People's Rights formed in April 2020 at a warehouse in Emmett, Idaho, belonging to Ammon Bundy, a right-wing activist who led the occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in 2016 and a standoff at his father's ranch in Nevada. The first meeting drew a crowd of about 70 people. Now, People's Rights is active in at least 16 states and has attracted thousands of members. In Deschutes County the local People's Rights Branch won institutional power in the county's Republican Party, winning the positions of chair, vice chair, secretary and treasurer at the party's reorganizational meeting on Nov. 21.
People's Rights Oregon Fifth District, also known as PROR5, encompasses Deschutes, Jefferson, Crook and Wheeler Counties. Though the group is animated by resistance to what it views as overreach of public health measures during the COVID-19 pandemic, PROR5 wrestled with what the group's purpose would ultimately be.
"When this group originally formed, we struggled to find a purpose other than a place to vent our ideologies and frustrations," PROR5's first blog post in October 2020 explained. "We spent weeks talking and discussing the abuses we faced, the issues looming, the why and the how it all occurred, all while not finding much of a solution to our current state of emergency. About the 4th meeting in, we decided to do something different. We talked about what each person thought was important to do and found that most were on the same page. Unity and security became the focus. UNITE TO DEFEND."
Groups with distinct focuses were formed. A communications group promotes PR's message. A constitutional studies group taught an originalist interpretation of the Constitution. A "First Responders" group trains in firearms and emergency preparedness. Prepper and food network groups attempt to establish alternative outlets to buy and preserve food. A "Mask Force" and "Medical Freedom" group advocates against mandatory mask use and COVID vaccinations. A "Great State of East Oregon" explores creating a new state out of eastern Oregon.
PROR5 claims to have over 4,000 members, 500 of which follow along and 150 that are actively engaged at PR meetings, events and on its Slack channels. Weekly updates on the PROR5 blog keep members up to date on the current PR efforts and events. Some of the updates are attributed to BJ Soper, the statewide "assistant" for the state. Soper is the founder of the Pacific Patriot Network and the Central Oregon Constitutional Guard. He's been present at armed confrontations with the government, including the takeover of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge. Soper declined to speak with the Source Weekly for this story.
The Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights characterized PR as a militia based on the militant actions of Bundy, support for the Jan. 6 riots and the tactical training some PR groups partake in. Scott Stuart, the newly elected DCRP chair who's also an active PR member, denied that the group is a militia.
"We believe in the Second Amendment, and we do have a group of people that train and promote firearm safety and those kinds of things," Stuart said. "But we're not a militia."
“The Republican Party has not had the unification in the state of Oregon that I see could happen, and I feel my leadership skills will help bring that unity.”—Scott Stuarttweet this
Though he doesn't hold an official title in PR, Stuart frequently leads group conversations at PROR5 meetings, hosting a series of lectures on "maskology" and "vaxology." Stuart was elected chair of the party at the Deschutes County Republican Party's reorganizational meeting in November. Over the past two years Stuart has become a recognizable figure in Central Oregon, running a failed bid to replace Deschutes County Commissioner Tony DeBone, leading protests against vaccine mandates at the Redmond High School and appearing in a Redmond Fourth of July Parade dressed as a Confederate soldier.
"The Republican Party has not had the unification in the state of Oregon that I see could happen, and I feel my leadership skills will help bring that unity," Stuart said.
Stuart is replacing former Deschutes County Commissioner Phil Henderson, who did not seek reelection, and ran against longtime DCRP communications coordinator Mark Knowles. PROR5's weekly update on Nov. 28 hinted that the success of PR created a "stir," but current and former Republican officials downplayed any division in the party.
"Some of the people that lost were disappointed with that, and didn't stay around for further elections," Henderson told the Source. "I didn't think it really was a split."
Henderson added that the Republican Party saw a lot of growth over the past year. He estimated over 200 precinct committee people attended the DCRP reorganizational meeting, which is much higher than years past. The most recent general election is also a bright spot for Henderson, who pointed out that gubernatorial candidate Christine Drazan won more votes than her opponents in Deschutes County, and that Deschutes County Commissioners Tony Debone and Patti Adair won their elections despite there being 3,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans in the county.
Stuart said his strategy may differ from prior DCRP leadership, but his goal will largely be the same: to increase the number of registered Republicans, to find and promote electable candidates and to help grow the Central Committee by bringing in more precinct committee people. The DCRP and PR both asked for people to become involved in the local parties as precinct committee persons — the former hosting a video explaining the strategy on Steve Bannon's War Room podcast. PROR5 worked as early as July 2021 to add precinct committee people to the DCRP. They claim to have about 160 in the party out of a total 251 spots.
The precinct strategy is paired with an intense focus on local races and local issues. Weekly updates often point to open seats on school boards, soil districts and even cemetery boards. There's a frequent call to action to speak at public meetings to advocate for their positions and against political rivals — namely Democrats, "leftists" and officials that followed statewide COVID mandates. The group's blog post on Dec. 12 calls on members to call into the Redmond School Board meeting to suggest they oust Superintendent Charan Cline.
"Cline was disobedient to the wishes of the board throughout the COVID nightmare, siding with the State on most of the issues and mandates," the post says. "He needs to go."
Though PROR5 is successful in party politics, that hasn't extended to electoral politics. PROR5 candidate Julia Brown lost a three-way race for Bend City Council. Branegan Dixon also lost his bid for Redmond City Council. Bundy, the movement's founder, got 17% of the vote in the Idaho gubernatorial race as an Independent, losing to incumbent Gov. Brad Little.