Patriotic or Problematic?

By Beacon Staff

POLSON – In a conference room above the V.F.W. on a recent evening, Richard Mack took the microphone and advised the crowd gathered before him to set aside their concern over theories on the goals of the Federal Reserve Bank, the causes of the 9/11 attacks, or whether the “chem-trails” left in the sky by aircraft are dangerous.

“You’re going to get off all these other conspiracy theories and you’re going to focus on this,” Mack said. “None of that scares me any more than the simple fact that the U.S. government is destroying my and your Constitution.”

Mack, the former sheriff of Graham County, Ariz., believes the strongest defense against the Constitutional violations he sees the federal government committing is the county sheriff. It’s a philosophy he expounds upon in his 49-page book, “The County Sheriff, America’s Last Best Hope,” where he advises county sheriffs to reassert the significant power granted them by their office, and to resist encroachments upon individual freedoms by the “vultures and corrupt officials” in the federal government.

“The sheriff is the ultimate authority in the county,” Mack said. “We’re going to expect top law enforcement officials to uphold the Constitution.”

Tall and charismatic, Mack gained national attention in 1997 when he and Ravalli County Sheriff Jay Printz successfully challenged in the U.S. Supreme Court a provision of the federal Brady Bill requiring local law enforcement to carry out background checks. In the years since, Mack has written several books and toured the country speaking at conservative gatherings.

But while Mack held the audience rapt during his Polson speech, and was the featured speaker at Eureka’s July 4 Tea Party-style Freedom Celebration, not everyone was thrilled about his appearances in Montana. The Montana Human Rights Network issued a statement warning about Mack’s ties to the militia movement prior to his engagements here.

“For over a decade, Richard Mack has been the darling of the anti-government crowd,” Travis McAdam, interim director of the Montana Human Rights Network, said in a statement. “He’s made a career out of appearing at events with notorious tax protestors, hardcore militia activists, and a laundry list of dubious self-styled ‘patriots.’”

McAdam also noted that one of the organizers of Mack’s Eureka appearance was Paul Stramer, who heads a group called Lincoln County Watch. On several videos posted of their meetings last year on YouTube.com, Lincoln County Watch members discuss Blackhawk helicopters, C-130 planes and other suspicious government vehicles they have witnessed around Eureka.

All of which has the Human Rights Network and some law enforcement concerned that anti-government sentiment in rural areas, exacerbated by a faltering economy and a new Democratic presidential administration, is on the rise.

Mack, however, said he does not endorse, nor would he ever affiliate with any type of violent activity. And Stramer counters that the Human Rights Network and certain law enforcement agencies are following a “radical leftist agenda,” intent on demonizing him and like-minded citizens.

“They continually lump anybody that believes in the Constitution and freedom and liberty and the rule of law, rather than the rule of man, into a group of potential terrorists,” Stramer said. “And it’s not at all true.”

On other Lincoln County Watch videos posted on YouTube, Stramer describes how he has set up a van as a “local command center” to communicate via radio in the event of an emergency and gives his side of the story regarding his involvement with the 1996 Freemen, a group which engaged in an extended armed standoff with federal agents at their base near Jordan. Stramer was arrested but not convicted for his involvement with the Freemen, and said he was simply trying to sell radio equipment to a member, months before the standoff with law enforcement.

Other Lincoln County Watch discussions concern how to insulate Lincoln County from the imminent “currency meltdown.” Sen. Aubyn Curtiss, R-Fortine, also present at the Lincoln County Watch meetings, said in the YouTube videos how she has suffered ridicule from fellow state lawmakers for her attempts to pacify the Freemen standoff, and compared the actions of the Freemen to the Federal Reserve.

“Some of the Freemen were doing exactly what the Federal Reserve is doing, which is creating money out of nothing – out of nothing,” she said.

For McAdam, these activities have overtones of how some of the extremist groups in Montana’s recent history began.

“Our primary concern is that for us, out there in Montana communities right now, you have so much of this type of activity going on – this hardcore anti-government sentiment that you do see starting to coalesce,” McAdam said. “We really worry that we may be heading into a time like the early 1990s.”

Many members of Lincoln County Watch are part of the same group attempting to have Lincoln County Sheriff Daryl R. Anderson recalled, for reasons including Anderson’s denial of a concealed weapons permit to Stramer. Anderson stands resolutely by his decision to deny the permit to Stramer based on his prior arrest in connection with the Freemen.

“If I’ve got reasons to believe he’s a risk to the citizens of Lincoln County, I can deny him, and I believe he is,” Anderson said.

The sheriff is keeping an eye on Lincoln County Watch, as is the Federal Bureau of Investigation and state Division of Criminal Investigation, Anderson said. While he considers the group to be mainly of a political nature at this point, he is concerned about where things could lead.

“I think they can become more of a dangerous group; I really do,” Anderson said, referencing the Freemen uprising and “Project 7” militia, which targeted law enforcement officers in the Flathead. “That’s how it worked out last time.”

“We’re going to watch it; we’re going to monitor it real close,” Anderson added. “We definitely don’t want to have another Ruby Ridge or Waco situation, that’s for sure.”

Some of this can appear like an overreaction to a group of people getting together to discuss right-leaning politics and beliefs. And Stramer believes Anderson and McAdam mischaracterize Lincoln County Watch.

“At every one of our meetings the main topic is the rule of law,” he said. “How do we get everybody to obey the law, so that in the end we don’t have to resort to any kind of self-defense with weapons? That’s abhorrent to everybody in this country and it should be.”

And at Mack’s July 6 event in Polson, a crowd of roughly 50 people gathered, some with children, to learn about and talk over the subtleties and meaning of the language in the U.S. Constitution. Much of Mack’s speech revolved around his wish that local law enforcement could do more to help the communities it serves, if only sheriffs would recognize the power they wield. Gary Marbut of the Montana Shooting Sports Association gave a talk about legislative victories for gun rights at the recent 2009 Legislature.

At the end, Mack led the crowd, many of whom also participated in Polson’s April 15 Tea Party protests, in an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution against threats, foreign or domestic.

“This is not an armed revolution. A revolution? Yes,” Mack told the audience. “We’re not ever going to engage in violence on this.”

In an interview after his remarks, Mack seemed offended when asked about the Human Rights Network linking him to the militia movement.

“Anybody making statements about me is lying; this is a peaceful movement,” Mack said. “There has never been anything violent about me or my message, nor have I ever supported anything like that.”

But McAdam, echoing Anderson’s statements, said anti-government groups in Montana’s recent history have begun much the same way, with extremists emerging out of meetings that, while peaceful and inclusive, exude deep frustration with the federal government.

“What’s interesting and important to remember is that Freemen and Militia of Montana generally started out in similar ways,” McAdam said.

“That obviously doesn’t mean that Lincoln County Watch is going to evolve into a paramilitary group,” McAdam added, but, “they really do sound like what you’d sort of hear at militia recruiting meetings back in the 1990s.”

The way Stramer sees it, though, is if anyone’s being provocative, it’s people like McAdam.

“It’s these radical leftists that are trying to goad the patriots in America into a firefight, and we aren’t having it,” Stramer said. “We’re going to resort back to the Constitution and enforce it in the proper way, in other words, at law.”

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