As a standoff continues in Oregon between armed protesters and federal authorities, right-wing sympathizers around the country continue to watch how the situation plays out. Yesterday, protesters tore down a $100,000 fence to let their cows graze on federal land but said they would reveal an exit strategy this Friday.
As New Times reported last week, the Southern Poverty Law Center's annual count revealed 276 militia groups in America. Numerous such groups come and go in Florida.
Jesse Wilkes, a 30-year-old Gainesville-area chef who founded the Florida Constitutional Guard four years ago, says of the Oregon standoff: "We're absolutely watching that situation." In a phone interview, he asserted that "we do stand and support the Hammond family" — referring to the ranchers who were sentenced to prison for arson on federal land and whose case sparked the standoff —- but he and his Florida cohorts decided not to join the standoff because "we realize [the family does] not want a confrontation." But "we do support [the protesters'] right to be there and protest and do what they're doing."
His group began, Wilkes said via phone, "as a Facebook awareness-type deal." Online, he says, it has about 800 members across the state. At the local or county level, he said, group members organize community events, like providing blankets to veterans, but their main focus is supporting Second Amendment gun rights. "We definitely stress getting a conceal/carry weapons permit," he says. "Go to the range on a frequent basis. Be a safe gun holder."
His said his group does training in case there's an "actual need for a militia" in Florida but wouldn't specify whether that includes organized firearms training. "I can't give you that kind of information," he said. "I can't really discuss what we do behind closed doors. We have a lot of members who are ex-military and are familiar with things of that nature, and law enforcement officers as well."
The Florida Constitutional Guard, he said, "has joined with the 3 up movement" — also known as the "Three Percenters," whose stated mission is "to give our members the capabilities and resources necessary to execute Military Strategies to defend against foreign and domestic enemies." They are so named because supposedly, during the American Revolution, only 3 percent of colonists actually fought in
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Wilkes says that many people in his family have served in the military — "my brother is in the special forces" — and that he himself joined as a youth but was medically discharged before basic training. He was moved to start his group after seeing "the way things have changed over the course of my life. Everything's offensive to everyone now. People have no idea their rights are being limited or taken away." There has been, he said, "a general downward spiral and social and economic hardship in this country. You look around to hold someone accountable, and all fingers point back to the government."
He says there are "so, so many militia groups," and they're all "basically just a chain of command if the time ever comes and the people need us and we're called up to do what we need to do."
Asked what such scenario he can imagine happening, he said, "The most likely event is that our soil would be under attack by an outside source — or an inside source — and we are needed to protect homes and land. There would be a call to arms to do what we had to do to protect the country."
He said there is a range of opinions within the Florida Constitutional Guard. For instance, "I have no issue with Muslims owning firearms — if they feel they need to protect themselves in their homes, as long as it's done the legal way." But he noted others in his group may disagree with that stance. (Wilkes had no comment about a law that outlaws paramilitary training.)
Regardless, he said, "We are always looking for like-minded citizens who want to take an active role in the community and be part of something historic. There have been militias since the beginning of this country. Hopefully, we can get past the crazy conspiracy theories and do work for our communities."