In a California town, a militia is welcomed by some, warned by others

The H&L Lumber parking lot in Mariposa, Calif., saw a flurry of activity on Sunday as members of a local militia wearing military-style fatigues handed out pancakes and steak sandwiches to evacuees of the Oak Fire raging nearby. Along with breakfast, they handed out business cards with QR codes and instructions to join their militia.

Some say members of the Echo Company militia served as a de facto checkpoint or publicity for the group during the crisis, according to witnesses who spoke to NBC News on condition of anonymity because they did not want to be identified.

“They had their whole setup with military-style trucks, and they were fatigues and so on,” said Rain Winchester, manager of the nearby Monarch Inn in Mariposa. “I’m fine with them helping with the relief efforts as long as they don’t start setting up roadblocks or doing security work. I don’t want them doing the work of the office of the sheriff.”

The militia is becoming a constant presence in rural Mariposa County southeast of Sacramento with a population of 17,131 scattered across 14 cities, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.

Providing immediate assistance in military-style gear during an emergency is a recruiting tactic used by militias nationwide, and not limited to Mariposa County. As climate change creates more wildfires and adverse weather events, further straining local law enforcement and fire departments, militias across the country have seized disasters as opportunities to get involved in politics and small community emergency services.

Following the Oregon fires in 2020, militias set up civilian roadblocks, which arrested at least one fleeing black family and were ignored by local police. Members of the Oath Keepers created a “community protection team”, six of whom were arrested for breaking curfew during Hurricane Michael in 2018.

Joshua James, an oath keeper who stormed the US Capitol on January 6, met and joined the militia during the relief operations following Hurricane Irma in 2017.

Wildfires in the United States this year have consumed 5.6 million acres. The Oak Fire destroyed at least 116 homes and burned more than 19,000 acres, according to local fire authorities.

Serving as de facto aid organizations is a common recruitment and community gratification tactic used in rural areas to gain support and acceptance in times of emergency, said Rachel Goldwasser, research analyst at Southern Poverty. Law Center.

“Although help is always needed in difficult times, it is extremely important to remember that the militias provide it with a program,” she said.

“This program is about recruiting community members, including victims into their organizations, legitimizing them and radicalizing people to have grievances against the government that they may very well express through intimidation or violence.”

Echo Company is one of hundreds of active militias across the United States, according to a 2016 tally by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a number that has steadily increased in recent years. Experts have warned that the militias were encouraged by former President Donald Trump and other Republican Party leaders.

The number of Echo Company members was not immediately clear. In a time when there is no disaster, he is best known for organizing training sessions for his members and attending demonstrations, common practices for American militias.

Echo Company, however, is well known to Californian militias.

He was ousted from the state’s largest militia organization in California in 2020 for capitalizing on broader, fictitious fears of antifa looters and “behavior that was interpreted as potentially inciting and militant.”

Echo Company attended a straight pride rally in 2020, alongside the Central Valley Proud Boys.

But there are signs that his efforts to provide services have worked. In recent years, the group has gained favor with some community members, as evidenced by the response to a Facebook post from the sheriff’s office warning residents to “be aware of local militia around of the town of Mariposa”.

The post was soon flooded with militia support. Hours later, the Sheriff’s Department issued an “update” softening their stance.

“Clearing up the confusion and responding to the large number of comments on this original post,” the updated post read. “We are not denying community groups help to those affected by the Oak Fire, but it is important that we let the community know about the resources available to them from the incident and Mariposa County.”

The sheriff’s office later added that it “appreciated” the militia’s efforts.

“We had received several notifications asking why we had ‘activated this militia’ [and] this post was to clarify that we have not activated them, they are acting on their own with courtesy,” the post read. “We appreciate their efforts and all [of] the efforts of other private groups or entities assisting our community. »

Echo Company management did not respond to an emailed request for comment. The Mariposa County Sheriff’s Office declined to comment.

The wildfires have been a particularly active time for militias, including Echo Company, often due to misinformation that antifa or looting groups come to take advantage of their communities. In 2020, law enforcement in California and the Pacific Northwest struggled to contain false rumors that antifa was intentionally starting wildfires so that “antifa buses” could smash into communities. towns and loot local businesses.

Mickee Hernandez, a leader of California’s largest state militia, said the Echo Company was kicked out of the group for providing private security to companies fearful of false rumors on Facebook that antifa was on the about coming to loot the stores in Atwater, California.

“We had a falling out, so to speak. We officially deactivated the unit. They continue to use our nickname,” he said.

The QR code given to residents of Mariposa on Sunday directed those who scanned it to a cloned website of the California State Militia, 2nd Infantry, which is not affiliated with Hernandez’s larger group.

Before the group was banned from Facebook amid a broader crackdown on militias, Echo Company posted photos of the group in fatigues keeping the community safe, including “guys standing on the roof with guns” , Hernandez said.

“The militias, in California in particular, can’t do things like this for pay with weapons, especially because of California law. It creates doubt in the minds of the public about what we’re trying to do” , did he declare.

Before the regiment was banned from Facebook, Echo Company posted a logo of the Three Percenters, an extremist movement that advocates for a second American Civil War.

Brian Ferguson, spokesman for the California Office of Emergency Services, said there were no circumstances under which California would “activate” a militia.

“California has a national guard. We have an army. We don’t have a state militia,” he said. “It’s something we take very seriously. It’s in no way related to the state and it’s not something we condone.”

Goldwasser said that while militias can provide assistance in the moment, it is dangerous to allow them to take over from official aid organizations after emergencies.

“There is no easy way to regulate how militias volunteer during or after natural disasters,” she said. “Since they are not invited to participate and are not run by a legitimate agency, they can discriminate against the people they choose to help or worse, discriminate against victims whose ideologies or skin colors are different. of theirs.”

On Facebook, comments continued to pour in in support of the Echo Company, thanking the group for the pancakes, with many insisting it was “good to stop the looters”.

“Thank you for your service. The police can’t be everywhere, there are quite a few in our areas. Don’t loot and we won’t shoot!!” a comment at the top reads, quoting a Facebook post by Trump from May 2020.

Other respondents to the message from the sheriff’s office insisted that their community did not need the help of the militia.

“There is a large open park with a shade-filled pavilion. Completely empty. You would think this would be the perfect place for the evacuees to eat and relax, but no, they chose a few parking lots in the middle of city, very visible, so they can advertise,” one commenter replied.

“They don’t have any authority. They’re in costume and they want attention. That’s it. Otherwise, they’d move their masquerade somewhere that makes sense.”

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