I will start with the disclaimer that this essay is, in no way, intended to denigrate the fine citizens of Sanders County, Montana. To borrow from Donald Trump, “Some, I assume, are good people.”
Others, however, are regularly being shown in what I would argue is a fairly unflattering light. Take, for example, Sheriff Tom Rummel, who finds himself caught between demands by his fellow wingnuts that he fight the FBI’s efforts to arrest an Oregon standoff thug–and reality.
The duly-elected law enforcement representative of Sanders County seems to take pride in the label Constitutional Sheriff, and may have presented at, but certainly attended the inaugural Convention of the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA) in Las Vegas in 2012. This is not, in itself, an indictment of the man’s character or work ethic, but it does lead one to ask, “what is this all about?”
The first step here, is to understand the “Sovereign Citizen” movement, and its origins; specifically, the interpretation of Posse Comitatus (literally from the Latin, “force of the county”) as bastardized by William Potter Gale and Henry Lamont Beach. The Posse movement is an interesting rabbit hole, but seems well enough encapsulated in this description: “a loosely organized, far-right social movement in the United States starting in the late 1960s, whose members spread a conspiracy-minded, anti-government and anti-semitic message in the name of white Christians to counter what they believe is an attack on their social and political rights.”
Posse devotees believe “…that there is no legitimate form of government above that of the county level and no higher law authority than the county sheriff.” From this also springs the Sovereign Citizen who, in addition to the basic Posse theories, believe “…they are answerable only to their particular interpretation of the common law and are not subject to any statutes or proceedings at the federal, state, or municipal levels; that they do not recognize United States currency; and/or that they are “free of any legal constraints.” They especially reject most forms of taxation as illegitimate. Participants in the movement argue this concept in opposition to “federal citizens,” who, they say, have unknowingly forfeited their rights by accepting some aspect of federal law.”
From here, it’s just one big hat away from having a Constitutional Sheriff. All it takes is enough like-minded, or ill-informed voters to appoint themselves a champion. The CSPOA currently boasts membership of “fourteen sheriffs, one county commissioner, and one chief of police, drawn from thirteen states (mostly southern and western).” These sheriff’s believe they are the “highest executive authority in a county and therefore constitutionally empowered to be able to keep federal agents out of the county.”
Spoiler alert, they’re wrong on all counts; but, you can already see where this is going. If you paid any attention to the armed occupation of the Mahleur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, you already know how it ends…or almost ends.
As reported recently in the Billings Gazette, the United States Attorney’s office unsealed the final indictment related to the Mahleur occupation. Sanders County, Montana, resident “Jake Ryan is accused of violating a Native American archaeological site by digging a latrine with heavy equipment at the refuge and causing more than $1,000 worth of damage, according to court documents, as well as facing gun and conspiracy to impede law enforcement charges.”
If you followed that link, you’ll note the Gazette headline wasn’t about Jake Ryan. It was about Constitutional Sheriff Tom Rummel telling Oregon standoff sympathizers to stand down. The sheriff seems to be trying to avoid a similar standoff in his county, telling potential militia types that Ryan is not in Sanders County, nor is the FBI.
On the other hand, the ironically (and perhaps intentionally?) named right-wing blogger James White contends Sheriff Rummel instead told the Feds to stand down. His rambling diatribe asserts that the sheriff is “providing cover” for Jake Ryan. He also reports getting assurances from the CEO of the Mormon Church backed American Lands Council and consequently interest-conflicted Sanders County Representative Jennifer Fielder, that the FBI is dutifully following Rummel’s instructions; no militia needed.
It is worth noting that the Facebook page of The Bundy Ranch, unofficial headquarters for America’s Disenfranchised, Impertinent, Caucasian Kooks (DICKs), posted the Sheriff’s phone and email, claimed Rummel “is not ready to stand up fully to these [FBI] thugs” and encouraged harassment of him until he does so. After reminiscing about traveling with Jake Ryan to the Bundy Ranch in 2014, White included in his article Sheriff Rummel’s posted plea for people to stop calling and emailing. Isn’t it funny how irony and karma so often dress alike?
So, by way of Oregon, Nevada and a cornucopia of arrogance, bluster, and ignorance, we are back in Sanders County, asking for calm. Seems there’s a lesson here somewhere. Perhaps, joining little groups and speaking at meetings where county sheriffs thump their chests to the beat of Maritime Law is all well and good until one of your local knot heads digs a latrine in a graveyard. Then, aaaallll the petty fringe dwellers who used to cheer your rhetoric show up, salivating, to see you in action. When you spend your kid’s college dreams on Kevlar and 30 round clips, you gotta find someplace to show it all off…right?
The ball is in your court, Sheriff Rummel. Will you assist in the execution of a lawful federal warrant, handed down by a grand jury comprised of American citizens; or will you draw a Bundy-line in the Sanders County sand? Should be a great show…don’t forget the snacks.