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Michigan's history with militias is often dark

Neal Rubin   | The Detroit News

The Black Legion operated in the shadows. The Wolverine Watchmen operated in the woods.

Ninety years ago, the Legion was plotting to overthrow the government. Authorities say the Watchmen had the same goal.

The Legion had a date picked out: Sept. 16, 1936. The Watchmen allegedly had a target: Michigan's Capitol.

There are differences between that dark history and peculiar present. The Black Legion's surreptitious membership included the Wayne County prosecutor and the police commissioner of Detroit. The Watchmen, as historian Michael Placco puts it, were home to "deadbeats and failures with tens of thousands of dollars of unpaid child support."

Between them on Michigan's historical docket of conspiracy and mayhem were Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, the most horrific of American domestic terrorists, who practiced their bomb-making in the Thumb and then blew up a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995. And there's a line, say the experts in militias and extremism, that connects them all.

It’s curved and dotted, not straight and bold, but the mindset, marching and demonstrations at the Capitol are as much a part of Michigan as Petoskey stones. In a state with endless acres of backwoods, militias have left similar tracks throughout generations.

According to a poll of 600 likely Michigan voters conducted last month for The Detroit News/WDIV-TV by the Glengariff Group, 55% of those surveyed say they are concerned about militias. In comparison, 43.7% say they are not. While 22.8% consider them an important part of the democratic process, 51% view them as a threat to democracy — though they once swam in the mainstream.

The Legion was a spinoff of the Ku Klux Klan, a pillar of numerous Michigan communities after it migrated north before World War I. The Legion killed as many as 50 people in the 1930s at the same time it controlled half the departments at the Ford Rouge plant and might have ensnared the Hall of Fame manager of the Detroit Tigers.

Contrast that to 2012, when a federal judge dismissed charges against seven members of a militia called the Hutaree, ruling in mid-trial that talking about killing police officers was the pastime of blowhards rather than the plotting of criminals.

"Each group belongs to a time," said Eastern Michigan University professor emeritus JoEllen Vinyard, "but there are always similarities."

In Michigan, from the Black Legion to the 14 men arrested by federal and state authorities last month, they have been overwhelmingly white. They are armed. Their members are usually well right of center politically and consider themselves Christian, historians say. They believe they have been wronged, and that they are doing right for their country or their God or their Constitution.

There are neo-Nazis and white supremacists among them. But there is also Michelle Gregoire of Battle Creek, who drives a school bus and says the Michigan Home Guard has taught her to navigate and to survive in nature.

“People think we’re just a bunch of rednecks in the woods shooting,” said Gregoire, 29. “I don’t like Gretchen Whitmer, and I think she should be arrested — but with due process.”

Vinyard calls the most vociferous of the groups domestic terrorists, be they modern or antiquated, even if they have called themselves patriots since they were burning crosses in the Roaring '20s.

"They always point back to the Constitution," said Vinyard, the author of "Right in Michigan's Grassroots: From the KKK to the Michigan Militia." "But they don't understand its purpose."

It's difficult to know how many militias operate in Michigan, or what qualifies as one. The Wolverine Watchmen weren’t even on the radar of some other active bands, though two men tied to the group, twins William and Michael Null, were photographed in battle gear at a Lansing demonstration wearing the insignia of the Michigan Liberty Militia. 

"We don't maintain research on militia groups," said Michigan State Police spokeswoman Shanon Banner, "as our only involvement would be if or when a group becomes involved in criminal activity."

A researcher at Vanderbilt University estimates maybe two dozen militias are in the state, with a membership of perhaps 2,000.

Most are harmless, though Vinyard holds that showing up at the Capitol armed and angry is not as innocent as the participants portray. The Michigan Home Guard, which claims to be the largest band, issued a statement condemning the Wolverine Watchmen and pointed out its own members have distributed water in Flint and helped haul away flood debris in Midland.

But some, historically, have been threatening. Increasingly, said Placco, who teaches at Macomb Community College, they are well equipped, Internet-astute and angry.

"The real boon for growth was the 1990s," said Placco, who lectures on the Klan and militias. 

"Waco and Ruby Ridge," he continued, referring to fatal standoffs in Texas and Idaho that have become rallying points. "Bill Clinton. (Former attorney general) Janet Reno grabbing guns, so they said."

The best known of the Michigan brigades formed in 1994, after the passage of a since-expired federal ban on assault weapons and the Brady Bill, which requires criminal background checks for handgun buyers.

The Michigan Militia, founded by Air Force veteran Norm Olson, at one point claimed unconvincingly to have 10,000 members. Its anonymity lifted in 1995 after McVeigh and Nichols, said to have attended early meetings, conspired to use a truck bomb to destroy the Murrah Federal Building and kill 168 people.

Olson insisted the bombing was the work of the Japanese government, retaliating for the sarin gas attack on a Tokyo subway that he said was perpetrated by the United States. Even his fellow conspiracy theorists found that bizarre, to the point that he lost repeated votes for commander and was banished from the group.

He ultimately moved to Alaska and founded another paramilitary brigade. The Michigan Militia splintered, though enough of the core remains that when Owosso barber Karl Manke was feuding with regulators in the early days of pandemic restrictions, members offered to block police from entering his shop.

"We do seem to breed these things," said Vinyard, even if most of us don't know it.

Placco said that's a difference between now and the heyday of the Michigan Klan. Born in the South, the KKK became large and obvious in Indiana, Wisconsin and Michigan in what historians consider its second incarnation.

"The Klansmen of 1920 were not country-boy yokels," Placco said. "They were welcomed in your community. You would boast of having the Klan, perhaps in the same way we would boast of an IKEA."

The Michigan Klan was statewide. It had women's auxiliaries. It owned land and advertised in newspapers.

"That's the point of it," he said. "When you have every respectable business owner, marshals, politicians, it's very much public."

The Klan rose in the North as factories grew and immigrants came to work in them. To the Protestants in the robes and hoods, glad-handing by day and cross-burning by night, "it was like an invasion."

Italians and Poles "were coming here with their Catholicism and their weird names," Placco said — and there was big money in pushing against the tide.

"I'm sure the people who joined thought, 'I'm defending America. I'm getting rid of Italians and Jews,'" he said. "But the people running it were getting rich," selling uniforms and merchandise and collecting dues.

Then came the Great Depression, and there went the Michigan Klan. No money for dues. No time for protests in front of Catholic churches.

The showiness ended and made way for the stealth of the Black Legion.

The Legion was a paramilitary white supremacist outgrowth of the KKK, acting mostly in Michigan and Ohio. It conducted its initiations in secret, and often at gunpoint: invited to a meeting, guests found themselves choosing between an oath of loyalty or last words.

"They were against all isms except Americanism," said Tom Stanton, author and University of Detroit Mercy professor. "Communism, socialism, Judaism, Catholicism, Negroism."

Stanton's "Terror in the City of Champions" intertwines the stories of the Black Legion and a historic six-month period in 1935-36 in which Detroit's Tigers, Lions and Red Wings all won titles.

The Legion was as ordered as the football team, with multiple regiments and a colonel for each. Like the modern-day Wolverine Watchmen, its goal was to overthrow the government.

The rank-and-file were workingmen, overseen by gentry. Police commissioner Heinrich Pickert was a member. Stanton suspects that Henry Ford's chief union buster, Harry Bennett, was one of the string-pullers behind the scenes; it's hard to conceive, he said, the Legion could have made inroads at factories without him.

Members were required to own a weapon. Bennett signed Tigers manager Mickey Cochrane's city application for a handgun, Stanton found, and two weeks after the Black Legion and its violent story broke in the press, Cochrane had what was called a nervous breakdown and left the team for several months.

"My suspicion is that Harry Bennett had a businessman’s regiment, where you didn’t have to go through an induction with a gun pointed at your head or your heart," Stanton said. Or perhaps Cochrane was just tired.

Ultimately, four dozen people were convicted of murder and multiple lesser charges after a member broke ranks and confessed. The Black Legion dissolved, remembered mostly in a few old movies — and in the accounts of civil rights activist Malcolm X, who believed the Legion had murdered his father.

The closest thing to a Michigan militia for decades afterward was the Klan, whose most visible member was Christian Identity minister Robert Miles in Livingston County.

Smaller in stature than in its glory years, it remained organized, secretive, intimidating and capable of violence.

Miles was "small, loud and hated everybody," Placco said. A former state Grand Dragon, he was convicted in 1971 of conspiring to torch school buses to prevent forced busing. That same year, Ypsilanti Township high school principal R. Wiley Brownlee was tarred and feathered by five hooded Klansmen on his way home from imploring the school board to honor Martin Luther King Jr.

In 2005, an auction house in Howell gaveled off Miles' estate. He had lived in Cohoctah Township until his death in 1992, but — in another tarring — nearby Howell had been a staging ground for his supporters and became associated with his legacy.

Khalid el-Hakim was among the bidders.

El-Hakim operates the Black History 101 Mobile Museum, taking artifacts and expertise on the road to 40 states and counting. Carrying $700 from his friend Proof, the late rapper and compatriot of Eminem, el-Hakim was outbid for Miles' black satin robe but came away with his scrapbook, some photos and a few books.

A former Detroit schoolteacher, el-Hakim holds a Ph.D. in history and a harsh view of militias.

"As I've done this work," he said, "I realize the militia signs and symbols are hidden in plain sight in front of us" — swastika tattoos, SS lightning bolts, the number 88 to stand for the eighth letter of the alphabet and "Heil Hitler."

He lives in Kalamazoo, where a Michigan chapter of the Proud Boys held a march in August. The Proud Boys claim to be "Western chauvinist," rather than racist, a distinction often lost as they overlap with white supremacists.

In Kalamazoo, the Proud Boys found  left-leaning, AR-15-carrying counter-protesters standing watch.

"I thought I was witnessing the beginning of a new Civil War," el-Hakim said. "It got ugly."

Police blamed the counter-protesters. El-Hakim saw it otherwise. He also saw enough trouble on the horizon that the next month, he bought a handgun.

At the gun shop, he also purchased a few $2 bumper stickers for his collection of racist memorabilia. "If Obama had a city," one said, "it would look like Detroit."

"Integration and lack of discipline have dumbed down this country," said another.

He's never seen that in the parking lot at Kroger, el-Hakim said. Maybe you see it at a militia meeting.

"The South lost," he said. "The Nazis lost."

You can tell yourself whatever you'd like as you're blasting at targets in the wilderness, he said, but you're not being American.

Twitter: @nealrubin_dn