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In A Rural Idaho Coronavirus Hot Spot, A Militia Says It Wants To Provide Relief


The coronavirus is overwhelming more places than just big cities. It's devastating rural Blaine County, Idaho, a community where the local hospital has just 25 beds. And like anywhere else in the country, people in Blaine County are pitching in to help. NPR's Hannah Allam spoke with one controversial figure involved in the relief effort there. His name is Eric Parker. He leads one of the biggest militias in the western U.S., and he's trying to create a do-it-yourself FEMA in Idaho. Hannah Allam is here with us now.

Hey, Hannah.


CHANG: So what is it exactly that Eric Parker is doing?

ALLAM: Well, in short, he's trying to build an independent pipeline of goods and supplies in case the crisis gets worse. And you know, Parker says Hurricane Katrina and other disasters have taught Americans that they shouldn't be putting all their faith in FEMA. So he and others have borrowed this warehouse in western Idaho. They're using it as a staging ground and mobilizing volunteers to basically build their own relief network. I reached Parker in a remote part of the state, and it was a poor connection, but here is some of what he had to say about it.


ERIC PARKER: We have those kind of capabilities. We have truck drivers. We have all of that. And I just hope that we can, as a state, utilize our own network, our own supply, our own goodwill to help our neighbors.

ALLAM: So basically, I mean, the message Parker is trying to send is Idaho can take care of itself.

CHANG: Idaho can take care of itself. Is that the ideological aim of his militia?

ALLAM: So Parker's president of a group called The Real 3% of Idaho (ph). And broadly speaking, we're talking about a militia that's aligned with this broader movement of self-described constitutional conservatives. And yes, they want to curb federal powers. Typically, all these factions get lumped together under one umbrella label, antigovernment extremists. But in reality, there are a lot of differences and some nuance among them.

And in this world, Eric Parker is a star. I mean, just a few years ago, he faced federal trials related to an armed standoff with the government in Nevada. Prosecutors in court painted him as a domestic terrorist, but he beat the most serious charges. And today, he's part of this effort to kind of mainstream the militia movement. His group is registered as a nonprofit corporation. He's running for state senate as a Republican. And now he's trying to show that his group is also ready to step in and play the role - play a role in disaster relief as well.

CHANG: You mentioned he's running for state Senate. How does all of these other efforts play into his political ambitions?

ALLAM: Well, I mean, Parker does live in Blaine County. He didn't have access to testing. But like much of the county, his family was sick for weeks with symptoms consistent with COVID-19. They're still getting over it. So it's not like he's inserting himself in the crisis. It's at his doorstep.

But all that being said, yes, he is running for office. Yes, he's trying to remake the scary image of the militia movement. And suddenly, with a pandemic, some of the activities that once raised eyebrows are now more broadly accepted or maybe even look like common sense, you know. Now there's a national conversation about stockpiling food and supplies, a national conversation about whether stay-at-home orders violate the Constitution and where exactly that line is between public health measures and civil liberties.

CHANG: I saw that last week Idaho's governor, Brad Little, who's a Republican, issued a stay-at-home order. What does Parker make of that?

ALLAM: Well, Parker says he gets it. It's an unusual crisis that requires an unusual response. At the same time, this is where it gets thorny for someone who's positioning himself as both relief worker and constitutional watchdog. So he says the governor's order is justifiable. But what does enforcement look like? Is it a citation? Is it people getting hauled off to jail? And here's what he said about that.


PARKER: I think it's very important that we realize that the constitutional violation, as long as they do not escalate the violence and force being perpetrated on otherwise lawful citizens is a legal issue.

CHANG: That is NPR's Hannah Allam.

Thank you, Hannah.

ALLAM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Hannah Allam is a Washington-based national security correspondent for NPR, focusing on homegrown extremism. Before joining NPR, she was a national correspondent at BuzzFeed News, covering U.S. Muslims and other issues of race, religion and culture. Allam previously reported for McClatchy, spending a decade overseas as bureau chief in Baghdad during the Iraq war and in Cairo during the Arab Spring rebellions. She moved to Washington in 2012 to cover foreign policy, then in 2015 began a yearlong series documenting rising hostility toward Islam in America. Her coverage of Islam in the United States won three national religion reporting awards in 2018 and 2019. Allam was part of McClatchy teams that won an Overseas Press Club award for exposing death squads in Iraq and a Polk Award for reporting on the Syrian conflict. She was a 2009 Nieman fellow at Harvard and currently serves on the board of the International Women's Media Foundation.