Conservative armed groups move into politics as backlash builds against protests, stay-at-home orders
Before his political awakening this spring, Peter Diaz lived a quiet life near this leafy liberal bastion at the base of the Puget Sound. He ran a tree-trimming service and a business that built office cubicles. He was 37 and had never voted.
Now he has formed his own political party and is the leader of American Wolf, a roving band of civilians who have anointed themselves “peacekeepers” amid months of tense protests over racism and policing. In the name of law and order, members of his informal group have shot paintballs at demonstrators and carry zip ties and bear spray as they look for antifascists. Diaz has done “recon” in Minneapolis and Seattle’s “autonomous zone,” and drove his American Wolf mobile home to Mount Rushmore to celebrate Independence Day with President Trump.
America’s summer of anxiety and rage has swept up men like Diaz, energizing conservatives who are deploying to the front lines of the culture war. Across the country, conservative armed civilians have surged into public view — marching on statehouses, challenging Black Lives Matter protests, chasing Internet rumors — and bringing the threat of lethal force to local politics. Their emergence has prompted congressional hearings on the surge in anti-government militias and domestic extremism and has alarmed researchers who track hate groups.
Unlike the old image of militiamen as fringe elements motivated by a desire to overthrow the federal government, these groups often rally in defense of the president and see themselves as pro-government allies of local law enforcement.
“We’re the silent majority,” Diaz said, standing outside his house with a .45-caliber Remington handgun on his belt. “It’s time to act.”
Many members of these armed groups consider this pre-election period a defining moment. In the pandemic stay-at-home orders, they see government overreach that restricts their freedoms and harms their businesses. In the months of volatile street protests, they see local authorities who lost the nerve to confront violent agitators.
The federal agents clashing with protesters in Oregon are “our Portland heroes,” Diaz wrote on Facebook last week — not performing illegal arrests, as critics have alleged, but making “strategic detentions” of high-value targets. Diaz visited Portland, Ore., earlier this month to offer federal agents free beer and homemade medals of valor as a show of his appreciation.
Gun-toting civilians have stormed the Michigan Capitol demanding the state lift coronavirus restrictions, and rushed to the battlefield in Gettysburg following a flag-burning hoax. After a member of a civilian militia in New Mexico shot and critically injured a man, a prosecutor in Albuquerque earlier this month sued the militia in an attempt to stop it from showing up as a military unit at protests and assuming law enforcement duties.
With a hodgepodge of military garb and over-the-counter assault rifles, such self-styled “patriots” come from lots of backgrounds, but they are predominantly white and male. They are often veterans who say the mission now is to defend the Constitution and the freedoms they fought for in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I never thought that I’d be in the back of a pickup rolling through downtown Olympia with six guys heavily locked and loaded, armored out,” said Diaz, a former Army reservist. “I’m doing something now that’s for a greater cause than myself. And it feels really . . . good.”
In the Pacific Northwest, far-right and militia-style groups have a long history, but their past standoffs and dramas tended to play out in remote rural settings. During the pandemic and protests, right-wing groups such as the Washington Three Percenters, Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer have held rallies to declare their rights and appeared as counterprotesters at others’ events. Supporters of these groups are running in state and local elections this year in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and elsewhere across the region.
Their appearance at hundreds of events and protests this year across the country is “part of their effort to normalize the presence of armed paramilitaries on the streets, which is a remarkably disturbing turn of events,” said Devin Burghart, president of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, a Seattle-based organization that tracks far-right groups.
“What we’re seeing right now is the outward manifestation of years of organizing by militia-type groups,” Burghart said. “They’ve moved from backwoods training to on-the-streets activism.”
Many pro-gun conservatives are rallying around Loren Culp, a small-town sheriff who is a Republican candidate for governor in Washington.
Culp’s profile rose two years ago when he refused to enforce a new state gun law that raised the age to buy semiautomatic rifles from 18 to 21. He declared his small eastern Washington town of Republic a “sanctuary city” for the Second Amendment.
Even in a blue state where former Democratic presidential candidate and two-term Gov. Jay Inslee is expected to win handily, Culp’s rallies in rural Washington towns have attracted hundreds of people. In recent polls, Culp leads among Republicans and has raised more funds than his rivals in the primary apart from one candidate, who self-funded a large portion of his campaign.
“We have to quit enabling the criminals and bring law and order back to our cities and our entire state,” Culp said at a campaign stop in Elma, Wash., last month, speaking from a flatbed truck parked on a paintball grounds. “We have to bring people who have a spine and who understand and have gun leadership in their life.”
The appearance of guns in this tense political moment has not been confined to conservatives. A Black Lives Matter protester who was carrying an assault rifle was shot and killed in Austin by a motorist Saturday night.
During recent unrest in Portland, some protesters have been carrying “powerful slingshots, Tasers, sledgehammers, saws, knives, rifles and explosive devices,” Attorney General William P. Barr told a hearing Tuesday, at which Democrats accused him of sending in federal agents to incite confrontation to benefit Trump’s reelection campaign.
In the Northwest, leftist groups such as the Puget Sound John Brown Gun Club also carried weapons as they escorted speakers or guarded Seattle’s protest encampment in the Capitol Hill neighborhood. There were at least six people shot — and two deaths — in the vicinity of the encampment before it was eventually cleared by police earlier this month.
“We’ve had a few events where Proud Boys have gotten up in our faces and yelled and threatened us,” said Nick, a member of the gun club who gave only his first name, referring to the self-proclaimed “western chauvinists” group that the Southern Poverty Law Center labels a hate group. “They don’t throw punches at us because they know we’re armed.”