The Sound and the Fury
Late on a Sunday night, Rob Thorn leaned over the microphone and told his people he needed them.
The Voice of Freedom is a listener-supported radio show, he said. He had no mugs or T-shirts, but if you give generously, you might win a bulletproof vest. If you already have one, maybe you could use a military pack, or maybe a first-aid kit that equips you to perform surgery on yourself. Call now, and don't worry about the government tracking you down. Just send cash without a name.
"You're listening to the hard-truth radio network,'' said Thorn. ''If the truth is worth knowing, then the truth is worth supporting."
Thorn took off the headset and gave the signal for the commercial. It was playing in the lobby of station KFCC when he wandered out: "Go see Miles at Spring Army Surplus and get stocked up for what we all know is coming." Thorn looked at the half-dozen men gathered in the lobby, told them he had a headache and asked if anyone had an aspirin. "No," said the smiling man in a constable's uniform, "but I've got a bullet."
In fact, there was a bag of bullets on the table. Some of the men rattled handfuls of them like spare change. The deputy constable unholstered his gun to show that his bullets were better -- hollowpoints. Thorn ignored them, found an aspirin in the first-aid kit and returned to the microphone. Out in the darkness, hundreds of people leaned close to their radios as Thorn told the real truth about Bill Clinton and Janet Reno, the IMF, the ATF, the FBI, the CIA and, of course, the U.N. They're all united in a grand conspiracy to wreck your life and establish the New World Order. You do remember Waco, don't you?
"They haven't tried another genocide since, but I'm sure they have one in the pipeline," Thorn said, "and I'll be interested in seeing how much spunk Americans have when they try it.''
In the lobby, the men had heard it all before. They were speaking now of other things. "What I need is a good gas mask,'' the deputy constable was saying. And Shawn, who established his authority when he announced his daddy was a Green Beret and his mama was a Marine, advised the deputy to ''buy Israeli.''
"What would you recommend for footwear?" another man inquired.
"You just cannot beat a U.S. Army jungle boot,'' Shawn replied.
It went on like this for some minutes, Shawn serving all their combat needs. He was ready for the tyrants. "They come for my ass, that's just fine,'' said Shawn, "because this old Airborne Ranger knows how to run and gun.''
Suddenly, the men were running, if not quite gunning, to the front door. They were militiamen, most of them, and they had come to protect Rob Thorn from the New World Order. Outside, someone had seen a van with federal government plates and what looked like gun barrels protruding from the windows. Rogue agents, the deputy constable explained.
"I'd stay inside if I were you,'' he warned. "Every man out there has a gun, and I don't want you getting caught in the line of fire.''
When he saw the reporter jotting that down, he said he didn't want to be known as a constable or a police officer or even as a peace officer. Just call him "PO," he said, "because I'm really getting scared about this thing."
About a week after the federal building was bombed in Oklahoma City, President Clinton stood up to say, "The nation's airwaves are too often used to keep some people as paranoid as possible.'' The talk shows spread hate, Clinton said, and leave the impression violence is acceptable.
Rob Thorn says Clinton is wrong. He's just trying to get people excited about their rights.
"Sovereignty," Thorn says, "if it doesn't exist in the heart, if it doesn't exist in the head, if it doesn't exist 15 rounds in the clip, it just plain doesn't exist."
It was several days before his show, and Thorn was sitting in his studio at KFCC, 1270 on the AM dial, in far southwest Houston. He's 42, but he looks at least ten years older. His teeth are yellow from smoking, and his skin has the pallor of a man who lives at night. He hadn't been talking long when his friend, Tom Maxton, barged in with a new tape recorder. Maxton quickly unwrapped it, filled it with batteries and proceeded to record the entire interview. It was obvious many years had passed since they last trusted the media.
"They claim you as their assets," Maxton chimed in.
"The International Monetary Fund," said Thorn, "the World Bank, the Federal Reserve ...."
"The world elite," Maxton interjected. And Thorn went on:
"They're handing over the people and property of the U.S. to the United Nations in order to establish global governance."
Rob Thorn has always lived in a threatening world. His mother said he's the "super patriot" of her four children. He said his mother is the inspiration of his life. A crime reporter in Homestead, Florida, she managed to uncover enough intrigue in that small town to keep life ever exciting in the Thorn household. The town council was a crime syndicate, Rob says. During the day, his mother was often followed by a crop-duster; at night, she would get threatening calls from "the black hand of death." One of Rob's childhood memories is banging pots and pans over a "bug" they found in an air-conditioning vent.
He had trouble academically, "didn't study as well then as now,'' he explains. He enrolled in Miami-Dade Junior College to avoid the Vietnam War. He smoked a lot of marijuana there, but again, didn't study, and when he realized his grades weren't good enough to keep him out of the draft, Thorn got on a motorcycle and set off to discover America.
He fought his way across the country. It seemed that in nearly every small town, someone wanted to fight him. "The rednecks always wanted to cut my hair," he recalls. Thorn says he was arrested more times than he can count and spent many days and nights languishing in small-town jails. It was a sobering experience, and without the marijuana, he came to his political enlightenment. He discovered that McCarthy was right: there were commies everywhere. They passed out LSD at rock concerts; they tried to lure him into their communes. But he knew what they were doing. They were weakening America's moral fiber to make way for a Soviet invasion.
When he got back to Homestead, Thorn found that his record of fighting for himself had disqualified him from fighting for his country. He went to work as a counselor on a crisis hot line and became one of the early members of the Libertarian Party. He wrote speeches, debated on the debate team. Freedom was an urgent matter. He fought with words.
Then a terrible thing happened. Thorn married a liberal.
She was very smart and she argued him out of every conviction he had. He lost his interest in politics and with it, his confidence. "She fed me my opinions," Thorn says. "For five years, she made me a wimp."
In 1980, Thorn's liberal wife finally kicked him into the cold. Lost and bereft, he headed to the airport determined to take the first plane out. "I was going to hell,'' he says. "It didn't matter what door I went through."
That's how Rob Thorn came to Houston. The independent, Texas spirit did his confidence a world of good. His first job was distributing Houston Home & Garden magazine, and by last year, he was a security guard when he met Tom Maxton in the Libertarian Party. As they watched the dismal vote totals come in, they realized the media were ignoring their candidates. They came up with an idea: why not create their own medium, promote their own truth? Thorn had a polished voice; Maxton was a real-estate man with a little startup money. They put it all together, and the Voice of Freedom was first heard last November.
"All the truth the mainstream media won't tell you," Thorn says happily. "That's our motto."
He dreams now that his ex-wife will call up one night while he's on the air and start arguing politics again. Thorn believes he could take her.
The show is his only job. He earns about $800 a month from it and lives on soup and crackers -- "actually, more crackers than soup," he says. But it's the best job he's ever had, and Thorn says he's a man on a mission. On KFCC, his show has been carried by satellite to a few AM stations in other parts of the country, and Thorn says he's received letters from seven states and calls from as far away as Alaska. He figures he has maybe 5,000 listeners, but "they're the most politically pissed-off group out there." Their numbers are expected to increase on August 6, when the Voice of Freedom begins airing from eight to 11 on Sunday nights on the more powerful KJOJ, 103.3 FM and 880 AM.
If you tune in, you'll hear that the invasion has begun, that Russian military equipment has been spotted rolling into the country, that black United Nations helicopters are flying low. The word "federal," as it turns out, is a secret derivation of "feudal,'' which signifies the sort of government we live under. Among other things, our government is in the protection racket; in fact, an American was recently executed for not paying his protection money.
"This is the education people need," said Thorn. "What we have is a dumbed-down public."
"Sheeple," he calls the unenlightened.
His finer points may not have wide appeal, but Thorn hits hard on a broader populist theme: a government grown too big is infringing on our constitutional freedoms. Right away, the show was embraced by a great and growing anti-government movement. Thorn claims to have received sympathetic calls from people affiliated with the religious right, the Houston Property Rights Association, the Houston Taxpayers Coalition and with small, new groups with names like Citizens United for the People.
But Thorn found his biggest fans among the members of the citizen militias that have been forming across Texas for the past few years. That relationship began in earnest after Thorn issued a "Bonehead Media Award" to the reporter of a story on militias. A militiaman called to thank him, and Thorn and the Texas Constitutional Militia have been close ever since. When he gets death threats, he says, they're around to guard him. When they need a message passed quickly, he's happy to oblige, on the air.
"Pork chop belly down 72 up," he'll say, and the militia will be alerted that the black helicopters at Hobby Airport have been grounded for 72 hours. Attack seems not imminent.
Thorn is the owner of two assault rifles, but he's considering selling one now, because he doesn't think he'll be around to use it. The government is going to silence him, he believes, and so it's important that he speaks loudly now. Everything is coming down within five years. The economy will collapse, he said, and a swarm of black helicopters will fly in, and the United Nations will lay down martial law. Famine and disease will rack the land, and the streets will ring with the sounds of warfare. Only those who have prepared will survive.
"You're going to have to live like an animal," says Thorn. But before the apocalypse, a commercial plug: "Spring Army Surplus," he notes, "sells everything you need to live like an animal."
There's only one way to prevent this awful fate, a single route of deliverance, says Thorn. The government must return our constitutional rights. The citizen militias must grow strong enough to make the government do this.
The lieutenant commander of the North Gulf Region of the Texas Constitutional Militia answered the number Thorn supplied and agreed to meet at an IHOP in west Houston. "I'll be the guy in fatigues with an M-16," Johnny Johnson said. "Just kidding!"
In the back of the restaurant, he was the middle-aged man with uncombed hair, hunched over a plate of chicken bones. He sells and repairs copiers for a living, and this was lunch. Johnson wiped his hands and smiled and said the militia was getting a bad rap.
"It's much different here from the way the media portrays militias in other states," he said.
The Texas Constitutional Militia, he explained, is divided into four regions. The North Gulf Region encompasses 28 counties, and maybe 12 of these have a militia unit. Harris County has three -- Alpha, Bravo and Charlie. How many members?
"You're asking for some confidential information," Johnson replied.
No one seems really to know the size of the local militias; estimates on the total number of members range between 400 and 1,000. Johnson says their primary mission is emergency assistance -- rescuing people from hurricanes and tornadoes, saving businesses from looting. The sheriff's department has said that such help isn't needed, however, which leaves the militia with an image problem. Members like Johnson want to be seen as protectors of the people, not as an actual menace. That became impossible when Timothy McVeigh was arrested for the bombing in Oklahoma City. He had attended meetings of a Michigan militia, and the media publicized that fact widely. To Johnson and many others, then, it is the media's fault that most Americans still trust their government more than their local minutemen. Stories like this one always return to the guns, for guns seem the one thing all militia members have in common.
"We're not here to break any laws," Johnson said. "We're here to send a message to our elected officials that the erosion of our rights will stop."
When Johnson speaks of rights, he is speaking mainly of the right to bear arms. A licensed firearms dealer who says he taught guerrilla warfare in the Army, Johnson believes the Second Amendment is the linchpin of the Constitution, what holds it all together. Without our guns, he believes, we'll lose every one of our rights.
He was bothered by the Brady Bill, then, and he was enraged by the ban on the sale of assault weapons. But not until the tragedy at Waco did Johnson understand the system behind it all. When black-suited federal agents used guns to take the guns away from the Branch Davidians at Mount Carmel, Johnson knew Americans were being disarmed so they could be controlled.
"And that's when I began collecting information," he said. He began listening to talk radio. Rob Thorn has a lot of good ideas, he said. He found a place on the Internet. He read obscure books and journals. Little by little, Johnson gathered evidence until it pointed to only one thing:
"There is an overt plot for the United Nations to take over this country," Johnson said. "That's not a paranoid theory. It's an actual conspiracy."
One year after the Waco fire, in April 1994, scores of thinkers like Johnson gathered in San Antonio to establish the Texas Constitutional Militia. Just as the Alamo rallied the last Texas militia, Waco rallied this one. The new defenders of freedom issued a "Statement of Grievances" that Johnson believes compares favorably to the Declaration of Independence.
"Federal officials have made war on the People," it declares. And then it gets to the heart of the matter: "They have established a criminal Secret Government, involving a conspiracy of key officials in all branches and levels of government, and involving government contractors, financial institutions, business organizations, the media, educational, religious, and charitable organizations, labor unions, trade associations and political action groups."
It's a conspiracy, in other words, of almost every living soul except those who have joined the militias. According to a recent report from the Anti-Defamation League, at least 15,000 people have joined militias in at least 40 states. Ordinarily, the League would weigh in about here on the dangers of mixing firearms with paranoia and traces of age-old anti-Semitism, but Johnson expected that and said he'd done a little research of his own on his "enemy." It seems the ADL is actually an arm of the British secret service. In fact, they may have been part of that South Texas cult a few years ago that sacrificed college students and ate them.
"You don't realize the kind of people we're talking about," said Johnny Johnson. "This is not a sweet and simple world."
He gathered up his evidence, the papers strewn all over the table, and walked out of the restaurant and got into his van. On the back, a sticker read, "Freedom of the press does not mean the right to lie.'' The media have just butchered the militia, he said. Why should he expose his people again? They were really quite defenseless.
"You have to remember," said Johnson, "most of us are not schooled in protecting ourselves with words."
Of course, the militia trains with guns, he said, but no, a reporter can't watch. All meetings are open to the public, but they aren't open to reporters.
The best he could offer was a little picnic planned for the Fourth of July -- a family affair. Maybe that would be okay for a reporter.
''You do us a good job, and we'll take you out and buy you coffee,'' he said, shaking hands. "You don't, and we'll take you out and shoot you. Just kidding!''
He made the arrangements, but after that, the lieutenant commander seemed to realize the media was going to disappoint him again. He grew tired of questions. He refused to wear his uniform for the photographer. He said he knew what kind of story we were trying to do. And he denied any differences of opinion with Will Blumentritt.
Until a couple of months ago, Blumentritt, a NASA engineer, was executive officer of Harris County's Bravo Unit, in the Pasadena-La Porte area. As he tells it, a meeting of unit leaders was called together one evening in Johnny Johnson's home. They gathered round and listened for more than an hour as Johnson outlined a prophet's predictions for Armageddon. Finally, when he could take no more, Blumentritt stood up and asked what any of this had to do with the militia. That was the fork in the road.
Not long afterward, while Blumentritt was out of town, the Bravo Unit convened for an impromptu election and voted him out. His men, he learned afterward, wanted more training with guns, less talking with the press and government.
"I still believe in a well-regulated militia standing against tyranny,'' Blumentritt said, "but at the same time, I think it will never be effective until we get these paranoid people focused.''
Blumentritt figures about half the local militia are "paranoid." A split is growing now between members who believe the government can still be changed through the ballot box, and those who keep the ammo box near. As a leader, Blumentritt thought political lobbying was more important than combat training. Johnson, on the other hand, has lost all faith in government. He thinks the federal government may have bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City as an excuse to attack the militias.
In Montgomery County, unit leader Mark Bowers refused to join the North Gulf region because of its preoccupation, he says, with ''scary ideas and war games.'' Blumentritt has never heard talk of offensive action, "even from the scariest of the scary,'' but there were times when he worried his men could be provoked. He said Johnson often called to say "something's coming down real fast.'' Twice, Blumentritt's unit was asked to deploy to Arkansas because federal troops were massing there. Twice, Blumentritt stood against it.
The fear descends from Johnson and the regional command, Blumentritt said, and there's a movement now to push the regional command out. Militias were founded at the county level, and some see the regional command as just another big government. If regional authority is abolished, the militia will be closer to what Blumentritt has in mind. In a government that's fundamentally sound, the militia is "kind of like insurance,'' he says. "I hope my house never burns, but I still buy fire insurance.''
The first members of Harris County's Alpha Unit arrived at 7 a.m. for the Fourth of July picnic. They wanted to get the best site. They draped the tables in red, white and blue, hung banners from the trees and planted a large flag above a Texas Constitutional Militia sign. It was the most festive area in all of Bear Creek Park when a three-year-old girl waddled up and mumbled, "Birthday party?"
"Yes, honey,'' her mother leaned to answer, "a birthday party for the country.''
The tables were loaded with deviled eggs and celery sticks, chocolate chip cookies, watermelons and orange soda. By 10:30, everyone who was coming had arrived, and the smell of meat was coming off the grill. No one was saluting anyone or performing any drills. No one even polished a gun. They were men and women, young and old, thin and fat, and white. There were maybe 35 of them, and Craig said there would have been more if they hadn't known a reporter was coming.
He was tossing horseshoes in a T-shirt that read "About to develop an attitude." He looked about 45, and he said he was an unemployed welder. There used to be more of them in the unit, he said, but after the Oklahoma City bombing, the church they were meeting in threw them out, and some members faded away, fearing the attention of the FBI.
He didn't give a damn about politics until the assault weapons ban. After Craig saw the Waco fire, he began preparing for anything his government could do to him, buying cartridge belts and canteens, large quantities of corn and rice and beans. Six months ago, he joined the militia. He would take up arms against the sons and brothers of Americans if those sons of bitches ever came to get his guns, if they ever tried another Waco.
''A police state is a state where the police have all the firearms,'' Craig said. "The surest way to make the militias strong is by cracking down on them.''
An old man wandered up, and Craig asked how he was getting along. Orville, a 69-year-old engineer, explained that he'd had cancer twice and that it's kind of like losing your rights: "It starts out real small and grows and never stops, and you wonder how much you can lose."
Then they began talking conspiracy. Orville recommended some good books: Shadows of Power and The Secret Hand. They sounded like mysteries, but Orville said they were hard facts. Craig said he believed an elite government group was profiting from the destruc-tion of the country. He couldn't understand why a Coke doesn't cost 6 cents anymore, why a loaf of bread costs $1.29. When he was a boy, he said, his neighborhood was like Beaver Cleaver's, and now, only drug dealers are comfortable there. People in Washington "can make the numbers do anything they want," said Craig, and it's obvious they're creating inflation and pocketing the proceeds. Folks in the militia are pretty hot about it.
''Hey, I wouldn't put anything past the CIA," Orville said. And Craig said, yeah, that Oklahoma City kind of reminds his daughter of the Kennedy assassination. Really, said Orville, how old is she?
"Eleven," Craig replied, "but out of the mouths of babes, you know ...."
By then, it was time to eat, and people had gathered under the trees with paper plates of hamburgers and chicken. Several men were huddled around a radio, listening closely to urgent words. A battle was raging in Concord, Massachusetts, and a reporter was live on the scene. The militia was fighting the army, and there were sounds of bombs and gunfire and dying men. It was a modern recasting of the start of the Revolutionary War, but the men of Alpha unit were thoroughly entertained.
Not Craig, though. "It's a little close to home to be funny,'' he said, walking away.
Earlier this month, at the Libertarian Party's state conference, Rob Thorn was introduced as "an invisible hero."
The room in the Doubletree Guest Suites was filled with men in coats and ties. A row of seats was reserved for reporters, and a television camera was aimed at the podium. The crowd listened quietly as Will Blumentritt told them about militia paranoia. And then Rob Thorn, in coat and tie, took his place behind the microphone.
"I am, I guess, the conspiracy theorist on the radio," he confessed. "My mission is to reach out to what the Libertarians would call the politically unwashed."
His message is Libertarian, he explained, but "toned down, with fewer syllables." He did not share some of the details of that message with them -- no reports of black helicopters or rogue agents that day. Thorn kept his conspiracies tucked away and told instead about his early days as a Libertarian and how righteous the party was then and how righteous it could be again.
It's time to grab people by the lapels, he said, time to make them listen. Thorn pounded his fist, leaned forward and rocked back. His voice rose and fell, and the crowd followed him laughing and clapping to the end.
"This is a snowball running down the hill," said Rob Thorn, "and I don't think anyone can stop it. Yeah, I have hope. I'm going to fight hard and I'm going to fight vigilantly, and I know the time will come. We'll draw a line in the sand and say, 'Are you for the Constitution, or are you against the Constitution?'
"Until then, I'll close as I close the radio show: 'Lock and load.'''
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.
- This Houston Rockets Thing Is Going Nowhere
Sat., Dec. 5, 11:00am
Sat., Dec. 5, 7:00pm
Sat., Dec. 5, 7:00pm
Sat., Dec. 12, 2:00pm
- Rice University President: Nobody Here Wants Campus-Carry
- There's No New Contract Yet, but UH's Tom Herman Says He's Sticking Around