Analyzing the roots and ideology of the militia movement in Michigan

Barry County Sheriff Dar Leaf, right, speaks next to members of the Michigan Liberty Militia during the ‘American Patriot Rally-Sheriffs speak out‘ event at Rosa Parks Circle in downtown Grand Rapids on Monday, May 18, 2020. The crowd was protesting against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home order.

CADILLAC — What could possibly motivate someone to plan the kidnapping and eventual murder of a high-profile public official such as the governor of Michigan?

To understand the mindset of someone who would consider making such plans (allegedly), let alone the mindset of someone who would actually go through with them, it’s important to understand the underlying ideology that is energizing the so-called “militia‘ movement and its various offshoots.

Robert Churchill, an associate professor of history with a specialization in political violence at the University of Hartford, wrote a detailed timeline of the militia movement that was published by the University of Michigan Press a little over a decade ago.

Churchill points to several key socio-political events occurring since the early 1990s that have shaped the major tenants of the militia movement in Michigan and elsewhere.

Setting the stage for the formation of the movement was the increasing pace of economic globalization, coupled with the transformation of rural communities into suburban zones, which caused feelings of a “disquieting loss of control‘ among some segments of the population.

This feeling was aggravated by “state-sponsored political violence stemming from the arrival of paramilitary policing in the heartland,‘ Churchill wrote. Paramilitary tactics developed by SWAT teams in 1960s-era Los Angeles to quell riots eventually were adopted by federal agencies and many small-town police departments and county sheriff’s offices around the country.

Use of these tactics was highlighted in a series of fatal standoffs involving law enforcement and groups that were seen as threats to the state, notably a religious cult called the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, and a heavily armed family of survivalist millenarians (more on this term later) in Ruby Ridge, Idaho.

“The federal law enforcement assaults at Ruby Ridge, Idaho and Waco, Texas were the most visible product of this broader trend toward paramilitary policing,‘ Churchill wrote. “But many concerned citizens, especially gun owners, saw Ruby Ridge and Waco as the tip of a much bigger iceberg, and observed that federal and local agencies were employing the same weapons and tactics in communities closer to home.‘

Using relatively nascent communications technologies such as fax networks, internet chat rooms, and talk radio programs, various groups formed with a shared concern about the threat they perceived to be coming from their own government, as well as to discuss other ideas long considered unpublishable within the mainstream public sphere.

“The movement was born out of its members’ perception that government, both local and federal, posed an increasing threat to their liberty and their lives, a threat that was political, violent, and intolerable,‘ Churchill wrote.

A final factor that Churchill believes is foundational to the formation of the modern militia movement is the revival of “libertarian memory of the American Revolution within the gun rights movement.‘

This movement formed amid a backdrop of aggressive legislative efforts throughout the 1990s to limit the sale and ownership of certain kinds of firearms, including the assault weapons ban of 1994 and the Brady bill of 1993, which required handgun purchasers to undergo criminal background checks.

“As gun rights activists entered into this new public sphere, they brought with them an insurrectionary understanding of the Second Amendment, a familiarity with eighteenth-century Whig ideology and the Whig diagnosis of government abuse, and a more civic understanding of the institution of the militia,‘ Churchill wrote.

It is these ideas that set the militia movement apart from other far-right movements that have been circulating for decades, including white supremacists and anarchists.

Churchill said the first organized militia groups began to operate in the winter and spring of 1994. There were two distinct branches of the movement — constitutionalists who believed public action at local governmental meetings could deter against further government abuse, and millenarians, who organized around an apocalyptic vision of a coming “New World Order.‘

In April 1994, Norman Olson used internet discussion groups to announce the formation of the Michigan Militia. Olson owned a gun shop in Emmet County and was the leading spokesman of the constitutional branch of the movement at the time. Olson came under federal scrutiny after revealing that Oklahoma City bombing accomplice Terry Nichols attended a Michigan Militia meeting.

Aspects of the constitutional militia movement were visible in Northern Michigan as early as 1995, when in October a group of Manistee County residents tried to take over a Norman Township board meeting, claiming any registered voter could vote on matters before the board, according to Cadillac Evening News reports at the time.

The disturbance in Norman Township was the latest of several clashes at Northern Michigan township board meetings involving the militia, said Larry Merrill, then-deputy executive director of the Michigan Township Association.

In testimony given by Olson to the Senate Subcommittee on Anti-Terrorism in June 15, 1995, he outlined the militia’s purpose.

“... the growing threat of centralized Federal government is frightening America, hence the emergence of the citizen militia,‘ Olson said. “In order to resist a rebellious and disobedient government, the citizen militia must not be connected in any way with that government lest the body politic loose its fearful counterbalances the only sure threat to a government bent on converting free people into slaves.‘

Such statements are similar to those allegedly made by some of the conspirators in the plot to kidnap the governor.

In the criminal complaint filed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, special agent Richard J. Trask II testified that one of the alleged conspirators stated that “(The governor) .... loves the power she has right now‘ and that “she has no checks and balances at all. She has uncontrolled power right now.‘ The conspirators also regularly referred to the governor as a “tyrant.‘

Churchill said the militia movement seemed to “come out of nowhere‘ for many Americans, partly due to the new technologies that made it possible for members to have discussions about taboo subjects such as revolutionary violence outside the public sphere.

As details about the plot to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer have emerged, so too has information about the Wolverine Watchmen and Michigan Liberty Militia — the groups that some of the alleged conspirators claimed to be affiliated with.

According to a story published by Bridge Magazine, while the group has close ties to various aspects of the militia movement, experts say the Wolverine Watchmen also appears to be part of the increasingly extreme Boogaloo movement preparing for civil war.

In the Bridge Magazine story, sociologist Amy Cooter, at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, said the Wolverine Watchmen appears to have grown this year “specifically in response to the (coronavirus) pandemic and… Whitmer’s state lockdown.‘

“I don’t think the charges are all that shocking, given our political moment and given how Michigan has always been a hotbed of militia activity,‘ Cooter said.

In an interview with MSNBC, Daryl Johnson, a former counterterrorism analyst for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, said while traditional militia groups tend to focus on preparedness and defense in the event of a worst-case scenario, groups like the Wolverine Watchmen appear to be more “offensive‘ in nature.

Cadillac News