Dispatches from the Potomac#28 | The Federal Government in the Crosshairs of Citizen Militias

This is a translation of an article originally written in February 2019 for publication in the April 2019 edition of the Marubeni Group Magazine, M-SPIRIT.

Washington D.C. Office General Manager, Marubeni America Corporation    Yoichi Mineo

The Tale of Two Incidents That Sparked Controversy Over Federal Land

A statue of a Minute Man

“The federal government and local citizen militia groups faced off over the use of federally owned lands, creating a precarious situation in which each side had the barrels of their guns fixed on the other.”

This is not the story of some war-stricken country. This is the story of something that happened in 2014, in Nevada, US not even an hour and a half by car from Las Vegas. The origin of this incident can actually be traced back to the 1990s, when the federal government (specifically the Bureau of Land Management under the Department of the Interior) limited the use of lands, already in use by ranchers as grazing pastures, for the purpose of environmental conservation. In opposition to this act, the ranchers refused to continue paying the federal government for permission to use the land as they had been doing until that point. Over the next 20 years, ranchers ignored the government orders, continuing to freely use the land for grazing. Then, in 2014, the government finally began to seize the ranchers’ cattles in lieu of the years of missed payments. The incensed ranchers took to the media, accusing the federal government of “overstepping their authority.” In response to this, armed militia groups from Nevada and beyond (some reports suggest more than 200 people in total), raising the Gasden Flag (which I will discuss in more detail later) and shouting with passion, assembled to face off with the Department of the Interior. In the end, the outnumbered and out-gunned Department of the Interior lowered their weapons and, for the time being, returned the cattles that they had seized from the ranchers. In essence, this was the federal government surrendering to private citizens who refused to follow the rule of law.

The 10th Amendment of the United States Constitution states that, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” The ranchers’ claim was based in this amendment. Even if the lands in question were federally owned, the ranchers argued, the power to enforce the period of use for such land would reside not with the federal government, but the state government. In other words, intervention by the federal government would be a violation of states’ rights. Nevertheless, these claims have been rejected by judicial ruling, based on the argument that, due to Article IV of the United States Constitution, Congress reserves the right to deal with land and property within the United States as it sees fit.

Controversy over federally owned land within states did not end in Nevada. In 2016, a sect of the militia organizations associated with the Nevada standoff caused trouble in the state of Oregon where they commandeered a building on a wildlife reservation (federally owned land) for over a month. The disgruntled militia group, who were appealing a jail sentence of 5 years over arson allegations, gathered in a town on the protected land of the wildlife reservation; the armed group occupied a building there for more than a month. In the end, almost every member of the group surrendered, save one who was shot and killed by the FBI.

The History of Citizen Militias, Extending Back Before the Founding of America

The history of citizen militia groups in the United States goes back to before the country was founded. In truth, the battles that were the impetus for the Revolutionary War (the battles of Lexington and Concord) were fought between colonial militias and the British army. The Articles of Confederation, predecessor to the Constitution, required the states to prepare and supply the weapons and goods necessary to maintain a militia. While a militia is relatively lacking in fighting spirit and skill compared to a regular army, even after the Revolutionary War, it is fair to say that militias served a certain purpose, standing side by side with the army on the front lines of the Mexican-America War, the Mexican Revolution, and the American Civil War. Modern day militias are divided into two categories: Organized Militias, like the various National Guard, and Unorganized Militias, the same type that caused the Nevada and Oregon incidents. This type of militia, formed separately from the state by private citizens, has become remarkably prominent since the late 1990s, and by some estimates there are between 200 and 300 of these groups in existence today.

Thoughts on the Gadsden Flag and Individual Freedom

Gadsden Flag

Much like militia groups, the Gadsden Flag, which I mentioned earlier, also has a long history that can be traced back to before the founding of the country. This flag is a military banner designed during the Revolutionary War by a man named Christopher Gadsden. The design of the flag depicts a winding rattlesnake on a yellow background with the words “Don’t Tread on Me” emblazoned below the snake. The rattlesnake was both an animal indigenous to the North American continent, and had long been used as an identity symbol to distinguish the colonies from Europe. As Benjamin Franklin, a Founding Father of the United States, once wrote,

“She (the rattlesnake) never begins an attack, nor, when once engaged, ever surrenders… As if anxious to prevent all pretensions of quarrelling with her, the weapons with which nature has furnished her, she conceals in the roof of her mouth, so that, to those who are unacquainted with her, she appears to be a most defenseless animal; and even when those weapons are shewn and extended for her defense, they appear weak and contemptible; but their wounds however small, are decisive and fatal. Conscious of this, she never wounds till she has generously given notice, even to her enemy, and cautioned him against the danger of treading on her.”

In other words, Franklin felt that the rattlesnake was a suitable metaphor to illustrate the colonies’ spirit of independence which compelled them to fight until the last breath should anyone attempt to stifle their freedom. Indeed, this same way of thinking, prominent in 18th century America, lives on today in at least some parts of the country.

Of course, there are very few people who would literally aim a gun at the federal government. However, it seems certain that the ideals of those who refuse to lie down and silently accept government restrictions, who would fight anyone who infringes upon their personal freedom, have not yet disappeared from the United States. The Gadsden Flag can still be seen today in a variety of places (10 states, including Maryland and Virginia, incorporate the imagery in their state license plates). Those who take government restrictions as a personal affront are not small in number. That ideas, whose roots can be traced to the very founding of the country itself, will not be snubbed out, even in the midst of dramatic change, is what makes the United States so fascinating.