Hey National Media, Shasta County Hasn’t Been Taken Over by the “Militia” Quite Yet.

Simplistic and inaccurate media portrayals of Shasta County’s political process risk contributing to deepening polarization and extremism. In this Building Democracy editorial column, we’re sharing what the regional and national media are getting wrong about Shasta County’s contentious recall. And why it matters.

Update: 2.8.2022: We have updated this story to include an explainer box about our use of the term “militia.” We’ve also adjusted an early reference to “less than 10,000 voters” to match later references about “less than 9,000.” Both statements are correct, but the disparity was confusing.

News media across the state, and the nation, including the L.A. Times, National Public Radio, and The Guardian have covered Shasta County over the last week. 

That media scrutiny comes in response to a decision by less than 9,000 voters in Shasta County’s District 2, who chose last week, by a margin of about 1,000 votes, to recall long-standing county supervisor, and former Redding police chief, Leonard Moty. 

Local election officials are still counting ballots, and we don’t know yet which of two front-running candidates will take Moty’s place. Nevertheless, over the last few days, in a wide range of media coverage, Shasta County has been touted as the first county in America to be “taken over” by a “militia.” 

Headline this week from the Sacramento Bee.

We understand the concern.  Over the last two years, Shasta County has become a hotbed of political tension, with threats against the local government becoming almost commonplace. 

But when regional and national news media boil the Shasta County recall story down to the actions of a “militia,” they’re missing crucial parts of the narrative. Recall proponents have included a broad array of interconnected community members who have used legal political processes, albeit often by deploying misinformation, to harness the public’s vote. And there’s some truth, although often hidden beside paranoia and threats of violence, to recall proponent’s cries for increased accountability and transparency within this conservative rural county. 

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Here’s how Shasta Scout describes local militias, and why.
You can learn more about unlawful militias here.

The media should be more committed to capturing this complexity. Here in Shasta County, where almost 50% of school age children were absent during a planned walk-out in protest of COVID vaccine mandates, labeling the recall movement as “extremism” is a form of othering that is likely to feed already intense feelings of frustration and marginalization.

That’s important because Shasta County’s future is still largely undecided. Seats will change again in the next supervisorial election, and recall proponents have already been cultivating candidates for multiple additional positions on that board. They also hope to take charge of other key county seats, including the Shasta County Superintendent of Schools.

What Could Additional Far Right Candidates in Office Mean for Shasta County?

Recall proponents have a broad mix of governmental goals, which are sometimes difficult to determine and which likely vary significantly across the movement. But podcasts and radio show interviews provide more complex insight into some of the central values of leaders of the recall groups. 

Those leaders have discussed creating a “citizens constitutional compliance committee” which would test elected county officials to determine whether they are “constitutionalists,” and permanently remove from office those who fail that test.

They’ve also discussed the need for supervisors to practice  “interposition,” serving as a buffer between county residents and Governor Newsom’s orders; and they support the idea of “nullification” or refusing to enforce what they see as unjust California laws.

Recall proponents are also interested in significantly changing the use of funds in Shasta County, starting with a series of “forensic audits” of county funds. They’ve called for a halt on county salary raises, and a significant defunding of the county’s Health and Human Services Department, as well as the firing of the county’s Public Health Officer, who has also been the target of threats.

Local “Militia” Activity and Related Political Action Is on the Rise in Shasta County

It’s true, of course, that the Shasta County recall was organized, in part, by leaders of a long-standing self-described “militia” here in Shasta County.

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But local “militia” groups are nothing new to Shasta County, and neither is their acceptance by locals. A 1999 article by the Sacramento Bee suggested that Shasta County is “home to anti-government, gun-toting militia groups, survivalists and religious extremists” and quoted the Shasta County Sheriff at the time, Jim Pope, as saying “The militia people we’ve had around here are really good people, churchgoers, they don’t bother anybody.”

A quote by former Shasta County Sheriff Jim Pope was featured in a 1999 Sacramento Bee article.

But as reports of domestic terrorism have surged since the Capitol insurrection, here in Shasta County, we’ve watched a surge of our own. In January of 2021, the leader of the local self-described “militia” reported a tenfold rise in recruits in the days between January 6, 2020, and Biden’s inauguration. 

Over the last year, “militia”-connected locals have sought political office in the county’s City of Shasta Lake and made threatening statements against both local government officials and the media. They’ve released new podcasts alongside their multiple radio shows, and joined hands with others in the community, including a music producer well known for his connections with Bethel Church, a politically active megachurch that’s one of the largest employers in Shasta County, and that worshiped and prayed at the Trump Whitehouse.

Some “militia” members are the same people that, in June of 2020, showed up to a local anti-police brutality protest in camouflage to assist the police with community protection against rumored threats of “antifa.”

To complicate things, while national and regional media have contrasted recalled Supervisor Moty’s law enforcement history with a “militia-led” recall, individuals associated with the self-described “militia” told the press at that time that they had been asked by Shasta County law enforcement to attend the protests. Public document requests searching for evidence of such collaboration showed only that local law enforcement were aware the “militia” had planned to attend. 

But community concerns about local law enforcement were amplified last August when more internal police documents about that day surfaced, revealing that law enforcement in Shasta County had pursued a non-existent antifa bus, based on nothing more than social media rumors that proved unfounded.  

These stories, and others over the last few years indicate the complex and interconnected nature of community relationships in a rural community like Shasta, where recall proponents are also our local nurses and pastors, friends and neighbors, and in many cases well connected to existing power structures. After all, this is Shasta County, where “militia” communications with local law enforcement include easy references to the local “foxhole,” and where the “militia” is considered a community organization and runs a summer camp for disadvantaged boys.

Headline this week from The Guardian.

The Media Should Remember that the Recall Is Bigger Than a “Militia”

The Shasta County recall is significant because it will swing county supervisor numbers, changing the balance of votes. But what many outside our county don’t realize is that one of those “militia-aligned” votes comes from a local supervisor and pastor who has held the office for more than 15 years. 

The real story on the ground in Shasta County is much more complex than a “militia-led takeover” by “extremists,” to quote a series of easy media buzz phrases that have been used to tap into deep nation-wide fears about America’s political instability in the wake of the Donald Trump presidency and amidst COVID-19 surges. 

Headline this week from L.A. Times.

Instead, the Shasta County recall is the story of a largely grassroots (if outside-funded) community movement that includes teachers, business owners, medical providers, church leaders and stay-at-home mothers. It’s the story of a broad subset of the people of Shasta County whose views about Covid-19, many of which are rooted in misinformation, are shared by others across the nation right now. 

And it’s occurring in a politically conservative atmosphere where county government has long had a reputation for lacking transparency and accountability. Recent signs of widespread community mistrust of local government have included the failure of a tax measure to support public safety, widespread anger about crime rates and jail capacity and concerns about a new top level county job given to a reportedly unpopular Sheriff

Here’s How We’re Covering the Recall and other Complex Social Movements

We believe the press has the power to help safeguard and strengthen democracy. That’s why we’re committed to in-depth, thoughtful and accurate reporting on  grassroots movements, including those with ties to disinformation campaigns or extremist beliefs. 

Some local news media organizations have spent more than a year repeatedly targeting members of the recall, while others have mostly kept watch and reported from a distance. At Shasta Scout, we’ve spent much of the recall process quietly seeking to understand the motivations and belief systems that are leading to local political changes. 

We know the recall includes a wide array of Shasta County citizens, many of whom are confused and feel disempowered. Listening to their stories, and being open to their concerns, is the job of an engaged local media. Here are some of the principles we’re using to ensure we’re doing that appropriately, right now, and always.

  • Our reporting will acknowledge powerful historical context 

We know that this modern recall story must be understood within the context of America’s history of  militia movements, whether state sanctioned or self-described, which have been tied to terrorism, including violence targeting Native people, LGBTQ community members and reproductive health workers. Because of this history, and current events, people who’ve historically been the targets of militia violence, and many others, reasonably feel their safety is threatened. History demands that our reporting center their concerns. 

  • We reject false or overly simplistic narratives and binaries

Not all recall supporters are “militia-affiliated” and not all law enforcement officers are trustworthy.

Buzzwords and associations that support one-sided narratives serve to simplify rather than enrich deeply complex topics. By placing people on the side of a law enforcement officer or a militia leader, we create a false binary that allows us to refuse to face the real problems and frustrations in our community, and the hard work of addressing them. 

Furthermore, by describing recall proponents broadly under terms like “militia” and “extremist” the media may “other” them in ways that can actually contribute to polarization, extremism and the risks of violence. 

  • Facts and data are the grounding for thoughtful journalism 

While it’s exciting to run a big headline about a militia recall, the data-based details of the story tell us a lot more about what’s actually happening and how much it matters. 

For example, while some media reported that Shasta County voters made this decision, only one-fifth of the voters within Shasta County (or District 2 voters) were actually eligible to vote in the recall election at all. That means the recall decision was up to only 21,000 people, of whom less than 9,000 voted. 

Reframing the story with that data helps us to see that this decision may or may not indicate the direction of the county as a whole. With multiple elections ahead, there is still much to be determined about what the 180,000 people of Shasta County will choose. 

  • We are serious about correcting misinformation and about finding the truth

While recall proponents have clearly broadcast significant amounts of disinformation, neither side in the recall battle has had a monopoly on the truth. At Shasta Scout we’re watching closely for nuggets of accuracy and evidence of falsehoods on various sides of the story. When we take seriously the complaints of our complex community, we have the potential to de-escalate tensions and defuse violence. 

By using solutions-oriented reporting, the media can work to improve government accountability, transparency and engagement in ways that have the potential to build stronger, safer, kinder communities.

  • We document threats of violence clearly and compellingly

We’ve reported on Homeland Security’s updated domestic terrorism assessments and tied them to the threats that have been made in Shasta County over the last several years. We’ve also cited threats against the media, which present a real risk to the freedom of the press, and our imperative to safeguard the public against viral misinformation. Threats of violence are fundamentally opposed to the healthy democratic process and require thorough, honest and proactive reporting.

  • We maintain editorial independence by not promoting or endorsing candidates.

We won’t publish journalism that supports or opposes political candidates. Doing so would compromise our ability to report objectively on political processes and has the potential to destroy the trust with the public that’s necessary to comprehensively and effectively cover the recall movement. 

  • We know that seeking to understand perspectives doesn’t have to equate with embracing them

In attempts to more deeply understand what led community members to recall Moty, we’ve been observing protest activity and seeking to learn from less-seen community members who aren’t the face of the movement, but who nevertheless support the work. We’re also listening to a variety of perspectives by interviewing people outside county meetings, listening to podcasts by recall promoters, and subscribing to newsletters that are focused on concerns that recall proponents feel strongly about, like election integrity and school board corruption. 

We do so because we are committed to accurately reporting the concerns of all community members and to the long-term process of building trust across ideological lines in support of a healthy democracy. 

We transparently document our development processes in our Building Democracy columns, as part of our central commitment to strengthening society through journalism.

Do you have feedback on how we are covering the Shasta County recall or other topics?  Email us, or join the community conversation at Shasta Scout’s Facebook page. Do you have a correction to this story? Submit it here.

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