- Wilson Criscione
- RJ Blahut, president of the Lower Valley Assembly, says, "We just want to be left alone to live our lives."
On Saturday afternoon, as kids play and roosters crow on a farm north of Prosser, Washington, a crowd of people are gathered in a barn, preparing for the day the "Shit Hits The Fan."
The preppers who attended the fourth annual Northwest Preparedness Expo in Prosser don't know exactly what will cause a breakdown in public facilities and functions, a situation they call the "SHTF scenario." It could be a natural disaster, an economic collapse, or a civil war caused by political upheaval. And they don't know exactly when the collapse will happen.
But increasingly, they see more political violence in big cities, and more of a divide between rural and urban environments. The left's reaction to Donald Trump's presidency, they feel, has deepened the divide, making the day they've been preparing for seem ever more imminent.
"We don't really care what the reason is — if there's a breakdown, then we're going to be able to fend for ourselves while the authorities sort it out," says RJ Blahut, president of the Lower Valley Assembly, the group that sponsored the preparedness expo.
Here in Prosser, the mindset of the American Redoubt thrives. The American Redoubt — "Redoubt" meaning a fortress or retreat — refers to a movement of conservative Christians escaping liberal areas and finding a haven in the area east of the Cascades throughout Eastern Washington and Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. For them, it's a God-honored territory where like-minded people gather together.
"That's kind of what the Redoubt means to me," Blahut says. "It's a safe area — a relatively safe area with some common ideas."
Taking the direction of leaders like Rep. Matt Shea (R-Spokane Valley), preppers in the American Redoubt are preparing to survive a disaster, and to defend themselves against what they perceive as enemies of their culture.
'THE BREAKING POINT'
Cassie Whitlock didn't know what to expect when she came from Oregon up to Prosser with her family to sell wood-fired forges for the expo.
"We were sort of wondering when we came here: Is this going to be super radical?" Whitlock says.
Whitlock, who didn't see many of the speakers, says it didn't seem radical at all. For her, the expo is simply a place where people share ideas on being self-sufficient. She saw people, maybe about 150, building community.
The event features vendors who came from all over the country to sell food, survival materials and ammunition. It included hands-on classes to learn about wound care, home food storage and strategies for unarmed defense, as well as a class about concealed carry options.
There were talks about building a self-sufficient retreat, and a talk called "SHTF Intelligence," in which a former military and contract intelligence analyst named Sam Culper broke down how to gather information about threats that may exist, whether related to infrastructure, power outages or local gangs.
The expo was started four years ago by the Lower Valley Assembly, which describes itself as a "grassroots movement whose goal is to foster a safe, stable and free community." It promotes self-reliance, Christianity and the U.S. Constitution in the Lower Yakima Valley.
Wearing a baseball cap, sunglasses and an army-green button-up shirt, Blahut, the LVA president, tells the Inlander that he first got involved after hearing a speech from 2012 Washington gubernatorial candidate Shahram Hadian, who is currently a pastor in Spokane Valley.
"Being a Christian-based organization and a group that favors the concept of the original Constitution, we're a group that believes words have meanings and they don't change much over the years," Blahut says.
He opposes the federal government taking control of land, in line with the views of those who occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon for 41 days in a standoff with federal authorities last year. If the government wants to enforce something that is not written in the Constitution, Blahut says, then they should amend the Constitution.
When he sees what's happening in this country, specifically in cities like Berkeley, California, Portland and Seattle, he can't help but feel that political upheaval is more likely than ever. He calls it "failure" on the part of the left to "accept and work with the results of the election," which, in his mind, makes it even more important to prepare for some kind of catastrophe.
"If anything, it's probably shifted more from preparing for natural or economic collapse, to more of a political upheaval," he says.
Blahut would like to see a redivision of states to prevent situations like the one in Washington currently, where he claims that the ideas of liberals on the west side of the state have the sway. What King County wants, he says, King County dictates for everybody, fair or not.
"I don't really see how we, here — in Benton County, and Franklin County, and Yakima County and so forth — I don't see how we are ever going to match up with the political views of King County and Pierce County and all those guys down there on the west side," Blahut says. "So where's the dividing point? Where's the breaking point? Where do you say, 'OK, well, this just isn't working out for the state?'"
RURAL AND URBAN DIVIDE
In the "Patriot Barn," the main stage of the expo, an American flag hangs from the ceiling to the right of the stage. Chandeliers hang above wooden chairs, and bistro lights brighten up the room. Glen Tate, giving only his pen name, tells the audience what he thought would happen in the 2016 presidential election: Hillary Clinton would win, by cheating.
If that were the case, "the civil war starts the day after election day," Tate — who declined to comment for this article — tells the crowd of roughly 50 people gathered in the barn.
"In my mind, it was gameday," Tate says. "It was gonna happen."
Thus, his talk is entitled "Hillary Did Not Win, So Should We All Just Quit Prepping Now?"
The answer to that question was "no." Trump, Tate says, bought some time before a major civil conflict, but he says it's still imminent, and actually "should have happened years ago."
After Trump's presidential victory, those in the American Redoubt see more political violence, and they're preparing for more to come. For Tate, the divide between the rural and urban will still inevitably lead to a SHTF scenario.
Tate wrote a book series called 299 Days that imagines the collapse of the United States. It will be a partial economic collapse and a partial political collapse, he says. He supports filling in the Redoubt with "good people" to balance out the protesters in the cities, as he told the preppers on Saturday.
"I think it's fantastic, because when we are mixed in with liberals, they have our way with us," he says. "We need to be separated."
He told the crowd he was "heartened" to see anti-protesters fighting back against what he describes as the "bad guys," the far-left Antifa protesters (Antifa is short for Anti-fascism) in Seattle on May Day. When he mentions "Seattle," the crowd groans.
By the end of his speech, a man in the back of the crowd has asked Tate how the right could find its own leader to fight against the "bad guys" like Antifa, to engage them and to "annihilate them" on the spot.
Tate ignores the violent suggestion, saying that it's better to have "smaller, independent teams" rather than one leader, and advises communicating better than the other side through radios. The right, he said, is "better than the other side at thinking on their own."
Blahut, when asked if he's concerned that the preppers would take up arms against the left, rejects the idea. Rather, the people Blahut associates with are "in favor of the rule of law," he says. They just want to be left alone.
"If we're gonna end up using arms, it's gonna be defensive," Blahut says. "If somebody breaks into your house and you got a gun, you're gonna be defensive about it, right? That's kind of how we look at it."
THE 'REAL ENEMY'
For preppers in the American Redoubt, there are a number of forces to protect themselves from, according to Rep. Matt Shea. In an impassioned speech on Saturday, Shea presented a PowerPoint presentation called "The Future of Liberty: Protecting Our Christian Culture."
Shea declined an Inlander interview request, and requested that his speech not be recorded. But in front of a crowd of nearly 100 people, he identified what he called the "enemies": communists, the Muslim Brotherhood and foreign governments.
Among the "communists," he mentioned activist organizations like the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations. He linked the media to the "communists," since a Spokesman-Review columnist once served as a moderator for a PJALS panel discussion. He called out the Inlander for a correction the paper made, because he was unsatisfied with the size, font and location of the correction. He said a story about Spokane County Democrats' numerous Public Disclosure Commission violations was "one of the most underreported stories this year," without mentioning last month's detailed Inlander investigation of the violations.
The Redoubt, "the best place in America," Shea said, does not share the same values as Western Washington, and he said he'd continue his efforts to create a 51st state. For the audience, the message was to keep focused on the enemy, and help your neighbors.
"We're here because we know if something does happen, we can help our neighbors, love our neighbors," he said.
He ended with a call to the crowd to fight for their culture.
"Are you going to fight?" Shea asked them.
"Yes!" they responded.
He asked a second, and a third time. And with each response, the crowd grew louder. ♦