First responders, cops, and detention officers across the nation joined a Facebook group set up by a violent militia leader 

Guns up! Tourniquets down?

click to enlarge ROBERT PAQUETTE
  • Robert Paquette

A version of this story was originally published by Triad City Beat. It is republished here with permission.

Dozens of first responders, detention officers, police, and enlisted military personnel joined or were added to Roll Call, a Facebook group set up by a notorious militia leader where administrators and members shared content promoting violence against Muslims, undocumented immigrants, and other groups.

Chris Hill, a Marine veteran who leads the III% Security Force, attracted international media attention last year for a video depicting members shooting firearms interspersed with images of Stacey Abrams, the Democratic nominee for governor in Georgia, with text pledging that if she won they would respond with a "war against all domestic enemies." A rival militia network, the Three Percenters — Originals, denounced Hill as an "anti-government extremist," and denounced III% Security Force for destroying a replica of a mosque during a training exercise.

Hill set up the Roll Call page as a public Facebook group in January to mobilize support for an upcoming Nov. 9 rally in Washington, D.C., and northern Virginia to promote the Second Amendment, Trump's border wall, voter ID, and abortion restrictions. Amid a bitter leadership battle and an organizational schism, Hill temporarily shut down the Roll Call page in late August and then resurrected it as a secret Facebook group. Content shared on the Roll Call page, as well as Hill's own Facebook page over the past nine months, has frequently promoted violence against Muslims, undocumented immigrants, abortion doctors, and Democratic politicians.

A months-long investigation by Triad City Beat revealed that members of the Roll Call Facebook group set up by Hill included:

• Firefighters in Massachusetts and Michigan, along with an enlisted member of the U.S. Army and a detention officer in Florida

• An EMT from eastern Kentucky who publicly identified himself in a comment thread on one of Hill's Facebook Live videos as an "armed EMT" and a member of Kentucky Security Force III%

• An EMT who has worked for multiple first-responder agencies in central Georgia who commented, "Guns up" at the beginning of an incendiary video hosted by Hill and his militia associates, and who continues to maintain ties with Hill

• A police officer in upstate New York who commented, "Guns up," on the Roll Call page, uses a Medieval crusader image as his Facebook profile, and has expressed negative feelings toward undocumented immigrants on social media

• An EMS volunteer in New Jersey who made a comment on the Roll Call page that appears to express sympathy with a Louisiana police officer fired for saying U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez should be shot

• A lieutenant firefighter in eastern Ohio who uses a Confederate flag with the text "Support your local whiteboys" as his Facebook cover photo and makes posts on his personal Facebook page that are disparaging toward Muslims and undocumented immigrants

• A volunteer with another eastern Ohio fire department whose personal Facebook page displays memes that disparage Muslims

Militia leaders Chris Hill (left) and Bill Hartwell discuss plans for the upcoming Nov. 9 rally on Facebook Live in June. - SCREENSHOT FROM THE ROLL CALL FACEBOOK PAGE
  • Screenshot from the Roll Call Facebook page
  • Militia leaders Chris Hill (left) and Bill Hartwell discuss plans for the upcoming Nov. 9 rally on Facebook Live in June.

First responders, law enforcement, and other public servants have come under increasing scrutiny in recent months for support of violent, right-wing extremism on social media.

In July, firefighter Caleb Folwell was fired from the Julian Fire Department and North Chatham Fire Department, both in North Carolina, after posting on Facebook that immigrants in detention should be "exterminated," calling for the fantasized violence to be broadcast "over Mexican national TV to send a message that if you cross illegally you die."

In the same month, Louisiana police Officer Charles Rispoli was fired for writing on Facebook that Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, an outspoken Democratic lawmaker, "needs a round ... and I don't mean the kind she used to serve." Another officer, Angelo Varisco, was also fired for liking the post.

And in August, Capt. Thomas Woodworth resigned after driving his truck into a group of Jewish protesters outside a Rhode Island detention facility that contracts with U.S. Immigration Customs Enforcement.

Earlier this year, an investigation by Reveal found that hundreds of active-duty and retired law-enforcement officers across the country are members of "anti-Islam, misogynistic, or anti-government militia groups on Facebook."

'Guns are gone, and you're Islamic overnight'

The major thrust of the national Second Amendment rally scheduled for Nov. 9 — which has undergone at least two name changes — is opposing so-called "red flag laws," which allow police and family members to petition the courts for the authority to temporarily remove firearms from a person deemed to be a danger to others or themselves. The chosen location of the rally on the Arlington Memorial Bridge is symbolic in the minds of the rally organizers of a line between the more lenient gun laws in Virginia and more restrictive laws on the books in Washington, D.C.

Reflecting a tension between libertarian and authoritarian tendencies in the militia movement, the demands published on the Roll Call page layered on a host of conservative and Trumpist causes, including building the border wall, requiring photo ID to participate in elections, and restricting abortion, while vaguely threatening that "if no remedies are timely available, we the people, without further notice, may seek all remedies afforded to us" under the Constitution. To diffuse the focus even further, organizers added a pro-Confederate "Heritage Not Hate" event at the Lincoln Memorial.

While the militia movement has traditionally maintained a skeptical stance toward federal power, the election of Donald Trump reordered its priorities. Last fall, Hill told a Danish reporter: "If [the Democrats] ... win the House and the Senate, they are going to move forward with impeachment for some bogus, bullshit reason. If they succeed in impeaching President Trump, then we will back Trump." Asked to elaborate, Hill said, "With a use of force, if need be."

The militia movement emerged in the early 1990s as the collapse of the Soviet Union eliminated communism as a credible threat, and paranoia about globalism, embodied in the United Nations and multilateral cooperation, became a preoccupation of the far right.

"Foundational to their ideology is the belief that virtually the whole rest of the world has been taken over by a globalist, tyrannical government," says Mark Pitcavage, a senior researcher at the Anti-Defamation League's Center on Extremism. "They call it the 'New World Order.' They see the United States as the last bastion of freedom, and they believe the U.S. government is actively collaborating with the New World Order. Their idea is that once the Second Amendment is compromised and their guns are taken away, the United States will be absorbed into the New World Order."

Pitcavage says militia activists had gravitated to marginal political candidates like Ron Paul in the past, but Donald Trump's 2016 campaign was the first time they aligned with anyone who was truly viable. Trump's election effectively realigned the priorities of the militia movement.

"They strongly support Donald Trump," Pitcavage says. "A lot of them really emphasize from 2017 less opposition to the federal government, and they direct their anger more on immigrants, Muslims, and antifa. The militia movement has transferred its anger from president as the symbol of federal government to the enemies of Trump, as they see them. Should a Democrat be elected in 2020, it will go right back to the president."

The synthesis of Second Amendment advocacy with hysterical Islamophobia, xenophobia, anti-abortion sentiment, and anti-Democrat hate was on vivid display in a Facebook Live video posted by Hill in March.

Chris Pickle, an EMT who has worked for three different EMS agencies in rural, central Georgia over the past year, commented at the 2:07 mark of the video, "Guns up." What followed over the next 54 minutes was an orgy of animosity toward various imagined foes.

"If it takes dragging a [abortion] doctor away from a table to save that unborn child that's 15 minutes away from its birthday, then drag that fucking doctor away from the table, and yeah, take him outside and whup his ass," Hill said.

Chris Hill, then leader of the III% Security Force militia network, speaks on Facebook Live in June as Bill Hartwell points a rifle at the camera. - SCREENSHOT FROM THE ROLL CALL FACEBOOK PAGE
  • Screenshot from the Roll Call Facebook page
  • Chris Hill, then leader of the III% Security Force militia network, speaks on Facebook Live in June as Bill Hartwell points a rifle at the camera.

Skylar Steward, a militia activist from Ohio who has since broken with Hill to form the American Constitutional Elites, commented in response: "Fuck a foot in the ass. I bet a bullet in the head would pass a clear fucking message."

Roughly 15 minutes later, imagining a war on American soil, Hill and his cohorts conjured a sinister Muslim enemy.

"There are live targets," Hill said. "The enemy is here and want to fucking destroy us and our way of life. When they get froggy and jump, we're gonna put 'em on their ass."

As the discussion veered into a fevered clarion about Muslims supposedly imposing Sharia law from bases in Dearborn, Mich. and Islamberg, NY, Hill interjected, "You saw that New Zealand shooting, right?"

Greg Scott, another militia activist, opined that Brenton Tarrant, who live-streamed a slaughter of 51 people at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, on March 15 "was provoked."

Hill was going in a different direction, suggesting the massacre might be a false flag.

"Wait," he said. "Within 24 hours all their semiautomatic rifles are gone, and it's an Islamic country, like just that quick. One shooting, one false-flag operation. One psy-ops. Guns are gone, and you're Islamic overnight."

Hank Steward, Skylar's father, commented that he had recently proposed "Muslim community patrols" on "comms," the voice communication channel the militia network utilizes through the Zello app.

Hill enthusiastically endorsed the idea.

"Let's do a fucking Three Percent patrol in Dearborn, Michigan, or Islamberg, New York," he said. "We show up, kick ass, and drink cold beer when the sun goes down."

Peter Simi, an associate professor at Chapman University who studies extremist groups and violence, says it's unrealistic to think that first responders can hold bigoted views without their biases bleeding over into the performance of their professional duties.

"If you have really strongly held beliefs that bias you in favor of certain groups, that's a problem," Simi says. "If you have strongly held views that involve hatred and disgust, that's even more of a problem. Disgust is important because when you feel disgust, you want to distance yourself as much as possible from that. If they're disgusted by certain immigrant groups or disgusted by Muslims, are they going to render the same care? Is it going to delay decisions that they make? Are they going to be less sensitive? Are they going to give priority to one group or another? I think these are reasonable questions to ask an EMT or firefighter that espouses these kind of views."

The Code of Ethics adopted by the National Association of Emergency Medical Technicians in 2013 addresses both bias and social media use. The code states that EMS practitioners should "provide services based on human need, with compassion and respect for human dignity, unrestricted by consideration of nationality, race, creed or status." It instructs practitioners "to use social media in a responsible and professional manner that does not discredit, dishonor or embarrass an EMS organization, co-workers, other healthcare practitioners, patients, individuals or the community at large."

The Firefighter Code of Ethics developed by the National Society of Executive Fire Officers similarly calls upon firefighters to pledge to "never discriminate on the basis of race, religion, color, creed, age, marital status, national origin, ancestry, sexual preference, medical condition or handicap," and to "responsibly use social networking ... in a manner that does not discredit, dishonor or embarrass my organization, the fire service and the public."

Chris Pickle, the EMT in Georgia who commented on Chris Hill's Facebook Live video in March, declined to comment for this story. In late August, Pickle commented on Hill's personal Facebook page to inform him that he had to leave the Roll Call page because a news reporter called him and asked him how he would treat Muslims.

"I told him to F off," Pickle says.

Lee Conner, the director of Telfair County EMS in Georgia, says Pickle resigned from the agency for personal reasons in early August.

Pickle is a volunteer with EMS in neighboring Wheeler County, according to Steve Adams, the director there.

"If it happened, I would immediately excuse him from doing anything in Wheeler County," Adams says.

Conner said after Pickle left Telfair County EMS, he went to work for Johnson & Johnson Ambulance, a private firm based in Uvalda. Georgia, Cecil Walls, the manager at Johnson & Johnson, told TCB he is reviewing the matter.

Conner says Pickle's social-media activity "needs to be addressed," adding that it doesn't put the agencies where he's worked in a good light.

"It's a brotherhood-like law enforcement or firefighting," he says. "We have to treat everybody, from a minor child to a Muslim to a KKK member to inmates with the same level of care. It doesn't change. Anything less would be a failure.

"Anybody showing a bias toward a race, religion or creed — we can't do that," Conner adds. "You set your county up for a lawsuit. It will be brought to a supervisor's attention. You can't have bias in this line of work."

Jason Randall, an EMT with Powell County EMS in Kentucky, comments during a Facebook Live video hosted by Chris Hill in late July. - SCREENSHOT FROM THE ROLL CALL FACEBOOK PAGE
  • Screenshot from the Roll Call Facebook page
  • Jason Randall, an EMT with Powell County EMS in Kentucky, comments during a Facebook Live video hosted by Chris Hill in late July.

Mark Pitcavage with the Anti-Defamation League cautions that membership in a Facebook group like Roll Call doesn't automatically prove that someone is an extremist. Considering the innocuous name of the group and the fact that the name does not reference III% Security Force, he says it's possible that membership "might be a vague indication of support," but equally possible that those who joined were merely "right-wing conservatives."

John Bielski, a firefighter with South Torch Lake Fire & Rescue in northern Michigan, says he wasn't sure how he ended up on the Roll Call page, although a screenshot shows that he joined in February.

"Seeing it now, honestly — I'll have a knock on the door by the FBI," Bielski says in a Sept. 2 interview. "Which is fine. I have nothing to hide."

Referring to Chris Hill, Bielski says, "Everything I know of him, he's anti-everything. His beliefs are not anything that I follow. He's a reckless person."

Bielski says he is a member of a different militia, which he declined to name.

"We were invited to do security for a film shoot in Dearborn," he says. "We found it was to rile up the Arabic nation. We declined and pulled away from that. We work with our law enforcement. It's part of our background: Some are firefighters, some are cops. This Chris Hill shit — there's no ties. He is not welcome in anything we are a part of."

Chief Jesse Lane of South Torch Lake Fire & Rescue said in mid-September that he would look into the matter, but to date it's not clear what, if any action, he's taken.

'Armed EMT, Kentucky Security Force III%'

TCB confirmed that 10 current or former members of the Roll Call group are currently employed by fire departments, six by EMS agencies, three by detention facilities, and two by police departments. One is currently enlisted in the Army. One is a member of the Air Force Auxiliary Civil Air Patrol. One firefighter in upstate New York retired in August.

The roughly two dozen confirmed first responders, law enforcement, detention officers, and military personnel identified by TCB were among more than 5,300 who joined or were added to the Roll Call group. Not all the public servants identified for this story actively participated in the Roll Call group. TCB's investigation found that roughly half of the larger group of 24 either participated in the Roll Call group or posted content on their personal Facebook pages that exhibited bias. Agency representatives or the employees themselves confirmed that a handful received counseling as a result of TCB's inquiry.

A much larger cohort of members on the Roll Call page identified themselves as military veterans and retired law enforcement. The group has also attracted members of Bikers for Trump; the Hiwaymen, a hybrid militia-neo-Confederate group; the Proud Boys, a male chauvinist group known for street brawling; Back Woods Survivalist Squad, an anti-Muslim network; and adherents of the QAnon conspiracy movement.

Jason Randall, an EMT at Powell County EMS — which serves Natural Bridge and Red River Gorge, two of the most breathtaking natural areas in eastern Kentucky — joined the Roll Call page in early July. On July 27, Randall commented on a Facebook Live video hosted by Chris Hill: "Armed EMT Kentucky Security Force III%."

Following several attempts to contact him and an inquiry with Powell County EMS, Randall eventually called TCB on Aug. 30 and said he had left the Roll Call page and had disassociated himself from Chris Hill.

"I didn't realize that guy was a radical nut," Randall says.

Randall said he and a group of friends who like to get together to target-shoot received an invitation to join the III% Security Force network. He says after watching some of Hill's Facebook Live videos and communicating with other members through the network's Zello channel, he and his friends decided to leave.

"I was embarrassed, I'll be honest," Randall says. "Once I found out what he was about, I was angry because it took me so long to figure out his true colors."

Randall, who teaches a concealed-carry class and trains EMTs in Kentucky, says that although he doesn't like the idea of people illegally entering the country, he feels confident that his professional commitment to preserving life trumps any personal feelings he might have about patients.

"I'm human; I cry when I don't win at CPR," he says. "It doesn't matter if they're this druggy or Hispanic. You don't ask on the radio: 'Is this a Muslim patient?' That's a human being."

Randall says he received a written warning from his employer as a result of TCB's inquiry and was worried he might lose his job.

Responses from EMS squads and fire departments to inquiries about employees' involvement with the Roll Call page or expression of bias on social media varied widely.

Chris Pickle, an EMT in central Georgia, comments on a Facebook Live video hosted by Chris Hill (not pictured) and other militia leaders in March. - SCREENSHOT FROM THE ROLL CALL FACEBOOK PAGE
  • Screenshot from the Roll Call Facebook page
  • Chris Pickle, an EMT in central Georgia, comments on a Facebook Live video hosted by Chris Hill (not pictured) and other militia leaders in March.

Stephanie Solanka Clouse, a volunteer at Glenwood Pochuck Volunteer Ambulance Corps in New Jersey, joined the Roll Call page in January. On July 23, Clouse commented on a news article posted on the Roll Call page about the Louisiana police officer fired for suggesting Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez should be shot. Some commenters wrote that they agreed with the officer.

Ryan Netherton, who made the post, wrote, "I know. This is exactly why I'm going to try my hardest to get into journalism because I'm tired of seeing shit like this. If everyone could get on my page and share my post about it and pass this along it would be greatly appreciated."

Clouse responded to Netherton: "Your voice will be heard by many if you create an Instagram account! Encourage factual conversation!"

Reached by TCB, Clouse denied making the comment, and says she wasn't interested in seeing the evidence.

Kevin Duffy, the chief operating officer for Glenwood Pochuck Volunteer Ambulance Corps, requested screenshots documenting Clouse's involvement with the Roll Call page. After reviewing them, he says he would take no action.

Ryan Netherton added Steve Netherton, a firefighter employed by South Oldham Fire Department outside of Louisville, Ky., to the Roll Call group in April. In late June, Jason Minnar, a firefighter trainee at the department, also joined the group. Minnar's personal Facebook page displays Three Percenter symbols — such as a modified Betsy Ross-style flag — signifying affinity with a subset of the militia movement that conceives modern-day Second Amendment proponents as the political heirs of the American patriots who threw off British colonial rule.

The day after the Aug. 12, 2017, Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., Minnar posted a conspiracy-laden essay positing that the violence at the event was orchestrated by George Soros using antifa and the Ku Klux Klan as pawns to discredit "constitutionalists," with the active collusion of law enforcement and the news media.

Minnar could not be reached for this story, but Netherton returned a message left at the fire department.

"It's just a group that jokes and memes and things like that," Netherton says. Asked if he was concerned that his membership in a Facebook group where people shared violent and bigoted content might undermine public trust in his agency, Netherton responded, "I'm done with this conversation."

Following TCB's inquiry, Chief Edward Turner said, "I talked to them. I don't think they're breaking any of my policies."

Asked if South Oldham Fire Department maintains any policies to address non-discrimination or social media use, Turner responded, "No, I don't have none."

Updated Oct. 25, 2019: Following the initial publication of this story, the South Oldham Fire Department re-opened an investigation into two members’ involvement with the Roll Call Facebook page. Chief Edward Turner told TCB in an email today that the department has taken unspecified “disciplinary action, which includes additional mandatory education on diversity/sensitivity training as well as our social media policy.”

Full statement here:

“South Oldham Fire Department does not share personnel/disciplinary matters, however the department has taken disciplinary action which includes mandatory education on diversity/sensitivity training as well as our social media policy. Mr. Minnar is a recruit (probationary) firefighter who has not been released as a combat firefighter as of yet. While he was initially provided a copy of the department guidelines/policies, we are taking additional measures to ensure that [not] only Mr. Minnar, but all new recruits are now provided additional education on our policies through a more comprehensive review during their orientation. Our department will also conduct a review of these policies with all active members of the department.”

“I want to gracefully thank you for bringing this matter to my attention and I hope we can put this matter to rest.”

Triad City Beat is co-publishing this story with other members of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia, including Raw Story, Detroit Metro Times, and Folio Weekly in Jacksonville, Florida.

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