THE antigovernment "freemen" holed up in Montana this week are part of a small but growing movement so far off the generally accepted political scale that terms like "left" and "right" do not apply. With ties to armed militias and an end-of-the-world religious outlook, these radical tax protestors can be dangerous.
Though their numbers are hard to pin down, Chip Berlet, an analyst at Political Research Associates in Cambridge, Mass., says there are "tens of thousands of people who believe in elements of the freemen/sovereign citizen argument. They often form compounds and hide. There's dozens all over the country." He calls them "a fairly durable subculture in America."
Like others across the country, the freemen outside Jordan, Mont., who are entering their fifth day in a standoff with federal agents, have formed their own shadow government and refuse to pay taxes. Except for common law, the Bible, and the Bill of Rights, freemen recognize no political authority.
"This includes the IRS, all courts of record, the banking profession, specifically including foreclosures and liens," Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation superintendent Ted Almay told the House Judiciary Subcommittee on crime last November. "Also included is law enforcement, especially in the area of traffic enforcement as this violates their right of free passage, licensing boards, and virtually any government-regulated business."
"Freeman politics are even more extreme than those of the Militia of Montana," observes Dan Yurman, who studies and writes on such movements from Idaho Falls, Idaho. Some have issued arrest warrants or set bounties on local officials. Last year in Montana, at least 16 people were charged with "criminal syndicalism," or the advocacy of crime, injury to property, violence, or other unlawful methods of terrorism as a means of accomplishing industrial or political ends.
One tactic used by antigovernment activists is to file what Mr. Almay calls "dozens of meritless motions" in court proceedings against them. Twenty-two judges in Ohio reported receiving such filings, according to a survey.
"In addition, several judges have received threats and one judge has received police protection for himself and his family as a result of his denying these motions," Almay said.
Two of the freemen arrested in Garfield County, Mont., this week disrupted court proceedings Tuesday - shouting that the federal magistrate had no authority over them. LeRoy Schweitzer and Daniel Petersen are charged with threatening public officials, conspiracy, and bank, financial, and mail fraud. They were armed when arrested.
The standoff in Montana involves at least 100 Federal Bureau of Investigation and other law-enforcement officials. About a dozen people, including some children, were thought to be at the ranch - a property that has gone through foreclosure and been sold to a new owner who can't get to it.
Many of those identifying themselves as freemen also have connections to the so-called Christian Identity movement. This can include the belief in millenialism, or apocalyptic times at the end of this century - the so-called "end times" of Biblical prophecy.
"Fear of the coming tribulation is being used by Identity militants as a rationale to attract recruits," Brent Smith, chairman of the criminal justice department at the University of Alabama, warned Congress last fall.
Antigovernment activists also find significance in the date of April 19 - three weeks from today. It marked the beginning of the American Revolution with the battles of Lexington and Concord. It was the date that federal agents' attempt to arrest Branch Davidian leader David Koresh near Waco, Texas, in 1993 resulted in a shootout and conflagration that killed at least 80 people. On this date in 1995, white supremacist Richard Wayne Snell was executed for killing a shop owner and Arkansas state trooper. And last April 19, a truckload of explosives destroyed the federal building in Oklahoma City killing 169 people.
Along with the battle at Waco, federal agencies came under heavy criticism for the handling of the 1992 Ruby Ridge, Idaho, standoff in which a US marshal was killed along with white separatist Randy Weaver's wife and young son.
As a result, law-enforcement officials have been moving very cautiously in the Montana freemen case - particularly as April 19 approaches. They have maintained a loose surveillance, compared with the tight surrounding at Waco and Ruby Ridge, and they have kept up negotiations with those at the ranch.
"The FBI has gone to great pains to ensure that there is no armed confrontation, no siege, no armed perimeter, and no use of military assault-type tactics or equipment," Attorney General Janet Reno said Wednesday.
"That's very positive," says analyst Mr. Berlet. "But there's only so long that people can assert that they do not have to obey federal, state, and local laws before law enforcement has to move in."