California militia group exploits massive Oak fire to give its public image a veneer of legitimacy

California militia group exploits massive Oak fire to give its public image a veneer of legitimacy

From their very beginnings in the 1990s, “Patriot” militia groups have tried to portray themselves as civic-minded defenders of their communities who show up at natural disasters as well as for “communist” threats to their well-being. Over the years, they’ve posed as flood rescue workers, volunteer border watchers, and anti-pedophilic “groomer” watchdogs—but in reality, they always have been nothing but unaccountable thugs with gun.

So when a ragtag group of northern California militiamen showed up recently at the scene of the massive Oak Fire in Mariposa County, they tried again to claim they were just being good civic-minded defenders of their community. The local sheriff bought into the claims, too—noting that they were not being called up, but nonetheless praising them for acting “on their own courteous accord.”

The group, which calls itself the California State Militia 2nd Regiment, has been operating a mobile kitchen out of the parking lot of a lumber store near the scene where firefighters and other volunteers gather to organize in the town of Mariposa. As of Monday, the blaze in the Sierra Nevada foothills had burned more than 17,000 acres while destroying 55 homes and other structures, driving nearly 4,000 people from their homes.

The militia’s spokesman, a 44-year-old Mariposa County resident named Daniel Latner, told the Mercury News that his outfit had fed about 20 families at the mobile kitchen. The food, he said, included “local farm fresh eggs and goat milk,” pancakes, turkey sausage, sandwiches, and fruits and vegetables.

Latner claimed that his militia has about 150 members around California, with about 20 of them involved in the Mariposa effort.

“We’re part of the community,” said Latner. “We’re watching our own community burn down, and even though a lot of the members that came to help, they’re spread out, we’re all part of the same unit, and this is what we do.”

The Mariposa County Sheriff’s Office reported on Facebook on Sunday that it had been “made aware” of the presence of a local militia in the area.

“We had received multiple notifications inquiring why we had ‘activated that militia’ this post what intended to clarify that we have not activated them, they are acting on their own courteous accord,” the statement read. “We appreciate their efforts and any the efforts of other private groups or entities helping our community.”

As a matter of fact, sheriff’s offices have no official relationship with private militia groups, which are not “constitutional” in any real sense, nor are they accountable to the public in any fashion. County sheriffs have no statutory or other ability to “activate” their local militias, though so-called “constitutional sheriffs” groups have managed to convince a number of sheriffs that they do.

Vigilante militiamen have always tried to claim they are acting in defense of their communities or nation. In the 1990s, the Washington State Militia group based in Whatcom County claimed it had participated in flooding rescue work (but hadn’t) before its leadership was arrested for building pipe bombs. Border vigilantes in Arizona and elsewhere even today claim to be operating with the blessing of Border Patrol.

As Brian Levin of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at Cal State San Bernardino explained to the Los Angeles Times, self-described militia groups have often inserted themselves into natural disaster zones, claiming to provide help and supplies while doing relatively little. In reality, Levin says, their whole purpose in becoming visible at disasters to primarily to promote right-wing extremist ideologies, anti-government sentiment, and conspiracy theories.

“It puts these groups in a positive light and extends to them a type of de-facto authority that they really don’t have under the law, which poses significant issues,” said Levin. “When you have a system that allows unregulated extremists to cosplay at times of disaster, you get, well, unqualified extremists cosplaying at times of disaster.”

Levin said law enforcement’s subtle approval of the militias in Mariposa County raises questions about the public’s interaction with them.

“If it turns out there’s extremists within those ranks, that’s a critical juncture where people are at their most vulnerable,” he said. “Vulnerable people at vulnerable times require a qualified response, and they don’t need to be exposed to the possibility of extremism.”

The California State Militia 2nd Regiment’s website emphasizes preparing “for the unrest to come,” with pictures of men in fatigues and toting semi-automatic rifles. It calls assault-style rifles the “primary weapon” for members, who are “always required to remain proficient in the maintenance and safe operation of the rifle and to have a minimum of 400 rounds of ammunition and 150 rounds per sidearm available.”

Latner insisted that the men serving food in Mariposa were not armed. He claimed that the militia’s primary purpose is to defend the U.S. from foreign aggression or “if the whole world’s collapsing.” As with the armed vigilantes who showed up at the scene of the 2020 West Coast wildfires in Oregon, the California group was especially concerned about any looters trying to prey on the property of evacuees.

Another member, who identified himself as “Major Piper Brown,” told The Fresno Bee that the group was in Mariposa solely to help the community. “We’re not racist. We’re not militant. We’re not here to overthrow the government,” he said.

Latner said he and other militia members remain “on standby” to assist people suffering fallout from the Oak Fire. “We’re just getting a little bit of a break, getting our gear cleaned up, getting showered and getting ready to move out if we can find a place we can help.”

These sentiments were not necessarily welcomed by Mariposa County residents. “The last thing I’m going to do is take a free tri-tip sandwich from a right-wing extremist group,” one resident told the Mercury News, insisting on anonymity because she was concerned about provoking “armed and dangerous” people.

“We’re very angry that they would choose to come in at a time of real gravity to try to turn this into a political move,” said the woman.

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