In Small Town, the Fight Continues for Texas Sovereignty

New York Times/February 13, 2005
By Simon Romero

Overton, Tex. -- The road to the capitol winds through a landscape of pine trees, rusting pump jacks and a few tidy churches in this East Texas town. Literature in the lobby describes how citizens can apply for passports or enlist in the interim defense forces.

The building is the headquarters of the Republic of Texas, a sometimes militant organization whose members repudiate the authority of Austin and Washington and believe Texas should be a sovereign nation. The group gained notoriety eight years ago when some members took a couple hostage in the Davis Mountains of West Texas, and endured a weeklong siege by more than 100 police officers, after which a follower who fled into the mountains was killed. The leader of the faction involved in the standoff is still in prison.

But after several years of infighting and the expulsion of renegade splinter cells, the group has resurfaced here in Overton under a new leader, Daniel Miller. Mr. Miller, recently interviewed in Houston, said he wanted to distance the organization from its violent past and from its image as a white-supremacy movement. He said his new platform advocates Texas sovereignty without the use of guns or explosives.

"We are not extremists," said Mr. Miller, 31, dressed in a tailored suit and cowboy boots. "We simply believe we were illegally occupied by the United States in the 1800's."

When he is not handling republic affairs, Mr. Miller helps operate a business that sells touch-screen ordering equipment for restaurants.

Some people in this town of 2,100 are concerned about the group. Among them is Edward J. Williams, Overton's chief of police. In an interview in his office, he described an incident in late January at the capitol, which was once a hospital.

A member of the group, Scott William Taylor of Dallas, said in a statement to Chief Williams that he had given another member, Dale Strictland of Overton, about $1,000 to buy an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle. A melee erupted after Mr. Strictland failed to deliver the weapon, Chief Williams said, with at least one man suffering severe injuries to his head after being hit with a beer bottle.

"I normally wouldn't be alarmed by a few boys getting into a fisticuffs thing," Chief Williams said. "But this is a group with a violent past in parts of Texas. However ludicrous their beliefs might sound to you and me, we can't forget that Jim Jones got a bunch of folks to drink Kool-Aid with him down in Guyana. You could shave one side of your head and have a loyal following around here by nightfall."

Yet Overton does not appear to be a fertile recruiting center even for a kinder, gentler Republic of Texas. Residents seem to have accepted the organization's presence, but only a few openly voice support for it.

"No one really approves of them," said Diana Sieber, who owns a hair salon down the street from the capitol. "They're not the best kind of publicity for our community."

Brenda Tompkins, a waitress at Granny's restaurant, said, "One of them came in here and gave me one of their silver coins with a star on it," referring to the alternative currency the group has minted. "They're low-profile mostly."

The organization re-established itself here in 2003 with the acquisition of the building that would become the capitol, the first time the group has had an official base. Chief Williams said that since then, there have been a number of confrontations with local officials.

He said his officers have fined or issued arrest warrants for group members. Violations included carrying Republic of Texas passports instead of a driver's license; driving unregistered vehicles; and redesigning license plates to show a Texas that includes significant chunks of territory in New Mexico and narrow strips of land in Oklahoma, Colorado and Wyoming. Group members say those areas are part of Texas, wrongly wrested away by Washington.

Republic of Texas members have responded, the chief said, by marching into the local district attorney's office and threatening to fire him, and claiming in lengthy letters to county officials that jurisdiction over such matters lies with their own government, which includes a president, Mr. Miller; cabinet secretaries; and militia-style sheriffs, deputies and rangers.

Much of the group's ideology is associated with nostalgia for the nine years when Texas was an independent country after seceding from Mexico in 1836. The blue Burnet flag from that time, with a large gold star in its center, flies over the capitol.

Group members believe that Texas's referendum in 1845 in favor of joining the United States was illegal, as were the settlements of land claims that Texas then had against neighboring Mexican and American territories in the West. They also advocate the creation of an alternative monetary system using minted silver and gold coins. One coin made of one gram of silver has a large Texas star in its center and the word "Overton" emblazoned around it.

The organization's beliefs are spelled out in the book "Texans Arise," written by Mr. Miller and Lauren Savage, the vice president.

"We believe independence is an achievable goal," Mr. Miller said in the interview.

Mr. Miller was vague about how to accomplish this, but he said that establishing a parallel government and performing government functions like issuing passports were essential.

"People feel disenfranchised," he said. "In Overton we've found a quiet area to forward our views."

Mr. Miller acknowledged that the group was still almost entirely Anglo, although he said he was encouraging factions to look for a broader range of members. He also said he was discouraging activities like armed patrols of the Mexican border to limit immigration. And he said his administration, unlike some splinter cells, did not base its political philosophy on Old Testament beliefs, did not oppose women's suffrage and did not support a return to a legal system permitting slavery.

But some who know the group's history in Texas are not convinced that the group's changes are more than superficial.

"It only behooves some extremist groups to attempt to appeal to a broader audience in order to recruit new members," said Dena Marks, associate director of the Anti-Defamation League's office in Houston, which tracks the Republic of Texas and other militia-style groups in the state. "The core beliefs of Republic of Texas, which include establishing Texas as a sovereign entity, have not changed."

Mr. Miller said the republic has thousands of so-called citizens, but declined to give a specific number.

The headquarters here, its walls covered with maps of Greater Texas and oil paintings of 19th-century battle scenes, is mostly quiet during the week. On weekends, members from throughout Texas flow into the building for meetings. Nathan Harvey, a caretaker at the headquarters who is not a member, said he remained skeptical about the ideas put forward by group members, but that by meeting them, he had at least gained a better understanding of the Alamo siege of 1836.

"I always thought it was a battle for American independence," Mr. Harvey said. "Now I understand it was a battle for the independence of Texas."

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