Paramilitary groups turn focus to local governments They want every issue voted on by show of hands

November 12, 1995|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WELLSTON, Mich. -- At a Norman Township meeting last week marked by screams, boos and taunts of "Communist!" and the tears of an elderly woman upset to see neighbor turn against neighbor, a big man in the vortex of the storm seemed inspired.

William Ordiway Jr., a leader in the Michigan Militia, had come here to pitch thunderbolts.

Mr. Ordiway is at the forefront of a new course for paramilitary groups, which have hitherto focused on the federal government and the United Nations, but now are starting to look homeward for sinister plots.

In their attack on local governments, the groups are calling for a form of frontier democracy: putting every issue to a vote of the townspeople, not by ballot, but by a show of hands.

They argue that if a group of voters, or "electors," posts a notice for a meeting, they can get together and pass almost anything they want. The townships have kept this from the people, Mr. Ordiway claims, to advance the cause of global government.

In the past month, about 10 townships in the state have reported members of paramilitary groups showing up at meetings and demanding a right to vote on everything, said Larry Merrill, an executive director of the Michigan Township Association.

'Norman is their test case'

"They pick and choose what they want from the Constitution and sometimes they cite biblical references," he said, "to assert a theory of law that townships are superior to state governments and states are superior to the federal government."

He added: "People who talk to the militia members say Norman is their test case. It's where they intend to show they can take over a township."

Mr. Ordiway, 6 feet 7 inches and 340 pounds, used intimidation to disrupt a recent meeting. He slammed his fists on a table under the nose of the Norman supervisor, Sylvester Wood. He threatened to have Mr. Wood "forcibly removed." At the same time, about 50 of his followers shouted demands to be given a vote on all township business.

After the meeting, Mr. Ordiway's supporters gathered at a rural tavern, where they called a "meeting of the electors," appointed a slate of officers and voted to establish a commission to "investigate the legal status of the township" to determine if it was "legitimate."

Much of the bitterness stems from a 1993 zoning law, which a majority of the residents had supported in an effort to help clear the countryside of dilapidated trailers and rusted jalopies on cinder blocks. But to some people, the zoning law is nothing short of immoral, telling a man what he can or can not do with his property.

"They want to take away your God-given rights," Mr. Ordiway told the crowd of about 150 people at a meeting on Wednesday. "They're saying you have no say-so. Are you going to let somebody else run your life?"

Many of those in attendance were paramilitary group members who had come from well beyond the township borders and who cheered lustily for Mr. Ordiway.

But there were also dozens of opponents of the groups who turned out. These were people who regard the groups' talk of an oppressive "New World Order" as a lot of gibberish. And these townspeople jeered Mr. Ordiway.

'Go home! Who invited you?'

"Sir, what interest do you have in our township?" Homer Nuddleman, a 38-year-old trucker, called out from the back of the room. "You come around here like some Great White Hope. You're just stirring up trouble. Go home! Leave us alone! Who invited you?"

At that, some voices of townspeople rang out in support of Mr. Ordiway: "I invited him." "Me, too." "I want him here."

There was a smattering of boos for Mr. Nuddleman, who raised his palms and pleaded with his neighbors. "Don't you see -- they're making patsies of us," he said. "They're using propaganda to scare the hell out of people."

Lee Redman, a 52-year-old highway worker, shook his head in disagreement. "The militia doesn't concern me at all," he said.

Jim Myers, a 64-year-old retired welder, muttered his support. "I want them here."

Almost everyone at the meeting knew one another. At times, the formality of the meeting became a bit strained. Barb Webber, a supporter of Mr. Ordiway, pressed the township supervisor again and again, until he finally snapped: "Oh come on, Barb, what's going on here?"

Some people worried that the debate would have a corrosive effect on the fabric of the town. There were old friends who were no longer speaking. There were people at the meeting who changed seats if a certain person sat beside them.

One man angrily shouted across the aisle, "Shut up, woman!" That brought a threat. And then some curse words. "Watch it," somebody else shouted, "there's ladies present."

Jaci Knowlton, who runs a coffee shop, had seen enough. With a scowl she rose to speak, waving off the microphone because "my voice carries a country mile."

This has all become ridiculous, said Mrs. Knowlton, 42, who complained that loud bickering filled her cafe every morning and that people were getting personal in their attacks.

"I am not pro-this side or pro-that side," she said. "I am pro-Norman Township. And look at us here. We are screaming and arguing. We are calling each other names."

She added: "We have been airing our dirty laundry. I say it's time we bring it in, clean it, mend it, and get on with Norman Township."

But her call for calm was ignored. Even after the meeting ended, people carried their arguments out into a snow squall.

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