After an FBI raid of the Hutaree, Michigan’s militias are trying to get back to normal. Fara Warner on one group’s “open carry” picnic—and the “Militia Babes” calendar they use to help raise funds. Plus, view our gallery.
A crowd of about 100 people ate barbecue, drank iced tea, and showed off their guns at the “Open Carry Family Picnic and Tea Party,” hosted by the Southern Michigan Volunteer Militia this weekend. It was a relatively quiet affair—a welcome calm, according to organizers, following the furor surrounding the FBI’s arrest of eight members of another Michigan militia, the Hutaree, earlier this month on charges of conspiring to overthrow the government.
“Most of our members enjoy their privacy, being in the background and are not looking for that ’15 minutes of fame’,” wrote Lou, a staff member for the SMVM who asked that his last name not be used, in an email prior to the picnic. “Many of us understand the need for ‘defining ourselves’ to the public, rather than letting others define us.”
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Lou and his fellow members of the SMVM, better known as the Michigan Militia, have spent the last few weeks distancing themselves from the Hutaree. Lou’s group, along with a dozen other militia organizations active in the state of Michigan, stands in support of citizens’ right to bear arms; they also say they teach survival skills and self-defense against home invasion, help with disaster relief efforts—and, if needed, help fight terrorism and tyranny. But SMVM denounces the Hutaree’s mission; indeed, according to press reports, several SMVM members helped FBI agents locate at least one of the Hutaree who had sought refuge with their group.
Lou said members have sought to make themselves available to the press, and pointed reporters to their Web site to help educate the public that all militias are not alike.
Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, who has investigated militias since the 1990s, says this behavior is common in the militia community. “We see this all the time. All the other groups go running in the other direction as fast as their feet can take them.” He maintains that the Hutaree wasn’t as “fringe” a militia as other groups are casting it as and that the militias, while differing from each other, do share core beliefs about conspiracies and the government as an “evil actor.”
To celebrate “Open Carry day,” the group gathered at a public recreation area about 40 miles from downtown Detroit. “It is not a ‘challenge,’ but an awakening of rights and educating the public and public officials that we understand our rights,” wrote Lou following the Saturday event.
It’s also an opportunity to recruit, and maybe raise a little money. “We are self-funded,” Lou said in a phone interview, noting that members buy their own guns as well as survival gear, which can include “squad boxes” that they keep in their cars. These boxes contain enough food to feed 15 people and one case of water. “We act as individuals that are part of the larger puzzle. The funding comes out each individual’s pockets.” Lou says the group does have an incentive to help reward friends who “chip in or contribute to help us hold events like the field day, newsletters, training handouts, flyers and brochures”: the “Militia Babes” calendar, featured in Michael Moore’s film Bowling for Columbine and on various TV programs, featuring comely friends of the militia group, decked out in camouflage and arrayed in action poses. “From a profit and loss perspective, the calendars are a break-even; everything we do comes out of our own pockets. We are not in this as a money maker.”
“We act as individuals that are part of the larger puzzle,” says Lou. “The funding comes out each individual’s pockets.”
Potok of SPLC says that he hasn’t deeply investigated funding for militias, but that these types of militias do appear to be solely self-funded. “They are primarily ma and pa operations with no central funds that I am aware of.”
Lou says that membership in the militia ebbs and flows; his group’s roster currently has 217. He says in recent years the two biggest growth spurts for membership have been after Sept. 11, 2001 and after the Patriot Act was signed into law. In that case, Lou says two diverse groups—the militia and the ACLU—were on the same side. “We even posted a link to the ACLU on our site,” he says. “We live in a free society and somewhere along the line we both agree to the idea of a limited form of government.”
Fara Warner has been writing about business and economics for almost two decades for publications such as The Wall Street Journal and Fast Company. As a freelance journalist, she is a contributor to Forbes Asia, Mother Jones, The New York Times, DBusiness and other national publications. She is the author of The Power of the Purse: How Smart Companies Are Adapting to the World’s Most Important Consumers—Women. She currently lectures on journalism at the University of Michigan.