Look! SM Harding stopped by to tell us about her new book, Speak in Winter Code. And, because she’s excited and wants us to be excited too, she’s giving away two signed paperback copies (US only). Drop a comment in the space below and we’ll draw a winner on Friday, May 19.
I met my first militiamen in the mountains of western Pennsylvania one summer day in the mid-1980s. I’d been out making photographs, enjoying the cooler temperatures of the mountains. I’d pulled up to a junkyard because an ancient Dodge truck caught my eye—a beautiful conglomeration of dust, rust and light. I walked into the office with my 4X5 camera in a case over my shoulder and asked if I could photograph the truck. It was parked, as it had been for many years, behind an equally rusted chainlink fence.
The guy behind the counter gave me a flat no without making eye contact. I tried arguing with logic, but this tattooed guy was impervious. Finally, he’d had it and “ushered” me outside. “Get lost,” he said. “And don’t come back.”
I was so pissed, I found a ridge not too far away and pulled out my long lens. They’d flipped the open sign to closed, but both men slouched against the front smoking and laughing. Ten minutes later, an SUV pulled up and a man with rebar for his spine got out. The men came to attention and saluted—and I wondered what I had witnessed.
I got an opportunity to ask an expert a few days later. He was the father of a student of mine and a Pennsylvania state trooper. He told me, unequivocally, to stay away from them because they were part of a lunatic fringe that had chapters nationwide. Not good news, especially from a law enforcement officer who’d been aware of their activity.
I tried following the movement, but remember this was early days of the Internet. I explored my curiosity in print. There wasn’t a lot of print. And then came Ruby Ridge in August, 1992, Waco on April 19, 1993 and the Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995. Horrific examples of anti-government sentiments gone very wrong (and if you don’t remember any of this, take time to look them up). Around that time, I found the Southern Poverty Law Center online and it made it easy to follow all sorts of radical right-wing groups with links to their websites. What I found was a pot-pourri of right-wing hate groups.
Militias had multiplied and were joined by Neo-Nazi, white supremacist, skinhead, Klan and Sovereignist groups as well as religious congregations like the Westboro Baptist Church. And a multitude of splinter groups. When President Obama was elected, all of these groups bred like roaches in a dirty kitchen. We now like to call them the alt-right, a benign name for a deadly ideology. The alt-right aren’t slightly misguided good guys. They’re scary dudes.
In the meantime, I couldn’t help but think…what if? What if they organized nationally and found financial backing from like-minded wealthy donors (think Koch brothers)? What if some of our elected officials were part of this coalition (think ALEC)? I tried writing a novel about them, but I didn’t have the national scope I wanted with one sheriff of a rural county in southern Indiana. When Win Kirkland wandered into McCrumb County, that changed.
The result of all this tracking and cogitating is Speak in Winter Code, the first installment in a three-book story arc that follows the McCrumb County Rangers (a militia group) and the 1776 Corps (a shadowy national group). Both are hellbent on revolution. Both are deadly serious.
In Speak in Winter Code, Win ponders the sprouting of new militias in southern Indiana:
Why is it when we see a name like McCrumb County Rangers we’re dismissive? Bunch of crackpots, we think. That may be true, but it doesn’t lessen the danger. I though of Ruby Ridge, Waco and how that path led inevitably to Oklahoma City. Aryan Nations? Just racists. Branch Davidians? Religious fanatics. Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols? We shake our heads and refuse to take them seriously.
I couldn’t mark these groups down to greed or some other vice. These people believed they were patriots.
I’ve met a number of members of these various groups in the intervening years and I believe they’re more of a danger to our democracy than ISIL, Al Qaeda or any other jihadist groups associated with them. That’s why we must hold our democracy close to our hearts, fight any challenge to it and keep our resistance strong and constant. Not with guns, but with words and actions and constancy. I know, it gets tiring. But the thing is, that’s what they’re counting on—that resistance to the far right will wane with time if the policies they enact are incremental, small enough steps that no one notices.
So listen carefully to what’s said, but more importantly, watch their actions.