That’s a big problem, whether Trump is doing it intentionally or not. And it will only get worse as one of the most polarized and divisive presidential campaigns in recent history goes into the home stretch.
Local police aren’t ready or able to confront these militia members, who often show up at rallies carrying assault rifles and dressed in uniforms that make them virtually indistinguishable from law enforcement agents or the National Guard. In some cases, police have welcomed them.
And it would be all but impossible for police to rein in these wannabe urban commandos even if they tried to. Thanks to lax gun control laws, virtually nothing they’re doing is illegal until they pull the trigger, at which point police intervention is usually too late. That’s especially the case in at least 45 open-carry states, where militia members can walk around in public armed and outfitted as if they’re going to war in Iraq or Afghanistan. Usually, little or no weapons training is required.
Trump’s vow to surge more federal agents and the National Guard into American cities will make an already extremely volatile situation worse. The groups are massing on Facebook, Instagram and other social media. And conservative media commentators are adding fuel to the fire by saying armed civilians are the only thing protecting innocent citizens and their businesses from violence and destruction.
All of this came to a head Tuesday night when two protesters were shot and killed in Kenosha, Wis., and a third wounded, after a confrontation during demonstrations over the police shooting of Jacob Blake on Sunday.
Blake, who is Black, was shot multiple times in the back by police as he tried to get into his car after a domestic disturbance. Caught on video, the incident spurred the latest in a series of protests that began last May when a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd while restraining him. Those protests, and ensuing violence, had prompted the latest call to arms by militia groups. In this case, it was the 3,000-member Kenosha Guard, which took to Facebook to organize an armed counterprotester event this week.
On Wednesday, Kyle Rittenhouse, a White 17-year-old from neighboring Illinois, was arrested. He was charged yesterday with first-degree intentional homicide and other criminal counts in the shootings. In videos circulated widely online, Rittenhouse said he had come to Kenosha to provide armed protection and medical assistance to citizens. Other videos show him cleaning up protest graffiti, talking to police and, ultimately, apparently firing a long gun toward protesters, including some who confronted him as he allegedly jogged away from the scene of an initial shooting. A witness there told authorities he saw someone pursuing Rittenhouse across a used car lot before shots rang out and the person lay dead on the ground, according to the criminal complaint filed Thursday. Afterward, Rittenhouse is overheard saying, “I just killed somebody” into his cellphone, the complaint alleges.
In some of the videos, the sound of assault weapon-style rifles popping can be heard as Rittenhouse calmly walks toward police waving with his hands in the air as if he is trying to surrender. “That dude just shot someone!” someone yells. Instead of questioning him, the officers drive right past him, sirens blaring. Earlier in the evening, police gave out water bottles to Rittenhouse and other armed men standing guard at the auto lot, where protesters had previously burned cars. “We appreciate you guys,” one officer said through a loudspeaker. “We really do.”
Rittenhouse was later arrested back home in Antioch, Ill.
Whether Rittenhouse fired in self-defense, as his lawyer claims, the shootings provide the latest, and starkest, example of why open-carry laws endanger the public and should be repealed — or at least significantly strengthened to provide for more oversight and training. That’s especially the case as the Black Lives Matter movement grows into the largest social justice movement in recent history, and as the Trump campaign ratchets up rhetoric about how protesters are bent on harming innocent citizens and destroying their businesses. It’s also another reminder that social media companies such as Facebook need to further tighten controls over groups like the Kenosha Guard so they cannot use the platforms to incite armed violence.
Trump and other Republicans never mentioned Rittenhouse, but they did spend their convention saying the Democratic ticket of Joe Biden and Kamala D. Harris will do nothing to protect Americans from Black Lives Matter-related mob violence. “No one will be safe in Biden’s America,” Trump said Thursday night.
Some of Trump’s supporters, meanwhile, reacted to Rittenhouse’s arrest by saying a violent response to protests was inevitable. “How shocked are we that 17-year-olds with rifles decided they had to maintain order when no one else would?” Tucker Carlson asked on his Fox News program Wednesday night. Carlson, who hosts the most-watched show on cable news, claimed that Kenosha had “devolved into anarchy” because local authorities refused to “enforce the law.”
The White militias are nothing new, having appeared at emotionally charged rallies and other clashes over flash point issues like Confederate monuments, immigration, the Trump administration’s ban on travel from several majority-Muslim nations, and gun control. They often claim to be peacemakers between anti-fascist “antifa” groups and neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups, including at a “Unite the Right” mass rally in Charlottesville three years ago in which multiple shots were fired and a protester was killed after being rammed by a car.
Then-Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe said militia groups portraying themselves as neutral peacekeepers had more powerful arsenals than the authorities.
But while they claim to be neutral, many militias have ties to right-wing groups, and lots of crossover memberships. Their role has also become increasingly blurred during Black Lives Matter protests as they confront protesters who they think might commit violence or damage property. Others have responded with armed intimidation and online threats.
In recent months, some Black activists have taken up arms themselves, which only adds to the potential dangers Trump is inciting. Last month, an active-duty Army sergeant said he shot and killed a man in self-defense at a Black Lives Matter protest in Austin after the man allegedly raised an assault rifle toward him.
Given all the guns and raw emotions, it’s not hard to envision a mass-casualty incident, especially one that is set off accidentally. Authorities are especially concerned about a “reflex shooting” episode, in which one person in a crowd fires off a round, prompting others — including police — to instinctively open fire in response.
It’s not an unlikely possibility: The phenomenon, also called “sympathetic fire” or “contagious shooting,” is based on an automatic human reflex that has caused even the most highly trained officers to fire accidentally, according to David Chipman, a former senior Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives official.
“It just takes one of these people to do one thing,” Chipman said, “and all hell breaks loose."