Militias take up arms over the Constitution

March 19, 1995|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,Sun Staff Correspondent

HOUSTON -- The members of the Texas Constitutional Militia are gathered at a church for their weekly meeting. After the Pledge of Allegiance comes the intelligence report: A patriot brother in Montana has been jailed, and members are asked to lodge a protest with the sheriff there.

"Be very nice when you contact them," advises Lt. Barbara Montgomery, wife and mother during most of her day, intelligence officer for the Alpha Unit of the Harris County branch of the militia the rest.

The advisory on politeness is not so much etiquette as it is concern. This, the grapevine warns, might be the start of a much-rumored federal crackdown on militias, a grass-roots movement of citizen-soldiers springing up across the country. These self-proclaimed defenders of the Constitution feel they should stand ready.

Computer consultants and lawyers, utility workers and housewives, they meet in homes, restaurants, even bingo halls to rail about a federal government out of control. They are fed up with what they perceive to be a constant assault on their $H "inalienable" rights. Chief among them, the right to bear arms. And for the past year, these mostly conservative, middle-class Americans have been forming citizen militias.

They want their rights back and would fight to preserve them.

Their leaders claim membership in all 50 states. But observers of the movement question that, saying they see activity in only 13 to 29 states, including Delaware, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia. (Maryland is not among them. Although several militia leaders told a reporter they have comrades here and offered to have them contact The Sun, none has come forward.)

Experts also differ on the groups' intentions and any threat they pose to law enforcement and individual rights. Are they an extension of the anti-government, pro-states' rights forces laying claim to federal lands in the West? Do they represent the latest incarnation of the paramilitary culture of survivalists and soldiers of fortune? Do they have ties to white supremacist and racist groups, as their harshest critics allege?

Or are the militias, as many members argue, simply law-abiding, taxpaying citizens who want to reclaim the republic from an overzealous government promoting "a new world order"?

Across the country, hundreds of citizens have gathered under the banner of the "unorganized" militia, so-called to distinguish them from state national guards or other government-sanctioned units. They claim as their forefathers the Revolutionary War minutemen and trace their origins to the Constitution. But they cite the 1993 federal assault on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, as the genesis of the movement.

Although independent of each other, the militias espouse the same creed: a literal interpretation of the Constitution that sharply limits the role of the federal government. And they see themselves as the last line of defense against tyranny. The groups have never held a convention or conference, but their spokesmen can readily identify brother patriots in other states.

Most units adopt a military structure, complete with ranks, uniforms and weapons training, but they claim no national leader or governing council.

Some militia units charge a membership fee; others pass the hat at their meetings. Perhaps none is as commercial as the Militia of Montana, whose mail-order business sells videos such as "Equipping for the New World Order," training manuals in guerrilla techniques, militia "how-to" kits and other survival gear.

And while the militias are often portrayed as gun-toting white men in camouflage roaming remote forests, their leaders say the depiction is skewed. They also offer training in first aid, rescue efforts and political history. Some units haven't done much more than just meet.

Not gun-happy

Many militias are recruiting new members at gun shows but say that doesn't make them gun-happy. Some recruits, they say, have never fired a gun. Although they operate in different states, a network of computer bulletin boards, faxes and the Internet connect them. They all peddle the same militia propaganda.

"We are not here to overthrow the government," says Curtis E. Dodson, a 24-year-old member of the Delaware Minutemen. "We are here to uphold the Constitution and ensure that it doesn't get trod upon. . . . If it comes down to bearing arms and standing up for other Americans, we will do that, but that's not all we are trying to do."

In Houston, the message is the same.

"We're going to operate within the law. Nobody in our organization breaks the law. And if they do they're going to stand on their own," says Johnny M. Johnson, an officer of the North Gulf Region of the Texas Constitutional Militia.

"By the same token, if we find the situation where [members] are abused by federal law enforcement personnel, then we will all come together, to put a spotlight on this activity more than to do anything else."

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