In Kansas City, the occasional rallies beside the Country Club Plaza have long been the kinds of political protests you can attend with the whole family.
You can make a protest sign with poster board and markers, walk down to the J.C. Nichols Memorial Fountain and participate in democracy — maybe your kids will get to see a police horse.
But these days, you might look around to see you’ve got company: two dozen militia members watching over the protest, openly carrying handguns and rifles.
At least three times this summer in Kansas City, armed militia — from a group called Three Percent United Patriots — have appeared at protest rallies. They monitored two protests last weekend.
In response, local activists have petitioned the Kansas City Police Department for protection, and the department issued multiple public statements distancing itself from the group.
The Three Percenters take their name from the percentage of American colonists said to have taken up arms against the British. After years of steady growth, they have emerged as the militia movement’s biggest brand, with a membership in the thousands claiming chapters in every state.
Various groups operating under that banner have appeared at protests across the country this year.
Some protesters say they consider the militia presence a hostile intimidation tactic. For those armed with little more than placards and slogans, the sight of the militia can chill free speech, making some think twice about attending rallies once considered safe.
As political and racial tensions ratcheted up in the United States with the death of a protester earlier this month in Charlottesville, Va., those who study the militia movement said people are increasingly showing up with guns at tense political protests, which can lead to trouble.
If some protesters feel they have to start carrying guns too, activists warn, the buildup of two armed camps will only amp up the risk of violence.
“It’s only a matter of time before somebody brings a gun to one of these rallies, and staring down their political opponents, does something stupid and pulls out a gun and shoots somebody,” said Garrett Griffin of Grandview, who said that’s just what worried him last Sunday when he saw the armed Three Percenters at the No Place for Hate rally at the J.C. Nichols Fountain.
The Three Percenters also appeared the day before at a downtown protest against jail conditions, and at a June 10 protest in Washington Square Park, north of Crown Center.
The militia members who spoke with reporters last weekend said they came as concerned citizens to help police provide security and were within their rights to be at the public events and carry firearms openly, as Missouri law has long allowed.
Griffin, a 29-year-old communications coordinator for a nonprofit, started a petition last week on Change.org asking the Police Department to keep the militia separated from protesters at future events.
While acknowledging the Three Percenters’ free speech and Second Amendment rights, he said the armed group at last Sunday’s event “were basically making a lot of people in the crowd feel unsafe.
“There was a lot of tension in the air; people were really nervous because you’ve got these guys with guns and knives surrounding you.”
After a man drove a car into a crowd of peaceful counterprotesters leaving a white supremacist rally Aug. 12 in Charlottesville, killing a woman and injuring at least 19 others, officials said police had faced a challenge in controlling the crowd because of the number of militia members with semiautomatic weapons walking the streets.
Among them were members of several different Three Percenters groups.
The Three Percenter movement is a new wave of militia, distinct from the groups that made news in the 1990s, said Leonard Zeskind, president of the Kansas City-based Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights.
Emerging into public view in the past decade, the Three Percenters have organized all over the United States. Their members in Kansas and Missouri now number more than 700, according to Zeskind’s research.
Zeskind said he could understand why protesters were uncomfortable being watched over by the militia, and why they might not accept Three Percenters’ assurances that they are just there to help keep the peace.
The militia, he said, “show up and try to scare a bunch of people who are having an anti-hate rally,” Zeskind said. “It shows they’re anti-democratic. They don’t want these things to happen.”
Police in the middle
In Kansas City, a video posted online showing police officers talking with militia members before the Sunday event stoked fears among some activists that police had coordinated with the militia or even invited them, as at least one Three Percenter claimed.
The Police Department quickly said both claims were untrue. It is common practice for police to talk with protesters and counterprotesters ahead of rallies, to lay down ground rules and plan for safe conduct. Organizers of Sunday’s rally said they held similar talks with police.
The department issued a statement saying that police had not invited anyone to the rally and that it would not invite anyone in the future.
Kansas City Police Chief Rick Smith followed up Thursday with a blog post saying that the department “never asked for any assistance from any militia group, nor would we.
“KCPD members will speak with anyone who asks them questions about the safest way to go about a demonstration. A contact is not the same as ‘collusion,’ which some on social media are alleging,” Smith wrote.
In the 30-second video clip posted online by the Kansas City Revolutionary Collective, a police officer tells a group of men in militia gear, “Sounds like we’re planning on a good day, should be pretty peaceful.”
A second police officer adds: “Let’s make this peaceful. Nobody gets hurt, and no altercations. We’re just keeping the peace.”
Following that, an apparent militia member answers: “What we’re going to try to attempt to do, if there’s any type of altercation, we’re going to go ahead and bring one of you guys into the loop so that we’re on base — making sure, trying to keep things squared up.”
A person off camera asks: “Why do you need guns?” just before the video clip ends.
A representative of the Revolutionary Collective said the group received the video from an unnamed person and posted it in its entirety. The group said the video was shot outside the Winstead’s restaurant at 101 Emanuel Cleaver II Blvd., near the Plaza.
That conversation sounded similar to the talks police held with rally organizers Sunday, said Megan Birnstein, a member of the Kansas City chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America.
This week, Birnstein said she thought the Three Percenters represented a counterdemonstration and that they should have been restricted to a separate location from the main rally.
“They say they were there to ensure the rally was peaceful,” Birnstein said. “But how? With the weapons they brought, one would assume. They were there to patrol us, the peaceful protesters. That’s supposed to be the job of the police, not some rogue militia.”
The Three Percenter movement is more a brand than a monolithic organization, and members say it is composed of local outfits that can’t all be painted with the same brush.
Many members object to being described as extremist militias. They say they are not racists, white supremacist sympathizers or anti-government.
Instead, many say, they are patriots who want to maintain order in the United States.
Some of the members at local protests last Saturday and Sunday came not from Kansas City but from surrounding rural areas.
One member of the Three Percenters of Missouri group that appeared at the weekend protests declined to give his name to a reporter but spoke at length about the group’s aims.
The man, who said he was from a small town in northern Missouri, said he did not want to identify himself, both because of security concerns and for fear of being branded a racist in the media. Three Percenter groups frequently avoid talking to reporters or identifying themselves in public.
The Star generally avoids quoting anonymous sources but included this man’s comments to provide some insight into the armed groups appearing at public events in the city.
The Missouri Three Percenter said he was among those at Saturday’s protest in downtown Kansas City and was in touch with fellow members at Sunday’s rally.
He said his group wasn’t there to intimidate anyone.
“Furthest thing from the truth,” the man said. “We weren’t there harassing anybody.”
The Three Percenters were there, he said, to guard against any kind of disorder, including rioting, fighting and property damage. They have been seeking out protests where they expect to see trouble specifically from antifa, or anti-fascist, groups or Black Lives Matter protesters.
And yet, the man said, he would defend an antifa member who was under attack at a protest. “While I might not agree with what you’re saying, you have a right to say it,” he said.
The man said he agrees with those who say there are risks in bringing an armed group to a potentially emotional and unpredictable political protest.
“Yeah, it can potentially escalate things,” he said. “You don’t want every damn lunatic in the world that’s scared of somebody having a gun.”
The man said his group tries to vet members to include only reliable people who can be trusted with a firearm. He said they aim not to engage in conflict, but to help police.
Many members, he said, are current or former law enforcement officers and first responders.
The Three Percenter said his group will continue to seek out protests and any other events where they expect potential trouble.
Heading off trouble
Over the past seven months, Three Percenters have been showing up at rallies across the country looking to confront antifa groups, which also have become more well-known this year, said Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow with the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism.
“It’s never good to have armed people from an extremist movement show up for an event or rally,” Pitcavage said. “Even if they have no intention of using their firearms when they show up, they could change their minds. They could panic.”
Having police separate them from protesters, he said, is a good idea.
“That is actually good policy for events like this, and that is something that is typically done. It just makes things safer for everybody.”
The petition circulated by Griffin, titled “KCPD: Keep the Militia on a Leash,” asks the Police Department to keep militia and counterprotesters at a safe distance behind a police line at future events, and to issue a public statement declaring it an official policy.
By Friday afternoon, the petition had gathered more than 1,000 signatures.
The Police Department did not answer questions this week about the petition or the armed groups appearing at protests.
As an example of how police have separated conflicting protesters and militia, Griffin pointed to a June 10 March Against Sharia at Washington Square Park north of Crown Center.
There, two groups of close to 100 protestors faced off — yelling — over the issue of Muslims in America.
Some Three Percenters, there at the invitation of the march organizers Act for America, mostly remained on that group’s side of the police line.
“All I’m asking, and all we’re asking, is that the police do what they’ve done before, and keep these groups that have a lot of tension right now apart and not allow these guys to be their own police force,” Griffin said.
“We’ve got to take some action now, some smart things, some common-sense things, to make sure we don’t have a Charlottesville here.”
Another anti-racism protest at the J.C. Nichols Fountain is planned for 2 p.m. Sunday. The event, called We the Resistance, is billed as a peaceful rally against racism, hate, violence and fear.