The January assault on the U.S. Capitol was carried out by hundreds of people — some of whom were in paramilitary organizations or private militias.
Dozens of the MAGA rioters traveled from Texas, a state that has anti-militia laws on the books. Despite this, critics argue the state hasn’t done enough to reign in the heavily armed groups.
As pandemic restrictions increased on businesses, Black Lives Matter protests spread in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. The two proved fertile ground for anti-government and BLM counter protests across the state.
“And if the police are going to call in reinforcements … I’m gonna call in reinforcements,” said CJ Grisham in a video message to his followers. Grisham, a pro-gun activist turned anti-COVID-19 closure zealot, was asking the heavily armed supporters to converge in small town Texas last May to face off with police over pandemic closures.
That same month in San Antonio, members of the “This is Texas Freedom Force” — labeled an “extremist militia” by the FBI— surrounded the Alamo Cenotaph during a Black Lives Matter protest. They gathered to “protect” the cenotaph, saying police had failed when the monument was defaced with graffiti.
Members were heavily armed, and at one point, they pointed weapons at BLM protesters.
The Texas Freedom Force has denied it is a militia or paramilitary organization.
Regardless, incidents where paramilitary and militia groups showed up at election, related or racial justice events in Texas and across the country increased.
“Armed militias — either purporting to protect property, engage in security functions, law enforcement functions, arming in opposition to policies — are not protected and not lawful in Texas,” said Mary McCord, executive director of the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown Law.
These groups were emboldened by a Trump presidency, she said, and many of these incidents could be illegal.
Texas is one of 29 states with anti-militia statutes. And the Texas Constitution says the only militia is the one summoned by the governor:
Tex. Government Code § 437.208(a).22: “a body of persons other than the regularly organized Texas military forces, the armed forces of the United States, or the active militia of another state” from “associat[ing] as a military company or organization or parad[ing] in public with firearms in a municipality of the state.” reads just one of a handful of laws targeting the illicit behavior.
Despite this, there are more than a dozen so-called militias in Texas listed on websites dedicated to far right-wing organizations.
And they are recruiting.
They are setting up training like one on May 1 near a small Texas that says it will train in guerilla tactics, ambush and anti ambush and more to protect its members from what it calls the senile traitor Joe Biden and the liberal socialist leftists.
“That’s the rallying cry,” she said. “This is the type of training for insurrection-like activity that is a threat to the public and a threat to legitimate government in Texas and elsewhere.”
Texas has a history of using these statutes to battle militias. In 1981, a group of Vietnamese fishermen sued the KKK, which, they said, conducted a campaign of fear against them.
But despite these deep roots and the fact that the Texas Department of Public Safety regularly lists militias and anti government activists as domestic terror threats, McCord said law enforcement across the state need to do more.
“I don’t think they’re doing enough at all,” she said. “I haven’t seen really any efforts to crack down on the organizations projecting authority over others and getting in armed confrontations with people.“
She wrote to Gov. Greg Abbott offering insights on how to best use current statutes and suggestions like a domestic terror law that would give clearer guidance to law enforcement who often stand by.
“I mean, you have a first assembly right, First Amendment assembly right, Second Amendment, possession and carry right. And a First Amendment speech right if you just start calling yourself, you know, ‘militia’,” said Republican Rep. James White.
White is author of the sole bill dealing with militias this legislative session. It’s a bill that updates current code around the state’s militia.
He said while he is concerned about anyone who breaks the law, concern around these groups weren’t a topic of conversation this session.
“I don’t know if that’s operating as a private militia. … It’s a bunch of guys and gals, maybe, right. You may say, ‘Hey, we’re the militia. Okay.’ But I don’t know if they’re operating as a private militia,” he said.
McCord said officials who just throw their hands up in defeat thinking there isn’t more they can do are wrong.
“The First Amendment doesn’t protect violence, doesn’t protect threats of imminent violence or imminent lawlessness. The Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to bear arms. But it doesn’t protect group militia activity, so none of this is constitutionally protected,” she said.
In the interim, McCord says her organization — who helped businesses in Charlottesville sue the Unite the Right rally organizers — wants police, and local governments to know they are here to help.