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Vol. 1  No. 5                                                       Monday March 15
This issue of the Political Peach considers the problems of private militias and other hate groups in Georgia and offers some reading and  listening recommendations. If you don't subscribe, you can do so here. Issues come every other Monday. Of course, I welcome your feedback and suggestions for future topics. 

Militias and Hate Groups in Georgia

For a long time we’ve known about private militias, conspiracy groups, and hate groups, but suddenly, over the last few months, their existence and their threat has come into sharper relief.  

The Southern Poverty Law Center has just released its Year in Hate and Extremism report that includes a 2020 Hate Map, identifying 29 active organizations in Georgia it defines as hate groups, which include paramilitary, anti-government and domestic terrorist groups.

The presence of these groups is concerning nationally, but it has particular significance in Georgia. Many of these groups and individuals who ascribe to loosely similar beliefs were key in spreading the Big Lie about our election results both in the state and nationally. So, while their concerns are broad and multifaceted, most of these groups have in common strong anti-government, anti-democracy, nativist, and racist beliefs. 

And while violence has been part of this country’s history from our founding, Georgia and the South have deep scars that continue to fester because of our history of slavery, white supremacy and violent oppression by groups like the Ku Klux Klan and others that rained terror on Black communities for years with the tacit permission of law enforcement and white leadership.

These groups echoed the pre-election message from then President Trump that the election would be stolen, and when Biden won Georgia, the Big Lie and Stop the Steal became a battle cry. Hate groups started sponsoring and participating in rallies decrying the election results and strategizing around points where they truly believed the results could be overturned. Their fury rose as the Georgia results were counted, recounted,  certified by the Secretary of State and then the Governor, and the formal selection of Georgia electors prior to the January 6 tabulation of all the states’ electoral college votes.  

In addition to the horror of the insurrection, local media has reported charges against 10 or more people from Georgia or with ties here for alleged participation in the takeover of the Capitol. More Georgians may be implicated as the federal investigation continues. We are now more keenly aware of the hate groups and domestic terrorists among us. 

Private para-military are not legal
One of the many disturbing aspects of the rise of these hate groups, is the presence of paramilitary groups that are armed with assault rifles, ammunition, and military-style equipment. These groups, such as the Oath Keepers and 111% Martyrs recruit members, often from ranks of newly retired military or law enforcement; they participate in active weapons training and military maneuvers, all apparently for the stated purpose of armed takeover of either the federal or a state government as we watched last May in Michigan.

“To be considered a militia group, they need to engage in military training maneuvers, have a very hierarchical structure, and believe that one day they will take up arms against either the federal or a state government,” explains Freddy Cruz, a research analyst for the Southern Poverty Law Center who focuses on anti-government groups. 

Significantly, these groups claim they are legally protected under the 2nd Amendment of the Constitution which states “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” However, the term militia in the amendment refers to the official state militia, not private groups taking up arms and heading to the woods for military training.  “This is a profound misunderstanding of the Second Amendment,” according to Mary McCord of Georgetown University School of Law’s  Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection as quoted in an article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

In fact, these groups, despite operating openly and frequently armed with assault style rifles, are illegal in Georgia. In fact, all 50 states have laws on their books outlawing non-state militias. Yet these laws are rarely enforced. 

“Organizations on the far right have pushed the narrative that their existence goes hand in hand with the 2nd Amendment.” explains Cruz. “Also law enforcement may be hesitant to aggressively go after these groups because officials don’t want to cross the very powerful gun rights groups.” 

Weapons of War
These hate groups also hide behind the Second Amendment in their belief that the government will try to confiscate their guns. In fact, regulation of weaponry has long been established as constitutional. There is no absolute right for private citizens to have unlimited access to guns, particularly military type guns.

However, gun ownership of assault-style weapons has exploded in recent years. One reason is that in 2004 the Bush administration and Congress let the assault weapons ban expire. Then in 2008, in the District of Columbia v. Heller, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that an individual has the right to possess firearms - separate from having to serve in a “well regulated militia.” Basically, the Court ruling established that the Second Amendment created an individual’s right to own firearms. 

“Combine the Heller ruling with the absence of an assault weapons ban and you have a recipe for tons of individuals having easy access to weapons of war in our streets and on our Capitol steps,” observes Heidi Yewman, a former board member of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence and producer of the film Behind the Bullet. “The fact that so many of these militia group members proudly show up in public sporting semi-automatic weapons is very problematic.” 

Leaders must speak out
Observers and experts who closely follow the range of domestic hate groups or terrorists, differ somewhat on the direction and trends of these groups. It’s possible, without a Donald Trump in leadership, they will fade into the background, having had their day in the spotlight. But it is just as likely they will grow stronger and become more of a threat to individuals, and to our democracy.

Georgians need to be clear-eyed about the possibilities. First, we can stay informed about potential threats and lobby our elected officials both on the state and national level for enforcement of laws that are already on the books. Also, we can advocate for more stringent gun safety regulations and other measures that will stem the proliferation of these militias. 

But most importantly, our elected officials and other leaders need to stand up and speak out against misinformation and lies, and work to counter conspiracy theories. Many of our Georgia legislators participated in the Big Lie of the election. They refused to accept the results to the point of urging Vice President Pence to stop or delay the counting of the Electoral College votes on January 6. By their actions and inaction, these Georgia legislators have fed this anti-government bias and amplified the messages of these hate groups, to the detriment of our democracy. Our state deserves better.

When I read the AJC obituary of the untimely and sad death of Marshall Latimore, I went to the Atlanta Voice Newspaper website, where he worked. I stumbled on two informative and moving short documentaries titled Peachtree+Pine that he produced. I did not know Marshall, but I wish I had. He will surely be missed. 

What I’m reading: “When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir” by Patrisse Khan-Bandele. 

What I’m listening to: I’m working my way through a few past episodes of a great podcast I just discovered, Our Body Politic. 

About the Author

Krista Brewer is a native Atlantan who has a professional background in writing, reporting and editing. For several decades she has closely followed Georgia politics, focusing on topics such as healthcare, voting and immigrant rights, and budget and environmental issues. She is active on Twitter and invites readers to follow her @KristaRBrewer
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