"We're all coming together," Pellien said. "That's why this crowd is so big."
Far-right groups across the nation have aligned themselves with those opposed to masks and vaccines, seeking new allies around the issue of "medical freedom" while appearing to downplay their traditional focus on guns, belief in the tyranny of the federal government and calls by some for violent resistance.
Public health mandates and the push to vaccinate as many people as possible against covid-19 have become animating issues for patriot groups, which have long held conspiratorial views of the federal government. The Watchmen and others say that official responses to the pandemic, both at the state and federal level, are a stark example of government overreach — an argument that helps them appeal to new potential supporters, analysts say.
"The New York Watchmen uses this framing broadly to oppose things such as covid-19 health safety measures, mask mandates, covid-19 vaccinations," said Susan Corke, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project, which monitors extremist groups. They "believe they are working to protect citizens' constitutional rights from an ever-overreaching government."
At a moment when domestic extremism has been identified by the FBI as the major violent threat in the United States and lawmakers are focused on the fallout from the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, researchers and health experts are increasingly concerned about the alliance forming nationwide between the radical right and vaccine-hesitant populations.
Patriot and self-described militia groups emerged in the early 1990s around the issue of gun control and fears of global government, and they were galvanized by violent confrontations with federal agents at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and Waco, Tex. The movement's violent tendencies reached a bloody climax with the Oklahoma City bombing. The groups waned in the 1990s and 2000s only to be reignited by the election of Barack Obama, which saw the emergence of the anti-government paramilitary networks such as the Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters, some of whose members have been charged in the storming of the U.S. Capitol in January.
The New York Watchmen, which was founded by Pellien, a 56-year-old former police officer, emerged in reaction to the protests against police brutality around the country last summer. They have "some degree of military-type structure" and conduct firearms training, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Some members seem eager to engage in violence against anti-fascist counterprotesters.
Pellien did not respond to requests for comment.
The Watchmen have also seized on the pandemic to gain new allies. Since the beginning of the health crisis, they have moved from issue to issue, including supportive gatherings outside long-term care facilities when elderly residents were being ravaged by the disease. At one event billed as a singalong outside a facility in the Buffalo suburbs late last year, attendees in military-green sweatshirts bearing the Watchmen's blue logo were dotted throughout the crowd.
The group also latched onto the anti-lockdown cause. Protesters donned their Watchmen garb last November in a gym owned by Robby Dinero, a Buffalo-area man who had kicked out a health inspector days before. Dinero was ordered to pay a $15,000 fine for violating capacity regulations; he would later rip up the citation live on Fox News.
By August, the coronavirus had brought the Watchmen to an anti-mask event at a suburban church in Getzville, N.Y., where they were ushering people to their seats. Jen Merica, a social worker and mother of three, spoke to the crowd, protesting mask mandates for school attendance this fall. Merica said she didn't know why the Watchmen were there.
Merica and another local parent, Val Farbo, are both administrators of an "Unmask Our Children" Facebook group and attended the rally that Pellien spoke at in support of the Bills player. Farbo insisted they were not "anti-mask" or "anti-vaccination," but falsely minimized the efficacy of masks in preventing the spread of covid-19. Merica cited a study on the effects of masking on children's carbon dioxide intake — a study later retracted for its flawed methodology.
"We're not anti-mask at all. We're just pro-choice. I mean, it should be a choice, not forced," said Farbo, borrowing language from the abortion rights movement. Merica said, "It's my prediction that these masks are leverage for forcing" vaccination.
The Facebook group run by Farbo and Merica is replete with misinformation about the virus, and they frequently refer to vaccines as "juice," an apparent effort to avoid getting shut down by Facebook moderators.
Nancie Orticelli, a local activist allied with the Watchmen, said the growing community in western New York now consisted of "small business owners, conservatives, libertarians, Republicans and Democrats who value their freedom."
She continued: "I couldn't put a number on the amount of people, especially now that we have all these other medical freedom groups and unmasking kids groups."
Hampton Stall, a researcher who tracks patriot groups for MilitiaWatch, said rallies against medical mandates have become the "perfect organizing space" for many extremist groups across the United States.
"Pretty much every militia group that I've looked at will dip into this . . . alternative medicine type conversation," Stall said.
But the Watchmen have also brought their proclivity for violence to the issue. An anti-lockdown event outside Buffalo City Hall devolved into a brawl between the Watchmen and anti-fascist counterprotesters.
Pellien appeared to brag about the violence on Facebook. "My flashlight was dented. Not sure if it was from head #1 or head #2," he wrote, according to a screenshot of his account provided to The Post.
On Dec. 31, Orticelli threw a "family-friendly" New Year's Eve party that offered a gift to every child who attended and solicited donations for local charities. The Watchmen attended, and on a now-deleted live stream filmed during the event, a masked man mouthed threats toward a local anti-fascist activist. Orticelli confirmed the speaker was the former organizer of a Watchmen group in the adjacent Niagara region.
"Guess what?" another masked man remarked, "The Watchmen will be coming to a neighborhood near you real soon."