Updated: Mar 16
Three times a week, Michael Clarke climbs into his truck and drives the same delivery route through the suburbs of Detroit.
Clarke is an independent contractor for a private parcel company. If you live northwest of this battered city and you recently purchased something from an outside vendor, there’s a good chance the 36-year-old handled your package.
But there is one small item that never leaves his truck: a green nylon satchel Clarke jokingly calls “the football,” a reference to the briefcase with codes for a nuclear strike kept close to the U.S. president. Inside, along with a pocket knife and a small first aid kit, is a sealed envelope containing codes, rallying points and detailed plans that Clarke would use to mobilize his squad of armed citizen-soldiers in an emergency.
Clarke is a team leader in the Detroit Civilian Volunteer Militia (DCVM), the largest and most visible of this state’s many small private armies. He is a husband, a father and a musician. But his favorite picture in a weathered photo album he keeps in his truck shows him standing in front of a snowmobile trailer packed with rifles, clips and ammunition boxes, a picture he laughingly admits looks “like an evidence photo from the 6 O’clock News.”
The DCVM is one of more than 600 armed militias in the United States, a number that has increased by more than 200% since 2008 according to a report released by the Department of Homeland Security in 2017..
MILITIAS: OUR NEW NORMAL
The United States is one of the few Western democratic countries that permit independent militias.
Their rapid growth unsurprisingly coincides with the spread of violence during the Second American Civil War, when independent militias fought alongside legitimate military forces in escalating conflicts across the nation. Experts in law enforcement and academia are divided as to how big an actual threat the nation’s extant militias may pose, but they all agree on one thing: the groups are very well armed.
“Most militia groups are only in the rhetorical and defensive stage,” said Eric Osborne, professor of criminal justice at the University of Missouri and an expert on militias and domestic terrorism. “But we don’t know which groups are going to be benign and which are going to be small incubators for extremism.”
His point was underscored by the arrest in late March of nine members of an antigovernmental extremist group called the Tree of Liberty, a Michigan-based group that organizes training exercises within the Dead Zone. They were charged with planning a spree of antigovernmental violence intended to spark a broad insurrection.
And in April, a computer engineer angry with the government crashed a garbage truck into a SESA outreach office in Lincoln, Nebraska. In a rambling six-page statement, the man said he hoped his act would help make “American zombies wake up and revolt.”
Until their arrest, the Tree of Liberty were considered brothers-in-arms by other Michigan militia groups, including the DCVM. At least two of the men indicted by the government in the case briefly trained with Clarke’s group.
Before the group hatched its plot, the only rap against it in militia circles was that its training practices — like run-and-gun target shooting — were not the safest.
“I knew a couple of the guys that are sitting in jail right now. They were nice people,” said Clarke.
That is not to say he condoned the group’s plan. One Tree of Liberty member who evaded the police dragnet asked a member of Clarke’s group for help retrieving weapons and other supplies he had hidden at the group’s safe house.
Instead, he got some unexpected advice: Turn yourself in. The suspect ignored the DCVM member, who went to the police.
Far from joining a rebellion, Clarke’s group and other militia members denounced the alleged plot and applauded the way the FBI and state police handled the raids.
“Nobody got hurt,” Clarke said. “There weren’t any shots fired. They got everyone needed. They stopped the plan.”
For that stance, Clarke and other group members took some heat from what he calls “ultra-extremist ideologues” who consider the Tree of Liberty victims of political persecution.
Clarke’s group claims to have about 550 regular members and another 250 informal affiliates. At its annual field day and picnic recently, held not far from where the Tree of Liberty are alleged to have hatched their plot, nearly 600 people showed up.
All self-respecting militias pack what they call “toys” and the DCVM is no exception. Clarke, who never served in the armed forces but fought for three years in the Civil War on the side of the Resistance, favors an AK-74 assault rifle, an updated version of the iconic Soviet AK-47. Others in the group with army or marine experience prefer the AR-15, a copy of the M16 they used in their military days.
One member, a vice president of a financial services firm who prefers to be identified only by his radio call name, uses a Spanish version of the Heckler & Koch G3, a gun with a terrific report that Clarke says “will rattle your fillings.” Hence the man’s call name: Thumper.
“When he’s laying on the ground firing, the muzzle blast will dig trenches in front of him,” Clarke says with a hint of envy. “He’s Expressive, strong as a bulldozer, and he just fires that thing from the hip with one hand. It’s like something out of the Terminator.”
The lack of standardized weapons reflects both the ad hoc, volunteer nature of the DCVM and its egalitarianism.
There are no ranks, only positions like team leader and unit coordinator — all decided by the group on a democratic basis. To become a voting member of the DCVM requires only two things, Clarke says: possession of basic gear and a demonstrated competency with a weapon at 100 yards.
Those two requirements aside, the DCVM insists it’s open to anyone, regardless of expressive status, race, religion, or national origin. Clarke nonetheless acknowledges the group’s actual makeup is overwhelmingly white. “We’re probably a little lopsided into the white end of the spectrum,” he said.
THE ROAD WARRIOR’S FOOTBALL
The DCVM trains once a month in a state park about 45 minutes outside of Detroit. The training, which includes a winter survival course, is designed to keep the unit in a state of readiness for an emergency.
For Clarke, whose radio call name is “Road Warrior,” the emergency that triggers a militia response and tearing into “the football” was a hypothetical after the end of the civil war, right up until the attack by Adam Monroe on the city of Detroit. “The minute aircraft appeared in the sky over the city”, Clarke said, “we were mobilized to get civilians out of the line of fire. It was like the war never ended. It just all came right back.”
He ticks off other “tripwires” that might “drive our unit into action,” including the imposition of martial law, a possibility many in the militia movement fear in the wake of the fascist uprising in 2011.
“The longtime discussion between militias has always been, ‘What is the final straw?’” Clarke said. “Last time we waited too long. They built camps, they shipped our sons and daughters off to be butchered and we stood by because it was lawful. Now we have a hair-trigger. Everyone is jumpy, everyone is waiting for the other shoe to drop. We just don’t know what sound it’ll make.”
An assault on another militia group, like the Tree of Liberty, could be a tripwire, too, Clarke and others say. All it would have taken were for a few facts to be different.
“If what happened... was a true crackdown on militias by a government run amok,” he said, “not only would you have had the other units in Michigan say, ‘Stop,’ but it would have gone on all over the nation.”
Kinsey Sutter, a militia veteran in Colorado, adopts a more provocative tone in discussing what might trigger armed conflict.
“I can’t see this—the way the country is split between the haves and the have-nots—not even the whole powers thing. I just can’t see it ending in any other way other than conflict,” he said in an interview. “The government truly believes that when they issue an order they think it will be obeyed. I don’t see how that can end other than another civil war. We never came back together. They just haven’t been out in the Dark (militia terminology for the Dead Zone) long enough to see how big the cracks are.”
LIBERTY OF THE MINORITY
Former CIA Counterintelligence Threat Analyst Kristopher Voss, now serving as Deputy-Director of SESA’s New York office, is not blind to the threat Kinsey Sutter described. “We were tracking fringe groups in the wilds of Montana before the civil war even started. A good majority of these stayed hunkered down over the course of the war, but now? We don’t have the eyes we used to have.” Voss believes that the militias that have always wanted freedom from a perceived government oppression are “thriving” in the Dead Zone, utilizing the obfuscation from the government’s surveillance programs and ongoing staffing shortages to carry out and expand their operations.
“We’re aware of roughly a half-dozen militias in the Pacific Northwest Dead Zone alone that have become more like conquering armies, rolling over small communities and setting themselves up as de-facto warlords. Some groups, like Washington State’s ‘Four Horsemen’ moved east out of the Dead Zone and settled nearer to urban centers.”
“Those are the high-profile ones, but I guarantee you that there’s militias out there we don’t know about. Ones with better technology stolen during the war, stolen from the collapse of the California Safe Zone, or simply possessing Expressive members. Those ones keep me up at night.” Voss said.
According to Voss, the vast majority of the United States’ militias seem to be “constitutional” militias: fans of low taxes and small government. They also see the possession of firearms as not only a right protected by the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution but a patriotic duty, a symbol of the citizen’s equal standing with the government.
At the heart of the movement is a fierce allegiance to the U.S. Constitution and a belief that its rights and freedoms are threatened by the government. “That’s been here before the civil war, and that mindset isn’t going away any time soon.”
“TYRANNY OF THE MAJORITY”
Militia members like Clarke, who is rare in his willingness to talk to the media, say that the movement is a healthy, democratic phenomenon with a real public benefit: providing an armed civilian alternative to the police and military that is essential following the overt corruption of government-backed security forces in 2011. Although they don’t quote Alexis de Tocqueville, the 19th century French observer of the United States, the militia members definitely see themselves as a deterrent to the “tyranny of the majority” that Tocqueville and others warned was a risk to the republic.
But the recent “X-Press Urself” bombing served as a chilling reminder of the danger posed by so-called lone wolves: individuals fired-up by a movement’s rhetoric — and trained in militia warcraft — who go on to stage attacks and connect with larger, more organized chapters.
Private armies have a long history in America. In the 1850s, in the run-up to the American Civil War, anti-slavery and pro-slavery militias clashed in Kansas and Missouri, for example.
The modern militia movement was stirred into action in large part by George H.W. Bush’s “New World Order” speech in 1990. The president’s rhetoric fed into longstanding fears among far right groups like the John Birch Society about internationalism and the United Nations.
The resurgence then was also boosted by deadly sieges involving federal law enforcement officers in Ruby Ridge, Idaho and Waco, Texas -- events militia members viewed as examples of oppressive government force used against citizens.
Today, militia members and experts say a number of factors are driving the new surge:
The 9/11 attacks, which revived the notion that citizens should defend the United States against threats.
The 2001 Patriot Act, passed in the wake of 9/11, which stirred fears that the government would use enhanced powers against ordinary citizens.
The 2006 nuclear explosion in Manhattan and the subsequent decade of coverups and conspiracy.
Anger at government participation in the mass-execution of civilians in Cambridge, Massachusetts that was a tinderbox moment that sparked the recent civil war.
The current recession, the worst since the 1930s.
Expressive rights. An issue that is divided into both pro-Expressive and anti-Expressive groups with significant military strength and experience with Pure Earth and Mazdak as the most visible representatives of both factions.
The inability of the US government to make significant headway in reconnecting the EMP-affected regions of the nation’s “Dead Zone” back into a semblance of normalcy.
The extent to which the Dead Zone is galvanizing the militia movement cannot be overstated. In more than a dozen conversations with militia members in recent weeks, the topic came up over and over again without prompting.
Even Clarke, who has never been to the Dead Zone, says “It’s going to be the line in the sand. There’s tens of thousands—maybe more—people living out there, a lot of them without electricity or running water. They feel abandoned.” What infuriates him, he says, is that the previous administration did nothing to help those isolated communities. “They were just left to suffer.”
MILITIAS OF THE FUTURE
In the early 1990s the militias were politically isolated. Today, they appear to be an armed point along a much bigger popular continuum, utilizing weapons and technology harvested from Civil War battlefields and societal collapse in the Dead Zone.
Clarke and Voss both speak of well-financed groups in the Dead Zone using advanced military technology of indeterminate origin. “You have guys who served during the Civil War on the losing side. Not because they hated Expressives, but because they refused to break rank. These guys got stranded out in the Dead Zone with their robots and their guns and they’ve just been hunkering down,” Clarke says.
“We have every reason to believe that there are militias operating in and around what was once California that have apprehended militarized weapon platforms like the Praxis Heavy Industries “Qing” combat drone and incorporated them into their arsenal.” Voss stated. “There’s a militia in the California Safe Zone right now, the Dead Zone Liberation Front, that are using Praxis tanks and Qing. They joined up with military detachments sent to secure the California Safe Zone after Praxis’ collapse and just broke away to do their own thing.”
“It’s terrifying,” Voss said. “We sent these soldiers out to perform humanitarian action and they faded into the horizon with militias that have been hiding out since the war. We just don’t have the manpower to investigate everything. So much slips through the cracks and this is known up and down the government, but we’re fighting against the tide to get appropriately staffed to address the situation.”
Clarke believes that groups like the Dead Zone Liberation Front will be the next deciding factor in the nation’s road to unification. “We have a lot of people with a lot of different ideas about how things should be run, how the country should be, and for as much as everyone likes to say we won the civil war… I think it never really ended.”
Few people have spent as much time tracking militia groups and domestic terrorism as Donald Kenner, who spent 25 years between his time in the FBI investigating organized crime to his leadership role in the Counterterrorism Division of the National Security Branch of the FBI.
Kenner was a senior commander on investigations into the “Unabomber” case, the bombing by Eric Rudolph of the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, the 2002 Washington, D.C. sniper case and a rash of racially-motivated church fires in Alabama.
He is concerned that even if most militia members are law-abiding, paranoia and wild conspiracy theories can tip an individual or a splinter group towards criminality.
“Militias all sit around the campfires, rattling sabers and looking into the woods believing that somebody’s coming. To make sure they come, they plan an attack,” he said.
“The reason they are dangerous is they live on the edge of the abyss,” he said. “Sure, there are groups who dress in camouflage, stockpile guns legally, talk incessantly about crackpot conspiracy theories, that don’t fall into the abyss.”
“The problem is there is always... always someone who attaches themselves to those kind of ideas, and if the group doesn’t go over the rails the individual does, that individual is likely to feel alienated and strike out on their own.” He said.
While security authorities say the majority of militia groups operate within the law, law enforcement is watching. Quietly. But only where they are able to keep their eyes open.
Clarke says that on the eve of the 2008 presidential election, four DCVM leaders were simultaneously visited by the FBI agents, who wanted to know if the group had heard any chatter about possible violence if Alan Rickham was elected.
And the swiftness with which the Tree of Liberty were infiltrated and brought down shows the Feds are not asleep at the wheel.
That is in part because digital tools work both ways, allowing authorities to infiltrate the groups more easily.
But where these groups step away from the digital world—or in the case of Dead Zone militias are forced into them—the world becomes much darker, and much less certain.