Militiamen’s reactionary presence at protests threatens democracy, and police seem on their aspect

A recent Washington Post investigation by Joshua Partlow explores how the reaction to the Black Lives Matter protests fueled by the murders of George Floyd and other Black people at the hands of police has manifested itself in a significant wave of fear among rural and exurban conservatives. Along the way, militias such as the “III Percenters” and other “Patriot” outfits have gathered a wave of fresh adherents, who then engage in multiple rounds of threats and intimidation against any peaceful protesters who organize in these areas—and sometimes simply against critics of Donald Trump.

The apotheosis of this trend is an outfit based in Olympia, Washington, called American Wolf—mostly a one-man operation led by a 37-year-old arborist named Peter Diaz, who calls himself a “progressive traditionalist” but whose politics are firmly planted on the extremist right. He claims the protests against police are led by people with a “deep hatred for American ideals”: “Most of them haven’t been able to make their way, so they hate the system we’re in … They want to have a government that gives them everything, they want socialism.”

Diaz also glories in the intimidation his operations bring: “I never thought that I’d be in the back of a pickup rolling through downtown Olympia with six guys heavily locked and loaded, armored out,” Diaz, a former Army reservist, told the Post. “I’m doing something now that’s for a greater cause than myself. And it feels really … good.”

As Devin Burghart of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights pointedly observed, “armed paramilitaries on the streets” is a “remarkably disturbing turn of events.”

“What we’re seeing right now is the outward manifestation of years of organizing by militia-type groups,” Burghart said. “They’ve moved from backwoods training to on-the-streets activism.”

A second Washington Post piece by Isaac Stanley-Becker describes how militias have surged to the forefront of protests held in rural areas in the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere, fueled in part by wild rumors spread on social media of “antifa buses” full of black-clad vandals about to descend on their hapless towns.

Some of these armed militiamen—particularly those associated with the “Boogaloo” movement, which is animated by their increasingly rabid desire to engage in a civil war against “leftists” and federal law enforcement—have been claiming that they are bringing their Hawaiian shirts, AR-15s, and body armor to these marches in order to “protect” the protesters. Of course, while some libertarian “Boogaloo” cultists may be sincere about this, for strategic white nationalists, it is largely a ruse to increase their opportunities for sabotaging the protests by amplifying the violence at them, as may have been the case with protests in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Richmond, Virginia.

Moreover, as a rural Black Lives Matter protester from Omak, Washington, told the Post: “Honestly, it was terrifying … They claimed they were there to protect the city from outsiders, but it felt more like preparation to kill.”

Possibly the most disturbing aspect of the report, however, was its description of law enforcement’s hands-off approach, treating threats and intimidation as “free speech.” One Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, police spokesman told the Post: “There’s a right to peacefully assemble, and there’s a right to bear arms,” he said. “If I trample on one of those rights, then I trample on all of them.”

When an Idaho protester was threatened—“I could put a bullet in your head,” the message accompanying a Confederate flag warned—the local sheriff’s office answered: “Unfortunately in Idaho, there’s no crime for that.” In fact, as the story explains, Idaho code specifically makes harassing people with “lewd or profane language, requests, suggestions or proposals” a misdemeanor.

And many described outright encouragement of the ugliness by law-enforcement and other authorities. A county commissioner in Bonner County, Idaho, called for an armed response—which indeed arrived—to a Black Lives Matter protest in Sandpoint. A sheriff in Oklahoma recently called for volunteers to join a “Sheriff’s Posse” that would allow “non-professionally trained people to perform law enforcement functions.”

This trend also turned up in a third profile—by Nicolle Okoren in The Guardian—of a Utah militia calling itself  Utah Citizens’ Alarm. It, too, originated as a reaction to a Black Lives Matter protest—this time in Provo, Utah, on June 29, at which a white man who drove his vehicle into the marchers and hit some of them, according to witnesses, was shot by a white marcher; police said they “found this claim to be unsubstantiated.”

The most disturbing part of this story describes how police stood by and watched for hours as cars drove into the crowd and hit marchers, doing nothing. Police only arrived on the scene much later, after which the marcher shot the white driver.

Worst of all, it soon emerged that police watched the vehicular assaults occur, and sat on their hands:

After the Provo protest, a policeman told Josianne Petit, 34, a criminal defense paralegal and founder of Mama & Papa Panthers, an organization dedicated to helping parents of all races in raising black children, that the police were inside watching the whole protest on Facebook Live. She said: “I felt fundamentally betrayed. I had worked with Provo PD extensively prior to that protest and I thought I had a good working relationship with them, but to hear the complete disregard they had for the lives of protesters was alarming to me, but also devastating.”

The scene inspired a 47-year-old Provo man named Casey Robertson to form Utah Citizens Alarm, an armed militia explicitly organized to oppose “leftist” protesters: “I was like, ‘We need to stand together as citizens and go down there and show these people that we’re not going to allow violence, and that we are not going to allow these anarchist violent groups to tear down Provo,” Robertson told The Guardian. “It’s not going to happen without a fight.’”

At later protests, as elsewhere, the militiamen also claimed that their presence was about “protecting” the protesters. The protesters, again, felt the opposite: One BYU English major replied to The Guardian, “Whose bullets are they protecting us from? They are the only ones with guns.”

Ironically, much of the violence generated by the “Boogaloo” cult has so far been directed primarily at police by right-wing extremists:

An Air Force sergeant in California who was a “Boogaloo” fan shot two federal officers at an anti-police protest in Oakland, one fatally. Two days later, after being tracked to Santa Cruz County, he shot and killed a sheriff’s deputy while being arrested. During the rampage, he scrawled the word “Boog” in blood on the hood of the car he was driving.
The three Las Vegas-area “Boogaloo Bois” arrested for building Molotov cocktails as part of a larger campaign to wreak havoc around the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests over police brutality did not plan to attack BLM—as most “Patriot” and “Proud Boy” groups have done over the past three years—but instead sought to use the BLM protests to target police officers and power infrastructure, as a way of ramping up the violence around the protests.
A Texarkana, Texas, man who intended to spark the “Boogaloo” by ambushing police officers, was caught by officers who were alerted by his attempt to livestream his planned killing spree. They went to his location and arrested him shortly thereafter.
A “Boogaloo” enthusiast who posted comments on Facebook about bringing his rifle to an anti-stay-at-home-orders protest in Denver attracted the interest of FBI agents, who upon visiting him at his home discovered a cache of homemade pipe bombs. The man openly expressed his intent to use them to kill any federal agents who tried to invade his home.
Another “Boogaloo Boi” planned to livestream his ambush on police officers at an Ohio national park, but was arrested by FBI agents before he could pull off the plan.

Police seem slow to recognize any kind of violent threat from the extremist right, including domestic terrorism, despite the reality that far-right terrorism occurs at an exponentially greater rate with even greater lethality. This suggests, in fact, that America’s law-enforcement culture may be so deeply conservative that the authoritarian impulses it shares with the extremist right may lead it to ignore the threat not just to law enforcement, but to democracy itself, that the “Patriot”/militia movement represents.

Certainly, anyone counting on law enforcement to protect us from far-right extremists and their violence had better take a long look at our current reality.

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