Sunday night, wildfires still had most of Clackamas County, Oregon, under a “level 3” evacuation order—which comes with the guidance of “Go! Evacuate now!”—while the sheriff’s office has been juggling multiple crises. Its sworn officers were seemingly at odds with one another, some promoting unfounded conspiracy theories, like claiming “antifa” was intentionally lighting fires and looting, and others pleading with people who had set up militia-style checkpoints and were stopping drivers they deemed unfamiliar or suspicious at gunpoint, to go home and let them do their job. The county drew national media attention as a hotbed of social media–driven misinformation, serving as yet another example of how plodding those platforms were in the face of dangerous rumors.
But more harrowing is how swiftly militia types and right-wing armed freelancers mobilized in response, as they have in other moments of unrest in Oregon and across the country. Though such activity has drawn more scrutiny in recent months, the groundwork for militias to exploit crises and uprisings has been laid over the past several years, resulting now in mounting paranoia spreading far outside such organized groups, along with the threat of violence.
When corporations and governments turn a moment of crisis into an opportunity, Naomi Klein has called it disaster capitalism. When survival is on the line, they have learned, people may be willing to go along with what they may not otherwise. The same dynamic is useful to those in much smaller, more extreme formations, like militia groups, who see disaster as a chance to change public perceptions of themselves—that they’re not racists with guns, but defenders of “law and order.” In a crisis, they can act out and gain ground.
Oregon journalist Alissa Azar helped put the militia activity on the national radar while out covering the wildfires in Clackamas County on Thursday. In the photos she posted to Twitter, the abandoned properties and emergency vehicles were all filtered through a poisonous amber haze, smoke hanging in the air. With her were two other journalists, Sergio Olmos and Justin Yau. Azar posted later that afternoon, “We got 3 guns pulled on us at a militia style checkpoint … none of us are white.” A few minutes later, she added, “We’re safe. It’s scary knowing there are people who legitimately think ‘antifa liberals’ are setting these towns on fire … we are very clearly documenting and interviewing folks. Our pictures were taken and so was the car and license plate.” As people fled their homes, the phantom threat of antifa arson and looting and the very real presence of an armed response emerged together.
These violent fantasies are not unique to this era of massively networked disinformation, of Trump and QAnon, the pandemic and its attendant moral panics over masks and vaccines. The Oath Keepers, “today’s Blackshirts” as Casey Michel described them in The New Republic, was founded in 2009, in response to the election of President Barack Obama.