We have all seen them before – armed, military-like figures like those showing up at the state capitol building this past spring to protest the pandemic lockdown in the state, or in broadcast coverage of Black Lives Matter protests or counter-protests. Their numbers – both formal and informal – have vacillated over the years, often a bi-product of current day events. Today, these paramilitary organizations are on the rise again.
Welcome to the militia movement.
Militia members who belong to paramilitary organizations formed originally as part of a far-right patriot movement that is traditionally anti-government. Members believe the Constitution gives them legal authority to act under both federal and state laws and the Second Amendment – to take back the country as they see fit. And many members are prepared to act if they think their beliefs are infringed upon. They believe the Constitution gives them that authority – even though experts say they have no more legal right than any other citizen.
According to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the militia movement is a relatively new right-wing extremist movement consisting of armed paramilitary groups, both formal and informal, with an anti-governmental, conspiracy-oriented ideology. Militia groups began to form across the country not long after the deadly stand-off at Waco, Texas, in 1993, and by the spring of 1995, they had spread to almost every state in the United States.
“The patriot movement of militias really began and grew in the '90s, in the Clinton administration, as a reaction to the things the Democrats were talking about, especially gun control. There was a surge of anti-government people, and a number of things helped fuel their growth, notably the FBI shoot out in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and then the FBI raid of the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas,” said professor Peter Trumbore, chairman of the political science department at Oakland University..
Although there had been far-right actors in fringe movements in American politics for a long time, even prior to the Civil War, the FBI's 11-day siege, and eventual shootout, in 1992 at Ruby Ridge, when U.S. Marshalls came to arrest Randy Weaver, a former Green Beret, for failures to appear on weapons charges, galvanized the modern militia movement. Weaver suspected a conspiracy against him, and he refused to surrender, along with members of his family and a family friend.
In 1993, David Koresh, a musician who had begun a religious order called the “Branch Davidians,” an off-shoot of Seventh Day Adventists, in Waco, Texas, and claimed to be its final prophet, had been alleged to have been involved with numerous child abuse and statutory rape claims. The allegations of child abuse led first Texas Child Protective Services and then the U.S. Justice Department to get involved, with finally the FBI forcing an end to a 51-day standoff with Koresh on child and sexual abuse charges. On February 28, 1993, the ATF raided their Mount Carmel Center, and an ensuing gun battle resulted in the deaths of four ATF agents and six Branch Davidians.
Koresh and his followers holed up in the Mount Carmel Center until April 19, when in an attempt to flush him out, the FBI pumped gas into the compound with a battering ram. The center caught fire, and 79 Branch Davidians who were barricaded in the building perished in the blaze, including 21 under the age of 16.
“These were the catalysts for the militia movement,” noted Trumbore.
“The Michigan Militia grew out of that and became (for a time) the largest in the country,” said Robert Futrell, professor and chairman of the sociology department, University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
You may have heard of the Michigan Militia – Timothy McVeigh, who committed the Oklahoma City bombing on April 9,1995, along with Terry Nichols, both spoke after the bombing of how they were influenced by attending Michigan Militia meetings.
"Like the Militia of Montana, the Michigan Militia was a powerful paramilitary organization with roots in racism and other forms of bias. The meetings of this militia were attended by Timothy McVeigh before he carried out the Oklahoma City bombings,” Richard Medina wrote in Geographies of Organized Hate in America: A Regional Analysis.
The Michigan Militia was founded in 1994 by Norman Olson, who was a U.S. Air Force veteran, in Alanson, just north of Petoskey. It was formed as an organizational structure for the growing militia, or patriot, movement, in response to perceived encroachments by the federal government on the rights of individual citizens. At its peak, Michigan Militia claimed to have 10,000 members, including local branch groups, although its membership now is believed to be several hundred members.
The militia's main areas of focus are paramilitary training and emergency response. They are also involved in some places in search and rescue, community preparedness and disaster relief.
“Sometimes we use an overly broad definitions of militias. They are people who meet in person with each other to train in firearms and keep up those skills they think they need to protect themselves,” said Amy Cooter, senior lecturer, Vanderbilt University. “Most of the time, they think it's a 'just in case' measure. Many have military backgrounds or relatives in the military. Most believe it's their civic duty to continue their military duty. Their firearms are central to their identity and what they're supposed to be about.
“In general, it's all firearms. Many in practice have a personal arsenal. Most have them because it's a hobby; it's fun. But for some, it's bleeds into 'I have to protect myself, my family.' And that's their justification of a lot of groups that formally consider themselves militia, including in Michigan,” Cooter said. “Those militia groups require them to have at least one military long rifle like an AR-15 or AK-47, because that military training is so fundamental to them and what they do.”
Megan Squire, a computer science professor at Elon University in North Carolina, who studies and tracks hate groups and white supremacist groups, concurred, noting that traditional militias train together on weekends, primarily comprised of white males over the age of 35.
“For the most part, (militia members) are regular people with regular jobs,” Cooter noted. “About 90 percent are men, and a high number – about 95 percent – are white men, while there are a few black men. They tend to have blue collar jobs, but there is a lot of diversity.”
Squire said about 10 years ago, she conducted a number of interviews with members of the Michigan Militia, and at that time, “more tended to have college degrees than the general population. It would be a poor assumption to assume they're all uneducated or ignorant. Many are very well-read, and not just from internet sources, and more engaged than their stereotype would suggest. They come from a mixture of rural and urban backgrounds.
“Everyone is a member. Members are everyday folk until they become exposed and attracted to an extreme ideology,” said Mark Pitcavage, senior research fellow, ADL Center on Extremism. “In Michigan, historically, members have been business owners, blue collar workers, retired folk – everyday people. But they subscribe to an extreme ideology. Within any movement you can get extreme personalities, but the majority don't have personalities like Ted Kaczynski (aka the Unabomber). Even people who are violent aren't like Ted Kaczynski.
“The militia movement is extremist – so in its history it's been to the right of the Republican Party, and they've said there's been no difference between Republicans and Democrats,” Pitcavage explained. “Occasionally members would support fringe Republican candidates. We've seen some members of the militia movement run for local government as Republicans, but they've always been against the federal government. In recent years, it's been different because of Trump. But historically, the federal government was their main target. Now, they're anti-government with an asterisk.”
Trumbore concurred. “Before these groups looked at law enforcement as an oppressor – as an arm of an unjust government, an apparatus of control. Now, to see (counter-protesters) wearing thin blue stripes. Many groups even recruit among law enforcement.”
Trumbore said that the national group the Oathkeepers have pitched themselves to members of current and former law enforcement and military. Oathkeepers was conceived, he said, as a national militia group that would have a network of local groups, although Trumbore said it does not appear there is any formal Oathkeeper organization in Michigan – “but that does not mean there isn't anyone who doesn't identify with Oathkeepers here.”
The Oathkeepers was recently banned from Facebook as a hate organization.
“That's who they recruit from, as well as other first responders,” Trumbore said. “Their name – Oathkeepers – refers to the oath they take either as law enforcement or to the military. They feel they are still bound to the oath they took to protect the Constitution in whatever way necessary.”
“They think they are acting as the moral authority – acting as the 'backup' to local law enforcement,” University of Nevada Professor Futrell said. “They are pro-local law enforcement and some rural sheriffs like them. In Kenosha, Wisconsin, the sheriff had pressure to deputize these people and he resisted – they are completely untrained (as law enforcement) and once deputized, they are constitutionally responsible. So, while some law enforcement leadership may not support them, officers may. Some of the officers on the ground threw bottles of water at people like Kyle Rittenhouse (accused of killing protesters) and didn't see him as a threat. That kind of response emboldens militia members, that law enforcement is 'really on our side.'”
Michigan State Police said they do not track militia groups or members, and the FBI did not respond to numerous requests for comment.
While Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard said they have had no interactions, no problems and “no issues” with any members of militia, and “I'm not aware of any problems with law enforcement or any involvement with any deputies,” that is not the case in other areas of the state with some members of law enforcement.
For example, take Dar Leaf, sheriff for Barry County north of Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids. Leaf said,“You are the militia, I am the militia, everyone is the militia. Law enforcement who understand the Constitution understand they (militia) are on our side. The law enforcement who have not read the Constitution don't like militia and are listening to the federal government say they're illegal – which is false. The Second Amendment says 'A well-regulated militia.' It already existed before the writing of the Constitution. These are common law principles. Well-regulated militias do not mean that the state or federal government can regulate us – a well-armed militia means we're always well-armed and ready to fight. Anybody who tells you that the militia are domestic terrorists – they're calling everyone domestic terrorists. It's the duty for the militia to protect the land. Common law trumps statutory law.”
Actually, that's not what the Constitution means, according to constitutional scholar Robert Sedler of Wayne State University Law School.
“Do not be put off by the term militia. In the Constitution, it deals with the National Guard. At that time it meant every able-bodied man, for a national guard,” Sedler explained. “They are private citizens. They have no legal status.
“It's very clear – they can call themselves militia, but it's not a real militia. Only the state National Guard is a true militia,” Sedler clarified. “They cannot say they are like law enforcement, and they cannot protect other citizens or their land,” and to do so is illegal.
“In Michigan, many of the members tend to be centered around bigger cities, around Detroit and Grand Rapids,” according to Cooter from Vanderbilt University..
In more rural areas of Michigan, Cooter said, “A lot of folks have a shared ideology, but they don't feel the need to join a group. So around the cities they feel a greater need to connect and join a group. Up North, everyone is training and maybe sharing the philosophy of individualism of 'I can't count on anyone but me.' It's all very much centered around the Second Amendment, the part noting 'a well regulated militia,' as well as their right to bear arms, is fundamental to who they are.”
Sheriff Leaf said he and his fellow militia members in his county “have chased out protesters in Grand Rapids so Black Life Matters people could speak. I could make one phone call and thousands of militia members could show up in an hour.”
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which tracks hate groups and militias, there are an estimated 18 active militia groups in Michigan. They are III% United Patriots, active statewide; 1st Michigan Assembly, statewide; American Constitutional Elites, Muskegon; American Patriots Three Percent, statewide; Capital City Militia, statewide; Genesee County Volunteer Militia, Genesee County; Lost Horizons, Commerce Township; Michigan Home Guard, statewide; Michigan Liberty Militia, Barry County; Michigan People's Reactionary Force, Genesee County; Nationwide Assembly, statewide; Nesara – Republic Now – Galactic News, statewide; Southeast Michigan Volunteer Militia, in Lapeer, Livingston, Macomb, and Oakland counties, as well as statewide; and The Three Percenters-III%ers, Isabella County.
Three Percenters believe only three percent of American colonists fought against the British in the Revolutionary War, and “when the time comes they will be the people who stand up and fight against the government,” according to Trumbore of Oakland University, who said it is a “fairly inaccurate reading of the Constitution.”
Trumbore said that Southeast Michigan Volunteer Militia, or SMVM, is part of Michigan Militia, and the oldest of the group, around since 1994.
“While they're organized in Livingston, Lapeer, Macomb and Oakland counties, they draw their membership statewide, and do training all over,” Trumbore said, noting one of their training sites is at Bald Mountain State Recreation Area in Lake Orion.
“They say in their material they're not a hate group, not a white nationalist group, that they're pro-law and order because they're organized around the principle they're against their own government,” he said. “It explains the presence of these groups at the state Capital against the (COVID-19) lockdown – if you're against the heavy hand of government, then you're showing up and being present makes sense.”
However, Trumbore said there is a lot of overlap in membership between members of militias and membership in white nationalist and white supremacy groups.
“That's not to say they're all white supremacists,” he said. “But that white nationalists and white supremacists are represented in these groups. It's one of the phenomenons of the Trump years – a lot of groups that were anti-government that embraced his message as a candidate, and now him as president, a lot of what he says and his message are designed to appeal to them – that he is fighting against these 'deeply entrenched elitists' and the 'deep state.' It appeals to them – Trump as the foe of the Deep State. But they're continuing to protest the thing they always protested – encroachment, lockdown, anti-regulation, anti-gun rights, and out west, land rights. The switch is their loyalty is to the president, the person, who represents the things they support.”
“Three years into the term of a president who shares its penchant for conspiracy theories – about the 'deep state' and Barack Obama’s birthplace, for example – the antigovernment ‘Patriot’ movement has found itself in the odd position of being on the same side of the very federal government it has long professed to despise. Lacking the sort of mortal enemy in the White House that supercharged Patriot groups when Obama was elected in 2008, the movement has gravitated more and more toward the same white nationalist themes – animus toward non-white immigrants and Muslims – that animate the Trump administration. In addition to immigrants, the emergence of anti-fascist activism has provided another timely foe for the movement during this identity crisis. Not coincidentally, antifa is often depicted as the street army of the deep state,” the Southern Poverty Law Center said.
Trumbore noted their fight, and militias coming out to fight against Black Lives Matter protesters and antifa, is in their belief that they are supporting law enforcement – “to support the government which they had always been against. It's a strange moment. It could be some loyalty to Trump, but you can't take out the issues of race, and the explosion of these groups that came from the election of the first Black president.
“They won't say they're white nationalists, but they take great pains to say they're protecting the American way of life, and they're anti-immigrants and anti-immigration,” he said.
There is a rise of other armed militant groups, but experts caution to not lump them in with militia groups.
“There's long been militant groups of all stripes, like the Black Panther groups, which arises out of frustration and concern,” noted Futrell, of University of Nevada.
Pitcavage of the Center on Extremism said “we get into a weird definition” when referring to Black militia. “Some journalists have referred to the Black group NFAC – the Not Fucking Around Coalition – as militia, but they are in no way part of the militia movement. They just belong to the left wing or Black nationalist movements. They're referred to as militia by some because they're armed paramilitary.”
Trumbore of Oakland University agreed, noting that some Black militia groups may be emerging, but “they do not fit in with armed militia groups. The new Black Panther group is an armed Black liberation party. The Black Hebrew Israelites are a virulently anti-Semitic, anti-LGBTQ hate group – but they're not anti-government, and they're not militia. As for the Not Fucking Around Coalition, the NFAC, this group just emerged, and they aren't connected to any larger established group. They just are some guys how showed up on Stone Mountain (Georgia) on July 4.”
Many hate groups, tracked by Southern Poverty Law Center, are anti-Semitic, anti-Black, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, anti-gay, misogynistic, are white supremacists and white nationalists, but are not militia, because they are not paramilitary organizations, they do not train on a regular basis, and they are not necessarily anti-government, especially in the Donald Trump era.
An example is the “boogaloo” movement, which Megan Squire of Elon University explained is more of a phenomenon which attracts younger men.
“It has no real philosophy, it just has real visual components of igloos and Hawaiian shirts – the Big Luau or Big Igloo,” she said. “It's memes upon memes upon memes. But when you sweep away the memes, there's not much there. They believe a civil war is imminent, tyranny is upon us. They're sometimes mad at law enforcement, sometimes at the government, or anyone they're afraid is going to take away their guns. Other than that – they have few beliefs. These guys started to use it as a 'Second Civil War' or for white supremacists – a second race war. Like, 'Let's get something going – Let's Boogie.' Then they started to worry about the FBI.”
Squire said that while they love their guns and the military, there is very little training because they are only connected by the internet, and almost never meet.
“The Militia subsided for a while after Timothy McVeigh,” Futrell, of University of Nevada, said. “The Oklahoma City bombing, his networks and their convergence of militia with white supremacy hurt them. After that, the Michigan Militia and other groups collapsed – not the ideology, that didn't collapse, but the groups themselves. It was not until Obama was elected did they come up again, and there was a lot of overlap with white supremacy. Many true paramilitary organizations would not exist without that belief.
“They are fueled by right wing rhetoric – and right now, they're fueled by the White House and his tweets.”
Futrell said during President Obama's tenure, “they feared a Black president, they feared his politics, and they feared the overreach by the federal government.”
The highwater mark for the number of militia groups nationally was in 2012-2013, Trumbore said, with about 1,360 anti-government groups, compared to only around 130 to 150 militia groups during the George W. Bush years.
He said they've ticked up again during the Trump years, growing to about 670 groups in 2017, during Trump's first year as president, and then dropping to 576 in 2019, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Carolyn Normandin, regional director for the ADL, said they are seeing more activity by militia members recently, and an overlap of ideologies and activities.
“I also think extremist groups splinter off and change over time. We have seen an increase in groups in the last few years,” she said.
She pointed to the lockdown protests at the Michigan state capital this past spring, which she said brought out members of many different groups, which they were able to identify by their signage, T-shirts, and what they said to reporters.
“We saw boogaloos, Q-Anons – a lot of Q-Anons, Three Percenters, Proud Boys – they’re a white supremacists group, but they're not militia – white supremacists, and other extremists groups,” Normandin said. “With militia, it's really the anti-government movement. If you put up a Venn diagram, some believe ideologies of other groups, but they're not all militia, and they're not all 'patriots.' What they all have in common is they're all extremists and they out of the mainstream, and they think they have to save themselves from the tyranny of the government. A lot of these groups share an interest in firearms, and they like to show the power of weaponry.”
“Now, they see President Trump as an ally,” Futrell elaborated. “They see Trump as an outsider to Washington fighting the 'deep state.'”
What is the 'deep state'?
“The 'deep state' is whatever one wants to call it, according to conspiracy theorists,” he said. The way Trump uses it, “it is whatever, whoever opposes him is the 'deep state.' It could be members of the left, who want to push outsiders out, a Jewish conspiracy. Usually resistance groups aren't so blatant. The militia sees the resistance as a coup against the head of the federal government. But they see the ways Trump signals them through his tweets by mimicking their verbiage” – pointing out comments about the Kenosha shooter, “good people on both sides,” and other statements.
“These signals are very impactful to them, and he's seen as an ally, giving them encouragement,” Futrell noted.
Trump's current rhetoric over Democrats “stealing” the election have experts concerned about the potential for militia members turning to violence if former Vice President Joe Biden wins the presidential election.
“Trump is starting to stir things up, and as Biden looks to be the winner, many are starting be get agitated,” Pitcavage of the Center on Extremism said. “I am concerned as we get closer to the election that there will be violence. If Biden does win, there is a very real chance that some could move from talk to violence. It's a legitimate concern that authorities should have as we get closer.”
“In 2016, I had a student who was active in the militia movement and was keeping me informed as the election got closer, and that is why we should be concerned for this election. He would say, 'If the election doesn't go the way we want it to, if the election is stolen, we will have to take action,'” said Oakland University's Trumbore.
“If you put it in deep historical context, political violence is not new,” Trumbore continued. “We've had groups who have engaged in armed violence, from the right – hate groups, or the left – unions – for decades, even before the Civil War. This is nothing new for us.
“It is almost always Americans taking on other Americans over politics, over issues that are part of the American political dialogue and landscape. Terrorism carried out by foreigners is pretty rare. We tend to focus on it because of 9/11.”
Regardless of the outcome, Cooter at Vanderbilt University believes there will be pockets of violence.
“It will be worse if Biden wins,” she said. “If there is no clear cut winner on election night, we have what psychologists call a 'low tolerance for ambiguity,' and some believe right wing folks have an ever lower tolerance. So there is a fear that if there is no clear winner, that it will feed into conspiracy theories and there will be propensities to lash out.”
“In the run up to the election, and right after, I think will be a very violent time in our history, unfortunately,” concurred Futrell.