On Sunday I arrived in Corbett, Oregon at around 1:37 in the afternoon. I was determined to either disprove the rumors or find evidence of armed militia forming checkpoints, roadblocks, or patrolling the area. What I found instead, early in the afternoon still, was what looked like a “typical American family” pulled over to the side of the road with their emergency blinkers on.
Two men, one of whom looked like Ryan Reynolds with a beard, one who was much older, a woman, and a late teen around high school age, all wearing high visibility vests, standing on the side of the street at the bottom of East Larch Mountain Road. They made no attempt to stop the car in front of me, but it did slow down and ask them what was going on. They stood next to a sign which read, “Road Closed Ahead” which understandably caused some confusion.
I pulled my van over to the side behind the family’s vehicles and switched my emergency blinkers on. As I walked over to them, the old man asked if I was his relief, already heading towards his truck which bore stickers like, “Don’t Tread on Me” and “Freedom Isn’t Free.” I told him that no, I was just wondering what was going on up here, I had seen the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Twitter post about “groups of residents in Corbett who have set up checkpoints and are stopping cars” and wanted to see how much truth there was to that.
Deputies have contacted several groups of residents in Corbett who have set up checkpoints and are stopping cars. While we understand their intent is to keep the community safe, it is never legal to block a public roadway or force other citizens to stop.— Multnomah Co. Sheriff’s Office (@MultCoSO) September 12, 2020
I spoke with the group only briefly. They knew of the tweet and insisted that there were no armed individuals stopping cars, and that they were only there to answer questions and help folks who were evacuating. I thanked them for speaking with me, wished them a pleasant day, and proceeded on to my destination up the mountain.
I was on my way to meet with a local I had contacted and arranged to spend some time with talking about the wildfires and the communities response to the fireworks set off Friday evening in what looked like a deliberate attempt at arson. My contact has asked to remain anonymous and not be directly quoted, but he laid out the events of the weekend for me over the course of our six-and-a-half-hour conversation.
According to my source, Friday evening, a person was caught lighting fireworks about a mile from their house. A 15-year-old boy and an old man happened upon the scene after a fire had started, and were able to put it out before it spread too far. The individual who lit the fire was able to get away before either the boy or the man was able to talk to them though, and no one seemed to know who the fire-starter was as of Sunday evening.
My source tells me that after this incident, some of the community came together to organize an around-the-clock presence at the base of Larch Mountain Road. Some of them came out armed, but they didn’t block traffic–they simply raised an arm from the side of the street and if cars stopped, they asked them where they were going, what they were doing, and if they lived in the area. My contact claims that at no point did the people doing this ask drivers for their ID.
The sheriff’s tweet came at 9:02 on Friday night, so at some point between when the community came together to form the checkpoint and then, my source conferred to me that the sheriff dropped by to tell them that blocking roads and forcing other citizens to stop was illegal. At this point the group came together with a few sheriff’s deputies to discuss a course of action they could take to defend their community against arson while not violating any laws. At around 11:30 AM on Saturday, my source tells me that there were two Multnomah County Sheriff’s vehicles at the base of Larch Mountain Road and the deputies were talking with the folks manning what they were now calling the “welcome zone.”
Among the decisions made for the community, according to my source, to continue acting to defend itself were that they would make no effort to stop vehicles. They would simply stand there on the side of the road and answer questions of anyone who stopped to ask what was going on, they decided they would offer aid and directions to anyone who was passing through in an effort to evacuate an area affected by the wildfires, and they decided to only engage with “suspicious vehicles” such as vehicles with out of state or missing license plates, or any vehicle inside which were visible gas cans or fireworks.
My source told me that the decision of how exactly to engage with what they deemed to be suspicious vehicles was to either follow them to wherever they were going, at a distance and pointedly not aggressively, and when they arrived, to talk to the occupants and find out what they were up there to do. They also decided that they would have a few people who knew the area driving around, on alert for vehicles meeting their criteria to be considered, “suspicious.”
My contact insisted adamantly that after the sheriff’s department came to talk to the people at the welcome zone, none of them were armed. When I visited I didn’t observe any firearms being openly carried, though I can’t confirm if anyone there had concealed weapons.
My contact said that people manning the welcome zone didn’t use radios to communicate with the people driving around doing patrols. Instead, they used cell phones.
Neither the family I spoke to upon arriving in the zone nor my contact mentioned “antifa.” If they gave it any thought at all, they seemed to think it was just high school kids being irresponsible. Neither did anyone seem to believe any of the various conspiracy theories revolving around the wildfires was true or responsible for their own local troubles.
I left my contact’s home in the evening, intending to simply drive home and pass by the welcome zone on my way out to confirm that there were still only a few people offering information and assistance to their community. What I found instead was closer to fifteen people, with at least half a dozen vehicles pulled over to the side with their emergency blinkers on.
At 8:37 PM I stopped in the road, rolled my window down, and asked what was going on. One of the men, wearing body armor and carrying an assault rifle approached my car and told me they were just “keeping an eye out” and “making sure their community was safe.” It was at this point that I identified myself as press and asked if it would be alright for me to pull over and ask them a few questions.
One of the three individuals by my window, the only other person carrying an assault rifle, had some reservations about it, but he was spoken over by the person with the plate carrier to say, “naw man this guy is alright, yeah sure pull over, we’ll talk to you.” So I pulled over between a large silver pickup with a “Back The Blue” sticker on its rear windshield, and a silver sedan with a flashing orange bar light on top, and headed over to the three visibly armed individuals.
The whole affair was split into three groups, one group of mostly old men in high visibility vests, another group across the street standing silhouetted in a flood light attached to one of their cars which was pointing at the street, and the visibly armed group of three standing a little ways away. As I passed by the men in high-vis vests, I heard one say to another, “be careful what you say, this guy is a reporter and he might be publishing, you know…”
I walked past the old men to the group of three folks in their mid to late twenties. One was carrying an AR and wearing a plate carrier. He had a radio on his shoulder. Another was carrying an AR and wearing a camo print long sleeve shirt. The third was dressed in all black and carried a Glock handgun with a thirty-round magazine on his hip.
Because of the politically charged nature of this story, I will not be referring to anyone at the “welcome zone” by name. Everyone I spoke to was local to the area and I’d like to avoid introducing the possibility for harassment or violence, regardless of my personal feelings on their goals or actions.
Introductions were made, hands were shaken, and they made it clear that I could ask questions, but they might decline to answer them. It is 8:40 PM when we begin talking. They tell me they’re out there “keeping an eye out and watching for suspicious vehicles or people and trying to prevent arsonists setting fire to the mountain.”
According to the individuals I spoke with, I was the first member of the media to come to talk with them personally, but they were aware of three articles, from KOIN, KGW, and KATU news, which spoke about them. They were upset that media would publish articles based on a tweet by the sheriff without following up or doing any actual investigation of their own, so they seemed happy to speak with me.
We spoke for an hour and a half out there on the side of the road in the dark, illuminated poorly by the flood light across the street that was pointed at the road. Only about ten minutes of our conversation directly pertained to the story I was there to cover. Plate carrier guy confirmed most of what my contact had told me earlier in the day, with regards to the actions they would take while manning the welcome zone, what qualified as a “suspicious vehicle” and the story about the person who set the fireworks on Friday evening.
More reluctantly he confirmed that Friday night they were attempting to stop vehicles until the Sheriff’s Department came by and informed them that they couldn’t do that, and helped them to figure out how to actionably defend their community from arson without violating too many laws.
All three individuals corroborated that the sheriff’s deputies who spoke to them informed them that they were allowed to openly carry their firearms, even though the law in Multnomah county states that open carry is only permitted if the weapon is unloaded and “ammunition is not in an easily accessible space” or if the person carrying has a concealed handgun license. Plate Carrier said he had his concealed handgun license though so even if the sheriff’s hadn’t told him it was okay, he would have been legally allowed to carry anyway.
They further confirmed for me that they had patrols, but they were in radio contact with them–not cell phones as my contact had stated. The patrols were also open-carrying firearms. They said the guns were for them to defend themselves if an arsonist proved violent and that they weren’t using them to intimidate or threaten people. At one point Plate Carrier said he wanted to “normalize people exercising their second amendment right to bear arms without infringement” and argued that according to the wording of the amendment, any law preventing loaded open carry was an “illegal law.”
At one point, Plate Carrier beckoned one of the men in high-vis vests over and asked him to give me a pocket-sized copy of the constitution, which I accepted. He insisted that I read it so that I would, “know my rights and how the government is violating them every day.” I promised to read it, but at the time of this writing it is still out in my car. Plate Carrier was more than happy to quote it to me at several points in our conversation though, sounding well-rehearsed, to reinforce the many points he was trying to make.
Most of the conversation seemed to me to be an attempt to convince me that folks to the right of the political spectrum were “correct” in their thinking and political ideologies, and I won’t share what seemed to be an attempt at recruiting me over to their side. Nobody needs to deal with the brain worms they tried to feed me but me.
I will say though that there were a lot of conspiracy theories mentioned–mostly by the black clad man with the Glock on his hip. Theories like, “the CIA started Facebook to spy on the people of America” and “the wildfires on the West Coast are an organized attack on the people, by either the government or Antifa.” I counted the number of times “Antifa” was mentioned during this hour and a half. It was seventeen. From everything to “the riots downtown” to “the storm brewing off the West Coast” to “climate change,” Antifa was the cause as far as the black-clad man was concerned.
The camo shirt guy didn’t say a whole lot. He was the one who had objected to speaking to a journalist initially, and seemed wary of me the entire time. The one time he spoke without visible reservation was when I asked about his gun. Eventually he seemed to catch himself and he went quiet and guarded again. I didn’t feel like he wanted to harm me at any point, but I definitely got the feeling that he generally distrusted anyone working as a reporter.
At around 9:15 PM, the old man who had been there in the afternoon approached the group I was speaking with. At the same time, Plate Carrier’s radio chirped and a voice asked “is anyone near Mershon and Bell right now?” Plate Carrier, who had stated he was a local, asked the older man where that was, and was answered with “it’s over by the Corbett Community Church.” Plate Carrier and the patrol radioed back and forth a few times. Apparently there was a suspicious individual walking around in a tank top and shorts near the church. The patrol was instructed not to approach the “suspicious character” but to just hang back and watch them for a bit to see if they were up to no good. The old man advised approaching the person and asking if they needed any help, which was then passed onto the patrol by Plate Carrier.
The radio stayed silent the rest of the time I was there. It was a Sunday night and I was told they didn’t expect much traffic since everyone was likely in bed by this hour. The little bit of traffic I did see consisted mostly of their patrols leaving the welcome zone and returning, though there were a few locals who stopped to ask what was going on, or if the group needed “anything from del taco if it’s still open.” One person slowed down to thank the group for being out there. A few vehicles simply turned around at the sight of the group and their visibly armed component.
Shortly after 9:30, most of the fifteen or so people, almost all of whom were armed according to plate carrier, headed out. Five or six people remained, including all three of the visibly armed individuals I was speaking with. All of them insisted that they were not a militia. They said the definition of a militia requires more structure and hierarchy than they had, and that they were simply a group of local community members organizing to try and prevent arsonists from burning down the area that they all called home.
I left a little while after the group began to dwindle. By the time I left, I hadn’t seen any traffic passing the welcome zone in about twenty minutes. I wished them all a safe and uneventful night, and headed to my car.
I spent the drive home thinking about this whole experience. About how Plate Carrier had been so adamant that they were just community members trying to defend their community. How, while I was there, they seemed to want to avoid any actual conflict, and the decisions about how to conduct their community defense seemed almost reasonable–except for the presence of so many weapons.
Whether they technically met the definition of a militia I’m not sure, and they did seem to have the support of their community in these actions. But to me the whole thing was terrifying. Armed people roaming the streets, watching out for “suspicious vehicles and people” scares the life out of me. Whether intimidation is intended or not, many people are scared or made uncomfortable by the presence of firearms and having them handy serves no purpose in defending an area from arson.
So I guess the bottom line is that the rumors of an armed militia erecting roadblocks in Corbett, Oregon aren’t true, but only because they fail to account for the whole picture. The whole story being that there are definitely loosely organized individuals with firearms patrolling the streets and watching out for anyone they deem suspicious, and I’m not sure I totally feel safe out in Corbett right now.
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