Numerous Facebook users who branded themselves as armed vigilantes protecting Kenosha, Wisconsin, shared posts justifying the actions of Kyle Rittenhouse — a white teenager charged with killing two people and wounding another during a protest against police brutality in the lakeside city — and threatened to start violence after his arrest, a Snopes investigation has found.
Despite the social media site's ban on such discourse by militias and white supremacists, Facebook accounts used a private group named Wisconsin Liberty Militia to discuss plans that included opening fire on "any one that starts rioting" and setting suspicious vehicles on fire.
The police shooting of a Black man, Jacob Blake, by a white police officer in Kenosha on Aug. 23, 2020 sparked nightly protests against racism by American police in the city, and then those gatherings prompted armed counter-protesters, including Rittenhouse, to patrol streets. He was arrested on Aug. 26, in Antioch, Illinois, where he reportedly lives with his mother in an apartment complex, and he was charged with first-degree intentional homicide, among other crimes.
Under the guise of trying to prevent looting and property destruction, the Wisconsin Liberty Militia Facebook group included at least four people who claimed to be members of the U.S. Army, Wisconsin Army National Guard, or U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs on their Facebook profiles. Additionally, at least one other user said he did "army shit" while simultaneously being a member of the group, and one of the group's supposed founders told Milwaukee journalists he was a veteran.
What follows is everything we know about the former online militia group, its members, and its threats of violence on the heels of the alleged killings by Rittenhouse, who was captured in footage carrying a military-style rifle and marching alongside members of various armed groups shortly before the shooting. Several fringe Facebook pages, in addition to the Wisconsin Liberty Militia group, appeared to be dedicated to organizing such gatherings, despite the social platform's recently expanded policy prohibiting discourse that celebrates or advocates for violence.
We should note here: The Wisconsin Liberty Militia Facebook group is no longer active, though it had evaded Facebook's detection for what should be prohibited content as outlined by the platform's "Dangerous Individuals and Organization" policy, for days, if not weeks. On Aug. 27, 2020, after Snopes shared evidence of the group's supposedly forbidden activity with Facebook, a spokesperson for the social media giant told us via email the site had removed the group for violating the above-mentioned policy regarding militia organizations.
The Wisconsin Liberty Militia Origin Story
This Facebook group was originally established on June 1, 2020, one week after the death of George Floyd — a Black man who died after a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on the neck for roughly nine minutes — and amid chaotic protests worldwide against unjust killings by police. During these protests, a separate counter group of Americans emerged, one that considered it its duty to dispatch armed men at the protest sites to try to circumvent property destruction or theft by people outraged over police brutality and others.
"The country is polarizing! We must be organized and ready for the possible coming of the second civil war," the Wisconsin Liberty Militia Facebook group's description read
Since its creation, residents of the rural areas spanning the Madison and Milwaukee areas to Kenosha County actively posted on the page, our analysis of the page's archived posts and comment threads showed. About a dozen users served as the group's administrators or founders, monitoring its content.
Initially, most posts were largely informational — users shared images of or links to firearms, shooting techniques, anti-Black Lives Matter and anti-communism propaganda, and commentaries that attempted to rally America's "silent majority" of conservatives to some sort of political action. Let us note here: Wisconsin is an open-carry state, but it is illegal for those under 18 years old, such as Rittenhouse, to carry firearms openly in public.
However, after news reports said a Wauwatosa police officer (someone who had fatally shot three people over five years while on duty) was assaulted near his home on Aug. 8, 2020, the Facebook page's calls to action gained specificity and alluded to real-world gatherings.
"I'm a little less than an hour from Wauwatosa," a founder wrote. "I just don't know if we have serious enough numbers yet to be able to effectively organize."
Another responded: "Sometimes just the fact that we WOULD assemble can have a chilling effect on the hooligans."
Then, in reference to Blake's shooting, one user wrote:
Heads up for everybody that is in the Kenosha area, officer-involved shooting, details are very questionable at this time but there is a video online, civilians around the area are already calling to start shooting police. things could get bad quickly so keep your heads on swivel.
One commenter posted a cellphone video of the shooting, which showed Blake, 29, trying to get into his SUV from the driver-side door as a police officer pointed a gun at him, grabbed him by his shirt and then fired several times — shooting Blake in the back. (Wisconsin’s attorney general since identified the officer who fired his weapon as Rusten Sheskey.)
Follow-up posts reported alleged injuries against police officers without going into specifics and shared a live-feed of people gathering in Kenosha to protest Blake's shooting. "Be a shame if something happened as they passed by," wrote one group member, referring to the protesters.
During the protests, several buildings were burned or destroyed in Kenosha, including a facility run by the state Department of Corrections (DOC), which an agency spokesperson told Snopes was "a total loss."
The discussions in the following days among members of the Wisconsin Liberty Militia Facebook group included talks about traveling to Kenosha to supposedly help protect police and properties and rumors about "outside agitators ... who just want to violently riot" also making the trip to the city between Chicago and Milwaukee.
Then, after Rittenhouse allegedly shot three people, a group founder posted a comment that read "#FreeKyle" and a link to a news page titled, "Vigilante With Long Gun Shoots and Kills 2 Jacob Blake Protesters in Kenosha." Group members debated what they thought happened, and some users appeared to try to justify Rittenhouse's actions by saying he was being attacked by protesters and acted in self-defense. Those posts included:
'There's a militia guy being attacked by an ANTIFA looking guy. Shots are continually being fired but not by him. He was trying to call 911 but they accused him of shooting the ANTIFA looking guy laying by car.
'I don't condone killing people, but I don't know what people are supposed to do if the police and the guard can't defend our community.'
'And now you lose the ability to defend yourself from someone throwing a molotov cocktail at you and a mob chasing you down the street...'
'Kyle seems to have done [the] world a favor with all the new news coming out about the protesters. ...'
Authorities have identified the shooting victims as Anthony Huber, 26, and Joseph Rosenbaum, 36. A third victim, Gaige Grosskreutz, 26, was wounded and is expected to survive.
Other posts in the Facebook group supposedly showed images of the deadly scene, as well as a screenshot of tweets by U.S. President Donald Trump condemning "looting, arson, violence, and lawlessness" and explaining that he was sending federal troops to Kenosha to "restore LAW and ORDER!"
Around that time, the posts started to include explicit threats. One member of the organization wrote the following:
And another member urged followers to "open fire on any one that starts rioting" and others in the group agreed. Additionally, users posted:
Based on those posts, it was accurate to state at least one member of the group told others to set vehicles that appear to belong to "out of town looters and rioters" on fire, and a group of followers seemed to use the page to decide under what circumstances they can fire their guns.
Handful of Group Members Claimed to be Army Personnel
In a news report by WISN-12, a Milwaukee TV news station, interviewee Mackenzie Scheerenberg said he had founded the Wisconsin Liberty Militia Facebook group and was a U.S. Army veteran and served in Afghanistan.
"Until people actively come out and start condemning the violence from the Black Lives Matter rioters," he told the reporter. "Then, I recommend that everybody in the area of Kenosha be armed and ready because they're coming for you."
"I say it is not about defending property," Scheerenberg said. "It is about the possible lives that could be in those buildings. So if you're out there burning buildings. It looks to me like you're trying to kill people."
Another post by a user who claimed to be a U.S. Army sergeant and veteran of the Iraq war said he wanted to travel to Kenosha from Colorado to photograph the group's efforts on the ground.
Via phone and email requests, we asked representatives of the U.S. Army to comment on the involvement of specific members in the Wisconsin Liberty Militia Facebook group. However, spokesperson Jacqueline Wren said she could not confirm or deny service records without more information about the alleged members. We also asked, in general, for details of policies regarding if, or to what extent, members of the forces are allowed to join militias or white supremacist groups, either virtually or in person, that have dispatched armed men at protests against policy brutality across the country. Wren responded with the following statement:
The Army does not tolerate racism, extremism, or hatred in our ranks. When an individual enters into the military, they are held to high moral and ethical standards. We prohibit military personnel from actively advocating supremacist, extremist, or criminal gang doctrine, ideology, or causes.
Commanders have the authority to employ the full range of administrative and disciplinary actions, including administrative separation or appropriate disciplinary action, against military personnel who engage in prohibited activity including supremacist, extremist, or criminal gang doctrine, ideology, or causes. Soldiers who choose to engage in such acts will be held accountable for their actions.
In other words, Army personnel could face disciplinary action if leaders believed, and found evidence to prove that, members were involved in a group that promoted violence.
Additionally, at least one of the group's roughly 220 members was an employee of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in Milwaukee, according to federal records compiled by FedsDataCenter.com and the user's Facebook profile. We asked the federal agency about that particular person, to which a spokesperson responded with the following emailed statement, including no other explanation:
VA stands strong in its commitment to equal opportunity and diversity.
For specific questions about Facebook groups, we refer you to Facebook.
The Wisconsin National Guard did not respond to our requests for comment.
Facebook's Response to the 'Call to Arms' in Kenosha
In comments, members of the Facebook group endorsed a separate page on the social media platform, called The Kenosha Guard, which was also rallying members into organizing on the streets during the protests against police brutality.
Kevin Mathewson, 36, a former alderman in Kenosha, told The New York Times he had organized the Kenosha Guard page during the protests against the killing of Floyd because he felt that the police were outnumbered by demonstrators and could not protect the city.
Per the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, a post in that group attempted to rally "patriots willing to take up arms and defend [our] City tonight from the evil thugs." After Rittenhouse's arrest, Facebook spokespeople told reporters the company did not find a connection between his account and the Kenosha Guard page.
After the deadly shootings, The Verge reported The Kenosha Guard group said it was unsure whether one of its members had fired on protestors but did not disavow the shooting or its perpetrator. "We are unaware if the armed citizen was answering the Kenosha Guard Militia’s call to arms," the statement read. "Just like with the shooting of Jacob Blake, we need all the facts and evidence to come out before we make a judgement. God Bless and stay safe Kenosha!"
Facebook told journalists that it had received several complaints about The Kenosha Guard page, which had gained more than 3,000 members, before the killings during a protest, but an initial review by site moderators had erroneously left it up, per numerous news reports. By Aug. 27, 2020, Facebook removed the group — much like the Wisconsin Liberty Militia group — under its new rules to ban groups that celebrate or condone violence, or the Dangerous Individuals and Organizations policy.
Under that guideline, site moderators ban content they find that "celebrated violent acts, shown that they have weapons and suggest they will use them, or have individual followers with patterns of violent behavior," including pages, groups, and Instagram accounts associated with militias. The policy stated: "While we will allow people to post content that supports these movements and groups, so long as they do not otherwise violate our content policies, we will restrict their ability to organize on our platform."
When notified of the Wisconsin Liberty Militia group by Snopes, a Facebook spokesperson sent us a link to that policy and wrote, via email: "Thanks for flagging this group to us. We have removed it for violating our new policy addressing militia organizations."
As of this report, several other Facebook groups with similar purposes remained active on Facebook, such as Militia Wanted Wisconsin and Wisconsin Unorganized Militia. Additionally, according to a Guardian analysis of CrowdTangle data, hundreds of Facebook posts and memes featuring the phrase "Free Kyle" or "Free Kyle Rittenhouse" had garnered more than 70,000 interactions as of Aug. 27, 2020.
Snopes Senior Reporter Alex Kasprak contributed to this report.