The video still exists on some of the darker corners of the web. Filmed in Michigan from the driver’s seat of a slow-moving car, the fall 2019 clip shows a suburban home with a manicured lawn and a black SUV in the driveway. A GPS navigation device indicates the driver has arrived at the destination.
Posted on a chat group for members of the Bowl Patrol, a white-supremacist group, the video included a caption: “Howdy, antifascist activist Daniel Harper. Nice place you’ve got there,” followed by the address of the house. The meaning was clear: We know where you live, and we’re not afraid to drop by unannounced.
“It’s terrifying. Being targeted by a Satanic Nazi death cult is not something I would recommend to anyone,” said Daniel Harper, the object of the threat and the co-host of “I Don’t Speak German,” a podcast that tracks far-right extremist movements.
In December 2019, two members of the Base — a neo-Nazi militia, whose members have been known to identify with the Bowl Patrol — allegedly flashed lights at the house and posed for photos on the front porch, acts for which they were arrested and charged last year.
There was one other problem, though: This was the wrong house. Harper didn’t live at the address being targeted — a different Daniel Harper had previously owned the house but no longer lived in it. The home was now occupied by a family with a newborn baby. The couple told local media at the time that the harassment had taken away their “sense of peace.”1
When you’ve got neo-Nazis harassing an innocent family in the suburbs because of a podcast that has nothing to do with them, it’s pretty clear this country has a domestic extremism problem. The Department of Homeland Security knows it, Congress knows it, and every single person who watched the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol in horror knows it. There are many elements to the domestic extremism threat in America, but one prominent component is private militias. An assessment from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence has warned that violent extremist militias present “the most lethal” threats in the U.S., and the share of public demonstrations involving far-right militias has increased since the 2020 general election, according to data from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project.
But it’s one thing to identify a problem; it’s another to figure out what to do about it. Militias pose a prickly dilemma for law enforcement because they butt up against a bunch of different American narratives around self-defense, gun rights and how to live in a safe society. Some militias are just a group of guys doing target practice in the woods. Other militias plot to kidnap a governor.
When trying to curb the worst of militias, law enforcement — from local beat cops to politicians passing new laws — inevitably run into questions of constitutional rights (the right to assemble, the right to bear arms) while also trying to keep communities safe. How do they know whom to go after, when to go after them, and how to stop them?
“A Well Regulated Militia”
The term “militia” is inexact. It can conjure up a host of incongruous images, including units in the American Revolutionary War, the siege at Ruby Ridge, and mysterious groups converging since last spring to “protect” private property during Black Lives Matter protests. So when the intelligence community warns about “militia violent extremists,” what exactly does it mean?
When the media or government officials talk about militias, they’re talking about private armed paramilitary organizations that operate without government authority (so, not the U.S. National Guard). Hampton Stall, a researcher and militia expert at ACLED, uses three general descriptors to differentiate between militia and non-militia groups: strategy, structure and schedule. “Strategy” refers to a group’s political views around which members organize, while “structure” refers to a clearly defined hierarchy within the group, often including military ranks and a chain of command. “Schedule” refers to groups having regular, in-person events, including field-training exercises and recruitment. Plenty of groups have one or two of these elements, but the presence of all three is a sure sign of a militia, according to Stall.
The presence of the term “a well regulated militia” in the Second Amendment to the Constitution leads a lot of people to believe that these groups must be constitutionally protected, but the Bill of Rights is open to interpretation. Some scholars say the Second Amendment was referring only to state-run militias called upon by the governor or federal government as needed, not private groups. In fact, in the Supreme Court’s 2008 landmark ruling that upheld an individual’s right to bear arms, the justices notably reaffirmed an 1886 ruling that the Second Amendment “does not prevent the prohibition of private paramilitary organizations” — in other words, private militias.
“Private militias want us to think the Second Amendment protects them, and they’re just wrong,” said Mary McCord, the executive director of Georgetown University Law Center’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection. “‘Well regulated’ has always meant ‘regulated by the state.’”
Not all militias are extremist, and not all extremist groups are militias. But sometimes the two overlap, and that’s where you can end up with a dangerous combination of armed, organized individuals with violent tendencies and extremist views.
“If you have one group whose operations are intimidating public health officials and another group that spends all their time reviewing army manuals on first aid, that’s a different scale,” Stall explained.
But the line between extremist militia and moderate militia is not always clearly defined, and sometimes groups can move along that spectrum, according to Amy Cooter, a militia expert at Vanderbilt University. The majority of militia groups aren’t extremist, she said, but more extreme fringe groups may be able to cultivate greater influence during times of social instability like we saw in 2020.
“People are still kind of underestimating the extreme fringe of this movement,” Cooter said. “There’s a clear possibility that groups that are usually more mainstream could be radicalized.”
Sending a Message
When Facebook recommended he join the Wolverine Watchmen, Dan thought it was a group for firearm training. It wasn’t until a fellow group member started inquiring about how to find the home addresses of police officers that alarm bells started going off.
Dan, whose last name has not been publicly released in order to protect him, went on to become an FBI informant who was critical in uncovering the Watchmen’s plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. In March, he testified at a preliminary hearing for three of the more than a dozen people arrested and charged in the case since October.
The plot to kidnap Whitmer underscored just how extreme some militia groups can be and also served as a useful case study in what law enforcement can and can’t do to curb the threat.
“There is no private militia that is lawful. Period. Full stop,” said McCord, whose group at Georgetown has identified laws on the books in every state that prohibit some or all private militia activity. But these laws often go unenforced, and that’s partly because in practice, it’s not always obvious what crosses a line. A law in Virginia, for example, bans weapons training but only if that training is intended to be used in “a civil disorder.”
Timothy Zick, a William & Mary Law School professor and First Amendment expert, said many of these statutes require prosecutors to prove intent behind actions. “So it may not be as cut and dry.”
Police officers have a strong sense of duty to uphold First and Second Amendment rights, said former police chief Frank Straub, who heads the Center for Mass Violence Response Studies at the National Police Foundation.
“It’s not always black and white. There is a significant amount of gray area,” Straub said. “Some people like to exist in that gray area and push the boundaries as far as they can. Those are the people that cause challenges for law enforcement.”
And cracking down too aggressively on moderate militias could fan the flames, according to Cooter, who said that groups who feel law enforcement is treating them with hostility unprovoked are more likely to radicalize.
Another complication is that some militia members are former or current members of law enforcement. Jim Arroyo, vice president of the Arizona chapter of the Oath Keepers — a loosely organized group of right-wing anti-government extremists with a national presence, some chapters of which are militias — said in a “60 Minutes” interview aired in April that active-duty law-enforcement officers not only were members of the group but also helped train other members. In June, an Orange County sheriff’s deputy was the subject of an internal investigation after he wore symbols associated with the Oath Keepers and another anti-government militia group, the Three Percenters, on his uniform while patrolling a protest over the murder of George Floyd (he was placed on leave during the investigation but ultimately allowed to keep his job). And according to an August 2020 report by former FBI special agent Michael German, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty & National Security Program, in the past two decades, “law enforcement officials with alleged connections to white supremacist groups or far-right militant activities” have been identified in more than a dozen states, with hundreds more posting “racist, nativist and sexist” content online.
For any of these reasons, law enforcement doesn’t always act when it encounters militia activity, and that can lead to dramatic consequences. It’s part of the reason why armed protesters, including some militia members, who had planned to storm the Michigan Capitol in April 2020 didn’t have to storm anything. Instead, they were allowed inside by state police and stood in the gallery above the Senate chamber, toting semiautomatic rifles, staring down as lawmakers went about their business. At least two of these militia members were later arrested for the foiled plot to kidnap Whitmer.
Many of the challenges faced by law enforcement can be overcome by focusing on individuals and their actions rather than on the group they belong to or the ideology they profess, according to German. After all, the majority of the insurrectionists at the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol had no ties to a specific group, but some had participated in previous violent acts.
“If they focused on the violence instead of the ideology, they’d be a lot more effective,” German said.
Focusing on actions also gets around a lot of the hand-wringing over First and Second Amendment rights. Americans have a right to own guns, and a right to associate with whomever they like, but they don’t have a right to commit crimes, including deputizing themselves as authority figures to enforce the law.
Once arrests are made, it’s up to prosecutors to bring the hammer down on these groups to show that this kind of behavior isn’t taken lightly. That’s what the Michigan attorney general’s office has attempted to do, according to Sunita Doddamani, who leads the office’s Hate Crimes & Domestic Terrorism Unit.
“Our role is to send a strong message by prosecuting and labeling these crimes for what they are. That message is: This will not be tolerated here,” Doddamani said.
There’s talk, too, of expanding laws to deal with the growing threat of right-wing extremism, including a long-considered federal domestic-terrorism law. The groups that pose a threat are not simply pro-Second Amendment clubs who enjoy playing dress-up in the woods. These individuals talk about violent uprisings, plot murders and kidnappings, and overtly call for race wars. It’s not a threat with an easy solution, but it’s one that cannot be ignored.
For his part, Harper — the podcast host whom extremists tried to intimidate in 2019 — isn’t convinced that any amount of effort from law enforcement, prosecutors, or lawmakers will be a panacea. After spending years observing the most extreme far-right groups in the U.S., he said the real issue is one of culture, and that’s not something we can arrest our way out of.
“Ultimately, it’s not the question of going after a handful of groups or passing new legislation. It has to be a larger-scale culture change. It has to be a political change,” Harper said. “Turns out there’s not one quick trick that will solve the white nationalist problem in America.”
Kaleigh Rogers is a FiveThirtyEight reporter covering science, politics and technology.