This article was produced by the nonprofit Wisconsin Watch, which is based in Madison.
A militia member patrolling the streets of Kenosha, Wisconsin, on Aug. 25 claimed that police on the scene told him they planned to herd demonstrators toward the armed men — and then leave.
In a widely shared video from that fateful evening when two people were killed, Ryan Balch, who said he served a “tactical advisement role” among the armed citizens, is seen telling protesters: “Do you know what the cops told us today? They were like, ‘We’re gonna push them down by you, because you can deal with them, and then we’re going to leave.’ ”
It is unclear to what extent such a plan was carried out, and Balch insisted in a lengthy Facebook post the next day that the militia members “never agreed to this.” By 11:45 p.m., two protesters were shot to death and a third was wounded by a teenager from Illinois who had answered the call to take up arms and protect the city.
Balch makes the same allegation on a video captured minutes before the shootings. Balch tells citizen journalist Kristan T. Harris of The Rundown Live, an independent news and talk radio program: “The cops told us they were going to send them (protesters) at us and then run.”
“It is my belief that we only faced one monster out there that night. The Government,” Balch wrote on Facebook. “It sought to agitate, and create a situation where this would happen.”
Harris, who livestreamed hours of the protest, said from his vantage point, it did appear the police moved the protesters closer to the militia.
“Why would they send them (protesters) this way?” Harris said in an interview with Wisconsin Watch. “Out of 360 degrees, you choose the one degree that is right down the militia’s throat? And I think that’s a question for the police.”
Messages left with the Kenosha Police Department and Mayor John Antaramian’s office asking about the alleged cooperation between police and the militia were not returned.
Balch was identified as the militia member making the claim on video by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors and exposes hate groups and other extremists. On Aug. 30, the group published a story about Balch’s immersion in far-right extremism.
A federal lawsuit filed Sept. 1 in U.S. District Court in Milwaukee cites the video while claiming that Kenosha police and sheriff’s deputies exclusively arrested protesters of police brutality for violating the county’s curfew —as early as 7 p.m. some nights — while ignoring armed militia and vigilantes violating the same curfew. The county rescinded the curfew Sept. 2.
An attorney representing the county issued a statement calling the protesters’ lawsuit meritless but did not respond to questions from Wisconsin Watch.
Kenosha County enacted the restriction as violence, fires, looting and other property damage erupted after Kenosha Police Officer Rusten Sheskey, who is white, shot Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man, in the back seven times on Aug. 23.
Balch appeared on video on Aug. 25 with 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse of Antioch, Illinois, who shot to death two protesters, Anthony Huber, 26, of Silver Lake, Wisconsin; and Joseph Rosenbaum, 36, of Kenosha. Rittenhouse is also charged with wounding Gaige Grosskreutz, 26, of West Allis, Wisconsin. Rittenhouse’s legal team argues that he acted in self defense.
The shooting followed a militia group’s widely disseminated call to arms to protect property “from evil thugs.” A former Kenosha City Council member was among the leaders of the group, the Kenosha Guard.
In his Facebook post, Balch recounts patrolling and rendering first aid with Rittenhouse while occasionally clashing with “agitators” — which he described as people unaffiliated with Black Lives Matter, militias or other groups mingling in the city. A text sent to Balch Sept. 1 was not returned, and his Facebook profile was no longer publicly visible Sept. 3.
Militia, police cooperation documented
Cooperation between Kenosha law enforcement and armed citizens, if true, would be the latest example of officers encouraging such mobilizations around the country. Chuck Tanner, research director for the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, which scrutinizes racist, anti-Semitic and far-right social movements, said his group has seen several instances of cooperation between law enforcement and armed civilians.
“I don’t think anyone knows the full scope that that’s occurring on, but even the number that we’ve seen is really troubling,” Tanner said. “There’s no way that law enforcement should be anywhere near these types of groups.”
Journalists and researchers have documented similar permissiveness or collaboration between police and militia in places including Albuquerque, Curry County, Oregon and Hood County, Texas. And in Wisconsin, the morning after the fatal shooting in Kenosha, former Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke Jr. said he would not condemn people who take up arms in the absence of police action.
“You can’t have government officials and law enforcement executives telling people, ‘Do not take the law into your own hands,’ ” Clarke said on the Mark Belling Show on WISN-AM. “Well, you’re forcing them to!”
On Sept. 3, two militia members from Hartville, Missouri — Michael M. Karmo, 40, and Cody E. Smith, 33 — were charged with illegal possession of firearms after a tipster said the men, who were arrested at a Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin hotel, planned to loot and possibly shoot people in Kenosha.
According to the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Wisconsin, the men, whose criminal records prohibit them from possessing firearms, were in Kenosha for President Donald Trump’s visit on Sept. 1. Agents seized an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, a 12-gauge shotgun, two handguns, a silencer, ammunition, body armor, a drone and other materials.
“Karmo told (the witness) he was going to go to Kenosha with the intention of possibly using the firearms on people,” according to the criminal complaint. “(The witness) feared that with Karmo’s increase in conspiracy theory talks and other ‘crazy’ political talk he was not in the right mind set to have a firearm.”
Balch recounts evening
According to Balch’s narrative on Facebook, he joined other armed civilians on Aug. 25 to “protect citizens, their property and their livelihoods.” At some point that evening, a Kenosha police officer approached and “told us that they were going to be pushing protesters towards us because we could deal with them,” he wrote.
Balch wrote that his group never agreed to that plan and “switched to a protect the public stance, including BLM (Black Lives Matter), Antifa and the public at large.”
Balch also said he witnessed a scene, widely circulated on social media, in which an unidentified officer in an armored vehicle labeled “Sheriff” tossed a bottle of water to Rittenhouse before the shooting. In the video, the officer can be heard saying, “Hey, thank you guys again” and “We appreciate you guys, we really do” while other officers ordered nearby protesters to leave.
In the post, Balch described the offer of water as mocking, accusing the police of earlier “gassing” militia members who were running an aid station.
Wrote Balch: “KPD made a conscious decision to abandon the people of Kenosha to people they felt justified in using machines and weapons of war against. And were going to piss them off and drive them at us and let the chips fall where they may.”
Former Kenosha Ald. Kevin Mathewson — a leader in the Kenosha Guard militia — told Wisconsin Watch in an email that while Police Chief Daniel Miskinis and Kenosha County Sheriff David Beth publicly rejected help from armed citizens following the deadly shooting, officers on the scene “welcomed us well and thanked us all night.”
In a follow-up message, Mathewson said he left downtown before dark and did not know if law enforcement offered to herd protesters toward militia members.
Lawsuit: Police seeking to ‘silence’ protesters
Protesters also are claiming unequal treatment in a federal lawsuit filed by attorney Kimberley Motley on behalf of four people cited by police for violating the county’s curfew. Motley also is representing Grosskreutz, who was injured in the Aug. 25 shooting.
“Over the past 9 days,” the suit alleges, “the Kenosha City Police Department and the Kenosha County Sheriff’s Department have arrested over 150 peaceful protesters for violating the County imposed curfew order, yet in spite of the presence of pro-police protesters and militias, NOT A SINGLE PRO-POLICE demonstrator has been arrested.
“The Kenosha Police and Kenosha Sheriffs use this ordinance to silence the voices of those who peacefully demonstrate against police brutality while allowing pro-police activists and militias to roam the streets without fear of arrest.”
The allegation that no pro-police protesters have been arrested has not been independently confirmed.
One of the arrested protesters in the suit, Kenosha native Adelana Akindes, told WPR that she spent 24 hours in jail without a phone call.
“We did feel like we were being made an example,” she said. “We were off the streets, and it was a way of saying, ‘We don’t want you back on them. We don’t want you back out there.’ ”
Samuel Hall Jr., an attorney representing Kenosha County, called the lawsuit “entirely without merit” in a statement issued Sept. 2.
“The Kenosha County Sheriff’s Department has worked tirelessly to bring order back to the community and has been careful to protect the rights of all citizens throughout that process,” the statement said.
Law enforcement’s handling of Rittenhouse’s arrest also has raised charges of disparate treatment of vigilantes and protesters.
Blake remains paralyzed from the waist down after Sheskey fired into his back as he walked away from police and tried to enter a vehicle after police responded to a domestic dispute.
Kenosha law enforcement allowed Rittenhouse to walk away from the scene after shooting three people and return to Illinois, where he was arrested the next day. Video of the shooting aftermath shows witnesses yelling to police that Rittenhouse had shot people and the teenager walking past police vehicles with his hands up.
“For him (Rittenhouse) to even be able to shoot somebody and still walk away from the scene — I mean they talked about finding a knife inside of the car, not even on Jacob Blake’s person,” Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes said at a press conference last week. “And this guy’s carrying around a long gun and kills somebody, (and) just walking freely, was able to get back home to Illinois.”
At a press conference, Beth, the sheriff, said he could not immediately explain why officers did not arrest Rittenhouse, describing a high-stress scene of radio traffic, people screaming and massive armored vehicles idling nearby.
Balch’s far-right roots
Balch has a social media history of amplifying racist messages, including the words of Adolf Hitler and white supremacist Richard Spencer, according to research by Michael Edison Hayden, senior investigative reporter for the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The prospect of police aligning with such armed militia “is obviously very dangerous,” Hayden said.
“And it’s even more dangerous if there are police officers — and this does happen — who have been exposed to the same kind of far-right conspiracy mongering, far-right propaganda, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, racist conspiracy theories, that these militia members are. … That is a huge danger to people of color.”
In a report released late last month, former FBI special agent Michael German documented the infiltration of white supremacist extremism into the ranks of some U.S. police and sheriff’s departments. The FBI and the Department of Homeland Security have warned that adherents of the ideology pose a “persistent threat of lethal violence.”
While “only a tiny percentage of law enforcement officials are likely to be active members of white supremacist groups,” German wrote in the Brennan Center for Justice report, the harms of such affiliations “could hardly be overstated.” The center, based at New York University, works to reform and defend justice and democracy.
Hayden said Balch also had aligned himself with the boogaloo movement, whose members generally believe American racial and political divisions will fuel another civil war — or they hope for such a conflict.
In his Facebook post the day after the shootings, Balch mentioned a possible civil war — one that he wants no part of.
“I’m seeing people refer to this as the start of some ‘civil war’ in certain communities,” Balch wrote. “I don’t know about that but it’s even clearer to me after the fact that we need to unite under a common cause and stop letting them trick us into killing one another and destroying one another’s lives.”
Balch later sought to distance himself from the boogaloo movement in a separate post following SPLC’s probe of his social media history, calling it “wrong” and “misguided” to have promoted racism and Nazi ideology.
On Sept. 2, Balch removed his Facebook cover photo which had featured an igloo — a symbol of the boogaloo movement. The page was no longer visible as of Sept. 3.
Said Hayden: “The danger is that this stuff has a way of really scrambling people’s brains and getting them to think about allegiances towards race and not towards their neighbors and not towards the country. And it really, really, really stokes violence.”
Jim Malewitz and Vanessa Swales of Wisconsin Watch contributed to this story, along with Keenan Chen of First Draft, an international nonprofit concerned with trust and truth in the digital age. The nonprofit Wisconsin Watch collaborates with WPR, PBS Wisconsin, other news media and the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by Wisconsin Watch do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.