“There is no right in any state for groups of individuals to arm themselves and organize either to oppose or augment the government.”
– Mary B. McCord, legal director for Georgetown Law’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection and a visiting professor; she was the acting assistant attorney general for national security at the Department of Justice from 2016 to 2017.
Some call themselves militias. Some don’t. But these paramilitary groups have several things in common: they assume authority they don’t have; they carry guns, usually long guns, and have some sort of uniform and insignia; they espouse right-wing, often extremist views; they’re willing to use violence in the name of their causes; they carry an “us versus them” mindset; and they’re all illegal. These men — for I have to believe that there are few, if any, women involved — believe themselves to be above or outside the law. They fashion themselves as “real,” patriotic Americans. They may differ in their degrees of fanaticism, organization, and willingness to commit ultimate violence. Some may be weekend soldiers, parading around with puffed-out chests; others may have their own compounds and drill extensively, preparing to attack with a moment’s notice. No matter how much of a threat they represent, though, the type of unit each group comprises is banned in all 50 states.
Many militias cite the Second Amendment as permission for and justification of their existences, but states, for purposes of statutes, have unanimously interpreted the “well-regulated” phrase in that amendment to signify soldiers under government control.
The question that arises, then, is why do militias continue to exist? How is it that the Wolverine Watchmen [allegedly] were able to assemble a plot to kidnap Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer, plant a bomb under a bridge as a delaying tactic, and target police officers, in the name of fomenting civil war? How did it get to that point? It seems that the first opposition salvo landed when protesters with rifles invaded the Capitol building in Lansing in late April, threatening the governor and disputing her right to impose pandemic lockdowns. As it turns out, because state government buildings there are NOT exceptions to the open-carry law, the protesters were not technically in violation of regulations, surprisingly. Nevertheless, members of the Watchmen were photographed in the Capitol that day. Had the group been stopped before it even got that far, the kidnapping plot’s danger to Governor Whitmer, the selected police officers, and any bystanders would never have existed.
Oath Keepers, which the Library of Congress describes as “a coalition of active duty military personnel, veterans, and peace officers,” is a familiar name almost everywhere, although its web presence (the Worldwide Web, that is, not the dark web) is extremely circumspect. It has been characterized as a militia, but it exists unmolested, probably because of the make-up of its membership.
The Proud Boys, recently in the news because of the Orange One’s failure to disavow them and similar groups, have not scrupled to use violence during political rallies, and have made threats against their critics. They purport to be simply a men’s club, but some have been brought up on assault charges. While thus far, they have not flaunted guns, they have been associated with white nationalist groups and have coordinated harassment campaigns.
These are just a few examples. Granted, law enforcement is not all powerful, and at least some proof of crimes must exist before charges can be brought. But if multiple militias have been formed, some of them visible enough to boast chapters throughout the country, how can they not be eradicated? If their very existence is illegal, why are they tolerated?
One answer is that, contrary to opposing them, some law enforcement personnel, and even entire county bureaus and unions, look at the militias with a nod and a wink, or worse, open support. Kyle Rittenhouse, who killed two people at a peaceful protest in Kenosha in August, has become the darling of far-right groups advocating violence. Shortly after the shooting, it was revealed that Rittenhouse was friendly with the local police, and had approached the protest with a rifle slung over his shoulder, walking directly past several officers. Rittenhouse has not publicly affiliated with any militias, but his actions mirror those commonly advocated by them.
Then there is the CSPOA. Michigan’s Barry County sheriff, Dar Leaf, is a member of the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officer Association, and he stated for the press that the Watchmen would have been within their rights to kidnap and try Governor Whitmer. He had previously refused to enforce Whitmer’s lockdown orders. Leaf was a winner of the 2019 CSPOA “Sheriff of the Year” award at its annual conference, also attended by Steward Rhodes, leader of Oath Keepers. Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Arizona, famous for his barbaric, unlawful treatment of illegal immigrants, is another member, who, after his incarceration, was pardoned by the Occupant. Other members have been linked to showdowns with the feds. The CSPOA believes that sheriffs are the ultimate authorities in their counties, answerable to neither state nor federal officials; there are about 400 of them. “‘One of the things that has been concerning [about] constitutional sheriffs….is that they have been normalizing a relationship between elected officials and self-proclaimed militias,’ said Cloee Cooper, a research analyst at Political Research Associates. One of the goals of these sheriffs, Cooper said, is to legitimize militia groups and turn them into ‘sheriff’s posses’ who can be enlisted to patrol their respective city’s streets,’” as related in HuffPost, October 11, 2020.
What is apparently the case, then, is that not only must legitimate law enforcement expend the resources to track down the militias and build legal cases, but also, they must contend with the mindset that militias are often not considered a threat by officers with their own agendas. While those who believe that vigilantism and violence are not the answers, that those who perpetrate those things are to be stopped, a fair number of highly placed officials turn a blind eye or tacitly support the militias, perhaps even belong to them. Citizens who work to shine a light on paramilitary organizations and their members could end up being threatened by the very enforcement representatives who are hired to protect and serve. The militias are backstopped from too many at the top of the law and order food chain. And as we’ve seen over the past three-plus years, they’re becoming the tools of the person at the top of the government food chain, as well, as he gives his dog-whistle approval to their activities and entreats them to “stand back and stand by” at polling places. Governor Whitmer said that the Orange One is “inciting more domestic terrorism,” and who could reasonably argue with her? No wonder there are private citizens in camo fatigues marching into state capitols with impunity. What will happen to the next elected official with whom Sheriff Leaf disagrees?
A commenter, RS, on the Bracing Views blog provided this link about militias and their growth in the U.S. Sobering reading.