Wednesday, March 29, 2006

The Freemen, 10 years later

[FBI headquarters at the Garfield County fairgrounds, March 1996.]

Really, it doesn't seem like it was ten years ago that I was freezing my ass off standing out in the eastern Montana plains watching a lot of other journalists do nothing but freeze their asses off, waiting for something, anything to happen at the Freemen compound near Brusett, just outside of Jordan.

But damn, it was. Anything since then has been fun in comparison, so that may explain why time has flown by.

The Billings Gazette has put together an excellent retrospective on the 81-day standoff (still the longest in law-enforcement history) that brings us all up to date on some of the characters in the drama.

The elderly ranchers on whose property the standoff occurred served their sentences and have returned to the county, but the property is no longer theirs. Most of the radical "Freemen" themselves who were responsible for the standoff are still in prison, though a few are due to get out soon. (See the sidebar on the main piece.)

Be sure to check out the reminscences of my friend Clair Johnson, who covered the standoff from start to finish (unlike me, who spent only 14 days or so there). I relied on Clair's reporting a lot for my book on the standoff, In God's Country. Clair's talk comes with a nice slide show.

Certainly, the thing I remember best about the standoff were the journalists I met on my first day in Jordan who'd had their gear hijacked by the Freemen. They'd made the mistake of driving down the road past the Clark place, where the Freemen had put together a sentry post (complete with shooting positions) atop a hill overlooking the road, from which they would drive down and harass people. It was still there the following summer when I photographed it:

The other memorable part of this was watching the Freemen in court, expounding on their constitutionalist gobbledygook and frazzling the nerves of the normally decorous federal judges. You can get an idea for what I'm talking about by reading one of the many signs they posted around their properties. This photo is of a sign taken from the original Freemen compound near Roundup (click on the image for a larger version):

In any event, the Gazette package is a worthy reminder that it really wasn't all that long ago that right-wing extremists were talking about revolution, threatening and sometimes killing federal officials, law enforcement officers, and innocent bystanders, attacking mainstream American values, and committing acts of domestic terrorism serially.

It's also worth remembering that they really haven't gone away, either. It seems that Democratic presidents in particular inspire their deepest paranoias; the next one is pretty certain to bring them back out of the woodwork, and perhaps stronger than ever.

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