Militias in Michigan: A troubling presence dating back decades

Michigan has been home to militias since before it became a state

'Militias' in Michigan: A troubling presence dating back decades
'Militias' in Michigan: A troubling presence dating back decades

MUNITH, Mich. – Militias have been in Michigan for nearly 200 years and even took part in the conflict over the Toledo Strip before Michigan gained its statehood.

The most well known militia, the paramilitary group Michigan Militia, first took root in the state in 1994, motivated by the standoff with federal agents at Ruby Ridge in 1992 and Waco in 1993.

At its height, the group claimed to have thousands of members, but it’s unclear how many still have ties to the group.

The Michigan Militia was first brought to the spotlight after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. The attack killed 168 people. Victims ranged in age from three months to 73 years and included three pregnant women. To this day, it remains the deadliest act of domestic terrorism in U.S. history.

Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, the men who carried out the attack on the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, were said to have attended Michigan Militia meetings. Nichols was born in Lapeer and attended Central Michigan University before dropping out and moving to Colorado.

Dr. JoEllen Vinyard, a retired EMU history professor, studied the Michigan Militia in the late 1990s and into the early 2000s. She said group was believed the Second Amendment was potentially at risk after the Ruby Ridge and Waco sieges.

“They were worried about guns taken away,” Vinyard said. “That was one of their major worries across all the different groups.”

The early meetings of the Michigan Militia were attended by McVeigh and Nichols. Militia founder Norman “Norm” Olson testified before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Terrorism in 1995.

Vinyard said the militia made efforts to cooperate with the governor and improve its image at the time.

Through infighting among leadership and a decline in membership, what was known as the Michigan Militia has since been broken down into many smaller groups with differing views and ideas.

“Michigan has always had a number of extremist groups,” said Andy Arena, the former FBI Detroit director. “Obviously, these groups that are anti-government, they see conspiracies everywhere for whatever reason.”

Why Michigan?

“That’s the $64 million question” Arena said. “When I was the head of the FBI, every known right-wing extremist group had a group of them here in Michigan. Why? We never could figure that out.”

In 2010, the FBI raided and arrested members of the Hutaree militia. The self-proclaimed religious group was accused of planning to murder police officer and ambush the funeral.

Prosecutors argued the group planned to make a false 911 call, kill responding police officers and set off a bomb at the funeral to kill more police and civilians.

In 2012, the case was thrown out and said prosecutors failed to prove their case.

“There was evidence at trial of stockpiling weapons -- including machine guns, 150,000 rounds of ammunition, building bombs, targeting specific police officers and developing a kill list,” said U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade at the time.

April 9, 2013: Hutaree members sue FBI, Michigan State Police

Arena said militia groups have always been a concern for the FBI.

“I think they’ve always been there and I think with the election cycle, the agitated environment that we live in, they’ve actually come back to the forefront,” Arena said.

During the coronavirus pandemic, some groups were seen joining in protests against Gov. Whitmer’s executive orders to protect the state from the virus. White supremacy and Nazi imagery, and people armed with weapons were seen at the state capitol.

May 2, 2020: Michigan militia puts armed protest in the spotlight

Aug. 15, 2020: Right-wing group Proud Boys, counter-protesters clash in Kalamazoo

When a barber violated Whitmer’s order and reopened his business in Owosso, militia members showed up in support.

Arena said this is a critical time ahead.

“I think that law enforcement -- the FBI, federal, state, local law enforcement -- this is on their radar,” Arena said. “This has got to be the number one issue they’re dealing with right now across the country.”

In late October, 2020, Michigan State Police arrested the leader of The Base -- a neo-Nazi white supremacist group that police said ran a “hate camp” in Michigan for members to train to violently overthrow the government.

MSP and FBI’s Detroit Terrorism Task Force executed an arrest warrant in Taylor Oct. 29, 2020 and took Justen Watkins and Alfred Gorman into custody.

Police said the group aims to set up a neo-Nazi white society in the Pacific Northwest or Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

The Justice Department calls The Base a “violent extremist group.”

In February, 2021, Michigan State Police said The Base was planning to establish a heavily armed, white nationalist community in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Feb. 24, 2021: Neo-Nazis reportedly planned fortified, white nationalist compound in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula

Watkins reportedly claimed he was going to purchase and occupy land in the U.P., and planned to establish a community of like-minded extremists. He had allegedly made it clear he was looking for “committed, militant neo-Nazis intent on paramilitary training for the so-called race war” to join him.


About the Authors:

Jason anchors Local 4's 5:30 p.m. newscast. He joined WDIV in January 2015 as a general assignment reporter and has a Journalism degree from Michigan State University.

Dane is a producer and media enthusiast. He previously worked freelance video production and writing jobs in Michigan, Georgia and Massachusetts. Dane graduated from the Specs Howard School of Media Arts.