Vigilant group activity on the rise, worrying law enforcement and watch groups

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Kevin Mathewson founded his militia, the Kenosha Guard, in June, as massive protests against police brutality grew across the country, leading with them to spurts of violence.

A former city councilor who is raising two children in the lakeside town of Wisconsin, Mathewson said in an interview that he wanted to “spark a spark that lets people know there are more here who want to stand up for themselves. , our lives, our neighborhoods ”.

For weeks, the group’s charge of defending the community only reached a few dozen online subscribers and gathered no real-world activity. Then, on Sunday, a Kenosha cop shot dead 29-year-old black man Jacob Blake seven times in the back and the epicenter of the summer’s racial injustice calculation moved to the backyard by Mathewson.

Over two nights of protests and unrest, with chants of “Black Lives Matter” and buildings set on fire, the Kenosha Guard’s online membership has exploded. A new Facebook call to arms from the group on Tuesday drew thousands of responses. Just before midnight, amid a jumble of protesters, law enforcement, armed citizens and citizen journalists breaking through the mandatory curfew, a 17-year-old who was standing guard outside a car dealership shot and killed two men, seriously injuring a third. . Kyle Rittenhouse, the suspected gun boy, now faces multiple counts of homicide. His lawyer says it was in self-defense.

While there is no indication that Rittenhouse was a member of Kenosha’s Guard (Facebook said it had no evidence he was connected to the group online), the bloody escalation follows a striking emergence of groups armed amateurs at demonstrations across the country.

Driven by a patchwork of ideologies and inflamed by the Trump administration’s often misleading messages about far-left agitators, analysts say the groups are fueling concern among law enforcement and hate group watchers that they could be the cause of more violence. Lawyers also warn that the militias, with their support for powerful weapons and lack of police training, are on fragile constitutional ground.

“Law enforcement officers undergo months of training on the use of force, de-escalation of force, defensive tactics, and the use of a firearm to defend themselves and the citizens they do.” they swore to protect, ”said Thomas O’Connor, a retired FBI special agent who has spent much of his career investigating domestic terrorism. “A civilian with a gun on the street during an unstable situation may have the legal right to have that gun, but that doesn’t always mean it’s the wise decision. ”

Sometimes armed citizens during protests are greeted by law enforcement, such as during the first protests in Kenosha where police were seen giving water to visible militia members and thanking them. , but Kenosha County Sheriff David Beth also said the groups were increasing tensions.

“Part of the problem with this group is that they create a showdown,” Beth said at a press conference Wednesday after Rittenhouse’s arrest. “If I took my wife out with an AR-15 or my brother with a shotgun or whatever walking the streets, you’d be wondering what’s going on. It doesn’t help us. ”

Consequences of the “normalization” of justice for vigilantes

Many established militias, or civilian forces, have long aligned themselves with anti-government causes in pockets of the United States and groups like the Oath Keepers have become an antagonistic presence during protests in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014.

Since April, according to researchers who track hate groups, more decentralized and organic growths of the movement have increased in visibility, first during “reopening” rallies that challenged the coronavirus closures, then at the site of demonstrations of racial justice, where they say their patrols designed to deter criminal behavior have led to varying degrees of confrontation.

A survey, conducted by social justice think tanks, Political Research Associates and the Institute for Human Rights Research and Education, documented 187 appearances by paramilitary and far-right actors during the gatherings across the country from late May to early July.

Armed citizens clashed with Black Lives Matter protesters in Salt Lake City and stood outside looted shops in Minneapolis. Hundreds of militiamen and members of far-right groups gathered in Gettysburg, Pa., Propelled by a threat of flag fire that was likely a hoax.

In Albuquerque, violence erupted and one person was shot dead when protesters calling for the removal of a statue of a controversial conquistador clashed with members of the New Mexico Civil Guard, a militia. The militia group denied the shooter was a member of the organization, but local leaders sharply criticized the armed group for inflaming the tensions that led to the shooting.

“This is the logical end of a long road traveled for several years to normalize the idea that vigilante justice is not only justifiable but necessary,” said Howard Graves, senior research analyst at the Southern Poverty Law Center. , which studies hate groups. “It’s not an accident that it resulted in death – that’s what’s going to happen depending on what these groups plan to do. ”

Divided between the variety of groups, which are mostly made up of white men, there is often a disdain for the Black Lives Matter movement and a misplaced emphasis on its links to radical left violence, although some have more explicit, extreme and sometimes racist ideologies, said Alex Friedfeld, a researcher at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, which monitors group activity online.

Many are also inspired by the misinformation they read online about violence and organized looting campaigns linked to the Black Lives Matter movement. President Donald Trump and Justice Department leaders have steadily reinforced the role of the anarchist Antifa group in the summer unrest without providing much evidence.

“There’s this disconnect between what’s real on the ground and what people read on the internet, where everyone is sharing messages about George Soros paying for buses to go to towns and all these types of things that don’t. are absolutely not true, ”Friedfeld said, referring to the billionaire philanthropist at the center of many anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.

The Oath Keepers, which draws its members from the ranks of the military and law enforcement, and adherents of the Three Percenter militia movement are organizing to face conspiracies over an oversized federal government.

Members of the Boogaloo movement vary in ideology from anarchists to white supremacists, but have proven to be among the most violent extremists this summer. The FBI arrested several of them this summer, including a pair accused of murdering a federal security officer at an Oakland, Calif., Courthouse in May, amid protests in the city. They have pleaded not guilty.

Mathewson, of Kenosha Guard, denied any connection to any ideological movement and said he supported elements of police reform, such as installing body cameras, which he advocated at the time where he was at the city office. He said a teenager like Rittenhouse who might not have legally been able to openly carry a gun should not have come to Kenosha. Rittenhouse has been charged with unlawful possession of a dangerous weapon when he was under the age of 18. He did not plead any charges against him.

“For me, I guess I was hoping it would make sense that I didn’t look for kids to go out,” said Mathewson.

Facebook later removed the Kenosha Guard pages from the website and admitted they should have been removed sooner under the company’s “dangerous groups” policy. Mathewson told CNN he was disappointed with the move.

Questions relating to the second amendment

While gun laws in 44 states make it legal to carry long guns openly in public, armed citizens would generally not have the right to use deadly force while protecting someone’s belongings. ‘another.

Their ability to band together as a militia and advocate for the use of force is also legally questionable, said Mary McCord, a former senior Justice Department official who is now legal director of the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown University Law Center. .

Despite the wording of a “well-regulated militia” in the Second Amendment, the Supreme Court has long held that the right to bear arms belongs to individuals only and does not prevent states from writing laws prohibiting the creation of militias. citizens.

All 50 states now have similar laws or constitutional provisions that prohibit private military activity, according to McCord, and after the violence in Charlottesville in 2017, his Georgetown group obtained court orders banning 23 people and organizations from returning to the town in groups of two. or more with anything that could be used as a weapon in a rally.

In a letter sent Wednesday to law enforcement and political leaders in Kenosha, McCord highlighted provisions in Wisconsin law that “prohibit private paramilitary and unauthorized law enforcement activities” and proposed to do so. consult on “How to protect public safety while preserving constitutional rights during protests and public demonstrations.” ”

“Kenosha’s custody was wrongly assuming this function to protect property they don’t have,” McCord said.

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