Pro-Police Militia-Like Groups Wade Into Utah Politics After A Year of Public Health Restrictions and Racial Justice Protests
Kish North sat outside the Cottonwood Heights police station on an August afternoon. He had a pistol strapped to his left hip and wore a blue t-shirt that said “Thank You Trump.”
North founded a group last year called Utah Patriots. One of their self-ordained roles is to provide “security” for events by showing up to protests armed.
“We came out arm-in-arm,” he said, recalling the summer of 2020 when they came to a protest at the station. “We're very well organized. We stood between Black Lives Matter and the buildings. We want it to be known that we're here to protect our community.”
Critics argue they just want to intimidate protestors. But for North, it’s bigger than that.
Why Militia-Like Groups Are Politically Organizing Now
His group is part of a new set of pro-police, militia-like groups that are getting involved in state and local politics in Utah. It comes after a year in which protests against racial injustice gripped the country and state, and local officials instituted public health restrictions to help slow the spread of COVID-19.
North said those public health restrictions and vaccine mandates have made him nervous, and there could come a time when he’d need to take up arms against the government.
Instead of letting it get to that point, North is turning to politics.
“We want to do all we can do as a community before we go to the last straw,” he said.
Earlier this year, North testified in a legislative committee hearing at the Utah state capitol for a bill that would have given legal immunity to drivers who hit rioters with their car if they felt their life was in danger, as well as created harsher penalties for rioting. It didn’t end up passing.
He has also built a decent following that he turns to to further his political agenda.
“I can go out to our base — we've got almost a thousand people in emails,” he said. “We have thousands of other relationships. We talk to them. We go out with fliers and communications and say, ‘OK, we need people here, here and here. We need your support. Can you sign this?’”
North said Utah Patriots also has a list of elected officials, from the state Legislature to local school boards, that they would like to get out of office. They’re recruiting people to run for those seats.
The anti-rioting bill he lobbied for was originally proposed by a different militia group: United Citizens Alarm.
“We found a bill that Florida had introduced that we thought would be wonderful here,” said Casey Robertson, who founded the group.
He started it last year in response to a man getting shot during another protest against racial injustice in Provo. Like Utah Patriots, they also show up to events on their own accord, guns in hand, ready to “back the police” if there are clashes with protestors. They even hold firearm trainings for their members.
Now, they have a political committee, too.
“We had Sen. [David] Hinkins pick [the rioting bill] up and sponsor it,” Robertson said. “It was the connection that Brett had on our political committee. He knows a lot of the guys up there. So he would go around, say, ‘Hey, we're going to bring this to you, want to [sponsor it]?”
Hinkins and Brett Stewart didn’t make themselves available for an interview for this story.
UCA’s political committee also organized lobbying efforts around the anti-rioting bill and other legislation related to policing.
Robertson said he’d never been involved in politics before.
“I think a lot of people last May in Utah, we're watching all this chaos and watching our country crumble and everyone's just sitting there going, what can I do about it?” he said. “I thought that same thing was like, ‘I'm just one guy. I'm just a dad.’ I just stood up and said something.”
A National Shift
UCA and Utah Patriots have been hesitant to label themselves as militias, because they’re not anti-government. But Amy Cooter, a sociology lecturer at Vanderbilt University who studies these types of groups, said they definitely qualify.
“Militia is probably accurate, especially for those groups who do actually train,” she said.
Cooter said across the country, these types of groups have actually been involved in politics to some degree for a while, but it’s become more common in the past year.
As the Republican Party moves further to the right, she said there’s more room for militia members to be publicly involved. Almost half of Republican voters say "a time will come when patriotic Americans have to take the law into their own hands,” according to a new poll from George Washington University.
The pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests last year also pushed more militias to get into politics, according to Cooter.
“Most of the Black Lives Matter protests that happened — for [militia members] became interpreted as anarchy, and as being disruptive to the communities and as being a threat to the nation as a whole,” Cooter said. “So that was one variable, in my opinion, that contributed to the urgency that some of them felt about this idea that something bad is happening in the nation, that they personally need to stand up and make sure things don't change in a negative direction.”
Even though they think of themselves as law-abiding citizens, she said these types of militias can still be dangerous.
“The reality is most of these groups aren't super organized,” she said. “Some of them train, some of them don't. Some of them, especially if they were formed on Facebook, were kind of open to all comers. And you never know what you're going to get with that either in terms of training or personality or motives or violence.”
Because of that, she said “there is a real potential for something to go wrong” when these groups show up to events.
“Even in the groups that are well-intentioned — [there is a potential] for them to be on edge and misperceive something, for them to panic and for violence to happen, whether they actually initiate it or someone else does,” she said.
As far as their political involvement goes, Robertson is already planning for Utah’s next legislative session. Since the rioting bill he proposed didn’t pass, he wants to bring it back next year, and make sure any bills he sees as anti-police don’t pass.