By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
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By Weston Phippen
An Interstate 17 rest stop under cloudy February skies. Tourists get out of cars to stretch their legs and buy snacks from vending machines. Others let their dogs out to squat near a scenic overlook.
Nobody pays much attention to the ten militia members conferring at one of the circular stone picnic tables. And no one seems particularly alarmed that three of them carry handguns.
Mike Johnson tries to get the men to stay on the subject--trouble brewing between government agents and a couple of rogue Skull Valley prospectors--but they veer off into conspiracy theories and crack jokes, some at Johnson's expense.
"Mike's the head of our white supremacist group," one quips, and even Johnson laughs.
That's because Johnson is black.
He's also the official spokesman for the three Arizona militias represented at the table and offers his services to the many smaller, nameless cabals that operate quietly in the Phoenix area. He presents the militia way of thinking, without pay, on radio programs, in telephone interviews and in speeches to community groups.
And he has enough media savvy to know that the rest-stop militia is shooting itself in the foot. The conferees are throwing out statements about the Oklahoma City bombing, each topping the next with whoppers subject to no examination or skepticism. The federal government was really behind the bombing, of course ... a secretary in the building swears she was ordered to remove all important documents the day before the tragedy ... two CIA agents have signed a confession that the government was really behind it all ... a spy satellite just happened to be over the building taking images at precisely the time of detonation ... Timothy McVeigh was seen at the Waco standoff in a BATF uniform ...
Johnson pleads for a moment of sanity.
"All of the stuff that hasn't been proven--it's okay to spread it among ourselves, but once you present it as proven fact, you hurt the credibility of the group," he says.
Johnson has penetrating eyes and a thick mustache. Unlike the others, who prefer blue jeans and cowboy boots, he wears slacks and a sweater. Trained as an engineer, the 41-year-old sells computers and usually carries a laptop. Sitting in front of him is another part of his ensemble: the black Velcro holster which holds a loaded 9mm semiautomatic pistol.
He's glad to take out the Heckler and Koch P7 and let the curious feel its sleek, heavy coldness. He says he carries it at all times to protect himself. It's also as close as the militias get to a membership card.
And Johnson isn't the Valley's only nonwhite card-carrying member.
Despite the militia's reputation as a haven for white separatists and Christian triumphalism, a small number of people from ethnic and religious minorities has made a place for itself in the Valley's militia movement, proving that stockpiling assault weapons for the coming holy war isn't just a white thing.
In fact, there's a small rainbow coalition inside groups such as the Militia of Arizona, Sons and Daughters of Liberty, and Alliance in Militia--three of the larger militias in the state. The coalition is made up of people like Kristina Sanchez, a Mexican-American mother of five who types military training manuals for a tiny west-side militia. And Fred Vazquez, a transplanted New York Latino who's single-handedly taking on the state's concealed-weapon law. And there are Liz and Eric Andreasen, converted Jews who teach their children about the power of guns by shooting water balloons and pieces of fruit.
Johnson is probably the most visible example. He's managed to attain a measure of leadership in a movement that ordinarily holds leaders and authority in deep distrust. And he's used it to get the local militias to pay more attention to their public image.
Johnson's background is peppered with the same kind of police harassment and job discrimination that other African Americans cite. Maced by cops at a school picnic held in a public park. Stopped by police looking for crime suspects. Denied job advancement because of the color of his skin.
So why did he end up in such a different place, politically, from the majority of black Americans? Johnson says it's his passion for history, which has taught him to loathe affirmative action.
"Blacks tend to be very liberal, very Democratic, and they're willing to give up their rights for security," he says. "The mindset of all their problems is that government is the solution, when government is the problem. Most minorities are brought up to think that the government can hand them a better way of life. But it's the government that's keeping them down."
Reverend Oscar Tillman, Arizona president of the NAACP, says he's been keeping an eye on the situation in Detroit, where a black urban militia formed recently. He says the mix--blacks and antigovernment groups--really isn't a surprising one. "The strife between minorities and cops has pushed people to things like the militias," he says.
On the other hand, Tillman points to the group of gun activists, some militia members, that showed up in Encanto Park last year wearing sidearms to publicize its right to carry weapons in public parks. "What is the difference between such a militia and gangs?" Tillman asks.