Michigan’s attorney general is charging several members of the Wolverine Watchmen Militia group as they plotted to kidnap the Gretchen Whitmer and overthrow the government.
A professor who's studied militia groups for more than a decade says Michigan is a hotbed for the groups.
Amy Cooter got her PhD at the University of Michigan and is a sociology professor at Vanderbilt University. As part of her field research she interviewed members of militia groups in person.
She told us she hasn't yet studied the group Wolverine Watchmen because they are a relatively new one, but the presence of groups like it in Michigan goes back decades.
“This is an outlier,” said Cooter. “The vast majority of militia groups are the law-abiding type. They really see themselves working with the government even though they are skeptical about the possibility of government overreach.”
The professor estimates that only 10% of militias can get this extreme.
“I think it’s important to understand how groups like this frame their actions so that we can get to the root of it and potentially understand other groups that might be at risk for similar plots,” Cooter said.
At their core, she says militia groups believe they should protect their constitutional rights, to the extreme.
In Michigan, she says the culture of being outdoors and using guns, coupled with the need to protect yourself from economic uncertainty (now accelerated by the pandemic) can make it easy for people to see militia ideologies as not too far of a reach.
The group connected with the plot to kidnap the governor is relatively new to her knowledge, and they don’t have much of a public online presence.
“It really seems like they popped up in response to the pandemic and to the state lockdowns specifically,” Cooter said.
She says newer groups can be more volatile.
“They can also have a greater proclivity for more violent or extreme thought and action.”
Increased polarization and conspiracy theories on social media, she says, make it even easier for members to get carried away.
Some people on social media have criticized the decision to call the Wolverine Watchmen a militia group, instead saying they are domestic terrorists.
The FBI and Michigan's attorney general outlined felony domestic terrorism charges against the group's organizers. Cooter says the group hits the threshold to be considered an established militia and she doesn’t believe that by calling them that would make the members feel more empowered than they already are.