Tim Steller

Tim Steller

Mamta Popat / Arizona Daily Star

They are an increasingly common presence at demonstrations around the country, including Arizona.

Groups of uniformed men, carrying radios with long arms slung over their shoulders, looking for all the world like a police or military patrol.

They’re not.

They’re ad hoc groups often calling themselves “militias” who usually say they are at the protest to keep the peace or protect Americans’ rights. I first encountered one group, the so-called Arizona Citizens Militia, three years ago at demonstrations over the arrival of detained Central American youths to a juvenile center in the Santa Catalinas near Oracle.

These armed men dressed in camouflage talked on radios, and roped off an area alongside the road — for a VIP, they told me. It angered me because they had no right to take possession of any public property, no matter how authoritative they looked or acted.

Last weekend, a group of 32 uniformed, armed men showed up in Charlottesville, Virginia, saying they were there to protect people’s rights. On Wednesday, another group stood heavily armed outside City Hall in San Antonio, Texas, while the council met and one of their members spoke inside.

This coming Tuesday, President Trump is holding a rally in Phoenix, and it’s likely thousands of people will protest outside. It will not be surprising if there are more heavily armed men, acting and looking official with uniforms, radios and military-style weapons. They’ve gathered in Phoenix before.

“It would be legal, but legal and sensible are vastly different things,” Pima County Sheriff Mark Napier told me. “It’s the type of help we don’t necessarily need.”

Now, when it comes to misbehaving at demonstrations, the “militia” members have a better record so far than the left-wing troublemakers known as “Antifa,” for anti-fascist. These people descend from the old black bloc anarchists who liked to smash store windows in cities where big events were occurring, like the 1999 World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle.

Left-wing fringe actors have caused damage and injuries, including last week in Charlottesville, though nothing like what the neo-Nazi did by driving his car into a crowd of counter-protesters. And they’re the ones whom President Trump repeatedly called out as the “alt-left.”

They’ve also inspired the militias. The existence of this left-wing fringe has become a reason for being for some of the militia groups, a force to define themselves against, said Mark Pitcavage, an Anti-Defamation League researcher and author who has studied right-wing extremists for years.

“They’re basically showing up to confront the Antifa and other left-wing protesters,” Pitcavage said.

The problem is, they’re practically posing as police. They’re confusing for anyone who sees them. But they’re accountable to no one but themselves. And while they look official, they’re not neutral.

The militia movement grew out of anti-federal-government sentiment in the 1990s, declined after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, then spiked again during the Obama years. As a whole, Pitcavage said, the movement supported Trump, and it would have continued its anti-federal-government approach had Hillary Clinton been elected.

But then Trump won. And as the opposition to Trump grew — and a fringe grew violent — they found a new purpose.

“They needed an enemy. Not necessarily consciously, but they needed something to focus their anger on and their conspiracies around.”

Now, he said, the broad belief of the movement is “George Soros, evil mastermind, is now arming and organizing an army of domestic terrorists.”

The problems with the Antifa protesters are evident but boil down to them attacking people, generally with their fists or sticks. The risks with the militias may be even higher.

“If somebody starts shooting in a crowd, we’ll be hard-pressed to know if that’s a justified self-defense shooting, an act of terrorism,” Napier said. “Law enforcement should be left to those who are entrusted and trained to perform those duties.”

Said Pitcavage: “All it takes is one person panicking, then there’s blood.”

It also is potentially intimidating to people trying to peacefully employ their First Amendment rights having a group of heavily armed opponents demonstratively flexing its Second Amendment rights in their path.

While Arizona law is so liberal on guns that it seems to permit what the militias are doing, the state’s Constitution is ambiguous. The section on gun rights, Article 2, Section 26, says:

“The right of the individual citizen to bear arms in defense of himself or the state shall not be impaired, but nothing in this section shall be construed as authorizing individuals or corporations to organize, maintain, or employ an armed body of men.”

This provision was copied from Washington state’s constitution, which included it to deal with private corporations raising small private armies. But the intent seems to be pretty clear: In Arizona, you’re not supposed to be able to raise your own private militia.

Charles Heller of the Arizona Citizens Defense League, a gun-rights group, told me the clause about an “armed body of men” has not been clarified in state statues nor tested in case law.

“It’s really never been an issue because no one’s really done that,” he said.

Heller is skeptical that these militia groups, which tend to be small, even amount to an “armed body of men.” And he scoffs at the idea that anyone would be intimidated by them.

“It is not intimidating other people for you to express your constitutional right” to bear arms, Heller said.

But it seems to me whoever wrote those words in the constitution were thinking of just this sort of problem — an armed body of men, not accountable to the people through their government, asserting power.

In a given demonstration, they are an outside and potent presence. The worrisome potential is that one of them will make a fraught situation worse, leaving a bloody mess and accelerating the downward spiral of violence and recriminations.

Contact: tsteller@tucson.com or 807-7789. On Twitter: @senyorreporter