Nearly five months after a pro-Trump mob stormed the U.S. Capitol, federal law enforcement continues to identify individuals who were involved. Among the revelations contained in court filings so far, however, is an increasingly clear picture of how central private paramilitary groups were in leading the raucous and violent events of that day. Among those already indicted are alleged members of the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers and Three Percenters.
Once on the outermost fringe of the right, the size and reach of such organized anti-government groups have surged in recent years. Experts say this is, in part, due to ramped up efforts online to grow the movement. One of the key digital platforms they identify behind this mission, a website called MyMilitia, is run by a man who lives in suburban Chicago.
With almost 30,000 registered users, MyMilitia has become a central social media hub for far right extremists drawn to the idea that civilians have a duty to take up arms against a “tyrannical” government. On the site’s community forums, users regularly traffic in baseless conspiracy theories and unfounded claims about a stolen election.
“It is a cesspool, really, for violent rhetoric and conspiracies,” said Alex Friedfeld, investigative researcher for the Anti-Defamation League. “People openly fantasize about civil war, about insurrection, about using violence to target the left.”
The site’s defining function, however, is to help users find and join up with other like-minded individuals to form what the site refers to as “militias.”
Constitutional experts take issue with this characterization, arguing that the only legitimate militias in the U.S. are those regulated by the states — i.e. the National Guard.
Traditionally, extremists interested in rightwing paramilitary activities have had to make a special effort to locate and join private paramilitary groups, said Friedfeld. The effort itself was enough to deter many from even bothering. But with hundreds of unlawful militias featured on the site, MyMilitia has reduced the process to a matter of a few clicks. Moreover, the website has pioneered the concept of so-called “area code militias,” which directs users to others living nearby.
“What this has done is that it has allowed for much more geospatially discreet organizing and networking, which has been really sort of crucial, especially for counter demonstration to George Floyd protests over the summer, for example,” said Hampton Stall, founder of the MilitiaWatch blog. “I do think it has provided a very important linchpin in a broader social media and media landscape that drives militia recruitment.”
The site’s owner
Joshua Ellis is 41-years old and lived in Naperville until recently. Bankruptcy court documents indicate he has relocated to Antioch, Illinois. Ellis works in mold remediation and water damage. He calls himself an Army veteran, although his record was just six months with the Iowa Army National Guard, which he acknowledges he left before finishing advanced individual training. He has lived in several states, has a long history of not paying taxes and has filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection at least three times.
Ellis came to own the website in the spring of 2020 when its creator, a website designer in Ohio, relinquished it to Ellis. The move followed reporting in The Guardian that indicated the site’s designer had also done work for a racist skinhead band.
At the time, Ellis was gaining some national media attention for organizing anti-lockdown protests with other rightwing activists in several states. Ellis has also been involved with an Illinois paramilitary group called We The People Three Percent, but he claims he no longer affiliates with that or any other organization. In fact, he said he does not see a point in joining one now.
“Militias have been regulated into being nothing more than prepper groups,” he recently told WBEZ. “They practice camping and starting fires and stuff like that.”
Nonetheless, in online videos, Ellis urges all Americans to join armed rightwing groups. He claims the site’s user base has roughly doubled under his watch.
During the past year, he has latched onto current events that have become rallying points for the far right. First, anti-lockdown protests, which he said should continue until law enforcement officers recruited into the self-styled militia movement conduct an extrajudicial arrest of a state governor who implemented such policies. More recently, Ellis organized rallies in support of Kyle Rittenhouse, the Antioch teenager charged with killing two people at protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin, after police shot Jacob Blake, a Black man.
The fact that a far right extremist social media site would be run from someone’s home in Chicago’s suburbs has been no surprise to Alexander Reid Ross, a professor at Portland State University and a fellow at the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right. Reid Ross began tracking far right street activity after police in Minneapolis killed George Floyd. He found that, in the weeks before the 2020 presidential election, the Chicago region was a hot spot.
“I think we’re looking at radicalized suburbs and the spread of the militia movement into middle America,” said Reid Ross.
At some conservative rallies that Reid Ross tracked in the Chicago area, including in Schaumburg, Joliet and Elgin, members of organized groups such as the Proud Boys were active participants. Experts say this shift is significant. In the past, private paramilitary groups might have attended street protests as vigilantes, claiming to be there to protect certain groups’ rights. But Reid Ross said the appearance of organized extremists as protesters themselves signals a mainstreaming of unlawful militias.
Reid Ross said he believes the growing tolerance of extremist views comes from long-simmering tensions over changes in the suburbs.
“I ran the data, and I found out that, demographically, places where these far right incidents were taking place were actually demographically more diverse and actually had slightly higher median household income than the national average,” he said. “That narrative was true that these guys are rising up in the suburbs. They’re feeling like the world is getting more diverse and they’re losing their white power.”
Other experts say that racism may be one of several animating factors for individuals who’ve been sucked into the extremist orbit. The past year of COVID-19 lockdowns, civil unrest, baseless conspiracy theories and a particularly fraught election have also contributed, experts said.
Alleged plots of violence
Ellis calls MyMilitia a site for free speech, and claims that its moderators keep it clean of calls to violence. He notes that, so far, nobody charged in relation to the Jan. 6 insurrection has a named connection to the site. Nonetheless, MyMilitia has gained several mentions in the news this past year in relation to known or alleged plots of violence.
In April, the FBI arrested a 28-year old Texas man named Seth Aaron Pendley, saying he was plotting to blow up an Amazon Data Center in Virginia. In the criminal complaint, prosecutors detail the posts that Pendley allegedly made to MyMilitia that indicated a violent plot was in the works.
Federal authorities arrested a man named Brian Maiorana from Staten Island just days after the November election, for allegedly making online threats to kill protesters, police and New York Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). Court filings claim that Maiorana had posted on MyMilitia about his attempts to procure weapons, even though he is a convicted sex offender and prohibited from owning firearms.
In December, a Central Illinois man named Michael Hari was convicted of bombing a mosque in Minnesota in 2017. According to The Guardian, Hari was a registered user of the MyMilitia site and posted to other members an invitation to join an anti-FBI protest around the time that he was being investigated.
Efforts to take the site down
In the wake of the insurrection, Google stopped placing third party ads on MyMilitia. A spokesperson said the site was “violating our longstanding publisher policy against inciting hatred and violence.” For left wing activists who had been trying for months to persuade Google to stop monetizing MyMilitia, the development was both encouraging and frustrating.
“It would have been nice if that would have happened before the attempted putsch,” said Talia Lavin, an author, journalist and liberal activist who has investigated far right paramilitary groups.
Lavin said MyMilitia has been untouched by pressures faced by some other digital platforms in the aftermath of the insurrection. Twitter banned former President Trump, which led many of his supporters to abandon the service. Parler, similar to Twitter for a largely conservative audience, was dropped by its internet hosting service and yanked from app stores for some time. Facebook and Zello, an app that allows users to use their phones like walkie-talkies, deleted certain pages and channels used by some extremists.
But MyMilitia, which is run as a small operation for a particularly niche audience, has remained active.
“They can sort of operate explicitly as a militia recruitment forum without a fear that this will drive away investors,” said Lavin.
Nonetheless, some activists continue to target the site. Nandini Jammi, a tech activist and former co-founder of the organization Sleeping Giants, has called out companies on social media whose software and services allow MyMilitia to continue operating. She says that tactic has yielded some success. PayPal shut down the accounts that Ellis used to process donations and payment for merchandise on the site.
“It makes [MyMilitia’s] operations more difficult,” said Jammi. “They have to start over from scratch every time, which costs them time, which costs them engagement.”
But it has been an uphill climb with other companies. Jammi said the one that licenses MyMilitia’s community chat capability, called Invision PS, has not followed through on calls to revoke the site’s license. The company did not respond to questions from WBEZ. Another service, called Cloudflare, provides website security for MyMilitia. It, too, has been unresponsive to activists’ calls.
Jammi and other activists say they will keep up the pressure, and they hope more people will take up the cause.
Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify Nandini Jammi’s role as a tech activist.
Odette Yousef is a reporter on WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her @oyousef.