A former alderman who’s raising two children in the lakeside Wisconsin city, Mathewson said in an interview that he wanted to “start a spark that let people know there are others out here that want to defend ourselves, our lives, our neighborhoods.”
While there is no indication that Rittenhouse was a member of the Kenosha Guard (Facebook has said that it has no evidence he was connected to the group online), the bloody escalation follows a striking emergence of gun-toting amateur groups at protests nationwide.
Driven by a patchwork of ideologies and enflamed by the Trump administration’s often misleading messaging on far-left agitators, analysts say, the groups are fueling concern among law enforcement and hate group watchers that they could be the cause of more violence. Legal experts are also warning that the militias, with their embrace of high-powered weapons and lack of police training, are on shaky constitutional ground.
“Law enforcement officers go through months of training in the use of force, de-escalation of force, defensive tactics, and the use of a firearm to defend themselves and the citizens they are sworn to protect,” said Thomas O’Connor, a retired FBI special agent who spent much of his career investigating domestic terrorism. “A civilian with a firearm on the street during a volatile situation may have the legal right to have that weapon, but that does not always mean it is the wise decision.”
“Part of the problem with this group is they create confrontation,” Beth said at a news conference Wednesday after Rittenhouse’s arrest. “If I put out my wife with an AR-15 or my brother with a shotgun or whatever it would be walking through the streets, you guys would wonder what the heck is going on. That doesn’t help us.”
Consequences of ‘normalizing’ vigilante justice
Many established militias, or civilian forces, have long aligned with anti-government causes in pockets of the US and groups like the Oath Keepers first became an antagonizing presence at protests in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014.
Since April, according to researchers who track hate groups, more decentralized and organic outgrowths of the movement have increased in visibility, first at “reopen” rallies that challenged coronavirus shutdowns, and later at the site of racial justice demonstrations, where they say their patrols meant to deter criminal behavior have led to varying degrees of confrontation.
“It’s the logical end of a years’ long path that we’ve been on of normalizing the idea that vigilante justice is not just justifiable but is necessary,” said Howard Graves, a senior research analyst at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which studies hate groups. “It’s not an accident that this resulted in death — that is what’s going to happen based on what these groups envision themselves doing.”
Shared among the variety of groups, which are mainly comprised of White men, is often a disdain for the Black Lives Matter movement and a misplaced emphasis on its ties to radical left-wing violence, though some have more explicit, extreme and at times racist ideologies, said Alex Friedfeld, an investigative researcher at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism who monitors the groups’ activity online.
Many are also inspired by disinformation they read online about violence and organized looting campaigns tied into the Black Lives Matter movement. President Donald Trump and the leaders of the Justice Department have regularly aggrandized the role of the anarchist group Antifa in the summer’s unrest without providing much evidence.
The Oath Keepers, which draws its members from the ranks of the military and law enforcement, and adherents to the Three Percenter militia movement organize to confront conspiracies about an overreaching federal government.
“To me, I guess I hoped it would be common sense that I’m not looking for children to come out,” Mathewson said.
Facebook later took down the Kenosha Guard’s pages on the website and admitted that it should have been removed earlier under the company’s policy on “dangerous groups.” Mathewson told CNN he was disappointed in that decision.
Second Amendment questions
Their ability to band together as a militia and advocate for the use of force is also legally dubious, said Mary McCord, a former senior Justice Department official who is now the legal director of the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at the Georgetown University Law Center.
Despite language about a “well-regulated Militia” in the Second Amendment, the Supreme Court has long said that the right to bear arms belongs to individuals alone, and does not prevent states from writing laws that bar the creation of citizen militias.
All 50 states now have similar laws or constitutional provisions that prohibit private military activity, according to McCord, and after the violence in Charlottesville in 2017, her Georgetown group won court orders that barred 23 individuals and organizations from returning to the city in groups of two or more with anything that could be used as a weapon at a rally.
In a letter sent Wednesday to law enforcement and political leaders in Kenosha, McCord pointed to provisions in Wisconsin law that “prohibit private paramilitary and unauthorized law enforcement activity” and offered to consult with them about “how to protect public safety while preserving constitutional rights during public protests and demonstrations.”
“The Kenosha Guard were falsely assuming this function to protect property that they don’t have,” McCord said.