When the march unfolded earlier this month, bringing more than 400 people to a park opposite the public library, an armed militia stood guard — at ground level but also atop nearby roofs, as if ready to act as snipers.
“Honestly, it was terrifying,” Espinoza said. “They claimed they were there to protect the city from outsiders, but it felt more like preparation to kill.”
The demonstrations against racial injustice and police brutality that have convulsed major metropolitan areas, from Minneapolis to Miami, have also made their way into small-town America, redrawing the geography of the Black Lives Matter movement. But the activists spearheading unlikely assemblies in rural and conservative corners of the country have faced fierce online backlash and armed intimidation, which in some places is unfolding with the apparent support of local law enforcement.
The dangers that armed militias bring with them were laid bare this week in Albuquerque, where a 31-year-old was arrested in connection with a shooting that injured a protester seeking the removal of a statue of a Spanish conquistador. The eruption of gunfire followed a standoff between protesters and members of a group that calls itself the New Mexico Civil Guard — one of a number of militia and paramilitary units reacting to recent protests that have occasionally descended into rioting and looting.
The reaction, local activists say, threatens not just their safety and free-speech rights. It also endangers their ability, they say, to take the movement touched off by the police killing of George Floyd beyond urban hubs — to places like Omak or Bethel, Ohio, a village of 2,800 where a recent protest drew 700 counterprotesters.
“If the protesters are younger or fewer in number or more on the timid side, which can be the case in places that haven’t traditionally seen movements for racial justice, then the militias can have a chilling effect,” said Judith Heilman, the executive director of the Montana Racial Equity Project, which the former police officer says is the sole black-led nonprofit organization in the state.
The armed mobilization sheds light on the growth of anti-government militia groups, whose efforts — often coordinated on Facebook and other online platforms — have expanded since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic and the nationwide outburst of protests for racial justice. Militia activity has marked recent protests in places across the country, often driven by false online alerts about infiltration by antifa and other left-wing militants.
Ahead of Trump’s rally on Saturday in Tulsa, misinformation is pervading a Facebook group for Oklahoma Patriots, warning that antifa plans to bus in “crisis actors.”
Armed residents offer a variety of reasons for their presence. Some say they aim to keep the peace. Others are there to counterprotest, announcing their allegiances by flying the Confederate flag.
Their involvement has brought gunfire to several cities, including Boise, where an 18-year-old discharged his weapon into the ground outside the capitol this month. After the shooting in Albuquerque, New Mexico’s Democratic governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham, denounced the “unsanctioned show of unregulated force” by the armed group present during the standoff.