Laws banning private armies go unenforced in Washington

A photo posted earlier this year on Facebook identifies the group as members of Three Percent of Washington posing with an Olympia police officer. Some characterize the organization as paramilitary and question the legality of such groups, while its founder sees the registered nonprofit organization as a service group.

By Katie Hayes / InvestigateWest

— When Olympia Police Officer Tiffany Coates’ cruiser rolled into a gun shop parking lot, she knew armed men were waiting for her. She wasn’t concerned.

Vigilantes with the group Three Percent of Washington carrying AR-15 rifles waved warmly as Coates arrived. A few minutes later Coates was smiling for a camera, flanked by nine paramilitaries.

Posted on social media as the Black Lives Matters protests unfolded in June, that photo of a grinning cop surrounded by armed, camouflage-clad men fed the worst fears of residents who for days had complained to police about armed men following and intimidating protesters. It was proof to some that police, amid an upsurge in gun sales, were coddling vigilantes they should be arresting.

“As a Black woman, I am scared right now … to live in a ZIP code where officers actively affiliate themselves with armed, white vigilantes, who have made their paranoid, suspicious hatred of my people an inescapable presence in my life,” Olympia resident Elisa McGee told the city council in June. She demanded that Coates be fired. That didn’t happen. (In fact, in October Coates was honored as “Officer of the Year” by the Olympia post of the American Legion.)

Paramilitary organizations are illegal in Washington and many other states. But laws meant to stop the formation of ad hoc armies are archaic and vague, so much so that police and prosecutors who have recently had the opportunity to use them describe them as unenforceable.

Not that any have tried. Despite the rise in paramilitary activity, nowhere in the state have members of those armed, organized groups been prosecuted for violations of the state’s anti-paramilitary laws, according to interviews with law enforcement leaders and extremism experts. Rather than prosecution, the melange of AR-15-carrying, camouflage-clad vigilante groups has been called on by a handful of politicians to provide “security” as President Trump suggested one group “stand back and stand by.” 

Tensions are high as hundreds of members of the Washington National Guard stand ready to support local police if civil unrest does break out. That unrest could manifest in a number of ways — including protests much like those seen this summer — but the possibility of paramilitary action presents a particular unknown. 

Karina Shagren, a spokesperson for the state Military Department, said the National Guard hasn’t deployed but is poised to do so if there are disturbances around Election Day.

“It’s safe to say this is a risk that we need to be prepared for,” Shagren said. “It would be a disservice not to.”

Should violence occur, it won’t have come without warning. Police and prosecutors around the state have been trying to figure out what to do about the upwelling of vigilantism for months, to little effect.

Laws related to paramilitary activities vary slightly state to state, but the key features are similar. Washington’s are no exception.

“If a group is carrying assault rifles and coordinating its deployment of individuals … that’s activity that we would typically call paramilitary activity,” said Mary McCord, legal director for Georgetown Law School’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection.

Recently, McCord has helped bring lawsuits against paramilitary groups. After the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, her organization successfully sued to block paramilitaries from returning to Virginia. Her organization has since helped city and county governments stop illegal paramilitary conduct in their jurisdictions.

Though he recently stepped down as Three Percent of Washington’s leader, group founder Matt Marshall remains adamant that the group is not a paramilitary organization. Proponents of the Three Percent movement, which takes its name from the debunked notion that only 3% of colonists fought in the American Revolution, present themselves as civilian opposition to tyranny; some celebrate anti-government actions like the 2014 standoff at Cliven Bundy’s Nevada ranch.

Groups in the Three Percent movement and other vigilantes have nonetheless been embraced by some elected officials. A handful have even invited them to “protect” their towns.

Those stamps of legitimacy land on a diffuse movement that has seen adherents accused of planning to kidnap Democratic governors in Michigan and Virginiabrandish firearms during political disagreements and clash violently with protesters on the opposing side. Portland’s riotous summer, and now fall, was at its worst when right-wing vigilantes squared off with racial justice demonstrators; one demonstrator affiliated with the anti-fascist, far-left militant movement antifa who was suspected in the killing of a member of an armed right-wing group in Portland was shot dead by members of a federal task force in September.

New report reveals threat

In a report released Oct. 28, researchers with the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project and MilitiaWatch said that militia groups “pose a serious threat to the safety and security of American voters” around the election in part because they’ve faced few consequences.

“The lack of open sanctions of these groups … has given them space to operate, while concurrently allowing political figures to claim little direct responsibility for violent actions from which they hope to benefit,” the authors said in the report.

Many protesters find the paramilitaries intimidating, said Devin Burghart, executive director for the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights. The paramilitary groups, overwhelmingly white in their membership, have become increasingly common at protests targeting racism and white supremacy.

“The fear that it strikes in folks to see groups of heavily armed men walking through the streets is something that can’t be understated,” said Burghart, whose Seattle-based organization tracks far-right groups.

In Washington alone, there were at least 15 incidents of far-right groups showing up at Black Lives Matter demonstrations in the month following George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police on May 25. News outlets reported armed vigilantes at protests in OlympiaSnohomishSpokane, the Tri-Cities and Gig Harbor.

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