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A look at militia groups in Michigan

Jan 7, 2016

Southwest Michigan Volunteer Militia members training in 2010.
Credit Pete Tombers

A self-styled armed militia continues to occupy a wildlife refuge building in Oregon. The FBI says it is hoping for a peaceful end to the occupation.

The story out of Oregon got us wondering about Michigan’s history of militias, and whether what’s happened in the Beaver State could happen here as well.

Amy Cooter is a faculty member in Vanderbilt University’s Sociology department. She did field work with the Michigan militia as part of her dissertation research.

Cooter tells us it’s “certainly possible” that Michigan could see some sort of militia activity, but it’s unlikely that it would play out the way it has in Oregon.

“There’s a little bit more faith in the state government in Michigan than what we’re seeing happening right now in Oregon,” she says, “and … that anti-federalist element here is very important for understanding what’s going on.”

What makes a militia?

Cooter says there’s a lot of debate over how to define a militia, but to her mind, a militia is, “a group of people who are armed, who practice with firearms regularly and who meet not just for training purposes, but also to discuss political and other ongoing events.”

She tells us there are similar groups all over the country who don’t incorporate any sort of training into their operations, adding that many members of the aforementioned group in Oregon do not appear to have received any such training. “So it’s debatable whether the militia label is really the best fit for them, but we’ll go with that for now,” Cooter says.

"There's a little bit more faith in the state government in Michigan than what we're seeing happening right now in Oregon."

According to Cooter, groups who fall under the general “militia” umbrella can be broken into two categories: Millenarians and Constitutionalists.

Constitutionalist groups, she explains, are typically made up of people who believe that Americans should follow the Constitution to the letter of the law. She tells us most militia groups fall under this category.

“The Millenarian groups tend to take it a step further,” Cooter says. “[They] think that things are kind of more urgent, more pressing, that they need to enact something, whether it’s violence in some cases, whether it’s a protest, to make the government pay attention to their needs.” She tells us these are usually the groups that show up in the news.

According to Cooter, both types of groups exist in Michigan, but the majority are of the Constitutionalist variety.

Militia in Michigan

“There have been active militias in all 50 states for a long time, but Michigan in particular has a long history of its own,” Cooter says. “It really first started around 1994 in the wake of several different events including Waco, Ruby Ridge and the Brady Bill.”

She tells us different groups appeared around the state and eventually came together over common concerns, eventually forming the group we know now as the Michigan Militia.

Michigan Radio's Rina Miller spoke with members of the Southwest Michigan Volunteer Militia in 2010:

Shortly after the Oklahoma City bombing in April of 1995, news spread that bomber Timothy McVeigh had attended a number of militia meetings in Michigan prior to attacking the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.

Michigan militia members who were around at the time told Cooter that the group was skeptical of McVeigh and at one point asked him to leave one of the meetings.

But regardless of how involved McVeigh was in Michigan, Cooter thinks his presence shaped the Michigan Militia in ways that set it apart from militias in other states.

"They really think about themselves as trying to be real Americans, as trying to understand the Constitution and what good citizens are supposed to do."

“Because of all the fallout that happened from McVeigh from the Oklahoma bombing, I think militia members in Michigan today are much more careful about getting involved in certain events, making sure they really understand who the players are, what their motivations are, what the consequences might be before they get involved in some big picture actions,” she says.

Cooter tells us that militia membership tends to be cyclical, fluctuating in response to state- and federal-level political occurrences. For example, she says that even without the recent militia activity in Oklahoma, militia membership would be expected to rise in response to President Obama’s announcements about gun control.

Alternatively, in times of Republican leadership and when political focus shifts away from gun control and other issues that are of concern to militia groups, she tells us membership tends to decline.

Michigan’s militia members today view themselves “almost as supercitizens,” Cooter says.

“They really think about themselves as trying to be real Americans, as trying to understand the Constitution and what good citizens are supposed to do to take care of themselves, their family, and their country,” she tells us. “They really think that it’s their job to watch out for government infringement even if some of their neighbors are being complacent about it.”

Cooter tells us it’s important to understand that militia groups are varied in their practices and beliefs, “just like most other kind of organizations that people join when they have a common interest.” She also warns us against letting the vocal minority set the tone for how we see militia around the country.

“A lot of the ones that end up on the news who are in trouble, who are doing something that we may not agree with, are not necessarily representative of the brunt of militia members,” she says.

“We may have to think about our terminology and keep that in mind before we get necessarily afraid of what they’re up to or maybe what is happening in our own community.”

– Ryan Grimes, Stateside