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.
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