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In Oklahoma City, a new anti-government wave

'Tea party' protesters rally against what they view as excessive federal power, as the city prepares for the 15th anniversary of the bombing that killed 168.

April 18, 2010|By Richard A. Serrano

Reporting from Oklahoma City — In the 15 years since a truck bomb blew apart the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building here, the determined people of Oklahoma City have remodeled the local airport and opened a new "Bricktown" area of shops and restaurants. They lured a professional basketball team, and they crowned the state Capitol with a new dome and a bronze statue called "The Guardian."

The Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum now occupies the site of the Murrah building, and it honors the 168 people killed that April 19 and the many others injured. Very little is mentioned there about the bomber, Timothy J. McVeigh, and his distrust of the federal government.

But last week, fear of federal power was a noisy side note as the city prepared to mark Monday's anniversary.

For two days, thousands of "tea party" members gathered on the Statehouse grounds shouting anti-government slogans and waving flags with slogans such as "Don't Tread on Me" and "End the Fed!" A proposal expected to be introduced soon in the Legislature to create a new state militia, out of the control of federal authorities and staffed by armed and uniformed volunteers, drew praise.

"That is how we can protect ourselves," said John Slocum, in the crowd at a Thursday rally. "We're real big on states' rights. We want to bring back the balance of power."

Most tea party members have no love for McVeigh.

"McVeigh, that guy was insane. He was a monster," said Al Gerhart, a local cabinetmaker and head of the 2,000-member Sooner Tea Party, one of more than 40 tea party organizations around the state.

But Gerhart supports the creation of the militia, which he said would be a counterweight to federal authority. "We do think it's a scary thing that the federal government has done nothing to check its power," he said.

He said he and others are deeply concerned that President Obama and a liberal Washington administration will toughen gun laws, so they have been stocking up.

"I had an old shotgun," Gerhart said. "Now I've got a rifle, a shotgun and a pistol. Everybody did that. We had to have enough arms in private hands in America since it was obvious Obama was going to be elected."

"We've got to get enough people to fight and stand up to the federal government," he said.

Some local officials point out that there are about 20 other states with limited volunteer militias that back up National Guard units, but many of the families of bombing victims are angry that the militia idea has surfaced now -- in advance of the anniversary and with Oklahoma City back in the national spotlight.

"That idea is awful. All they are doing is triggering more hatred," said Jannie Coverdale, who lost two grandsons in the Murrah building's day-care center.

Joseph Thai, a professor at the University of Oklahoma law school, said that the increased hype and anger could be enough to prompt someone to act in a dangerous way.

"Most tea party people are peaceful," Thai said. "But it only takes one person to choose violence, just one person to be another Timothy McVeigh."

Politicians are split on the idea of establishing a militia outside federal control.

Republican state Sen. Randy Brogdon, who is running for governor, initially endorsed the idea. Then he said it would work only if its focus was to back up the National Guard. His GOP opponent, U.S. Rep. Mary Fallin, said that if volunteers want to get involved they should join the Guard.

State Sen. Steve Russell, a Republican and former Army lieutenant colonel, said a militia was not needed. "We've already got the best National Guard in the country," he said.

Paul Sund, spokesman for Democratic Gov. Brad Henry, said, "I have no idea why there is a sudden interest in a state militia."

Frank Keating, a former top federal law enforcement official in Washington who was the GOP governor of Oklahoma when the bomb went off, said: "We can always use a second pair of hands filling sandbags," but said that the militia would have to be tightly controlled by the governor's office.

One of the deepest anti-federal sentiments was expressed at a news conference inside the Capitol building.

A group of conspiracy theorists charged that McVeigh had been acting on behalf of the U.S. government, and that Washington had sent secret federal agents here to help him destroy the Murrah building.

V.Z. Lawton, a federal housing employee who was injured in the blast, said that as many as four federal agents had been on hand to assist McVeigh. "The building was already coming down before McVeigh's truck bomb went off," Lawton said.

Bud Welch lost his daughter in the bombing. He does not believe that McVeigh had help igniting the truck bomb.

"Those people are all nuts," Welch said.

richard.serrano@

latimes.com

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