There’s a little wine shop in downtown Ballston Spa with rainbow-colored bottles lining the shop’s front window. The village is small, about 5,000 people, and attracts tourists from all around the world.
Last summer, the owner of the wine shop, Jes Rich, noticed a group of masked men in the street. “As soon as I saw them I ran out the door,” said Rich, who is openly queer and sees her shop as a safe and welcoming space for other queer people.
The men in the street were wearing black and yellow face coverings and T-shirts identifying themselves as members of the Proud Boys, a violent, far-right extremist group. A yellow truck drove alongside the group, blasting the provocative country song “Try That in a Small Town.”
“Get the f*** out of my town,” Rich yelled to the group. “You are disgusting and should be ashamed of yourselves.” The men responded with homophobic slurs.
That weekend, the Proud Boys also marched through the nearby communities of Saratoga Springs and Waterford, handing out flyers.
Other far-right groups have recruited and posted fliers around Upstate New York in recent years, which is also happening in other rural communities across the country. Top security officials say far-right extremism poses a real and dangerous threat.
The landscape of extremism
The Proud Boys recorded a propaganda video from those marches and shared the video online. Some people on the street give the group the middle finger. Others look supportive, stopping to salute their American flags.
Over the last few decades, the North Country region of upstate New York has gone from moderate to more conservative. Most local, state and federal officials are Republican.
The flags and stickers that people put on display reflect that shift. Many fly the yellow Gadsden flag bearing the message “Don’t Tread On Me” — a historic symbol of defiance that has become associated with anti-government sentiment and racial hatred.
Some hang Confederate battle flags from their homes, and some have displayed right-wing militia symbols like the roman numeral III, associated with the Three Percenters ideology. Other people display Punisher stickers, signs that read “This is NRA country,” and flags that say “FJB,” meaning f*** Joe Biden. Many people are deeply devoted to Donald Trump: There are flags and banners all over the region falsely claiming Trump won the 2020 election.
These symbols mean different things to different people, and these ideas exist on a spectrum. But ideas that were once considered extreme have become more mainstream. All around the country, many conservatives have shifted to the right — embracing lies about the election and other conspiracy theories.
People identify with provocative, sometimes violent movements and displaying symbols of those movements. And the symbols usually have one thing in common. They reflect anger or distrust towards the government or towards society as a whole.
Pledging militia support
Back in 2018, a group of people gathered in Norwich for an event called Freedom Fest. One of the event’s speakers was Nathan Mizrahi, who identified himself as the commanding officer of the Liberty State Militia. “Get involved with your militias,” said Mizrahi. “I assure you, they will be needed if this tyranny continues.”
Mizrahi has a Three Percenter tattoo on his hand, a symbol representing part of the broader antigovernment militia movement. He told the crowd at Freedom Fest that politicians are attacking their Second Amendment rights, which “were given to us by God,” and said they need to do their part to defend their freedoms. “Call your local sheriffs,” Mizrahi said. “I walked right into the office of mine. […] Said, ‘How are you? I’m the commanding officer of Liberty State Militia and I’m in your backyard.’
“‘I’m a staunch supporter of the Constitution and I will defend that Second Amendment with my life,’” recalled Mizrahi. “That’s how I met Mike Carpinelli.”
Lewis County Sheriff Mike Carpinelli was at Freedom Fest. He’s part of a far-right movement known as the constitutional sheriffs, which teaches sheriffs they don’t have to enforce laws they think are unconstitutional.
Carpinelli has also echoed some of the rhetoric used in the militia movement, suggesting that he will be among those ready to defend the country against government tyranny. “If all else fails — if all else fails — then we know what we have to do. Then we know. But I don’t believe yet that we’re there yet,” said Carpinelli in 2022.
Standing on the stage at Freedom Fest, Mizrahi looked Carpinelli in the eye and said he’d give the sheriff the shirt off his back. And then he did. He took off his Liberty State Militia hoodie and presented it to Carpinelli in a big gesture of loyalty.
“When you really, truly have the back of the people, the people will literally give the shirts off their backs for you. You need to know that. I pledge my militia,” Mizrahi said as the crowd applauded. “We will forever stand by your side, for someone who stands by ours.”
We reached out to Mizrahi to ask him about his militia. He told us he was no longer involved in it. Still, we were hoping he could shed light on the militia scene in general, and about how the groups work. When do they go from target practice and training in the woods to action? But on the day of our scheduled interview, Mizrahi declined to speak and wished us luck with our article.
The militia landscape
We were able to interview another man involved in the militia movement, Josh Shoaff, who is a self-described Three Percenter and has traveled the country for major anti-government and far-right events in recent years. He was at the infamous Bundy standoff back in 2014 and led an armed, military-style group at the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville.
Shoaff is based in Tennessee, but helps train militia members in New York, which he said are run on a military-style rank structure. “These groups are organized to the point that they have message boards, they have meetings of their own. And those things are put out so that, you know, hey, ‘If you want to come to a training, we’re having training on this and this date, this is the instructor or this is the location,’” said Shoaff.
It’s unclear how many people in the North Country are part of militias or how many militias there are around the state, though according to Shoaff, there are more than twelve active militias in New York.
Experts say the militia landscape has changed over the last few years. Some of these groups have gone underground or disbanded.
Shoaff believes there are a lot of misconceptions about militias. He said they want to protect everyone, no matter their gender or political party or race and said “skin color means nothing” to him.
But in 2019, the late Donald McEachin, a Black congressman from Virginia, suggested using the National Guard to enforce new gun laws. Shoaff publicly called for McEachin to be lynched.
Shoaff said he didn’t know at the time that McEachin was Black, but he still stands by his statement. “I said we should take him out in the middle of the street and hang him,” said Shoaff. “I said what I said because he advocated for using force against citizens. Is that not treason?”
Concerns about militias
Security officials, extremism experts and some law enforcement say militia groups are particularly alarming because they’re driven by their own ideologies. They often claim they’re peaceful and say they would defend everyone, but in fact that may not be the case.
“In a way, they’re inherently a vigilante movement,” said Joe Wiinikka Lydon, an analyst with the Southern Poverty Law Center.
“I think that the biggest threat is that you have groups that have taken it upon themselves to decide what is legal and what’s not legal,” said Wiinikka Lydon. “They are not really accountable to anybody else to wield potential lethal force. It’s also dangerous because a lot of these groups are driven by what we call antigovernment conspiracy theories.”
One group that’s been active in upstate in recent years is the New York Watchmen. They deny they’re a militia, but describe themselves as a “civil defense” group. The Watchmen have marched in the streets dressed in tactical gear.
Charles Pellien leads the New York Watchmen and talked on a podcast in 2020 about the kind of people they recruit. “We take the military guys and former police officers, and we’ve got special forces veterans,” said Pellien, in a clip first reported by WBFO, the public radio station in Buffalo. “We’ve got several black belts in our group. We’ve got [mixed martial arts] fighters. We’ve got championship boxers. So we’re not just some ragtag bunch of guys out there that don’t know what we’re doing.”
There have been brutal fights between right-wing groups like Pellien’s, flaunting their tactical gear, and counter-protesters on the left. That kind of violence has unfolded in larger Upstate cities like Albany and Buffalo.
What’s happening in the North Country?
In the rural North Country, there hasn’t been much of that type of violent extremism that we know of. Incidents around the region seem more scattered and harder to define.
But far-right groups have rallied and posted propaganda around the North Country and there is statewide data on far-right extremism. The Southern Poverty Law Center tracked 53 hate and anti-government groups in New York in 2022.
Research tracks both far-right and far-left extremism in the US, but experts and top security officials say extremism on the right is much more violent, and more likely to be deadly.
“We’re seeing surges in targeted threats, some of which has erupted into violence,” said Cynthia Miller-Idriss, a professor at American University and director of the Polarization & Extremism Research & Innovation Lab. She said the threat of extremism has a much broader impact beyond physical violence — making many more people feel unsafe or uneasy.
State and federal agencies like the FBI are tracking threats in the North Country and throughout New York. They’re also tracking which groups are trying to recruit around the region.
Last fall, signs for a far-right group known as Patriot Front were posted in the Adirondack communities of Keene and Upper Jay. The group also hung signs in Plattsburgh in 2018.
Another group that’s tried to recruit in the area is the Ku Klux Klan. Over the years there have been reports of KKK flyers in Fulton, Montgomery and Oneida counties.
In 2021, a data leak from a Three Percenters group showed that about a third of its registered members were from St. Lawrence County.
There are also “sovereign citizens” around the region, people who believe laws don’t apply to them. “I’ve had more issues with sovereign citizens than I have with Oath Keepers or other individuals,” said Fulton County Sheriff Rich Giardino, who himself has been part of a far-right sheriffs’ group. “Sovereign citizens are resistant and say that they’re not compliant with the laws. Those lead to more high-risk confrontations with police,” Giardino said.
How far-right groups and ideas took root
People are turning to authoritarian groups, leaders, and ideologies around the world, including here in upstate New York. Many experts say economic inequality is a contributing factor.
“Historically, you had jobs that were kind of very masculine jobs, around timbering and mining, and that were shaping the communities in this area and shaping people’s livelihoods, shaping people’s sense of who they are,” said Joe Henderson, a professor at Paul Smith’s College who studies the far-right. “And in a lot of rural areas in the United States, those kinds of careers are gone now.”
Good-paying, middle-class jobs have evaporated in rural areas like the North Country. Henderson said “people are correctly angry” about that, “but who are they angry at?”
“What happens often when you have social disruption, cultural disruption, economic disruption, is there’s groups of people who look around for kind of some authority. And they want someone to kind of ‘make it great again,’” Henderson said.
The propaganda video from the Proud Boys’ three rallies in Saratoga County echoed that feeling. Cynthia Miller-Idriss from American University says propaganda for a group like the Proud Boys specifically targets people who feel something’s been stolen from them.
“Whether that’s a white majority country, or your Second Amendment rights might be taken away by the government supposedly, or a conspiracy theory about Jews or feminists taking something away, or an election being stolen — all those types of propaganda are very much rooted in the idea that you’re going to lose something,” said Miller-Idriss.
There has been some of that targeted propaganda on the ground inupstate New York, but Miller-Idriss said way more recruitment is happening on the internet. “It’s impossible to overstate how much toxic online spaces in particular have played a role in the spread of hateful content, and in the normalization of that content,” said Miller-Idriss. “It’s not that we hadn’t seen this stuff before. It’s just a new form and it’s sort of supercharged in the online environment.”
That trend has led to real-world violence, like with the QAnon conspiracy theory that inspired a shooting at a pizza shop in Washington, DC in 2016. That theory, based on the false claim that Democratic elites are running a child sex ring, was born online and has made it out into the real world in upstate New York.
The impact of conspiracy theories
In the summer of 2020, there was a rally in Watertown where people held signs that said Save the Children, which has become a QAnon hashtag — although the organizer reportedly said QAnon did not inspire that event.
Then, in the spring of 2022, there was a similar gathering in Plattsburgh. A woman in a Facebook video from that rally holds a sign that said “Trump saves children — Biden abducts them.” The QAnon theory has no basis in reality and the FBI considers the movement a national security threat.
“TRUMP WON” and “LET’S GO BRANDON” flags are also visible in the video.
Another conspiracy theory that’s gained traction in recent years is the “great replacement” theory, which is a racist notion that there is a plot to replace white voters with non-white immigrants. There’s an antisemitic element too, that somehow Jews are behind it all. The mass shooters in Pittsburgh in 2018, and El Paso and Christchurch in 2019, all embraced the replacement theory.
Then, in the spring of 2022, it happened again, this time in upstate New York. A white gunman from near Binghamton murdered ten Black people at a supermarket in Buffalo. It was one of America’s deadliest hate crimes in recent history. Before the mass shooting, the gunman published a manifesto online about replacement theory.
In the fall of 2021, months before the Buffalo shooting, North Country Congresswoman Elise Stefanik’s campaign released an ad on Facebook that appeared to echo the great replacement theory. It claimed that Democrats were plotting “a PERMANENT ELECTION INSURRECTION” by granting amnesty to millions of “illegal immigrants.”
Stefanik denied any embrace of the replacement theory and told a CNN reporter that she condemns racism. “I’ve never made a racist comment,” Stefanik said, “and I’m known nationally as expanding the Republican party by supporting Black candidates and Hispanic candidates.”
Stefanik has amplified other conspiracy theories and normalized far-right rhetoric, like repeating false claims about the 2020 election long after they were debunked. She blamed Nancy Pelosi for the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol and described Democrats as “pedo grifters” in an apparent nod to the QAnon conspiracy theory, though Stefanik has denied that connection.
“I think what [Stefanik] does, and what a lot of politicians do, is they lean into radicalization because the base is kind of asking for it,” said Joe Henderson. “If you have political elites that are normalizing violent rhetoric, I don’t care what your party is — I worry about that. I worry about that because there’s going to be some small element that is going to take that toward action.”
Acting on conspiracies and far-right ideologies
On Jan. 6, 2021, more than two thousand people illegally entered the U.S. Capitol with the ultimate goal of overturning the presidential election.
For years, a constellation of groups and ideas had been brewing among anti-government militias, white supremacists, and other groups. They all converged on Jan. 6. The threat manifested into something a lot more visible, real, and dangerous.
Dozens of people from Upstate New York went down to Washington on Jan. 6. A town official from the Albany area organized a bus to D.C. that day. She later resigned. A mother and son from Watertown were among the mob that broke into the Capitol; they were convicted for helping steal Nancy Pelosi’s laptop from her office. And young man from Glens Falls named James Bonet served two and a half months in federal prison for illegally entering the Capitol.
We met James Bonet outside his home last September and interviewed him for more than an hour. Bonet said he went down to D.C. that day to learn the truth about the election.
“There was a lot of people like me, that, we know the election was stolen,” Bonet said. “Being in Jan. 6 and being there, there was a lot of Americans there that were like, ‘We want answers on this,’” said Bonet.
He is still convinced Donald Trump won the 2020 election and that there’s a deep state working against the former president. And Bonet is convinced the truth will come out. “I think right now we’re going through a process of a deep cleaning, and I think through the other side of it’s gonna be awesome,” Bonet said.
According to Bonet, that “deep cleaning” doesn’t necessarily mean violence. But a recent poll found that nearly a quarter of Americans believe “true American patriots may have to resort to violence … to save the country.”
Many people who believe in extremist ideologies believe they are the true patriots — that their group or their ideas will save this country from corruption or tyranny. What security officials and experts worry about is what people will do with those beliefs.
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(This reporting is part of a podcast on far-right extremism in Upstate New York called ‘If All Else Fails.’ The podcast received grant support from Grist and the Center for Rural Strategies.)