Hutaree: Why is the Midwest a hotbed of militia activity?

Michigan is second only to Texas in the number of 'patriot' groups, including militias like the Hutaree. It has a long tradition of spawning antigovernment groups.

By , Staff writer

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    Photos provided by the US Marshals Service show the alleged members of the Hutaree militia in Michigan. From top left: David Brian Stone Sr. of Clayton, Mich.; David Brian Stone Jr. of Adrian, Mich.; Jacob Ward of Huron, Ohio; Tina Mae Stone. Bottom row from left: Michael David Meeks of Manchester, Mich.; Kristopher T. Sickles of Sandusky, Ohio; Joshua John Clough of Blissfield, Mich.; Thomas William Piatek of Whiting, Ind.
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Michigan, the home base of the Hutaree militia, has one of the highest concentrations in the United States of militias and other extremist groups that see the federal government as the enemy.

Only Texas, with 57 so-called "patriot" groups, outstrips Michigan's 47, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a nonprofit civil rights organization in Montgomery, Ala., that tracks hate group activity.

Nationwide, the patriot movement has grown dramatically since the election of President Obama. Between 2008 and 2009, the number of such groups increased from 149 to 512, SPLC numbers suggest.

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The Hutaree was part of this movement. Nine members of its members were arrested by federal authorities last weekend and charged with conspiring to "levy war" on the United States.

The arrests point to how the Midwest in particular has become a hotbed for patriot activity.

"There are a number of regional factors that, over time and at various moments, helped the militia movement take hold in different parts of the country," says Chip Berlet, an analyst at Political Research Associates, a think tank in Somerville, Mass. "It certainly has emerged strongly in the upper Midwest."

Topping the list in the Midwest, Indiana has 21 patriot groups, Illinois has 10, and Wisconsin and Ohio have 13 each, according to SPLC.

Michigan's militia history

Michigan’s militia history is among the longest in the nation, says Heidi Beirich, SPLC’s director of research. Several extremist groups were formed following the 1992 election of Bill Clinton, and they were active during his presidency.

The Michigan Militia, in particular, gained a national profile when Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh attended one of its meetings. (The group was cleared of any involvement with the 1995 bombing, which killed 168 people.)

Despite a cooling down period during the tenure of former President George W. Bush, Michigan continued to see militia activity during the last presidential campaign cycle, SPLC says. Groups like the Hutaree and others were able to recruit members easily because the of the strong militia tradition in the area.

In the Hutaree case, federal authorities say members of the militia reached out to larger and more mainstream organizations like the Michigan Militia, though the Michigan Milita has said it rejects the Christian survivalist doctrine of the Hutaree. In February, Hutaree members attended a summit of area militias in Kentucky to make contacts for acquiring explosive devices.

“The roots of militia activity are there [in Michigan], so if you want to organize something you know who to call,” Ms. Beirich says.

The recent rise in militias

Experts say a combination of factors contribute to the rise in militias: a faltering economy, changing roles within the traditional family structure, and shifts in the racial makeup of the country’s population.

Mr. Berlet adds that shared anxiety among lower-to-middle-class people is often a catalyst for generating conspiracy theories, which have the potency to provoke people to take up arms and commit violence.

“The candidacy of Obama – when it looked to become serious – prompted a lot of anxiety, and the anxiety continued to rise up to the inauguration,” Berlet says.

Several high-profile murders have occurred since then, including those of Kansas abortion doctor George Tiller and a Holocaust Museum guard in Washington.

“This is really getting out of hand,” Berlet says. “It’s a serious problem when people decide the solution to political problems lies in arming themselves and going underground.”

There is concern that this current wave of militia activity is more potent than it was during the Clinton era. The Internet allows conspiracy ideology to travel faster and marginalized individuals to connect with one another across greater distances. Meanwhile, there is increased political polarization.

“While you can look at the Republicans and right wing and say, ‘you let things go too far,’ the Democrats use very demonizing language and aren’t interested in a policy debate, either,” says Berlet. “They’ve been interested in bashing the Republicans and right wing as crazy and ignorant. So it’s a mess.”

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