The first shots in the second American civil war have been fired — at least, according to some right-wing groups that have sought to use recent shooting deaths during protests across the country as a call to arms.
After three people were killed during protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin and Portland, Oregon in recent days, right-wing groups that have made a habit of showing up armed to protest are forecasting a larger, more violent struggle. Experts told TPM that was purposeful.
“The first shot has been fired brother,” said Stewart Rhodes, founder of the armed anti-government group Oath Keepers, in a tweet Sunday. “Civil war is here, right now. We’ll give Trump one last chance to declare this a Marxist insurrection & suppress it as his duty demands. If he fails to do HIS duty, we will do OURS.”
Rhodes was referring to the killing of Aaron Danielson in Portland on Saturday. Danielson was affiliated with a right-wing group known for street brawling, Patriot Prayer, whose members had joined a caravan of trucks that made a route through Portland earlier in the day, many armed with pepper spray and paintball guns.
Just a few days earlier, two protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin — Anthony Huber and Joseph Rosenbaum — were allegedly killed by the 17-year-old Trump supporter Kyle Rittenhouse. Rittenhouse has been charged with homicide. No one has been charged in the Portland killing yet, but The Oregonian reported that a self-identified anti-fascist protester was under investigation.
The Oath Keepers’ tweets went beyond their normal schtick, said Sam Jackson, an assistant professor at the University of Albany and author of a new book about the group.
For years, Oath Keepers leadership has speculated about potential armed conflict: In 2015, for example, members of the group claimed that the “Jade Helm” military training exercise was a front for martial law. And last year, Rhodes said Democrats’ impeachment investigation of President Donald Trump marked “the verge of a HOT civil war.” But these conflicts, of course, never materialized.
“They’ve identified the start of a civil war over and over again,” Jackson said. “The identification or anticipation of a civil war is consistent.”
“What’s different now is they’re pointing to a particular act of violence from the people that they’ve identified as the other side — the enemy combatants in the civil war,” he added. “What’s different now is they’re not just anticipating that it’s going to happen soon — they’re rhetorically positioning that it has begun.”
The Oath Keepers message was part of a wave of ominous forecasts from right-wing vigilantes in recent days.
“This is the inflection point. This is where the pendulum swings back in the other direction,” Chris Hill, leader of the armed group called Georgia Security Force III%, said in a video last week, referring to the Kenosha shooting. He added, “There’s going to be an escalation in this conflict that we have — that is now, it is here, it is spreading, it is going to get crazy. It’s already crazy, but now there’s a body count.”
Hill saved his pitch for the end. If viewers didn’t join a militia soon, he said, “your country is going to be shattered glass and fucking rubble… But if you are interested, hit me up!”
Georgia Security Force III% and others recently faced off against some anti-Confederate monument activists at Stone Mountain in Georgia. Fights broke out at the scene and, at one point, both sides had hands on their firearms, feet away from each other.
Hill’s attempt to recruit off of the unrest is a natural part of leading an armed vigilante group. Jackson recalled that in 2015, after a gunman killed five servicemembers in attacks at a recruiting center and a Naval Reserve center in Chattanooga, Oath Keepers launched an effort that the group called “Operation Protect the Protectors.” It was a form of networking: Armed citizens, some of whom hadn’t before been affiliated with the Oath Keepers, stood outside of recruiting centers in a show of force.
Nowadays, the right-wing presence at uprisings across the country serves to “radicalize” potential extremists, said Daryl Johnson, a former domestic terrorism analyst at the Department of Homeland Security
“Now, with the boogaloo movement and with these militias going into these [instances of] civil unrest, it kind of reinforces to them this notion that society is on the brink of a civil war,” he said. “And it serves as a radicalization facilitator, much like a foreign fighter going over to a conflict zone reinforcing their version of the world.”
The armed groups aren’t acting alone. Mainstream conservative media and political figures have created a bogeyman out of antifa and Black Lives Matter — convenient domestic “others” that serve as scapegoats. The President himself on Monday referred to people “on the streets” and “in the dark shadows” that were controlling Joe Biden. Separately, he said vaguely that the departments of Justice and Homeland Security would be “announcing a joint operation center to investigate the violent, left-wing civil unrest.”
Once upon a time, when Barack Obama was president, the Oath Keepers might’ve been up in arms about that sort of assertion of executive power. But things have changed. Stewart Rhodes, asked Monday what he thought Trump should do about America’s supposed new civil war, told the journalist Casey Michel, “he should declare a nationwide insurrection to be in effect and call all of the National Guard units into federal service, under his command, and use them to suppress the insurrection in the streets.”
A member of Patriot Prayer who claimed to have been with Danielson when he was killed — and whose story Oath Keepers retweeted — was asked a similar question this weekend: What should Trump do?
“Send troops,” the man said. “Send troops.”
Much of the amped up rhetoric about cresting violence is just projection: The right blames the left for violence to justify its own.
In recent years, according to a recent report on tactics of the racist “alt-right” published by the Southern Poverty Law Center, “Some members of the radical right realized that, even while claiming to be victims of liberal overreach, they could capitalize on their own violent acts. Video of a dramatic punch could go viral, making heroes out of the movement’s street warriors and recruiting people to the cause.”
One of the report’s authors, Howard Graves, told TPM that “the far-right has demonstrated that it is willing and able to escalate at a quicker rate, and that’s really where we see the biggest potential for violence.”
“Their animus for going out into the streets is to directly and physically oppose antifa,” Graves added. “And they see opposing antifa as largely instigating these conflicts.”