03.31.10

Why Militias Love Michigan

The Hutaree may be the most notorious armed anti-government group in the state, but they’ve got lots of company. Samuel P. Jacobs on why Michigan is such fertile soil for the survivalist fringe.

As federal officers tracked down the final member of a Christian paramilitary outfit in Michigan Tuesday, leaders of various militias in the state spoke out, denouncing the group’s activities. A coordinator for the Southeast Michigan Volunteer Militia said people “understand that it’s not us.” Michigan militia Web sites from all over quickly posted similar messages: We haven’t been raided. We’re not affiliated with this group. We condemn the attacks. We don’t attack elected officials or law enforcement. We do nothing illegal.

If the raid, manhunt, and searing federal indictment of the Hutaree, as the group is known, drew the country’s attention to extremism brewing in the United States, the swift reaction from the many in-state militias suggested that the high-profile arrests struck close to home. The case also puts the spotlight on an uncomfortable question: Why are there so many militia groups in Michigan?

“To see guys out at a shooting range together doesn’t turn any heads,” says Beatty, the Northern Michigan militia commander. “It’s that tolerance that breeds out a larger number of groups.”

According to a report released by the Southern Poverty Law Center this spring, there were more than 500 so-called Patriot groups—including fringe groups on the right armed and otherwise—active in the United States in 2009, 47 of which were located in Michigan—making the state second only to Texas, which had 52 groups. (The population of Texas is nearly three times larger.) SPLC counted 11 different militias, a subset of the “Patriot” groups that are armed, active in Michigan, including the Hutaree.

John Beatty, the commander of the Northern Michigan Backyard Protection Militia, says his group, which has around 20 members, exists to help an overstretched American military, not to take down the government.

“The majority of the groups that I talk to aren’t out for vigilante justice,” Beatty says. “They aren’t out to get back at the military or government. The vast majority of groups that are in Michigan are interested in protecting what is theirs and what they have.”

So why does Michigan, in particular, feel so besieged?

John Avlon: 7 Bizarre Militia Videos on YouTubeThe answer starts with the economy, according to many of those who study militia life in the United States. Perhaps no state has been hit harder by the economic downturn than Michigan. While the U.S. unemployment rate hovers around 10 percent, it’s at 14 percent in the state. In Lenawee County, where the Hutaree were located, 17 percent of workers are without a job. The globalization of the economy, which many Michiganders blame for the dramatic job loss numbers, only fuels the fears of a “New World Order,” the specter of a global government, articulated by Hutaree members. Militia members see the government’s takeover of the auto industry in Detroit as a further sign of worry. In few places in the country does the little guy seem so overmatched.

“It’s a real witch’s brew of anger,” says Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center. “It’s kind of a perfect storm of elements that favor continued growth of this kind of fury and the radical right in general.”

But the economy alone does not fully explain why the militia movement finds Michigan to be such fertile soil. Plenty of other states are hurting, but don’t have well-organized bands of (mostly) men doing drills in the countryside. Michigan also has a complicated and volatile racial dynamic that helps fuel militias. According to James Corcoran of Boston’s Simmons College and author of Gathering Storm: America’s Militia Threat, Michigan has been an historic stronghold for the Ku Klux Klan—a reaction, in part, to the waves of African Americans who migrated to Detroit from the Deep South to work in the auto plants before and after World War II.

“‘My god,’ a certain group of people feel,” Corcoran says, summing up the mind-set of some white Michiganders to this influx. “‘We are being over run and jobs are going to minorities as opposed to God-fearing white Americans.’”

The racial divide is deepened by Michigan’s demographics; the largely white rural population upstate has little in common with the heavily African-American urban center of Detroit. Lenawee County, for instance, is 95 percent white; Detroit is 82 percent African-American.

For decades, Michigan has been home to some of the country’s more charismatic radical right-wing leaders. James Wickstrom, a Christian Identity minister, makes his home in Rhodes, Michigan, in the Upper Peninsula. Pastor Robert Miles, the leader of the white supremacist Mountain Kirk, operated in Michigan in the 1970s.

Jack Kay of Eastern Michigan University, who studies the communication strategies of the right wing, says that the state’s culture is highly tolerant of different perspectives—even though many of the groups themselves are rigidly intolerant. People accepted Miles, despite his radical views. “He’s like a grandfather in the community,” Kay said of the local reception.

But perhaps the most important factor fueling Michigan’s militia movement is the state’s gun culture.

“A lot of people around here grew up in backwards country. Everyone is growing up around rifles and shotguns,” says Beatty, the Northern Michigan militia commander. “To see guys out at a shooting range together doesn’t turn any heads. It’s that tolerance that breeds out a larger number of groups.”

“You can’t separate the militia from the guns,” says Leonard Zeskind, author of Blood and Politics: The History of the White Nationalist Movement From the Margins to the Mainstream.

More precisely, Zeskind says, militias are prevalent where a pro-gun culture feels endangered.

Michigan receives low marks from the Brady Campaign, which criticizes the state for its lax attitude toward military-style assault weapons, among other concerns. (Neighboring states—Wisconsin, Indiana, and Ohio—all receive lower scores, but have far less militia activity.)

“The clash in Michigan is between the gun culture and the major population culture where the guns don’t exist,” Zeskind says.

Kay, the Eastern Michigan professor, acknowledges that the gun culture plays a part—but warns that most militia groups in the state are a far cry from the Hutaree.

“Most are folks who gather together, practice their weapons, and survivalism,” he says. “But they aren’t ready to overthrow the government.”

CORRECTION: This article originally misspelled Leonard Zeskind’s name. It has been updated.

Samuel P. Jacobs is a staff reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for The Boston Globe, The New York Observer, and The New Republic Online.