Illinois man runs online hub for far-right extremists


Almost five months after a pro-Trump mob stormed the United States Capitol, federal law enforcement continues to identify those involved. Among the revelations contained in court records so far, however, is an increasingly clear picture of how central private paramilitary groups have directed the loud and violent events of that day. Those already charged include suspected members of the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers and Three Percenters.

Once on the extreme right-wing, the size and reach of these organized anti-government groups have grown in recent years. Experts say this is in part due to increased efforts online to grow the movement. One of the main digital platforms they identify behind this mission, a website called MyMilitia, is run by a man who lives in the suburbs of Chicago.

The site

With nearly 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 post baseless conspiracy theories and unfounded allegations about a stolen election.

“It’s a cesspool, really, for violent rhetoric and conspiracies,” said Alex Friedfeld, investigative researcher for the Anti-Defamation League. “People openly fantasize about the civil war, about the insurgency, about the use of violence to target the left.”

The site’s defining function, however, is to help users find and join other like-minded people to form what the site calls “militias.”

Constitutional experts dispute this characterization, arguing that the only legitimate militias in the United States are those regulated by the states, i.e. the National Guard.

Traditionally, extremists interested in right-wing paramilitary activities have had to make a special effort to locate and join private paramilitary groups, Friedfeld said. The effort itself was enough to deter many from even bothering. But with hundreds of illegal militias featured on the site, MyMilitia has reduced the process to a few clicks. Additionally, the website pioneered the concept of so-called “area code militias,” which direct users to other people living nearby.

“What it did was it allowed for much more geospatially low-profile organizing and networking, which was really crucial, especially for the counter-demonstration to the George Floyd protests over the course of the year. ‘summer, for example, “said Hampton Stall, founder of the MilitiaWatch Blog. “I think this has provided a very important fulcrum in a larger social media and media landscape that is stimulating militia recruitment. “

The owner of the site

Joshua Ellis is 41 years old and lived in Naperville until recently. Bankruptcy court documents say he moved to Antioch, Illinois. Ellis works in removing mold and water damage. He calls himself an Army veteran, although his record was only six months with the Iowa Army National Guard, which he admits leaving before completing advanced individual training. He has lived in multiple states, has a long history of non-payment of taxes, and has filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection at least three times.

Ellis became the website owner in the spring of 2020 when its creator, a web designer in Ohio, handed it over to Ellis. The movement followed report in The Guardian this indicated that the site designer had also worked for a group of racist skinheads.

At the time, Ellis was drawing national media attention for organizing anti-lockdown protests with other right-wing activists in several states. Ellis was also involved with an Illinois paramilitary group called We The People Three Percent, but he claims he is no longer affiliated with that organization or any other. In fact, he said he didn’t see the point in joining one now.

“The militias have been regulated to be nothing more than prepper groups,” he recently told WBEZ. “They practice camping and lighting fires and stuff like that.”

Nonetheless, in videos online, Ellis urges all Americans to join right-wing armed groups. He claims the site’s user base has roughly doubled under his watch.

Over the past year, he has clung to the news that has become rallying points for the far right. First, the protests against the lockdown, which he says should continue until law enforcement agents recruited from the so-called militia movement make an extrajudicial arrest of a state governor. who implemented such policies. Most recently, Ellis held rallies in support of Kyle Rittenhouse, the Antioch teenager accused of killing two people during protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin, after police shot Jacob Blake, a black man.

“Radicalized suburbs”

The fact that a far-right social media site was run from someone’s home in the Chicago suburbs did not surprise Alexander Reid Ross, a professor at Portland State University and a member of the Center for Analysis of the Radical Right. Reid Ross began tracking far-right street activity after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd. He found that in the weeks leading up to the 2020 presidential election, the Chicago area was a hot spot.

“I think we are looking at radicalized suburbs and the spread of the militia movement in Central America,” said Reid Ross.

At some conservative rallies that Reid Ross attended in the Chicago area, including Schaumburg, Joliet, and Elgin, members of organized groups such as the Proud Boys were active participants. Experts say this change is significant. In the past, private paramilitary groups may have participated in street protests as vigilantes, claiming to be there to protect the rights of certain groups. But Reid Ross said the appearance of organized extremists as protesters themselves signals an integration of illegal militias.

Reid Ross said he believes the growing tolerance for extremist views stems from long-simmering tensions over changes in the suburbs.

“I analyzed the data and found that demographically the places where these far-right incidents took place were in fact demographically more diverse and in fact had a median household income slightly above the national average.” , did he declare. “This story was true that these guys are rising up in the suburbs. They feel like the world is becoming more diverse and they are losing their white power.

Other experts say racism can be one of the many animating factors for individuals who have been sucked into the extremist orbit. Last year COVID-19 lockdowns, civil unrest, baseless conspiracy theories and a particularly busy election also contributed, experts said.

Allegations of conspiracy of violence

Ellis calls MyMilitia a site for free speech and says its moderators keep it safe from calls for violence. He notes that, so far, no one charged in connection with the January 6 uprising has any named connection to the site. Nonetheless, MyMilitia gained several headlines over the past year in connection with known or suspected plots of violence.

In April, the FBI arrested a 28-year-old Texas man named Seth Aaron Pendley, claiming he was plotting to blow up an Amazon data center in Virginia. In the criminal complaint, prosecutors detail messages Pendley allegedly posted on MyMilitia that indicated a violent plot was underway.

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 (DN.Y.). Court records say Maiorana posted on MyMilitia his attempts to procure weapons, even though he is a convicted sex offender and prohibited from owning guns.

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 mailed other members an invitation to join an anti-FBI protest at the time he was under investigation.

Efforts to remove the site

Following the insurgency, Google stopped placing third-party ads on MyMilitia. A spokesperson said the site “violates our long-standing publisher policy against incitement to 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 it happened before the coup attempt,” said Talia Lavin, author, journalist and liberal activist who has investigated far-right paramilitary groups.

Lavin said MyMilitia had not been affected by pressure from some other digital platforms in the aftermath of the insurgency. Twitter banned former President Trump, which led many of his supporters to abandon the service. Speak, similar to Twitter for a largely conservative audience, has been ditched by its internet hosting service and removed from app stores for some time. Facebook and Zello, an app that allows users to use their phones as walkie-talkies, have removed some pages and channels used by some extremists.

But MyMilitia, which is run as a small operation for a particularly specialized audience, has remained active.

“They can sort of function explicitly as a militia recruiting forum without worrying that it will drive investors away,” Lavin said.

Nevertheless, some activists continue to target the site. Nandini Jammi, tech activist and former co-founder of the organization Sleeping Giants, took to social media to challenge companies whose software and services keep MyMilitia running. She says this tactic has yielded some success. PayPal closed the accounts Ellis used to process donations and payment for merchandise on the site.

“That makes [MyMilitia’s] more difficult operations, ”said Jammi. “They have to start from scratch every time, which costs them time, which costs them commitment.”

But it’s been a tough climb with other companies. Jammi said the one who clears MyMilitia’s community chat capability, called Invision PS, has not responded to 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. She too did not respond to calls from activists.

Jammi and other activists say they will keep up the pressure, and they hope more people will support the cause.

Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify Nandini Jammi’s role as a tech activist.

Odette Yousef is a journalist in the Race, Class and Communities office of WBEZ. Am here @oyousef.


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