On a freezing, overcast Saturday afternoon, the parking lot of Aubree's pizzeria in Howell, a small town in central Michigan, is filled with oversized pick-up trucks. Inside, in a corner of the diner, the Michigan Militia Corps' Wolverines is convening its annual state meeting, complete with a small American flag and a white board.
There’s a single mother, a military veteran wearing a T-shirt embossed with a Gadsden “Don’t tread on me” flag from the 1700s, depicting a rattlesnake ready to strike – revived by the conservative Tea Party movement in recent years – and a self-described libertarian who appears no more than 25 years old. Of the 20 or so people in attendance, three are women and seven are first-timers.
Much of the informal two-hour discussion centres on survivalist skills, such as what to do in a major electricity outage, first aid training, and how it’s important to help out with the community, with a particular reference to military families.
Founded in 1994 by Norm Olson, a former US airforce non-commissioned officer, the militia claims to have more than 80 brigades in nine divisions across the state. Experts say membership figures tend to ebb and flow according to the political climate of the day, but could number several thousand at any one time. Training sessions involving tactical and survival role-playing and weapons use are usually held once a month.
The militia’s handbook claims the group is not a racist or right-wing organisation, instead welcoming everyone “regardless of the hue of their skin”. But at a time when the visibility and threat of right-wing extremism is on the rise in America, what the militia claims to stand for and what its members say are often quite different.
I have a hard time understanding why the government has access to things that I don't or can't have
More a collective of well-armed, locally-organised units than a single paramilitary force, the militia uses rhetoric that shifts between calling for the defence of citizens' rights and promoting the type of right-wing conspiracies that, over the years, have attracted the likes of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, who attended several militia meetings in the 1990s. At one of those he was asked to leave.
Some comments by members have bordered on the kind of nativism espoused by people responsible for attacks elsewhere in the US, such as the massacre of 11 worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh last October, as well as two separate foiled attacks against Democratic politicians and prominent media figures.
Most attending the Wolverines meeting are polite, if guarded. One man, arriving late, is dressed from head to toe in military fatigues. Myra is the militia's commanding officer and is from the town of Lapeer. She says she joined because, as a single mother, she wanted to learn how to protect herself. She thinks the militia has an undeserved reputation and adds that when there is a Republican president in the White House, membership of the group generally tends to fall. "After [Barack] Obama was elected president many more people joined," she says.
Listening to individual militia members, there’s a clear undercurrent of disgruntlement. “I have a hard time understanding why the government has access to things that I don’t or can’t have,” says a man in his 20s who drove for four hours to attend the meeting and asked not to be identified.
Others say that, while they believe Michigan faces no specific danger, the biggest threat to the country lies inside its borders, not from foreign terrorist groups. “If there’s a single threat, I see it related to the government at state or federal level,” says Steve from the village of Fowlerville, a 10-minute drive west of Howell.
The constitution and the right to bear arms are under threat, and American society has fallen into a mire, says one attendee, echoing some of the language used at white supremacist rallies.
“There’s no middle ground anymore. Congress is a great example of that,” says Steve. “I think there’s a civil war coming.”
Steve is also unhappy with the politicians running Michigan and blames them for the poor condition of the state’s roads and highways, which a recent study found costs motorists hundreds of dollars in additional repair costs.
Loss of jobs
"[The militia] picked up on discontent in the state because of the loss of manufacturing jobs and small businesses and the changing economy. After Waco and Ruby Ridge [incidents that saw federal agents forcibly remove heavily armed groups from private land in Texas and Idaho in the early 1990s, resulting in several dozen deaths], the sentiment to do something grew, that the government used too much force and was egregious," says JoEllen Vinyard, a historian of militia activity and the author of Right in Michigan's Grassroots: From the KKK to the Michigan Militia.
"They were considered a threat most seriously after the Oklahoma City bombing [in 1995] but periodically resurface in public interest at times like the march in Charlottesville. "
Twenty years ago I used to be someone who'd compromise, but the anti-gun people want to take away our rights
The Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017, descended into violence and saw a counter-protester run over and killed by a white nationalist man. Thirty two members of militia groups from six states, including several wearing Michigan Militia shirts, showed up at the rally dressed in military fatigues and armed with assault rifles and army-style communication devices.
The militia leaders who appeared at the Charlottesville rally, however, said they did so in an independent role, with one telling the Guardian newspaper that the white supremacist marchers were “right-wing lunatics”.
Some militia members say they are not anti-government or anti-FBI: “[Timothy] McVeigh gave us a bad reputation,” says Steve. Instead, he says, the militia opposes anyone who “violates our rights”.
Myra, who studied psychology, says that the debate around gun control is of major concern. She’s worried by how Michigan Democrats last month presented legislation calling for the introduction of “red flag” laws, a measure that allows a court order to temporarily take firearms away from individuals thought to be dangerous to themselves or others.
In response to a series of deadly school shootings over the last 18 months, major chain stores such as Walmart and Dick’s Sporting Goods have imposed further restrictions on gun sales, such as increasing the age for purchase to 21 and ending the sale of high-powered rifles. But that has riled some.
“Twenty years ago,” says Steve, “I used to be someone who’d compromise, but the anti-gun people want to take away our rights.”
Some believe that the political climate in the US, where President Donald Trump has regularly singled out his Democratic political opponents and state security agencies for criticism, fuels the militia.
“I think that some [militia members] are empowered by what they’re hearing, and they feel they are right and that they have been right,” says Vinyard. “The president regularly talks negatively about the FBI and CIA.”