Regardless of outcome, experts say the risk of extremist violence likely to extend beyond election

Oct 16, 2020

Michigan faces a heightened risk of extremist violence even after the November election.


In the aftermath of a plot to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer state officials - and counterterrorism experts - are turning their attention to the polls.

Experts say statements made by President Trump in September’s Presidential debate, making unfounded claims about election fraud and telling supporters to watch the polls, could inspire armed groups - or individuals - to show up at the polls on election day.

“There is a legitimate concern because, you know, these militia groups some of them are Trump supporters,” said Daryl Johnson, a former Senior Analyst of Domestic Terrorism with the Department of Homeland Security. “They may take that as a call to action.”

Johnson authored a report in 2009 that warned of the rise of white supremacist and anti-government groups that he said was largely ignored, after which his team was essentially dissolved.

“The problem has been that our legislators have been slow to call out this threat,” he said. “Our federal law enforcement has been fearful of pursuing this threat because of the backlash my report received in 2009, so there’s kind of a chilling effect.”

"It's incumbent upon law enforcement to not to tacitly allow that to happen. They need to be telling these groups not only we don't need your help, we've got this, but your help is unlawful."

Mary McCord is the legal director for the Institute for constitutional advocacy and protection at Georgetown Law. She said part of the story of a national rise of extremist  - and particularly militia - groups is a failure to characterize them as unlawful.

“There is no legal authority under state or federal law for private groups of individuals to self activate as a militia,” she said. “They point at the term ‘militia’ in the constitution but that term is ‘well-regulated militia.’ Well-regulated has always meant, even before the constitution, regulated by the state.”

McCord said all states ban paramilitary organizations that don’t fall under the authority of the governor.

“The militias are now established in every state as the national guard,” she said. “To the extent that every state has some provisions that refer to the militia as all able-bodied residents being able to be called forth, only the Governor has the authority to call them forth.”

Michigan is one of a handful of states with explicit provisions banning paramilitary groups like militias. The state constitution notes that all military units fall under state authority and state statutes prohibit firearm training that could be used “in the furtherance of civil disorder.”

According to McCord, this misconception about the legality of militia groups - especially among law enforcement - has allowed them to grow.

“It’s incumbent upon law enforcement not to tacitly allow that to happen. They need to be telling these groups not only we don’t need your help, we’ve got this, but your help is unlawful.”

Other experts say that a relationship with local law enforcement has helped militia groups fly under the radar.

Dr. Amy Cooter is a lecturer at Vanderbilt University who has studied militia groups for more than a decade, including three years directly embedded with militia groups in Michigan.

“Especially in places where Sheriffs are elected they (the militia groups) see them as more tied to the people,” she said. “That’s been facilitative frankly in Michigan by a lot of Sheriffs knowing these folks, legitimizing them in some ways, relying on them occasionally in search and rescue efforts or similar types of things.”

Dr. Cooter said there are two primary types of militia - “constitutionalists” and “millenarians.”

“Constitutionalist militias make up the bulk of the movement, about 90% in my estimate,” she said.

According to Dr. Cooter, Constitutionalists are skeptical of the government but take a literal interpretation of the constitution and see their role as connected to public service.

“In contrast the remaining 10%, millenarians, tend to be much more conspiracy-theory oriented,” she said. ”They tend to be more overtly about things like racism or niche religions. They fit more of the stereotype of what militias are.”

In Michigan, the Southern Poverty Law Center lists nine major militia groups, including the Michigan Liberty Militia. But Dr. Cooter called the Southern Poverty Law Center’s estimate “flawed.”

Cooter’s dissertation on militia groups points out that the Southern Poverty Law Center’s estimates seem largely pulled from websites, leading to inaccuracies.

The dissertation includes one telling exchange between militia members laughing at those inconsistencies:

Person 1: "Heck, they declared me a one man militia. […] I set up a web page with just myself as a member. After [another member's] passing I changed directions and dropped it, but left the page active. So these boneheads didn't check anything more than Google. I will have to send them a note thanking them for putting me on the map."

Person 2: "This summer I am considering making my dogs militia commanders and giving them their own command and website. When they list them next year we will have grown even more."

Person 3: "[…] I will promote my rabbits and a couple of the neighborhood cats and call it the Humane Society Militia, lol."

Experts agree that there has been a rise of extremist groups, particularly on the far-right, but Dr. Cooter said there is a line between terrorism and most militia groups.

“The reality is that the vast majority of militia groups, militia members, get nowhere near that territory,” she said. “They actively try and fight against things like that.”

"We'll probably go through a period of heightened violence before things get better."

Other experts, like Javed Ali, a visiting professor at the University of Michigan and a Former Senior Counterroism Official with the US Government, say that even if there are distinctions between groups like the Boogaloo Boys and militia they still fall under an umbrella of far-right groups.

“They don’t necessarily have the same political ideologies as some of the other threats I described but in my opinion, they seem to fit into this far-right category where they share similar grievances,” Ali said. “They’re anti-government. They have grievances against other targets like law enforcement.”

But, Ali said, when it comes to monitoring groups that could pose a threat ultimately the label might not matter as much as how those groups behave.

“I think it’s more important to look at behaviors that would indicate activity that is either drifting towards or has already shifted into the terrorism zone,” he said. “That would be more helpful than looking at a group per-se, if there is structure around it, and then thinking there might be a latent threat just based on a group that exists. That might not be a good use of resources.”

When it comes to diffusing the threat that far-right groups pose, Johnson, Ali, and McCord all noted the need for a reduction in inflammatory political rhetoric.

McCord specifically pointed out that it will be incumbent on state and local officials to both protect polls - and be clear about the validity of election results.

“People should have confidence in the validity of the vote and as we always have done accept the results of that vote without taking to the streets,” she said. “If we can’t count on the president to send that message it’s incumbent on all of us, including the media, to do so.”

In Michigan, state officials say that firearms are banned within 100-feet of polling locations. Concealed carry is banned only at locations that would otherwise have a concealed carry ban - such as churches or schools.

Robert Stevenson is the Executive Director with the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police. He said police and the Attorney General’s office will work in coordination to identify any potential instances of voter intimidation.

“The Attorney General plans to have personnel on duty on the day of voting all the time the polls are open so if the police do encounter something that’s a gray area they can call representatives from the Attorney General’s office and get guidance.”

Daryl Johnson, former analyst with the Department of Homeland Security, said even if rhetoric cools his concerns around heightened extremism extend beyond the November election.

“This isn’t going to end on November 4th. If the Republicans win it’s more of the same we’ve had in the past four years. If the Democrats win Trump has laid out this landscape that there’s voter fraud, the election is rigged.”

Johnson said it will take years to undo a lot of the momentum around the rise of extremist groups.

“We’ll probably go through a period of heightened violence before things get better. Unfortunately, I think we’ve reached the new norm. This is what we’re going to deal with for years to come,” he said. “Doesn’t matter if Republicans or Democrats are in power these far-right groups are going to be active and agitated and some members are going to be plotting nefarious things.”

Johnson said the one silver lining is that finally, people are taking the threat far-right groups pose more seriously.