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April 18, 2009

Mike Tharp: Normal folks who are worried

One of the men involved in the Oklahoma City bombing took a handgun off the metal desk at the so-called "embassy" of the secessionist Republic of Texas at Fort Davis. He pointed it toward me. "You know what this is?"

A .45-caliber, I said. He put it back on the desk.

The Exalted Cyclops of the Vidor, Texas, Ku Klux Klan told me to pop the trunk on my rental car. He then laid a sawed-off shotgun inside.

"Case we need it," he drawled.

Later that night, after a Klan barbecue, we sat drinking Shiner beer in a waterfront bar in Port Arthur where Janis Joplin got one of her many starts.

"Y'know, Buck (my nickname), I could kill you and nobody know'd you ever come in here," he said. He didn't, and we went black-powder squirrel hunting the next morning before his mama fixed us breakfast.

One of the Montana Freemen met me on his porch, wearing a pistol and carrying a rifle. Two weeks before, he and his fellow Freemen had hijacked a national TV crew and stolen all their gear. Carrying two six-packs of beer and two of soda, I told him who I was and what I wanted. Wound up staying for lunch.

Seven months later, six FBI Hostage Rescue Team SUVs, pulled into a chevron formation, stopped me on a dirt road outside Jordan, Mont., where I'd just made an unauthorized visit to the Freemen during their 81-day standoff.

Aiming their M16s over the open doors of their rigs, the feebies ordered me out of the car, had me pull my coat up, take off my cowboy hat, turn around, and then one frisked me while another checked my trunk. I later swapped information with the team leader.

A Forest Service policeman palmed his holstered weapon and told me I was under arrest for not moving fast enough to get back behind yellow police tape. They were investigating ecoterrorists in rural Oregon. I told him he knew what I was doing. He let me go.

One of the founders of the Militia of Montana showed me their weapons cache in the kitchen of his home in Noxon, near the Idaho border. Didn't leave a lot of room for canned goods.

These all happened during the eight years I covered what my news magazine editors called "the fear and loathing beat" -- the antigovernment movement in the western U.S. in the 1990s which led to such tragedies as Ruby Ridge, Waco and the Oklahoma City bombing.

These and other episodes helped me learn about both the movement and the law enforcement response to it -- from covering the 1993 Randy Weaver trial (stemming from the fatal confrontation between his family and the feds on an isolated Idaho ridge) to the June 2001 execution of Timothy McVeigh for the Oklahoma City bombing.

(The guy who waved the .45 at me was neither McVeigh nor the only other person convicted in the bombing, Terry Nichols. He was one of three or four other men who, after years of reporting in several states, I concluded were also involved but never charged.)

The bombing case showed how government overreach and tunnel vision warped the Constitution. With guidance from three well-informed sources, in early May 2001 I faxed a two-page questionnaire to the central FBI public information office.

It listed a dozen or so questions linked to FBI 302s -- raw field interrogation reports I had copies of. After each question I asked whether the results of any of those interviews or leads had been turned over to the McVeigh defense team.

I never got a formal response.

But McVeigh's scheduled May 16 execution was stayed when the FBI admitted it had withheld 4,449 pages of documents from McVeigh's defense team.

McVeigh attorney Richard Burr said his team was arguing to the judge "that a fraud upon the court has been committed by the federal government." In any event, McVeigh was executed June 11.

What does that tell you about Fidelity, Bravery, Integrity -- the other acronym for FBI?

Hi, I'm from the federal government, and I'm here to help you.

Which brings us to this week's Tax Day Tea Parties, including the one at UC Merced.

It was one of thousands staged around America, with an estimated national turnout of at least 100,000, though advocates say it was closer to 200,000.

If you went to one, or if you read reporter Danielle Gaines' story or Lisa James' photos or Brandon Bowers' videos in the Sun-Star and on our Web site, you know the tea parties protested the Obama administration's bailout, tax, gun control and industrial takeover policies.

In the grab bag of any mass protest, other issues surfaced, such as Obama's citizenship and thus his right to be president.

At UC Merced at least one sign called for his impeachment, and construction worker Mike Carter urged the crowd to vote out Dennis Cardoza because he said the congressman had failed to get housing bailout money for Merced County.

Much more ominously, the Department of Homeland Security issued a report last week that seemed to tie the tea party protests to a possible reprise of the '90s antigovernment movement.

Inelegantly titled "Rightwing (sic) Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling a Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment," the nine-page document blares some dire threats.

While admitting that, so far, such threats have been "largely rhetorical and have not indicated plans to carry out violent acts," it stresses that the "possible passage of new restrictions on firearms and the return of military veterans into their communities could lead to the potential emergence of terrorist groups or lone wolf extremists capable of carrying out violent attacks."


Tell that to the Ballico farming couple at the UC Merced rally. They were there to protest "the whole administration, every politician, including Republicans, but Democrats are the worst -- they keep trying to increase your taxes and take your rights away."

Tell that to Maria Moore, wearing a jacket with "Cowgirl" stitched in it: "I don't agree with what Obama is doing, raising all those taxes. He's the Carter administration 10 times over."

She registered for the Green Party at 18, then became an Independent.

Tell that to Melissa Mercando, born in what was then called Canton, China: "We want to do something before America becomes bankrupt. For me, it's communist!"

Tell that to her friend Nancy Weidermiller: "We feel like we're just giving money away to everybody -- to banks, insurance companies. It's putting us in deep debt. We're going down these paths. It's scary."

Tell that to Brett Theodozio, Atwater High School principal whose former student (and Sun-Star columnist) Michael Fincher helped organize the rally. He blames "both parties and government in general. The system's broke. It's a tax-and-spend mentality. We're pretty normal folks who are worried."

Tell that to Kathy Thomas, dressed in a Revolutionary War-style smock and bonnet, a self-described "domestic engineer -- housewife" from Merced: "I'm protesting all the government taxes, regardless of political affiliation. Should I be required to pay for others' bailouts? Wall Street should be allowed to fail."

Tell that to Joe Barrett, a "retired bum" from Mariposa who spent nearly a decade in the Marines ("If I told you what I did, I'd have to kill you") before becoming a building inspector in Orange County: "Taxation without proper representation -- the same thing that pissed 'em off when they dumped the tea. Our country has been given away. Before we give the rest of it away, we need to stand up and fight."

These people are extremists? The tea parties are fueling "radicalization and recruitment?"

After eight years of reporting in a dozen states on the antigovernment movement a decade ago, I say no.

These folks are Americans. Mostly white, to be sure. Mostly older -- though the crowd swelled with younger folks at lunchtime when working people could walk up the hill to the rally. Mostly well-meaning.

But all of 'em, in Joe Barrett's words, "pissed off" at what they see happening to the country where they grew up, raised kids, served in the military, worked hard -- a nation they are now watching slide away beneath them.

My experience suggests that there'll be a few wingnuts trying to take advantage of this justified anger at where America seems headed -- wingnuts trying to pull their own demented triggers.

For all its misapplied reasoning, the Homeland Security report is probably right that we'll see more "lone wolf" violence. Especially because of our first multiracial president.

But don't let that real and daunting prospect distract you from another reality: millions of Americans believe we're headed in the wrong direction, including a lot of good, solid Mercedians.

It's also true that Obama has been in office only four months. Not even one full almond-growing season. His dispassionate analysis of problems during his campaign, grown out of his experience, and frustration, as a community organizer, may prevail.

We may see the pragmatic, nondivisive candidate morph into a president who can address the problems raised by the people at the UC Merced tea party with realistic, encompassing solutions.

His jury should still be out. Give the man a chance.

But the Tea Party people's verdict is already in. America is in deep kimchee, and nobody in Washington or Sacramento or on the county supes or city government or school boards seems to give a damn.

Patience. I counsel patience to the Tea Party people. Apply St. Augustine's mantra: "Lord, make me chaste -- but not yet."

For the government, time and patience are quickly sifting into the bottom of the hourglass.

I've witnessed before what happens when despair and depression -- economic and emotional -- turn ordinary peace-loving Americans into bombers, bank robbers and cop killers.

The Tea Party people are a long way from that point. Few, if any, will ever get there. Meantime, the feds and local laws can't overreact, as they did at Ruby Ridge and Waco. They can't equate First Amendment rights with lawlessness. Otherwise, Jimmy Carter's "malaise" (a word he never uttered in that speech, by the way) could easily blossom into fear.

And as history clearly has shown us the last eight years, fear is no way to run any country, state, county or city.

Roosevelt, the last president to lead us out of a depression, was right: "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself!"

Be brave, Mercedians. Be brave, Americans. We've always done it before. Now it's worse than anytime since the Great Depression and World War II.

Together we can do it again.

But only together.

Executive editor Mike Tharp can be reached at (209) 385-2456 or

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