One evening a couple weeks ago, I received a call from a human dignity group leader in Josephine County: "ROP! Help!"
The Oath Keepers of Josephine County, a local chapter of a national right-wing organization that recruits police, military, and others to "uphold their oath to the Constitution" and to refuse any orders that violate any constitutional rights, had put out a national call for "patriots" to converge just outside of Grants Pass. Two gold miners had received notice from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) that they were out of compliance, and the gold miners reached out to the Josephine County Oath Keepers. A slew of folks from militia and extreme right-wing groups from across the country began posting Twitter updates and YouTube videos of themselves driving out to Josephine County for a "Bundy Ranch-style standoff with the government." The Southern Poverty Law Center's David Neiwert wrote a blog on Hatewatch that covers some of these early events.
Local leaders and I got on the phone and began contacting other Josephine County progressives to get their sense of the situation. Most folks hadn't heard anything about it. Some were scared and unwilling to even come to a meeting for fear of retaliation. Several folks agreed that, at a minimum, we should learn more about who was coming out to Josephine County and get a grasp on the situation. We set up a meeting time and got to work talking to anyone who would answer the phone, researching the background of Oath Keepers inside and outside of Josephine County, and reaching out to our national allies for support.
ROP reached out to our friends at Political Research Associates, a progressive think tank that tracks the Right, and they gave us the national picture of what the Oath Keepers stand for:
The Oath Keepers, included by the Southern Poverty Law Center in their list of Hate and Extremist Groups and its Patriot Movement Timeline, is one of the largest anti-government “patriot” groups in the nation. The formation of Oath Keepers in 2009 capitalized on the emerging Tea Party movement and the “Ron Paul Revolution” to build their membership. In 2014, the organization claimed 40,000 members in chapters in all fifty states. Their stated enemy is the “tyranny of the federal government”. Their sister organization, the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, specifically recruits county sheriffs around this ideology. Both promote and train for resistance to “unconstitutional” actions of federal agencies, including the Bureau of Land Management, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Food and Drug Administration. But their top priority is fighting any type of gun control. Click here for the full profile.
Then there is Josephine County, where the complete dismantling and privatization of every piece of public infrastructure has either already happened or is on the brink of happening. The libraries were systematically dismantled a few years ago (they're privately operated now), and now county and local police forces are defunded to the point that they are understaffed, ineffective, and dissolving completely.
The Oath Keepers of Josephine County have been key players in manufacturing this crisis, providing leadership for the No New Taxes campaigns against public safety levies that would fund the Sheriff's Department; they then point out the lack of public safety infrastructure as an example of government failing the people.
The defunding and dismantling of law enforcement has created a vacuum that is being filled by vigilantes and self-proclaimed militias who are quick to state that they know "who belongs" in their communities, and who does not. The Oath Keepers have helped create "community preparedness teams" in this vacuum which respond to natural and "other" disasters -- a great idea on its face -- that really serves as an entry point for folks feeling genuine economic insecurity into the broader extreme right-wing movement and ideology.
Initially, the local media coverage was minimal because the Oath Keepers turned folks away from the mine and the Oath Keeper spokespeople repeated the same couple of talking points over and over -- a skillful strategy in controlling information in order to minimize community alarm. The result is that a lot people think this is just one miner and maybe a handful of folks causing a stink, while extreme right-wing groups and militias are being called to action from around the country.
None of the local media had any comment from anyone other than the BLM or the Oath Keepers. The Oath Keepers used the silence from the community as justification of their actions, saying, "Do you hear anyone complaining? We have the community's support."
Right-wing media, however, has been allowed complete access to the mine and long interviews with local and national Oath Keeper leadership. What resulted is a right-wing media circus, issuing new calls for volunteers to come out to Josephine County to support the "security operation" every few days.
Once a core group of Josephine County human dignity leaders got together and shared what they knew about the situation, they agreed -- the broader community needs to have a voice! They got to work on talking points, letters to the editor, and language for a signature ad:
We are Josephine County residents working to build a prosperous local economy and a safe environment in which to raise our families. We are active community members, including teachers, farmers, business owners, faith leaders and parents who love our children. Some of us have lived in this beautiful county our entire lives, while many of us have settled here after falling in love with it. We may have diverse opinions, backgrounds and experiences, but we are all privileged to call this place home.
The events surrounding the Sugar Pine Mine are troubling to us, since it appears that what is in actuality a legal dispute has been construed by some individuals from outside our community as an opportunity to advance their own agenda. Now is not the time for division, fragmentation, or an “every man for himself” attitude, but rather a time for us to come together to create the Josephine County we want and need.
We support a vision of a county where:
- All can live in safety and without fear or intimidation
- Democracy thrives and those living in the community decide who represent and speak for us
- Problems are resolved peacefully through negotiation and with respect for all parties involved
On Thursday, April 24th, the Oath Keepers held a rally outside the BLM office in Medford, where they proclaimed to the 70 folks who showed up that they would continue their “security operations” at the mine until the miners had their day in court (which could be months from now).
Josephine County human dignity leaders chewed on different ways to respond. A counter-rally? What about leafletting neighborhoods? They decided on holding a press conference to ensure that an alternative vision and some critical questions made it into the media sooner than later.
The day after the Oath Keepers’ rally in Medford, a dozen local community leaders stood on the steps of the Josephine County Courthouse in front of every single newspaper and TV station in the area. Five folks spoke: a local business leader, a retired dean of Rogue Community College, a faith leader, a recent transplant to the area, and a long-time resident.
The first speaker started with, “I want to acknowledge that it takes courage to be here today. One thing I think we all agree on is that we should not be afraid or intimidated within our own communities to speak to our neighbors. But that’s where we find ourselves today, and that in itself tells you that what’s happening here is wrong.”
Each speaker took the time to emphasize that there are many, many Southern Oregonians working hard to make their communities a better place to live and that it is a step backward to call for further dismantling of our services when Josephine County is already struggling to stay connected. Each shared their commitment to creating a thriving Josephine County and their vision of the community -- a place where folks work together to resolve problems civilly and democratically.
Instead of letting the community hold a calm press conference, the Oath Keepers arrived, including the previous sheriff, Gil Gilbertson, a member of the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association. The Oath Keepers interrupted the end of the press conference and then followed the press conference speakers as they retreated into the courthouse, shoving cell phones in the speakers’ faces, recording videos of the interactions. The Southern Poverty Law Center's Hatewatch blog covered the press conference and the disruption in-depth here.
The speakers left the press conference galvanized. They were able to describe how a local situation was exploited to advance the Oath Keepers' national agenda to recruit, make a name for themselves, and fundraise, and offered an alternative vision for the community. The press conference exposed that these folks who claim to defend the Constitution would shut down community members trying to speak out by intimidating them and shouting over them. Every TV station and local paper ran a story that not only covered the great points made by community members, but also discussed the disruption by the Oath Keepers.
Folks in the community were inspired by their neighbors boldly naming their values. Folks from across the county began calling in, asking if they can write letters to the editor, collect signatures for the signature ad, and come to the next meeting.
As local leaders collect the final signatures for their signature ad, ROP has been pulling together leaders from across the state to discuss what they are seeing in their communities. This is where you come in! What have you heard locally? Do you have a “patriot” group in your community? How about an Oath Keepers chapter? Are they sending people and/or supplies out to Josephine County? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and let's chat!
Keep an eye out for future ROPnets; we will be sharing more background information and updates on Josephine County's organizing over the next few weeks! Join local leaders from across the state as we continue the conversation about the growing militia and extreme right-wing movement in Oregon at our Rural Caucus & Strategy Session on Saturday, June 13th, in Woodburn!
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