What Is a Militia? And Why Is the Word So Controversial These Days?

Enika Vania

That drew even more attention to the term, escalating demands to label such groups “terrorists.”

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York, wrote on Twitter: “Genuine question for the media / law enforcement: why are you calling these armed neo-Nazi groups breaking the law ‘militias’ instead of ‘gangs’ or ‘domestic terrorist groups?’”

Last spring, various anti-government groups condemned the coronavirus lockdown measures as a form of “tyranny” and organized some of the first protests against them. More groups turned out in force during demonstrations against police brutality. Scuffles between protesters and members of armed groups have led to deaths in Kenosha, Wis., Portland, Ore., and Denver.

There are currently about 181 active anti-government paramilitary groups in the United States, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks them. Some claim thousands of members, but more often their numbers are far smaller, experts said.

American schoolchildren are often taught that Revolutionary War militiamen were heroes. “Patriots formed militia groups to defend the colonies against the British,” reads a brief passage in a fifth-grade textbook used in Hillsboro, Ore. “Some militiamen called themselves minutemen because they could be ready at a moment’s notice.”

In addition, the Second Amendment says, “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.” Many groups cite that language to justify their use of the term. But experts note that “well regulated” implies state control and not freelance efforts by all comers.

The name “militia” suggests the idea of citizen soldiers and patriotism, plus it lends such groups “the color of the law,” said Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow with the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism.

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