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Militia network spurred by COVID has spread to 16 states, report says

Militia network spurred by COVID has spread to 16 states, report says

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Ammon Bundy file

Ammon Bundy, center, speaks with a reporter at a news conference at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Friday, Jan. 8, 2016, near Burns, Oregon. Bundy was the leader of an armed group occupying the national wildlife refuge to protest federal land management policies.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The leader of an armed standoff with federal authorities at an Oregon wildlife refuge and his allies have exploited COVID-19 fears to build a dangerous network of militia members and other far-right factions, according to a new report by two groups that track extremism.

Ammon Bundy, who led the 41-day occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016, began building the People's Rights network in March, says the report by the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights and the Montana Human Rights Network. Since then, the report says, the network has rapidly grown to more than 20,000 members across the country.

Bundy rose to prominence in the so-called "patriot" movement after leading an armed standoff in 2014 at his father's ranch in Nevada. He and his father, Cliven Bundy, faced federal charges following the confrontation over land grazing fees. The case was dismissed in 2018.

Ammon Bundy did not return a call for comment Wednesday. His father told The Star that "he's hard to get ahold of a lot of times."

"I'm not really part of that group," Cliven Bundy said. "I try to keep up with what's going on a little bit."

The network, which the report refers to as "Ammon's Army," includes militia members, anti-maskers, conspiracy theorists, preppers and anti-vaxxers. Its rapid growth has been boosted by the joining of Bundy's far-right paramilitary supporters cultivated from armed standoffs over the years with a large base of new activists radicalized through protests over COVID-19 health directives, the report says.

Bundy has put together a team of 153 "assistants" in 16 states, it says.

"Since the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, we've documented the division and violence sown by Ammon Bundy and his far-right followers in the Northwest," said Devin Burghart, president and executive director of IREHR. "To see Ammon's Army continue to grow and gain a foothold in Missouri is cause for deep concern, for both democracy and public health."

Despite all the talk of rights and freedom, the report says, "a culture of violence and fear lies at the center of the People's Rights message."

"As Bundy told the crowd at the third meeting of the group, if local, state, or federal officials attempt to enforce laws that the group doesn't like, People's Rights is prepared to adopt a violent posture. ... Already there have been significant clashes and growing rage. In the context of the pandemic, it puts the lives of community members and public servants at risk, straining democratic institutions and damaging civil society."

The other states in the network, the report says, are Arkansas, California, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Kentucky, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah and Washington. Many of the "assistants," it says, have been involved in extensive far-right activism. And the majority of those in its local leadership positions are women, which the report says is a first for modern far-right networks.

Missouri is divided into 10 areas, according to the report, and the People's Rights statewide leader is Sue Venable. In August, it says, she and a Missouri Militia member spoke at a Constitution Party rally in Jamesport.

While some describe the People's Rights network as "anti-government," the report says, its leaders actually want governmental power to be used to protect the "righteous" against "wicked" liberals. Several People's Rights leaders are running for elected office around the country, it says, including Sue Venable's husband, Paul, who is the Constitution Party candidate for Missouri secretary of state.

The Venables could not be reached for comment.

People's Rights leaders also have proposed armed enclaves in which "righteous" neighbors stand against the "wicked," the report says.

Bundy's violence-tinged rhetoric — such as telling followers that they would "be like a den of rattlesnakes" if their rights are threatened — has attracted many militia members, Three Percenters, Oath Keepers and other paramilitary groups, according to the report. People's Rights leaders have been members in the Southwest Missouri Militia, Montana Militia, Washington State Militia, III% United Patriots and Southern California Patriots, among others, it says.

The People's Rights network has many similarities to the paramilitary movements of the past, such as the Posse Comitatus — which rose to power during the farm crisis in the 1970s and 1980s — the report says.

Like those in the Posse Comitatus movement, some People's Rights groups have started sending bogus documents to lawmakers that they claim carry legal weight, it says. A "Petition to Cease and Desist and Demand to Restore the Republic" was recently sent to Idaho legislators calling for an end to the state's COVID-19 restrictions.

And in Montana, a People's Rights leader filed a grievance in Montana District Court against Gov. Steve Bullock, claiming he had no authority to issue a stay-at-home directive. The leader also threatened to have the militia "arrest" public officials who enforced stay-at-home orders and offered a $100 bounty for the mayor of Kalispell, Montana's, address, which he said he needed in order to make a citizen's arrest.

Another similarity between the People's Rights network and the Posse Comitatus and other militias, the report says, is the abundance of conspiracy theories it perpetuates — though it hasn't yet come up with its own.

"Rather, the network rests upon a melange of conspiracy theories brought in by the leadership from various corners of the far-right," the report says. "Conspiracy theories from QAnon, the John Birch Society, Three Percenters and militia-types, Christian nationalists, and hardcore anti-Semites have circulated throughout the People's Rights network."

The name "People's Rights," the report says, "is a misnomer of epic proportions."

"Don't be fooled. Whatever they choose to call it, it is Ammon's Army, and it marches to a far-right drumbeat of narcissistic rage and insurrection."

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