The events of the past few weeks have, once again, drawn attention to the growing threat posed by far-right extremist groups, particularly self-styled “patriot” militias. In late August, Armed white vigilantes claiming to be the “Kenosha Guard Militia” showed up uninvited to “assist” law enforcement in combatting unrest following the police shooting of Jacob Blake in the Wisconsin city. Tragedy ensured when one of the vigilantes, Kyle Rittenhouse, allegedly shot three people, one of whom died. He has been charged with murder and is awaiting an extradition hearing in Illinois.
Rittenhouse’s lawyer describes him as “a minuteman protecting his community when the government would not.” Apparently, the attorney does not realize that his defendant lives in Antioch, Ill., and is a 17-year — he cannot legally own a firearm in either state. Furthermore, Wisconsin law prohibits individuals without training or authority performing an official function, such as policing.
Last week a Department of Homeland Security staffer claimed he had been pressured by the administration to play down the threat posed by far-right extremists and to emphasize that posed by Antifa. On September 17, however, FBI Director Christopher Wray told Congress that “racially motivated violence” primarily by White supremacists posed the most significant domestic terrorist threat. While he also condemned violence by those on the left, Wray described Antifa as an ideological movement rather than a group. His testimony contradicts the repeated assertions of President TrumpDonald TrumpFormer New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver dead at 77 Biden, Democrats losing ground with independent and suburban voters: poll Bipartisan Senate group discusses changes to election law MORE and Attorney General Barr that Antifa bears responsibility for most of the unrest in American cities.
“What are these militias, and where did they come from?” Many Americans wonder. Although they claim to be spiritual descendants of the Minutemen who faced the British at Lexington and Concord, contemporary militia groups bear no real relationship to colonial or state militias of the past. Fearing a large standing army in peacetime, Congress passed the Militia Act of 1792, which set standards for organizing state militias and required the enrollment of able-bodied men between 18-45 as reservists. In case of invasion or civil unrest, state militias could be federalized and placed under the command of the regular army, as Abraham Lincoln did at the outbreak of the Civil War.
The 1903 Militia Act replaced the 1792 statute and created the modern National Guard. Under the command of state governors, Guard units may support law enforcement in times of civil unrest or aid responders during natural disasters. In a time of war, the National Guard can be federalized to support the regular army. Like its predecessor, the law also designates all able-bodied men between 18 and 45 as a reserve, although it does not require that they be enrolled in any unit. The law does not permit citizens to form paramilitary groups on their own. Furthermore, all fifty states today have some provision “that prohibits private militia, private paramilitary activity.”
Today’s militia movement developed in the 1990s in response to some high-profile incidents, most notably the 1992 shooting of Randy Weaver’s wife and son at Ruby Ridge, Idaho by federal agents trying to arrest him, and the 1993 siege of the Branch Dravidian compound in Waco, Texas. The election of Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaA needed warning for Yemen's rebels — and for our allies and enemies alike What Joe Biden can learn from Harry Truman's failed steel seizure Biden: A good coach knows when to change up the team MORE, the first African-American president, in 2008 led to an increase in militia membership as many on the far right feared it heralded a coming race-war. Militias are part of a long and ugly tradition of vigilantism that includes the Ku Klux Klan and the Posse Comitatus movement of the 1980s.
Approximately 181 militia groups currently operate within the United States. Some are independent groups, while others are chapters of national organizations, such as the “Three Percenters” and the “Oath Keepers.” As the events in Kenosha illustrate, militia groups may also form for a specific purpose. Fierce defenders of the 2nd amendment, militia members distrust government and have armed themselves to resist any perceived overreach by state or federal authorities. In January 2016, armed vigilantes took over a building at the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, allegedly in support of ranchers’ rights. Armed militiamen also participated in the open-up-Michigan rally in May 2020. Some militia members embrace wild conspiracy theories, such as the notion that the United Nations is preparing to take over the United States.
Not all militia groups openly embrace White supremacy. Some even have a non-discrimination statement. However, many militia members subscribe to that racist ideology, as their posts on group websites and Facebook pages reveal. Militias also recruit from the same demographic as White supremacy groups. Their members are overwhelmingly Caucasian, disproportionately male, predominantly blue-collar, and heavily rural. Groups like the Oath Keepers seek to recruit police and members of the military.
Militias have been encouraged by what they see as tacit and sometimes explicit support from President Trump. On many occasions, he has not only failed to condemn far-right extremism but arguably encouraged it. Some of his supporters have gone even further. Michael Caputo, a top communication official at the Department of Health Human Services, told Trump supporters, “If you have a gun, buy ammunition.” Video footage seemed to show police in Kenosha handing militia members bottles of water, while one officer says, “We appreciate you guys. We really do.” The president has defended Kyle Rittenhouse. As Trump continues to trail in the polls and insists that his defeat can only be the result of a fraudulent election, many observers fear that a Biden victory will result in a wave of far-right extremist violence.
The time has come and indeed is long past, to stop mincing words about militias and other far-right extremist groups. They are not patriots or protectors of law and order. They are at best-armed vigilantes and at worst domestic terrorists acting on behalf of a racist ideology based on their narrow exclusionary view of American identity. Congress needs to pass a domestic terrorist law that enables the federal government to outlaw these extremist groups.
Tom Mockaitis is a professor of history at DePaul University and the author of Violent Extremism: Understanding the Domestic and International Terrorist Threat.