Bob Gardner packed up his military gear and firearms on the Fourth of July and headed south to Gettysburg for a battle.
The commanding officer of the PA Light Foot Militia would join hundreds of his brothers in militias from across Pennsylvania to protect the hallowed ground from what appeared to be a group threatening to burn a U.S. flag and desecrate confederate monuments at the national park.
Groups such as Gardner’s call themselves constitutional militia, saying they defend the rights of others. In Pennsylvania, 28 militia organizations are listed on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s list of anti-government groups.
Since their birth in the mid-1990s, they have primarily stayed hidden, but this year, they’re out – fully armed – to patrol Black Lives Matter rallies, claiming to provide protection from counter protesters. They’ve also made themselves visible at state capital demonstrations, demanding the reopening of businesses during the pandemic.
But their greatest show of force this year has been in Gettysburg.
Responding to a July 4 hoax
Hundreds of male-dominated militia groups joined Gardner’s to patrol the battlefields. The Pennsylvania State Militia and Ohio Militiamen joined “preppers,” such as the PA III%ers, to roam fully armed, some dressed in paramilitary gear and ammo straps.
The threat to desecrate monuments and burn the flag was a hoax, but something else happened that day that offers a glimpse into the militia movement.
As Trent Somes, a 22-year-old white man, walked out of the National Cemetery, he was quickly surrounded by at least 50 men and women yelling profanities at him because he was wearing a Black Lives Matter T-shirt, he said.
Somes videotaped what happened next. No one rose to his defense, even though some were decked out in paramilitary gear and most were clearly armed. One man can be heard on the tape saying, “Leave him alone,” but the barrage of insults continued.
Gardner said he was there, helping to de-escalate the verbal assault, but Somes, a seminary student, said no one came to his rescue until law enforcement appeared.
That doesn’t surprise Mark Pitcavage. He’s the senior research fellow for the Anti-Defamation League Center of Extremism.
“They often … will claim the reason they are doing a particular thing or at a particular place is to be there as back-up for law enforcement, to generally keep the peace, to guarantee everybody’s free speech rights. And basically, none of it’s true,” he said. “What they really want to do is, they really want to confront people that are enemies or potential enemies.”
Targets for militia groups now, according to Pitcavage and other experts, are BLM groups, immigrants and Muslims.
Gardner, who leads a statewide militia from his home in Juniata County, north of Harrisburg, admits he leans right politically, but he defends Light Foot’s ideologies.
“Any militia that’s constitutional is down the middle. We’ve gotta hold back our personal thoughts and allow people to have their say,” he said.
But he also believes: “The Second Amendment is probably the most important because it protects all the other amendments and puts the powers in the people’s hands.”
The commanding officer
Growing up in Philadelphia, Gardner wanted to be a cop, like his dad and brother-in-law.
“Because of affirmative action, I didn’t get hired,” he said.
His first weapons were a Glock and an assault rifle, standard pieces for most gun lovers, he said. In his 30s after the Sept. 11 attack, he wanted to enlist in the military, but a back injury kept him out, he said.
“I got interested in becoming a prepper,” he said. Preppers are survivalists who prepare for worst-case scenarios — a disruption or crisis in government or social order – by stocking up on food, supplies, firearms and ammunition. In 2012, he joined the militia movement and rose recently to be named commanding officer.
He’s careful about what he shares publicly and on social media because he fears the consequences of people’s negative perceptions of the militia. One of his guys lost his job as a critical care nurse when his militia membership was outed to his employer, Gardner said.
“We get a bad rap because we carry guns,” he said.
Armed with a petition in January, Gardner visited his local commissioners, asking them to proclaim Juniata County a Second Amendment Sanctuary, hoping to stay protected from federal and state gun restrictions.
“If they did try to infringe on our rights, the county wouldn’t follow through with it,” said Gardner, 52. The commissioners said they had already taken an oath to defend the U.S. Constitution and left it there.
But it’s this anti-government sentiment that keeps militias on watch lists.
The FBI, on its website, describes this: “Militia extremists … believe that the Constitution grants citizens the power to take back the federal government by force or violence if they feel it’s necessary. They oppose gun control efforts and fear the widespread disarming of Americans by the federal government.”
The FBI’s Philadelphia field office refused to comment on whether it tracks militia activity in Pennsylvania, saying this in an email from Carrie Adamowski, public affairs officer: “The FBI’s focus is not on membership in particular groups, but on individuals who commit violence and criminal activity that constitutes a federal crime or poses a threat to national security. … The FBI does not and will not police ideology.”
Representing the militia line, Gardner said: “Guns keep the government in line because they know that the people are on the same footing as them. … We make them think twice, so we don’t have another Hitler or any dictator come in to threaten the ethnic cleansing of people. … The people can rise up at anytime and put in a new government if they’re not happy.”
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The Trump twist
Mark Pitcavage has been studying militia groups since their modern birth in the mid-’90s, after stand-offs with federal agents ended with the deaths of civilians and law enforcement at Ruby Ridge in Idaho and Waco, Texas.
Conspiracy theories arose from those two events, and militias began to form around the idea that the federal government couldn’t be trusted, that it had too much power. In the United States, these are considered unorganized militias, unlike the National Guard and the Naval Militia, which are organized militia, according to the U.S. Militia Act of 1903.
“The militia movement felt they had to form groups like the American Patriots of the Revolution to protect the American citizenry from the federal government and the new world order,” Pitcavage said.
After that initial enrollment, militias eventually quieted down until Barack Obama was elected president, creating a new surge of enrollment and activity because, among other things, he threatened gun restrictions.
The election of Donald Trump, however, took away the militias’ target.
“He was the first major party candidate they had ever supported who got elected,” Pitcavage said. “They were quite jubilant when he won, but … this would have an effect on the militia movement because it couldn’t maintain its level of anger and hate against the federal government when the guy you love is at the head of the federal government.”
So the militia movement found other adversaries: muslims, immigrants, antifa, the Black Lives Matter movement and some state governments.
The Pennsylvania State Militia posted this on its Facebook page last week: “B.L.M. is a Domestic Terrorist Organization and it’s supporters are disgusting human garbage.”
Recently, Michael Grove, the leader of that militia group, based near Scranton, said, “There’s plenty of cases out there of BLM and antifa violating the rights of other people openly. They do have a lot of violent tendencies. But if they’re not violent, there’s no problem at all.”
Also targeted are Democratic governors, including Tom Wolf, who are pushing for stricter gun control and restricting businesses because of the pandemic.
“The militia movement has always been strong in the Midwest. It’s always been strong in Pennsylvania. It has traditionally been strong in Texas,” Pitcavage said. “You can find militia and 3 percenter groups in every area of the country.”
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Preppers and 3 percenters
Skip Shaffer and his wife have two well-stocked pantries, and since the lockdown, a garden and two full freezers.
He founded the PA III% Patriots about six months ago as a prepper group, preparing for something – they don’t know what.
At first, 10 people applied, then another dozen.
“Just as they started locking stuff down (in the pandemic), we saw a huge surge in people come in.” The group claims about 1,200 now.
Shaffer lives just north of Pittsburgh, in Monroeville, and works as a constable in Armstrong County, but while his preppers might want to learn how to sustain their food supply at home, they’re also politically active.
About 10 of them went to Gettysburg on July 4.
“We called law enforcement before we went: We’d like you to know, if the shit hits the fan, we’ll have your backs,” he said. They didn’t openly display their firearms, but they were carrying.
While they’re open to classes on canning tomatoes and survival techniques, they also have outings at gun ranges for basic firearm safety.
Militia groups with similar names to Shaffer’s preppers are: Three Percenters, American Patriots Three Percent, Three Percent Liberty Defenders and the III% United Patriots. The names derive from the “false belief,” according to the Anti-Defamation League, that only 3 percent of the American population fought the British during the Revolutionary War. They believe that it takes only a small group of citizens to resist the United States Army.
Some of those three percenters are considered extremists, anti-government, anti-police organizations, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Shaffer’s group is not on that list.
“They’re unauthorized, armed paramilitary groups with an extremist ideology, and the militia movement has a long history of violence and criminal activity in the United States, including in Pennsylvania,” said Pitcavage.
Militia arrests in PA
In 2008, Bradley Kahle told undercover law enforcement that he planned to shoot black people in downtown Pittsburgh.
He had two AK-47 assault rifles and about 5,000 rounds of ammunition, and law enforcement found homemade grenades and firecrackers on his Troutville property. The 60-year-old man was a Pennsylvania Citizens Militia recruiter, according to the ADL.
Another man, Morgan Jones, 64, of Clarion County, was charged at the same time with illegally selling and transporting firearms. A cannon launcher and homemade flame-thrower were found on his property. He was the captain of the 91st Warriors Militia and a former township emergency management coordinator, according to the ADL. Others were also charged.
And just last month, Paul Nicholas III, 49, of Harrisburg went to prison for eight months for firearms offenses, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Pennsylvania.
In 2018, Nicholas, a previously convicted felon, unlawfully possessed two AR-15 style rifles, a pistol and another rifle at his home. At the time of his arrest, he was the commanding officer of the 41st Battalion of the Light Foot Militia in Central Pennsylvania.
Juniata County is among the most rural areas of Pennsylvania with a population of only 24,700, 97 percent white.
But when Shay Ellis organized a few Black Lives Matter rallies in front of the courthouse, people showed up, small for the first few with some protesting from neighbors and stops by the state police.
On June 6, though, the rally went well. More than 100 people joined.
“It was beautiful,” she said. “The sidewalk was filled with all kinds of different people, from school board members, babies, elderly, disabled, left and right, men and women, The epitome of the American dream standing right there in Juniata County.”
Another rally was planned for July 24, organized this time by Tiara Wolfe, a Juniata County native now living in Lancaster County. Bob Gardner rounded up his Light Foot Militia to patrol because he caught wind there would be counter-protesters.
“We all had our rifles with us, and when we started, we had a safety check. I made sure none of the guys had any rounds chambered in our rifles,” Gardner said.
About 35 people joined the Black Lives Matter side, and another 20 counter protesters circled the block in front of the Juniata County Courthouse, honking horns, then parking their pickups in front of the rally to block them from passersby.
Gardner’s guys walked in front of the courthouse with their firearms, something that just felt unsettling to some of the BLM demonstrators.
“What black person feels safe with white men walking around them carrying rifles?” said Ellis said.
In fact, several people were scheduled to speak that day, but all but one canceled when they saw the militia, intimidated by the weapons, Ellis said The only speaker, a local resident, was drowned out by counter-protesters playing “Born in the U.S.A.” over a loudspeaker.
“If people would have just given up and not given them any attention, they would have had their protest, and it would have been fine,” Gardner said.
But it wasn’t fine.
Counter-protesters moved onto the same sidewalk as the rally, and a shouting match followed. Sheriff’s deputies and militia members ultimately stood between the two sides, and Gardner’s group called the state police.
“You could have cut the racism with a knife,” Wolfe said. “They were shaking with rage at a black man who wasn’t afraid of them.”
Gardner said, “Each side was instigating. Fists started flying out in the streets, and we were trying to break that up.”
Several witnesses agreed that the militia group helped to keep violence from erupting.
“We got thanks from locals. We got thanks from the lefties. We got thanks from the sheriff’s department who said we did a good job,” said Gardner, who is calling his group’s activity that day “Operation Pomeroy.”
Juniata County Sheriff Josh Stimeling would not comment on the event, and two attempts to reach the Pennsylvania State Police were unsuccessful.
Wolfe, who knows that the Light Foot align with the counter-protesters’ belief system more than hers, told Gardner after the rally: “I thank you for being here because, realistically, your guns kept them from killing us.”
Her involvement, though, in that protest and others in Lancaster County, has brought out the wrath of another militia group, the Pennsylvania State Militia. She said her photo was posted on that group’s Facebook page, calling her the Pennsylvania leader of antifa, although it’s not visible now and may have been taken down.
“Mind you, I am a class mom, a housewife, and the mother of three children. I’m a spiritual person. I’ve never hurt anyone,” she said. “They’re threatening my children.”
Kim Strong can be reached at [email protected]