At Close Range

The Men Behind the Texas Militia Myth

by Dave Cook, photos by Jana Birchum

My whole life is

squeezed into this trigger. I can feel it there, my whole worrisome, tentative life, all of the rage and uncertainty and weight of it balanced behind my finger as I try to keep the barrel of the semi-automatic, Colt AR-15 assault rifle level in front of me. The stock is jammed against my shoulder to absorb the jolt, my head is pinned down over the sight, I can feel my heart pounding against the gun and wait for my hands to steady.

Finally, I fire.

The gun jumps in my arms and the sound of the bullet rips through my temples and across the field -- and I have absolutely no idea where it went. "Do you think you could ever defend yourself with one of these?" Pat Ball, owner of the weapon, will ask me later. I've never thought about it before -- I never thought I'd have to -- and the answer, I'll have to admit, is probably no. Because firing the Colt AR-15 -- a weapon modeled after the military-issue M-16 that can shoot accurately from up to 600 yards as quickly as one can squeeze the trigger -- is a very serious thing. It's also frightening and exhilarating, the same drophammer whoosh surprising me each time I fire. Despite my reluctance to say I'd turn this weapon on another human being, there are plenty of people who would, and who are out there training to do so right now. They are pissed off; they think something's gone horribly wrong with this country, that if they don't have to use this weapon against the invading U.N. forces, then they may have to use it against the treasonous elements in their own government.

One can question the truth of their ideas and beliefs, but the numbers don't lie: Chip Berlet, an analyst with Political Research Associates in Cambridge, Massachusetts, estimates that there are up to 40,000 militia members nationwide training to use this weapon. Texas' largest militia, the Texas Constitutional Militia, claims 2,000-6,000 members -- and it didn't even exist two years ago. Michigan, where I grew up, claims the largest militia in the country, estimated at close to 10,000. Yet until the Oklahoma City bombing, I'd never heard of them.

All right -- you say you're sick of hearing about Oklahoma City, sick of hearing about militias, sick of this whole business about wackos with guns roaming the hillside. Fine. Me, too. But consider this: Instead of thinning out their ranks, the Oklahoma City bombing may have only strengthened the militias, caused them to grow even more. And to get rid of them, the government may be passing laws that do more to circumvent the Constitution than anything Joe McCarthy ever dreamed of.

These were the among the first things I discovered when I began investigating the militia movement in Texas last summer, and they surprised me into wanting to find out more about the people involved. We have already heard from the Bo Gritzes, seen the faces of old-time extremists like Montana's John Trochman and Michigan's Norman Olson glaring at us from the covers of slick magazines -- but these men have always been involved in militias, in the "patriot" movement, and listening to them alone does nothing to explain why the movement has begun to appeal to so many other people. Indeed, at a national meeting of militia leaders held earlier this month in Mountain Springs, Texas, all of the men mentioned above were deliberately left off the guest list, as the militias make new efforts to bring their image into the mainstream. It is these people who have swelled the ranks of militias in recent years, and it is only through talking with them, I believe, that we can find out what their concerns really are, and how much of a threat they pose.

Militiaman

Pat Ball -- who stands beside me grinning and flashing me a thumbs-up despite my errant shooting -- seems to be the very model of a modern militia member. Ball has driven me out to the Austin Rifle Club shooting range on this warm Saturday in June as my first primer on the militia movement. He's young, big, and burly, with a deep southern drawl. On the drive out here, he spouted many of the beliefs that have come to be associated with militia members, including a severe distrust of the FBI and ATF stemming from their misadventures in Waco and Ruby Ridge. (The incident at Ruby Ridge involved the 1992 siege of Rudy Weaver's ranch in Idaho; Weaver was wanted for weapons violations. One federal agent was shot and killed along with Weaver's son in an exchange of fire; also killed was Weaver's wife, shot while standing in the doorway of her home holding their infant daughter.) "All social movements need a spark to sort of get them started, galvanize them," Berlet has told me. "The Weaver and Waco incidents did that."

Ball also subscribes to the belief, popular among militias, that "eventually the country's going to split off into four or five countries, every one of those reflecting the will of the people who live in them." He adds that "the dumbest thing Texas did was join the Union. We started out as our own country and we should have stayed that way." And to solidify this extremist image, he has shown me a photo of himself and three other men decked out in combat fatigues and camouflage paint, gripping assault rifles and grinning from the edge of some woods.

At the shooting range, after I have emptied my magazine, Ball takes the gun, reloads it, and graciously tries to convince me I did all right for my first time. He then proceeds to calmly squeeze off a tight bouquet of bullseyes onto the distant black dot of the target.

There is much more to Ball, however, than some extreme views and deadly accuracy with a rifle. As we drive the 200 yards across the range to check our scores, we talk politics. Ball reveals that not only does he still believe in the democratic process, he's actually somewhat of a Democrat himself, having voted for Clinton and former Governor Ann Richards in the last elections. He argues passionately, convincingly even, in favor of drug legalization, comparing the current "War on Drugs" to Twenties prohibition. "Look what that did to our country," he says. And while Ball is reluctant to talk about his own involvement in militias -- at one point hinting that he used to belong to a quasi-militia group in West Texas -- he seems wary of them now, saying that "there's more people in them than you might think" and adding that "for the most part they're a bunch of wannabes." Most of all, there is an underlying decency about Ball; he handles both himself and his weapon with the utmost civility and care, as conscientious about flipping on the safety when he passes me the gun as he is about saying "please" and "thank you."

I initially contacted Ball through a mutual friend because I was concerned I wouldn't be able to get any of the notoriously paranoid, "real" militia members to talk candidly with me. But I was wrong. They are out there, and they are more than willing to talk; in fact, the home phone numbers of my next two interview subjects were given to me by a fellow writer, who got them on the Internet. The problem becomes, perhaps, that they are too willing to talk, too eager to bend your perception of them away from the harsh picture that's been painted by the media and some elements of the government. Are they really, as they would have you believe, not so different than Pat Ball, merely concerned about freedoms and gun rights? My first conversation with an active milita leader does not lead to this conclusion.

Never Again

"There's nothing that's going to happen like Waco in Texas again," Steve Brown matter-of-factly asserts the first time we speak. After weeks of trying to reach Brown, he has finally called me at home over the Fourth of July weekend, and he has this voice, growling sore-throated over the phone like Darth Vader on Nyquil, quickly filling in any openings his words might leave for questions -- but before he gets rolling I manage to ask him just what he means. "In a situation like [Waco], the militias will be activated; we will make sure those people come out alive," Brown says. "We're not going to watch women and babies get burned again."

The "we" Brown is referring to is the Texas Constitutional Militia (TCM), founded less than two years ago as an umbrella organization for other militias that were forming. There are six regions of the TCM, together covering the state of Texas. Brown, commander of the southern region, says he has representatives from 14 counties. Even Brown doesn't have accurate numbers on the notoriously hard-to-pin-down militia membership, but "a good estimate would be 2,000 active, 6,000 who support us but don't come to all the meetings." And he claims that his region drew record crowds to these meetings in the months following the bombing.

Brown is reasonable enough at first, taking me to task for media coverage which has portrayed militia members as "psycho, wacko nuts," and explaining that the militia is only concerned with "preserving the laws" and "getting back to what this country is supposed to be all about." But soon enough, the paranoia appears, as Brown begins to speak of "outside influences which are trying to disrupt us and make us weak." According to Brown, these encompass a broad array of organizations, including the U.N., which he calls "an abomination" and believes is planning to "break up the Union." The Anti-Defamation League, which has long been at the forefront of monitoring the militia movement, is "a dirty group." Then there are the "ATF, DEA, FBI, IRS," who have "become the Gestapos and KGBs of the American experiment."

His rhetoric soon swells into hate, which he disguises beneath a veneer of Christian fervor: "We represent a threat to people that know no God, that look to the state as God," says Brown. "We've tolerated the butchering of millions of babies a year. We've allowed homosexuality to be paraded up and down the street as if it's normal... We're a country bent on destruction.

"My hope is solely in the body and blood of Jesus Christ," he continues. "I don't have any hope for this nation as it stands -- until we return to a Constitutional republic." Brown is on edge. When I press him about what this means, if this is only to be accomplished through some violent confrontation, he says, "We've got to change our nature as a people. The only way to do that is to humble ourselves before God."

He invites me to attend the next TCM meeting, to be held, as always, on the third Sunday of the month. "Now quote me accurately and within context," Brown admonishes me before hanging up -- "I know where you live." He laughs, and I try to -- and then I carefully go over my notes to make sure I've got everything straight. Brown spoke in such torrents that there are many stray fragments I must cross out -- but at least he was straightforward with his extremism -- unlike the next militia member I speak with.

The Texas Light Infantry

While Brown's militia is the biggest, most of his members don't have military experience or training, and may be unprepared for a defense against government attack. That's where the Texas Light Infantry (TLI) -- one of the oldest paramilitary groups in Texas -- comes in. The morning I meet TLI founding member Neal Watt at an Owens Family Restaurant in North Austin, a television crew has flown down from Washington, D.C., to interview him about the militia movement. They haven't arrived yet -- but it's easy to see how Watt's grandfatherly good looks would be more appealing to a television audience than the rowdy-looking Ball, how his soft, easy accent would be more soothing than Brown's harsh growl. Still, he seems uncomfortable, uncommunicative, and after a while it occurs to me that he might feel more at ease in well-worn combat fatigues than the stiff suit he's wearing, since, as he says, he has been "in and out of the military for the last 34 years." Watt was enlisted in the Army and Navy Reserves, as well as the State and National Guards.

The TLI, which Watt says has about 250 members across the State of Texas, is "kind of a veterans' group -- guys that miss the military. We've got Navy Seals, Army Rangers, Green Berets..." The whole militia only meets once or twice a year, while the rest of the time they gather in groups of about 60-70. "We get together about once a month," says Watt, "and crosstrain each other." But this is not the kind of crosstraining they make Nikes for: Watt's group has been working on reconnaissance missions, or guerrilla-style tactics on some land in San Saba County; a group near Dallas focuses on standard infantry maneuvers; and one outside Bryan-College Station has been training for urban combat. When I ask Watt what the purpose of all this training is, he says it's just "an exchange of knowledge."

While he never breaks into the kind of unreasonable rant which dominated my interview with Brown, Watt demonstrates a sense of paranoia and betrayal that goes beyond distrust of the government and clear into Oliver Stone-conspiracy territory. Eventually, he takes out a copy of the Gunderson Report, an unofficial analysis of the Oklahoma City bombing which purports to prove that there must have been a second explosion -- a second bomb -- to cause all that damage. Watt takes these allegations a step further, hinting that the building was laced with charges -- and thus it must have been an inside job. "There were something like six DEA agents killed in Oklahoma City," he says, "but there were no ATF agents." Is he saying that the ATF was responsible? He grins, shrugs. "If I were the DEA," he says, "I'd be having my own investigation." Watt works this into a broad mosaic of conspiracy, touching on everything from the Kennedy assassination to the Vietnam War to the notion of foreign troops being trained in the U.S. to attack its citizens.

Watt carries a cellular phone with him, and finally the camera crew calls to say they might not be able to make it. Watt has a thirst for attention -- and not just from the media. Earlier, he laughed sheepishly as he told me about an incident that occurred "about five years ago. It was outside Cedar Park. Somehow or another, the FBI started asking the neighbors about us -- so I called [the FBI agent] and told him if he wanted to, we could all get together and talk about it, so we did. He told us at that time that as long as we weren't breaking the law, `Have a good time.'"

Francisca Perot, an ATF official based in Houston, confirms that this is pretty much her agency's stance on militias, that "as long as they're not doing anything illegal, they don't have anything to worry about from us." San Antonio-based FBI agent Mike Appleby echoes this statement, saying, "We don't target groups, and we definitely wouldn't investigate a militia that hasn't done anything illegal."

Changing Winds

President Clinton's Anti-Terrorism Act would change all that, however. After listening to federal law officials describe the increasing threat of armed militias and complain about the cumbersome procedures required to investigate them during the Domestic Terrorism Hearings held in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing last spring, the president introduced this legislation. It would give sweeping new powers to the executive to declare organizations "terrorist," and to ban even their lawful activities. It would also enable organizations like the ATF and FBI to begin investigating them, allowing both electronic surveillance and background checks of anyone who supports a terrorist organization -- even if such support only constitutes monetary donations. The act even provides funding for the retro-fitting of phone lines -- all phone lines -- so that agents can tap them from anywhere by remote. While the act hits immigrants the hardest -- suspending many due-process rights and allowing "secret evidence" to which the accused is not given access, to speed deportation of suspected terrorists -- it is clearly also aimed at radical elements at home. The legislation easily cleared the Senate last summer on a 91-8 vote, and two weeks later cruised out of the House Judiciary Committee on a vote of 23-12.

In the fervor to appear "tough on terrorism" after Oklahoma City, the act appeared to be headed for certain ratification once introduced on the House floor. But it still hasn't arrived there. Facing an odd coalition of opponents -- including the ACLU and NRA, as well as many of the more extreme liberals and conservatives in Congress, the legislation stalled. What may keep it from ever getting started again are, ironically, the same two incidents to which many attribute the rise of the militia movement: Waco and Ruby Ridge -- specifically, the Congressional hearings on these incidents which have opened many legislators' eyes to the depth of problems within the ATF and FBI (see box). One of the sponsors of the bill, Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Illinois), admits that the Waco and Ruby Ridge hearings have "given substance to a lot of the negative feelings about law enforcement."

This has brought a sigh of relief from the ACLU, although officials there remain wary. Gregory Nojiem, legislative counsel for the national office of the ACLU, calls the bill "blatantly unconstitutional. Most of the crimes that [the bill] classifies terrorist, there are already laws against that, so we don't need this legislation." Political Research Associates analyst Chip Berlet, who has a book on the militia movement due out next spring, goes even further, calling the act "a lot of hot air. I don't think it's going to be effective because the people who do those bombings are on the margins of social movements, not the core. It won't stop the terrorism, it won't stop the movement -- all it does is erode our civil liberties.

"I think that these [militia members] are average people who are angry about the economy and the direction the country's going in," adds Berlet. "I don't think allowing the FBI to run around and spy on them is going to convince them [to stop]."

Taking a Meeting

But after Steve Brown's bitter words when we first spoke, I'm half-expecting an army (or at least a battalion) of skinheads in combat fatigues to show up at his TCM meeting on Sunday, July 17. The meeting is held in the conference room of a La Quinta Inn off Loop I-10 in San Antonio, and I pass one lean and hungry-looking man in a white uniform-style shirt on my way up the stairs. Once inside the conference room, however, I find... kids. Lots of them (all Brown's, it turns out), goofing up and down the aisles between neatly arranged folding chairs. And while there are a few angry-looking young men here, almost everyone else is fairly unimposing: an elderly couple; a young, well-dressed, middle-class couple; a woman in nurse's whites sitting by herself. Nor are their numbers imposing; until a few people come in late, Brown's 11 children outnumber the crowd.

And Brown himself is not what I expected after his growling diatribe over the phone. In contrast to his voice, he's a diminutive, bespectacled redhead. And in contrast to his threatening tone earlier, he's brought a message of tolerance and inclusiveness to this meeting which -- given the hyperpatriotic rhetoric I've heard is standard for such meetings -- sounds downright wimpy.

Brown opens the meeting with a scripture reading and prayer, but goes out of his way to note that "this is not to the exclusion of those who are not of the Christian faith, but we don't feel that it's offensive to those of other faiths, either... We would ask if you are, please join with us anyway." And during the prayer, Brown asks that God "cause us each to be truly lawful, not rebellious... We are not hating anybody because of what they are or who they are...".

I find myself peeking around during the prayer for signs that Brown is exaggerating for my benefit, but his message when he begins speaking indicates that he may not be. Brown has just returned from a meeting of statewide militia leaders held, appropriately enough, in Waco. They've decided, he says, on a "change of orientation."

"We're going to try to focus, to bring more people in, and then find out what are [their] interests. People are going to gunshows and they're buying quote `assault' rifles -- they're buying them for a reason, but they're not showing up here, they're not showing up at other militias," he says. "Why? Because they don't want to be identified with a bunch of people who are waiting for the aliens to land on the White House lawn. We really want to focus on our right to keep and bear arms," Brown adds. "We are not Aryan Nation, we are not Christian Identity [a fundamentalist, white-supremacist religious movement popular with militias]."

The extent to which TCM -- and militias everywhere, for that matter -- have been successful in portraying themselves as moving away from the more disturbing views of extremism and closer to the increasingly popular gun rights issues, goes a long way towards explaining their current popularity. This shift in emphasis was confirmed at a national militia leaders' meeting held this month in Mountain Springs, Texas. "Most of us are good folks," Raymond Smith, colonel of a militia based in Fairfield, Texas, was quoted as saying in the Dallas Morning News. "But if we have some that are a little far out, a unified national command can put a guiding hand to them and level them out." This is a militia that Pat Ball could join.

If he were here at Brown's meeting, he would certainly smile approvingly when a young woman interrupts Brown's speech to point out, "I wish we'd start calling these weapons `defense weapons.'" And he would heartily join in the ensuing conversation, which centers not around monthly TCM field training or conspiracy theories, but on gunshow protocol (FYI: no Nazi memorabilia allowed on the TCM table) and legislation the group is concerned about. "Has anyone taken a look at the Anti-Terrorism Act?" Brown says. They also discuss the "appropriately named" -- according to Brown -- HB 666. The bill has since failed, but would have suspended search warrant protocol if police officers can prove they acted in "good faith." The bill's counterpart in the U.S. Senate -- SB 3 -- also failed, but to Brown and many other militia members, both bills indicate increased government attacks on citizens' rights.

There are other elements of the meeting, however, which indicate there is still room for the Neal Watts, the more fringe beliefs, the extreme views. "I don't think most militia members even realize that the origins of the patriot movement lie with white supremacy and those paranoid notions that the country is run by secret societies of Jews," Berlet has told me. Nonetheless, those origins remain.

There is the literature spread on folding tables at the rear of the conference room for members to peruse after the meeting. This literature is a veritable menagerie of conspiracy theories, including an article detailing project "Vampire-Killer 2000," the U.N.'s supposed plan for world domination. Another article alleges that Clinton purposely sent certain ATF agents in at the initial raid at Waco to "get rid of them." There are also Spotlight newspapers, published by the notoriously anti-Semitic Liberty Lobby. The issue I pick up includes articles on Watt's Gunderson Report, as well as updates on a Jewish group's plans for world domination.

Closer to home is another item Brown has brought back from his leadership meeting in Waco -- the "Civil Mutual Defense Compact," a document basically stating that "if another militia is attacked [in Texas], we will render aid," according to Brown. The compact, which essentially puts in writing Brown's brash "no more Waco" promise from the first time we spoke, has been circulated to all the regional commanders, who will take them to their members for "ratification." But just what constitutes aggression on the part of the government? Brown insists that only a raid similar to Waco would prompt an armed response, but members ought to read the fine print. "Anybody that's making laws that violate the Constitution... cannot be saying they're serving this country," Brown has said early on at the meeting, "They're undermining it." Some militias have gone so far as to "indict" lawmakers they perceive as going against the Constitution and have attempted to arrest them for special "trials."

I ask a member after the meeting if he's prepared to go fight in Brown's militia. Dressed in Dockers, a button-down shirt, and standing next to his wife, this man looks like even more of a "regular Joe" than Pat Ball. "As far as being physically able and equipped? No," he says. "I'm interested in keeping everything on a lawful level. If the government were interested in dissolving militias," he adds, "they'd quit messing with the Constitution."

Is the ATF concerned about the prospect of militias banding together to oppose raids or arrests? "I haven't heard about that personally, but again I'm not concerned," says the ATF's Francisca Perot. "I've heard about that happening in other states, where law officers were kept from carrying out search warrants... We haven't had that problem in Texas yet."

Aftermath

A week after the meeting, I visit the site of the former Branch Davidian compound in Waco. Everything's gone now -- all the structures left standing after the blaze have been bulldozed, the underground tunnels buried. Still, just like the militia movement for which this has become the spiritual center, people have been visiting in increasing numbers since the Oklahoma City bombing. "We've been getting twice as many people since Oklahoma City," says Amo Bishop Roden, widow of former Davidian leader George Roden and de facto caretaker of the property, which is still being held in escrow. The visitors -- coming from as far away as Nevada, Indiana, and Florida -- mill around me as I stand before a modest pile of dirt and garbage which lies 20 paces from where the compound used to stand. The mound, no more than six feet high, is perhaps the most distinctive feature remaining on the property.

"That's where the government kind of swept everything together after [the compound] was destroyed," says a space-eyed woman from a new branch of the Davidian sect, camping out here near the mound. This hill seems like a good metaphor for the militia movement itself -- a diverse bunch of extremists swept together by the aggressive actions (both real and perceived) of the government.

In the garbage pile are snarls of rebar and razorwire, tattered streamers of yellow caution tape, planks of rotten wood. And there is a lot of garbage in the militia movement -- the racist, separatist message of Christian Identity, the acute sense of paranoia, the penchant for violent confrontation. The mainstream media, as well as some elements of the government, have been quick to dig up these elements as proof that we need tougher laws to stop these maniacs. Judging from the meeting I went to and the people I spoke with, however, I wonder if these militias are the threat that's been sold to us. I'm not going to say they're not dangerous. Anyone holding an AR-15 -- whether it's Neal Watt, Pat Ball, or Steve Brown's 13-year-old son, Kyle -- is potentially dangerous. But there are other elements to the militia movement as well. There are people who have legitimate fears and concerns about the path the country's taking, people who haven't felt the economic upswing in their pocketbook -- people like Pat Ball. They are disenfranchised but not disconnected, pissed off but still part of the Democratic process, frightened but not yet ready to fight.

And there is more to this hill in Waco than garbage. Bishop Roden has unearthed children's bicycles from the mess -- so badly warped and melted they resemble clocks undraped from the branches in a Dali painting -- and added them to her tiny museum. There are the shoots of grass and sunflowers which are growing again over all this land. And at the foot of the hill, poking out from the rubbish and soil, there is a small, dirty replica of an American flag. n

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