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Ciara O'Rourke
By Ciara O'Rourke October 21, 2020

Looking at the ideologies of the Whitmer kidnapping plot suspects

If Your Time is short

  • There’s no evidence that the suspects arrested in connection with a plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer are antifa activists. 
     
  • Before his arrest, one of the suspects attended a Black Lives Matter protest. Another suspect criticized the movement.
     
  • State and federal documents make no mention of antifa or Black Lives Matter. Rather, they reference an anti-government militia group.
     
  • Michigan’s attorney general has said white supremacist and anti-government groups acted “in concert based on a shared extreme ideology.”
 

On Oct. 8, federal and state officials in Michigan announced they were charging 13 men accused of terrorism, conspiracy and weapons crimes in connection with an anti-government group. 

At least six in the group had plotted to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, investigators said — surprising news that generated wide national coverage at a time when fears of civil unrest are already in the spotlight.

But some social media claims suggest that journalists lost interest in this headline-grabbing case after they discovered the suspects were sympathetic to Black Lives Matter and antifa. Antifa, which stands for "anti-fascist," is a broad, loosely affiliated coalition of left-wing activists that’s been around for decades.

"Notice how the Whitmer kidnapping story disappeared after we found out the perps were ANTIFA and BLM anarchists," one post says. 

"13 Antifa members arrested for plotting to kidnap a governor," another post says. "13 Antifa members ARRESTED for trying to KIDNAP Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to START A CIVIL WAR."

Both posts were flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.) 

First, the case is still very much in the news. But it’s also continuing to unfold, so there’s a lot we don’t know. However, there is no evidence that the kidnapping suspects are antifa activists. And we found that of what is now a total of 14 suspects, only one is known to have attended a Black Lives Matter protest. Another suspect criticized the movement.

The suspects and their ties

On Oct. 9, the day after the kidnapping plot was disclosed to the public, the New York Times published a story titled, "What we know about the alleged plot to kidnap Michigan’s governor."

The article doesn’t mention Black Lives Matter or antifa, except for a reference to a tweet from President Donald Trump, who, criticizing Whitmer, said Democrats "refuse to condemn Antifa, Anarchists, Looters and Mobs that burn down Democrat run cities."

The FBI named Adam Fox was the leader of the kidnapping plot. Fox reached out to members of an anti-government group known as the Wolverine Watchmen for help, according to the Times. 

Seven members of the Wolverine Watchmen were arrested and state authorities accused them of threatening to start a civil war and collecting the addresses of police officers to target them.

In addition to Fox, the names of the other men facing federal charges are Kaleb Franks, Brandon Caserta, Ty Garbin, Daniel Harris and Barry Croft.  

The federal criminal complaint against these men frequently references a Michigan based "militia group." It does not mention antifa or Black Lives Matter. 

The names of the men charged by the state are Paul Bellar, Shawn Fix, Eric Molitor, Michael Null, William Null, Pete Musico and Joseph Morrison. The state later arrested an eighth man: Brian Higgins.

The state affidavit in support of the criminal complaint against these men does not mention antifa or Black Lives Matter either. Rather, it describes the Wolverine Watchmen as an "anti-government, anti-law enforcement, militia group." The affidavit reads:

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"Members of Wolverine Watchmen periodically met for "field training exercises" (FTXs) on private property in remote areas where they engaged in firearms training and tactical drills to prepare for the ‘boogaloo,’ a (term) referencing a violent uprising against the government or impending politically-motivated civil war." 

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel told NPR that multiple white supremacist and anti-government groups acted "in concert based on shared extreme ideology." 

Some of the suspects appeared at protests supporting different causes before their arrest, but of the 14 we only found evidence of one person attending a Black Lives Matter event. The individuals were aligning themselves with other causes.

The Null brothers both attended a protest against Whitmer’s executive orders to slow the spread of the coronavirus, according to the Times. They were photographed there carrying long guns.

A sheriff in Barry County, Mich., has also said that he met William Null several years ago when he came to his office to vent about the Black Lives Matter movement, according to the Washington Post. The sheriff said Null wanted to start his own cause — "My Life Matters" — which he eventually turned into what he called the Michigan Liberty Militia, according to the Post.

Later, Null told the sheriff that he drove to Flint during the city’s water contamination crisis to pass out water bottles alongside Black Lives Matter activists, the Post said.

At least one of the suspects, Daniel Harris, did attend a Black Lives Matter protest, said Amy Cooter, a Vanderbilt University lecturer who studies militias in the United States. Harris who was quoted in the Oakland County Times saying he was upset about the killing of George Floyd and police violence

A video clip shows another suspect, Brandon Caserta, standing in front of an anarchist flag saying Trump is a "tyrant." 

Boogaloo movement more likely, experts say

Cooter, who recently dug into this issue on Twitter, told us she’s seen "zero evidence that (the suspects) are antifa."

She speculated that some people are conflating anarchy and antifa to try to divert attention away from the suspects’ militia connections. 

But anarchy is more closely related to the Boogaloo movement — an extremist effort aimed at overthrowing the government — than antifa, she said. Antifa activists tend to include communists, socialists and anarchists who protest against white supremacy and other far-right causes. Experts say that while they sometimes turn violent, the bulk of antifa organizing is nonviolent.

Many militia members are opposed to racism, Cooter said, and they expressed genuine outrage over the death of George Floyd, who died in Minneapolis in May after a police officer pressed his knee against Floyd’s neck. But she said their support for Black Lives Matter protests are rooted in "notions of anti-governmentalism, a more right-wing concept."

JJ MacNab, a fellow at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, has also tweeted about the case. She criticized "Right-wing Facebook" for "trying to reframe the Michigan militia kidnaping plot as a left-wing extremist conspiracy." More recently, she described the defendants as "a mix of Boogaloos and militants."

Our ruling

The Facebook post claims that the suspects in the kidnapping plot are "ANTIFA and BLM anarchists."

We haven’t found anything to support the claim that the suspects are antifa activists. We looked for news coverage, court documents or expert opinion that could corroborate that and came up empty. 

At least one of the suspects attended a Black Lives Matter protest. But to paint the group as a whole as antifa and BLM activists is disingenuous, and discounts the vast reporting from the media and state and federal officials on the militia and anti-government ties of the men arrested. 

We rate this post Mostly False.

 

Our Sources

Facebook post, Oct. 8, 2020

Facebook post, Oct. 17, 2020

The New York Times, FBI says Michigan anti-government group lotted to kidnap Gov. Gretch Whitmer, Oct. 8, 2020

The New York Times, What we know about the alleged plot to kidnap Michigan’s governor, Oct. 9, 2020

USA Today, The boogaloo movement is gaining momentum. Who are the boogalo ‘bois’ and what do they want? June 19, 2020

Amy Cooter tweet, Oct. 20, 2020

New York Post, Brandon Caserta, accused of Gretchen Whitmer kidnap plot: Trump is a ‘tyrant,’ Oct. 9, 2020

JJ MacNab tweet, Oct. 17, 2020

JJ MacNab tweet, Oct. 11, 2020

Detroit Free Press, Wisconsin man is 14th to face charges in alleged Whitmer kidnap plot, Oct. 15, 2020

The Washington Post, Accused leader of plot to kidnap Michigan governor was struggling financially, living in basement storage space, Oct. 9, 2020

Criminal complaint plot to kidnap Gov. Whitmer, filed Oct. 6, 2020

Michigan affidavit in support of complaint, undated

NPR, Michigan AG says white supremacist groups behind plot to kidnap Gov. Whitmer, Oct. 8, 2020

Amy Cooter, senior lecturer in sociology, Vanderbilt University, Oct. 9 and 20, 2020

 

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