The Three Percent of Washington began polling its leaders about altering its name after protesters attacked the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, according to the group’s vice president Erik Rohde.
To be clear, they were members of the Three Percenters, which are described as part of the right-wing anti-government militia movement by hate-watch organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League.
However, that brand had an image issue. Three Percenters were among the groups with the most charged members in relation to Jan. 6. Three Percenters have been arrested in connection with the bombing of a mosque in Minnesota. Three Percenters attempted to kidnap Michigan’s governor. At the Charlottesville Unite the Right protest, three Percenters marched with white nationalists.
But not Washington’s Three Percenters, emphasized Rohde. He said that his members did not attend the “Stop the Steal” event in Washington, D.C. on January 6 because he had advised them not to.
Three Percent of Washington has been attempting to shed its “extremist” label for the past half-decade. Despite this, the organization has showed no interest in dropping the “Three Percenter” moniker. It’s not simply an issue of principle; it’s also a matter of power.
“To be honest,” Rohde remarked, “I would not be able to recreate the marketing traction and recruitment power” under a different name.
That duality — running away from and embracing the Three Percenter brand — is at the heart of the Washington Three Percenter’s plan.
In phone interviews and text messages, Rohde provided detailed information to InvestigateWest. He said that his position within Three Percent of Washington provided him with an unrivaled vantage point for combating racism and extremism, including screening out dangerous radicals from his organization.
However, he expressly acknowledges that most of his effort is part of a public relations campaign designed to increase recruiting, bring in a broader range of new members, and “normalize” the concept of being a Three Percenter.
That is exactly what scares experts who follow the far right, such as Devin Burghart, a Seattle-based extremism expert with the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, an anti-hate group. Burghart believes that Three Percenter ideology is intrinsically harmful — and that the more members the group has, the more damage it may inflict if it veers too far toward fanaticism.
“The softening of the edges are merely window dressing to try to rebuild their organization,” Burghart told the audience. “They’re still organizations that are building private armies to thwart democracy.”
The Three Percent of Washington, on the other hand, claims that it is not out to undermine democracy. In its bylaws, it emphasizes that it is not a militia and that it is not anti-government — as long as the government “doesn’t overstep its bounds.” The Three Percent moniker, on the other hand, is an offshoot of the anti-government “militia movement” that arose in the aftermath of brutal standoffs in locations like Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and Waco, Texas in the 1990s.
Using the historical fallacy that only 3% of American colonists allegedly took up guns against the British, Three Percent of Washington portrays today’s Three Percenters as our country’s “last defense” if “our government takes up arms against ‘we the people.'”
In the 15 years after a militia movement blogger coined the term “Three Percent,” the movement’s causes have evolved far beyond gun control to include disputes over grazing rights, vaccination requirements, school curricula, even drag queen story hours. It’s become a lifestyle brand — a sticker people slap on their vehicle bumper to represent gun-loving defiant patriotism — as well as the moniker used by organized groups across the country.
Rohde claims his organization is one of the largest Three Percenter organizations, but he won’t tell how many members it now has.
The Washington Three Percenters have openly supported electoral politics.
“Not only have they been building bridges with elected officials who they see as like-minded, but they have also been running people for office,” said Stephen Piggott, an expert with the Western States Center, which analyzes extremism. “It’s power-building, but in a different way.”
Matt Marshall, a former Washington Three Percent President who now serves on the board of the Eatonville School District south of Tacoma, was one of a wave of Three Percenters elected to public office in Washington state.
Nonetheless, Marshall told InvestigateWest that his goal was to develop a strong community, to get “back to the idea that you can walk next door where you can knock on the neighbor’s door, borrow an egg or a cup of flour,” rather than anything political.
The Washington Three Percenter bylaws advise members to arm themselves as if the “zombie apocalypse” were imminent, proposing camouflage, body armor, and several firearms. However, it also devotes several parts to optics – how to boost the organization’s image, for example, by saving people during a natural disaster, and how to avoid hurting it. ( “Don’t wear full battle-rattle when going to WalMart.” )
Keeping this in mind, they’ve organized clothing drives for veterans. They clean up trash along three state roadways that they have adopted. For years, militia organizations have adopted this technique.
“Things like that are all attempting to portray themselves as ‘good neighbors,'” Piggott added. “Washington Three Percent, more so than other groups, have made an attempt to portray themselves as not the gun-toting paramilitary group that they really are.”
Several national organizations have claimed the Three Percenter mantle. To differentiate itself from the other Three Percenter groups, Washington Three Percent formally organized as a nonprofit in April 2018, about the same time Rohde became a member.
“The national organization, they weren’t picky about who they let in the tent,” Rohde told me. “Washington Three Percent broke away because we’re not a racist organization, we’re not a bigoted organization, we’re not a homophobic organization.”
Rohde, who is Jewish, emphasizes the Three Percenters’ track record of consistently opposing white racists. They even created a temporary collaboration with the John Brown Gun Club, an armed far-left organization in Seattle, offering their assistance in removing leaflets distributed by a white supremacist group.
However, Marshall’s efforts to cultivate a more moderate image were thwarted in part by his continued public support for a contentious elected official: Matt Shea, a Spokane-area state representative from 2009 to 2020. Shea, who was not a Three Percenter, was a Christian nationalist who, among other things, authored a document called the “Biblical Basis for War,” which appeared to apply an Old Testament passage to “kill all males” to communists or those who refused to follow biblical law. It sowed discord among the Three Percenters, even among Jewish members like Rohde.
“The ‘Biblical Basis for War’ left no room for me,” Rohde told me. “This country clearly has a separation of church and state.” And that is one for which I will fight tooth and nail.”
The foundation of the Three Percent mythology revolves upon the possibility of armed standoffs, and when 2020 arrived, the potential for standoffs was everywhere.
The Washington Three Percents showed up armed in Snohomish County in response to false allegations that left-wing “Antifa” extremists were en masse. They led anti-lockdown and pro-gun control rallies. They shared a “snitch list” of Washington state individuals who had reported firms that were not complying with the state’s COVID closure orders.
Rohde said the group experienced “massive increases” — “in the triple digits of percentile” — in new members.
“Tyrants breed patriots,” Rohde stated. “You have these unprecedented actions happening, whether it’s COVID lockdowns, a questioned election, a roving mob dressed in black… it’s pretty easy to recruit.”
But screening all of the new applications suddenly got difficult. The Three Percenter brand makes it easier to recruit new members rather than beginning from scratch. But there was a cost: they continued to attract the types of extremists they had to reject from their group.
He claimed that no matter how hard they tried to emphasize that they did not accept racists into their group, some of the new candidates would gladly acknowledge they were racist.
“Even though we say we are really against that,” stated Rohde. These applicants, he claims, were turned down.
There were clashes between users who wanted to post messages from “Q” — the unknown figure essential to a right-wing conspiracy theory about a massive network of elite satanic sex traffickers — and individuals like him who dismissed Q as “Scientology for hillbillies.”
Marshall was open about his personal social media use. During the COVID lockdowns, he uploaded images connecting vaccination ID requirements to Nazi “Star of David” badges and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee to Hitler. He uploaded an image of rows of bullets branded “contract tracer repellent” after becoming enraged at the prospect of public health officials calling on his house in an attempt to track the spread of the illness.
But he expressed frustration when members engaged in conspiracy theories about COVID and immunizations. He was running for Washington state’s House of Representatives at the time and felt unable to control his own group.
“I can’t stop these people from spouting crazy conspiracy theories, and I’m tired of defending them,” Marshall remarked at the time. “If I can’t support the people that are within the group, I shouldn’t be leading the group.”
Marshall stepped down as president in 2020, largely as a result of his frustrations. He left the company fully in May.
“I’M A CARNIVAL BARKER”
Robert Burwell, the new president of the Washington Three Percenters, has been much quieter. Rohde, who became vice president this year, has been the organization’s public face, contending that Washington Three Percent is motivated by safeguarding individual liberty.
“If you protect individual liberty, you protect all minority viewpoints,” Rohde claimed, alleging that the Washington Three Percenters had advocated for LGBT and feminist rights.
The reality behind Rohde’s sales presentation, on the other hand, is more complicated: He’s referring to “Sovereign Woman Speak” and “Gays Against Groomers,” two organizations that oppose transgender rights. Washington 3% supplied security for the two groups during a June protest in support of a Lynnwood spa owner who refused to admit a trans woman into female-only facilities.
Stephen Paolini, associate regional director at the Anti-Defamation League’s Pacific Northwest office, is concerned that combining military-style training with anti-trans advocacy is a hazardous combination. The fact that anti-trans language has become so prevalent on the right doesn’t make it any better.
“I’m not willing to let the Three Percenters off the hook because they’re getting more ‘mainstream,'” says Paolini. “While what’s fringe and what’s mainstream is getting blurred.”
On the one hand, Rohde’s tone in talks with InvestigateWest was generally nuanced, if not moderate. He claimed that violence should be “avoided at all costs.” He described the 2016 armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon “a stupid, stupid stand” that resulted in one of the militants, LaVoy Finicum, being shot and murdered.
But he sings a different tune on social media: He said that the Jan. 6 riots were “orchestrated by the FBI,” and that if lefties “truly believe J6 accurately represents the lengths constitutionalists will go to preserve our founders’ government, they are woefully underprepared.” He said that elections were being stolen and urged people to “oppose pedophile grooming events.”
Last November, he took to Twitter to criticize the more than 90,000 Idaho voters who voted for Ammon Bundy, the leader of the Malheur occupation, for governor.
“Imagine those 90,000 standing with LaVoy,” he added in the tweet, “keep laughing bitches, keep laughing bitches.” When tyranny becomes law, resistance becomes duty.”
When asked about this tweet, he said he “literally meant stand with” Finicum — “not go attack like a government or anything like that.” He believes the FBI fanned the flames of Jan. 6, but did not fully arrange it. He admitted that he should be more cautious about tweeting while enraged.
But he also admitted that some of his more over-the-top bombast on social media was effectively its own type of marketing tactic.
“At some level, I’m a carnival barker,” Rohde admitted. “I’m trying to increase traction or scope of effect, trying to increase membership.”
Moderation for one audience, wrath for another: At times, he expressed reservations about this technique, fearing what may happen if someone misinterpreted his rhetoric.
“I don’t ever want to inspire someone to violence,” he remarked in response.
As much as he complains about being labeled an extremist, he claims to have seen how widespread and genuine far-right extremism is within other segments of the far right.
While he’s witnessed anti-Semitism in some of the left-wing protests following Hamas’s Oct. 7 strikes on Israel, he’s also seen a lot of it on the right. He described seeing people he used to respect suddenly flirt with Holocaust denial, “people I would have counted as friends, saying terrible, terrible things.”
Since kicking a white nationalist out of last year’s People’s Convoy — a protest movement of right-wing truckers against vaccination mandates and other concerns — he claims he’s been subjected to a growing number of “gross, gross attacks” from the racist far right. One message on the social networking site Telegram branded him “a f—ing little manlet Jew cuck,” and threatened to filet his flesh and feed it to pigs.
While Marshall, the former Three Percenter president, said his family was attacked after far-left activists revealed his address, Rohde said he is typically more concerned about radicals who profess to be on the right.
“My wife has very little concern about Antifa ever trying to take a shot at me,” Rohde added. “My whole family knows, though, what different Aryan tattoos look like.”