The men set out to storm the Michigan Capitol, kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer, try her, and start a civil war. Now US police have arrested 13 members of a right wing militia called “Wolverine Watchmen”.
The FBI had been watching her for months and tracking her communications on the Internet. Now they are being charged: for terrorism, conspiracy and violations of the gun law.
The case raises explosive questions: How dangerous are private militias in the US? How big is your network? Do you intend not to acknowledge Donald Trump’s election defeat? And would they start a civil war to keep him in power?
Trump calls on militias to resist
The first and obvious answer is yes. During the summer’s massive protests against police brutality, the president called on supporters to defend public spaces as “patriots” against a “left-wing mob” and the “antifa”. As a result, there were direct clashes between armed Trump supporters and armed supporters of the “Black Lives Matter” movement. Shots rang out. There were deaths.
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Today, violent groups like the “Proud Boys”, who were featured in the TV debate between Trump and Joe Biden, or the “Oath Keepers” are a cause for concern. They want to keep “their” President Trump in office – if there is no other way, including by force. In general, there are dangerously many privately owned weapons in the United States – more than the country has a population.
High proportion of veterans with military experience
Experts estimate that there are about 300 militias active with a total of 15,000 to 20,000 members. A quarter of them are veterans of the US Army.
On the other hand, the Washington Post argues that the militias’ threat to democracy should not be dramatized. She cites five common “myths” for their reality content. First, militias are portrayed as particularly susceptible to violence. Statistically, however, individual offenders are more dangerous.
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Second, it is widespread that right-wing militias support Donald Trump, and for the first time in US history, the movement has a like-minded president in it. In fact, the militia’s main motivation is to reject strong centralized state power – and this rejection includes the president.
Public hostility is mainstream these days
Third, the hostility to the government and the militias’ worldview in general is classified as extreme. However, the development of opinion polls shows that skepticism towards the federal government has long been mainstream. In the mid-1960s, 77 percent of American citizens said they could trust the federal government to usually make the right decisions. Today, only 17 percent say so. The basic motive for joining a militia is the concern that the state, against the will of the citizens, interferes too much in their daily lives, that the government is becoming increasingly dictatorial.
The fourth myth is the belief that militias share a common ideology. In fact, they would have different motives and goals. Some call themselves Christians, some patriots. For some, concern about gun rights restrictions was the crime, for others illegal immigration, for still others the right to sexual self-determination, opposition to higher taxes, or an advancing state in general.
Some militias support “Black Lives Matter”
Fifth, militias are often equated with racists and “white supremacists,” that is, supporters of the belief in the superiority of white people. Militias, Ku Klux Klan, Nazis – everything is mixed in one jar. In reality, the range is wider. The rhetoric of many militias is directed against Muslims and Latinos. But there are also militias campaigning for more diversity in their ranks. And militias who support “Black Lives Matter” and their demand to “defunding” the police.
What is dangerous and at the same time difficult to predict in the dynamics is the combination of three elements: growing distrust of the state, expansion of the militia movement of fringe groups in society and general access to firearms. US military veterans joining militias are an additional risk factor. According to experts, only a few thousand of the 20 million American veterans do this. But their training can strengthen the organization and effectiveness of militias.
There are also militias that support the Black Lives Matter movement. Photo: REUTERS
The United States has more guns than people
There are more firearms in America’s homes than there are people in the country. And in terms of the number of civilians, much more than in any other country, including civil war states like Yemen. However, private weapons are not evenly distributed across the country. They are concentrated in less than half of the households. With about 400 million guns and officially about 50 million households owning guns, they have an average of eight pistols and rifles in their house.
Households with weapons are mainly found in rural areas, where hunting is part of the lifestyle, and in small towns. They are less common in large cities. Republicans are more gun fans than Democrats. But there too, the boundaries are fluid. Bernie Sanders, the left-wing presidential candidate and a “socialist”, defends the right to private gun ownership. In the green mountains of his native Vermont, hunting and shooting are also accepted leisure activities for leftists.
Trump’s rhetoric puts the militias at the center
Because Trump does not clearly distance himself from right-wing militias, acts of violence involving militia and militia-linked veterans drew more attention during his tenure than before. During the 2017 bloody protests against Southern Heroes’ monuments in the college town of Charlottesville, Virginia, a former Marine, Vasillios Pistolis, knocked down protesters.
During the May riots in Oakland, an Air Force sergeant, Steven Carillo, shot and killed a federal police officer; Carillo is committed to the anti-government movement “Boogaloo”.
African Americans threaten with firearms due to corona requirements
In late May, heavily armed protesters, mostly African Americans, threatened politicians in front of Michigan’s regional parliament to ease corona rules. In Las Vegas, three ex-soldiers planned to cause a riot with homemade bombs and Molotov cocktails in June, which should lead to the overthrow of the government.
The examples show: the danger exists. Fatal or potentially fatal confrontations take place regularly during the election year. Some are discovered by the security forces during the planning phase. At the same time, many observers feel the warnings of a civil war in the US are exaggerated. The balance of power between militias and state power is too unequal for that.