REDMOND — BJ Soper took aim with his AR-15 semiautomatic rifle and fired a dozen shots at a human silhouette target. Soper’s wife and their 16-year-old daughter practiced drawing pistols. Then Soper helped his 4-year-old daughter, in pink sneakers and a ponytail, work on her marksmanship with a .22-caliber rifle.
Deep in the heart of a vast U.S. military training ground, surrounded by spent shotgun shells and juniper trees blasted to shreds, the Central Oregon Constitutional Guard was conducting its weekly firearms training.
“The intent is to be able to work together and defend ourselves if we need to,” said Soper, 40, a building contractor who is an emerging leader in a growing national movement rooted in distrust of the federal government, one that increasingly finds itself in armed conflicts with authorities.
Those in the movement call themselves patriots, demanding that the federal government adhere to the Constitution and stop what they see as systematic abuse of land rights, gun rights, freedom of speech and other liberties.
Law enforcement officials call them dangerous, delusional and sometimes violent, and they say that their numbers are growing amid a wave of anger at the government that has been gaining strength since 2008, a surge that coincided with the election of the first black U.S. president and a crippling economic recession.
Soper started his group, which consists of about 30 men, women and children from a handful of families, two years ago as a “defensive unit” against “all enemies foreign and domestic.” Mainly, he’s talking about the federal government, which he thinks is capable of unprovoked aggression against its own people.
The group’s members are drywallers and flooring contractors, nurses and painters and high school students, who stockpile supplies, practice survival skills and “basic infantry” tactics, learn how to treat combat injuries, study the Constitution and train with their concealed handguns and combat-style rifles.
“It doesn’t say in our Constitution that you can’t stand up and defend yourself,” Soper said. “We’ve let the government step over the line and rule us, and that was never the intent of this country.”
Law enforcement officials and the watchdog groups that track the self-styled “patriot” groups call them anti-government extremists, militias, armed militants or even domestic terrorists. Some opponents of the largely white and rural groups have made fun by calling them “Y’all Qaida” or “Vanilla ISIS.”
Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors extremism, said there were about 150 such groups in 2008 and about 1,000 now. Potok and other analysts, including law enforcement officials who track the groups, said their supporters number in the hundreds of thousands, counting people who signal their support in more passive ways, such as following the groups on social media. The Facebook page of the Oath Keepers, a group of former members of police forces and the military, for example, has more than 525,000 “likes.”
President Obama’s progressive policies and the tough economic times have inflamed anti-government anger, the same vein of rage into which Donald Trump has tapped during his Republican presidential campaign, said Potok and Mark Pitcavage, who works with the Anti-Defamation League and has monitored extremism for 20 years.
Much of the movement traces its roots to the deadly 1990s confrontations between civilians and federal agents at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and in Waco, Texas, that resulted in the deaths of as many as 90. Timothy McVeigh cited both events before he was executed for the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people, and he said he had deliberately chosen a building housing federal government agencies.
Now a “Second Wave” is spreading across the country, especially in the West, fueled by the Internet and social media. J.J. MacNab, an author and George Washington University researcher who specializes in extremism, said social media has allowed individuals or small groups such as Soper’s to become far more influential than in the 1990s, when the groups would spread their message through meetings at local diners and via fax.
The movement received a huge boost from the 2014 standoff at Cliven Bundy’s ranch in Nevada, where federal agents and hundreds of armed supporters of Bundy faced off in a dispute over the rancher’s refusal to pay fees to graze his cattle on federal land.
When federal agents backed down rather than risk a bloody clash, Bundy’s supporters claimed victory and were emboldened to stage similar armed face-offs last year at gold mines in Oregon and Montana.
In January, dozens of armed occupiers, led by Bundy’s sons Ammon and Ryan, took over the headquarters buildings of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near rural Burns, Oregon, an action that later resulted in the death of Robert “LaVoy” Finicum, an occupier who was shot by state troopers.
Soper has been in the middle of all of it. He says he has tried to be a more moderate voice in a movement best known for its hotheads. He spent a month living in his RV at Burns, trying to talk the occupiers into standing down.
Two days after Soper’s last visit to the refuge, Finicum was killed in an operation in which the Bundys were arrested. An independent local investigation concluded that the shooting was justified, although the U.S. Justice Department is investigating several FBI agents for possible misconduct. Soper considers Finicum’s death “murder.”
That kind of talk is “a big deal,” said Stephanie Douglas, who retired in 2013 as the FBI’s top official overseeing foreign and domestic counterterrorism programs. “Free speech doesn’t make you a terrorist just because you disagree with the government. But if you start espousing violence and radicalizing your own people toward a violent act, the federal government is going to take notice.”
Shortly after the Bundy ranch confrontation, two of Bundy’s supporters who had been at the ranch, Jerad and Amanda Miller, killed two police officers and a civilian and also died in a Las Vegas shooting rampage. Police said the couple left a note on the body of one the officers they had shot point-blank.
It said: “This is the beginning of the revolution.”
Before the revolution
Until two years ago, BJ Soper was a creature of ESPN.
Settled down after spending much of his 20s as a professional rodeo rider, he lived with his second wife and their two daughters on a pastoral plot of land with horses, dogs, cats, chickens and a majestic view of the snow-capped Cascades.
He spent his days building sheds and doing other small carpentry jobs and his weekends watching sports on TV. He played softball. He hunted and fished. He followed his mother’s advice and stayed away from politics: She taught him young that registering to vote was just a way for the government to call you to jury duty.
Then the TV news was filled with footage from the Bundy ranch, and he was shocked. Government officials said Bundy had been abusing grazing rights and refusing to pay his fees for two decades, so they finally sent in armed agents to round up his cattle grazing on federal land. Officials said they had shown great restraint and patience with Bundy. But to Soper, it appeared that they were bullying him.
He wondered: “Do we really have federal armed agents out there pointing guns and threatening to kill people over cows? What in the hell is going on here?”
He started doing research on the Internet and quickly tapped into what seemed to be thousands of voices arguing that the federal government had lost track of the constitutional limits on its power.
“At that point, I had heard of Waco, Texas, and I had heard of Ruby Ridge, and quite honestly, I thought, ‘Oh, that’s just a bunch of crazies up there, and they got in a gunfight with the government,’” he said. “But that’s not the truth.”
The more he read, the more convinced he was that the government was “out of control,” and he was amazed by the number of people who felt the same way.
“I was very disappointed with myself,” he said. “I realized that we’re here in the predicament that we’re in as a country because my generation, and my parents’ generation, have done nothing. We let this happen. We got used to our cushy lives where everything’s easy. We have forgotten what’s really important. We’ve forgotten what liberty and freedom really mean.”
It was like being shaken out of a lifetime of slumber, he said: “Before 2014, I was blind. I wasn’t awake. I wasn’t paying attention. But Bundy Ranch woke me up.”
Suddenly, his weekends watching the San Francisco 49ers or the Portland Trail Blazers seemed like anesthesia numbing him against real life.
“I lived like 90 percent of Americans, oblivious to everything that was going on, from the time I was 18 until the Bundy Ranch happened,” he said. “I just said, ‘I can’t sit back and do nothing. I’ve got to get involved.’ I feel responsible for where we’re at, because I’ve done nothing my entire life.”
His response was to start his Central Oregon Constitutional Guard, which he said was partly to protect against the government, but partly a way to get back to a simpler America.
“As a kid, life was easy,” he says on the group’s website. “No worries. Very little threats. I would ride my bike around all over the neighborhood for hours on end. Play with friends and show back up for dinner without worry.”
Critics say such talk is naive nostalgia for a 1950s America that wasn’t ever really such a homespun paradise in the first place. And they say the groups that have sprung up in response are far more dangerous than Soper and others want to make them seem.
“The idea that he needs to face down the government with weapons I think is really, really wrong,” Potok said. “They don’t really say that, but I think that is what is right under the surface.”
Soper’s research also led him to some of the Internet’s favorite conspiracy theories, including a purported U.N. plot to impose “One World Government.” And Soper, like most in the patriot movement, became a believer.
He suspects that the United Nations, through a program called Agenda 21, wants to reduce the global population from 7 billion to fewer than 1 billion. He said the federal government may be promoting abortions overseas as part of that plot, and also may be deliberately mandating childhood vaccines designed to cause autism because autistic adults are less likely to have children.
Soper said he could not rule out the possibility that the U.S. government was behind the 9/11 attacks. He suspects that the government and the “medical community” have had a cancer cure for years but won’t release it because cancer treatment is too profitable for pharmaceutical companies.
“I’m not saying that’s the case,” he said, “but I like to look at all avenues.”
Soper knows those ideas sound crazy to many people, but, he said with a laugh, “It shows I just don’t trust my government.”
The land debate
Those who track these groups say paranoid conspiracy theories and armed occupations undercut often-legitimate disagreements with federal policies.
Tom Gorey, a spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the lead agency at the Bundy ranch, said Soper and the others have “taken an aggressive anti-federal, anti-BLM posture because of (their) bizarre and discredited interpretation of the U.S. Constitution and paranoid views of the federal government.”
Said Potok: “People having nutty ideas is of very little importance except when those ideas begin to affect their actions. An awful lot of people have acted violently in defense of some of these ideas.”
Just before dusk one recent evening, 10 people hopped out of pickups on the shoulder of U.S. Highway 97 in Redmond and began picking up litter near an Adopt-a-Highway sign that said “Central Oregon Constitutional Guard.”
Soper said being a patriot sometimes means spending a couple of hours picking up bottles, cans and even rotting fur from a road-kill deer — all while carrying a concealed .45-caliber pistol on his hip.
“It’s like American Express — don’t leave home without it,” said Soper, working alongside his wife, Lisa Soper, also packing a .45 in her jeans.
Passing drivers beeped and gave thumbs ups.
A white BMW pulled over, and the driver approached Soper.
“You guys the Central Oregon Constitutional Guard?” he asked.
“Yeah, we are,” Soper said. “You interested?”
“I saw you guys on Facebook,” said Glenn Golter, 42, a flooring contractor whose clothes were covered with dust after a day’s work. “I like it that you stick up for our constitutional rights.”
Soper invited Golter to join the group for its monthly meeting at a local pizza restaurant right after the cleanup. And just like that, the movement had a new member.
They drove to Straw Hat Pizza, in a strip mall on the edge of this high-desert town of 30,000 people in the Cascade Range foothills. Lisa picked some healthy greens for her husband from the salad bar, while the children and the other guys in the group ate thick, cheesy pizzas.
Across the family-style table, Alex McNeely, 25, a drywaller and “avid YouTuber,” said he became interested in the patriot movement online and joined the group to feel that he was helping to defend the country.
“There’s this D.C. mentality that if you stand up for your rights, you’re dangerous and anti-government,” said McNeely, who has an AK-47 assault rifle tattooed on his forearm. “But if I’m denied my rights, what else can I do? Am I just going to stand there and take it, or am I going to do something?”
In the Constitutional Guard, McNeely said: “I feel what we do is stand up for people who don’t have the means to stand up for themselves. I have an overwhelming desire to help people.”
They have passed out more than 2,000 pocket-size copies of the Constitution that Soper said he bought for $500, sent food and clothes to victims of forest fires in Washington state and Oregon and given Christmas presents to more than three dozen children in need.
McNeely considered joining the military when he graduated from high school, but he turned 18 the month Obama was elected in 2008, and, because of Obama’s “socialist” policies, “I wasn’t going to accept him as my commander in chief.”
“I don’t like that he wants to fundamentally change America,” McNeely said.
The group members are conservatives, do not like former secretary of state Hillary Clinton and generally support Donald Trump. Soper said he would prefer just about anyone over Clinton but would not cast a vote for president this year. He said he thinks casting his vote is “a waste of time” because Oregon’s politics are dominated by Democrats.
MacNab, the George Washington University researcher, said Trump has been a powerful recruiting tool for groups angry at the government. “The tea party built little bridges between the fringe and the mainstream,” she said. “With Trump, it’s an 18-lane superhighway. He’s literally telling them they’re right.”
Soper bristles when critics call him anti-government; he said he supports the government but just wants it to follow the Constitution. And he said calling his group “armed” is as relevant as saying its members wear boots, because the Second Amendment gives every American the right to carry a gun.
Soper, who carries a pocket Constitution with him everywhere, said he thinks the Constitution does not give the federal government the right to own land and that the government’s increasing emphasis on environmental regulations is putting ranchers, miners, loggers and others out of work and devastating local economies.
“We need to be able to raise and grow food,” Soper said. “Wealth comes from the land. I want to take into consideration endangered frogs. But at the same time, that frog can’t be more important than the survival of the human race.”
Everyone in the group keeps 30 days’ worth of food and emergency supplies on hand. Group members learn gardening and raising livestock. They go camping and learn survival tactics, including how to fashion a shelter, find food and water, and make a fire.
McNeely and Lisa Soper are taking an emergency medical technician class to learn to treat wounds, including combat trauma. They all are working on getting ham-radio licenses to communicate in the event that the cellphone network fails.
But a bedrock of their mission is to be an armed and trained paramilitary force. Soper said group members train on “basic infantry” skills: “working a patrol, patrolling with a vehicle, arriving at ‘contact’ and how to protect yourself and escape from that.”
“We are not soldiers,” Soper said. “But we know the basics.”
Soper said the group would be ready for an earthquake or other natural disaster, but he’s most concerned about “man-made disasters” caused by the government.
“I don’t know that it’s all that far-fetched that we have an economic collapse,” he said. “The dollar is a pretty scary investment anymore. China’s buying up all the gold. When people get hungry and thirsty and can’t feed themselves, they get desperate.”
In April 2015, Soper pulled on his paramilitary camouflage fatigues, picked up his AR-15 rifle and spent a couple of weeks “standing guard” at the Sugar Pine Mine in southwestern Oregon, where miners were having a dispute with the BLM. The agency had ordered two miners to cease operations because they had built structures at the site in violation of the terms of their permit to mine on federal land.
The miners said the federal government was trying to force them out of business and steal their property. They also said BLM agents who served the cease-and-desist paperwork had pointed guns at them. Gorey, the BLM spokesman, said no agent ever drew a weapon.
Supporters of the miners put out a national call on YouTube for volunteers to help them, and Soper went.
“The government showed up and pointed guns at these miners,” Soper said. “Put yourself in their shoes. How are you going to respond? When you are in fear for your life, you have a right to defend yourself.”
Gorey said agents followed proper procedure at Sugar Pine and did not threaten anyone. “We’re a scapegoat for these militiamen who seem eager to wage war against the federal government,” he said.
A federal judge eventually ordered the BLM not to enforce its order until the matter could be heard in an Interior Department appeals court, where it is pending.
“The last thing I ever want to do is point a gun at another American,” Soper said. “But when the BLM picks up guns against us, when is it OK for us to defend ourselves?”
As Soper sipped a soda at the pizza parlor, his 4-year-old daughter, Kalley, asked him for more quarters to play video games. He handed over a few with a gently teasing roll of his eyes.
“We’re the guys that see the wolves for what they are,” Soper said as watched her bounce away. “And we want to protect the sheep.”
On a recent Friday morning, Soper had been at his laptop since 5 a.m., typing a furious letter to his county sheriff.
Soper had awoken to the news that government agents had arrested a dozen people in connection with the 2014 standoff at the Bundy ranch. That meant a total of 19 people, including Cliven Bundy, now faced obstruction-of-justice and firearms charges that Soper thought were unfair. He was also enraged that Bundy’s sons were still being held without bail over the occupation at the wildlife refuge.
“People are being detained without due process,” he said. “These are not our American values.”
If Bundy and his supporters faced charges, Soper said, so should the federal agents who faced off against them: “Why should law enforcement be held to a different standard?”
“The last thing I want is violence,” Soper said. “But I hope they see that if we continue down this path, we’re going to have more bloodshed in this country.”
Soper said the answer to grievances with the government is negotiation, not violence. But he said that when federal agents draw weapons on citizens without cause, citizens have the right to answer guns with guns.
“We have the right to defend ourselves from imminent danger or death,” Soper said. “I don’t believe that excludes law enforcement. When they’re not doing their duty justly, I think you have a right to defend yourself.”
Soper kept typing, warning that the government had lost “common sense.”
“I pray we find some sense of it again, otherwise a very dark future awaits us, and it is not very far down the road,” he wrote. “Sheriff,” he said, “people are going to die.”