The militias started organizing in California just two years ago and already have become entrenched in rural areas such as the Sierra foothills and the North Coast. There are 27 militia units in California, located in 22 counties.
Some evidence suggests that the interest is waxing: When two residents of the Santa Cruz County hamlet of Freedom held a meeting earlier this year to discuss the possibility of organizing a local militia, 150 people attended.
The extremist views, the growth of the movement and the links between militias nationwide have heightened the suspicions and fears of some law enforcement officials in California.
``Basically, we're scared s -- of them,'' said one federal agent who requested anonymity. ``These guys are true believers, and there's nothing more dangerous. I get very worried about our agents. They sometimes go unarmed to meet these guys to check gun licenses. You never really know what's going to happen.''
Militia members spend much of their time meeting to discuss perceived government intrusion into private rights. Members also engage in impromptu ``maneuvers'' in remote areas, dressed in camouflage and packing high-powered weapons.
Though evidence of outright surveillance by law enforcement agents is scant, members often complain that they are routinely monitored.
Harry Martin, publisher of the Napa Sentinel newspaper and a self-described ``constitutionalist'' who has extensive contacts with militia groups, said militia members hold common values.
``They believe strongly in the right to bear arms and property rights, and they oppose excess taxation and foreign involvement,'' said Martin. ``They believe the constitution has been corrupted -- they want to restore it and live under it.''
Yet many militias seem to have something else in common: racist doctrine.
Martin acknowledged that strains of white supremacy have tainted some militias, but said California militias are generally free of racial bias.
``It's more common in the Southern states,'' he said. ``Even in Montana, they're basic rednecks rather than racists. And in California -- Monterey County, for example -- they're just regular working-class people.''
Joy Andrews, an organizer of the Placer County Unit of the California Unorganized Militia, said she is personally vigilant against racist invective and propaganda in her organization. And she expressed bitter dismay and regret over the carnage in Oklahoma City.
``When a splinter group does something like this, it really hurts us, it makes us very angry,'' said Andrews. ``We're committed to working within the framework of the Constitution. Anyone who wants to hand out printed material at our meetings has to run it by me first. I've confiscated stuff that was racist or hate-based. That's not what we're about.''
Jody Howse, a member of the Fort Bragg Unorganized Militia, said she believes in effecting change through voting and letter- writing.
``I don't believe we're a threat to the federal government,'' said Howse. ``But I do believe the federal government thinks of us as a threat.''
Such convictions engender a strong sense of solidarity among the militias. ``I know that the cells in California are in contact with each other, as well as with out-of- state cells,'' said Howse.
Martin said he believes militias are basically ``defensive rather than offensive,'' but that armed conflict could erupt between militia members and federal agents if attempts were made by the agents to confiscate their weapons.
``If they go after the Michigan Militia because of the Oklahoma bombing,'' Martin said, ``you could have militias in upheaval across the nation.''