In a video recorded shortly before two people were fatally shot last week in Kenosha, Wis., the accused gunman – Kyle Rittenhouse, 17 – circulates among a group of gun-wielding men who claim to be guarding a service station amid protests against police brutality.
Although it is well past curfew, police passing in an armored vehicle offer the group bottles of water and some friendly encouragement, saying over a loudspeaker: “We appreciate you guys. We really do.”
As protesters march against racism and police violence in cities and towns across the nation, they are being confronted by groups of armed civilians who claim to be assisting and showing support for police battered and overwhelmed by the protests. The confrontations have left at least three people dead in recent days: In addition to the two protesters killed Tuesday in Kenosha, a man thought to be associated with a far-right group called Patriot Prayer was fatally shot late Saturday in Portland, Ore.
Both incidents have drawn complaints that local authorities abetted the violence by tolerating the presence of these self-appointed gunmen with no uniforms, varied training and limited accountability. The stated motives of these vigilante actors, who are virtually indistinguishable from one another once massed on the streets, range from protecting storefronts and free speech to furthering white supremacy and fomenting civil war.
Many sheriffs and police chiefs, including in Kenosha, have disavowed these armed civilians, saying police do not want their help. Kenosha County Sheriff David Beth, a Republican, said he responded “hell no” when asked to deputize civilians. And Kenosha Mayor John Antaramian, a Democrat, said this week, “I don’t need more guns on the streets in this city when we are trying to keep people safe.”
But elsewhere, local authorities have at times appeared to support people who took up arms against protests that have occasionally turned violent and provided cover for vandals and looters. In Snohomish, Wash., the police chief was ousted in June after welcoming dozens of armed men, including one waving a Confederate flag, who responded to false Internet rumors that “antifa” looters planned to ransack the town.
In Hood County, Texas, a constable in May encouraged the Oath Keepers – an armed group that claims to have thousands of members of current and former law enforcement and military agencies – to defend a Dallas hair salon after rumors of possible looting. And in Salem, Ore., a police officer was captured on video in June advising armed men to “discreetly” stay inside while police began arresting protesters for violating curfew.
On other occasions, police officers have been photographed smiling or fist-bumping with members of far-right armed groups. Even in Kenosha, individual police officers seemed to welcome the help of armed civilians, including Rittenhouse, a member of police and fire cadet training programs who said on video before the shooting that it was “our job” to help people and protect property.
“We were welcomed very warmly,” said Kenosha Guard leader Kevin Mathewson, 36, a former city alderman who summoned armed men in Kenosha on the night of the shooting. “I was at the entrance to my neighborhood. [Police] rolled down their windows and said, ‘Thanks for being here. We can’t be everywhere.’ “
Mathewson has said he does not know Rittenhouse. The teen, from the nearby town of Antioch, Ill., has been charged with homicide. His attorneys say he acted in self-defense after being “accosted by multiple rioters.”
In a letter last week to Kenosha officials, Mary McCord, legal director at the Georgetown University Law Center’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection, said “the bloodshed . . . throws into sharp relief the danger posed when private and unaccountable militia groups take the law into their own hands.”
McCord has called on police and prosecutors to enforce laws that prohibit private groups from usurping law enforcement functions. In her letter, she noted that “several provisions of Wisconsin law prohibit private paramilitary and unauthorized law enforcement activity.”
Raul Torrez, the district attorney in Bernalillo County, N.M., agrees. In June, one person was shot after members of an armed group that calls itself the New Mexico Civil Guard clashed with protesters trying to tear down a monument to Spanish conquistador Juan de Oñate in Albuquerque. Torrez, a Democrat, filed suit against the militia, seeking to block it from assuming law enforcement duties.
“I don’t think a lot of Americans understand how fragile democracy is,” Torrez said. “One of the early signs of a troubled democracy is when people decide that they’re no longer going to address their political differences at the ballot box – or in elected legislatures or in Congress – but they’re going to do it on the street and they’re going to do it with guns.”
“Police officers, district attorneys, leaders in law enforcement here and across the country have to make it unambiguously clear to anyone that it is not their job – it is the role of law enforcement – to” defend property, Torrez said. Militia-type groups are “not hearing that message from enough leadership in law enforcement. And this takes us down a very, very dangerous path.”
While racial justice protests typically condemn police behavior and include calls for defunding police departments, militia-style groups are predominantly pro-police and often rally behind slogans such as “Blue Lives Matter” and “Back the Badge.” In Portland and other places, law enforcement has been accused of treating far-right groups more leniently than leftist protesters.
“The vigilantes will come out and their rally will be ‘Back the Blue,’ ” said Alexander Reid Ross, a doctoral fellow at the Center for Analysis of the Radical Right, a London-based group.
Ross has compiled a database of 497 public appearances of militias and far-right groups in about 300 U.S. counties since May, including 56 that he says suggest collaboration with police.
This summer, a commissioner in Bonner County, Idaho, called on residents to mobilize against a Black Lives Matter protest planned for Sandpoint, the county seat. His Facebook post asked people to “help counter anything that might get out of hand,” drawing a rebuke from Sandpoint Mayor Shelby Rognstad, who called it “grossly irresponsible.”
The commissioner, Dan McDonald, said he stood by his message, despite critics who derided the assemblage as “Dan’s private army.”
“Most of the guys that showed up – I would bet because I know some of these folks – are former law enforcement, former military,” he said. “They’re well-trained and continue to train just for their own self-defense.”
Elsewhere, local officials have advised civilians to be prepared to use violence to defend themselves. At a June news conference responding to rumors on social media of possible riots, the sheriff in Polk County, Fla., warned would-be lawbreakers that local residents “have guns. I encourage them to own guns. And they’re going to be in their homes tonight, with their guns loaded.”
The sheriff, Grady Judd, also encouraged people to shoot intruders.
“Shoot them so much you can read The Washington Post through them,” he said in interview last week, adding: “I want people to take matters into their own hands when they’re protecting their homes.”
This month, a complaint was filed with Cottonwood Heights, Utah, by a resident who said he and his wife were “followed, harassed and intimidated by five heavily armed individuals in a White Dodge pickup” after protesting racial discrimination. The man, who spoke on the condition of anonymity citing fears for his safety, said he and his wife showed video of the encounter to police – including evidence that the truck lacked license plates.
“We said, ‘We feel intimidated by the fact that they’re anonymous. Can you have a conversation with them about it?’ ” the man said, adding that “police did nothing.”
A response signed by Assistant Police Chief Paul Brenneman stated that the man’s “complaint does not specify what actions, by the men, caused you to feel harassed.”
In an interview, Brenneman said his department “doesn’t take sides between protest or Second Amendment folks,” adding: “We support everybody’s rights to exercise their civil rights.”
On the night of the Kenosha shooting, Mathewson, the Kenosha Guard leader, sent an email to Police Chief Dan Miskinis, asking him not to turn away armed residents.
“I ask that you do NOT have your officers tell us to go home under threat of arrest as you have done in the past,” he wrote. “It is evident, that no matter how many Officers, deputies, and other law enforcement officers that are here, you will still be outnumbered.”
Miskinis never responded, Mathewson said, but the request was fulfilled.
“The thing about militias is it’s independent from the government. And you don’t need permission” Mathewson said, adding that he was not upset with the chief for not responding. “There may be some liability implications there where if he says, ‘we need you,’ there could be liability for him if someone gets hurt.”
One person who carried a rifle in Kenosha last week said these chaotic street protests cannot be reduced to two sides. “There isn’t one group of protesters, there’s dozens,” said the person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly. “And likewise, there isn’t one group of armed citizens. There had to be at least 10 different groups that I could distinguish.”
The man described himself as a member of a libertarian militia unit that trains at least monthly. In addition to studying combat medicine, he said, they “shoot together, learn to move and communicate while shooting, and push each other to run faster and lift better.”
The group views itself as “protecting the freedom of speech of private citizens,” the man said. “When businesses were being destroyed in riots” after the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25, “we saw our fellow Americans being stripped of liberty as well.”
Kenosha County Supervisor Terry Rose, a Democrat, said he does not think the armed groups have widespread support from public officials. But he said it’s no surprise that individual officers might welcome their help.
“I suppose they did that because they felt outnumbered. I’ve been urging from Day 1, as a county board supervisor, that federal troops be called in,” Rose said. Since video went viral of Kenosha police shooting Jacob Blake in the back on Aug. 23, “it was clear to me we had to have federal troops or we were going to be Portland or Minneapolis.”
Blake, who is Black and appeared to be unarmed, was left paralyzed by the shooting. Violent protests quickly erupted, drawing Rittenhouse to Kenosha. Since then, some conservative politicians, activists and commentators have exalted the teenager.
“Are we really surprised that looting and arson accelerated to murder?” Fox News host Tucker Carlson said last week. “How shocked are we that 17-year-olds with rifles decided they had to maintain order when no one else would?”
Miskinis seemed to echo that view when he blamed the shooting on protesters violating curfew. “Had persons not been out involved in violation of that, perhaps the situation that unfolded would not have happened,” he said last week. The “use of firearms” by Rittenhouse, he said, occurred “to resolve whatever conflict was in place.”
Miskinis later backtracked, saying responsibility for the shooting rests “solely on the person who did that, not on the victims of this crime.”
Another video suggests that police handled Rittenhouse differently from the typical murder suspect. That recording shows him in the middle of the street, rifle dangling, hands up in surrender. A man can be heard shouting that Rittenhouse had just shot several people.
Instead of taking the teen into custody, police drive right past him. According to his attorneys, Rittenhouse turned himself in to police later that night.
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The Washington Post’s Mark Guarino in Kenosha, Wis., contributed to this report.