COEUR D’ALENE (Idaho Statesman) — Rebecca Schroeder doesn’t tell people her new address.
As an outspoken progressive advocate from Coeur d’Alene in northern Idaho, she’s grown accustomed to local animosity.
But when online messages suggested she be put in a body bag, bullet casings appeared on her friends’ front porches, and armed civilians — some of them members of unofficial militia groups — began patrolling the streets downtown, she packed her bags and left her birthplace, taking her 13-year-old son with her to an undisclosed location.
“It feels like letting them win by not being in Coeur d’Alene right now and fighting the good fight,” Schroeder said. “But I also don’t want to be a martyr in what is already written, in their plan book, to be a big fight.”
When Black Lives Matter protests broke out across the country after the police killing of George Floyd this summer, Schroeder watched as small groups of high school and college-aged protesters in Coeur d’Alene were met with as many as 400 civilians, mostly white men, purporting to be their “protectors.”
Brandishing AR-style semi-automatic rifles, the men proclaimed they were there to safeguard local businesses and protesters from a rumored antifa incursion. While the mayor and City Council described their armed presence as potentially “reassuring,” some protesters said the true goal was intimidation.
As Black Lives Matter protests have continued nationwide, militia groups and right-wing extremists have furthered their own anti-government agendas, at times agitating for what some hope will be a second civil war. Northern Idaho – and specifically Coeur d’Alene and the city of Sandpoint, where many residents openly support militia groups — has become ground zero in Idaho for the militia movement.
Unlike police officers, independent militia groups are not affiliated with a government, meaning that there is no process in place through which they are accountable to their communities. Amid calls for police accountability from Black Lives Matter protesters, the lack of accountability for independent militias is glaring, Schroeder said.
“We’re concerned about accountability with the police,” she said. “There’s no accountability with privately organized militias who decided to take to the streets and enforce the law the way that they see it.”
To understand these gatherings, where they came from, and their ramifications, the Statesman interviewed local officials and residents of Coeur d’Alene and Sandpoint, as well as experts studying the militia movement and representatives from human rights groups. Every militia group the Statesman reached out to declined to comment for this story, except for the Seven Bravo 3% Militia. Seven Bravo’s leader, Ron Korn, said the recent gatherings have led to a “huge influx of people finally wanting to get involved” in the militia movement.
The Statesman also acquired email and letter correspondence and conducted a review of social media profiles to determine the nature of these gatherings and how they signify a larger shift in the militia movement. Recently, many of the militia Facebook pages the Statesman contacted over the course of this project were removed in a massive Facebook ban of groups that “promote violence.”
But a Facebook crackdown is unlikely to curb militia activity. Groups have dealt with bans of this sort before by migrating to different sites and changing their optics. Already, the North Idaho Militia — a group that escaped the ban — has directed followers to its North Idaho Preppers page. Eric Parker, founder of the Real 3%ers Idaho, said the group was working on a new organization website.
As militias smooth rough edges — painting themselves as guardians of protesters and property — they become harder to classify, more difficult to prosecute and more commonly accepted within local government.
For North Idaho residents like Schroeder, who have watched warily as armed militia groups gain a foothold in their town, the area’s history — the leveled Aryan Nations compound lies just seven miles from Coeur d’Alene — doesn’t feel so far away.
“They have been calling for a civil war for a long time. I mean, this is a perfect excuse. The Black Lives Matter protests layered in with the COVID pandemic and the restrictions placed on movement and masking and things like that in our community,” Schroeder said. “This has been just the gasoline on the fire for civil war. If it’s coming, North Idaho is the heart of the new confederacy.”
INTIMIDATION OR PROTECTION?
In Coeur d’Alene, a town of 51,000 where 0.5% of the population is Black, as many as 400 civilians carrying large rifles dwarfed the small crowd of Black Lives Matter protesters downtown.
For the first five days of June, hundreds of armed civilians patrolled the main drag of Sherman Avenue. Citing rumors that antifa elements were planning to descend on the city — rumors Coeur d’Alene Mayor Steve Widmyer told the Statesman had no credible backing — they said they were there to protect the town.
Every time another Black Lives Matter protest was scheduled, the armed patrol reappeared.
“Until it started raining on the weekend,” said Laura Tenneson, a Coeur d’Alene resident who leads a local human rights campaign called Love Lives Here. “Then they stopped showing up.”
Neon green ribbons hung from many armed civilians’ clothing, according to Shawn Keenan, a resident of Coeur d’Alene. Keenan’s aunt is Victoria Keenan, whose successful lawsuit brought down the Aryan Nations after she and her son were attacked and shot at by the group’s security guards in 1998.
When Keenan stopped to ask one of the men who donned a neon green ribbon what the accessory symbolized, the man told him it was for members of the Idaho Three Percenters — an unofficial militia group — to identify each other. A Three Percenters bus was also present at several gatherings, Keenan said.
Ron Korn, who leads a militia affiliated with the Three Percenters and was present at Coeur d’Alene and Sandpoint, said that the gathering of militia members came together spontaneously.
“It was so unorganized, it was pathetic,” Korn said. “It was a huge wake up call for myself and other people that are involved in the militias that … we need more training and we need to be more proactive and have some pre-planning set up in the event that something like this ever happens again.”
On July 4, the city’s decision to cancel the annual parade due to COVID-19 was met with a new parade, of sorts. A line of vehicles, some carrying men in fatigues, armed with AR-style semi-automatic rifles and waving Confederate flags, proceeded down Sherman Avenue and Northwest Boulevard.
Idaho law states, “[n]o body of men, other than the regularly organized national guard, the unorganized militia when called into service of the state, or of the United States … shall associate themselves together as a military company or organization, or parade in public with firearms in any city or town of this state.”
Fifty miles north, in Sandpoint, Black Lives Matter protests were met with similar crowds.
On June 2, County Commissioner Dan McDonald wrote in a public Facebook post, “We are hearing through other sources of protesters coming to the County Building at 3:00 PM today. Any verification? It would be great to have some of the Bonner County folks come out to help counter anything that might get out of hand.”
That afternoon, as a group of high school students marched across the town’s Long Bridge, they were flanked by a large group of heavily armed civilians.
“Some of them were very heavily armed, in camo gear and AR-15s with multiple clips,” said Sandpoint Mayor Shelby Rognstad. “They looked like they just came off the streets of Afghanistan.”
Sam Crossett, a college student, was taking out the trash at the restaurant where she works when she saw them.
“Some of them were friendly and wanted to take pictures, and then some of them would harass the people marching, calling them n-slur lovers and screaming at them,” she said.
Among the student protesters was Sage Saccomanno. At a Sandpoint City Council meeting on July 15, she reported that the armed cadre screamed expletives at students, flipped them off, and rolled coal on them — a practice in which diesel engines are made to expel large quantities of exhaust fumes.
Saccomanno said that a fellow protester — a 17-year-old girl— was told by a middle-aged man that she deserved to be raped for protesting.
“These individuals said they were merely protecting us, when, in fact, they were threatening me and my friends that they would use their weapons if we got out of line at all,” Saccomanno said in her speech.
Michael Waldrup, a lawyer and resident of Sandpoint since 1977, reported similar harassment to the Sandpoint City Council at a meeting on July 1, where he spoke on behalf of young people who asked him to represent them. In an interview with the Statesman, Waldrup said his legal assistant was told to “go live in Compton,” one young person at the march was called the n-word and another called a “n*****-lover” by people in the armed group.
“I was appalled. I mean, I’m a gun owner, and I support the Second Amendment,” Waldrup said. “I think their entire purpose was to harass people who support Black Lives Matter. They were racially motivated, and for them to say otherwise is disingenuous and simply not the truth.”
Like many Sandpoint residents we spoke to, Sam Crossett said she felt McDonald had summoned the armed men. McDonald denied that in an interview, and said he stood by his Facebook posts. On Facebook, he openly “likes” various militia groups — two Oath Keeper pages and four pages associated with the Three Percenters and the Idaho Light Foot Militia.
In interviews, armed attendees of the protests claimed their intent was not to intimidate.
Steve Wasylko, the owner of a firearms training institute who was one of the armed people in downtown Sandpoint, said that he didn’t “necessarily agree that people were intimidated.”
“For the most part, we literally had people all night long in Sandpoint and in Coeur d’Alene, people driving by, honking, waving, saying thank you so much for being out here,” he said.
For Collin Beggs, a Sandpoint resident who owns a timber frame carpentry business, the presence of armed residents at the march in Sandpoint was startling.
“I have lots of guns, and I grew up around lots of guns. And I have never in my life seen armed groups taking over city streets,” Beggs said. “To me, this is not normal, and trying to normalize it leads to the city where law and order have fundamentally eroded.”
Coeur d’Alene Police Chief Lee White and Bonner County Sheriff Daryl Wheeler did not respond to the Statesman’s questions. Sandpoint Police Chief Corey Coon did not respond to requests for comment, nor did Kootenai County Sheriff Ben Wolfinger.
BEGINNINGS OF A MOVEMENT
Decades before Black Lives Matter came to the Idaho panhandle, Randy Weaver and his family members stood off against federal agents in an 11-day siege at Ruby Ridge, located just one county north of Bonner. By the end of the standoff, three people were dead.
Beginning in the mid-1990s with a hostility toward the federal government and a focus on conspiracy theories and firearms, the militia movement advanced the idea that independent cadres should take up arms to ensure the federal government does not intrude on the lives of private citizens, explained Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism.
In the four weeks following the killing of George Floyd, there were 136 incidents of paramilitary groups attending protests, harassing, or threatening protesters, according to a report by Political Research Associates and the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights.
Militia groups have been present at protests for racial justice in the past. In 2015, members of the Oath Keepers patrolled rooftops in Ferguson during protests that began on the one-year anniversary of the police killing of Michael Brown.
Many militia groups have found footing in North Idaho, a region where open carry laws and anti-government sentiment have attracted waves of political relocation, seen in the Blue Migration of the 1990s and, more recently, in the American Redoubt Movement.
“The right can never get those kinds of numbers we’ve seen at George Floyd protests out in the streets,” said Jason Wilson, a researcher and reporter who studies right-wing extremism. “Except in places like Coeur d’Alene.”
Armed on the streets in Sandpoint were affiliates of the Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters, the Bonner County Bee reported. In Coeur D’Alene, local groups like the Idaho Lightfoot Militia showed up alongside civilians wearing Three Percenter apparel, independent armed residents and some people who appeared to be affiliated with the Boogaloo movement, a new iteration of the militia movement marked by their Hawaiian-style shirts.
The Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters are two core components of the modern militia movement, which experienced a resurgence in 2008 and 2009 with the advent of the groups.
The Three Percenters, created in 2008, are named for the disputed claim that only 3% of the population of the United States took up arms to fight the British during the American Revolution. They see themselves as the modern version of those who fought tyranny, Pitcavage said. The Oath Keepers, created in 2009, have a similar ideology, but they recruit current and former police, military members and first responders.
While the Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters have chapters and organized groups throughout the United States, some people subscribe to the ideology of those groups without actually being members of them.
“3% is almost more of a mindset than an actual group,” said Wasylko, who said that he agrees with many of the philosophies of the Three Percenters and the Oath Keepers, though he is not an active member of any group.
McDonald said the Three Percenter groups in North Idaho focus more on survival skills.
“They’re more about sustainable living, more about being able to garden and grow your own food and how to get your own water and how to live off the land,” McDonald said. “And certainly firearms are part of that.”
Korn, of the Seven Bravo 3% Militia, said that the goal of his militia is defense.
“If there’s a group of people, I don’t care what that group is, if it’s a Black group, or a sexual group, or a political group that wants to do harm against our country… then we’re prepared to defend it against those people,” Korn said.
Experts at the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League classify the Three Percenters and Oath Keepers as extremist groups, a label both McDonald and Korn say is subjective. Nationwide, Three Percenters have a track record of activity ranging from weapons violations to terrorist plots and attacks, according to the ADL.
“I guess the problem is that your extreme and my extreme may be completely different,” McDonald said.
‘UNDER THE SMOKESCREEN’
Many armed civilians insist racism played no part in their assembly. JJ MacNab, a fellow at the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, said members of the Three Percenters and the Oath Keepers are not uniformly white supremacists. But, she said, the movement is rooted in white supremacy.
“The militia world started in white supremacy 25 years ago, and they’ve had a hell of a time trying to separate themselves from that for the last 20 years,” MacNab said. “It’s frustrating to them that they are labeled white supremacists, but at the same time, there’s a lot of bigotry.”
Though the militia movement has deep anti-government roots, they warmed to the federal government after Donald Trump, the first major-party nominee that the militia movement had ever supported, was elected. The Oath Keepers “kind of consider themselves to be Trump’s backup militia,” MacNab said.
After 2016, militia groups found new enemies. Anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiments proliferated, and many looked to oppose state-level gun laws, Pitcavage said. When the COVID-19 pandemic started, militia groups also looked to oppose state-level lockdowns
It is difficult to ascribe a particular ideology to individuals who have a bumper sticker or a hat with an Oath Keeper or Three Percenter logo, said Rognstad, Sandpoint’s mayor.
“These philosophies and ideologies provide great cover for white nationalism to be active and to have a platform for organization and action under the smokescreen of either anti-government movements or Second Amendment activism,” Rognstad said.
Korn, the militia leader, emphatically denied white supremacy played a part in the militia movement. He said there was “zero” racism in his militia, the Seven Bravo 3%.
“We haven’t burned a cross for years,” he said.
A moment of silence later, he added, “I’m joking.”
‘A PAT ON THE BACK’
When Rebecca Schroeder reported the increase in death threats — she estimates she’s blocked 1,000 people on Facebook in the past month — to the police department and to various levels of leadership in the city, she received no offer of protection.
“I needed to get the hell out of town,” she said. “There wasn’t anyone in local leadership who was going to hold these folks accountable.”
Residents of Coeur d’Alene and Sandpoint who have felt threatened or intimidated by the gun-bearing civilians echoed Schroeder’s sentiment: Some local elected leaders and law enforcement officials appeared to condone, and at times even encourage, the armed patrols.
In a letter issued June 5, Coeur d’Alene Mayor Widmyer and all six members of the City Council acknowledged the intense week of armed patrols, saying, “We realize that to some citizens the sight of heavily armed individuals is unnerving, yet to others it is reassuring.”
Multiple residents interviewed for this article said they felt this letter signaled city leaders’ approval of the armed residents’ and militia members’ behavior.
“I can’t believe the council and the mayor would endorse this type of activity downtown,” said Dennis Brueggeman, who has lived on-and-off in Coeur d’Alene since 2002. “It’s like the old West in the 1880s — we’ll make everyone a deputy.”
Tenneson, a precinct chairwoman for the Kootenai County Democrats, said rather than upholding the laws in Idaho to prevent a militia presence, “they essentially gave them a pat on the back.”
The Idaho Constitution and several statues in Idaho law prohibit military units that act outside state authority.
Some Coeur d’Alene and Sandpoint residents fear for the region’s fragile reputation, still recovering from the days of the Aryan Nations. They worry the unfettered presence of armed men downtown will dissuade families from visiting, shattering the lakeside towns’ tourism economies.
In June, Pete Powell, a retired Washington state paratrooper who used to live near Coeur D’Alene, expressed concern that local leaders’ failure to take action against the armed presence could let the town’s history return. He wrote to Widmyer and the police department.
“Lord only knows how many people saw this and believe CDA is a redneck, white supremes [sic] town crawling with these armed militias,” he wrote. “It makes me sick to see these morons strutting around your beautiful city, armed to the teeth, bringing back memories of the (Aryan Nations founder) Reverend (Richard) Butler and his gang of thugs terrorizing North Idaho.”
Powell got a response from councilmember Christie Wood, chairwoman of the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations, the organization which brought down the Aryan Nations with Victoria Keenan in the 1998 civil suit. Wood agreed with Powell that the email portrayed the city in a bad light, but wrote she was “convinced the people who chose to arm themselves are not white nationalists.”
“While it was not the best situation for a city, we are confident their intentions were mostly good,” she wrote.
In an email to the Statesman, Wood wrote that she sees a big difference between the groups that gathered at protests and the white supremacist groups that once paraded through Coeur d’Alene.
“White Nationalist [sic] are unfortunately loud and proud. They fly the Aryan flag and shout ‘white power.’ The groups that gathered in the downtown area did not behave this way. If there were individuals doing this we have yet to hear about it,” Wood wrote.
‘SECOND AMENDMENT MYTHOLOGY’
Local leaders in Sandpoint and Coeur D’Alene have attempted to toe the line between protecting protesters’ First Amendment rights and armed civilians’ Second Amendment rights. Some residents and legal experts say this response is legally misguided.
The Coeur d’Alene press release penned by the mayor and City Council said the city could not curtail what they saw as civilians’ constitutional rights. “Government must always remain content neutral and not pick and choose whose rights to protect,” they wrote.
But several Sandpoint and Coeur D’Alene residents interpreted the armed civilians’ activity as a direct affront to their own First Amendment right to protest. Rognstad, the mayor of Sandpoint, said that his experience marching alongside the protesters showed him how easily the presence of armed people could curtail First Amendment rights.
“There was a group of armed men that were there in front of the group. And I could just see these kids stop in their tracks and start to turn around, and just feeling clearly intimidated to move forward and continue with their march,” Rognstad said.
When one side has guns, civil dialogues can’t take place, said Beggs.
“You can’t have a discussion with someone who’s fully armed. They’ve already made a huge decision and are making life or death judgment calls the moment they pick up that gun,” he said.
While statements from city leaders suggested there was no legal recourse to prevent the weapon-bearing patrols downtown, residents who believed otherwise, and who were frustrated by local governments’ claims of legal impotence, sought advice from the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown Law School, led by legal director Mary McCord.
After the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, the institute filed a successful lawsuit which resulted in militias being banned from the city.
The center sent letters to the mayors of Sandpoint and Coeur D’Alene, outlining restrictions on Second Amendment rights and paramilitary activity found in Idaho Title 46, similar to those cited in the Charlottesville case.
“There’s an area of Second Amendment mythology out there in which elected officials, citizens, even law enforcement have a notion that because of the Second Amendment, in an open-carry state, it is perfectly fine for people to gather together as an armed militia exercising Second Amendment rights,” McCord said. “And that’s just not true.”
Legal precedents support McCord’s case. In Idaho, it’s illegal for paramilitary organizations to organize and train without oversight from government authorities and permission to assemble from the governor, the attorney general ruled in 1995. In 2008, the Supreme Court reaffirmed a decision from the 1800s which said Second Amendment rights are not violated by states’ decision to ban paramilitary organizations.
Though many locals hoped their city would accept the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection’s assistance, leaders have yet to take legal action related to the armed civilians.
Rognstad said that the city did not have enough to warrant a case. He also hoped to maintain harmony.
“It’s just as important to sort of keep the peace and to try and keep everybody civil as it is to protect and enforce the law,’ Rognstad said.
A SHIFTING TARGET
In 2001, after a long legal fight, the Aryan Nations compound in Hayden was bulldozed, its guard tower and church burned in training exercises by the local fire department. In those decades, extremism in the panhandle took a more concrete, visible form. The Aryan Nations’ bigoted ideology, too, was in many ways easier to see.
Take the building down, and you took the wind from the hateful movement’s sails, Schroeder explained.
“It was maybe easier back when it was the Aryan Nations that we were opposing as extremists,” she said. “We could say outright like, ‘OK, neo-Nazi: bad, white supremacist: bad.’”
Some, like Tony Stewart, secretary of the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations, say that there’s no comparison between the years when Butler and the Aryan Nations were active and now.
“Comparing that with now is like apples and oranges,” Stewart said.
But for Shawn Keenan, who was in his early 20s when his aunt and cousin were attacked, the armed groups demonstrate that the ideology of the Aryan Nations never really went away.
“It’s the same mentality, the same philosophy. It’s just mainstreamed and repackaged,” Keenan said.
Keenan is among a small group of activists in Coeur d’Alene engaging in what he characterized as a “fight for the soul of our city.” Since the lawsuit, Keenan said, his family has tried to keep a low profile and he has worked behind the scenes.
He noted that speaking out might put a target on his back.
“I feel alien in my hometown. I don’t feel safe or protected here at all. I don’t know how many times I thought over the last month about moving,” he said. “It feels like an incredible uphill battle to be fought. But I grew up here. This is my hometown. I’m digging my heels in.”
As of now, it’s unclear whether militia groups will find their footing within Idaho politics and culture, said Norm Gissel, one of the attorneys who helped take down the Aryan Nations.
“This had nothing to do with the safety of downtown Coeur d’Alene, but it had a lot to do with their attempts to find a politically and socially prominent place in Idaho culture. And whether that’s going to be acceptable or not, time will tell,” Gissel said.
Schroeder says combating right-wing extremism in North Idaho could be like firing at a shifting target.
“Because it’s hidden under this guise of ‘patriotism,’ and it kind of co-opted that word and that identity, it’s much more difficult to single out and oppose those folks,” Schroeder said.
For Brueggeman, who previously hoped to retire in Coeur d’Alene, the recent trend toward open right-wing extremism has also become untenable. After events this summer, he no longer wants his granddaughter to visit. He plans to sell his house and leave town for good as soon as possible.
“I’m not giving up on Coeur d’Alene,” he said. “I just wish they would take a good, hard look at what’s happening and evolving here, because if we don’t get control of this, it could get out of hand, as it has before.”
Like Brueggeman, Schroeder will watch from afar as the residents and leaders who remain in Coeur d’Alene confront the extremism which has divided the town so bitterly. Now and then, as she prepares to sell her house, she quietly returns to mow her lawn, lest it become overgrown.