Last Saturday, a state park hosted the Southern Michigan Militia Field Day, complete with guns, tactical training, and a barbecue. In the shadow of the recent Hutaree militia arrests, this crowd was anxious to separate itself from "homegrown terrorists."
Chris Lescoe founded the Sons of Liberty Militia with a handful of college roommates in January. A skinny, 22-year-old kid in a sweatshirt with a pistol strapped to his jeans, he may be the new face of the American militiaman. We met him at the annual Field Day, which included training, coordinating, and shooting events. The event attracted a few dozen militiamen and their families, who split time between a picnic area and a firing range. Visitors could choose from a buffet of homemade pulled pork, burgers and dogs, along with kosher and vegan options.
Earlier this month the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force arrested members of the Hutaree militia in Michigan for sedition. According to the affidavit, the Hutaree planned to kill a police officer then set off improvised explosive devices along the route of the funeral procession. "As long as we let them terrorize any American through fear and intimidation, then they are winning this battle and we should step up the fight that they have started and finish it," Hutaree leader David Stone said. "The people should not be afraid of their government; the government should fear the people."
Needless to say, a media fracas ensued. The word "militia" quickly became synonymous with terrorism for many people. Juan Cole, University of Michigan's star Islam scholar and blogger, pointed out how that the Hutaree are close to something you'd find in Iraq:
I am struck that Hutaree has a great deal in common with the Mahdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr in Iraq. The Hutaree militia seems to recruit from the poor or lower middle class...many Michigan workers have been through years of hopelessness and joblessness, inducing despair and anger. Both groups are victims of a neoliberal world order that uses and discards working people, while protecting and cushioning the super-wealthy.
But militias have long been a part of Michigan's culture. The state is home to 47 of the approximately 500 militias in America, according to the FBI. Michigan is the Long Island iced tea of militia cocktails—blend New Hampshire's libertarianism with Massachusetts' cynicism, and add equal parts gun culture, expansive forests and, at 17 percent, the highest unemployment rate in America.
Field Day 2010 was designed to remove the militia stigma. Organizer Mike Lackomar described how the Hutaree had attended previous Field Days, but after they "shot the heck of out of our furniture" in 2007, they were not invited back. Lackomar and crew make up an oddball, portly army—more Tea Party than Timothy McVeigh.
The young Lescoe was the sole upstart attending Field Day (and also the only person not wearing fatigues). "I came down to see if these guys shared an ideology with us," he said. "They need to articulate their politics better. They're more like a group of soldiers. We have about a dozen members and could probably learn survival skills from these guys, though."
Later that afternoon we visited Lescoe at his home in Ann Arbor. The University of Michigan's quads were filled with hundreds of girls in black leggings, and every frat house had a BBQ underway. Meanwhile, in the basement of a rundown Victorian house a few miles from campus, the Sons of Liberty HQ buzzed with new found political theory.
Lescoe's six fellow militiamen included a black kid with a neck tattoo, a 20-year-old aspiring airplane pilot, and a thick-necked ex-con. The oldest member was 26. The crew sipped beers, passed a bong, and played with a puppy named Gucci while discussing federal overreach. On the bookshelf: copies of the Michigan Constitution, Thomas Payne's Common Sense, and Camus' The Stranger. They were hesitant to be photographed and several members were scared to show up because they feared we were undercover Feds.
Lescoe was prone to ridiculous hyperbole: "I feel like I'm living behind enemy lines in Germany during the war." They hate the police, "all cops do is write tickets," and believe militias offer citizens better protection. They are anti-war and anti-Patriot Act. The Sons of Liberty sounded like leftists who liked guns.
"We're not against the government. We just want to be prepared in case of emergency," Lescoe said. What kind of emergency, exactly? Even they didn't seem to know. "Uh, maybe a statewide blackout or something." But Michigan is in a depression not a recession, a state at the end of a three-decade-slow burn. Anything seemed, and felt, possible there. Anything but hope. It's a place where organized political dissent makes sense, but when it's a bunch of heavily-armed, naïve kids ripping a bong in a basement, that dissent could lead almost anywhere.
[Gallery of photos by Ray LeMoine]