Coded for violence: How militias, white nationalist groups operate in mid-Michigan
Flyers reminiscent of Cold War propaganda were posted around Central Michigan University in 2018. They used the genre's visual hallmarks — bold lines, stark red and blue contrasts — and they were not from a student organization.
“Welcome to occupied America, where morality is subjective, borders are irrelevant, decadence is encouraged, illness is promoted, dissent is criminal,” one flyer read
The flyer was distributed by an Isabella County group that is part of the statewide white nationalist group, Patriot Front. While some groups are wary of universities, Patriot Front was looking to use the posters as a method of recruitment to their cause.
For years, Michigan has been known as a hotspot for white-nationalist militia activity. Patriot Front became active shortly after the deadly Unite the Right protest in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017. Protester Heather Heyer along with 19 others were injured after white supremacist James Fields drove his car into a crowd.
Patriot Front used to be part of Vanguard America which was founded in 2015, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit legal advocacy organization specializing in civil rights and public interest litigation.
In October, members of the "Wolverine Watchmen" were arrested after plotting to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said that the group wanted to "instigate a civil war" during a press conference on Oct. 8.
Special Agent Mara Schneider from the FBI field office in Detroit and the residential office in Bay City was unable to comment for this story. These "militias" are “groups who are primarily engaged in First Amendment protected activities,” Schneider said.
Michigan is no stranger to the militia movement -- white nationalism and white supremacism -- said Alexandria Minna Stern, a University of Michigan Dearborn Professor of American History and Culture.
While her book, "Proud Boys and the White Ethnostate," was focused on white nationalism around the globe, Stern said she didn't expect the topic to hit so close to home.
“I wrote a book about (militias) that was more nationally focused, and even internationally focused, not really thinking about the specific permutations in Michigan,” Stern said. “But (the plot to kidnap Whimer) really brought it back home in ways I could not have predicted.”
According to United States law, the term “militia” is legally described as “able-bodied residents who may be called forth by the government to defend the United States or an individual state."
Private militias that “attempt to activate itself for duty" are illegal in the eyes of the Michigan constitution. These groups are not protected by the Second Amendment, which was decided in the court case District of Columbia v. Heller.
Groups such as the Wolverine Watchmen are “millenarians,” said Amy Cooter, professor at Vanderbilt University and a researcher who embedded with a Michigan militia. Millenarians are militia groups driven by conspiracy theories, the term being coined by researcher Robert Churchill.
On the other side are constitutionalists, Cooper said. Those groups are led by people who are pro-Second Amendment. Those would include groups such as the Southeast Michigan Volunteer Militia, which claims to be an unorganized, public group that wants to "aid" law enforcement.
An event that increased interest in these groups was the occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, Cooter said, commonly called the “Bundy standoff.”
The election of President Donald Trump also drove an increase in membership in these groups. After the Unite the Right rally, Trump famously condemned the violence but also acknowledged "very fine people on both sides." That was largely viewed as implying moral equivalence between anti-racist protesters and white supremacists.
“We usually see (a) decrease (in militia membership) during a Republican administration,” said Cooter, who embedded with a Michigan militia group as part of her research. "Trump tends to overtly play into fears about immigration, about Muslims, about other things in a way that makes them start feeling like they legitimize that white men need to be on edge. (They believe) that they need to be ready, that they need to take action. We’ve seen that amplify further this year.”
Who joins these groups? Cooter said that they're not usually people who stick out, and they can range from ex-military to gun enthusiasts with no military experience. Membership is largely people are in their late 20s to early 30s. Most are white men.
“Most of them aren’t really people, where you encounter them at work or someplace else, that you would think about them as being a member of some kind of extremist (group)," Cooter said. "Unless they were decked out, open-carrying in a protest or something like that."
Some members describe themselves as "Three Percenters," an ideology that preaches that only 3% of the colonists rebelled against the British empire, so they could too in the modern-day, according to an Anti-Defamation League article on the ideology.
Disillusioned ex-soldiers may be attracted to these fringe groups trying to find camaraderie or a sense of belonging related to veterans “bringing the war back home," said Stern.
“There’s been a long history of ex-military coming back from war and not knowing exactly where to quite place all of that, and feeling also alienated and dislocated from the society they’ve come back to,” Stern said. “The book by Kathleen Belew, ‘Bringing the War Home,’ (included) an integral part of (Belew’s) argument that a subsection of guys who came back from Vietnam and literally brought the war back home.
"What they were trained to do — that militaristic training and ideology — was channeled into the white power movement.”
The Base is an extremist group, previously led by Russian-based Rinaldo Nazzaro, that is well-known for its ex-military ties. While it didn’t garner attention like Patriot Front or the Three Percenters, its members were training for assassination-style killings of Antifa members to help incite national discord, according to a Vice article investigating them.
The group was active around the United States, including Michigan. One member thought that the Proud Boys weren't extreme enough, according to the article.
“Over and over and over again they discussed how you could only bring down the system with violence and coordinated campaigns of murder," the article read.
While multiple members of the Base were arrested due to them planning acts of terrorism, a Michigan member going by the pseudonym of "AK" threatened to kill law enforcement that came for him. He remains at large as of October.
While the Base didn’t garner national attention, Proud Boys were specifically mentioned by Trump during in a nationally-televised presidential debate and have been spotlighted by national media. When asked to condemn racist behavior, Trump said "Proud Boys, stand back and stand by … somebody has got to do something about Antifa and the left.”
Some experts place Proud Boys membership at about 3,000 to 4,000, while being generous, Cooter said. Such groups tend to overstate their membership, as Proud Boys leaders boast their membership to be around 10,000.
Proud Boys aren’t just a blip in Portland. They’ve also attended lockdown rallies in Michigan, according to Southern Poverty Law Center. Proud Boys also protested in Kalamazoo, which resulted in violence as Proud Boy-aligned protestors pepper-sprayed counter-protestors and journalist Samuel J. Robinson, according to Mlive.
“(Proud Boys) aren’t that big of a concern for most people,” Cooter said. “They do encapsulate portions of those white supremacy and militia groups though in a way that can make them dangerous in places where they have been active for a long time.”
The danger is centralized in areas that have a large amount of militia activity, Cooter said. Portland is one of the biggest hotspots, and it worries some of its residents.
“Specifically in Portland, even though we only have them in the news in the last few months, they’ve been active there for years," she said. People there, especially people of color, have been worried about them there for a long time. Places like that where they have that longevity, where they have that history of potentially violent confrontation, I would have a greater concern than just general middle-America, quite frankly.”
The basic goal of most extremist groups is to assemble – to try to amass a larger group to be able to take action against their perceived enemy, Stern said. The end goal for some of the biggest, most violent groups would be to stage a national attack, Stern said, something on the scale of the 1995 Oklahoma City federal building bombing.
“(Today) they’re talking much more overtly about a race war, a civil war, and wanting to instigate it,” Stern said referring to the threats in October of armed people at the polls during the election or kidnapping state officials. “I think these groups can carry out violent action. Usually this is targeted in some way against the perceived enemy in the forms of a person, a leader, a group of people, a building — something that symbolizes something in America that they don’t agree with.”
Portland's possibly dangerous mainstay militia, Proud Boys, are not a rarity across the U.S. Michigan is harboring 27 hate groups, according to Southern Poverty Law Center's Hate Map. While there are blips of other group activity within Michigan, Patriot Front seemingly is consistent within Isabella County.
Southern Poverty Law Center categorized Patriot Front as a “white nationalist group” that is statewide, meaning that it doesn’t have a central place of activity. Patriot Front has been active in Isabella County since at least 2018 when it distributed recruitment flyers throughout Mount Pleasant area.
“More recently, white nationalist groups such as Patriot Front and the American Identity Movement (formerly Identity Evropa) have branded themselves in the trappings of Americana with the aim of creating a more marketable image for their dedication to creating an all-white nation,” Southern Poverty Law Center said in an article detailing the use of U.S. history in white nationalist propaganda.
Stern suggested that Patriot Front and other hate groups like it see students in universities as being “indoctrinated” by professors who they perceive as liberal or socialist. She decoded the dogwhistling within some of the flyers that were posted around CMU.
Some slogans were anti-LGBTQ such as its referral to morality being "subjective," Stern said, as well as believing that they lack free speech, anti-immigrant beliefs, and calling transgender people mentally ill.
One slogan on a flyer suggested the idea of "decadence." It is in accordance with the belief that Democrats are supporting that idea through gender equality and racial justice, she said, and that Patriot Front members are the "true patriots" and know the path forward.