Guy Burwell
Six years ago, two neo-Nazi skinheads beat an Ethopian man to death with a baseball bat, in southeast Portland. The violent attack was marked as an inevitable flare-up by the many militia and hate groups around Oregon that had begun to gather strength in the previous few years. In an effort to put a lid on further growth and outbreaks, law-makers scrambled to piece together so-called "hate crime" legislation.

Since then, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), these efforts have been largely successful, as the prevalence of militia groups and neo-Nazi gangs has dwindled. Scared by an FBI crackdown and a quiver full of civil lawsuits that have drained their bank accounts, many organizations have disbanded. (Centered in Alabama, SPLC is positioned as the predominate organization for combating white supremacist and militia groups; Last year SPLC successfully sued the KKK in Idaho for harassing a woman and bankrupted that chapter of the white supremacist group.)

But local watchdog groups say this rose-tinted optimism may be misleading. The number and strength of militia groups in the Northwest have not waned, they claim, but have simply become more clandestine. What's more, the relative quiet of neo-Nazis, rabid survivalist groups, and other white supremacists may just be the calm before a storm.

"They've gone underground," says Gary Perlstein, a professor at Portland State University who specializes in terrorism. "Just because they are not protesting outwardly and not writing letters to newspapers doesn't mean that they're gone."

"If the wrong thing happens," cautions Perlstein, "we could have another Oklahoma City." He goes on to point out that two power plants were sabotaged in Gresham just before New Year's Eve 2000.

With varying missions and specific dislikes, it is difficult to lump all the organizations into one category of "militia groups." Mostly, though, they gather around the idea of a second American revolution--one that, like the American Revolution in 1776, will overthrow what they see as an oppressive government. Their enemies are the federal government, which purportedly is taking away wide-ranging freedoms, and minorities who are allegedly benefiting from the losses of the groups. Recent legislation prohibiting everything from guns to smoking has only intensified the perception that extremeists' freedoms are being trampled on, says Perlstein, and has fanned the flames.

"They look for simple solutions to problems," says Marcy Westerling with the Rural Organizing Project (ROP) (a small program that reaches out to disenfranchised residents in the Oregon's rural areas). "The only people offering solutions are the militia groups," she adds.

"They operate through scapegoating--queers, people who don't speak English, teachers." Started in 1992, the organization united to canvas against the Oregon Citizen Alliance's Ballot Measure 9, that excluded gays from civil rights provisions. ROP has since branched out to work against all organizations that thrive on racism and bigotry.

Westerling explains that the '90s were a particularly uneasy time because the economy in rural Oregon was departing from its age-old base of logging and fishing. Now, it is not clear what will replace this traditional economy; such uncertainty leaves many rural residents feeling vulnerable and in need of explanations.

Currently, there are at least six known active groups in Oregon, from the Constitution Party in Scappoose to the Christian Patriot Association in Boring. The most dangerous development over the past several years, Westerling points out, is that many of these groups have become more mainstream, organizing as political parties and religious organizations instead of meeting in military compounds. Ever since Timothy McVeigh blew up the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City and killed 168 people, many radical militants have shied away from the more aggressive tactics, she explains.

"It's just as present but less on people's radars," Westerling explains. "But," she laments, "it was much nicer when it was a bad group of people that we could expose."