Radicals with badges: Mark Potok explains why renegade sheriffs are a growing threat in the U.S.

Some sheriffs are buying into the notion that they have more constitutional authority than the federal government

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published August 9, 2016 9:56AM (EDT)

Ammon Bundy arrives for a news conference at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Ore., Jan. 6, 2016.   (AP/Rick Bowmer)
Ammon Bundy arrives for a news conference at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Ore., Jan. 6, 2016. (AP/Rick Bowmer)

Right-wing radicals who don't fully accept the authority of the federal government have a new ally. A small but growing group of law enforcement officials, especially sheriffs, is being won over by radical right-wing propaganda that asserts that local law enforcement has more authority than the federal government to decide what laws are and aren't constitutional.

I spoke with Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center about this movement and about his and Ryan Lenz's research into these self-declared "constitutional" sheriffs.

Let’s start with the basics. What is the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association?

The CSPOA is an organization that was formed in 2011 by Richard Mack. Mack is a former Arizona sheriff who was once part of a lawsuit challenging the Brady Bill that was passed under the Clinton administration, and he was actually somewhat successful. He got the courts to agree to not enforce some of the provisions of that bill, and as a result he became a very big hero, a kind of iconic figure, to the militia movement.

The CSPOA is a group that claims “constitutional sheriffs” are sheriffs who obey only the constitution. Basically what the CSPOA pushes is the idea that sheriffs can decide entirely on their own whether or not a law is constitutional and whether or not they should enforce it. The CSPOA has also claimed, or suggested, that sheriffs are the highest law enforcement authority in every county and that that means that should they so desire, they can turn back federal agents — FBI agents, ATF agents, and so on — who are coming to conduct law enforcement business in their counties.

While this is a very broad thing, it seems to me a lot of their obsession is with gun control laws.

Well I think that’s true. I think the reason that Mack and CSPOA have gotten some traction among the sheriffs of the country is precisely that they focus very heavily on gun control and the idea that any kind of gun control, as Mack has been quoted saying, is unconstitutional. That’s clearly false, just as it is false that local sheriffs can order federal agents out of their counties, but this is an idea that animates a lot of people, especially in the western states. So the shocking thing is that Richard Mack and the CSPOA have actually gotten fairly substantial support from a number of sheriffs out there for his really very, very radical ideas.

How many sheriffs out there have really gotten onboard with this notion that they are the highest authority in the land and that they get to decide, not lawyers and judges, what the Constitution says?

We did a fairly extensive survey. We tried to speak to some 500 sheriffs who Mack, in the past, had essentially complimented to find out did they really agree with these really incredibly radical ideas — that the sheriffs could defy the law of the land and so on. We didn’t get an awful lot of people willing to talk to us, but between the sheriffs we spoke to, 50 or 60 of them, and the many sheriffs who have been quoted along the same lines in the mass media, I would say, without question, we’re looking probably at several hundred sheriffs.

Now, there’s quite a range of beliefs in those sheriffs. Some of them are genuinely radical. We actually spoke to several sheriffs who said if it came to it, if they federal government came in and tried to impose certain kinds of gun control or seize guns from certain kinds of people, that they would expect to either die or end up in federal prison. A lot of them who are quite a bit more moderate than that said, look, I’m a big fan of the Second Amendment and certainly I would go to the courts and try and see if this was really constitutional if some kind of new gun control passed, but they did not suggest that they would face the federal government down at gunpoint.

It’s interesting to me because this is really an outgrowth of the “patriot movement,” which is this notion that individual citizens can just sort of decide for themselves that they’re the arbiter of the law. How is this different from the patriot movement?

First of all, I would say that the ideological roots of these ideas is not just the militia movement or the patriot movement. Before that was the Posse Comitatus, which was active in the late ‘70s and 1980s. This was an incredibly violent, very racist, and really drastically anti-Semitic group that was tied to all kinds of violence. They originated the idea of county supremacy, that a local sheriff was the highest law enforcement in the land, and they also went on to say that if any law enforcement or other official defied the constitution they should be dragged to the center of town and hung from a lamppost.

The patriot movement is kind of an extension of that in a sense, although without the explicit anti-Semitism and racism. So I do think that it’s true, that the CSPOA is a kind of outgrowth of the patriot movement, especially in that it views the federal government with a little more than suspicion. It essentially sees the federal government as being involved in conspiracies against the liberties of the American people, principally around gun control but around all kinds of regulation.

I think the movement is particularly dangerous because this group, CSPOA, is one which gathers together people who have the power of life and death over the rest of us. As a society, we arm sheriffs and their deputies in order to protect us from crime and so on. And so these people, at various moments, may very well be in a position to decide whether we live or die. I think that’s as it has to be, but if those very same people believe that they are able to defy the federal government or laws they don’t like that are coming from Washington, D.C., who’s to say where it will go?

You mentioned that the roots of this movement are very racist. Do you think race continues to play a role in the existence of these kinds of sovereign citizen and sovereign law enforcement movements?

No, I don’t think that race or anti-Semitism really play any part in this anymore. Certainly I would not accuse Richard Mack of being an anti-Semite or a racist. I think he does have extremely radical ideas, but they are built around the idea that the federal government is about to steal away all of our freedoms and so on. So the scary thing about Richard Mack and CSPOA is not that they’re out there, like some of the groups we cover at the Southern Poverty Law Center, trying to start a race war or whatever it may be, but the idea of creating real conflicts, sometimes armed conflicts, among the citizens of this country.

It’s worth remembering that Richard Mack and the CSPOA very much backed the family of Cliven Bundy and the hundreds of militiamen who supported him in defying the federal government in April of 2014. That whole standoff that occurred on Bundy’s ranch in Nevada very nearly came to a serious bloodshed. There were a very large number of the followers of Bundy who actually got to the point of pointing semi-automatic weapons at the heads of law enforcement officials. So it’s a dangerous game.

This organization really kind of grew up as a reaction to Barack Obama. Why is that?

The organization doesn’t say explicitly that they’re responding to Obama, although they certainly see Obama as a person who is about to impose drastic gun control at any moment. It’s also true that they were formed just in the few months after Obama was first inaugurated in January of 2009, as were many, many other radical groups in this country.

Although they don’t talk about this explicitly, my own feeling is that many of these sheriffs from western states, sympathizers of Richard Mack, see Obama as somehow un-American, somehow very different from the rest of us. As some people have said, a Kenyan, a Muslim, a person who has been weaned on anti-colonial ideology and so forth. I should be clear in saying that these are not things that the CSPOA or Richard Mack say explicitly. I just think that these are the kinds of feelings that run pretty strongly through the constitutional sheriffs movement and, in a larger sense, through the entire patriot or militia movement.

What are the effects on the people living within the jurisdiction of a sheriff who buys into this ideology?

I think a very good example occurred in Burns, Oregon, in the second Bundy standoff at the so-called Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. What occurred there was a number of people occupied this wildlife refuge and demanded that the government release two particular ranchers who were being sent to prison for arson on public lands. There was a sheriff in an adjoining country by the name of Glenn Palmer who was extremely sympathetic to the occupiers of the Malheur refuge. He described them as patriots; he met with them on several occasions; he personally, according to witnesses, asked them to autograph his personal copy of the Constitution; he suggested that the two men who were being sent to prison should be released; and he also seemed to sympathize with the idea promoted by the occupiers that the federal government should return all publicly held lands to the local states or counties.

The situation became so extreme that when law enforcement finally decided to move against these occupiers — and something like 27 of them now face very serious federal conspiracy charges — they decided to set up a road block, initially in Sheriff Glenn Palmer’s county. Realizing, though, that none of the local law enforcement officials out there trusted Palmer, they in fact moved it to another county and then decided not to tell Glenn Palmer about it at all. So the punchline really is that Glenn Palmer was named by Richard Mack and the CSPOA as their first constitutional sheriff of the year. Palmer was a guy who believed all of these claims made by Richard Mack, and what it did ultimately was to make Palmer, at least in the eyes of fellow law enforcement officials, utterly unreliable.

Should we worry about this movement getting bigger?

Yes. I think the prospect of this movement getting bigger is quite serious. In talking to the many sheriffs that we did, basically what they reported to us was that they were being inundated by propaganda from the CSPOA and a related group, the Oathkeepers. So there is a very serious effort to spread this movement, which is in effect a kind of western rebellion against the central authority of the federal government in Washington. We’ve seen iterations of this before in the wise use movement and the Sagebrush Rebellion and so on, but even those movements, which were fairly radical, were simply trying to see more federal lands returned to local officials’ control. They weren’t questioning the entire foundation of American law in the same way as CSPOA.

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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