PORTLAND, Ore. — When wildfires threatened rural Oregon communities last month, another unwelcome phenomenon accompanied them: armed vigilantes blocking entry to outsiders, based on false rumors that protesters had not only started the fires, but also were there to loot the evacuated homes.
Throughout the West and beyond, in a summer marked by protests seeking racial justice, armed vigilantes also have shown up at Black Lives Matter events in small towns and big cities alike. Their presence in some places has the tacit support of law enforcement or even local elected officials.
Now, experts who monitor right-wing vigilantes and White nationalist organizations are on even higher alert for the possibility of violence at political rallies. They also fear vigilantes or armed groups might show up at ballot drop-off locations and outside of Nov. 3 polling places to intimidate voters and increase paramilitary activity afterward if election results are disputed or seen as illegitimate.
“We've been worried about paramilitarism and vigilantism around the election,” said Amy Herzfeld-Copple with the Western States Center, a social justice nonprofit that studies the far right in the West and helps local and state governments find ways to combat the rise of hate groups. “We know that we may not have results on election night. It may take days or weeks, and that creates an opening for chaos.”
White supremacists represent the top and most lethal domestic terror threat to Americans, the Department of Homeland Security said Oct. 6, when it released its first-ever Homeland Threat Assessment.
“I am particularly concerned about white supremacist violent extremists who have been exceptionally lethal in their abhorrent, targeted attacks in recent years,” wrote Chad Wolf, the acting homeland security secretary, in the introduction to the assessment. The government report warned that violence would stem from “lone offenders and small cells of individuals” who have “capitalized on increased social and political tensions in 2020.”
In Clackamas County, Oregon, a rural suburb of Portland facing wildfires last month, the sheriff put one of his deputies on leave after a video went viral that showed the deputy telling people police needed help monitoring anti-fascists during the fires.
In Wisconsin, police officers shared water with and told armed White gunmen they were appreciated on the same night 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse, who self-identified as a militia member, was charged with killing two people in Kenosha during protests of the police shooting of Jacob Blake.
An investigation in the Idaho Statesman found that far-right groups have taken advantage of both the pandemic and racial justice protests to “amplify their movement.” One county commissioner in northern Idaho said he knew people in the Oath Keeper and Three Percenter anti-government militias, but didn’t see activities like “getting together and becoming proficient with firearms” as extreme.
“That’s the problem, is that your extreme and my extreme may be completely different,” Dan McDonald, a Republican Bonner County commissioner, told the Statesman.
Western states have struggled to manage the emboldened far-right groups, particularly those who say they’ve shown up to keep the peace and protect property.
Even before the racial justice protests of the spring and summer, in the past year individuals and groups associated with far-right and militia movements have disrupted or ended legislative sessions in Oregon and Idaho. And in Michigan in May, armed protesters with Michigan United for Liberty gathered at the state capitol in protest of the Democratic governor’s stay-at-home order.
Last week, 13 members of the Wolverine Watchmen militia group were charged with felonies in a plot to kidnap the Michigan governor, attack the state Capitol and incite a civil war, authorities said.
“States haven’t been doing nearly enough and have not been taking advantage of the tools that they have,” said Mary McCord, legal director of the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown Law Center.
Almost every state has some laws that could be enforced to prevent armed vigilantes or far-right militias at public rallies, according to the institute, which published a report in September detailing what tactics are available in each state.
Since the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017, when President Donald Trump said there were “very fine people on both sides,” Georgetown’s ICAP has teamed up with big law firms to provide pro bono assistance to states and municipalities struggling to manage the arrival of armed far-right militias.
In New Mexico, ICAP helped the district attorney and a local law firm file suit against the New Mexico Civil Guard, a heavily armed militia that claimed to protect the statue of a Spanish conquistador during a protest in Albuquerque in June.
The reemergence of militias and vigilante groups has many people, especially in the legal community, “recognizing the tools they have and thinking more proactively about what they can do,” McCord said. “People can’t just say, oh that's just in Idaho or that’s just in Portland.”
As the election draws closer and states struggle to manage potential violence, Trump's COVID-19 diagnosis only complicates an already volatile situation. In Oregon, at a rally the weekend following the president's diagnosis, the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, Jo Rae Perkins, told attendees that “those masks, they’re not really to protect you, they’re to keep you faceless,” according to the local newspaper, The World. Perkins also supports QAnon, the conspiracy theory that Facebook said it would ban.
The rally drew about 100 people — including Joey Gibson, who founded extremist right-wing group Patriot Prayer — to Coos Bay, a town in southern Oregon that was the site of the state’s only documented lynching of a Black man, in 1902. The World reported that attendees wore bullet-proof vests and helmets and carried radios, cameras, handguns and semi-automatic rifles. A group of men wearing tactical gear emblazoned with the insignia of the far-right Three Percenters stood on the outskirts of the rally, the paper reported.
Far-right groups were further emboldened by rhetoric directly from Trump during the first presidential debate. When asked to denounce White supremacy, Trump urged the Proud Boys, an all-male, self-described “Western chauvinists” organization to “Stand back and stand by.”
Members of the hate group responded gleefully, posting memes on social media and even selling a T-shirt with Trump's phrase. In Delaware the day after the debate, Republican U.S. Senate candidate Lauren Witzke thanked the Proud Boys for providing security at a rally.
Two days later, shortly before news broke that the president tested positive for the coronavirus, Trump condemned White supremacy and the Proud Boys in an interview with Sean Hannity on Fox News.
But the president's words from the Sept. 29 debate sent a chill through Portland, which along with Seattle and New York City was designated an “anarchist jurisdiction” by Trump's Department of Justice. Just days earlier, Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat, had expanded the authority of the Oregon State Police force and declared a state of emergency to head off violence during a Sept. 26 rally of the very same group Trump singled out on the debate stage: the Proud Boys.
“We have seen what happens when armed vigilantes take matters into their own hands,” Brown said at a press conference, just before the Proud Boys rally fizzled out with just a few hundred right-wing attendees. “We've seen it in Charlottesville. We've seen it in Kenosha, and unfortunately we've seen it in Portland.”
In early September, Michael Reinoehl was charged with the shooting death in Portland of Aaron Danielson, a member of Patriot Prayer. Their confrontation came after a pro-Trump caravan drove from the suburbs through downtown Portland earlier on Aug. 29. Reinoehl, who said in an interview he was providing security to Black Lives Matter protesters in Portland, himself was shot to death days later by a federal fugitive task force near Olympia, Washington. “I sent in the U.S. marshals, they took care of business,” Trump said during the debate.
No city in America has drawn as much protest to its streets as Portland this summer, and no state has struggled more to find a balance among First Amendment rights to free assembly and protest, public safety and a reckoning with its racist origins than Oregon, which actively discouraged Black settlers before it became a state. Further complicating the politics are the power vacuum created by a mayoral election in Portland, and a police force and its powerful union seen with suspicion by many in the city for its history of excessive force against Black people and those with mental illness.
In an analysis of 40 fatal shootings by Portland police since 2003, the Oregonian found that those people killed were disproportionately Black. The newspaper’s investigation found that at least half of the fatal shootings involved people with mental illness. Despite attempts to fire or suspend the officers who pulled a trigger in the shootings, the Oregonian’s investigation found that none were disciplined or indicted by a grand jury. A survey this summer by a group seeking to create a new police oversight system found that half of respondents had a somewhat unfavorable or unfavorable opinion of the Portland Police Bureau.
Some state troopers were deputized earlier in the summer as part of the governor’s effort to remove the federal officers deployed to Portland by Trump. The deputized local and state police had the ability to press federal charges, often harsher than state charges, against people they arrest in Portland — whether they were Proud Boys or Black Lives Matter protesters.
Although Brown canceled the state of emergency after the Proud Boys rally, local police and the state troopers she oversees maintained their expanded federal arrest powers. Nightly racial justice protests continued in Portland, with multiple arrests that evening. Police drew criticism for pushing a news photographer to the ground.
Police have responded quickly in some places to vigilante activity. For example, the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office in September issued criminal citations to three men who are charged with establishing illegal roadblocks in Corbett, a rural community 25 miles east of Portland that also faced wildfires. But even that concerns some legal observers, who worry that police might use the same laws, but enforce them more vigorously, to crack down on people protesting racial injustice.
“I think it’s great that sheriffs cited these vigilante groups for setting up roadblocks,” said Bobbin Singh, executive director of the Oregon Justice Resource Center, which provides direct legal services to underserved communities and advocates for criminal justice reform. “But if we were to imagine for one minute that those roadblocks were set up by Black or brown individuals, do we really believe that they would have been cited and that would have been the consequences to that action? And I think that is the thing that makes everyone nervous.”