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.
Phoenix Suns vs. Portland Trail Blazers
TicketsWed., Nov. 2, 7:00pm
Arizona Coyotes vs. Nashville Predators
TicketsThu., Nov. 3, 7:00pm
Arizona State University Sun Devils Hockey vs. University of Michigan
TicketsFri., Nov. 4, 7:05pm
2016 Charles Schwab Cup Championship
TicketsWed., Nov. 9, 9:00am
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.
Mike Johnson's first step toward the militia movement came in 1988, when he joined the Arizona Constitutional Rights Committee, a civil rights organization that puts heavy emphasis on the second and fourth amendments. Today, he's the committee's chairman, organizing pro-gun activities such as the annual Media and Politician Shoot, during which journalists and elected officials are invited to pop off a few rounds at a range.
Members of the Sons and Daughters of Liberty first called Johnson asking him to join their militia two years ago; he turned them down, saying their image problems were too great. But after last October's Amtrak derailment, when the "Sons of Gestapo" note found at the wreck turned law enforcement attention on Arizona's militias again, they called Johnson, and this time he agreed to help them out.
He cut them a deal: He'd work as their spokesman as long as he could say he wasn't a member. It gives him more objectivity, he claims. His first edict: no dressing in camouflage at public events or when making public announcements. That's also why he frowned on the idea of posing for a photograph with his firearm. And he didn't want New Times to know where he lived or worked. Other militia members interviewed for this story were similarly sensitive.
Johnson estimates that 2,000 Arizonans participate in militias, and that 10 percent are black, Latino or others who don't fit the WASP stereotype. But these numbers are difficult to verify.
Most local militias are loosely organized, consist of only a handful of people and labor in obscurity. Since enthusiasts often belong to several different groups, getting an accurate picture of how many Arizonans--white, black or Latino--participate in such groups is guesswork.
Further complicating this task is the commingling that goes on between the militias and other groups in the so-called "patriot movement" which include ardent constitutionalists, tax resisters, segments of the religious right, the sovereignty movement and right-to-trial organizations.
What sets the militia apart, however, is its talk of impending doom. And the large-caliber weapons its members tend to collect.
Johnson says he doesn't mind the term "right wing" to describe his politics. If there are relatively few blacks who feel the same way, that doesn't bother him, either. It's something he's grown accustomed to. "Clinton is left-wing. That's bad," he says in a rare moment of oversimplification.
When his views create tensions with other blacks as well as whites, Johnson's prepared. On his laptop, he keeps statistics and quotations to back up what he says, everything from the crime rate in Japan to quotes from Patrick Henry. But his favorite refrain to those incredulous about his militia involvement is one repeated like a mantra by his fellow patriots:
"You're in the militia, did you know that? Just by being male and of age. You are in the unorganized militia."
A dimly lighted living room somewhere on the west side. Kristina Sanchez's five children are glued to a gigantic television as they take a break from their home-schooling.
Sanchez keeps an eye on them while she talks about working for her husband's militia. On the big screen, Gilligan is doing a Japanese impersonation so racist it would make Al D'Amato blush.
Sanchez seems too young to have five children. She can pass for younger than her 28 years, and she can also pass for Italian. At least that's what people think when they see her black hair and dark eyes, Sanchez says. Actually, she's Mexican American, the daughter of a family that's been in Phoenix since territorial days.
A high school dropout who returned for her GED, Sanchez now devotes herself to teaching her children and studying the Arizona Legislature. She keeps fellow militia sympathizers up on the latest bills in her monthly broadsheet, American Phoenix, which also includes her analyses of the U.S.Constitution and editorials about conservative political history.
Despite her literary bent, the only reading material in the room is a pile of military manuals and martial-arts magazines. But Sanchez insists that the kids don't get any militia training and aren't involved in the militias at all. And it's true. The oldest child doesn't know what to say when she's asked about her mother's work for Sanchez's husband's militia, the First Mounted Rangers.
The rangers (which aren't really mounted, at least not yet) comprise a tiny unit, or "cell," of only six members, all men. They're military veterans for the most part; women need not apply. That's why Sanchez and other wives of rangers such as Dianne Golubski take part in the "women's auxiliary," providing clerical help and leaving the sharpshooting to their husbands.
The men train in CPR, land navigation, desert survival and weapons proficiency. "It's a lot of Boy Scout stuff, really," Golubski says, as though there were a merit badge for preparing for the Apocalypse.
Sanchez admits that her political transformation has been a source of tension in her family, with her mother particularly. "By all rights, I should be a liberal's liberal," she says.
It began with her conversion to Calvinism ten years ago, after she had met her husband, who had come from a religious background and was studying to be a missionary at the time. Her Roman Catholic mother wasn't thrilled. She was even less happy to hear that Sanchez had begun participating in the militia movement.
But Sanchez says she doesn't understand why Latinos, including her mother, seem to have such an aversion to the movement.
Pete Garcia, president of Chicanos por la Causa, believes that's obvious. "Their actions, their history tell us that they're a racist group. At least that's what our experience is," he says. "If there are [Mexican Americans in militias], it's just a fringe few. And they're probably disenfranchised and disconnected."
Recently, Sanchez told a good friend, also Mexican American, about the First Mounted Rangers, and her friend was shocked. How could she have anything to do with such a neo-Nazi group? Sanchez says she felt frustrated and confused.
"Why do people think racism when they hear 'militia'?" she asks. "Why don't they think of George Washington instead?"
Militia members are generally bewildered to find that others don't share their fixation with the Founding Fathers. Sanchez pores over the constitutional debates searching for the original intent of its bewigged framers much like a Calvinist would look for divine inspiration in the Bible.
The result: a constitutionalist scholarship redolent of fire and brimstone.
"The Constitution without the Second Amendment has no teeth," Sanchez says, echoing a common militia belief: that the government only respects the rights of its citizens when the populace can arm itself with high-powered rifles and armor-piercing bullets.
On the other hand, Sanchez admits, the militia obsession with the Second Amendment gets old. She tries to prod the readers of her newsletter to think about other issues as well. A typical title: "We were blessed by the Sixth Amendment!"
Generally, she keeps the pages free of theconspiracy stuff that plagued Mike Johnson's meeting. But Sanchez says she can't help sympathizing with the worriers who smell a U.N. plot to bring down the red, white and blue. "The world is changing so that the United States is sovereign no longer," she says. And only a vigilant patriot movement seems willing to keep it from happening.
Meanwhile, the First Mounted Rangers are preparing for bigger and better things. They've offered their services to Governor J.Fife Symington III if he ever decides to seize control of the Grand Canyon. The men can fall out just as soon as the governor gives them the word.
"We'd be ready," Sanchez says.
An august chamber at the Legislature. Fred Vazquez stands at a podium preparing to speak to the State's Rights and Mandates Committee, a body of recent vintage created by federalist legislators fed up with unfunded Beltway mandates.
Vazquez is short, olive-skinned and has striking green eyes. He often wears a cowboy hat on his shaved head, boots on his feet, and he looks like the descendant of a Mexican vaquero. But he's not. The 36-year-old is a transplanted New Yorker of Spanish, Cuban and Bermudan ancestry.
He's here to testify in favor of a bill that would eliminate the need for a permit and 16 hours of training to carry a concealed weapon. His reasoning: that the law requiring the concealed-weapon permit violates the intent of the Arizona Constitution.
As a militia member and Libertarian party regular, Vazquez refuses to get a concealed-weapon permit. Doing so, he says, would be like applying for a permit to breathe.
Besides, he tells the committee, "Nobody trains the criminals how to shoot their weapons safely." Vazquez, an out-of-work legal assistant, has driven a cab to make ends meet, and that's like painting a target on the back of his head. "Nobody asks the criminals to get a permit."
He also doesn't tell them that he couldn't get a concealed-weapon permit even if he wanted one. At least not until his pending criminal case goes to trial in April or May.
The charge--what else?--carrying a concealed weapon.
In November, Vazquez was arrested by Gila County sheriff's deputies when they realized he was carrying a Russian-made Makarov 9mm pistol in a zipped-up fanny pack around his waist. When they asked to see his concealed-weapon permit, Vazquez handed them the homemade version carried by many local Libertarians.
It's a document that members of the Libertarian group Second Amendment for Everyone (which they truncate to SAFE, naturally) call a "Declaration of Intent to Carry a Concealed Weapon." And it includes an 86-year-old debate among the framers of Arizona's Constitution which proves, the Libertarians say, that the state's forefathers wouldn't have stood for the Legislature requiring a permit to carry concealed weapons.
Libertarians like Vazquez say they've been carrying the ersatz permits for the past two years just in case one of them was arrested. They figure that by turning it over to an arresting officer, the 1910 debate will have to be entered as evidence in a trial, and the law requiring a concealed-weapon permit will be overturned.
But Vazquez's opportunity for martyrdom may have been spoiled by a two-inch tear in his fanny pack. When the case is heard, he expects his attorney to avoid constitutional concerns by arguing that the weapon wasn't really concealed.
Vazquez says his attorney, John Karow, is more interested in Vazquez's welfare than striking a blow for concealed weapons. That disappoints the rebel in him, but it appeals to his practical side. After all, six months in jail would be tough on his family. He has to think about his wife, who recently gave birth to their third child.
And another part of him is tired of carrying the party's banner. "I'm the Libertarian poster boy," Vazquez complains after party officials gave out private information about him--a telephone number he wanted kept unlisted--to the Arizona Republic. Apparently, the party, which considers the right to privacy about as sacrosanct as anything, even AK-47 ownership, didn't see a contradiction.
Vazquez participates in a small, no-name militia which meets to discuss political issues and doesn't do much in the way of the paramilitary stuff. Mostly it's for recreation, for the handgunning at the range rather than preparing for disaster. "But we're cognizant of the fact that any day we might have to be," he says. "One day it will be too late for anything other than a revolution. And that wouldn't be beneficial to anybody.
"The militia is pictured as a bunch of bloodthirsty white supremacist trash. And yes, you certainly do have your share of it," he says. "I've run into other Hispanics who question what I'm doing. But I've never run into anyone who's said to me that I'm on the wrong side. In my life, there's no room for racism."
The people in his cell don't include racists or neo-Nazis, says Vazquez. But he admits that at larger militia gatherings, the potential for conflict is greater. He's run into openly bigoted militiamen at shooting matches who wanted to know what someone with his complexion was doing there. He's also had to explain that he's been shaving his head for 17 years, long before he'd ever heard of skinheads.
Occasionally, the encounters are weirder. At a larger militia meeting Vazquez describes as having a "religious-right feel," he was approached by a tall, thin man with a large hunting knife strapped to his waist. The man began telling him about secret U.N. forces stationed in the Superstition Mountains. The man claimed to have seen the soldiers taking deliveries of sex slaves as they waited for the word to attack Phoenix. And, in a Lost Dutchmanesque touch, the man said that he'd been the only witness to these things who had lived to tell about it. He offered to take Vazquez on a private tour, but Vazquez says he didn't like the looks of that hunting knife.
He says he asked the fellow to draw him a map.
"You try to reach these people," he says. "But then you write them off and let them know you don't support them."
A yuppified coffee house on a weekday morning. Students and professors from nearby ASU are bent over copies of the New York Times and tall glasses of mocha java. It doesn't seem like a particularly dangerous environment, not the kind of place a person would feel uncomfortable without a sidearm.
Liz Andreasen, militia member and converted Jew, won't confirm she's packing heat in the large purse sitting next to her on the floor, but she says so with a knowing look. "Let me put it this way," she says, "the element of surprise is always better."
She's an Orthodox Jew and says that thejeans she's wearing shouldn't give theimpression that she's not strict. It's just that she's made a few concessions to modernity. Rather than wearing the traditional wig, for example, she likes to show her dark, shoulder-length hair.
She and her husband take part in two small, nameless militia cells. They meet informally to train with weapons, learn mapping techniques and coordinate resources. In a separate interview, Eric Andreasen says that the militias' activities are mostly mundane, but essential. "You're dealing with the potential of civil war," he says.
Unlike Kristina Sanchez, who doesn't train with the militia and doesn't allow her children to, Liz Andreasen considers it a family affair.
"I train," she says. "And I give my kids the ability to train with me."
"My wife's a better shot than I am," Eric adds.
Told about Sanchez and her "women's auxiliary," Liz shakes her head. "If somebody comes to her door and hubby isn't home, will she go for a gun herself or call 911?"
Before letting the kids near weapons, however, Liz says they need to understand the terrible force they're dealing with.
She recommends taking children out to private land to show them the power of firearms. With .22-caliber rifles, they plug water balloons and milk jugs filled with water. Even the small-bore weapons make the objects explode and get the message across. Then, with larger-caliber weaponry, they take aim at pieces of fruit. The key, Liz says, is to bring over the orange that you've just put a big whole through and show it to the kids.
"We tell them this could be your brother's head, or your sister's head," she says.
It's an effective education. "I can leave my semiautomatic out on the table and they won't touch it," she says.
Later, she admits that the children still manage to get into the guns and have to be punished. "But it's no different than them touching the steak knives or my meat cleaver."
Eric was raised by a Protestant family that moved to Phoenix from Nebraska in 1959, when he was 4 years old. He says he had little contact with Jewish people growing up. But in college, he and his wife both felt they were missing something in their lives, and they converted to Judaism. Later they learned that her family had been Jewish when it immigrated to the United States several generations earlier.
The Andreasens say they've been on a path of increased Jewish religious observance since their conversion 15 years ago.
Joel Breshin, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, says he's surprised to hear about ethnic minorities in the militia movement. "Militia people probably aren't bigots," Breshin says. "But for minorities to be in militias, that's a weird combination and you wouldn't expect that. Do they hear the racist statements? Because there is a taint. It just sounds inconsistent to me. These militia groups get so paranoid. I would think that minority members get uncomfortable."
"Joel Breshin is an ostrich with his head stuck in the sand and a Magen David [six-pointed star] stuck on his backside," Liz Andreasen says. She and her husband have little patience for modern Jewish leadership, which appears to them hopelessly statist.
Breshin acknowledges that Jewish organizations generally support gun control, but that's because they believe the proliferation of guns puts weapons into the hands of extremists who target Jews. He says he objects to the paranoia of organizations such as Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership, a Wisconsin-based group which urges Jews to arm themselves and which recently came to the defense of Larry Pratt, the head of the Gun Owners of America and Pat Buchanan campaign aide who was accused of consorting with white supremacists. "You don't have to talk about rebellion to change the government," Breshin says. "You can talk about going into politics and changing things the more accepted way."
Only the government can call out a militia, he argues, and private citizens shouldn't be meeting and drilling in paramilitary settings. "You only antagonize people that way," he adds.
The Andreasens, both members of Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership, say they don't want to antagonize anybody. And if the members of B'nai B'rith don't understand what they're doing in the militia movement, that's their problem.
"There is a large degree of Christian triumphalism in the militia movement," Eric acknowledges. But that hasn't made it uncomfortable for the yarmulke-wearing construction estimator. In fact, he says his political convictions match his religious beliefs exactly.
Eric Andreasen says God gives him certain rights, and he has an obligation to cherish them. The best way he can do that, he says, is to stay alive.
Defending oneself, then, becomes the highest virtue. When assault weapons are banned, Eric doesn't see a concerned electorate working together to make society safer. Instead, he sees a government drunk with power taking away rights that God gave him. And his only recourse is to resist.
"Right now we're our own worst enemies," Mike Johnson says of militias. "I try to stomp down on disinformation, and I complain when people are spreading crap about black helicopters."
Despite his best efforts, the men at the roadside militia meeting start doing just that.
A tall, bespectacled man with an Old Testament beard and a deep, gravelly voice explains the connection between the Bill of Rights and a cataclysmic theory of the formation of Arizona's landscape. It's a difficult argument to follow, so the others start lobbing alarmisms from all over the place, and the discussion spirals downward. Some of them get strangely paranoid and maudlin at the same time.
"I don't want Arizona to secede," Steve Porak says sadly, as if that were imminent.
Johnson reins them in again, nervous about what kind of impression they're making. And this time they stay focused, more or less, on recruiting militia members to run for local elective offices. Several are on ballots in rural areas, and they try to recruit each other to run for county posts.
Then they threaten to get weird again--Old Testament wades into speculations about the planet's coming "pole shift"--and Johnson cuts things short. He closes the meeting by passing around mail-order catalogues for military-style weapons, and the men disperse.
Johnson acknowledges that polishing the militia's tarnished image is going to take alot of work. After half of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City was blown to oblivion last April, news organizations scrambled to define the militia movement and its possible involvement for acurious public, sending a steady stream ofimages from Michigan's dairyland, Montana's backcountry, Kingman's trailer parks.
The militias of central Arizona, however, say they've been misunderstood. They're patriots, not terrorists, and connections to white supremacist groups have been overblown.
"I haven't run into any who I would consider racists in Arizona's militias," Johnson says. His presence in the movement should put that to rest, he says. "Now I'm sure that there are racists out there, but I run into more in government.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Phoenix, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.