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A group of armed young men at a gas station in Kenosha, Wisconsin, during protests in August 2020.

How can this be legal?

By G. S. Norwood

“How can this be legal?” is a re-blog from The Weird Blog.

We live in crazy times. At a time when most of us are just trying to stay safe from the coronavirus pandemic and stay afloat in an unstable economy, we have seen armed counter-protesters turn out to threaten peaceful protesters in a quiet town like Weatherford, Texas. How can this be legal?

Kenosha shooter Kyle Rittenhouse, at left, and his fellow militia member Ryan Balch, walk along Sheridan Road in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on the fatal night.
Photo courtesy of Channel 3000 (no photographer credited).

Protesters and militiamen have died in places like Kenosha, Wisconsin, and Portland, Oregon, due to the presence of heavily armed militias.

The President of the United States called on a private militia group to stand back and stand by.”

We have heard rumors of armed militiamen making plans to guard polling places on Election Day.

The FBI and state authorities have arrested more than a dozen men for plotting to kidnap the governors of Michigan and Virginia.

How can it be legal to create a private army? Send heavily armed civilians to public places to “protect property” like gas stations and statues without consent or coordination with local law enforcement?

Legal Scholars to the Rescue

Turns out I’m not the only one asking that question.

The Georgetown University Law Center’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection has been studying the rise of illegal militia organizations in all fifty states. They have challenged militia groups in court on constitutional grounds. Filed amicus briefs in other court cases. Advised communities on how to meet the challenge of active militia groups. They even sent a letter to the chief of police in Weatherford, Texas, advising him on applicable law.

Go to their website, and search for yourself. You’ll find fact sheets on the laws governing militias in your state. These sheets include advice on what you can do to defend yourself if heavily armed civilians show up at your polling site on November 3.

The Bottom Line in Texas

A group of armed young men at a gas station in Kenosha, Wisconsin, during protests in August 2020.
Photo courtesy of Spectrum News/Sabra Ayres, via Bay News 9.

It all boils down to this: You and your buddies can meet up, take target practice, drill, and participate in private tactical exercises all you want. Wear camo like it’s high fashion, and buy body armor wherever it’s legally sold.

But if you take action—step into a public situation claiming law enforcement authority without being called up by the governor—you’re an unauthorized private militia and you’re breaking the law.

Simply put, your private army cannot self-activate. Only the duly recognized law enforcement authorities can deputize you to “lend a hand” when needed. You can’t just jump in because you think it would be a good idea.

How can this be legal?

Just to make it all clear, I’m going to contrast militia activity on the Weatherford square with the activities of a group I once belonged to: The Weatherford Citizen Police Academy Alumni Association.

The members of the Weatherford Citizen Police Academy Alumni Association, as the name implies, are all graduates of a six-week training course taught by the Weatherford Police Department. In the course you learn the basic duties of a Weatherford Police officer, undergo a background check and, if you’re interested, earn the right to volunteer for the Weatherford Police Department.

I did a lot of filing and shredding as a WPD volunteer. Other Citizen Police Academy volunteers ride on patrol with officers. They are frequently asked to help with crowd and traffic control during such large public events as the annual Parker County Peach Festival.

In a pre-Covid era, women at the Parker County Peach Festival sell locally-grown peaches from an outdoor booth with a table filled with small baskets of peaches.
Parker County Peach Festival photo courtesy of Megan Parks Photography and Durham Video and Photography.

It’s All in the Authorization

That’s the key. The Police Department asked for help. CPA volunteers are directed by, and answerable to, the Police Department. They don’t just show up in a reflective vest and start bossing drivers and pedestrians around.

A group crosses the legal line anytime they take on a law-enforcement role without being asked. Unless they coordinate their activities with the good people in real law enforcement agencies, they are breaking the law.

Go to the Georgetown website. Learn about the law. More importantly, know who to contact and how to document your experience, if you feel some guy with a gun is crossing the line on Election Day.

If you find yourself wondering “How can this be legal?” you may find out that it’s not.

IMAGE CREDITS:

Many thanks to Channel 3000, for the photo of Kyle Rittenhouse and his fellow militia-member Ryan Balch in Kenosha. We also thank Spectrum News, Sabra Ayres, and Bay News 9, for the photo of the civilians in camo and ballistic armor, also in Kenosha. And we appreciate Megan Parks Photography and Durham Video and Photography for the photo from the Parker County Peach Festival.

This is a screen capture from the Tweet referenced in the previous paragraph. Two unidentified Federal officers in desert-camouflage tactical gear and gas masks detain a young woman protester in black clothing and a helmet, before marching her to an unmarked van and taking her away without a word. Their uniforms look military, but are marked only “Police.”

Unidentified Federal Officers

A troubling rash of UF0 sightings — Unidentified Federal Officers — cropped up in June and July. They showed up first in Washington DC, and then in Portland, OR.

Unidentified Federal Officers are a problem

Unlike the more widely-known UFOs, as in the Unidentified Flying Objects of science fiction and popular culture, these UFOs are all too verifiable.

Just . . . not that easy to trace. And that’s a huge problem.

This 3-panel comic strip from “Prickly City” shows Carmen and Winslow, the strip’s two main characters, looking at each other in the first panel. In the second panel, a man in tactical gear with a helmet and a flag patch on his upper arm drags an eagle away, while the eagle asks, “Who are you?!? Where are you taking me?!?!? By what authority?!?” In the third panel, Carmen says to Winslow, “Well, that cannot be good . . .”
Prickly City for 8/4/2020 is ©2020 by Scott Stantis/Uclick/GoComics

They showed up to oppose what often had been mostly-peaceful protesters who were exercising their First Amendment rights. But especially in Portland, the protesters shifted their focus to opposing the Federal agents.

Officials in the District of Columbia and Oregon opposed them, too.

Authoritarian echoes

Portland protesters reported multiple arrests by unidentified officers who seemingly plucked random people off the streets and took them away in unmarked vans. For some idea of how terrifying this looks, a video tweeted by the Sparrow Project captures one such arrest (warning: some onlookers use profanity).

This is a screen capture from the Tweet referenced in the previous paragraph. Two Federal officers in desert-camouflage tactical gear and gas masks detain a young woman protester in black clothing and a helmet, before marching her to an unmarked van and taking her away without a word. Their uniforms look military, but are marked only “Police.”
Unidentified Federal Officers detain a woman in Portland. Photo from “Unlawful Whatever” via The Sparrow Project/Twitter/WSWS screen-capture.

This presents such a frightening similarity to actions in authoritarian regimes that many people had visceral reactions. The now-famous “Wall of Moms” came out in their yellow T-shirts to oppose this in particular. Their movement has now become controversial. But when it first occurred, the immediate comparison I drew was to the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo.

Yes, I’m once again gonna mark myself as old,because I personally remember when people said the rumors about “the disappeared” must be an exaggeration. Surely not, in a civilized society such as Argentina! Maybe some of those disclaimers were made because the “Dirty War” was secretly supported by the United States. But it turned out the grandmothers were right.

Why is the anonymity so ominous?

The most disturbing part of this development, for me and for others, was the anonymity of the officers. Yes, I know some police briefly claimed they might remove ids to avoid doxxing—which they feared might occur.

I worry more about the lack of accountability. If you can’t tell what agency—if any—the soldier-looking guys came from, how can you call them out for overreach? How can you tell whether they’re actual Federal agents, or well-equipped right wing militia members?

If the Wall of Moms can buy matching T-shirts, couldn’t the Proud Boys or some other group buy matching camo? And those tactical helmets with gas masks conceal as much of a person’s face as any Ku Klux Klan disguise (even pre-hood).

I also worry about the rumor that the president and some of his supporters tried to spark a culture war on the chance it might improve his polling numbers. If that could be a motivation, what else might be?

A group of unidentified Federal officers in unmarked gear guarding Federal facilities during protests in Washington DC turned out to be a riot team from the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
Turns out these UFOs in Washington DC were a riot team from the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Photo by Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty.

A July protest letter from 27 Senators reflects this unease over unaccountable anonymous agents acting against the First Amendment rights of protesters. And apparently they made a difference. All of the unidentified Federal officers withdrew from Washington, DC and Portland by late July. So far, no one has deployed them elsewhere.

IMAGE CREDITS

Many thanks to “Unlawful Whatever” via The Sparrow Project for taking that chilling video from Portland and sharing it on Twitter. And to WSWS for the screen-capture.

I’m deeply grateful to Scott Stantis for exactly capturing my feelings on this topic, and I’m hoping to goodness that he and Andrews McMeel will see this as fair use, especially considering their “Contact Us” link kept returning a 404 Error, and GoComics sent me to an additional, unhelpful place. I really did try, people!

And finally I really want to thank CNN and Brendan Smialowski, via AFP/Getty, for the photo of the unidentified group on 14th Street in Washington DC, later identified as a Bureau of Prisons riot team.

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