Wednesday, March 22, 2023
March 22, 2023

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Far-right group stakes a claim, stoking angry debate and exposing political divides

3 Photos
The Deer Lagoon Grange hall began its life as a church. The quilt design on its side was chosen as part of a contest in 2015.
The Deer Lagoon Grange hall began its life as a church. The quilt design on its side was chosen as part of a contest in 2015. (Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times/TNS) Photo Gallery

LANGLEY — The Deer Lagoon Grange sits on an emerald swath of grass along the northeast shore of Lone Lake, just outside the picturesque town of Langley, perched on bluffs above Puget Sound at the south end of Whidbey Island.

The white building with two geometric barn quilts on its clapboard walls was once a Lutheran church. It’s a bit run down today and in need of a paint job, but has stood at the heart of the island’s agriculture community since its founding in 1927.

In recent months, however, Deer Lagoon Grange #842 has landed hard at the center of something else: outrage and controversy over its apparent affiliation with the armed, far-right Washington State Three Percenters (WA3%), which used the Grange as a jumpoff point for a large, mask-less “Freedom to Worship” rally in Freeland on Oct. 18. As allegations of harassment and debates over masks, racial justice and free speech swirl, the tension surrounding the Grange and its future reflects the country’s political divide, writ small.

A recent — and rare — influx of members to the Grange includes several members of the WA3%, according to current and formrick er Grange members, spurring fears among the more liberal island residents of a right-wing takeover of a valued community meeting space. While WA3% organizers eschew labels like “paramilitary,” their bylaws reference the Minutemen of the American Revolution and call for members to carry weapons “every day and everywhere you legally can.”

Members at Deer Lagoon said recent meetings have turned from sparsely attended discussions of county fair “critter workshops,” prize pigs and pumpkins to crowded, mask-free affairs involving topics like disaster preparedness and first-aid, including how to treat gunshot wounds. Some of the newcomers have shown up with guns, according to members who declined to be identified out of concern for their personal safety.

At the same time, a prominent WA3% member and recruiter who lives on Whidbey Island, Erik Rohde, says he’s been actively encouraging his members to join the Grange, claiming “three or four” already have. Rohde was one of the organizers of the Freeland rally. He wouldn’t identify any of the group’s membership when asked.

“It’s been frustrating,” Rohde said. “We have no racist ideology; that isn’t allowed in our organization. It’s not what we’re about. We have people from every walk of life.

“I am encouraging people to join the Grange. We encourage our members to be involved in the community,” he said. “I will take credit for spurring people to get involved.”

Island County Sheriff Rick Felici said his deputies were aware of the “hubbub” over the Grange and the rally, but said that from a law-enforcement standpoint, “It was a nonevent.”

“People have a right to join organizations and express their opinions,” he said.

A list of 21 names of new members reviewed by The Seattle Times — several sworn in at a special ceremony Nov. 14 conducted by the state Grange president — includes a former Navy SEAL with a checkered history in law enforcement, an emergency room physician and a data delivery specialist. Repeated efforts to contact these individuals and others on the list were unsuccessful.

Meantime, there’s been an exodus by some longtime Grange members who want nothing to do with the controversy or the newcomers.

“A lot of the old members are leaving,” said Dan Abat, a Grange member and the facility’s caretaker. He said he’s quitting the Grange and the job this year, partly because of stress over controversy kicked up by the new membership. “I have no idea who they are. I just don’t want to be hassled.”

Granges, which first appeared in the U.S. shortly after the Civil War, are grassroots, agriculture-based fraternal organizations with secret ceremonies and members-only gatherings. There are roughly 20,000 Grange clubs nationwide and more than 220 in Washington, with a total membership of about 8,800 people, according to documents published by the Washington State Grange.

The posters for the “Freedom to Worship rally” first began appearing in early October in Langley and elsewhere on south Whidbey Island, declaring “God Bless America!” The word “rally” is struck through, and the word “Protest!” is printed alongside. It provided the Deer Lagoon Grange’s address along Bayview Road.

The poster urged participants to bring food for a potluck and promised patriotic fare and speeches by WA3% founder Matt Marshall; Joshua Freed, a Republican write-in candidate for lieutenant governor; GOP congressional candidate Tim Hazelo; Joey Gibson of Vancouver, founder of the far-right Patriot Prayer group, and Aryeh Rohde, son of WA3%’s Erik Rohde and a self-proclaimed constitutional scholar and Second Amendment advocate.

In Langley, a number of residents recoiled at the prospect that the island would host a large group of outsiders, some from groups with racist ideologies or underpinnings, who would likely be armed and whose intent was to flout the state’s masking and social distancing guidelines even as COVID-19 infections were increasing.

“It really was a public safety and public health threat,” said Langley City Councilmember Craig Cyr, who noted that the tension that has gripped the country as a result of the threat of postelection violence and the devastation wrought by the coronavirus pandemic has not missed Whidbey Island or his scenic resort town.

In the end, the “Freedom to Worship” rally was moved from the Grange hall to a field near Freeland, where more than 150 people showed up, according to news reports. The hall was still used as a checkpoint for rally attendees before they were shuttled to the new site.

Rumors about what was or might be happening at the Grange rattled city officials, activists and business owners. Anxiety was heightened by the repeated appearance over the summer of a convoy of pickup trucks trailing giant Trump and Thin Blue Line flags — a symbol intended to show support for law enforcement but sometimes co-opted by the alt-right and white supremacists — driving through town and stopping to idle in front of businesses that mandated masks.

Cyr said the city had been aggressive with its mask policy, social distancing and urging closures of nonessential businesses and had done a good job at keeping infections down, despite being adjacent or linked to counties where the coronavirus numbers were soaring.

Among the businesses that were singled out by the Trump caravan was Bayview Farm and Garden and the adjacent Flower House Cafe, owned and operated for the past 30 years by Maureen Murphy and now joined by her son, Samuel Rowley. Two things, they believe, set them up as particular targets of the right’s ire.

After the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police in May and the subsequent nationwide protests over institutional racism and police violence, Murphy made a public statement on the company’s social media site, “making it clear that we stand against racism and police violence and support Black Lives Matter.”

“But I also was very specific on calling out hate symbols,” she said. “And that included MAGA hats,” the ubiquitous red-billed “Make America Great Again” caps that identify Trump supporters. In hindsight, Murphy said, that was a mistake.

“We were in the crosshairs,” she said. “There were some really vicious phone calls, and not just from people in this community. I took calls from as far away as New Hampshire.”

Her business was vandalized and the business’ greeter, a Latino man, was repeatedly confronted and threatened, Murphy said.

Then there were the trucks that would stop in front of her business, Trump flags flying. At one point, she said, she closed the business for a week out of fear. The social media post was pulled down, she said.

“I thought I was doing something good,” she said. “What I ended up doing is putting my staff at risk.”

Reports of the issues at the Grange, just a mile or so up the road, prompted her son, Rowley, to try to contact someone there. Calls to the number posted outside the building went unanswered, he said.

Another activist who has pushed for answers from local Grange officials is Marnie Jackson, the co-executive director of a Whidbey Island nonprofit, The Whidbey Institute. She says she’s tried unsuccessfully to reach out to the Grange and its members in hopes of opening a dialogue.

She’s also working with Cyr and others to start a new membership drive to attract others to join the Grange and counter the influence of WA3%.

Until recently, membership had dwindled over the years: According to the Washington State Grange, the Deer Lagoon Grange had a membership of 19 at the end of last year, down from 22 the year before.

According to documents reviewed by The Seattle Times, the grange saw 23 new members join last month, including the WA3% members that Erik Rohde claims he encouraged to join.

“These groups saw an opening and took it,” said Jackson. The Grange, she said, gives the WA3% members a place to meet. More importantly, she believes, it offers them secrecy.

“I’m aware of many others here in this community who would like to join the Grange, and who could infuse it with new life,” she said. “But, right now, it feels like a threat. People are afraid.”

Deer Lagoon Grangemaster Charles “Chuck” Prochaska dismissed those concerns and blamed the uproar on a few disgruntled members, past and present, and the media, which he said is looking for scandal. If anyone should be afraid, he said, it’s him and his wife, who he said have been harassed by “those left-wing liberals in Langley” to the point that they feel threatened.

“There’s some viciousness out there,” he said. “I don’t know if we should be putting up with it.”

Likewise, Grange member Gary Kay said he and his wife have been targeted solely for belonging to the institution. He said he is not a member of WA3%, but has looked into the group and finds good.

“There is some contention about the nature of these Three Percenter groups, but I feel there’s some need for people to prepare for things like the pandemic,” he said.

“They’re not political. They’re preppers.”

For that, Kay said, his wife has had to stop answering their home phone after picking up and being called a Nazi and fascist.

Prochaska, 79, a retired engineer, said he has no knowledge of the Washington State Three Percenters, isn’t a member of the group, doesn’t know why the Grange was listed on the rally posters, or who printed them. He acknowledged that an “unusual” number of new members joined last month, but wouldn’t identify them.

The Grange, he said, is nonpartisan and all that’s needed to join is a pledge to honor the Constitution, obey the law, believe in God and be a good citizen. All of the new members qualified, he said.

He acknowledged that recent Grange meetings included “first-aid training.”

While Prochaska said he has no knowledge of WA3%, an interview with Prochaska the evening of Nov. 11 about the new Grange arrivals was followed the next morning with an unsolicited text to a reporter by WA3% founder Matt Marshall, who said he’d “received word your (sic) writing a piece involving WA3%” and offered himself as a source.

Three weeks later, Erik Rohde, in a text exchange with The Seattle Times, wrote that “Chuck from the grange is a good man, and not a member of WA3%.”

Prochaska dismissed the notion that the new members were attempting to take over the Grange, but said that it has happened before, back in the 1970s, and involved real estate speculators.

“I am on alert,” he said. “If they violate the rules, they’ll be gone.”