BELFAST, Maine — When Maine Militia State Commander Mack Page read an article about the “armed anti-government movement” of the radical right in a Time magazine cover story in September, he decided that it was time to take action.
Positive action, that is.
Page wants to let people know that the Maine Militia — which he said is adding members by the day — is not a threat to them, but rather a law-abiding group that aims to function sort of like a backup to the Maine National Guard. Though he was vague about the actual numbers of militia members — “somewhere between 1 and 3,500,” he said — there are dozens of core members in Waldo County alone, and chapters are found in 13 of Maine’s 16 counties.
“We take care of the people. We’re not interested in fighting foreign wars,” Page said in an interview in one of the restored train cars on his rail-yard property at the head of the Passagassawaukeag River. “The state of Maine is our charge.”
The Time story, by Barton Gellman, reported, “Scores of armed antigovernment groups … have formed or been revived during the Obama years, according to law-enforcement agencies and outside watchdogs. A six-month TIME investigation reveals that recruiting, planning, training and explicit calls for a shooting war are on the rise, as are criminal investigations by the FBI and state authorities.”
According to Page, the Maine Militia emphasizes self-reliance, tradition, preparedness and community service — not training assault teams to take on military targets with M16 rifles during mock combat episodes, as was described in grim detail in the Time story.
“We’re not looking to do anything aggressive,” said another member, who preferred to be identified only as John. “Any two or three people can get together, run around in the woods and train for Armageddon. But that’s pretty useless.”
Page is the leader and public spokesman for the statewide group, which has monthly meetings in addition to county meetings. Two other Maine Militia members from Waldo County agreed to be interviewed, but not identified by last name.
“There’s a lot of knee-jerk reaction to the ‘M-word,’” John said, adding that one girlfriend broke up with him when she learned about his militia activities — though they got back together when she learned more about the group.
The Maine Militia counts women and elderly World War II veterans among its members, Page said proudly, while pulling out what he calls the militia handbook — a 1944 Scout Field Book from the Boy Scouts of America.
“A lot of people want something to do and feel useful,” he said. “Everybody is useful in a militia. We’re nonpolitical, nonreligious, nonracist. As long as you swear allegiance to the Constitution, we don’t care.”
Despite a common perception that militia members must be “revolutionaries,” the Maine Militia men said that the creation of such a force is built into both the United States and Maine constitutions. The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution calls for a “well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State” before stating that the “right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
“In the early, early, early days, there was the militia. They used to call it Civil Defense Force, 50 years ago,” John said. “A lot of this country was built and guarded and secured by the militias.”
Local militias did play an important role in the history of the United States, said Richard Judd, the McBride Professor of History at the University of Maine.
“The old militia was a pretty legitimate group. They protected us during the French and Indian wars and the Revolutionary War,” he said. “It was your citizen army, basically. It was done at the very local level.”
All citizens were expected to participate in annual militia musters, he said, and those continued until the late 1800s.
“You brought your own gun and your own jug of rum to the muster, and everybody had a good time,” he said.
The Maine Militia was started in 1992, a year before a long standoff between federal agents and members of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, ended in a fatal fire that also ignited widespread anger and criticism of the federal government.
“I saw a need for the people — it’s always been for the people,” Page said. “It wasn’t because of any government screw-up. Waco was a wake-up call, yes. But we were there way before Waco.”
The Maine Militia is firmly rooted in historical precedent and also is connected to a network of similar state militias around the country, Page said. He said he has contacted militia members from other states during times of crisis or confusion, including after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 and during the more recent Ari-zona border tensions.
“We don’t necessarily believe what we’re told on the 6 o’clock news,” Page said of militia members.
The Maine Militia harkens back to a time when residents needed to rely on themselves rather than expect the government to solve problems, Page said. Many of its traditions remain the same as 200 years ago. In order to join, a would-be member needs a rifle with 100 rounds of ammunition, a knapsack, and eating and cooking utensils. But militia members said they also look toward the future and being prepared for what might arise.
“It isn’t all chirping birds and fun. This country’s in trouble,” Page said. “Things are getting very bad, and they’re only going to get worse.”
In part, the gun requirement helps to weed out felons, whom they don’t accept, he said. It’s also to teach safe usage to its members — and because, again, they’d rather be prepared. Just in case.
“I’d rather have a gun and not need it than need a gun and not have it,” Page said.
John spoke about the militia’s training exercises and general preparedness. Members have stockpiles of tents, blankets and other things that might be needed in an emergency. Each county must have a supply of 50 gallons of gasoline, kerosene and diesel fuel on hand, and each Maine Militia member must have a “three-day pack” with them, containing enough first aid, food and water to survive in case of emergency. They practice winter camping and other survival techniques, along with learning how to march in sync.
“It comes in handy,” John said. “You never know what’s going to happen.”
The Maine Militia so far has seemed to be a helpful, rather than a hurtful, organization, said Police Chief Jeffrey Trafton of the Belfast Police Department. Page has offered the militia’s help to the city in case of natural disaster.
“In the 5½ years that I’ve been in Belfast I’ve never had any negative contact with Mack Page or other militia members,” he said Friday. “I don’t consider them a threat at all. I know Mack Page, and I don’t believe that anybody in Waldo County needs to be threatened by the militia.”
Penobscot County Sheriff Glenn Ross said that he hasn’t had a lot of interaction with the Maine Militia over the years.
“I don’t have any negative thoughts about it,” he said.
A lot of the community public service done by Maine Militia members is individual. John said that last winter, he dug into his supplies and helped a lot of homeless people around Belfast. During the 1998 ice storm, he said he invited a dozen people to share the warmth of his stove.
Some of the service is more public. In 1995, the militia donated 1,600 pounds of food to the Manna Inc. food pantry in Bangor. In 1997, members helped a Belfast man clean up his property so he could stay out of jail for contempt of court.
“We’re interested in helping people who are trying to help themselves,” Page said. “We’ll go as far as we can go, but we’re not a chartered organization.”
The Maine Militia also makes a public showing each year at the Searsmont Memorial Day parade. Marching in full dress uniform and carrying the American flag, the Maine flag and the Maine Militia flag emblazoned with a rearing black bear, the honor guard has added a touch of military dignity to the parade, Page said.
Initially, some residents took issue with the idea of having a militia participate in the parade, said Searsmont First Selectman Bruce Brierley, but no longer.
“Some of the militias have a bad reputation,” he said. “The militia in Maine is very docile. They do good things. Their mission is to abide by the Constitution and laws of the United States.”