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The Town the Militia Took Over

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"You know why there's not more residents here? The threats. That's why. Because they're afraid. They're afraid they're going to have their windows shot out." - Lifelong Gilberton resident Rose McCarthy speaking about Police Chief Mark Kessler and his supporters on July 31, 2013

National Rifle Association (NRA) CEO Wayne LaPierre once famously told a CPAC gathering that "the guys with the guns make the rules." In the town of Gilberton, Pennsylvania, he might have finally found the perfect test case for his insane vision of America.

What is happening in Gilberton should be a warning to all those who value our basic, inalienable rights to "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." The story there centers around Police Chief Mark Kessler, who drew attention by posting a series of profanity-laced videos to YouTube in which he attacks "libtards," fires fully automatic assault weapons, and threatens, "If you f***ing maniacs want to turn this into an armed revolt, knock yourselves out."

This is no idle threat the chief is making. Kessler is the head of a private militia called the Constitution Security Force (CSF) whose members swear an oath to "respond to the call if... needed to resist tyranny that seeks to destroy our republic." Kessler recruits CSF members at his website ChiefKessler.com, combining his personal and professional identities in one neat little package.

CSF openly affiliates with anti-government extremist groups like Oath Keepers and the "Three Percent" movement, which was founded by former Alabama militia leader Mike Vanderboegh. Vanderboegh made his own headlines in 2010 when he urged supporters to throw bricks through the windows of Democratic offices nationwide following Congress' passage of health care reform. Many offices were vandalized in response, including that of then-Congresswoman Gabby Giffords.

After receiving intense criticism for his videos, Kessler escalated his threats. In a Facebook post on July 23, 2013, he declared:

I will not stand idle while tyrants attack the constitution ... If they want to fire the first shot let it begin right here in Schuylkill county ... Every militia , every csf member who can attend please do ... So come with your flags n your firearms. MOLON LABE ... democrats are the true enemy of our country, our freedoms, our constitution, along with liberal news agency's , liberal news reporters, much like hitlers nazis , time we clean these antiamerican thugs from office.

Kessler at Borough MeetingOn Wednesday, during a meeting of the Gilberton Borough Council to consider disciplinary actions against Kessler, his supporters answered his call. While a State Police helicopter circle overhead, more than 100 people gathered outside the borough hall, many of them armed. CSF members patrolled the area with AR-15 assault rifles, telling one reporter they were there to provide "security." As John Luciew described it, "When it came time to open the small borough building for the public meeting, these armed men blocked the doors and prevented people from going inside."

They also angrily confronted Michael Morrill of Keystone Progress, who delivered petition signatures from 20,000 Americans who want Kessler fired. In an email Morrill told me, "I have been organizing for four decades. I have faced Klansmen in Kentucky, Ustase in Bosnia and police indiscriminately beating demonstrators in Italy. [Wednesday] night in Gilberton was more frightening than any of those situations."

Inside the meeting, two individuals (a councilman and right-wing blogger) wore Oath Keeper t-shirts. A small number of residents were allowed to express their opinion about Kessler. Several expressed fear. "He's a nut. I do not feel safe with him around at all," said Wade Greg Necker, who lives just outside the 700-resident town. Gregory Grove said of his wife: "She's afraid of him. Kessler is a detriment to this borough."

Ultimately, however, the council saw it differently. They decided to only suspend Kessler for 30 days without pay. Immediately after the meeting, Gilberton Mayor Mary Lou Hannon told the media, "I hope he comes back to work for us. I hope it does not leave a bad taste in his mouth."

In 2009, I co-authored a book called Guns, Democracy and the Insurrectionist Idea. In the book, Casey Anderson and I exposed the threat of insurrectionists -- those who believe that they have an individual right under the Second Amendment to shoot and kill elected officials, police officers and military service members in response to what they see as "tyranny." We warned the nation that insurrectionism was anathema to our democratic society and, if allowed to spread, could lead to serious violence.

Some thought our warnings were overblown or alarmist. Even as Congressional offices were vandalized and Gabby Giffords was shot during an assassination attempt, the conventional wisdom held that we were too advanced as a country to succumb to political violence. But now -- out of the same state where rebellious farmers launched the Whisky Rebellion in 1791 -- we have seen the true face of "Second Amendment remedies." A one-man police force and his private militia -- accountable not to the local government, but to him -- appear to have taken over the small town of Gilberton.

Too many of our leaders have indulged insurrectionists as if they were bullying in-laws -- unpleasant but not really dangerous. Mark Kessler has shown us a grimmer reality: How democracy is compromised when access to the political process is blocked through brute intimidation and dissenters become an endangered species. Thanks to the gun lobby and its minions, armed political violence is no longer just something we see in the news in some far away third world country, but a contagion that is beginning to inflict our culture right here in the United States.

In response to the Whiskey Rebellion, the retired General who led our nation to victory in the Revolutionary War literally put his uniform back on, got in his saddle, and physically confronted the "insurgents" threatening our young nation. What is true then is still true today. Our democracy will not survive if we allow "the guys with the guns to make the rules."

[My organization, the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, has launched a petition with CeaseFirePA calling on the Gilberton Borough Council to fire Chief Kessler immediately. You can sign it here.]