By Mimi Cheng
In Latin, posse comitatus means “force of the nation.” It is also the name of an act of Congress that states: Whoever, except in cases and under circumstances expressly authorized by the Constitution or Act of Congress, willfully uses any part of the Army or the Air Force as a posse comitatus or otherwise to execute the laws shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than two years, or both. 18 U.S.C. § 1385.
The Posse Comitatus Act is understood as a means to limit the federal government’s power. Perhaps the strongest ideological remnant of our nation’s founders, the act derives its footing from a time when ordinary men armed themselves against a tyrannical government. The term posse comitatus was co-opted in 1969, when a retired dry cleaner and neo-Nazi named Henry Lamont Beach formed a radical far right movement that believed in no form of governmental authority above local law. Posse Comitatus soon expanded to become a network of loosely associated units across the country. Posse members refuse to abide by any form of federal regulation; they are known to create their own forms of currency and identification, and have been accused of crimes that range from tax evasion to first-degree murder. Members are often known to be anti-Semitic and white Supremacists, but there have been minorities who subscribe to the Posse credo.
Beginning in the 1990s, there has been an emergence of citizen militias whose members defend themselves from what they perceive to be the government’s infringement on individual liberty. While the units’ degrees of radicality differ, they share their mistrust of large government and a fierce allegiance to individual liberty. They refer to themselves with terms that allude to the inalienable rights granted by the United States Constitution, as well as the responsibilities therein. Some examples include freemen, preamble citizens, constitutionalists, and most commonly, sovereign citizens. Militia members proclaim their patriotism by vehemently exercising their Second Amendment rights while espousing survivalist mentality.
Chelsea Knight and Mark Tribe examine this outlying tradition of perpetual vigilance in their ongoing project of the same name. After establishing a relationship with a paramilitary group in upstate New York, the artists filmed the group’s practice sessions. The footage was then taken to a choreographer in St. Louis, who extracted the actions and movements of the group to create a dance performance. This ongoing project is on view at Vox Populi as a two channel video projection, with the videos on adjoining walls (the videos are also available for viewing on the artists’ websites).
The first video shows a group of men and women performing paramilitary training exercises and gun formations in a snowy landscape. Dressed in camouflage jumpsuits and fully armed, they pose with their rifles, shoot unseen targets, and dive into snow banks for cover and assault. Commands are heard echoing through the landscape. There are scenes of the group pretending to hold rifles, their fingers rapidly pulling the invisible trigger. The second video shows dancers in a verdant green forest, then transitions to an indoor dance studio. They are dressed in olive green utilitarian tank tops and shorts, and translate the literal actions of the paramilitary practice into a complex, non-narrative series of body movements. Their arms extend like the barrel of a rifle. They crouch, leap, and twirl through the forest with agility and grim intensity. In the studio, the dancers’ faces are blank, like that of soldiers in training. Unsettling moments occur when the videos coincide so that the gunmen point their guns at the dancers on the adjacent wall.
Viewed at a time when the rhetoric of the radical right attempts to manipulate civil dialogue, my interpretation of Posse Comitatus is affected by my cynicism towards their deluded sense of individualism. They disguise their relentless paranoia as patriotism. Their illogical insistence of self-reliance has driven them into geographic and social isolation. Knight and Tribe accomplish a gelding of the militia by re-directing their disciplined violence into the art of dance, and there is palpable sarcasm in the juxtaposition. The militia men and women are practicing for what they anticipate to be the ultimate showdown between individual freedom and government tyranny as the dancers dance beside them, mutely exaggerating their every move for the camera. As the militia members continue to shoot their invisible assailants, one wonders about the accuracy of their aim.
Mimi Cheng received her BFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 2011. She lives and works in Philadelphia.