On June 25, a man named Adam Fox, upset that Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer had shuttered gyms across the state as part of a pandemic lockdown order, started a livestream on a private Facebook group. “I don’t know, boys, we gotta do something,” he said. “You guys link with me on our other location system, give me some ideas of what we can do.” Those “ideas of what we can do” began to cohere in the weeks that followed. “Snatch and grab, man. Grab the fuckin’ governor. Just grab the bitch,” Fox told an informant in late July, according to an FBI affidavit released last Thursday. “Because at that point, we do that, dude—it’s over.”
Fox is now one of 13 men charged in a series of alleged plots against the state and law enforcement. Expressions of condemnation and horror, rightly, came swiftly. “All of us in Michigan can disagree about politics,” said Matthew Schneider, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan. “But those disagreements should never, ever amount to violence.” In an op-ed for The Washington Post, Professor Kathleen Belew, who has written important work on the history of the militia movement wrote, “This is a movement expressly dedicated to the violent overthrow of the United States and the destruction of democracy and its institutions.” In a rare moment of bipartisanship, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson issued a joint statement: “This attempted act of domestic terrorism against a sitting governor has no place in a lawful and civil society and we condemn it in the strongest terms.”
In each of these responses, the violence being threatened was not only contemptible—it was alien. Such a frame is seductive but misses the true danger of militia groups. They do not exist outside and in opposition to American democracy; they are its intimate products. Understanding that requires we abandon many of the superficial images and accounts coming out of Michigan—of impoverished men deep in the woods holding meetings in underground rooms—which suggest a false sense of disconnection from mainstream America.
I have spent years trying to understand men like Fox by spending time with them in my research. In that time, I have been able to see their participation in the militia movement not as a single moment but as the outcome of a long process. At the collective level, that process involves the historical development of American democracy alongside racism enforced through a continuous relationship between state violence and private violence. At the individual level, it looks like militia members building, over the course of their lives, physical and mental capabilities for engaging in violence, as well as an understanding of their violence as legitimate, through their interactions with—and the support given to them by—a range of government and law enforcement agencies. In such ways, the stories of militia members teach us about the important and troubling connections between private and state violence that have marked American democracy from its founding to the present. We can see the biographies of these individual men as stories about American democracy.
I have known Mark Romano, which is the pseudonym I gave him in my research, for 15 years. Back when we first met, Mark was a member of the Minutemen, the right-wing militia that patrolled the U.S.-Mexico border looking for “illegals.” I spent months watching Mark as he prowled the border in camouflage, with an M-4 rifle, two handguns, and approximately 100 rounds of ammunition. “I try to only use hollow points,” he once told me about the bullets known for their capacity to expand and fragment in the body and commonly used by police officers, “it causes the most damage.”
Many of Mark’s childhood friends came from military families, and military recruiters were frequent visitors to his high school. After graduation, he jumped at the chance to become a Marine. There, he excelled. A month after receiving his military-issued M-16, he scored “high shooter” in his platoon’s qualifying exams. “That was a major accomplishment to me,” he recalled in one of our interviews. His time in the Marines overlapped with the first Gulf War, which President George H.W. Bush repeatedly referred to as a war for freedom and democracy. In the military, Mark gained a sense of himself that would set him on the trajectory that followed: a proficiency with firearms and a deep hatred of Muslims.
This is a familiar story. These elements—militarism, whiteness, masculinity, and racism—form the bedrock of not only the militia movement but its intimate connections with American democracy. All 13 of the people facing state and federal charges in Michigan are men; all are white; some spent time in the military, including the alleged founder of the Wolverine Watchmen, Joseph Morrison, who was a Marine. And while their stated goal was to use private violence against the state, these men had support across various levels of government: Just a few months ago, one was sharing the stage with county sheriffs during an “anti-lockdown rally” critical of Whitmer. Shortly after some of them participated in armed protests at the Michigan state capitol while wearing camouflage and carrying guns, President Trump himself offered his endorsement, “Liberate Michigan!”
Mark’s decision to join a militia group and patrol the border was motivated by this dynamic—to be apart from the state but also its ally. He was called to duty not only by Republican presidents like the Bush administrations but also Democratic ones like Bill Clinton. It was Clinton, after all, who initiated some of the most massive border militarization campaigns in U.S. history and helped promote an understanding of unauthorized immigration as a matter of national security. When Mark joined a militia, it wasn’t because he was opposed to the ideals espoused by our elected representatives; it was precisely because of his intimate support for them. But as the case in Michigan teaches us, militias do not target government officials indiscriminately—it matters enormously that Whitmer is a woman, a Democrat, and promoting a set of public health measures that require these men’s obedience.
In this we see the truth of the militia movement: These men are not opposed to the government or the police, rather, they are opposed to themselves being governed or policed. We can’t reduce the contemporary militia movement to Trump’s doing—though some commentators may try—but it does have an ally in the president, who sees himself as the agent of law and order but never its object.
The connections between Mark and law enforcement agents have grown in the years since we met. In 2014, he opened a firearms training school with a retired Border Patrol agent. There, he teaches what he calls “tactical” shooting. Unlike shooting at a firing range where you have time and can stand on both feet while holding your gun with both hands, Mark’s teaching focuses on “real world shit.” One of his classes involves teaching you what to do when you are in your car and “you’ve got two or more guns being focused on you.”
Amid a surge in gun purchases, these days Mark says he can’t keep up with the demand. But it’s not just civilians seeking Mark’s services, it’s also the police. Mark says that a few months ago, a group of 20 police officers took the class. As Mark explained it, he was asked to modify the class a bit: “These guys want to do more patrol rifle stuff.”
This sense of collaboration is hardly exceptional. And these days it exists on multiple levels. Kyle Rittenhouse, the white 17-year-old aspiring cop now facing murder charges in the fatal shooting of two protesters, had shown up to Black Lives Matter protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin, under the apparent pretense of protecting private property and enforcing law and order. There, he was thanked by police officers and given water, a scene that echoed the sense of camaraderie and collaboration I witnessed between Border Patrol agents and militia members.
Law enforcement and militia members—as well as the cadres of more informal groups of armed right-wing men—also share a sense of paranoia and common enemies. As in the president’s current rhetorical obsessions, antifa and fantasies of roving anarchists loom large. Over the past year, Mark has been training militia members across America in what he calls urban combat.
“I’ve been screaming at our side for years to stop their running around in the woods with guns bullshit. I mean, yeah, you gotta, to build your unit get some training and get everybody close with each other and comfortable shooting around each other—you gotta do that,” he said. “But that’s not how this next war is gonna be fought. It’s gonna be fought in the streets. It’s gonna be urban combat which has the highest casualty rates. It’s gonna be a lot just hit and run, you know, raid type stuff. And that’s what antifa is doing. Pack a bunch of people on buses, get ’em to one community, destroy, and then you know, get out of there.”
A couple of weeks prior to Mark’s false remarks about antifa, John Ward, sheriff of Curry County in Oregon, posted nearly identical speculation to county residents: “I don’t know if the rumors are true or not just yet but I got information about 3 (busloads) of ANTIFA protestors (who) are making their way from Douglas County headed for Coquille then to Coos Bay.” Ward continued, noting that both local police and the Oregon police were prepared but also that, “without asking I am sure we have a lot of local boys too with guns that will protect our citizens and their property.”
This is a revealing portrait of policing in America, one that involves not only official law enforcement agents but also “a lot of local boys”—a lot of people like Mark. This connection between private and state policing is part of a long and racist history, one that stretches from the slave patrols of the eighteenth century on to the present moment in which bands of armed white men like Mark have gathered to confront Black Lives Matter protesters.
More recently, Mark has offered to share what he believes is intel to his friends in law enforcement about racial justice and other left activists. It’s information that he and his network of vigilantes have been collecting over the past months by scouring social media: “You have to start locating the targets. This way you don’t just wait for them.… You know it’s like when they were mopping up the high-value targets in Iraq; don’t wait for them to do something, they try to locate them beforehand.”
This kind of target identification, as became clear last week, also extends to people like Whitmer. The Michigan case, like other incidents of militia violence, function as a warning. Not of the danger of isolated men who need to be better integrated into American democracy but of how it’s precisely through these men’s integration into American democracy and some of its most important institutions—the military, the police, the government—that they have become who they are. They are not a threat to American democracy but its creations; not a danger to law enforcement but its ideological kin. The charges coming out of Michigan alone don’t address that—if we are truly going to recon with these men’s violence, we need to see it as an extension of the state rather than a transgression.