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Militias targeting Michigan and Virginia governors show rise of 'boogaloo' violence

Caitlin Dickson
·Reporter
·10-min read

Members of antigovernment militia groups charged with plotting to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, before the November election also discussed abducting the Democratic governor of Virginia, Ralph Northam, according to new information disclosed by an FBI agent at a hearing in Grand Rapids, Mich., federal court Tuesday.

At the hearing, FBI special agent Richard Trask reportedly revealed this and other previously undisclosed details about the investigation that resulted in last week’s arrests of 13 men in what authorities said was a plot to kidnap Whitmer, attack law enforcement and carry out other acts of violence. Six of the men, five from Michigan and one a resident of Delaware, have been charged on federal counts of conspiracy to kidnap, while the seven others — members of an antigovernment, antipolice militia called the Wolverine Watchmen — face a number of additional state charges including supporting terrorism.

The court papers indicated a link to the wider “boogaloo” movement, a loose association of antigovernment agitators and self-appointed militiamen, mostly on the far right. And the alleged plot was alarming enough to inspire a rare condemnation of right-wing extremism from a Trump Cabinet member.

Trask said that investigators became particularly concerned about the activities of the defendants following a June 6 meeting in Dublin, Ohio, where, he said, members of antigovernment paramilitary groups from “four or five” different states, including two of the Michigan men named in the federal complaint, “discussed possible targets” and “taking a sitting governor.” Specifically, the governors of Michigan and Virginia were mentioned “based on the lockdown orders,” Trask said, referring to strict social distancing measures both states had imposed earlier in the spring.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) speaks during a news conference on June 4, 2020 in Richmond, Virginia. An FBI agent revealed that some of the men charged with allegedly plotting to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer had also discussed targeting Northam. (Zach Gibson/Getty Images)
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam at a June 4 news conference in Richmond, Va. An FBI agent revealed that some of the men charged with allegedly plotting to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer had also discussed targeting Northam. (Zach Gibson/Getty Images)

According to the federal complaint filed last week, that June meeting set in motion an effort to recruit accomplices and take steps toward kidnapping Whitmer, including surveillance at her vacation home, and tactical and explosives training. It’s unclear if the discussion about targeting Northam extended beyond that one meeting — neither the criminal complaint nor Trask’s testimony mention further activity directed against the Virginia governor.

The new details disclosed Tuesday prompted a rare condemnation of militia violence from acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf, whose department has been accused of downplaying the threat of white supremacist groups. NBC News recently reported that DHS officials were directed to make sympathetic comments about Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year-old Trump supporter who is charged with killing two protesters and wounding another during a protest against police shootings in Kenosha, Wis.

On Tuesday, Wolf issued a statement reading, “I applaud state and federal law enforcement successful efforts to thwart the plan of violent extremists to kidnap Governor Whitmer of Michigan and Governor Northam of Virginia. Last week, we released the DHS Homeland Threat Assessment that outlines this very threat. There is no place in our society for violent extremists in any form — we will stand against them at every turn.”

In this screenshot from the DNCC’s livestream of the 2020 Democratic National Convention, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer addresses the virtual convention on August 17, 2020. (Handout/DNCC via Getty Images)
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer addresses the Democratic National Convention on Aug. 17. (Handout/DNCC via Getty Images)

The first annual DHS Homeland Threat Assessment concluded that “Domestic Violent Extremists” present the most persistent and lethal terrorist threat to the nation. It predicted that racially and ethnically motivated violent extremists — specifically white supremacists who have been responsible for more deadly attacks within the U.S. than any other domestic extremist movement since 2018 — “will remain the most persistent and lethal threat in the Homeland.” But it also highlights the terrorism threat posed by “anti-government/anti-authority violent extremists” and warns that “we also remain particularly concerned about the impacts from COVID-19 where anti-government and anti-authority violent extremists could be motivated to conduct attacks in response to perceived infringement of liberties and government overreach as all levels of government seek to limit the spread of the coronavirus that has caused a worldwide pandemic.”

The somewhat vague language and lack of details about the kinds of groups that fall into this category or the ideologies behind them (other than a few references to “anarchist ideology”) seem intended to suggest that the threats posed by “anti-government/anti-authority violent extremists” are equal or even interchangeable. However, experts who study extremist movements have repeatedly and emphatically stated that the most serious threat of political violence today comes from far-right groups, including the amorphous boogaloo movement, which includes elements seeking to provoke a civil war and the overthrow of the U.S. government.

In fact, the recent arrests stemming from the alleged plot to kidnap Whitmer seem to offer a perfect example of this growing — and increasingly violent — phenomenon.

The 'Boogaloo Bois', an armed libertarian group, dress in their signature Hawaiian shirts during a protest on 24, 2020 in Portland, Oregon.  (John Rudoff/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
The boogaloo bois, an armed libertarian group, dressed in their signature Hawaiian shirts during a protest in Portland, Ore. (John Rudoff/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

An affidavit outlining the state charges filed against members of the Wolverine Watchmen, a Michigan-based antigovernment and anti-law-enforcement militia group, includes specific references to the boogaloo movement, which it describes as a term “referencing a violent uprising against the government or impending politically motivated civil war.” For example, the state affidavit says that “members of Wolverine Watchmen periodically met for ‘field training exercises’ on private property in remote areas where they engaged in firearms training and tactical drills to prepare for the ‘boogaloo.’” And it notes that the group’s “commander,” Joseph Morrison, is known online by the handle “Boogaloo Bunyan.”

According to the Washington Post, a Facebook group for the Wolverine Watchmen was one of hundreds removed from the platform in June as part of an effort to crack down on accounts and groups affiliated with the boogaloo amid growing evidence that their online rhetoric was resulting in real-world violence.

While the federal complaint doesn’t mention the boogaloo directly, the quotes attributed to some of the accused — obtained via secret recordings provided by confidential informants and undercover agents who infiltrated the group — are littered with boogaloo rhetoric: repeated references to “tyrants” and complaints that Whitmer “has uncontrolled power”; they often express a willingness to use deadly force to accomplish their goal of dismantling the “tyrannical government” as well the belief that “everything’s gonna have to be annihilated” in order to “take back” control of society. According to the complaint, some of the defendants also indicated that they hoped their actions against Whitmer would inspire people in other states to kidnap their own elected officials. “Everybody takes their tyrants,” one of the suspects is quoted as saying in the complaint.

Whitmer noted that President Trump had tweeted “Liberate Michigan” (among other states) when the lockdown was imposed in April, and implied that the plot was inspired in part by Trump’s frequent disparagement of mandatory orders meant to control COVID-19. But the indictments do not make an explicit connection to the president’s rhetoric.

Alex Friedfeld, a researcher at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism who has been tracking the relatively young boogaloo movement since its emergence online roughly a year ago, said he was not surprised to hear that Northam had also been floated as a possible target. Since his election in 2018, the Democratic Virginia governor has been the target of fierce criticism and even threats over his efforts to impose tougher gun control regulations.

In fact, one of the first major events to bring the term “boogaloo” into the national spotlight was in the weeks and days leading up to a pro-gun-rights rally in Richmond, Va., this past January, when Second Amendment advocates and militia groups on social media suddenly began embracing the term — derived from a fringe internet joke — to describe a violent resistance against what they perceive as government attempts to take away their guns. This appropriation of “boogaloo” is a perfect example of how, as Friedfeld puts it, the term is basically “an empty vessel that allows you to fill it however you want.” For example, the relatively small white supremacist, neo-Nazi factions of the boogaloo use the word to refer to a coming race war and the establishment of a white ethnostate in some or all of the U.S.

Descriptions of Northam as a tyrant that had already begun to circulate online ahead of the January rally only grew more fervent in response to the governor’s statewide stay-at-home measures implemented to control the coronavirus pandemic in the spring. As in Michigan and several other states, protests in April calling for Virginia to “reopen” attracted gun-toting followers of the antigovernment faction of the boogaloo who viewed the coronavirus restrictions as a form of tyranny.

Since then, Friedfeld observed that against the national backdrop of intense politicization and rampant, increasingly baroque conspiracies, the boogaloo umbrella has grown bigger and more violent.

Mugshots of the 13 men who were arrested on federal and state charges relating to an alleged plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. TOP (left to right): Adam D. Fox, Brandon M. Caserta, Daniel J. Harris, Ty G. Garbin, Kaleb J. Franks, Barry Croft  BOTTOM (left to right): William G. Null Jr., Michael J. Null, Eric J. Molitor, Shawn M. Fix, Pete Musico, Joseph M. Morrison, Paul Bellar (Handout Photos)
Mugshots of the 13 men who were arrested on federal and state charges in an alleged plot to kidnap Mich. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. Top, left to right: Adam D. Fox, Brandon M. Caserta, Daniel J. Harris, Ty G. Garbin, Kaleb J. Franks and Barry Croft. Bottom, left to right: William G. Null Jr., Michael J. Null, Eric J. Molitor, Shawn M. Fix, Pete Musico, Joseph M. Morrison and Paul Bellar. (Handout photos)

Amid the nationwide protests that followed the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd in late May, followers of the boogaloo movement have been implicated in a number of incidents of actual or attempted violence, such as the fatal shooting of two law enforcement agents during protests in Oakland and a thwarted plot to use explosives to incite violent riots at a Black Lives Matter rally in Las Vegas.

“It encourages people to act in a violent way because it frames world events in such a maximalist way that … if you believe the government is trying to take away your freedoms and enslave you, all of a sudden acting in a violent way no longer seems implausible,” Friedfeld said. At the same time, the rhetoric about civil war appeals to the disaffected and violence-prone.

Just last week, in addition to the 13 arrests in relation to the alleged Whitmer plot, federal agents arrested a Baltimore man with reported boogaloo ties on federal gun charges, and in Detroit, another reported boogaloo follower was killed in a shootout with FBI agents who’d been executing an arrest warrant for a federal weapons charge.

Less than a year ago, the boogaloo was still an online movement consisting primarily of memes, Friedfeld noted, suggesting that the surge in real-life violent activity carried out or plotted under the banner of the boogaloo “shows the boogaloo message is resonating with people and pushing them towards violence” as the election approaches.

“What I’m concerned about is that people will respond to the tension that exists, will see these heightened passions … the discord among Americans, and will see an opportunity to spark that civil war,” he said.

“Whether it be tossing Molotov cocktails at police officers hoping that the protesters around them will respond and take their lead on this and attack police officers and spread discord ... or kidnapping a governor in the hopes that other people will do likewise, they’re trying to provoke widespread violence, they’re trying to bring about the end of America as we know it.”

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