Armed militia groups are getting more and more involved in political protests. That can aggravate, even scare protesters, but the militia members themselves say they are misunderstood.
A social justice protest in Mill Creek Park in Kansas City, Missouri, last month drew several hundred people. But many seemed distracted. Will Jones, for instance, kept looking nervously over his shoulder, towards a couple dozen people dressed in camo, armed with guns, knives and bullet proof vests watching from the perimeter.
“Well, I’m just looking at the white supremacist whoever they are with their guns,” says Jones focusing on the parking lot where militia members were gathered. “I’m just curious what they’re up to. Just glancing at them every once in a while.”
It was Jones’ first brush with the Missouri Three Percenters Militia. The name comes from the legend that only three percent of the population actually fought in the Revolutionary War. But to Amanda Vean they looked more like an invading army.
“Well, they came with guns, so I came with a baseball bat. If they attack us, I mean, we have to do something, I’m not just going to sit back and let it happen."
But militia leaders insist that they’re not out for trouble.
“We stand for anybody’s right, First Amendment Right,” says Robert Malcom, spokesman for the Missouri Three Percenters Militia. “We weren’t there to counter protest, we just wanted to make sure that nobody got hurt."
Malcom says the his group got word that some far right racist group, the KKK or Arian Nation maybe, was planning to disrupt the Mill Creek protest. He says his group was there to intervene, and stop the potential violence. And Malcom wants it understood that the militia is not siding with white supremacists. In fact, he says racism, in his militia, is strictly forbidden.
“Bylaw Number Five,” quotes Malcom, reading off his phone. “Our brothers and sisters are of all races, colors and creeds. Any components and actions of a racial tone are made, the violator shall be expelled from the group, and blocked from ever joining again.”
The rule goes on to require that other conservative militia leaders be notified of the expulsion. And Malcom says, just this year, he kicked a guy out for breaking Bylaw Number Five.
Now, there’s nothing stopping wannabes from just dressing up and playing militia. Search for “Three Percenter shirt” on Amazon and almost 2,000 results pop up. And there are lots of smaller militia groups that often name themselves after larger groups, like the Three Percenters or Oath Keepers. So, it’s messy.
But, as a rule, real members of organized right-wing militias tend to have a few things in common. Most are big on gun rights, prepping and a strict interpretation of the Constitution. A lot of them take a dim view of Muslims, and they do not go in for White Supremacists.
“We stand against the 'alt-right,' just as much as we stand against the 'alt-left,' I guess you could call it. We’re not extremists,” says Malcom.
And historically, militias haven’t been all that political. They mostly kept to themselves, training in the woods. Being out in the public, at protests, is a fairly new thing. And Malcom says it’s all about free speech.
“The First Amendment is more imperiled than at any time in our existence as a nation,” states Malcom.
And as far as Malcom is concerned, that existential threat to one of our fundamental freedoms comes chiefly from a small group of protesters, on the left.
“Antifa makes it quite clear,” says Malcom, using the shorthand for the Anti-Fascist movement, “that the only opinion is their opinion, and they will protest and get quite violent if they have to keep you from voicing your own opinion."
Of course, others see President Donald Trump, and his attacks on the media as a more potent threat to free speech.
And some who’ve encountered militia members at rallies perceive them as chilling discussion. A Kansas City-area teenager named Andi initiated that recent rally in Mill Creek Park. And Andi, who doesn’t want her last name used, but says the militia presence there felt ominous.
“Very intimidating, very brooding,” Andi recalls. “It wasn’t a, ‘Wow I feel very protected by these people being here’, it was, ‘I really hope they don’t shoot me!’”
That fear sparked calls to prohibit weapons at demonstrations. Kansas City Mayor Sly James says the city’s hands are tied.
“You can’t say no guns at protests, because it’s a Second Amendment right, and the state of Missouri has decided that anybody can have a gun damn near anyplace,” says James.
So, get used to seeing armed militia at political rallies. But what are they really doing there? Professor Don Haider-Markell, at KU, says it may have less to do with protecting, or intimidating, protesters, and more to do with bolstering their own organizations.
“A new lease on life, for sure, for militia groups,” says Haider-Markell.
Haider-Markel says Trump’s victory hurt the militias. Many saw President Barack Obama as a peril to Democracy. With him and Hillary Clinton out of the way, there was little to mobilize against.
Then came the post-election protests, some of which saw acts of vandalism, fights and a few burning cars. Haider-Markel says the actions of protesters carrying the antifa banner have been a tonic for the militia movement.
“If anything, it sort of feeds into the argument that groups like the militia groups, the NRA, the current administration, are trying to make: that this left is dangerous,” argues Haider-Markel. “It’s not just their ideas are dangerous, they’re actually dangerous in the streets, and they’re confirming it.”
There’s a problem though. Haider-Markel says when militias show up at protests they do get coverage, they become better known, but most of the public tends to lump them in with white supremacists.
“I think it is a risky strategy for them, especially since they have struggled consistently to get rid of this label that they are just recreated Klansman and neo-Nazis,” says Haider-Markel.
Haider-Markel says real militia members have done a good job of staying neutral and keeping their cool at protests — so far. That doesn’t do much to ease the minds of protesters, who tend to see the militia as doing more to provoke tension than keep the peace.
Frank Morris is a national correspondent and senior editor at KCUR 89.3. You can reach him on Twitter @FrankNewsman.