The anti-social distancing and anti-stay-at-home order rallies that have taken place in state capitals across the country haven’t yet changed public views on state-level shutdown orders meant to slow the novel coronavirus pandemic. Recent national polling indicates that Americans largely oppose efforts to reopen private businesses and may even support stricter shutdown protocols.
But the rallies have attracted a host of fringe actors and attendees, including anti-vaccination activists and believers in conspiracy theories like QAnon, as well as armed members of militia groups.
Many protests aimed at a specific policy or entity (no matter their politics) attract a host of groups with their own interests, or people more interested in self-promotion.
The militia members, though, are different. They aren’t just showing up to the protests. In at least one case, they were invited by organizers: In Michigan on April 30, militia members were expressly invited by organizers of the “American Patriot Rally” to provide “security.”
The response to their presence came fast and furious, even from supporters of the shutdown protests more generally. In a tweet praising the overall protest, Michigan Republican state Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey said of the armed members of the protests (including militia members): “They do not represent the Senate Republicans. At best, those so-called protestors are a bunch of jackasses.”
Fox News host Sean Hannity said of the “show of force” in Michigan that while “everyone has the right to protest, protect themselves and try to get the country open,” “This, with the militia look here, and these long guns, uh ... no. Show of force is dangerous. That puts our police at risk. And by the way, your message will never be heard, whoever you people are.”
Echoing Sean Hannity, Fox & Friends scolds reopen protestors in Michigan who brought long guns and confederate & nazi flags to their rallies, saying "it puts our police in danger" and "squelches your message." pic.twitter.com/MgKw7kb5hr— Bobby Lewis (@revrrlewis) May 6, 2020
The militia movement in America is broad, with groups varying widely in their purported goals. Michigan alone has dozens of militia groups with hundreds of members, with varying political and cultural objectives.
“Different groups have different aims,” said Jared Yates Sexton, author of The People Are Going to Rise Like the Waters Upon Your Shore: A Story of American Rage. “Some are only interested in protecting themselves and their families from societal collapse, others are looking to battle the New World Order, some are explicitly interested in creating a white ethnostate for white Americans, others are angling for that second civil war that would start with a race war.”
But he argues that militia groups are using anti-shutdown order protests as cover — some for recruiting more people to their cause, but others looking to bring down the state and local government entirely.
Militia groups are “always searching for moments of cultural and political vulnerability” to exploit, Sexton said. And in the midst of a pandemic, they may have found it.
The militia movement, briefly explained
While militia groups differ widely, they also have important similarities, particularly regarding their perceived role. (Private militias are very different from state militias. Under federal law, 22 states and Puerto Rico have state-level militias regulated by the National Guard.)
Private militias are “armed paramilitary groups who take on extralegal law enforcement roles,” said Nicole Hemmer, associate research scholar at Columbia University. “They often have uniforms or insignias, and some engage in training exercises modeled after military exercises. That sense of having law enforcement responsibilities generally separates them from other fringe groups.”
Hemmer added that private militias tend to lean to the right, but not always: “In the modern movement, [militias are] primarily but not exclusively right-wing — Redneck Revolt and the Socialist Rifle Association are two anti-racist militias present at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017.” And the political views of even conservative-leaning militia groups can be complex — back in 2016, one right-leaning militia in Michigan took part in protests aimed at the state government’s handling of the Flint water crisis.
But in general, Hemmer told me, private militia groups staunchly oppose regulations on guns and believe that “individuals and groups have inherent law enforcement powers deriving both from common law and the Second Amendment.” And in response to what they view as the excessive power of the federal government, many militia members “believe that armed resistance to state power is necessary.”
The militia movement has waxed and waned in prominence since the 1970s, but experts largely cite the disastrous 1992 Ruby Ridge standoff between federal authorities and a far-right activist as a launch point. In a 2016 interview with my colleague Libby Nelson, former Homeland Security analyst Daryl Johnson said:
We had a lot of anti-government reaction to that event because of the government’s overzealous, heavy-handed tactics that were used that resulted in the death of civilians.
And so in 1992, a group of people gathered together in Estes Park, Colorado, to discuss that standoff and what their response would be to another type of standoff. John Trochmann, out of Montana, was at this conference and introduced the idea of forming private citizen armies or militia groups.
It wasn’t until the Waco standoff in 1993, in February, which culminated in the fire at the Branch Davidian compound, that we actually saw this idea that John Trochmann had introduced put into action. And the first two modern-day militias were the Michigan Militia and the Militia of Montana.
While militia membership dropped during the George W. Bush administration, Hemmer said, “with the election of Barack Obama, militias in the US surged. That’s when some of the more well-known militia groups, like the Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters, were born.”
The growth of these groups in the 1990s was fueled by fears of gun restrictions instigated by the passage of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, and in the 2000s by the election of a Democratic (and black) president, she said.
And she said that militia groups have differing views on the presidency of Donald Trump. “Some militias do not support Donald Trump — they feel he wields too much power, and they oppose nationalism as a threat to individual rights,” Hemmer said. “Some militias do support Trump, which makes their opposition to the federal government tricky — which is, I suspect, the reason so much attention has been trained on statehouses.”
Some militia groups see anti-shutdown protests as recruiting events
Private militias may have their own reasons for attending right-leaning political rallies and protests.
“Militias often see right-leaning rallies and organizations as ways to build alliances and legitimization,” Hemmer told me. “They were present at some Tea Party rallies in places like Oklahoma and Michigan, and are commonly involved with pro-gun and anti-tax groups. They’ve been present at the lockdown protests, of course, and before that had been very visible at protests against new laws coming out of the Democratic state house in Virginia.”
For example, militia groups were present at the Unite the Right rally in 2017, causing then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe to say, “You saw the militia walking down the street. You would have thought they were an army. … [The militia members] had better equipment than our state police had.” (Three of the militias present at UTR have been banned from the city of Charlottesville.)
Right-leaning militia groups have also “volunteered” to provide security in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, at pro-Trump rallies, and at the US-Mexico border:
In March and April 2019, a spokesperson for [a militia group], Jim Benvie, regularly posted livestream videos on Facebook showing militia members chasing and capturing migrants while armed with assault rifles, and detaining them until they could be turned over to U.S. officials. In other posts, the United Constitutional Patriots described themselves as combatants in a “war” raging along the border due to migrants’ “invasion” of the country and actively sought to recruit people with military or law enforcement experience to join them. One such recruit, upon observing migrants while on “patrol” at the border, reportedly grabbed his AR-15 and asked his fellow militia member, “Why are we just apprehending them and not lining them up and shooting them?”
Even the use of private militia groups for “security” purposes by right-leaning organizations is not new. In 2017, the Oregon-based Multnomah County Republican Party passed a resolution stating that the party “may utilize volunteers from the Oregon Three Percenters, Oath Keepers, and other security groups.”
For militia members, serving as “security” at the anti-shutdown protests doesn’t just provide more visibility but also offers a useful networking opportunity — one that allows them to share their message by arguing that the coronavirus shutdowns prove their point about government overreach.
These protests were “a great opportunity for them because they see people who are fearful and angry and their anger is directed toward the government,” said Alex Friedfeld, a researcher from the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism. “That is something that they have always been advocating for, and this is a great opportunity for them to keep expanding.”
He added that militias that are supportive of President Trump are using these protests to “have it both ways,” attacking state government officials while avoiding targeting the federal government, despite federal coronavirus efforts encouraging the same policies as the states. “The lockdown protest created this opportunity where they can kind of resolve that dissonance by shifting their focus away from the federal government and targeting instead state government officials, particularly if they’re Democratic.”
He noted that some groups have targeted Republican governors as well — but not Trump, despite Trump and the federal government providing markedly similar coronavirus mitigation guidelines.
But the presence and use of militia groups for security purposes raises major questions. As Hemmer told me, some militia groups “rely on the threat of political violence (and sometimes engage in political violence),” meaning that they may be more likely to attempt to foment unrest than stop it.