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Ohio militia leaders deny neo-Nazi link

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John Addy saw the many images from the deadly demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia — those that prominently featured camouflage-wearing men in tactical gear carrying military-style weapons while standing guard over the feuding factions — and expected he soon would field some phone calls.

The group was part of the Pennsylvania Light Foot Militia, and its leader, Christian Yingling, told reporters he and his men had gone to Virginia as a neutral party, one there to defend the First Amendment and to provide security if necessary.

 

But it soon became clear that in the public sphere, the paramilitary civilians who have no public authority — no matter what they declared as their purpose — would be lumped in with the white supremacists and neo-Nazis assembled there.

 

And that’s where Addy’s group comes in. The Southern Poverty Law Center labels 52 groups operating in Ohio as extremist anti-government, and the Ohio Minutemen Militia is prominent among them. Addy is its state commander.

 

He said that after Charlottesville, he knew militia organizations would find themselves under increased scrutiny and he expected he would have to answer questions about whether the Ohio Minutemen Militia is a racist, violent organization. Addy, a former Marine from Ross County, said the answer is no.

Critics are quick to counter, however, saying militia groups are from the right-wing fringe and should be considered dangerous.

 

Addy wouldn’t disclose membership numbers, but he said the organization has had a recent fracture in leadership as some members either were kicked out or left to join what Addy called more-antagonistic “activist” militias.

 

The Minutemen, Addy said, sent no one to Virginia and would not show up at such demonstrations if they happened in Ohio.

“We don’t tolerate hate,” he said.

 
Robert Cross, who founded the Ohio Minutemen Militia in 2003, said they are patriots. He said other groups — often are racist, anti-Semitic and violent — hijack the “militia” label and color the movement.

“That’s not what we’re about,” said Cross, who lives in Oak Harbor in northern Ohio. He said his members are skilled outdoorsmen who teach and learn search and rescue, survival and weapons skills, gardening and canning, and like to camp. “We are about the safety and security of our community, our families, our state and our country.”

 

That gardening and camping description made Mark Pitcavage, an Anti-Defamation League researcher in the Columbus area and an expert on anti-government extremism, laugh aloud. He said militia members can say what they want publicly about their missions, but their actions say otherwise.

“Campers don’t usually do sniper training and live-fire training,” he said. “These groups are not armed in training because they are worried about mosquitoes.”

 

Pitcavage said a blanket white supremacist label for militias would be unfair, though the ideologies somewhat overlapped when the movement took hold in the 1990s. Instead, he said, the core of the militia movement has always been anti-government conspiracies.

 

“Its foundation is built on the belief that the rest of the world has been taken over by a tyrannical government known as the New World Order, and that our own government is trying to defeat us, starting with trying to strip us of our right to bear arms so that we won’t be able to defend ourselves,” he said. “By and large, the militia movement is not white supremacy. But that doesn’t mean it’s better. It still is dangerous, right-wing extremism.”

 

Pitcavage said the election of President Donald Trump threw the movement into chaos because the federal government had always been considered the enemy. Trump, however, embraced some of their rhetoric. He was seen as an outsider, anti-establishment himself, and the militias supported him. 

 
“They needed a new worthy adversary,” he said. And so the militia groups — he particularly mentioned the Oath Keepers and the Three Percent Militia, both of which have an active Ohio presence — have zeroed in on antifa.
 

That word, a contraction for anti-fascists, has emerged as an umbrella term for a far-left-leaning militant group that shows up to counter neo-Nazis, white supremacists and white nationalists at events and rallies. Counterprotesters were out in force in Charlottesville. One of them, Heather Heyer, was killed when a car driven by a white supremacist from Ohio plowed into the crowd.

 

The head-to-head violence between those groups, Pitcavage said, allows militia to present themselves as a neutral party when they are anything but.

 

The militia, he said, can show up and say, “We’re here to protect free speech. We’re here to provide security. But it’s really a way they feel they can confront the antifa without being associated with white supremacy.”

 

It’s a transparent argument, he said. “You don’t see the militia showing up at left-leaning events to protect free speech.”

 

Pitcavage said most militias have always been “the fringe of the fringe,” but what is happening now is uncharted territory.

 

For his part, Cross said he and the Minutemen will keep doing what they do.

 
“I am the moral voice of the organization,” he said. “We are about educating the general public to not be sheep.”

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