In the 1980s, the Posse Comitatus spread its conspiracy-minded antigovernment and antisemitic message in the name of white, Christian, males to counter what they saw as attacks on their rights.
Concentrated in eighteen states, arching from the Southwest, up the Pacific Coast through the Rocky Mountain region, and into the Midwest, the organization sought to decentralize all government above the county level. Their message resonated strongly in economically stressed rural areas of the United States and their rhetoric and ideology continued to instruct Christian Patriots into the twenty-first century.
The current Posse movement started in the late 1960s. William Porter Gale helped organize the Posse Comitatus—Latin for “power to the county”—on the principle of local governmental authority at the county level and elimination of federal authority. Gale argued that the local sheriff constituted the supreme law of the county and should be the only recognized law.
Henry Lamont “Mike” Beach of Portland, Oregon, another early Posse provocateur, echoed Gale’s message and helped the movement spread throughout the West, from Mariposa County, California, to Bonner County, Idaho. By 1976, the Federal Bureau of Investigation estimated the movement to have between 12,000 and 50,000 members.
For the Posse Comitatus, political evil manifested itself in three areas: corruption of the nation’s government, perversion of the financial system, and degradation of Christian beliefs. First, democracy had usurped the founding framers’ republican form of government in the United States.
Believers argued that the rabble now ruled governmental decisions, robbing “Freemen characters” of their God-given rights. Accordingly, the Posse attempted to restore vested power of government into local hands with the blessing of the supreme law of the land, the Constitution.
Two actions, according to the Posse, corrupted the national government and granted it unlawful supreme power. First, the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution allegedly created an entirely new class of citizens to join those so-called Freemen characters who had always had rights.
Racial and cultural minorities, as well as women of all ethnicities, had now gained rights from the government as “federal citizens,” unlike “Freemen” who had received their rights from God. The Fourteenth Amendment, they thought, had thus undermined the original intent of the Constitution.
The second setback had supposedly come with the expansion of government during the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt. The Roosevelt administration, Posse conspiracists said, attempted to end the distinction between “federal citizens” and “Freemen” by eliminating the natural rights of the “Freemen.”
In order to induce “Freemen characters” to give up their God-given rights, the governmental cabal plotted methods for citizens to unknowingly sign away their rights by applying for a hunting license, social security, or even a bank account. Participation in these government programs, according to Posse ideology, must remain voluntary, with only the local sheriff enforcing the law on white Christian men.
The Posse also developed strong ties to the Christian Identity movement. Followers of Christian Identity believe that they are the true Israelites, the chosen of God. The Anglo-Saxon, Scandinavian, Germanic, and other northern Europeans reportedly migrated to their homeland from Israel. Some later moved to the true holy land, the United States. Conversely, the movement stated, Jews sought to help Satan destroy earthly civilization.
Therefore, according to the movement, to maintain civilization, whites must band together to drive out the evil forces of Satan consisting of the Jews, minorities, and nonbelievers. The Jewish faith has purportedly undermined white citizens’ rights by producing the Federal Reserve banking system and the Internal Revenue Service.
By 1974, the Posse’s rhetoric extended from the West Coast into the Midwest, where a local Wisconsin Posse kidnapped an Internal Revenue Service agent, held him for several hours, and assaulted him.
The following year, an Illinois Posse member earned a contempt charge during a divorce hearing for refusing to acknowledge the court. In San Joaquin County, California, the Posse attempted to prevent organizers from the United Farm Workers from speaking to laborers.
Richard Butler, later of the Aryan Nations, and his Posse tried to arrest a Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, police officer who was testifying in court on an assault charge against a Posse member. In Stanfield, Oregon, a Posse armed with dogs and guns attempted to appropriate a large wheat and potato farm to settle a land dispute.
The unlawful use of County Sheriffs as LACKEYS of the Courts should be discontinued at once. There is no lawfull [sic] authority, for Judges and the Courts to direct the law enforcement activities of a County Sheriff. The Sheriff is accountable and responsible only to the citizens who are the inhabitants of his County.The literature of the Posse Comitatus exhorted fellow “Patriots” to do their duty against those who “destroy our freedoms and mak[e] us serfs of a ONE-WORLD GOVERNMENT, ruled by the ANTI-CHRIST.”
In the late 1970s, the Posse Comitatus movement tapped rural America for membership. Between 1983 and 1990 at least 500,000 people had their farms foreclosed each year. The economic hardship provided an opportunity to recruit from an audience disenchanted with the current system.
In the mid-1980s, Posse members reacted to the increasing surveillance by the government. In February 1983, Gordon Kahl resisted receipt of a warrant for outstanding taxes and shot two federal agents outside Medina, North Dakota.
While Kahl escaped the initial gunfight, authorities killed him when he resisted arrest after a nationwide manhunt. Twenty months later, Arthur Kirk engaged the highway patrol SWAT team outside Grand Island, Nebraska. Authorities shot Kirk during the gunfight.
In the wake of media coverage of these and other such violent events, the Posse broke into secretive cells, following Louis Beam’s “leaderless resistance” model. The Posse’s rhetoric for decentralization, local government, economic reform, and religious beliefs, however, continued to encourage like-minded groups in the development of their own movements.