The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As protests spread to small-town America, militia groups respond with armed intimidation and online threats

Demonstrators march through downtown Omak, Wash., on June 4, past men carrying assault rifles and handguns. (Tim Matsui)

In Omak, Wash., a city of fewer than 5,000 residents in the foothills of the Okanogan Highlands, plans for a peaceful demonstration began in a private chat on Facebook Messenger.

But public threats poured in when Sinai Espinoza, a 19-year-old student at a local community college, joined other young women in promoting their Peaceful March for George Floyd. The violent messages on social media included a vow that “When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” echoing President Trump’s rhetoric on Twitter. Another characterized the upcoming gathering as “free target practice.”

When the march unfolded earlier this month, bringing more than 400 people to a park opposite the public library, an armed militia stood guard — at ground level but also atop nearby roofs, as if ready to act as snipers.

“Honestly, it was terrifying,” Espinoza said. “They claimed they were there to protect the city from outsiders, but it felt more like preparation to kill.”

The demonstrations against racial injustice and police brutality that have convulsed major metropolitan areas, from Minneapolis to Miami, have also made their way into small-town America, redrawing the geography of the Black Lives Matter movement. But the activists spearheading unlikely assemblies in rural and conservative corners of the country have faced fierce online backlash and armed intimidation, which in some places is unfolding with the apparent support of local law enforcement.

The dangers that armed militias bring with them were laid bare this week in Albuquerque, where a 31-year-old was arrested in connection with a shooting that injured a protester seeking the removal of a statue of a Spanish conquistador. The eruption of gunfire followed a standoff between protesters and members of a group that calls itself the New Mexico Civil Guard — one of a number of militia and paramilitary units reacting to recent protests that have occasionally descended into rioting and looting.

The reaction, local activists say, threatens not just their safety and free-speech rights. It also endangers their ability, they say, to take the movement touched off by the police killing of George Floyd beyond urban hubs — to places like Omak or Bethel, Ohio, a village of 2,800 where a recent protest drew 700 counterprotesters.

“If the protesters are younger or fewer in number or more on the timid side, which can be the case in places that haven’t traditionally seen movements for racial justice, then the militias can have a chilling effect,” said Judith Heilman, the executive director of the Montana Racial Equity Project, which the former police officer says is the sole black-led nonprofit organization in the state.

The armed mobilization sheds light on the growth of the anti-government militia groups, whose efforts — often coordinated on Facebook and other online platforms — have expanded since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic and the nationwide outburst of protests for racial justice. Militia activity has marked recent protests in places across the country, often driven by false online alerts about infiltration by antifa and other left-wing militants.

Ahead of Trump’s rally on Saturday in Tulsa, misinformation is pervading a Facebook group for Oklahoma Patriots, warning that antifa plans to bus in “crisis actors.”

Scant evidence of antifa shows how sweeping the protests for racial justice have become

Armed residents offer a variety of reasons for their presence. Some say they aim to keep the peace. Others are there to counterprotest, announcing their allegiances by flying the Confederate flag.

Their involvement has brought gunfire to several cities, including Boise, where an 18-year-old discharged his weapon into the ground outside the capitol this month. After the shooting in Albuquerque, New Mexico’s Democratic governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham, denounced the “unsanctioned show of unregulated force” by the armed group present during the standoff.

A man was shot during a protest in Albuquerque on June 15 while a crowd attempted to pull down a statue of conquistador Juan de Oñate. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Adolphe Pierre-Louis/AP/The Washington Post)

The Facebook page for the group, the New Mexico Civil Guard, was briefly taken down following the shooting, though not by Facebook, according to a company spokesman, Andy Stone. A post earlier this month called for ordinary citizens to take up arms to protect their communities in light of efforts aimed at “defunding or wholly disbanding . . . police departments.” Another post said the intention was to “keep the protesters safe.” Days later, however, the group claimed the demonstrations were no longer about “Floyd’s death,” but instead a “global move for anarchy.”

The show of force has been most pronounced in small towns, where the protests already are proceeding on uncertain ground. Three and a half hours south of Albuquerque, in Deming, N.M., 16-year-old Izabella Collings was recently moved to create a Black Lives Matter page for her state. When she used it to share news about an upcoming protest, she said, she received threats telling her she would get shot if she didn’t comport herself properly.

“People here really don’t like change,” she said.

Undeterred, she turned off comments on her post and went ahead with the demonstration, which brought two men toting firearms to the town’s courthouse park. “Nobody asked them to be there,” she said.

In Enterprise, Ore., in the northeastern corner of the state, 18-year-old Gianna Espinoza said the presence of as many as 70 armed men dissuaded some people from joining a recent protest. As a result, another action is unlikely.

“In urban areas, you’re part of a huge crowd,” Espinoza said. “But here, everyone knows everyone. And it could be your neighbor who looks you in the eye and shoots you.”

Of the more than 60 actions that have unfolded in rural Oregon, virtually all of them have encountered backlash from armed groups, whether in the form of intimidation on social media or actual boots on the ground, said Emma Ronai-Durning of the Rural Organizing Project, a nonprofit organization based in Cottage Grove, Ore.

Some civilians have gone so far as to appear in combat attire.

“I dug out my old uniform,” one Enterprise resident wrote on Facebook, sharing a mirror selfie that displayed his camo gear. “I will defend this country against all enemies foreign and domestic I swore on the Bible. If you riot and loot you are one of those.”

A tiny Ohio town’s Black Lives Matter event was overrun by armed counterprotesters

Militia groups have shifted their focus from the federal government — now that its operations are in the hands of Trump, a perceived ally — to more local adversaries, including antifa, Muslims and immigrants, said Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow with the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism.

“There’s a claim that they’re protecting businesses, but the role of intimidation in many cases is central,” Pitcavage said.

A private group catering to members of the militia movement in Idaho’s northern panhandle, called Band of Brothers Panhandle, exploded in membership in the days following the eruption of protests. It now has more than 2,500 participants.

Their leader is Brett Surplus, a 46-year-old former sheriff’s deputy in Shoshone County, Idaho, and the creator of a hunting and fishing television show. He records live videos greeting the group’s members in the morning and recently distributed prizes to some of the armed civilians who had mobilized to stand guard at a recent protest, such as remuneration for their services. This week, he announced his run for the state Senate.

In a recent post, he asked whether others wanted to form a more “unified body,” according to images reviewed by The Washington Post. Nearly 150 users — almost double the size of the city’s police force — said they favored that idea.

David Hagar, a spokesman for the Coeur d’Alene police, said the activity is lawful, leaving local authorities with few options to defuse the tension that has marked recent downtown protests.

“There’s a right to peacefully assemble, and there’s a right to bear arms,” he said. “If I trample on one of those rights, then I trample on all of them.”

Local residents who say they have been threatened by members of the group view its activities differently. RJ Rueben, the owner of a downtown cafe, said he briefly went into hiding after a post on his personal Facebook page raising concerns about the armed presence brought death threats to him and his staff.

“I’m scared to even show my face downtown,” said another local business owner, Rose Pokalsky, who also spoke out against the militia members.

Another resident, who has been at the forefront of the local protests and spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared harassment, said he received a private message from Surplus telling him — in what he viewed as a threat — that “you all are done with protests.” The protester asked what gave him the “right to say so,” according to an image of the exchange, to which Surplus replied: “Only thing you should be saying is yes sir.”

Reached for comment, Surplus said that he viewed the young protesters “like my kids” and that he was trying to shield them from backlash in the community. His aim, he said, was to prevent their activities from spiraling out of control, while also “trying to bring a voice of reason” to the militia activity. “I don’t like the word ‘militia,’ ” he said. “It’s just a matter of being a deterrent — to keep people from looking at something and going, ‘I want to break that window.’ ”

The protester who corresponded with Surplus said he did not report the messages to law enforcement.

Another protester, 26-year-old Kaitlyn Wimmer, said she contacted authorities about messages from a Facebook user with a Confederate flag as his profile picture, who told her, “I could put a bullet in your head,” according to images reviewed by The Washington Post. When a sheriff’s deputy contacted her, however, he never asked for the images, she said.

“Unfortunately in Idaho, there’s no crime for that,” said Ryan Higgins, a spokesman for the county sheriff’s office. State law makes it a misdemeanor to use the telephone to threaten or harass with “lewd or profane language, requests, suggestions or proposals.”

Many said they were skeptical the authorities would take their side, pointing to numerous examples of local officials appearing to encourage the armed response to protests.

An hour north of Coeur d’Alene, a commissioner in Bonner County, Idaho, recently called on residents to mobilize in response to protests in Sandpoint. His Facebook post, asking people to “help counter anything that might get out of hand,” drew a rebuke from the city’s mayor, Shelby Rognstad, who said it was “grossly irresponsible.”

The commissioner, Dan McDonald, said he stood by his message, adding: “Most of the guys that showed up — I would bet because I know some of these folks — are former law enforcement, former military. They’re well-trained and continue to train just for their own self-defense.” His critics, he said, were wrongly referring to the group as “Dan’s private army.”

A county sheriff in Oklahoma this month put out a call for volunteers to join what he termed his “Sheriff’s Posse.”

“While traditional posse’s of the Old West were used to chase down and apprehend outlaws,” wrote the sheriff, Chris West, he was “more interested in volunteers who would be willing to assist the Sheriff and his deputies in a broad range of missions, including in times of local crisis, or state of emergency.”

West, in an interview, said he aimed to tap the “spirit of volunteerism” that has deepened “with states reopening, going back to work.” He said he would not allow “non-professionally trained people to perform law enforcement functions.”

In Omak, Espinoza said one of the reasons for their peaceful march, beyond Floyd’s killing, was a more local grievance. A meme posted recently on Facebook by one of their county commissioners spoke directly to events in Minneapolis.

“Just drove through Minneapolis,” it read, paired with an image of a bloodied semi-truck. “Didn’t see any protesters.”

The commissioner, Jim DeTro, who later apologized for the post at a county meeting this month, did not respond to a request for comment.

The post deepened concerns about safety at the march, prompting organizers to bring medical supplies and plan meeting points “in case all hell broke loose,” Espinoza said.

Their next event was a private vigil.

“We have to evaluate whether each action is worth the risk,” the 19-year-old said.