In the aftermath of a violent gathering of white nationalists in Virginia and a foiled bomb plot in Oklahoma, a militia network known as the Three Percenters has found itself in the news. And because he met with Wisconsin's chapter of the group earlier this month, a Republican state lawmaker is facing accusations of supporting white nationalism from critics on social media.
State Rep. Joel Kleefisch, R-Oconomowoc, posted a photo to his Facebook page on August 6 after speaking with the Wisconsin chapter of the Three Percenters. The photo went largely unnoticed until early this week, after the group's name was included in reports on two incidents: the violent white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and a thwarted anti-government bomb plot in Oklahoma.
The Three Percenters' connection to these events is complicated.
The Three Percenters did have a presence at the Charlottesville rally. According to reports from the event, which resulted in three deaths and dozens of injuries, the Three Percenters was one of several militia groups whose members attended in an effort to keep the peace. Members of these militia groups were armed, displaying their weapons, they said, to discourage physical violence.
While these groups have generally professed neutrality, the national Three Percenters network released a statement on Saturday issuing a "stand down order" in an effort to distance itself from "white supremacists and Nazis."
"We strongly reject and denounce anyone who calls themselves a patriot or a Three Percenter that has attended or is planning on attending any type of protest or counter protest related to these white supremacist and Nazi groups," the statement read.
It wasn't long before the group released another statement, distancing itself from another extremist action. An Oklahoma man was arrested on Saturday and charged with attempted destruction of a building by means of an explosive. Jerry Drake Varnell at one point told federal investigators he believes in the Three Percenter ideology.
In another statement, the national Three Percenters group said Varnell was not a member of the network and could not have been "because he clearly did not believe or uphold the principles that a true Three Percenter lives by." In the same statement, the group took issue with a CBS News report that referred to the group as anti-government.
"We are NOT anti-government. In fact, we are very pro-government, so long as the government abides by the Constitution, doesn't overstep its bounds, and remains 'for the people and by the people,'" the statement read.
The group has been named by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an "active anti-government" group. Its members dispute the classification.
"We’re not hatemongers, we’re not what these idiots were doing in Virginia, that’s not us. This moron in Oklahoma, that’s not us. What we do is defend people’s rights even if they don’t agree with us," said Brian Miller, a Three Percenter from Pewaukee, in an interview. "The only time we get passionate is when it comes to gun control, because we firmly believe that the Second Amendment is very clear. So we’re not out spewing hate and telling people we’re going to overthrow the government. That's ridiculous."
Kleefisch said he spoke to the group about hunting regulations, concealed carry laws, the state budget and a tax incentive package for Foxconn under consideration. He was invited to speak to the group by a longtime friend, Gary Oliver, who is a member.
He found himself defending his visit after people on Facebook and Twitter started accusing him of meeting with and supporting white nationalists and sending the photo to reporters.
In the photo, several members of the group flashed Three Percenter hand signs, which take the same form as the "OK" sign. Some Twitter users described that as a "white power" sign. According to the Anti-Defamation League, that connection is a hoax; however, some people who marched at the Charlottesville rally did display it.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Three Percenter hand gesture "symbolizes their belief in the disputed claim that only three percent of American colonists fought against the British in the American Revolution. The three extended fingers represent this three percent."
"I have lived my entire life with the belief, mission and fortitude that everyone is equal, and the fact that is being questioned hurts beyond the pale," Kleefisch said in an interview. "I would never, never, never, ever waste my breath, time or energy on anybody or any group who worked toward the detriment of society through racism, supremacy of any creed or hatred of any person."
Kleefisch said his "entire life" has been committed to promoting equality.
The lawmaker, first elected in 2004, said he has "probably spoken to 1,000 groups" since he took office, and will speak to nearly any group that invites him. He said he doesn't know the "inside baseball tenets" of the Three Percenters, but had looked them up online and read that they are "strongly supportive of the Constitution and Second Amendment rights."
Miller described the group similarly. He has been involved with the network for more than a decade, he said. He has generally been reluctant to speak to reporters, he said, but he felt compelled to speak out after the events of the previous weekend.
"I would tell the people to go read the Constitution, and that’s what we are about. We’re not racists, we’re not out attacking people," Miller said when asked how he would describe the group to others.
The political ideology of most Wisconsin members is conservative, Miller said, but some members are left-leaning. While the group is primarily composed of men, some women are involved, too — and its membership is not limited by any racial confines, he said. Its memberships also include retired law enforcement officers, first responders and paramedics, he said.
"I’m not going to say there’s not bad people that are involved in this movement, but we in Wisconsin for sure distance ourselves from them," Miller said.
In Wisconsin, Miller said, Three Percenters practice at shooting ranges, do navigation training and offer help in situations where people's right to be heard may be in jeopardy.
"Believe me," he said. "We're not looking for any trouble."