Justin Lindsay is a US National Correspondent for JURIST, and a 2L at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. He served 10 years as an Officer in the United States Army.
A jury in Michigan found three men guilty Wednesday of providing material support for a terrorist act in connection with the plot to kidnap and execute Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer during the 2020 election. The verdict comes two months after the successful prosecution of Adam Fox and Barry Croft, Jr., the ring leaders of the 2020 plot.
All five men were part of the “Wolverine Watchmen”, a small militant organization that trained in Jackson County, Michigan. Joe Morrison, Pete Musico, and Paul Bellar conducted “shooting drills” with Fox and Croft in preparation for an anticipated shoot-out with Gov. Whitmer’s security detail, but did not follow the pair when they made an armed reconnaissance of the Governor’s vacation home or participate in their rehearsals in the weeks prior to their arrest.
Because the three men did not join Fox and Croft for reconnaissance and rehearsals, and because Fox and Croft’s first trial ended in a hung jury, observers were unsure if the prosecution would secure a conviction. However, prosecutors were able to introduce the trio’s anti-government tirades and their vocal support for the so-called “boogaloo movement”, a far-right hope that the country should undergo a second civil war. Fox and Croft hoped that their actions would spark such a war, and jurors convicted Morrison, Musico, and Bellar of aiding them in that endeavor.
Kidnapping powerful politicians is a millennia-old practice, going at least as far back as the seizure of Richard the Lionheart in the 1100s. Most kidnappings involve a ransom demand or a prisoner exchange though, as the life of the kidnapped party is what’s valuable. In this case, however, the participants saw the value not in the Governor’s life, but in ending it.
The convicted men saw themselves as part of a larger movement of anti-government extremists hoping for a second American Civil War. The boogaloo ideology, derived from an internet joke about rehashing original content, began in 2019 as a typical anti-government sentiment glorifying Timothy McVeigh and railing against the 1992 Ruby Ridge siege. It surged in popularity following the COVID restrictions initiated across the country in 2020, with various militia groups believing the time to spark the war had come. The Wolverine Watchmen were one such group, and while their arrest and conviction has broken up one group, the ideology remains; several individuals who identify with the movement were present on January 6th, 2021, seizing the moment to try and overthrow the national government.
America’s ubiquitous firearms have long presented a troubling problem to law enforcement. Policing in the United States has gravitated towards a confrontational “assume the worst” stance in lock-step with the increasing availability of higher quality, deadlier firearms, leading to confrontations like Ruby Ridge. The internet now allows what would have previously been local groups to share information, tactics, and inspiration with like-minded vigilantes across the country. This ability to connect and their willingness to work with outsiders make those who have the “boog” mindset a continuous, low-level threat to state and federal officials.
The flexibility offered by the ideology has proven to be the greatest obstacle in mitigating the threat it poses. Speaking to the US House Intelligence and Counter-Terrorism subcommittee, J.J. MacNab of George Washington University’s Program on Extremism has noted that “boogaloo” isn’t an independent movement, but a coalescence of previously radicalized individuals from many different groups. The danger is not a group of conspirators with a master plan, but small isolated cells inspiring each other to bolder acts of violence.
“Boogaloo” activity has greatly decreased as the COVID lockdown restrictions have eased and a surge in law enforcement monitoring has followed the January 6th attack. Nonetheless, the danger remains. Individuals and groups continue to meet and plan because “boogaloo” is not a group, but an idea; the idea that America is a tyrant bent on oppressing someone. The idea that the country is crying out for a second 1776, a second Fort Sumter, a second Murrah Federal Building. The idea that a single spectacular act of violence, like executing a Governor, could inspire a national holocaust. Such an outcome is not a foregone conclusion though if states attorneys and law enforcement continue to confront the militias planning for violence. The rule of law is a tenuous thing, but results in prosecutions such as these show there is strength in it yet.