Lee Miracle, a civilian-organized militia leader, in training; Photo by Jeff Kindy
In the United States, militias -- "groups organized for the stated purpose of defending [individual] rights and property against a tyrannical government" -- date back to colonial times. When the British tried to disarm Americans in 1774, just before the Revolution, citizens revolted by forming private militias; these militias fought the earliest battles for US independence and made up the majority of the first American army.
Since then, the actions of United States Congress have influenced the direction and legality of such militias. The Militia Act of 1792, defined a militia as being composed of “able-bodied citizens” who supplied their own arms -- but without federal funding, these militias gradually dwindled in prominence. “By the 1870s,” writes historian Chuck Dougherty, “the militias in most states were little more than social clubs centered on a yearly parade.”
The Militia Act of 1903 gave the federal government a certain power over the formation of militias, and defined two types: the organized" militia, or members of the National Guard and Naval Militia, and the "unorganized" militia, broadly termed as "able-bodied" militiamen who are not members of the aforementioned groups. Citizens wishing to form their own militias interpreted this vague law to mean that they had the agency to do so: by the 1990s, there were hundreds of independently-operated militias in the United States.
Today, one of the most well-known of these militias is the Michigan Militia -- a group with a rocky history.
In 1994, a retired U.S. Air Force officer by the name of Norman Olson formed the Michigan Militia Corps, or the “Wolverines,” with the goal of creating “an organized paramilitary group...in response to perceived threats on the rights of citizens by the federal government” -- most specifically, gun control laws that were then being considered by President Bill Clinton. The U.S. government had also recently engaged in a deadly stand-off with a religious group over weapons violations in Waco, Texas -- something Olson had interpreted as a gross invasion of individual rights. Shortly afterward, on the grounds of his 120-acre, heavily-wooded Northern Michigan property, he organized a group of like-minded men and began training them in paramilitary skills.
“Not only does the Constitution specifically allow the formation of a Federal Army, it also recognizes the inherent right of the people to form militia,” Olson claimed before the United States Senate Subcommittee on Terrorism. “The Constitution is not a document limiting the citizen, but rather limiting the power of government.”
Many seemed to agree: over the course of a year, Olson’s Michigan Militia Corps reportedly grew to 10,000 members. Then, following the Oklahoma City Bombing in April of 1995, everything began to fall apart. First, Olson bragged to the media that Terry Nichols (an accomplice to the terrorist attack) had once attended militia meetings. When this was criticized, Olson quickly changed his theory: the Japanese were to blame. Within the militia, Olson came under such scrutiny for his false remarks, that he was terminated as its leader. Subsequently, the organization broke off into smaller “brigades” -- one of which would later become the Southern Michigan Volunteer Militia (SMVM).
Today, Lee Miracle, a retired U.S. Postal Service worker, is SMVM’s head honcho and commander -- though he prefers being called a “coordinator,” as his militia is against any hierarchy of power. (“I’ve never used the phrase ‘I order you,’” he boasts. “Nobody has the right to tell another individual what he can and cannot do -- not me, and especially not the government.”)
We decided to chat with Lee to learn a bit more about civilian-run militias and what it is they fight for. The following is a condensed transcript of our interview with him:
Lee, thanks for taking the time to talk.
First of all, how did involved with the Michigan Militia?
I got out of the Army in the late 1980s and started working in the Post Office. I was talking to one of my co-workers there and he said, ‘You know, it really sounds like you’re a Libertarian.’ I didn’t know what that was, so I went and looked it up.
When Norm Olson formed the Michigan Militia Corps (Wolverines) in 1994, I looked at that and realized it really fit in with my view that people should be responsible for their own lives. They were also arguing that the state doesn’t possess a monopoly on force, which I liked. Lastly, as a community-oriented volunteer self-defense group, it didn’t cost anybody anything [in terms of dues]. That really fell in line with my libertarian philosophy.
In short, what is your ‘Libertarian philosophy’?
One: Voluntary things are good
Two: The government shouldn’t have all the guns.
Three: The government shouldn’t make its citizens pay for things that the citizens don’t want to pay for.
Basically, if we revert the U.S. government back to the constitution we’ll be doing fine.
The Michigan Militia went from having more than 10,000 members in 1994 to becoming essentially defunct by the end of 1995. In your own words, how did things fall apart so quickly?
A ton of people left because of the response from the Oklahoma City bombing, the accusations that we were involved somehow. After Norm Olson left following his Oklahoma City bombing comments, a lot of people wanted to be appointed commander. There was a power struggle, and that did more harm than the bombing itself.
Those who were left, including myself, were struggling for funding to keep things alive. Someone came up with the idea to make a militia-based calendar, which is basically girls, maybe not dressed as conservatively as people would like, with guns. It was really just a fun thing. So, we made this calendar and it was the only thing we've ever done that we ever had success with as a fundraising operation.
But some of the guys who were involved -- well, let’s say there was some ‘spousal’ pressure for them to dislike the calendar. So, they ‘ordered’ us not to do it. Remember: the whole thing about bossing people around is exactly what we're against. When they called me and told me they were kicking my “brigade” out, I told him, ‘The price you pay for kicking us out is we’ll be gone now. You earned this.’
From then on, we became the Wayne County Free and Independent Militia -- just a single county operating by itself. That lasted a few years, and we kept getting contacted by counties next to us. They were saying, ‘There’s nothing going on where I am; we want something here too.’ There was a demand to expand -- like Adam Smith’s invisible hand, we were guided to create this. We simply filled the void.
Eventually, we had all these people. So, in 2004, we formed the SMVM. Today, we've got 217 members, and we're issuing more ID cards than we ever have before.
Wait, so the original militia “brigade” was disbanded over a pin-up calendar?
Well, it was more the ideas that the calendar stood for. But yeah, pretty much.
What are some of SMVM’s current core beliefs?
Okay, stock answer: we want the country returned to a constitutionally-limited republic.
We believe in an extremely limited government, and a high regard for individual rights. We believe the individual has the absolute right to live for his own sake, and in the manner he chooses -- so long as he’s not harming anyone else in the process.
People should be self-reliant. There is a great amount of entitlement and dependency in some people. I know this for a fact because I have teenagers.
We also believe that the government should not have a monopoly on force. We fight for second amendment rights by picketing and holding rallies. We do open carry -- people always ask me, ‘Lee, why such a big revolver?’ -- and we work with Michigan Open Carry, the NRA, and other gun rights groups. We’re all angled with these other groups.
Looking back, do you feel conflicted about working for the Postal Service (a government-run agency)?
Well you know what, it’s not funded by tax dollars. I got more tax dollars working as an army soldier than I did as a postal worker. I was working for the government, serving my country, and also willing to defend it if necessary. A lot of veterans also work at the Post Office. I actually asked myself, ‘Why aren’t there most postal workers involved [with the militia]?’
I’ve read that the SMVM and some other civilian-run militias have strong opinions about immigration. Can you clarify your stance?
My wife is an immigrant. She’s from Greece. She’s practically Caption frickin’ America, but she’s from Greece.
I think there’s a procedure to follow to come here legally. We should reduce what we’re handing out to people. You can come here, but this isn't a free ride! If people want to come here and be a part of the team, and work, and contribute to society, that’s what it’s about. But entitlement is a global epidemic: if you just want to come here, kick your feet up, and start cashing in, I’m not a fan of that.
Exactly what kind of situations are you preparing for with your weaponry training?
Okay. If I’m standing next to someone and he’s opening fire on a school playground, its my job to shoot. The first one on the scene has to step up.
If there’s someone in a shopping mall or a movie theatre or wherever, and they’re doing something bad -- whether you’re in a militia or not, every citizen should engage and destroy the threat!
Have you ever had to do anything like that?
No...so far, no. And I’m very grateful for that. My hope is that we will never have to use them.
We don’t wake up and hope that we have to pull out our revolvers. There’s a misconception that were champing at the bit to shoot something. Listen: if I woke up tomorrow and there was no terrorism in the world -- that’s what I want. But the reality is there is bad stuff going on, there are criminals in our society -- and you don’t deter that by being disarmed.
How many guns do you currently keep in your household?
I’d have to check. At least 20-something.
Can you tell me a bit about how you ensure gun safety with your children in the house?
I’ve got five kids still living at home. Every one of my kids except one has his or her own firearm; only one of my daughters, who has since moved out, doesn’t have one -- and that’s just because she isn’t really into guns.
The little girls, who are seven each, each got their little single shot .22 ‘crickets’ -- they’re very cute guns. We go to the range, and they know the rules of gun safety, they understand the seriousness. I’ll give them random tests -- like say, ‘Clear this chamber for me’ -- and they know what to do. I also train them. I’ll say, ‘Look what this shotgun does to a pumpkin or a 2x4; now imagine what it would do to a person’s head!’ They understand the seriousness.
Another one of my sons, who’s 16 years old, doesn’t have a gun right now because of his grades. His grades were poor, and I told him, ‘When you get your grades up, we’ll talk about it. In this household, you’re not armed: you need to reflect on that.’
Take me through a day of training with the SMVM.
There’s really no particular single thing we train for. We’ll take to the woods and do navigation, patrolling, hunting, first aid, communication -- you know, just the meat and potatoes. One thing we haven’t gone into as much as I’d like is tactical training. We need to train for things like ambushes.
Every January, we do a winter training called 'Snow Dog.' Basically, we’re camping in -8 degree Fahrenheit weather. Let me tell you, that’s not fun.
How does one qualify to join your militia? Is there any sort of test or initiation?
Well, we’ve got what we call our ‘Level 1’ qualifications posted online, but it’s pretty simple: you just need to be a citizen who is capable of bearing arms. Then, there’s just a few other stipulations: You’ve got to do a two-mile walk in under 48 minutes. You need the equipment -- a rifle, ammo, boots, first aid kit. You have to be able to shoot 8 out of 10 paper plates at 100 yards, and be able to break down and reassemble your weapons.
From there, 'Level 2' is where you start learning to operate as part of a militia fire team. What we call 'Level 3' or 'Team Leader' -- that's where you're actually training to lead a team. There's also some specialty positions like Medic, Radio Operator, Heavy Gunner -- those all require extra training.
What’s the diversity like -- race, ethnicity, creed, gender -- in your current crew?
Look, like I said, what we want are warm bodies. I don’t care what your color is. I really don’t care what your religion is. I’m not religious -- I’m an atheist. Many of my friends are Christian; I jump up to defend their Christian rights, and they jump up to defend my rights as a atheist.
We believe in the First Amendment -- freedom of religion -- so there is no religious bias applied. We’re trying to be as open and as legal as possible. Hell, there was even a Buddhist involved for a while.
We have at least one female member.
Lee Miracle (center, grey t-shirt), with the SMVM militia
Does this stance on individual rights carry over to, say, gay rights?
I don’t know what a gay right is. I mean do gay people drive their gay cars to their gay job and eat a gay lunch? If you don’t like gay marriage, don’t marry a dude, you know?
I don’t lay awake at night thinking about what men do with their penises. It’s not something I worry about. I don’t plan on marrying a guy.
That said, anyone who’s saying gay marriage should be illegal is recognizing government authority over marriage, and I don’t like that. I’m not going to wave pom-poms at a gay wedding, but by the same token, I won’t protest it either.
It sounds like the SMVM is a group that maintains a lot of different individual viewpoints. What is it that keeps you all united, despite your differences?
I’d say that it’s the recognition that all of these different views are safe here in America -- but only if we are all willing to defend them. If we all put our beliefs in a bucket -- and that bucket is called freedom -- then thats what brings us together. We realize all these differences are only safe when we all defend them together.
What are some of your militia members’ day jobs?
Well, I’m a retired postal worker and author of poetry. Early postal retirement isn’t going to put a jeep in my driveway though, so I pick up a little extra work here and there. You’ll find all kinds of folks in our group: we’ve got welders, guys from financial institutions, delivery drivers, barn servicers. There’s one guy who’s a civil engineer, currently doing work in Brazil.
One thing we’ve never had is any lawyers. (Laughs)
You mentioned you’re an author. What kind of stuff do you write?
I wrote a book of poetry called Bleeding Out Loud. If that doesn’t shatter the redneck, backwoods hillbilly with a shotgun image, I can’t do anything further than that. I also wrote a book about a little girl who’s being abused and has to create multiple personalities to survive. It’s a horrible thing I guess, but...I wrote it.
[Here's an excerpt from Lee's Bleeding Out Loud:]
Red Wine and Roses
You cut out your heart
And then leave it at home
You take off your smile
And replace it with stone
You cover your tear streaks
With brown, green, and black
You wait with your weapon
For the word to attack
Your militia’s symbol is the Gadsden flag, which has been enlisted by other groups as a sign of disagreement with government, among other things. What does the flag represent to the SMVM?
There are so many different militia groups here in Michigan -- it’s just used as a universal sign of comradery. But it’s a sign of defiance too: it says, ‘Hey man get out of my face’ -- ‘get off me bro!’ -- that’s really what it means to us.
What do you say to someone who is skeptical about what you do and what you stand for?
Some people out there think we’re just a bunch of heroin-addicted cat murderers.
We don’t pray for the apocalypse. We don’t hide in the woods in our bunkers. We’re everyday people. We’re truck drivers, welders -- we’re people just like any other people -- and when you come and meet us and get to know us, you’ll understand we’re not violent, hateful people. In fact, we’re probably the opposite of that.
Ultimately, we’re trying to build teams of individuals. We want people to challenge leadership. You can’t make things better by closing your eyes and being led somewhere.
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