Alerts & Actions

Militia Sheriff Featured in Helena to Stoke Anger at Public Health

UPDATE: Early on the morning of September 11, organizers of the events announced that Richard Mack will not be appearing at the rally in person due to injuries sustained in an accident. Instead, organizers announced Mack was planning to record remarks that will be played at the Saturday rally.

The militia movement and other self-styled “patriot” groups have played a significant role in stoking and mobilizing anger against preventative measures during the COVID-19 pandemic. These forces are bringing events to Helena this Friday and Saturday to ratchet up attacks on public health. Using the misnomer “Patriot Days,” the events planned include:

  • Organizers of the weekend’s events are planning to storm a football game at Vigilante Stadium.

    Protesting in front of the Lewis and Clark County Health Department

  • Forcing their way into a football game at Vigilante Stadium

  • Holding events on the lawn of the State Capitol

  • Screening a film at Canyon Ferry Road Baptist Church.

As if this wasn’t troubling enough, a Saturday rally at Memorial Park features Richard Mack, a former county sheriff in Arizona and a hero to the militia movement since the 1990s. Mack became a rising star in the militia movement when he sued the federal government over the Brady Bill, a gun control measure. He began speaking on the militia circuit in the early 1990s and never stopped.

In Arizona, Mack was elected Graham County Sheriff in 1992. His lawsuit against the Brady Bill was consolidated with a similar one by a sheriff in Montana, Ravalli County Sheriff Jay Printz, who has also been listed as a speaker for this weekend’s events. The US Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favor of the sheriffs, saying it was unconstitutional for Congress to compel local law enforcement to conduct background checks on potential gun buyers. However, Mack’s lawsuit and speaking time on the “patriot” circuit became central issues during his 1996 re-election bid, and he failed to make it out of the primary. Catering to the militia crowd ended his career in law enforcement.

“For decades, Richard Mack has been the darling of militias,” says Travis McAdam of the Montana Human Rights Network. “Now those types of groups are hosting him at events designed to rage against common-sense public health measures designed to slow COVID’s spread. The militia movement has capitalized on the pandemic and used it as an opportunity to recruit and elevate its message.”

When states implemented shelter-in-place orders earlier this year to slow the spread of COVID, militia activists quickly viewed it as an opportunity. COVID-19 led to fear in communities, which made people susceptible to the misinformation spread by militia groups. As shelter-in-place and other public health orders continued, some folks grew angry at the government for having to stay home, keep a business closed, or other prevention measures. This anger and fear eventually manifested itself as the lockdown rallies held in Montana and across the country. Militias didn’t always organize the rallies, but they strategically showed up at them. The rallies were perfect recruitment opportunities, as they featured crowds of scared and angry conservatives protesting the government. Militia activists have continued leveraging the pandemic in this way, with the current flashpoint being Governor Bullock’s order requiring the wearing of masks in certain situations.

Mack and his organization, the Constitutional Sheriff and Peace Officers Association, have encouraged law officers to refrain from enforcing public health measures. To try and persuade law officers that they can ignore the directives, Mack touts the supremacy of the county sheriff pioneered by the white nationalist Posse Comitatus, which launched in the 1960s. Back then, the Posse used right-wing populism to spread conspiracies and antisemitism. They were active survivalists and engaged in frivolous ‘paper terrorism’ to harass opponents. The Posse viewed the sheriff as the highest legitimate law officer in the land. It believed citizens were not subject to state or federal authorities. For the Posse, it was up to the sheriff to use force, if necessary, to prevent federal agencies from seizing property to pay taxes and to oppose any perceived encroachment by federal institutions.

Mack’s statements over the years reflect the Posse tradition. “The federal government doesn’t have any jurisdiction to tell me what to do as sheriff,” he has told the press. He has also said he’s “prayed for the day that a sheriff in this country will arrest an IRS agent” for enforcing tax law. Mack’s even written a book about the supremacy of the county sheriff, and he started his national organization to try and recruit law enforcement officers to this ideology. For more on Mack, see “Richard Mack: Militia Sheriff” below.

“Richard Mack sees the current disputes over pandemic prevention as perfect opportunities to push his phony gospel about the supremacy of the county sheriff,” says McAdam. “Mack and his militia buddies see the real problems impacting our communities. However, instead of being part of the solution, they just continue spewing misinformation and creating division.”

The Montana Human Rights Network encourages community members to avoid the “Patriot Days” events. With Montana’s COVID-19 numbers continuing to rise, the last thing we need are events featuring speakers railing against public health measures as affronts to freedom. We should be raging against the spread of the virus, not heeding empty calls to patriotism that put more people in jeopardy.

Richard Mack: Militia Sheriff

  • In 1995 following the Oklahoma City bombing perpetrated by a militia adherent, Mack said, “People get all upset when they hear about militias, but what’s wrong with it? I wouldn’t hesitate for a minute to call out my posse against the federal government if it gets out of hand.”

  • In 2014 during the Bundy Standoff in Nevada, Mack encouraged militia supporters to “put all the women up at the front” of the line against federal agents. He said then, if there was a firefight with law enforcement, it would be “women that are going to be televised all across the world getting shot by these rogue federal officers.” Mack also supported the Bundys during their standoff in Oregon.

  • In 2004, he edited a book by Randy Weaver. The standoff between the white nationalist Weaver Family and federal agencies at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, was a seminal moment for the militia movement of the 1990s.

  • When the “patriot” movement experienced a resurgence around 2010, the Southern Poverty Law Center named Mack as one of the key players at the heart of it.

  • During an appearance on the radio show of Alex Jones, Mack said, “There is one person who I believe can stop this New World Order. His name is your county sheriff…There is no question your sheriff has the responsibility to protect you from tyranny and international bankers….”

  • He has been called “one of the chief contact points between the NRA and the militias.”

  • While running for the US Senate in 2006 on the Libertarian Party ticket, Mack stated he would “do everything in my power to abolish the income tax and its ‘Gestapo’ police, the IRS.”

  • Few law officers have given extra-legal militia groups such consistent endorsements as Mack. His rhetoric creates very dangerous situations for actual law enforcement officers who are trying to abide by public health restrictions and prevent tragedies like the shootings in New Mexico and Kenosha.