The FEMA camps conspiracy theory holds that the United States Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is planning to imprison US citizens in concentration camps. This is typically described as following the imposition of martial law in the United States after a major disaster or crisis. In some versions of the theory, only suspected dissidents will be imprisoned. In more extreme versions, large numbers of US citizens will be imprisoned for the purposes of extermination as a New World Order is established.
The theory has existed since the late 1970s, but it has picked up greatly in popularity with the advent of the internet and social media platforms
FEMA is a United States government agency tasked with the effective management of major emergencies within the country, including ensuring the continuity of government during a large-scale disaster such as a nuclear war. It provides federal relief to areas afflicted by natural disasters.
FEMA was established in 1979 under executive order by President Jimmy Carter. It was established to coordinate the response to any major disaster that has occurred in the United States that overwhelms local and state authorities.
In 2002, it was finally codified into law and made a component of the Department of Homeland Security. As well as providing large-scale emergency-management, FEMA is also the largest flood-insurer in the United States, mainly because most private insurance companies do not offer flood-insurance.
Proponents of the conspiracy theory argue FEMA’s mission is a cover up for real purpose — to assume control of the United States following a major disaster or threat — and that the organization is ‘the executive arm of the coming police state‘.
The theory in general states that once a disaster or threat of one comes into being, martial law will be declared and FEMA’s emergency powers will come into operation, and it will effectively become the government.  The Constitution will be suspended, and citizens will be moved into camps.:251
In many versions, ‘dissidents’ (typically defined as constitutionalists/patriots etc…) will merely be imprisoned. Others have gone so far as to argue that they will be sent to these camps to be murdered.
Extreme versions state that plans are in place to imprison and kill apolitical American citizens in camps as part of a ‘population control‘ plot. In April 2014 Snopes posted a claim that FEMA was marking houses by political affiliation to round people up for these camps. In reality the bright, color coded stickers serve varying purposes for newspaper and mail delivery personnel.
One of the first known references to FEMA concentration camps comes from a newsletter issued by Posse Comitatus in 1982, with the warning that ‘hardcore patriots’ were to be detained in them. The prevalence of the conspiracy theory increased in line with the rise of the militia movement in the 1990s.
The conspiracy was part of the rhetoric of the now largely disbanded Militia of Montana. The self-styled congressional analyst David Fletcher was their spokesman and brought it up in meetings, even pointing out “United Nations Reserves” that the government was building concentration camps for in the Northern Cascades.
A supposed FEMA camp was featured in Linda Thompson’s 1994 film America Under Siege (in reality, the ‘FEMA camp’ was an Amtrak repair facility). She accused the government of using “black helicopters” against patriots to prevent them from interfering with plans to establish a “New World Order“.
Fears of FEMA declined in the early 2000s as foreign terrorists were perceived as the major threat but the late-2000s recession and the election of Barack Obama had renewed opposition among conservatives to the federal government. Obama’s election also enabled the theory to reach more mainstream right-wing circles whereas it had previously been confined to the fringes. There was a resurgence in the militia movement and with it a resurgence of the FEMA camps conspiracy theory and a corresponding boom in the “prepper” economy.
In December 2011 Camille Marino of the hard-left animal liberation website Negotiation is Over posted an alert on her website titled “Military Now Recruiting Guards for FEMA Domestic Detainment/Internment Camps.” containing the usual warnings about the end of civil liberties and the announcement that the U.S. Army is looking for “a Few Good Totalitarians” to herd dissenters into camps.
In 2015, fears of the FEMA roundup beginning surfaced with the announcement of a domestic military training operation called Jade Helm 15. County and state officials in Texas denounced the fears and the exercise was completed with no one being placed into an internment camp.
Also in 2015 additional speculation about the theory was stoked by retired general Wesley Clark when he called for World War II-style internment camps to be revived to combat Muslim extremism. He stated, “If these people are radicalized and they do not support the United States and they’re disloyal to the United States as a matter of principle, fine, that’s their right. It’s our right and our obligation to segregate them from the normal community for the duration of the conflict.”
With the end of Obama’s presidency and the 2016 election approaching conspiracy theories (including the FEMA death camp idea) were heavily promoted by many on the right, from Alex Jones to Donald Trump.
According to the Las Vegas Police Department and witnesses in the weeks leading up to the 2017 Las Vegas shooting gunman Stephen Paddock reportedly espoused right-wing anti-government and conspiratorial views, including FEMA conspiracies. He reportedly told a friend that “sometimes, sacrifices have to be made” in order to encourage the American public to arm themselves.
Popular Mechanics has published a debunking of some of the various claims proponents of the theory make and FOX News personality Glenn Beck did a 2009 interview with James Meigs, editor-in-chief there, where he walked through a debunking of one purported camp. “This video,” Meigs said, “actually dates from about 1995. But like so many of these conspiracy theories, it gets re-cut and re-edited and circulated around the Internet.”
Newsweek emailed FEMA to inquire about the FEMA camps rumors. Press Secretary Alexa Lopez replied, “We are currently focusing our efforts on providing assistance to disaster survivors, and the ongoing response and recovery efforts in Louisiana. As to your first question, over the years there have been many myths or rumors surrounding FEMA, and I am glad I have the chance to set the record straight with you. There is absolutely no truth to these rumors—they are nothing more than conspiracy theories.”
However, an internal FEMA memo shows the management understands the nature of trying to quell the conspiracies, “Most people know us as the agency that responds to natural disasters. Others believe we have a somewhat sinister role. For the latter, it is not realistic to think that we can convince them otherwise and it is advisable not to enter into debate on the subject.”
Proponents have cited a contingency plan (Rex 84) drafted in part by U.S. Marine Colonel Oliver North calling for the suspension of the Constitution and the detainment of citizens in the event of a national crisis. This was aimed at left-wing activists, not the libertarians and right-wingers generally associated with FEMA theories. This has been linked to a 1970 document by Louis Giuffrida (years later, the director of FEMA) calling for the establishment of martial law in the event of an uprising by African American militants and the internment of millions of African Americans.
Conspiracy theorists have used the actual internment of Japanese Americans during World War II in specifically constructed camps as evidence that such a scenario at least has historic precedent. Similarly, the United States governments forced removal of Native Americans from their lands is an earlier precedent.
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