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Sunday, October 20, 2019
Guns Up, Safety: Off First responders, cops and detention officers joined a Facebook group set up by a violent militia leader. (Folio Weekly Magazine)
Guns Up, Safety Off
First responders, cops and detention officers joined a Facebook group set up by a violent militia leader
A months-long investigation byTriad City Beat (Folio Weekly’s sister paper in Greensboro, NC) revealed that dozens of first responders, detention officers, police and enlisted military personnel joined or were added to a Facebook group where administrators and members shared content promoting violence against Muslims, undocumented immigrants, abortion doctors and Democratic politicians. The group was established by notorious militia leader Chris Hill, the Marine veteran who leads the so-called III% Security Force. Hill set up the Roll Call page as a public Facebook group in January to mobilize support for an upcoming Nov. 9 rally in Washington, DC and northern Virginia to promote the Second Amendment, Trump’s border wall, voter ID and abortion restrictions. It is now a secret group.
Given the incendiary nature of its content—Hill is a divisive figure even on the right—it’s disturbing to discover first responders among the ranks of Roll Call. Members included:
• An EMT from eastern Kentucky who publicly identified himself in a comment thread on one of Hill’s Facebook Live videos as an “armed EMT” and member of Kentucky Security Force III%;
• An EMT who has worked for multiple first-responder agencies in central Georgia, who commented, “Guns up” at the beginning of an incendiary video hosted by Hill and his militia associates, and who continues to maintain ties with Hill;
• A police officer in upstate New York who commented, “Guns up,” on the Roll Call page, uses a Medieval crusader image as his Facebook profile, and has expressed negative feelings towards undocumented immigrants on social media;
• An EMS volunteer in New Jersey who made a comment on the Roll Call page that appears to express sympathy with a Louisiana police officer fired for saying US Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez should be shot;
• A lieutenant firefighter in eastern Ohio who uses a Confederate flag with the text “Support your local whiteboys” as his Facebook cover photo, and makes posts on his personal Facebook page that are disparaging towards Muslims and undocumented immigrants;
• And a volunteer with another eastern Ohio fire department whose personal Facebook page displays memes that disparage Muslims.
Our investigation of Roll Call took place against a backdrop of increasing political polarization—and increasingly violent political rhetoric. First responders are supposed to serve the public without bias, but some have come under scrutiny in recent months for their support of violent, right-wing extremism on social media.
In July, firefighter Caleb Folwell was fired from the Julian Fire Department and North Chatham Fire Department, both in North Carolina, after posting on Facebook that immigrants in detention should be “exterminated,” calling for the fantasized violence to be broadcast “over Mexican national TV to send a message that if you cross illegally you die.”
In the same month, Gretna, Louisiana police Officer Charles Rispoli was fired for writing on Facebook that Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, an outspoken Democratic lawmaker, “needs a round … and I don’t mean the kind she used to serve.” Another officer, Angelo Varisco was also fired for liking the post.
And in August, Capt. Thomas Woodword resigned after driving his truck into a group of Jewish protesters outside a Rhode Island detention facility that contracts with U.S. Immigration Customs Enforcement.
Earlier this year, an investigation by Reveal found that hundreds of active-duty and retired law enforcement officers across the country are members of anti-Islam, misogynistic or anti-government militia groups on Facebook.
The major thrust of the national Second Amendment rally scheduled for Nov. 9 is opposition to so-called “red flag laws,” which allow police and family members to petition the courts for the authority to temporarily remove firearms from a person deemed to be a danger to others or themselves. The chosen location of the rally—on the Arlington Memorial Bridge—is symbolic in the minds of the rally organizers of a line between the more lenient gun laws in Virginia and more restrictive laws on the books in Washington D.C.
Reflecting the tension between libertarian and authoritarian tendencies in the militia movement, the demands published on the Roll Call page read like a checklist of both traditional conservative and Trumpist causes. Members wanted the federal government to build a border wall, require photo ID to participate in elections and restrict abortion. They vaguely threatened that “if no remedies are timely available, we the people, without further notice, may seek all remedies afforded to us” under the Constitution. To diffuse the focus even further, organizers added a pro-Confederate “Heritage Not Hate” event at the Lincoln Memorial.
While the militia movement has traditionally maintained a skeptical stance towards federal power, the election of Donald Trump reordered its priorities. Last fall, Hill told a Danish reporter: “If [the Democrats] win the House and the Senate, they are going to move forward with impeachment for some bogus, bullshit reason. If they succeed in impeaching President Trump, then we will back Trump.” Asked to elaborate, Hill said, “With a use of force, if need be.”
The militia movement emerged in the early 1990s as the collapse of the Soviet Union eliminated communism as a credible threat, and paranoia about globalism, embodied in the United Nations and multilateral cooperation, became a preoccupation of the far right.
“Foundational to their ideology is the belief that virtually the whole rest of the world has been taken over by a globalist, tyrannical government,” said Mark Pitcavage, a senior researcher at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism. “They call it the ‘New World Order.’ They see the United States as the last bastion of freedom, and they believe the U.S. government is actively collaborating with the New World Order. Their idea is that once the Second Amendment is compromised and their guns are taken away, the United States will be absorbed into the New World Order.”
Pitcavage said militia activists had gravitated to marginal political candidates like Ron Paul in the past, but Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign was the first time they aligned with anyone who was truly viable. Trump’s election effectively realigned the priorities of the militia movement.
“They strongly support Donald Trump,” Pitcavage said. “A lot of them really emphasize, from 2017, less opposition to the federal government, and they direct their anger more on immigrants, Muslims and antifa. The militia movement has transferred its anger from president as the symbol of federal government to the enemies of Trump, as they see them. Should a Democrat be elected in 2020, it will go right back to the president.”
The synthesis of Second Amendment advocacy with hysterical Islamophobia, xenophobia, anti-abortion sentiment and hatred of Democratic politicians was on vivid display in a Facebook Live video posted by Hill in March. Chris Pickle, an EMT who has worked for three different EMS agencies in rural, central Georgia over the past year, commented at the 2:07 mark of the video, “Guns up.” What followed over the next 54 minutes was an orgy of animosity towards various imagined foes.
“If it takes dragging a [abortion] doctor away from a table to save that unborn child that’s 15 minutes away from its birthday, then drag that f*cking doctor away from the table, and yeah, take him outside and whup his ass,” Hill said.
Skylar Steward, a militia activist from Ohio who has since broken with Hill to form the American Constitutional Elites, commented in response: “F*ck a foot in the ass. I bet a bullet in the head would pass a clear f*cking message.”
Roughly 15 minutes later, imagining a war on American soil, Hill and his cohorts conjured a sinister Muslim enemy.
“There are live targets,” Hill said. “The enemy is here and want to f*cking destroy us and our way of life. When they get froggy and jump, we’re gonna put ’em on their ass.”
As the discussion veered into a fevered clarion about Muslims supposedly imposing sharia law from bases in Dearborn, Michigan and Islamburg, New York, Hill interjected, “You saw that New Zealand shooting, right?”
Greg Scott, another militia activist, opined that Brenton Tarrant, who live-streamed a slaughter of 51 people at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand on March 15 “was provoked.”
Hill was going in a different direction, suggesting the massacre might be a false flag.
“Wait,” he said. “Within 24 hours all their semiautomatic rifles are gone, and it’s an Islamic country, like just that quick. One shooting, one false-flag operation. One psy-op. Guns are gone, and you’re Islamic overnight.”
Hank Steward, Skylar’s father, commented that he had recently proposed “Muslim community patrols” on “comms,” the voice communication channel the militia network utilizes through the Zello app. Hill enthusiastically endorsed the idea.
“Let’s do a f*cking Three Percent patrol in Dearborn, Michigan or Islamburg, New York,” he said. “We show up, kick ass, and drink cold beer when the sun goes down.”
Peter Simi, an associate professor at Chapman University who studies extremist groups and violence, said it’s unrealistic to think that first responders can hold bigoted views without their biases bleeding over into the performance of their professional duties.
“If you have really strongly held beliefs that bias you in favor of certain groups, that’s a problem,” Simi said. “If you have strongly held views that involve hatred and disgust, that’s even more of a problem. Disgust is important because when you feel disgust, you want to distance yourself as much as possible from that. If they’re disgusted by certain immigrant groups or disgusted by Muslims, are they going to render the same care? Is it going to delay decisions that they make? Are they going to be less sensitive? Are they going to give priority to one group or another? I think these are reasonable questions to ask an EMT or firefighter that espouses these kind of views.”
The Code of Ethics adopted by the National Association of Emergency Medical Technicians in 2013 addresses both bias and social media use. The code states that EMS practitioners should “provide services based on human need, with compassion and respect for human dignity, unrestricted by consideration of nationality, race, creed or status.” It instructs practitioners “to use social media in a responsible and professional manner that does not discredit, dishonor or embarrass an EMS organization, co-workers, other healthcare practitioners, patients, individuals or the community at large.”
The Firefighter Code of Ethics developed by the National Society of Executive Fire Officers similarly calls upon firefighters to pledge to “never discriminate on the basis of race, religion, color, creed, age, marital status, national origin, ancestry, sexual preference, medical condition or handicap,” and to “responsibly use social networking… in a manner that does not discredit, dishonor or embarrass my organization, the fire service and the public.”
Chris Pickle, the EMT in Georgia who commented on Chris Hill’s Facebook Live video in March, declined to comment for this story. In late August, Pickle commented on Hill’s personal Facebook page to inform him that he had to leave the Roll Call page because a news reporter called him and asked him how he would treat Muslims. (“I told him to F off,” Pickle said.) Lee Conner, the director of Telfair County EMS in Georgia, said Pickle resigned from the agency for personal reasons in early August. Conner said Pickle’s social media activity “needs to be addressed,” adding that it doesn’t put the agencies where he’s worked in a good light. “Anybody showing a bias towards a race, religion or creed, we can’t do that,” he added. “You set your county up for a lawsuit. It will be brought to a supervisor’s attention. You can’t have bias in this line of work.”
Mark Pitcavage of the Anti-Defamation League cautioned that membership in a Facebook group like Roll Call doesn’t automatically prove that someone is an extremist. Considering the innocuous name of the group and the fact that the name does not reference III% Security Force, he said it’s possible that membership “might be a vague indication of support,” but equally possible that those who joined were merely “right-wing conservatives.”
Cpl. Anthony Oswald, a school resource officer with the Marion County Sheriff’s Office in North-Central Florida, was added to the Roll Call page by a friend in January. There is no evidence that Oswald commented or liked posts on the Roll Call page, and the posts on his personal Facebook page are unremarkable.
“The old saying ‘curiosity killed the cat’?” said Oswald, a 15-year law enforcement veteran. “Hello! I’m the cat.”
Oswald, who identified himself as a Trump supporter and a Christian in a two-hour interview with TCB, said he doesn’t agree with violence against Muslims and does his best to perform his job without regard to race. Oswald said he agreed with much of the content on the Roll Call page, although he didn’t specify what.
“They sparked an interest. The people are giving their honest view,” he said. “The majority of the comments are spot-on and not racist or hateful. I thought, ‘Okay, they’re like-minded, like me.’”
Oswald indicated that he wasn’t familiar with Chris Hill or the content promoting violence on the page.
“It’s anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, anti-abortion, right?” he asked. “When I see that crap, I scroll past. I don’t agree. I don’t comment.”
Oswald said the idea of challenging hate and bigotry brings to mind the gospel scripture about how people who live in glass houses shouldn’t cast stones.
“Here’s the thing: People whether they’re right or they’re wrong are still entitled to their opinions or their beliefs,” he said. “If someone said, ‘I’m going to shoot up the Paddock Mall [in Ocala] tomorrow,’ it is my obligation, moral and legal, to report that. If some guys are saying, ‘This person should be shot,’ that’s their opinion. Do I have to agree with it? No. Do I have to believe in it? No. In the end what makes America great is that people have the right to express their opinions.”
Sgt. Paul Bloom, the director of public information at the sheriff’s office, said he spoke to Oswald’s supervisor after TCB brought the matter to his attention.
“He is a well-respected and well-liked deputy,” Bloom said. “He works at one of our schools and does a fantastic job. They tried to move him out of that school, and there was an uproar. The parents wouldn’t let them.”
“I don’t think it rises to a level of disciplinary action just to follow a page,” Bloom said. “If he were to participate, that might warrant an investigation.”
Leonard Rogers, a corrections officer at the Okaloosa County Jail in the Florida Panhandle, said he joined the Roll Call page out of curiosity after seeing a documentary. Rogers told TCB that he is a member of a different militia group, the III% United Patriots.
“It’s a pro-gun, let’s-get-together, family type of thing,” he said.
As for Hill, Rogers said, “His views are extreme, very extreme. I don’t align with that.”
While describing himself as “pro border control,” Rogers said he’s trained to not allow bias to infect his treatment of inmates, most of whom he noted have not been convicted of a crime.
“Our motto is ‘firm, fair and consistent,’” Rogers said. “That’s how I live my life as a corrections officer. We do get a lot of people who are illegal immigrants arrested for driving without a driver’s license. We treat them just as I would anyone else.”
Chief Eric Esmond, who oversees jail operations for the Okaloosa County Department of Corrections, said Rogers’ social media and militia activity doesn’t violate any department policies. “My main concern as a jail administrator is how people’s ideology and morality transfers to the job,” he said. “I haven’t seen anything that suggests there’s a problem in that area.”
TCB confirmed that 10 current or former members of the Roll Call group are currently employed by fire departments, six by EMS agencies, three by detention facilities, and two by police departments. One is currently enlisted in the U.S. Army. One is a member of the Air Force Auxiliary Civil Air Patrol. One firefighter in upstate New York retired in August.
The roughly two dozen confirmed first responders, law enforcement, detention officers and military personnel identified were among more than 5,300 who joined or were added to the Roll Call group. Not all the public servants identified for this story actively participated in the Roll Call group. Our investigation found that roughly half of the larger group of 24 either participated in the Roll Call group or posted content on their personal Facebook pages that exhibited bias. Agency representatives or the employees themselves confirmed that a handful received counseling as a result of this inquiry.
A much larger cohort of members on the Roll Call page identified themselves as military veterans and retired law enforcement. The group has also attracted members of Bikers for Trump; the Hiwaymen, a hybrid militia-neo-Confederate group; the Proud Boys, a male chauvinist group known for street brawling; Back Woods Survivalist Squad, an anti-Muslim network; and adherents of the QAnon conspiracy movement.