his graduation from Harvard Law School. But in 1975, the page says, "Titus was dramatically converted to Christ."
Besides teaching at fundamentalist law schools, LaVerkin Councilman Al Snow says, Titus actually fought the ACLU in a legal battle to allow an Alabama judge to post the Ten Commandments in his courtroom. Titus could not be reached for comment.
'United Nations Work Conducted Here'
The original ordinance was comprehensive. It outlawed occupation of LaVerkin by U.N. troops and any U.N. taxes on the city. It prohibited extradition to any U.N.-sponsored international court and prevented the city from investing or contracting with any supporters of the United Nations.
Most controversial were the restrictions on civil liberties. The law banned the display of any U.N. flag or logo on city property, even at employees' desks. And it required supporters of the U.N. to register with the city, provide detailed reports of their activities, pay a fee and post public signs reading "United Nations Work Conducted Here."
To many, the law, supposedly passed to protect against tyranny, was an obvious and ironically unconstitutional infringement on civil liberties. Two LaVerkin police officers resigned in protest, citing constitutional violations. Said Mayor Howard: "We will miss them [and] wish them well in future endeavors."
Councilman Snow was less sanguine. "If they felt that way," he said at a closed-door city council meeting, "then the city didn't need them."
When the American Civil Liberties Union vowed to fight the ordinance in court, Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff visited the subsequent, July 18 council meeting to explain that the law was unconstitutional and should be repealed.
In the end, the council revised the ordinance to be a largely symbolic prohibition against stationing U.N. troops on city property or flying the U.N. flag from the city flagpole. The language detailing how supporters of the United Nations would be publicly identified, taxed and ostracized was struck.
Still, the World Comes Calling
Although LaVerkin has found a way to highlight itself on the political map, it is still just a friendly, one-stoplight town in the desert. Local activists say they lament the "liberal media's" negative coverage, but they mostly don't hesitate to talk to reporters. They are the first to say that this ordinance is part of a broader nationwide effort to take back the government and reinstate their values.
It's not clear how far they'll get. Attorney General Shurtleff did not visit LaVerkin's city council by accident. Preparing for the Olympics in Salt Lake City, the state of Utah has made explicit efforts to contain some of its more isolationist and reactionary elements.
Best known is the recent conviction of a man for polygamy, the first such prosecution in years. This September, Shurtleff wrote to the mayor of Virgin, advising him that it is illegal to require citizens to own guns. But it is LaVerkin's ordinance that is especially embarrassing for the state; the Olympic torch is scheduled to pass through town on its way out of Zion National Park.
"I can't go anywhere now without someone jabbing me about LaVerkin," sighs McKell, the councilman who opposed the ordinance. "We will laugh about this someday, I hope, but we're not laughing about it now."