SHEPHERD, Texas — When Jamie Williams decided to reopen her East Texas tattoo studio last week in defiance of the state’s coronavirus restrictions, she asked Philip Archibald for help. He showed up with his dog Zeus, his friends and his AR-15 semi-automatic rifle.
Archibald established an armed perimeter in the parking lot outside Crash-N-Burn Tattoos, secured by five men with military-style rifles, tactical shotguns, camouflage vests and walkie-talkies. One of them already had a large tattoo of his own. “We the People,” it said.
“I think it should be a business’s right if they want to close or open,” said Archibald, a 29-year-old online fitness trainer from the Dallas area who lately has made it his personal mission to help Texas business owners challenge government orders to keep their doors shut during the coronavirus pandemic. “What is coming to arrest a person who is opening their business according to their constitutional rights? That’s confrontation.”
Call it the armed reopening.
While Gov. Greg Abbott earlier this month allowed a wide range of malls, restaurants and other businesses to reopen after a coronavirus lockdown, bars, salons, tattoo parlors and other enterprises where social distancing is more difficult were ordered to remain closed for a longer period.
In at least a half-dozen cases around the state in recent days, frustrated small-business owners have turned to heavily armed, militia-style protesters like Archibald’s group to serve as reopening security squads.
The showy displays of local firepower are creating a dilemma for the authorities, who face public demands for enforcement of social distancing guidelines but also strong pushback from conservatives in some parts of the state who are convinced that the restrictions go too far.
The broader political split came out into the open this week when the Republican attorney general, Ken Paxton, issued a warning to three Democratic-led cities — Austin, San Antonio and Dallas — that their local COVID-19 restrictions were illegal under the statewide reopening order issued by Abbott, also a Republican.
The armed gatherings are in some ways a Texas thing — a combination of long-standing anti-government and pro-gun movements in an independent state where “Come and Take It” flags are commonplace and amateur warriors patrol the southern border with Mexico.
Similar situations have unfolded in other states — armed members of the Michigan Liberty Militia challenged Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home orders recently inside the state Capitol, and armed members of the Michigan Home Guard helped reopen a barbershop in the town of Owosso. But Texas appears to be turning such goings-on into a cottage industry.
Around the state, groups of rifle-carrying demonstrators have volunteered their services to small-business owners and have taken to social media to urge people to defy the authorities where necessary and reopen with armed support.
Friday’s reopening at Crash-N-Burn in the town of Shepherd unfolded quietly, except for Zeus. In the span of a few hours, the shop had 10 tattoo and piercing customers.
In recent days, Archibald has also brought his firearms to the illicit reopenings of a handful of bars, gyms and other businesses around the state. Days before the reopening in Shepherd, Archibald helped organize a protest outside an illegally reopened bar in the West Texas city of Odessa. That one ended with the authorities rolling up in an armored vehicle and arresting several of Archibald’s armed friends, along with the bar owner.
Archibald also lent his services at the Dallas hair salon whose owner, Shelley Luther, was jailed for defying the authorities and became a national icon to conservatives opposed to state lockdowns.
Following the confrontations in Odessa and Dallas, police officials and local leaders have found themselves in a bind, especially after the governor spoke out on behalf of the Dallas salon owner and helped get her released by easing the punishment for violating his remaining lockdown orders.
“Why put forth to law enforcement to enforce these orders if you’re not going to have the backbone to stand up and back up what you’ve ordered?” the county sheriff who led the raid on Big Daddy Zane’s bar in Odessa, Mike Griffis, told The Odessa American newspaper.
The armed protesters are a varied lot scattered around the state, some of them with long-established groups, others forming new ones or acting as lone operators. J.P. Campbell, 45, a military veteran with the group Freedom Fighters of Texas, met Archibald face to face for the first time only during last week’s action at Crash-N-Burn.
“It’s not for looks,” Campbell said as he stood guard with a shotgun draped across his chest. “We’re willing to die.”
The groups walk a thin line between civil disobedience and political street theater in a way that has caused a split within the anti-lockdown movement, some of whose proponents oppose such brazen challenges to the authorities.
Gun control supporters have their own concerns about such tactics.
“People are nervous enough as it is, and then to see people walking around with AR-15s in public places, gathered together like that, is unnerving and upsetting,” said Ed Scruggs, the board president of the group Texas Gun Sense. “The entire goal is intimidation and attention.”
Some of the protesters say they are merely engaging in marketing — drawing attention to businesses so that their reopening attracts more customers — while others say they are part of a grassroots rebellion against oppressive government.
“We go out there because we want peace, but we prepare for war,” said C.J. Grisham, 46, a retired Army sergeant whose gun rights group Open Carry Texas helped the arrested owner of the bar in Odessa get a lawyer. “I hope this never happens, but at some point guns are going to have to cease to be a show of force and be a response to force,” he said.
Outrage followed the Odessa arrests. Griffis of Ector County has received numerous threats. Bomb technicians were summoned to his house to inspect his pickup truck after one threat.
Archibald, who had publicly called for Griffis to step down and for protesters to rally outside the sheriff’s house, said he had no involvement in any threatening messages. “I have no control over those threats,” he said. “I think a lot of that is just coming from people who have been angry at him and angry about police brutality for a long time.”
The Odessa arrests and the jailing and release of Luther have energized the protesters and put them in the spotlight. Archibald said he plans to travel soon to California and New Jersey to help businesses reopen there — though he said he would go unarmed.
“We aren’t going to take any heat because I personally don’t know the California laws,” he said. “Texas is way more lenient.”
Handguns are regulated under Texas law — a state-issued license is required to carry a handgun in a concealed or unconcealed manner. But the carrying of bigger weapons — rifles, shotguns and other firearms known as long guns — is largely unregulated, and no licenses are required to carry long guns out in the open. According to state law, a person can carry a rifle in a public place as long as they do not display it “in a manner calculated to alarm.”
And this being Texas, the alarm threshold is rather high.
The top elected official in San Jacinto County, which includes Shepherd, said he had no objections to the reopening of Crash-N-Burn, particularly after the governor’s apparent acquiescence in the Dallas salon case.
“The powers that be came to their senses and said, ‘Look, you can’t do this,’ so the same thing’s going to apply to a tattoo shop,” the official, County Judge Fritz Faulkner, 61, a Republican, said. “Now, my personal opinion is, if a barbershop can open, I don’t know why a tattoo shop couldn’t open.”
Barbershops and hair salons were allowed by the state to reopen last week with restrictions. Critics of the lockdown orders, including conservative activists and some local officials, believe that the governor’s orders are so vaguely written that it is also legal for bars and tattoo studios to reopen, fueling the armed protesters’ belief that they are in the right.
Abbott’s executive order states only that people “shall avoid” visiting those establishments.
“The language is so open-ended, broad and subject to interpretation that it’s causing a lot of confusion amongst people who are trying to live under the order,” said Jared Woodfill, a conservative activist and Houston lawyer who has sued Abbott claiming that the lockdown orders violate both the Texas and U.S. Constitutions, among other laws.
At Crash-N-Burn on Friday, the owner, Williams, 35, said she had been scared about the potential pushback from law enforcement if she reopened but had decided to try because she had lost between $6,000 and $10,000 after being closed for weeks.
Williams said she was inspired by the actions of Luther in Dallas and felt a peace of mind knowing the armed men were there in the parking lot.
“I had a feeling that finally somebody had my back,” Williams said. “And it’s really sad that citizens are having my back as opposed to my government.”