The potato giveaway was as close to a feel-good story as you get these days.
A farmer in rural Idaho had thousands of potatoes he couldn't sell because of the pandemic's disruptions to the supply chain. So, volunteers — including a guy with a dump truck — hauled them to nearby small towns where they were left in giant piles for residents to help themselves.
The farmer's crop didn't go to waste, families got free food, and the inspiring story was shared widely, even reaching Rachel Maddow this week on MSNBC. "There's a lot wrong in the world that we cannot fix yet, but people are really trying every day, every way," Maddow said.
A nice twist in what otherwise would have been a story about a lot of wasted food. pic.twitter.com/Q3ybWjfaTB— Maddow Blog (@MaddowBlog) April 28, 2020
But zoom in on the photos from that day and you can see what Boise-based NPR correspondent Kirk Siegler spotted: The bearded guy with the dump truck is wearing a shirt showing the logo of the Real Idaho Three Percenters.
It was an amazing community effort today! People think Blaine County is wealthy and glitzy, but half of the students in our schools are on free/reduced lunches. At the Hailey pile, a woman was crying at the generosity of our community. 💪🏼🥔💛 pic.twitter.com/sTaJRKVUJ2— Molly Page (@idahomolly) April 25, 2020
Facebook and Twitter posts name-checked some of the other volunteers — individuals, a Hispanic youth club — but not the Three Percenters.
Why? Because their involvement muddies the narrative. Federal law enforcement agencies and extremism researchers see the militia as part of the anti-government extremist fringe.
The group's leader, Eric Parker, notoriously trained a rifle on U.S. agents during the 2014 Bunkerville standoff in Nevada. After two federal trials that portrayed Parker as a domestic terrorist, prosecutors couldn't win felony convictions. In the end, Parker pleaded guilty to a single misdemeanor. Today, he's running for the Idaho state senate as a Republican.
"The reason so many pounds of potatoes were saved was our member and his dump truck," Parker said by phone. "We're not looking necessarily for a pat on the back but, you know, it would've been nice to mention."
The awkwardness over credit for the potato drop shows the uneasy place of militias in civic and community life, especially during the coronavirus pandemic. Extremism watchdog groups say the crisis exposes the dual face of the self-described Patriot movement: one day members are do-gooders, the next, they're toting guns at a state capitol in violation of stay-at-home orders they deem unconstitutional.
"It's common for figures from these movements to try to make inroads with local community service organizations like food banks," said Eric Ward, executive director of Western States Center, an Oregon-based group that monitors extremism. "Nobody should be fooled by their apparent charity. Their objective is to gain acceptance and spread their ideology."
Parker dismissed the criticism. He said community service is central to his group's mission. For example, members recently delivered sanitizer and masks to volunteer firefighters in western Idaho.
Parker said he's also trying to build an independent pipeline of supplies so that the state doesn't have to rely on FEMA and other federal agencies should the outbreak worsen.
In the case of the potatoes, Parker said, the Real Idaho Three Percenters got involved because a zone leader happened to live in the area and own a dump truck. Parker posted about it on the group's Facebook page only after they were left out of the viral tweets and news coverage.
"Why do I think they left it out? I don't like to say it's intentional or vindictive," Parker said. "I think they're just scared of backlash. I get it."
But Parker said he still wonders: "Would Rachel Maddow have run it if she knew we were involved?"