The American Militia Movement: A Historical Analysis and Modern Prospective
By Noah Harney
“When government fears the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny.” – Thomas Jefferson
As the country was founded as a refuge from oppressive and centralized governments, the fear of federal overreach has been present from the very beginning. From the Declaration of Independence to the Articles of Confederation to the Constitution, states have purposely been granted several protections from the federal government. At the very heart of the militia movement is the distrust of the federal government and to many Americans this is a perpetual concern. Militias initially served as groups of able-bodied colonizers who protected the colonies, but during the Revolutionary War they played influential roles in battles against the British. The minutemen at the Battle of Lexington and Concord in April of 1775 valiantly defeated British soldiers, a victory which galvanized the country. Throughout modern American history militias have been important cultural and social institutions, but they have also been the cause of deadly tragedies and contentious debate. While the fundamental purpose of militias is vital to the endurance of traditional American values, the movement is often poisoned by racism, xenophobia, and extremism masqueraded as patriotism.
History of Militias
The United States at its founding had a profound hatred of standing armies – that is, armies which operate domestically in peacetime. It was a symbol of tyranny and the redcoats were a catalyst of colonizer tension. The conflict between the colonial British army and local residents manifested in incidents such as the Boston Massacre of 1770. The Quartering Act of 1765, which allowed British soldiers to stay in colonizers homes, also seriously degraded relations. Both out of situational capabilities and the distrust of standing armies, the United States maintained state-based militias for a long period of its early history, and a formidable American standing army didn’t materialize until World War II when the US shifted away from isolationism.
Militias played a major role in the nascent United States; they traditionally were the military groups that represented each of the states or colonies, prior to the formation of the unified military. Citizens would temporarily abandon their lives in order to support their country and would train occasionally in order to remain prepared. As the country matured, these militias, which represented states – not the federal government – split into two forms. The official state militias would become the present-day National Guard, while there would remain many non-governmental state and local groups which became the predecessors of the modern-day militia movement.
“America was founded by people who loved country and nation, but despised governmental rulers” - Thomas DiLorenzo
Catalysts of the Modern Militia Movement
By their very nature, militias are extremely pro second amendment and are strong opponents to any form of gun control which empowers the federal government. While the threat of tyrannic behavior from the American government may seem unlikely, prohibiting tyranny was one of the founding principles of the nation. There are two key historic events which energized the original militia movement and are still used today as evidence of the threat of government overreach.
The first occurred in 1992 and is known as the Ruby Ridge Standoff. It began when white separatist Randy Weaver was arrested on charges of selling sawed-off and illegal arms to an undercover federal agent. After being released on bail, he moved with his family to a remote cabin in Ruby Ridge, Idaho and skipped his court hearing. Federal Marshall’s went to the cabin to arrest him, but gunfight broke out after Weaver’s dog discovered the federal agents following them. The federal marshals shot first and hit Weaver, injuring him. Over the following 11 days there was an intense standoff in which one federal marshal was killed by Kevin Harris, a companion of Weaver who was with them. Federal agents shot and killed Weaver’s 14-year-old son and his wife, who was holding their newborn child, was killed by a sniper whose target was Weaver. The siege finally ended as the men surrendered. Eventually a court acquitted both Weaver and Harris in the death of the federal agent, but Weaver was convicted on two minor gun charges. In 1995 a Department of Justice study found that the FBI broke their own rules of engagement. A second investigation and a lawsuit followed and the government eventually paid Weaver $3.1 million for the deaths of his wife Vicki and son Sammy. Despite his political extremism, many Americans rallied behind Weaver, pointing especially to the fact that the federal agents shot first.
The second and more deadly catalyst of the modern militia movement happened in 1993. The story of the Waco Siege is quite bizarre; the ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms) received a search and arrest warrant for the compound of a religious cult called the Branch Davidians located in Waco, Texas. The cult was suspected of stockpiling illegal weapons and explosives. The group, led by David Koresh, resisted the warrant and there was a 51-day standoff which eventually involved several federal police forces as well as the US military. On the final day of the siege, the FBI launched an aggressive tear gas offensive that resulted in the complex catching on fire. The fire was extremely deadly, resulting in 76 civilian deaths, including 25 children and 2 pregnant women. The entire 51-day conflict was televised and drew the attention of the entire country both for its strange characteristics and disastrous ending. It is often cited as an incendiary event which saw massive increase in militia support due to the sheer number of deaths and the amount of publicity it received. These two events created huge momentum for militias and increased membership nationwide. Although the movement would shrink substantially in 1995, the Ruby Ridge Standoff and the Waco Siege are used as examples of government tyranny to this day.
After two years of prominence in the American political sphere, the Oklahoma City bombing would forever tarnish the reputation of the militia movement in one of the deadliest terror attacks in history. The Oklahoma City Bombing was carried out by Timothy McVeigh, a member of the Michigan Militia. The truck bomb attack targeted a large federal office building in downtown Oklahoma City. The blast killed 168 people, injured more than 680, and destroyed most of the building. McVeigh, motivated by his hatred of the federal government and outraged by federal responses during the Ruby Ridge Standoff and the Waco Siege, detonated the bomb on the two-year anniversary of the end of the Waco Siege. McVeigh was convicted in 1997 and was executed in 2001. The attack had detrimental effects on the Militia movement, which was immediately isolated and lost a large number of members. However, the event did cause national reflection and McVeigh himself pointed to a change in government posturing, the multimillion-dollar settlement to Randy Weaver, and changes in FBI procedure as proof, saying, “Once you bloody the bully's nose, and he knows he's going to be punched again, he's not coming back around.". There was a lull in militia activity following the attack and it wasn’t until 2008 that the movement would be revitalized.
As President Obama came into office, there was renewed energy within the militia movement. Obama was outspoken in his desire to pass gun control legislation; this fueled militia recruitment and urgency. Obama was also the first black president, and for portions of the militia community this was a serious problem – a sign of a changed America. To white supremacists it meant that the country had lost its values, and this led to renewed importance of preserving the “traditional” America.
Militias in the Present
“If you are an American citizen and you are able bodied and you are capable of bearing arms, you are the militia” - Christopher Nehr, Michigan Militia
In October of 2020, 13 men were charged in response to a plan to kidnap the governor of Michigan Gretchen Whitmer and to incite others to start a civil war. The men were well organized and had serious intentions. Seven of the men are affiliated with the Michigan based extremist-militia group the Wolverine Watchmen. The plot came at a time when the governor was being heavily criticized for restrictions in response to the Covid-19 pandemic which many constitutionalists saw as government overreach. The plot was heavily covered in the leadup to the 2020 election and brought militias back under national spotlight, where they would remain for the months to come.
It would be a couple months after the foiled plot in Michigan that the largest and most divisive action of militias would take place. On the 6th of January of 2021, in response to the lost reelection of former president Donald Trump, thousands protested at the Capitol building in Washington DC and hundreds would violently force their way into the building. Many of the rioters were equipped in military gear such as camouflage outfits, armored helmets, and zip ties. The rioters were able to infiltrate the heart of the building, reaching the Senate chambers and offices of prominent politicians such as Nancy Pelosi. While the swift action of the Capitol Police and the Secret Service was able to secure all the representatives, rioters came within minutes of them. Many rioters were looking for specific politicians such as Nancy Pelosi and Mike Pence. Mike Pence was targeted for not supporting false election fraud claims; rioters chanted “hang Mike Pence” as they stormed the building. Many militia members attended and some helped organize the riot.
While militias have always had precarious reputations tarred by acts of violence such as the Oklahoma City bombing, there has been an increasing shift in the political dynamics of militias. They have strayed farther from constitutional values and toward more racially motivated ideals. They have begun to take increasingly self-identified political ideology rather than defending the ideals of the Constitution. There has also been substantial influence on militia groups of conspiracy theory groups such as QAnon. According to QAnon Donald Trump is a savior meant to expose an international network of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who influence global politics and business. While the amount of people who believe these outlandish theories is difficult to measure, in the lead up to the 2020 election QAnon increased in popularity and accessed places of power. At least two QAnon supporters have been elected to public office in 2020 including Georgia Republican House member Marjorie Green Taylor. The movement has also become closely entwined with extremist militia groups, forming relationships with several groups such as the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers.
The Proud Boys believe that western, white society is under siege from the liberal world, and although they officially reject white supremacy, they support white pride. They are criticized for being xenophobic, racist, and are considered a hate group by many major organizations. They are officially considered a terrorist group by the Canadian government. Two Proud Boys were charged with terrorism and violence against the United States following the January 6th Capitol Riot. The Oath Keepers is another national extremist group which consists almost entirely of former military, police officers, and first responders. Similarly to the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers follow many conspiracy theories and are accused of inciting violence and hate on several occasions. Several members have been charged with conspiracy following the Capitol Riots.
While the ideals of small government, individual liberty, and armed preparedness to deter federal government overreach are pure beliefs, they are being overshadowed by white supremacy, xenophobia, and desire for a more white and traditional country. This is a phenomenon that has been present since the birth of the modern militia movement in the 1990s, and has reached new heights this year. It is vital that there is differentiation and identification of militias and domestic terror groups as two separate concepts. Racists and seditionists have used the term militia as linguistic protection. In order for a productive and secure militia movement to proceed into the future, it must rid itself of its racial and unnecessarily political aspects and return to the roots of defending the Constitution of the United States and local communities.
Thomas DiLorenzo, ‘‘America was Founded by Radical Anti-Government
Conservatives, ’’ The Justice Times, 26/4 (July/August 1995), 1–3.
 Thomas DiLorenzo, ‘‘America was Founded by Radical Anti-Government Conservatives, ’’ The Justice Times, 26/4 (July/August 1995), 1–3. https://web.archive.org/web/20090324214032/http://nefafoundation.org/miscellaneous/FeaturedDocs/OKC_ForeignConnection.pdf