Even before a neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, devolved into deadly chaos this summer, many attendees couldn't help noticing hordes of camouflage-attired, heavily armed men roaming the city's streets. Sprinkled among them were members of a loose coalition of paramilitary types who call themselves Three Percenters, a reference to the widely debunked belief that only 3 percent of American colonists actively fought in the Revolutionary War. Often spotted on the periphery of far-right events in recent months, Three Percenters tend to sport military fatigues—and lots of guns. In fact, like a healthy number of other paramilitary groups in modern America, where gun laws are looser than virtually anywhere else on Earth, Three Percenters have a knack for being better-armed than local police.
Also like some other militia-style groups, Three Percenters claimed their only goal in Charlottesville was to help keep the peace. Alex Michael Ramos, who was arrested in connection with an attack on a 20-year-old black man at the protest, was said to at least once have been a member of the group. But Three Percenters were careful to put out a stand-down order after Charlottesville explicitly disavowing white supremacy—and calling on backers to avoid alt-right and Antifa combat. Meanwhile, there does not appear to be any connection between Three Percenters and James Alex Fields Jr, the man charged with murdering 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring many others with his car at the protest.
Three Percenters are just one slice of the modern American militia movement that began to emerge in the 1990s, continuing a sort of national tradition of military-style organizing around fringe beliefs. Movement adherents often take pains to eschew the outright racism endemic to the tradition of legacy militia groups (think the KKK and other white supremacist organizations), even as some remain fond of, say, neo-Confederate imagery. Most seem to believe that nebulous, sinister forces are corrupting American governance and actively eroding freedom. They form militias to push back against anything they see as an encroachment on their rights—and to prepare for what many increasingly see as an impending apocalyptic clash in defense of freedom.
Unlike plenty of outwardly similar groups formed in recent decades, however, Three Percenters—who first popped up around 2008—tend to be proactive. Which is to say they often mobilize around major public events rather than just spouting ideas and quietly organizing. Many of their members believe that if—really, when—that clash comes, true believers in the Constitution will inevitably win, and a pure and free democratic state will rise from the ashes.
"When a ruler becomes tyrannical, we the people have the right to abolish government and institute new government based on the ideals that make us free," said Chris Hill of the Georgia III% Security Force, where he goes by the title General Holy War and the code name Blood Agent.
But Three Percenters do not often broach how that ideal new state would come together, or what it would actually look like. So we wrangled the leaders we could for a sense of just what Three Percenters think is coming—and the challenges they anticipate in a future many Americans hope never comes to pass.
For his part, Hill insisted most Three Percenters want peace, and that they will never strike the first blow against anyone. Of course, individual members may not agree with him; some followers even seem to believe the war has already begun. In August, an Oklahoma man espousing explicitly Three Percenter beliefs was caught in an alleged attempt to detonate a bomb as an act of violence against the government; Three Percenters aggressively tried to distance themselves from him after the arrest.
In the Three Percenters' worldview, post-conflict America would have to wipe its governmental slate clean, building a new system from scratch based on the Constitution and the Bill of Rights alone. "We've got to go back to the basics," said Dan Kish, commanding officer of the Ohio III% Security Force. "It's just like football… We need to go back to where we started and start over again," to make sure we're secure in the fundamentals of our ideals, he added.
The leaders we canvassed did not offer a clear vision for how Americans would build a new system in the wake of a government-collapsing conflict. Hill suggested there would have to be some kind of conference of states to work things out, and Kish stressed that everyone in the nation would need to be involved somehow to grant any new government legitimacy. They did not have much to say about how this conference would be organized, or how Three Percenters could be sure the state that resulted would cohere with their interpretation of the Constitution. Nor did they address how minority groups or beliefs would factor into this state-building project. Mark Pitcavage, an expert on militias at the Anti-Defamation League, argued this is because many members believe most Americans share their views—or will, once they're awakened from the spell sinister forces and corrupted governments spin over them.
Lane Crothers, an expert on right-wing social movements at Illinois State University, agreed. "Once people are no longer corrupted," the militias largely believe "that we will just pop out on the other side as new, democratic people," he told me .
When I asked Three Percenters about the role of militias in forming and running a new state built around their interpretation of the Constitution, there wasn't much in the way of even internal consensus. Hill suggested they should and would bow out and let the people hash out a new system on their own; paramilitary troops would just be ready to confront any new perceived threat to their freedoms thereafter. Kish, meanwhile, argued that Three Percenters ought to play a major role in guiding any government forming process. "Any patriot or Three Percenter would have a better shot at following the Constitution and making sure it sticks, and bringing back America again," he said.
Kish could even envision the Three Percenters forming a political party. How they'd do so is unclear, as even members tend to admit they splinter all the time. They've also differed in their stances on major national events and over issues as fundamental as whether or not they should even call themselves militias. But Kish had faith they could get together and hash out some kind of functional consensus. He also suggested the new state should mobilize them as paramilitary force, with some kind of relationship to the military, resulting in a sort of quasi-military political party.
The commanders we spoke to cautioned their future state would have to add some new amendments to the Constitution from the get-go to prevent a repeat of the corruption they bemoan today. Hill and Kish agreed, for instance, that all politicians should have firm term limits and that there should be more direct democratic controls and referenda. Among other things, Hill proposed preventing judges from breaking with what he sees as self-evident constitutional values by allowing people to vote them out of office.
Some of the Three Percenters' ideas sound like libertarianism: force the government to stay small and out of people's business, so as to guarantee as much freedom as possible. That makes sense to Pitcavage, who described some strands of the modern militia movement as, basically, "libertarians plus guns plus conspiracies."
"We have the right to be freed from things that we don't want to be tied up with," Hill told me. "You just can't force your system of belief on other people."
But while there was some agreement in the abstract about the benefits of a small state, Kish's desire to ensure a new government doesn't go awry seemed to clash with that. He'd make it illegal to disrespect the flag by kneeling, for instance, which certainly appears to run afoul of the Three Percenters' stated belief in absolute free speech. He also suggested the new government should put tight restrictions on states and cities to prevent them from going astray. "It's the chain of command," he said. "It's like being at work. You screw up, and your boss is going to step in and micromanage and be on you all day long."
Pitcavage is not surprised by the lack of detail and the crossed signals in Three Percenters' visions. "Like a lot of extremist movements, the militia movement defines itself more in terms of what it wants to take down and get rid of than what it wants to set up," he told me. "They've probably never really thought about it… They're more men of the deed than men of the word. And when they do think about things, it's more about conspiracy theories" than future visions.
"The point of the existence of the movement … is to have the revolution," added Crothers. "I've certainly never seen an honest-to-god articulation" of what would happen after that conflict, he noted.
For a movement that largely views itself as a defensive project, perhaps that's only natural. Three Percenters are preoccupied with survival and preservation, dealing with the evils they see in the here and now and operating on faith that once it is vanquished, commonsense and self-evident good will triumph.
"It's not going to be a perfect system," Hill said of whatever might rise out of America's ashes. But that's ultimately OK by him. He called American Democracy a "tree of liberty," and claimed the right move is to "keep watering that motherfucker until we get it right." And if the public gets it wrong and sinister forces corrupt the system anew, well, the militias will always be there to set things right—to wipe the slate clean again and give everyone another crack at a proper state.
The Three Percenters, in other words, reserve the right to oppose any government they deem tyrannical—even one they might, in some distant future, help create.
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