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Maine Legislature narrowly passes restrictions on paramilitary activity

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Maine Legislature narrowly passes restrictions on paramilitary activity

Feb 22, 2024 | 12:40 pm ET
By AnnMarie Hilton
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Maine Legislature narrowly passes restrictions on paramilitary activity
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The chamber of the Maine House of Representatives during the first session of 2024 in the State House in Augusta. Jan. 3, 2024. (Jim Neuger/Maine Morning Star)

Rep. Amy Arata (R-New Gloucester) said there are no words to express the rage she felt when she learned that a Nazi training group had been set up in Maine. 

The anger she felt led her to co-sponsor LD2130. The measure hopes to create stricter regulations to prevent paramilitary activity and “civil disorder,” which the bill defines as a violent public disturbance by two or more people that causes either immediate danger or actual harm to the public or property. But when the Maine House of Representatives voted on the bill Wednesday, Arata wasn’t in support. 

“This bill doesn’t accomplish what I’d hoped for,” Arata, the House assistant minority leader, said. 

The proposal narrowly passed the House 66-60, with overwhelming opposition from Republicans and a few Democrats, including Rep. David Sinclair from Bath. Similarly, the bill was passed by the Senate 18-14, with Democrats Craig Hickman of Kennebec and Nicole Grohoski of Hancock opposing the measure.

While there was consensus that no one welcomes Nazis in Maine, many of Arata’s Republican colleagues joined her in expressing their opposition to the bill because they felt it infringed on people’s First and Second Amendment rights. House Minority Leader Billy Bob Faulkingham (R-Winter Harbor) called it a “knee-jerk reaction to a handful of Nazis up in Springfield.”

The proposal came after Christopher Pohlhaus, founder of the neo-Nazi white supremacist group Blood Tribe, purchased over 10 acres in Penobscot County in 2023 with the stated purpose of building a training facility. Amid public outcry over Pohlhaus and Blood Tribe — which seeks to create a white ethnostate — Pohlhaus eventually sold his land in the town of Springfield in October. 

“This body often deliberates and weighs one right against another, so how do we balance the legitimate exercise of rights with the right of people not to be terrorized?” asked Rep. Samuel Zager (D-Portland), in response to concerns over the bill violating rights.  

Since January, the bill’s sponsor Rep. Laurie Osher (D-Orono) said she’s received increased hate mail and death threats. She read some of the messages out loud to demonstrate the vitriol she’s received since the bill came forward. 

She spoke to a significant increase in hate crimes not only here, but across the country, urging people to “vote to draw the line here in Maine.”

Raising questions about what constitutes “paramilitary,” Rep. James Thorne (R-Carmel) read the Wikipedia definition and asked if retired military members who attend American Legion or Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) meetings would fall under that purview.

“We did not use the Wikipedia definitions,” said Rep. Sue Salisbury (D-Westbrook), reiterating that the bill targets groups training to promote civil disorder, which she doesn’t believe is the intention of the American Legion or the VFW. 

Throughout the Nazi training camp situation, Rep. Tracy Quint (R-Hodgdon) grappled with the idea that she represents everyone in her district — including those who were part of the paramilitary organization. 

She may not agree with the group’s philosophy, she said, but she saw this bill as government overreach, calling it “vague with no appropriate guardrails.” Others echoed her idea of the bill extending too far, as Rep. John Andrews (R-Paris) called it an “authoritarian fever dream.”