The American news cycle, focused as it is on chaos and despondency, often feels relentless. With all eyes on the White House and its controversial occupant, stories slip through the cracks. In June, a truly unhinged series of events avoided national media attention; one involving a climate change bill, an anti-government militia, and a pro-Trump subreddit. It represents a grim turn in American politics, and will endanger the lives of law enforcement officers until rectified.
No-Shows in Salem
Our story takes place in Salem, capital of the state of Oregon. Democrats control the governor’s office and hold supermajorities in both chambers of the legislature. At the behest of environmental activists, HB 2020, which would institute a statewide cap-and-trade program, was introduced. Republicans, having exhausted every last procedural roadblock at their disposal, resorted to desperate measures to defeat the bill.
On June 20th, eleven Republican senators fled the capital, just one member over a third of the chamber. That left Democratic leadership without the quorum necessary to bring the bill to a vote. Worried by the potential ramifications to the state’s democracy, Senate President Peter Courtney pleaded with the senators to return. “I don’t want to send the state police,” he said on the Senate floor. “I have no other choice.”
His request went unfulfilled. Senator Cliff Bentz, speaking with the chamber remotely, signaled that his colleagues would remain in hiding until the bill was watered down. Governor Kate Brown ordered state troopers to locate the AWOL legislators and bring them back to the capital. In response, many of the Republicans fled to Idaho, out of reach of Oregon state troopers.
Already, the story has the makings of a bona fide political crisis. But Republicans in Oregon, increasingly an entrenched minority, have used this tactic before. They walked out for four days to protest a business tax increase this May. Democrats have used it too, in Texas and Wisconsin.
What went so wrong this time?
The Three Percenters
Before the walkout even occurred, Senator Brian Boquist threatened to shoot and kill any officers that attempted to retrieve him. “Send bachelors and come heavily armed,” he told a local news team a day before the walkout. “I’m not going to be a political prisoner in the state of Oregon. It’s that simple.”
In response, Jerrad Robsinson of the Three Percenters announced the militia’s intent to protect the Republican senators from state troopers. The group “vowed to provide security, transportation and refuge for those Senators in need” in a Facebook post. Several Oregon chapters of the anti-government paramilitary group, as well as some from Idaho and Nevada, mobilized.
The Three Percenters organization was founded in 2008 amid fears the Obama administration would confiscate guns across the country. It’s named for the (untrue) notion that only three percent of colonists rebelled against the British during the American Revolution. It, and other like minded militias, claim to be nonpartisan. However, the number of active militias nationwide is higher during Democratic presidencies, and lower during Republican ones.
The group has no national hierarchy; local chapters are autonomous. In 2011, Georgia militants were accused of plotting to send ricin to government buildings. In 2016, Oregon Three Percenters were involved in the occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge that ended in one death. The next year, a member tried to blow up a truck bomb in Oklahoma City.
Militia leaders claimed Republican senators had privately requested protection and encouraged them to start protests. A spokeswoman for the caucus denied Republicans made either entreaty.
Threats of Violence
The situation was discussed at length on the pro-Trump subreddit r/The_Donald. Many of the comments on the page advocated violence against any state troopers trying to arrest the Republican senators.
“No problems shooting a cop trying to strip rights from Citizens,” wrote one user.
“Tree of Liberty seems thirsty,” said another, referencing the Thomas Jefferson quote.
“If the militia plans doing a showdown again, they better have plans for Vietcong style ambush or hit-in-run,” considered a third.
One user said he had “been waiting for a very violent and stomping revolution where the anti american fuck sticks are dragged out of the capitol buildings and executed.”
One advocated for militants to “burn Portland and Eugene to the ground.”
“The catalyst to purge their ideology from government can’t come fast enough,” wrote another.
Reddit is anonymous, so it’s impossible to tell how many commenters were actual militia members and how many were just keyboard warriors. The threats eventually spilled over into real life. The Oregon statehouse was shut down after a militia threatened to occupy the capitol building. Other militia-affiliated protestors demonstrated outside the statehouse riding trucks and tractors.
Senate Democrats eventually withdrew the bill, stating that enough of their own caucus had switched votes after the threats. Republicans returned to the capital. Boquist was saddled with a burdensome requirement to provide written notice ahead of entering the statehouse. Other than that, none of the senators who went AWOL faced any legal action.
r/The_Donald was quarantined by Reddit for the offensive posts. While the subreddit is not deleted, users receive a warning before they can view it and must “opt-in.” Quarantines also make it harder for a subreddit’s posts to gain traction on the site. The community’s moderators lambasted Reddit for stifling their freedom of speech.
Luckily, no actual standoffs occurred, and no one was killed.
Regardless of your political affiliations, it should scare you Democrats buckled to the demands of an armed militia. Doing so legitimized not only the minority party leaving whenever bill negotiations don’t go their way, but also paramilitaries constraining efforts to recover them with threats of violence. There is a reason you do not negotiate with terrorists who have taken hostages: if they receive their demands, they are incentivized to do it again. And when the militia comes for Oregon again, the lives of police officers will be in even more danger, because the militants have been emboldened.
Democracy is only possible when we are governed by the rule of law, not by the rule of sword. In a functioning country, the state has a monopoly on violence, to be exercised only by authorized agents – in our case, police officers. If a militia can threaten the life of a police officer and faces no repercussions, it weakens the power they have to maintain law and order. If a militia can stop legislation that displeases them by threatening to storm the capitol, we are no longer governed by the rule of law.
The Oregon government, and its law enforcement in particular, must take the militia movement seriously. They represent an undercovered threat not only to police officers, but to the concept of democracy itself.