Impatience With Freemen Grows

Neighbors near Montana compound urge FBI to end negotiations, take action

Out along the plains and rough, rolling hills of eastern Montana, where the wind blows most of the time, and towns are few and far between, most people have had it with the "freemen." They'd just as soon the Federal Bureau of Investigation moved in on the militant antigovernment radicals holed up on a ranch near here.

"I just wish they'd get it over with," says rancher and hunting outfitter Ross Childers, whose place is about five miles from the compound freemen call "Justus Township."

But still experts urge caution, saying that groups like the freemen - which are even more radical than militias connected with the so-called "Patriot movement" - may become increasingly difficult to deal with as the end of the century approaches.

"There are going to be more and more of these groups that withdraw from and get into confrontations with mainstream society because of their perception that they are in an end-time struggle with satanic forces," says Chip Berlet, an expert on radical movements with Political Research Associates, a think-tank in Somerville, Mass.

"It's only going to get worse as we approach the millennium," Mr. Berlet warns. What this means, he adds, is that "the FBI and other federal agencies and local police need to take into account their world view, because what would seem to be a perfectly reasonable negotiating tactic by law enforcement could be wildly misinterpreted by people inside an apocalyptic compound, especially the freemen's."

To the neighbors near ground zero of the freemen saga, however, such analysis seems less relevant.

At the rustic county building in Jordan yesterday, Brent McRae presented Garfield County Sheriff Charlie Phipps with more than 200 signatures on a petition calling for the FBI to use "reasonable force" to dislodge the group.

"The inevitable has to happen, and that will be some kind of confrontation," says Garfield County Attorney Nick Murnion, who has been threatened by freemen he has tried to prosecute. "And the community thinks it should be sooner rather than later."

Moving cautiously

As it has all along over the 11 weeks since the episode began, the FBI continues to move cautiously - remembering the violent encounters with such radicals at Ruby Ridge, Idaho and Waco, Texas, in which federal agents were officially criticized for their handling of the standoffs.

"Basically, we're still trying to make contact with the freemen in order to negotiate this to a peaceful resolution," says agency spokesman Tom Ernst.

The FBI this week cut electrical power to the compound, moved in armored vehicles, and began using helicopters for surveillance. Although special agent Ron Van Vranken of the FBI's office in Billings, Mont., insists that "this is not to increase pressure," it does seem designed to prompt a move by the freemen toward resolution. Meanwhile, reports from Washington indicate that the FBI is considering stepping up pressure, including disrupting TV and communications signals, and blocking the freemen's access to fishing ponds, fields planted with crops, and buildings used to store food. (The FBI estimates that there are 18 to 21 people in the compound, including three children.)

The tactics being employed here are being closely watched by experts around the country who see this as a potential model for similar confrontations that may occur in the future. Some locals, however, are pessimistic about the outcome.

"I know the people in there, and I don't think it will be resolved peacefully," says Mr. Childers. "The FBI in my opinion, and in everybody else's opinion in this small community, has done everything they can do," he says. "They've bent over backward for those people, trying to talk them into coming out. They've even had radical people like them go in, and nothing works. They just won't reason."

"Shutting off the electricity certainly hasn't elicited anything much from the freemen," Mr. Murnion says. "One has to be careful not to overreact, but one also has to be careful, not to underreact."

'Common criminals'

In recent weeks, several people seen as having sympathetic views with the freemen, and perhaps some influence with those in the compound here, have tried and failed to talk them into leaving. After five days of talks, conservative Colorado State Sen. Charles Duke, dismissed most of those inside "Justus Township" as "common criminals."

Even though he too has criticized the FBI for moving too slowly, Berlet says, "You have to put the freemen in a special perspective. They are in fact outside the pale of both the Patriot and militia movements, says Berlet, who has written extensively and advised government agencies on such groups. "Their leadership has adopted elements of Christian Identity - the belief about Jews being the spawn of the devil and people of color being essentially subhuman."

Beyond that, says Berlet, "there are some things you just don't do in rural America. You don't fence off public land. You don't deny grazing rights to people who have previously enjoyed them. You don't mess with water rights, and you pay your IOUs," he says. "The freemen have managed to break all of those great, unwritten laws of the rural West."

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