Leaked audio recordings and online materials obtained by the Guardian reveal that one of the most prominent anti-lockdown protest groups, American Revolution 2.0 (AR2), has received extensive assistance from well-established far-right actors, some with extremist connections.
AR2 presents itself as a grassroots network, but the recordings and other materials reveal its allies include a well-connected Tea Party co-founder and a family of serial online activists who have rolled out dozens of “reopen” websites and Facebook groups.
Its website was built and is hosted by a web designer long active in far-right circles online, and who runs a bespoke social media network for the militia movement. One of that website’s previous users bombed a mosque, and another user, now memorialized on the site, was recently shot dead by police in Maryland during a firearms raid.
Josh Ellis is the leader of AR2, which has driven anti-lockdown protests across the country, and presented itself as a spontaneous uprising. In videos posted to YouTube, the AR2 website, and across anti-lockdown Facebook groups, Ellis has presented the movement as inclusive and bipartisan, and himself as a conservative everyman.
In the most widely watched video, Ellis, who runs a home-repair business in suburban Chicago, describes himself as “an average American citizen”, concerned to “defend what America was founded on and what America is about”.
But in recordings of Ellis speaking to an inner circle of AR2 members last week, he detailed the help he had received from other players, including radical pro-gun and militia activists.
Ellis told the group, whose Facebook profile picture is the logo of the Three Percent militia, that in recent days he had “talked to the Dorr brothers”.
The Dorr brothers – Chris, Ben, Aaron and Matthew – are rightwing activists whose methods have been roundly criticized by conservative groups and legislators.
The Dorr brothers have orchestrated online campaigns which stake out positions to the right of established pro-gun groups such as the NRA, and state-based right-to-life groups. The campaigns then encourage rank-and-file conservatives to donate money and sign petitions on websites that harvest their data.
An analysis in late April by internet security researchers found hundreds of “reopen” related domains had been registered during that month; that scores could be connected to the Dorr brothers; and that “Facebook groups spun up by the Dorr brothers use these groups to direct traffic to these domains”.
Some of these sites acted as major hubs for disinformation about the pandemic, and many were suspended by Facebook. But the Guardian was able to establish that as of Monday, at least 20 “reopen” or “American Revolution 2” pages for cities and states including Virginia, Florida and Los Angeles were running as private groups.
The pages viewed by the Guardian featured content promoting “deep state” or anti-China conspiracy theories, anti-vaccination beliefs and denialism about the danger of Covid-19. Some, such as “ReopenNC”, had tens of thousands of members.
Aaron Dorr did not respond to requests for comment about his relationship with AR2.
In a telephone conversation, Ellis confirmed the contact, saying that in advance of the 1 May anti-lockdown protests, he did “talk to one of the Dorr brothers early on, asking them to help spread the word”.
Asked if he had initiated contact, Ellis said: “One of our members did, and then [the Dorrs] reached out to me.”
In a subsequent call, Ellis confirmed the authenticity of the audio recording.
In the recording, Ellis specified further help he had received, telling his inner circle: “One of the Utah guys got me hooked up with the owner of mymilitia.com.”
According to internet registration records and My Militia’s affiliated Facebook group, the owner of the mymilitia.com domain is Chad Embrey of New Lexington, Ohio.
According to DNS records and two website “manifestos” archived on mymilitia.com, Embrey has registered at least 20 domains related to the militia movement like “militiaregistry.com”, gun rights like “progungroup.com” or specific militia groups like “iiiers.com”, a reference to the Three Percent militia.
My Militia offers a catalog of existing militias and promotes a program for setting up a militia for every telephone area code.
The site’s extensive library of PDFs includes a Canadian army manual on ambushes, a guide to destroying tanks, and a treatise outlining justifications and strategies for an insurgency in the US. Recent posts include examining the short-term prospect of civil war.
In his second, 2017 manifesto for the site, Embrey wrote he hoped the site would “spearhead” the militia movement, and offered movement goals such as “to augment our local authorities in dire times and assist in our communities from all threats foreign or domestic”, and “to change the negative perception of the Militia by becoming a welcomed force, one that is preferred over militarized police”.
My Militia had brief prominence in 2017 when a site user, Michael Hari, and other members of his Illinois-based militia, bombed a mosque in Bloomington, Minnesota, and plotted to do the same to a second mosque in Champaign, Illinois.
In March 2018, after he and his fellow militia members’ weapons were seized by the FBI, Hari appealed on mymilitia.com for others around the country to rally to their defense.
Embrey’s own militia-related site and pages are just part of a web design portfolio that includes work for other extremist movements.
His website, Embrey Enterprise, features work done for mostly local Ohio businesses, but it also includes the website of a a record label, Tinnitus Records, that almost wholly sells white supremacist skinhead and heavy metal music.
Howard Graves, a senior research analyst at the Southern Poverty Law Center said: “Tinnitus is a hate music label, full stop.” He said it features “a number of racist skinhead bands that have represented and held membership in terror networks”.
Asked in a telephone conversation about whether he knew about Embrey or My Militia before the website was built, Ellis said, “Not really”, but having looked at the website, since added: “It definitely seems like a group that is pretty simple in their belief in just defending the second amendment.”
Asked about Tinnitus Records, he said that Embrey’s apparent links were “very surprising to me”.
He added: “I’ll have to look into that a bit more. I’ve been very clear with Chad from the beginning that as far as I’m concerned, this movement is a very inclusive movement.”
In a telephone conversation, Embrey said he hosted the Tinnitus website on his server. Embrey conceded: “I’ll be straightforward with you: if I knew that it was a racist website and promoted racism, I would have never have took this job. That’s all, it’s just a job. I’m not a racist person.”
On AR2, Embrey said: “Josh had his groups shut down by Facebook, and I’ve been there. They did the same thing to me. So I was like, yeah, I can help you out, but I’m not one to fix your website. It would be easier for me to just throw you up a quick website on my server.”
Ellis also boasted in the audio recordings of his connection to a co-founder of a group that was a prime mover in the Tea Party movement.
In the recording, Ellis is heard to say he has spoken with “Mark Meckler, he’s the one who owns the openthestates.com website, and he’s super connected with [Sean] Hannity, Tucker [Carlson], [Mark] Levin, [Ben] Shapiro, Charlie Kirk” – implying Meckler could help him to connect with prominent conservative media figures.
Meckler’s non-profits have been widely reported as being in receipt of money from funds connected to the Koch brothers, the Coors foundation, and other rightwing mega-donors.
In an email, Meckler’s assistant passed on his comment that “everything he knows about Josh is in the podcast” and declined further comment.