The Rise of American Militias, From Timothy McVeigh to Kyle Rittenhouse
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
This is how people like Kyle Rittenhouse are created.
By Nick Fouriezos
This article is part of a series examining the fringes of American life, exploring their origins and how they’re redefining the mainstream of tomorrow. Read the first installment here, and further editions here and here.
- Armed civilian militia groups are plentiful — though their traditionally anti-government rhetoric has found an ally in President Donald Trump.
- In the past, some such groups have disavowed associates who committed crimes, like Oklahoma City Bomber Timothy McVeigh. But they haven’t done that with accused murderer Kyle Rittenhouse.
When a shot is fired, it’s the bang that is heard, the smoke that is felt. Only rarely, with careful attention, is the bullet’s origin actually seen. When a shot is fired, where does it come from? And when a teenager joins a local militia, then shoots three protestors as they chase him through the streets, where did those bullets come from?
One could argue they began with the very creation of this country. “A well regulated militia … the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed,” as the Second Amendment reads. That line inspired the first page of the handbook of the Michigan Militia, a paramilitary organization founded in 1994 that has seen dozens of groups spawn in its image — attracting tens of thousands of members via internet message boards and Facebook groups.
From the outside, groups like these seem obsessed with guns. And they are, to an extent. But writing them off as simply gun nuts mistakes their argument: For them, their role isn’t preserving weapons so much as preserving freedom itself — particularly the inalienable rights promised in the Bill of Rights and the U.S. Constitution. “You are born with your rights,” the organization writes in its 31-page handbook, which is publicly available online. “They are from your Creator — NOT from the government.”
Their handbook criticizes the United Nations, accusing it of codifying the ability of governments to rip children from their parents if those adults don’t comply with their demands. (Such fears are not uncommon in many fringe far-right groups, and have recently become the key force behind the QAnon-inspired “SaveTheChildren” movement.) And their handbook shows a deep skepticism for majority rule. “Democracy is 4 wolves and 1 sheep voting on what’s for dinner. Liberty is the sheep with .357 magnum telling the wolves where to stick it,” it reads.
It’s that context, of deeply skeptical, gun-toting citizens fighting off what they see as government overreach, that explains how local militias can attract such zealous followers. That vision has been behind the formation of everything from the conspiratorial anti-Semitic group Posse Comitatus in the 1980s to the Michigan Militia and other groups that spawned chapters across all 50 states. Their numbers swelled to the tens of thousands, growing as they earned martyrs, most notably in the 1992 shootout between the FBI and Randy Weaver at Ruby Ridge and the 1993 siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas.
“The antigovernment movement has a history of coalescing together” around martyrdom, says Freddy Cruz, a research analyst at the nonprofit Southern Poverty Law Center, “increasing their persecution complex which in turn reinforces their extremist beliefs and general paranoia.”
There is one man that militia groups did disavow: Timothy McVeigh, who attended Michigan Militia meetings along with co-conspirator Terry Nichols before carrying out the Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people in 1995. The group’s founder, Air Force veteran Norman Olson, first blamed the Japanese for the bombing. Later, after Olson was pushed out for his extremist views, the Michigan Militia denied that McVeigh was representative of the group.
Still, even as the Michigan Militia faded in the late ’90s and early aughts, it never fully disappeared. And in recent years, militias have returned in force, attracted by the new battlefields that American protest movements have offered them. They’re not all on the right: In Portland, Black bloc members of the anti-fascist movement have donned shields and weaponry to brawl with far-right paramilitary groups, with one self-proclaimed antifa member allegedly killing a conservative Patriot Prayer activist last week. Other private security and volunteer forces have risen to fill the gap left when police have been disbanded or refused to continue working — as is the case in Minneapolis, where the son of Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison has organized a pistol-wielding patrol of neighborhoods at risk of being looted or set on fire.
However, the most famous and common militias are the gun-toting, right-leaning types, who have repeatedly shown up armed, they say, in response to the destruction caused by Black Lives Matter protests across the nation. Roughly 181 militias existed across America in 2019, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, down from 216 in 2018.
Unlike their forebears, they now principally organize online, a new twist in the culture wars. Because their members are especially prone to conspiratorial thinking, social media algorithms often aid in their radicalization — pushing followers of other gun rights and anti-government groups to militia groups that share many of those same values. One such internet-inspired militia is the Boogaloos, a loosely connected nationwide collective of Hawaiian-shirt-wearing gun owners whose name is driven by meme culture — and who’ve been connected to the killings of multiple police officers.
Ironically, while most militias have traditionally opposed the police, some have become largely pro-cop since the end of Barack Obama’s presidency — in part because of their fondness for Donald Trump, who echoes much of their conspiratorial talk of a “deep state,” shares common enemies in antifa and BLM, and engages with their white nationalist animus against Muslims and immigrants of color.
That strange alliance is how a 17-year-old like Kyle Rittenhouse can become indoctrinated, transforming his adulation for police into anti-protest agitation that ultimately saw him arrive in Kenosha armed with a rifle and a first aid kit … and believing he was morally justified in doing so. “People are getting injured,” Rittenhouse said in a video interview recorded shortly before he killed two protestors and shot another while being chased. “Our job is to protect this business, and part of my job is to also help people: If there is somebody hurt, I’m running into harm’s way.” Whatever his intentions, the bullets were in the chamber long before Rittenhouse was born.