Mary Sanchez

What are armed Three Percenters doing at anti-hate rallies in Kansas City?

Three Percenters watch on Sunday, Aug. 20, at an anti-hate rally at the Country Club Plaza.
Three Percenters watch on Sunday, Aug. 20, at an anti-hate rally at the Country Club Plaza.

Decked out in camouflage, with handguns and bowie knives strapped into holsters, a couple dozen Three Percenters quietly approached the anti-hate rally in Mill Creek Park.

Their self-styled military presence Sunday was disconcerting to say the least. The National Lawyers Guild is the latest to voice concerns, pressing the mayor and chief of police for answers.

Most assumed the Three Percenters were racists, aligned with the sort of vile anti-Semitic attitudes that descended upon Charlottesville, Va.

Not so, claims a spokesman for one segment, as the group was a collection of regional factions of loosely affiliated Three Percenters. The name stems from the idea that a small portion of the population, perhaps just three percent, actually stepped onto the battlefield during the Revolutionary War.

They view their role as vital protectors of the Bill of Rights and believe in a strict reading of the Constitution. They’re a citizen militia that imagines themselves essential to such rallies to ensure that everyone’s right to free speech is protected. But why does pursuing that goal require firearms?

“We might not agree with the opinions of everybody there, but we will fight for their right” to express them, said Robert Malcom, a 48-year-old who lives in Clinton, Mo., but was with the Three Percenters in Kansas City last weekend. “None of us agree with white supremacists.”

Not-so-shockingly, they are big believers in the right to bear arms.

Malcom said his group is generally “at the opposite end of the political spectrum from antifa or Black Lives Matter.” But he insists they are not anti-government (they believe in paying taxes), which would separate them from some other militia groups.

Combat vets are numerous, he says. Malcom said he’s a former Marine.

Who, exactly, the Three Percenters are will become clearer in time. Malcom says they plan to attend many more rallies locally and elsewhere.

A more immediate concern is online chatter since Sunday. It’s bolstered an assortment of rumors and accusations that Kansas City police are “disturbingly friendly,” with this militia movement.

A video is circulating showing police talking jovially with some of the Three Percenters before they approached Sunday’s rally. A petition is circulating to press new Chief of Police Rick Smith and Mayor Sly James to insist that the group stays separate from other protesters at future events.

On his blog, Chief Smith discussed policies on demonstrations, saying “we never asked for any assistance from any militia group, nor would we.”

Sunday, a police spokesman confirmed that the group had notified the department before appearing at the rally. Malcom said his group put away their long guns at the request of police on Sunday, acknowledging the reality that such a show of weaponry is intimidating to others.

“But they don’t ask us to be there,” Malcom said. “We’re not there to stir problems, to stir fights.”

This is a minefield for police. They’re wise to engage with any group, to know who its leaders are and to keep lines of communication open.

But if police give the impression that they view Three Percenters as allies, as worthy of a role similar to their own, they will undermine trust with people who want to protest or gather in peace, like those who carried signs pleading to “Make America Kind Again.”

Historically, para-military patriot groups have morphed over time. One leader will get agitated and splinter off to form another unit, one that might be beholden to more radical views.

They often train for catastrophes, preparing for a scenario where the U.S. has been bombed.

On Sunday, it was other protesters who verbally tried to mix it up with the Three Percenters. They didn’t take the bait and moved away.

What Malcom does not have is an adequate answer for is why Three Percenters are essential at these rallies. He said they want to be present to defend the police if necessary. Officers have been attacked at protests, he notes.

There’s a strong air of bravado here, verbal boasts of commitment to valor, of being a patriot.

“I would personally lay my life down to preserve anybody’s rights,” Malcom said.

That scenario is exactly what the real police must take every measure to avoid.