BROOKE GLADSTONE On this week's On the Media, how our year long investigation into militia walkie talkie chat rooms helped unveil an Oath Keeper conspiracy set for January 6th.
NEWS REPORT Zello, the Internet walkie talkie app is the number one free app, according to iTunes [END CLIP]
RECRUITER It's us, or tyranny. It's us, or failure. It's us, or a post American world.
MILITIAMEN This is not time to be congenial and polite. It's time to go in there and kick their asses.
JOAN DONOVAN The continuous engagement with one another through social media has really normalized the notion of the vigilante.
JESSICA WATKINS We are in the main dome right now. We are rocking it. They are throwing grenades, but we're in here.
CYNTHIA MILLER-IDRISS One of my biggest concerns is that we look at January 6 as the end of something. I think we should be more open to the possibility that it was a continuation or even a beginning of something.
BROOKE GLADSTONE It's all coming up right after this.
[END OF BILLBOARD]
BROOKE GLADSTONE From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. This week marks 6 months since January 6th, the day a pro-Trump mobs stormed the U.S. Capitol.
PRO=TRUMP MOB Fight for Trump! Fight for Trump!
[MAN SPEAKS INTELLIGIBLY ON LOUDSPEAKER].
[GLASS SHATTERS IN CAPITOL RIOT AS RIOTERS SHOUT] [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Over 500 rioters have since been arrested, but the legal consequences of what they did are only just beginning to roll in.
NEWS REPORT A local woman has been sentenced after pleading guilty to a charge in connection to the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol. Anna Morgan Lloyd is from Bloomfield. She was sentenced to three years probation and 120 hours of community service. [END CLIP].
NEWS REPORT The first guilty plea, John Ryan Schaffer of member of the Oath Keepers, the far right paramilitary group pleading guilty to obstruction and entering the building with a dangerous weapon. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Certainly time and distance has brought some clarity and perspective, but each step toward truth has been buffeted by Republican members of Congress.
REP MATT GAETZ Some of the people who breached the Capitol today, were masquerading as Trump supporters, and in fact, were members of the violent terrorist group Antifa.
REP PAUL GOSAR The truth is being censored and covered up. As a result, the DOJ is harassing peaceful patriots across the country.
REP ANDREW CLYDE Let me be clear. There was no insurrection, and to call it an insurrection, in my opinion, is a bold faced lie. You know, if you didn't know the TV footage was a video from January the 6th, you would actually think it was a normal tourist visit.
NEWS REPORT That effort to create a bipartisan independent commission investigating the attack that took place at the Capitol on January 6th has failed.
SEN. MASTO On this vote. The yeas are 54, the nays are 35. The motion is not agreed to. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Absent a formal commission, the press has to look to emerging clues from the complex investigations into the militias and extremist groups like the Oath Keepers, Proud Boys and Three Percenters who participated in the breach, which is very likely why those efforts have become the target of Tucker Carlson's peculiarly spurious logic.
TUCKER CARLSON But strangely, some of the key people who participated on January 6th have not been charged. Look at the documents. The government calls those people unindicted co-conspirators. What does that mean? Well, it means that in potentially every single case, they were FBI operatives. So FBI operatives were organizing the attack on the Capitol. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Come on, Tucker! We all know what we saw that day. Though the TV cameras certainly didn't capture everything. The week after the insurrection, we brought you the story of an Oath Keeper named Jessica Watkins, who secretly communicated with other militia members as she marched towards the east entrance of the Capitol.
JESSICA WATKINS We have a good group. We got about 30, 40 of us sticking together and sticking to the plan.
MAN 1 Be safe. Be safe. God bless and Godspeed and keep going.
MAN 2 Get it, Jess. Do your shit. This is what we've lived up for. Everything we f*cking trained for. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE And eventually inside.
JESSICA WATKINS We are in the mess, we are in the main dome right now, we are rocking and throwing grenades there and shit people with paintballs, but we're in here. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE She was speaking over a walkie talkie app called Zello, unaware that our reporter Micah Loewinger was listening in. The sound he captured is now being used by the Justice Department in its conspiracy case against the Oath Keepers, the largest criminal trial of the lot. Micah had no clue who Watkins was or what she was planning that day, but he had been tracking this type of militia communication for over a year. We asked him to revisit and update his Zello reporting to chart how the right wing paramilitaries use the app to lead a violent coup attempt and where the movement might be headed next.
MICAH LOEWINGER When I recorded that Oath Keeper tape on January 6th, it wasn't by chance. I'd begun monitoring militias on Zello way back in the fall of 2019. Not to understand how these groups stormed government buildings, but to hear how they stormed storms...
NEWS REPORT And we begin with the relentless threat from Hurricane Dorian rapidly strengthening over the past 24 hours to a monster category 5... [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER I was looking into this idea for an On the Media story based on a pattern I'd seen emerge during hurricane season. In 2017, as Irma and Harvey ripped through the news cycle, Zello exploded in popularity.
NEWS REPORT Zello, the Internet walkie talkie app, is the number one free app, according to iTunes.
NEWS REPORT It's the primary source of communication for members of the Louisiana Cajun Navy,
NEWS REPORT civilian volunteers, including a Facebook community of hunters and fishermen throwing their boats on the back of Four-Wheel Drive trucks and rescuing people from completely different towns. It's an extension of a movement founded during Hurricane Katrina. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER Just like with past storms, copycat rescue groups sprung up all across the internet to monitor Dorian as it careened towards the East Coast.
ONE PERCENT WATCHDOG Guys don't get complacent. It's the calm before the storm. So tonight you can expect even tornadoes to touch down and all kinds of crazy stuff.
MICAH LOEWINGER This is a guy who goes by the name One Percent Watchdog. He's the leader of a Zello group called the United States Civilian Force, or USCF. They ran the biggest Dorian storm relief channel that I could find at the time featuring several hundred people.
ONE PERCENT WATCHDOG Those who want to volunteer to go to Zello.com, forward slash, training.
MICAH LOEWINGER They seem to have a pretty sophisticated operation going, but there was also something else notable about One Percent Watchdog and USCF, his podcast and social media were filled with anti-government and Infowars type conspiracy videos.
ONE PERCENT WATCHDOG This is part three on our coverage of the Parkland, Florida school shooting, mass shooting. To those of you who are thinking this is a false flag, it might be. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER He also had this rap song.
ONE PERCENT WATCHDOG [RAPPING] We got the bill of rights and our guns too. They think they’re coming for us, I say we’re coming for you! [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER The USCF Facebook group advocated for mass deportations of undocumented migrants, and there was something about their combination of humanitarian aid and xenophobia that struck me as a contradiction. But when I brought that up, he and his group strongly disagreed.
ONE PERCENT WATCHDOG Are you guys so sick that you think someone's drowning in a hurricane and they need rescue, that we're going to say show us your papers?
A.J. ANDREWS Yes, I wear a Trump hat. Yes, I believe in the wall. Yes, I believe in people coming here the right way, I have no problem with it. But if shit hits the fan and somebody needs help, I'm not going to ask for your papers first. I'm gonna to help you.
MICAH LOEWINGER That second voice is a guy named A.J. Andrews. His profile featured a photo of him wearing a Confederate hat. I initially reached out to him to learn more about One Percent Watchdog. A.J. had collaborated with him for years, but he didn't know his real name or where he lived. Anyway, A.J. was much more interested in talking about his own local militia based in western New York and how they used Zello. He ended up inviting me to hang out with them at Lobby Day, a gun rally in Richmond, Virginia, on January 20th, 2020.
NEWS REPORT Monday's rally comes in response to three new gun control bills.
LAURA INGRAHAM Gov. Ralph “Blackface” Northam downplaying Democrats plans to strip people of their Second Amendment right.
NEWS REPORT Pretty disturbing. The governor used the phrase storming of the Capitol for what is possible on Monday. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER A.J. told me to meet him in a parking lot a few miles from where thousands of right-wing protesters had assembled outside the Virginia Capitol building.
MICAH, IN VIRGINIA Holy moly, it's cold out. Currently looking for A.J.'s RV.
MICAH LOEWINGER This was my first time at this sort of event, which is probably why I didn't think twice about wearing my black winter coat with black skinny jeans, just about begging someone to label me as Antifa.
A.J. ANDREWS Skinny jeans, and then dressed like that, you look a lot like the ANTIFA.
MICAH, IN VIRGINIA Damnit!
MICAH LOEWINGER we ended up spending the whole day in his blue and white RV, what he calls his mobile command center, because it's incredibly decked out.
A.J. ANDREWS 450 watts of solar around the roof goes down to a 690 amp hour battery into a 6000 watt sine wave converter to give me full power sitting here in the camper.
MICAH LOEWINGER A satellite set up so that he can broadcast wi-fi to other militias that want to come and hang out.
A.J. ANDREWS 20 USB hookups, a CB with a built-in police scanner to it. I've got ham radio that becomes a mobile repeater,
MICAH LOEWINGER Enough food for 6 months.
A.J. ANDREWS Full medical in here. I've got security in here if I need to pull it out of the cupboard.
MICAH LOEWINGER He is preparing for the apocalypse or as he would put it for SHTF, which stands for "when sh*t hits the fan”.
A.J. ANDREWS I've got a team of folks from all over the country watching different cameras, this, that and the other. And I'm in contact with them all the time.
MICAH LOEWINGER He met up with his militia here, most of his guys, I only saw like 5 or 6 of them, but I heard there were more, were headed down to the actual rally. But A.J. hung back in the parking lot watching a Breitbart livestream.
BRIETBART It's how the media works. The media is the greatest threat to American freedom.
MICAH LOEWINGER He was more than just the eyes and ears of the operation. He was the commander of the QRF, the quick reaction force. Say he saw violence breaking out or he caught wind of some other credible threat against his guys,
A.J. ANDREWS I make a call. I got everybody from 20 miles to 100 miles ready to be here in a second.
MICAH LOEWINGER A.J. identifies as a member of the Three Percenters movement, a primary force in the paramilitary right. I say movement because it's more of an idea or a rallying cry than it is a centralized national organization. People like A.J. who are inspired by it can just start their own Three Percent cells. That name, Three Percent, refers to a myth, a disputed historical statistic about the Revolutionary War.
A.J. ANDREWS Three percent of the first 13 colonies fought for, died for, bled for our Constitution. Then they helped write that constitution, put it into play. For everybody to have their rights and their freedoms in this country. Britain wanted to take our rights away, just like a lot of Democrats and liberals and a lot of socialists want to take the rights now and trade everybody's rights for just their freedoms. Just like you're seeing on Breitbart, if people are watching the live feeds on that. They're saying they're sick of their rights being trampled on.
MICAH LOEWINGER At least four Three Percenters would go on to be charged with conspiracy for breaking into the Capitol on January 6th. Meanwhile, ties between militia and Islamophobic and white supremacist activity have been documented over the past several years, starting in Charlottesville in August 2017.
NEWS REPORT Minutes ago, we saw the first participants in today's Unite the Right Rally, arrive. About 40 men and women in camouflage gear, some with militia markings. Virginia is an open carry state. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER And then there were 3 militia men connected to a local Three Percent group who were convicted of plotting to bomb a mosque in Garden City, Kansas, in 2016.
NEWS REPORT The authorities say the 3 suspects are part of a Kansas militia group that calls itself The Crusaders, [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER which is part of the reason why A.J. led that operation in Richmond, because he wanted to rehabilitate the image of the Three Percenters and the militia movement at large.
A.J. ANDREWS There's nothing wrong with the name militia. If you carry a three percent sticker, oh you got to be a racist, you got to be a nationalist, you got to be – no we're not. We're human, we're American. There's nothing racist about us. We're trying to show everybody that we are adults or responsible adults. Where Northam's trying to say, "oh, the guns shoot people," – no. It's the trigger that pulls it by the person. That's not the gun.
MICAH LOEWINGER The whole time that I sat there with him, he had his earbuds in listening to his militiamen chatting away on Zello.
MAN 1 Turning point in our country, right here. I hear.
MAN 2 This is it man.
MAN 1 Yeah, this is gonna –
MAN 2 This governor we got.
MAN 1 He's pretty bad
MAN 2 The worst person in the world. [END CLIP]
A.J. ANDREWS Everybody's on a channel, on Zello, on phones, on comms, working with each other. And it's one giant network. Every single person with boots on ground is in the network together.
MICAH LOEWINGER About how many people are in your Zello group?
A.J. ANDREWS Close to a thousand right now. And they're involved with their own little groups and it networks out from there. Kind of like a spidered out pyramid.
MICAH LOEWINGER A.J. had kicked me out of his private Zello group a couple of weeks before Richmond, so I was never able to really hear him and his guys talking. But I'd signed on to a bunch of public Zello channels, including one run by One Percent Watchdog. And I had those recordings throughout the day just so I could get a sense of the kind of chatter that was bouncing between militiamen and activists all around Richmond.
MILITIAMEN Is everybody at the rally already or are they on their way. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER On the ground.
MILITIAMEN We're still in route. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER And at home.
MILITIAMEN And watching online. There's a lot of people there. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER Listening back, some of the stuff gave me chills, I mean, this is 12 months before January 6th, and yet the communication strategy and the rhetoric about the politicians in the state House were eerily similar.
MILITIAMEN This is not the time to go in there and be congenial and polite. Time to go in there and kick their asses. If the state troopers get in your way, so be it. Complete the mission and f*ck world up. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER Before I met up with A.J., I figured most of these militia guys were all bark and no bite, but speaking with him convinced me that he was dead serious.
A.J. ANDREWS If God says it’s my time to go, it's my time to go. I've been shot, stabbed, burned, born with cancer, diagnosed at 4, still got it throughout my body and nothing's in my organs. I got my sight when I was one, got hearing when I was three, and I shouldn't have been born. So, if I'm alive then there's still a reason. So, I'm still going to do something, there's certain things you got to step up for. People in America got to step up for the rights and the freedoms to keep it alive for the next generation, because without that – we ain't got sh*t.
MICAH LOEWINGER No one was hurt that day, no bullets were fired, but spending time with A.J. opened my eyes to the reality of the American militia movement. He and his guys want it both ways. They were ready to go to war and they have a history of participating in violent, racist, anti-government acts, but at the same time, they want to be seen as a normal part of American life. Patriotic American life. Coming up, how right- wing vigilantism went mainstream. This is On the Media.
MICAH LOEWINGER This is On the Media, I'm Micah Loewinger. The day I spent with A.J. Andrews back in January 2020 was my crash course in militia organizing. I walked away with two major lessons. One, that militias and other far right activists often used public Zello channels to communicate during local demonstrations. Meaning, I could listen in on events all over the country where violence might occur without having to travel, which the pandemic had made impossible anyway. And two, the right wing, paramilitary groups would use just about any media event, any crisis to organize and get attention. And 2020 delivered those in spades.
[CROWD CHANTING "LET US IN!" AT MICHIGAN CAPITOL]
MICAH LOEWINGER The COVID lockdown protests in Michigan.
NEWS REPORT as protesters moved into the Capitol building. Democratic State Senator Donya Polehanke posted this photo saying "directly above me, men with rifles yelling at us. Some of my colleagues who own bulletproof vests are wearing them." [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER The Black Lives Matter protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd.
NEWS REPORT America was on fire. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER And conspiracy theories of ANTIFA infiltrating white suburbs.
NEWS REPORT Peaceful protests met by armed men and Confederate flag.
NEWS REPORT Police call it a false rumor that claimed ANTIFA had three busloads of members ready to hit neighborhoods. [END CLIP]
MILITIAMEN It looks like we are going into the fray tonight, so keep us in your prayers. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER This is a militia guy psyching himself up for a showdown with Antifa. That never happened.
MILITIAMEN If I should fall. I want to be remembered as a patriot. Let history show that I stood up against this tyranny. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER Last year, I encountered so many of these violent fantasies while monitoring militias on Zello. Frankly, too much for one person to keep up with, so I decided to enlist some help.
HAMPTON STALL I've tracked down around 300 militias.
MICAH LOEWINGER I teamed up with this guy, Hampton Stall. He's a senior researcher with ACLED, which is the Armed Conflict Locations and Events Data Project. He's also the founder of a blog called Militia Watch, which he started as a response to sloppy coverage.
HAMPTON STALL Because I had been doing a few years of research into U.S. based right wing militia groups and saw that there was a real gap in knowledge as far as the media goes about covering militia groups.
MICAH LOEWINGER The increased visibility of these armed groups, combined with the anxiety and anger about the news, drove prospective recruits to right wing forums and Facebook groups where militia guys shared passwords for their Zello channels with step by step instructions about how to join.
HAMPTON STALL And so you join the group and then the officers will invite you for an interview. They’ll ask you some questions about what area you're in, whatever sort of ideological requirements there are for joining said militia.
RECRUITER What interested you in the Three Percent movement? What have you heard about the Three Percent?
RECRUIT I was actually approached in conversation during a anti- protest of ANTIFA and BLM and Brandon, Mississippi. [END CLIP].
RECRUITER Do all of you have the backing of your family. Do they know that you're on an interview tonight?
RECRUIT I'm the man of the house. So, you know, if I need to go somewhere or do something, that's gonna happen. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER To be clear, neither Hampton nor I ever pretended to be a militia member or a new recruit. We merely lurked in the background.
RECRUITER So what do you got? What kind of experience you got? Military, law enforcement, medical..?
RECRUIT 3–1 Bravo, Military police, I know a lot about weapons, munitions and a fair amount of gear. [END CLIP].
RECRUITER It's like a second job. It's us or tyranny. It's us or failure. It's us or a post-American world. Don't give two sh*ts or a flying f*ck about anybody that's less than 100 percent all the f*ck in. Are you all the f*ck in? Over.
RECRUIT Ain't got nothing holding me back. If it kills me, it kills me. [END CLIP]
JOAN DONOVAN In the ways in which those groups come together and do recruitment through platforms, really has to do with them unapologetically believing that they can actually become a proxy for law enforcement.
MICAH LOEWINGER Joan Donovan directs research at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University.
JOAN DONOVAN The continuous engagement with one another through social media has really normalized the notion of the vigilante.
MICAH LOEWINGER Vigilantes, of course, are not law enforcement. They're not accountable to the public or trained to de-escalate violence. And that's why some observers shuddered at the thought of armed militias, say standing guard at polling stations last November. Monitoring Zello, we did hear references to violence surrounding the election, but it wasn't about how to start it. It was about how to react to it.
MAN 1 We have to stay vigilant, stay well trained and maintain our composure so that we don't ever fire that first shot. That would kill us.
MAN 2 Yeah. Roger that, sir. We fired the first shot. We're done. I mean, the public view is turning around about us, and that's the way we need to keep it. We don't need to do anything to tarnish that. [END CLIP]
MEGAN SQUIRE They're fantasizing. I got an oh, there's going to be all these riots in the streets. We've got to be ready, guys, whatever it is. But they're not talking about themselves going out there and doing it.
MICAH LOEWINGER Megan Squire, a professor of computer science at Elon University, had been tracking discussions of the election from far-right groups online.
JOAN DONOVAN The whole vigilantism is couched in this language of protection, and that started in earnest with the reopen protest. "Oh, I'm going to protect your business from the police who are trying to shut you down," and then it went to George Floyd, "oh, I'm going to protect you from the looters," "I'm going to protect Trump from election meddling," The idea that this vigilantism is justified from a protection standpoint. Yeowch. That's terrifying, because now they have a reason, right? And it's a reason that makes them look like a hero.
MICAH LOEWINGER And then there's a growing body of evidence that some local police departments are enabling it. Look what happened last summer during the protests that erupted after police shot Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse, who had traveled to Kenosha from his home in Illinois, shot 3 protesters, killing 2 in an alleged act of self-defense. Hours before that, though, he and the Kenosha Guard, a local militia, were thanked by law enforcement. They even offered the vigilantes bottles of water.
POLICE We appreciate you guys, we really do. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER Rittenhouse provides a template for examining how violence might unfold in the future. Here was an armed vigilante who used social media to find other armed vigilantes. With the approval of law enforcement, they patrolled the streets looking for conflict, which culminated in a tragedy we all witnessed.
[SHUFFLING AND GUNSHOTS]
MICAH LOEWINGER Both police and social media can play a crucial role in the likelihood of these scenarios recurring. Let's start with the cops. While listening to Zello for a piece that aired in October 2020, Hampton and I observed three times when militia members claimed they had coordinated with local law enforcement. For example, one group called the Georgia Three Percent Martyrs, a.k.a. Georgia Three Percent Guardians, expressed deep distrust of the police in their chat room, but then claimed to have teamed up with them at a BLM protest south of Atlanta.
MILITIAMEN When Payne, Evo, J3 and myself rolled up at Southlake Mall and assisted the Morrow Police Department. We were in full battle rattle and Payne, even sighted in on somebody. And they didn't mess with us. [END CLIP]
HAMPTON STALL The fact that the police are, you know, allegedly standing next to a militia member who is pointing a rifle and looking down his sights, at said protester is highly troubling.
MICAH LOEWINGER I was interested in this. So, I reached out to a reporter named Robin Kemp, who wrote for a website that she started called The Clayton Crescent. She was there at Southlake Mall and she sent me audio of the scene.
[PROTESTERS CHANTING "DON'T SHOOT"]
MICAH LOEWINGER She walked with the protesters, about 150 of them
ROBIN KEMP Almost all African-American people who are marching. There was no violence or vandalism or anything like that. It was like a very joyful, family-oriented feeling of people assembling for the march in the parking lot of the shopping mall on the weekend.
PROTESTOR And its time that we speak, we stand up and we let the world know that Black Lives Matter. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER Was this like the only Black Lives Matter protest at the Southlake Mall over the summer?
ROBIN KEMP Yeah, I think that that was the only one.
MICAH LOEWINGER She did not see very many police officers there and she did not see any militia guys there. If this did happen, then the police and the militia were out of sight off to the side.
HAMPTON STALL It's very common for militias to either get on roofs or go around corners and just be staged nearby. There was a Black Lives Matter protest here in Atlanta back in 2016 that I attended. And as I was leaving and took a wrong turn in the parking garage and ended up on the roof and two spaces over, there was a jeep with four men with rifles in their hands looking out over the protest. There's a lot of work that happens that isn't super visible.
MICAH LOEWINGER It's worth noting, too, that Zello is just one app that militias used for organizing. I didn't have access to their communication on, say, Telegram or Facebook chat. After we aired this piece in October. The leader of the Georgia Three Percent Martyrs told Robin Kemp of the Clayton Crescent that 4 men from his militia did attend that protest, but without his permission. After that event, he said he kicked them out. The Morrow Police Department did not respond to our request for comment. A month after the Morrow protest, I caught wind of another potential police militia relationship in Georgia.
MAN 1 I got word from Douglas County Sheriff's Department today that they're supposed to have a protest in Douglas County over their monument and civil war monuments, and they said within the next week they may reach out and ask for assistance.
MAN 2 And if possible, we'll give it. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER That's two guys from the Three Percent Security Force speaking on July 2nd, 2020. One week later, there was, in fact, a Black Lives Matter protest at the Civil War monument. But we couldn't verify that Three Percenters actually showed up. When we contacted them last year, the Three Percent Security Force denied they had contact with the police and the Douglas County Sheriff's Department did not respond to our request for comment. The third example of alleged coordination between armed vigilantes and local police actually reveals a course of action for reducing violence in the future. It involves the Michigan Home Guard, a militia that made national news last May when it defended Karl Manke, a barbershop owner who defied state lockdown measures by reopening his business.
NEWS REPORT Members of the Michigan Militia say they will take action to keep Manke from going to jail.
MICHIGAN MILITIA We are willing to stand in front of that door and block the entrance so the police will have no entry there today. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER A few weeks after that incident, word began to spread that there was an upcoming Black Lives Matter protest in the works. A couple of local politicians and at least a couple armed militias, including the Michigan Home Guard, were preparing to attend. Then, Livingston County Sheriff Michael Murphy posted this video to his department's Facebook group.
MICHAEL MURPHY So here's the deal, I've had personal conversation with Rob from 2A, Mike Detmer and former Sheriff Bob Bezotte. I asked both to stand down to not show up tomorrow. Let me tell you a little story back in the mid 90s, there was a KKK rally held on the steps of the old courthouse. That was the biggest non-event that this county has ever seen. The community really banded together and had other activities to do. A handful of people, maybe 20 at the most, showed up for the KKK to do their thing. They realized that they didn't get the reaction that they were looking for, they packed up and left. So, it was a beautiful thing. That said, my plea is if you just stay away, there's no stage for anybody to make this thing go sideways. [END CLIP]
HAMPTON STALL That's fascinating.
MICAH LOEWINGER Isn't that fascinating?
HAMPTON STALL I hadn't seen that.
MICAH LOEWINGER I think it's a little problematic to like, compare the KKK to Black Lives Matter protesters, but I understand the point that he was trying to make, which is that showing up in force in response to something could have the effect of pouring gasoline on the fire.
HAMPTON STALL Yeah, and Michigan has an extensive history with right wing militias. Referring to these militia as the 2A community is laundering that history through something that is deemed a little bit more politically neutral, a constitutional amendment.
MICAH LOEWINGER That's a good point. And as I listened to the Michigan Home Guard on Zello kind of making sense of the message from the sheriff, there was some frustration and anger and I would also say confusion.
MICHIGAN MILITIA So Livingston County sheriff there requested Michigan Homeguard and other vetted militia groups to come and help him with extra security, and then later came out publicly and said he did not do that. He does not want any 2A people there, and to stay away. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER There was a rumor that spread in the Michigan Home Guard Zello group that even after he made that video, he secretly said, no, Michigan Home Guard should come.
MICHIGAN MILITIA No, I still want you there. I just want you to stand back and make sure nobody sees you, more or less. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER I still want them to come. I basically just want them to keep a low profile.
MAN 1 Well, that's not shady at all.
MAN 2 Pardon me, but that's bullshit. And, you know, he should have just kept his mouth shut. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER The next day. The sheriff denied this rumor on Facebook. And again, there's a lot about what happened behind the scenes that we couldn't verify, but by addressing the militias publicly, asking these groups not to show up, the sheriff seemed to at least annoy them to the point that they decided not to go.
MICHIGAN MILITIA Yeah, RLT gave us an official stand down on the Livingston thing. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER Sheriff Michael Murphy denied that he was in contact with the militia in the Michigan Home Guard, did not respond to our request for comment when we reached out to them last fall. We couldn't get a complete picture of what happened in any of these examples. But the tapes demonstrate that local law enforcement wield a ton of influence over local militia activity. The police may either ignore, condone, invite it or effectively tamp it down. Social media companies face a similar choice. Last summer, Facebook deleted thousands of militia pages. Twitter also booted a bunch of militia accounts, as did Discord, a smaller app that had long incubated far right groups.
JOAN DONOVAN We were very concerned about Discord,
MICAH LOEWINGER Joan Donovan.
JOAN DONOVAN during the rise of the alt right, because Discord was a minor app and it really wasn't able to understand enough about what was happening on its platform. Because they would see, "oh, you know, it's just 13 people," And that ends up being like Atomwaffen, right. A group of people that are coordinating violence...
MICAH LOEWINGER ...In the name of white supremacy.
JOAN DONOVAN Exactly. And so Zello has to have a procedure and a policy and enforcement mechanisms where they do not tolerate this kind of behavior...Unless it's the business model.
MICAH LOEWINGER You'd think it would be hard for Zello corporate to miss what was happening on their own app if Hampton and I alone could locate two hundred far right groups ranging from Oath Keepers to straight up Nazis. According to Zello's own terms of service, the app can remove anything that, quote, represents promotion of, celebration with, violent extremist ideologies, groups and tactics.
Last fall, when we were doing this research, we reached out to the company to ask how it was enforcing its terms of service. In a written statement, Zello told us that the company, quote, allows speech protected by the U.S. Constitution and law. Therefore, Zello does not permit distribution of content designed to incite violence, end quote. For the full response, go to onthemedia.org. Late in our reporting process last year, we spoke with an employee at Zello who asked to remain anonymous. The employee sent us a companywide email from June 2020 that detailed some of this militia and white supremacist activity on the app. The employee said that in a subsequent companywide email, Zello CEO Bill Moore said essentially that because the platform was not legally responsible for any harm caused by those far-right groups, it would not kick them off the site. Nor would Zello implement new moderation practices to deter this type of organizing in the future. From what I could tell, the most concrete action to come out of that summertime meeting was to de-index far right groups from search engines. Which means when you Google "Zello Three Percent" or "Zello Nazi," those channels don't show up, but they still exist and you could still find them on Zello. They just became harder to find by people like us.
Last October, when I filed this story, there was something about the way the militias were talking about the role as protectors who would give their lives for the cause, not to mention the amount of weapons these guys seem to have. It all seemed like a toxic brew, just waiting to boil over. Of course, we didn't know exactly what would happen just a few months later, but among the community of experts we were talking to, there was an inkling of what was to come. This is how I ended the story in October. Quote, "From now until November 3rd, at least, we'll be concerned about the potential for violence around the election. No one knows the answer, but too much blood has been shed already for any police department or online platform to pretend that there was nothing they could have done to help stop it."
Coming up, the trail of breadcrumbs leads straight to The Capitol. This is On the Media.
MICAH LOEWINGER This is On the Media, I'm Micah Loewinger. So far in this hour, I've explained how I first came across Zello back in 2019 as I was watching these militia groups organize around hurricane relief. And I've laid out how the app allowed me to document the potential relationships between far-right groups and the police all across the country. It felt like the writing was on the wall, but we didn't know for what. With the events of January 6th, you can see how those pieces began to coalesce. After Zello refused to take action against militia organizing on its platform last year, this is what the app sounded like in the lead up to the insurrection.
ZELLO 1 January six. Revolution or bust.
ZELLO 2 That's what the f*ck I got a problem with. How about if all of us stand the f*ck up and take this sh*t back? I got a problem with f*cking patriots not growing a f*cking set of god damn nuts.
ZELLO 3 Once we go operational, this channel will just be for intel gathering and organizing on the back side. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER On January 5th, Hampton and I noticed that One Percent Watchdog, the guy I introduced you to at the beginning of the show, had created a channel called Stop The Steal J6 with about a hundred people in it. The next day I had it running in the background while I watched the violence unfold on TV.
ONE PERCENT WATCHDOG OK, guys, we're on open channel here now.
JESSICA WATKINS Oh hey brother, we're boots on the ground here. We're moving on the Capitol now. I'll give you a boots on the ground update here in a few. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER And that, of course, is Jessica Watkins. The Oath Keeper now indicted for breaking into the Capitol. One Percent Watchdog later told me over text that he didn't know Jessica, or that she was in the channel, though the two can be heard in conversation.
ONE PERCENT WATCHDOG What percentage of the crowd is going to the Capitol?
JESSICA WATKINS One hundred percent. And everybody is marching on the Capitol. All million of us. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER This next part is what federal investigators seem most focused on.
JESSICA WATKINS We have a good group. We've got about 30-40 of us who are sticking together and sticking to the plan. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER More on that in a moment. But first, let's follow her to the Capitol.
JESSICA WATKINS And we're about two blocks away from it now, and police are doing nothing. They're not even trying to stop us at this point. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER The wild thing about listening to an active insurrection on Zello is the group dynamic. While she's working her way through the mob outside the building, she has One Percent Watchdog and others in her ear, sharing intel from home, cheering her on in real time.
ONE PERCENT WATCHDOG US military news is reporting that the national Capitol has been breached. That's right f*ckers. This is a can of whoop*ss made in America. F*ck yeah.
ZELLO 1 Witnessing history, watchdog. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER And encouraging her to kidnap politicians.
ONE PERCENT WATCHDOG You are executing citizen's arrest, arrest this assembly. We have probable cause, acts of treason, election fraud. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER Jessica Watkins can be seen in livestream footage taken around this time showing a line of militia members very deliberately parting the crowd as they approached the doors. Hampton describes the video.
HAMPTON STALL In the footage shared by Ford Fischer of News2Share. There is a column of Oath Keepers who are very clearly part of a unit. They march up to the east entrance of the Capitol building just a few minutes before the doors are breached. Ford zooms in on one of the people involved and a patch that he has on his back that says, "I don't believe in anything, I'm just here for the violence."
MICAH LOEWINGER About three people back. We see Jessica Watkins dressed in full battle rattle. According to other footage discovered by Internet sleuths, she helped lead the crowd in pushing the east entrance door open before fighting her way into the Capitol Rotunda.
JESSICA WATKINS We are in the mezzanine. We are in the main dome right now. We are rocking it. They're throwing grenades, they are freakin shooting people with paintballs. But we're in here.
MAN 1 Be safe. God bless and Godspeed and keep going.
MAN 2 Get it Jess. Do your sh*t. This is what we've f*cking lived up for. Everything we've f*cking trained for. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER Following our report on these communications, in January, the Department of Justice began quoting these Zello chats in indictments, along with quite a bit of information about Watkins' alleged plans and motivations.
MARCY WHEELER This is a woman who had served honorably in Afghanistan and was from a place in Ohio where there really wasn't much going on.
MICAH LOEWINGER Marcy Wheeler, an independent journalist who publishes on her site Emptywheel.net, has been poring over all of the reporting and court records related to the 6th.
MARCY WHEELER She was, I think, given an identity in the Oath Keepers that probably replaced what she had in the military. It was structured. It was considered honorable. They could go out and feel like they were protectors of America.
NEWS REPORT As the inauguration grew nearer, Jessica Watkins indicated that she was awaiting direction from President Trump. Specifically, they say she sent a text on November 9th saying, if Trump asked me to come, I will. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER According to her boyfriend, Watkins had started her own militia, the Ohio State Regulars, as a storm relief group a year earlier. But after Trump lost the election, she ramped up her involvement with the Oath Keepers by recruiting militiamen to come to D.C. to act as private security for Roger Stone. A video uncovered by ABC News shows that at least three Oath Keepers did end up spending time with him in D.C., though I haven't seen anything to prove that he and Jessica Watkins interacted.
MARCY WHEELER Roger Stone doesn't need these people to defend them. I think that that was the lure to get her to get people. That function of saying, OK, you're going to be security for these VIPs who are one degree from the President of the United States. That's like glamour.
MICAH LOEWINGER Ultimately, Watkins was able to rope in enough people from Ohio that she was rewarded with an invite to the Oath Keepers leadership chat room on Signal, an encrypted messaging app, in December, which put her in touch with Oath Keepers, who had traveled from Florida and Alabama, along with the founder of the Oath Keepers, Stewart Rhodes, who was in D.C. on January 6th but hasn't been indicted yet.
MARCY WHEELER So these are these Signal chats which will form the backbone of the actual conspiracy case.
MICAH LOEWINGER In fact, the government has those chat logs because they were still on her phone when she was arrested on January 18th.
MARCY WHEELER They got to Watkins before she deleted anything and she didn't want to perjure herself. She knew enough not to do that. A bunch of other people did delete stuff.
MICAH LOEWINGER People in that chat room make up a large chunk of the 16 person conspiracy case, but remember, Watkins said,
JESSICA WATKINS We have a good group. We got about 30-40 of us. We're sticking together and sticking to the plan. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER What do we know about the 30 to 40?
MARCY WHEELER Right? I'm waiting for those other 15 people. There's a group from North Carolina we haven't seen arrested yet. Some of them stayed in Virginia, staying at the Comfort Inn and Ballston guarding the weapons that everyone had stashed there.
NEWS REPORT The government claims the Oath Keepers stored a cache of weapons for a QRF, or quick reaction force, that would respond to the Capitol armed if President Trump were to, quote, declare an insurrection and to call us up as the militia. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER This brings us to the plan, or as Marcy Wheeler says, one of the possible plans.
MARCY WHEELER They were basically talking about preventing the democratic transfer of power. Either by doing something so outrageous in Congress that the expected Biden supporters would rise up as well, or they're just presumptive notion that enough quote unquote, ANTIFA would show up in the streets and they could perform being victims again. And sow enough violence to give Trump the excuse to call in the National Guard.
MICAH LOEWINGER And then by calling in the National Guard...
JOAN DONOVAN Then you say you can't transfer power, we're in the middle of an insurrection. You can't transfer power, we're at war, you can't transfer power, D.C. has been locked down under the National Guard to protect them from those evil Antifa's.
MICAH LOEWINGER A week after January 6th, Hampton and I sent an email to Zello detailing this evidence that its app had been used by insurrectionists. Along with an updated list of over 800 far right channels. Then we reported those findings in The Guardian, and then a couple hours later...
HAMPTON STALL Zello released a statement on their site saying that they were appalled by the organizing that was happening on their app and that they were banning 2,000 channels.
MICAH LOEWINGER Maybe a third or so came from the list of 800+ channels we sent them.
HAMPTON STALL Oh, yeah, for sure. Of the 800+ , the majority of them are now offline. Either deleted by the users or removed by Zello itself.
MICAH LOEWINGER Many of the groups that we were tracking on Zello relied on that app and its network, and now that network in most cases is gone. Is it fair to say that a lot of these groups are sort of in shambles after January 6th?
HAMPTON STALL I think a lot of them are struggling to find their footing for sure. In some of the channels I heard people say pretty explicitly that Zello would never ban them, that it was the one thing that they could always depend on. Militias are just like one piece of the broader puzzle. And I think militias themselves are maybe a little bit quiet right now, because if they're smart, they're probably on the lookout for what the FBI is up to.
MEGAN SQUIRE The groups don't really disappear and the ideas that they espouse certainly don't disappear. They just might change focus, they might change platform, they might change the volume. So, they're maybe quieter at the moment.
MICAH LOEWINGER Megan Squire, a professor of computer science at Elon University.
MEGAN SQUIRE As the people start feeling more emboldened, as they feel stronger, they'll re-coalesce into groups again. I like to think of a jar of marbles. If you drop it on the floor, it shatters everywhere and the marbles are rolling all around. Right? Well, eventually they find the little dips and the circles in the floor and they kind of collect back up.
MICAH LOEWINGER I'm personally convinced that part of what motivated militias to break into the Capitol, the belief that they need to protect a mythical vision of America at all costs, is here to stay. But it's also possible that the role of national far right groups will diminish even as violence continues. January 6th and its aftermath has crystallized an idea that had been percolating among researchers. That the far right in America has entered what's called a post organizational or post group paradigm.
CYNTHIA MILLER-IDRISS Both terms really capture what we're seeing in the modern far right.
MICAH LOEWINGER Cynthia Miller-Idriss is the director of the Polarization and Extremism Research Innovation Lab at American University.
CYNTHIA MILLER-IDRISS Groups do still matter. I don't mean to say that they don't, there are a lot of groups that exist, but the vast majority of people who radicalize into these kinds of movements are encountering the propaganda and the information online, but may never actually formally join a group.
MICAH LOEWINGER While the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys contributed significantly to the violence and planning on January 6th, about 85 percent of those arrested after the insurrection had no prior involvement in a formal far right organization.
CYNTHIA MILLER-IDRISS One of my biggest concerns is that as a country that we look at January 6th as the end of something, as the culmination of something, we even hear that language a lot.
NEWS REPORT January 6th was really the culmination of a months-long coordinated effort by Donald Trump.
NEWS REPORT What happened on January 6th was in many ways the culmination of all of these forces.
NEWS REPORT It was the last day of the Trump era and it ended in chaos and frankly, disgrace. [END CLIP]
CYNTHIA MILLER-IDRISS I think we should be more open to the possibility that it was a continuation, or even a beginning of something in terms of mobilization. When you look at the long arcs of history around the world and how democracies have stumbled, these aren't usually things that happen super rapidly. They are an accumulation over time of many small injuries and large injuries that chip away at people's trust in the system, at their trust in the legitimacy of information and increase their sense of betrayal and anger and their willingness to believe that violence is a legitimate solution.
MICAH LOEWINGER Miller-Idriss warns that this is not the end of the citizen militia, more like a lull before the next storm hits. But in the wake of January 6th, Zello has gone quiet. The far-right groups have been banned in the app is no longer the meeting place for all things insurrection. Rumor has it some members are going back to basics and have started using ham radio to organize. Hampton and I are looking into that, as for One Percent Watchdog...
ONE PERCENT WATCHDOG Today, we're going to be talking about the January 6 Capitol protest, and what happened on Zello. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER He sent me this clip from a podcast episode he was working on which, he said, would feature an investigation of me.
ONE PERCENT WATCHDOG We'll also be talking about the infiltration and takedown of Zello by the leftist media headed by WNYC, New York Public Radio. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER I watched his podcast feed waiting for the episode to drop, but it never did. I reached out to him for comment for this story and again, no response. Then a militia member leaked me some texts that he'd sent late one night in mid-April, quote, "No more USCF, no more podcast, no more Zello, no more hurricanes. I need my life back. 6 years was long enough to prove to me that there's nothing for us to do other than to wait for the tyrants to make a mistake and to piss off a big enough crowd to take them out."
[ONE PERCENT WATCHDOG RAPPING]
MICAH LOEWINGER One Percent Watchdog may have signed off for now, but we're here for the long haul. For On the Media, I'm Micah Loewinger.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And that's the show. On the Media is produced by Leah Feder, Micah Lowwinger, Eloise Blondiau, Rebecca Clark-Callender and Molly Schwartz with help from Ellen Li. Xandra Ellin writes our unique newsletter. Our technical director is Jennifer Munsen. Katya Rogers is our executive producer, On the Media, is a production of WNYC Studios. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
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