Boundary County Human Rights Task Force
Militias and Safe Communities
by Timothy Braatz
On August 23, a policeman in Kenosha, Wisconsin, fired seven bullets into the back of an unarmed man. When community members held street protests, a private militia invited out-of-towners to a Facebook “event” it called “Armed Citizens to Protect Our Lives and Property.”
The militia leader announced they were “mobilizing” because law officers were “outnumbered.” He instructed the police chief not to “tell us to go home under threat of arrest as you have in the past.” By the third night of protests, civilians with assault rifles were a significant presence.
“Part of the problem with this group is they create confrontation,” the sheriff said. The mayor agreed: “I don’t need more guns on the street when we are trying to make sure we keep people safe. Law enforcement is trained. They’re the ones we have faith will do their job. That is why the curfews are there.” But video shows police chatting with and distributing water to armed civilians long after curfew.
One of the gunmen was a teenager from Illinois. Standing near a Kenosha car dealership, he told an interviewer, “People are getting injured and my job is to protect this business. And my job is also to protect people. If someone is hurt, I’m running into harm’s way.”
A few hours later, the teen shot and killed someone, then fled. When protesters tried to apprehend him, he shot two more. He is now under arrest for murder. Tragedy upon tragedy upon tragedy. But not unprecedented. On June 15, in Albuquerque, a private militia member shot an antiracism protester.
The militia members showing up at public protests are not all alike. Some are anti-police. Some are anti-government. Some support antiracism protesters. Some are white supremacists. But most seem to indulge in macho posturing. They tend to overreact to online hoaxes, as seen recently in Michigan and Pennsylvania, and are answerable to no one.
Idaho laws appear to prohibit this sort of organized vigilantism. The Idaho Constitution’s Strict Subordination Clause forbids private military units from operating outside state authority, as the “military shall be subordinate to the civil power.” A state law (46-106) grants only to the governor the authority to call private militias into active service.
Other Idaho laws go further. “No body of men, other than the regularly organized national guard, the unorganized militia when called into service of the state, or of the United States . . . shall associate themselves together as a military company or organization, or parade in public with firearms in any city or town of this state” (46-802). It is a felony to “unlawfully exercise or attempt to exercise the functions” of law officers (18-711), and “conspiracies and training activities in furtherance of unlawful acts of violence…should be subject to criminal sanctions” (18-8101).
This is not an “open carry” issue. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that laws against private military units do not violate the Second Amendment.
Will local and state law officers in North Idaho enforce laws which restrict private armies? If, for example, armed militia members occupy downtown streets to “protect” the city, will police treat this as illegal behavior? Will they do so even if they are politically in alignment with the militia members? Even if militia members are pleasant folks? Recent events make these questions more than hypothetical.
On June 2, in response to false online rumors, armed men assembled in downtown Coeur d’Alene during a day of protest. One man explained, “We are not counterprotesters. We’re just going to make sure that Coeur d’Alene is safe.” According to observers, individual police officers thanked the vigilantes for their presence.
That same day, students held a peaceful protest march in Sandpoint. Armed men followed them, then went downtown to “patrol” the streets. By their presence, the gunmen intimidated some protesters and disrupted downtown business activity. According to news reports, a Bonner County commissioner—not the state governor—had used Facebook to recruit militia members to monitor the protest.
The Boundary County Human Rights Task Force calls on state and local law officers to familiarize themselves with the relevant statutes and take prudent steps to enforce them.
What can citizens do if they want to promote community safety and lack confidence in law officers? Is there a less inflammatory solution than anxious men with guns?
In Winnipeg, indigenous Canadians created the Bear Clan Patrol (bearclanpatrol.org). Unarmed volunteers walk the streets to assist vulnerable people. They hand out food and clothing. They do not bully or threaten or escalate tension. They try to resolve conflict nonviolently before police have reason to intervene.
Think nonviolent intervention is an ineffective way to reduce conflict? Check out the Nonviolent Peaceforce, which sends unarmed peacekeepers to intense conflict zones around the world (nonviolentpeaceforce.org). Peaceforce volunteers have saved many lives and haven’t harmed a soul.
Timothy Braatz is a professor of history and nonviolence. His article, “The Bear Clan Patrol and Community Protection,” can be read online.