LANGLEY, Washington—On Saturday, about 100 people gathered in a park in this normally sleepy town of about 1,200, some wearing Black Lives Matter shirts, others with peace symbols. Speakers took turns inveighing on fighting racism and standing up for LGBTQ rights, regular causes in the left-wing activist space.
But their target was not racist cops, conservative Republicans, or some other traditional bête noire. Instead, their anger was squarely trained at the paramilitary organization some locals say has gained a disturbing foothold here.
“The racism and division of the right-wing militias really has no place in our community,” Mayor Scott Chaplin told the crowd.
Tension has been steadily rising here on Whidbey Island, a collection of picturesque rural towns north of Seattle, after a militia group started holding rallies and taking aim at community groups and local government. The precedent of far-right activists on the rise everywhere from Portland to the steps of the U.S. Capitol has local officials and residents alike bracing for the worst.
In the meantime, residents described extremists quietly tearing the very fabric of their community apart.
“I’m concerned because I think the Trump presidency emboldened a very small fringe group of people, but they’ve been growing a movement and attracting more and more people,” Chaplin said in an interview with The Daily Beast. “And they truly believe what they’re doing is right.”
South Whidbey Island is a rolling, wooded landscape with pine forests punctuated by idyllic farms and spectacular views of the Puget Sound. It’s a small, tight-knit community, the kind of place many come for a peaceful retirement on the water, and where tourists flock by ferry on weekends to shop in quaint, seaside villages, like Langley.
So last fall, when members and supporters of The Washington III Percent militia took control of the nearly 100-year-old local Grange association and began rejecting applications for those not aligned with them, it caught a lot of locals off-guard. The Grange, and its turn-of-the-century lakeside building, serves as a gathering place for the community. Think quilting classes and slideshows of neighbors’ trips abroad.
Since then, the militia’s public presence on the island has been sporadic, but III Percenter flags and bumper stickers have increasingly popped up around town and left-wing rallies. And at least some agents of local law-enforcement have indicated they do not see the group as a top priority, with Sheriff Rick Ferici telling the Seattle Times, “People have a right to join organizations and express their opinions.”
The stealthy takeover is straight out of the modern, far-right playbook: target local and state elections, boards, and other institutions that often fly under the radar to increase influence. Far-right groups are running candidates in rural statehouse seats, school boards, and even library boards across the country, often rallying around panics of the moment, like so-called critical race theory.
“They’ve been trying to do this for quite some time now: Extremists running for office, local elections, you know, county councils, state legislatures, things like that,” said Daryl Johnson, a former Homeland Security analyst who runs DT Analytics, which tracks far-right groups. “Once it creeps in, if nobody challenges, it becomes the new norm.”
The Grange takeover calcified a political divide that had been slowly coming into the open on Whidbey Island. The Washington III Percent held an anti-lockdown rally on the island in October in defiance of the state’s mask mandate, attracting GOP congressional candidates, and reportedly using the Grange as a launching pad.
The group’s founder and president, Matt Marshall, rejects the extremism label and bristles at being lumped in with racist groups. And, it should be noted, critics could not point to specific acts of racism by the group. He also says they are not a militia, though they do weapons training and talk about being ready to fight back if faced with what they deem a tyrannical government.
Some individuals with ties to Three Percenters—a larger paramilitary umbrella named for the false premise that only 3 percent of U.S. colonists fought in the American Revolution—have also been tied to the attack on the U.S. Capitol. There is no evidence any of the individuals in the Washington III Percent, including those on Whidbey Island, were involved in Jan. 6.
In a text message declining an interview, Marshall called local activists’ criticism of his organization a “smear campaign.” Whidbey Washington III Percent official Erik Rohde also declined an interview request. Whidbey Island Grange Master Chuck Prochaska did not return a request for comment for this story.
In keeping with locals’ fears for their future, Marshall, a combat veteran and physician’s assistant, has taken steps to make his group more mainstream, registering as a non-profit and positioning them as a community organization. He also won election to the school board in Eatonville, a rural town south of Seattle.
Schools are especially central to the local conflict here.
The battle over the direction of South Whidbey Island started to come to a head on June 11, when more than 100 demonstrators came out to protest a student-led effort to get South Whidbey High School to teach a more LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum and to recognize the Black Lives Matter movement. The protesters were met by a student-led counterprotest of more than 300 people.
Shortly after, a Black Lives Matter sign was stolen from the school and a Class of 2021 sign was vandalized with a hammer and sickle and “Fuck Commies.”
“I personally have experienced a lot of racism and homophobia, at the school and in the community,” said Jackson Murphy, a 15-year-old rising junior who is biracial and has helped lead efforts to change the school curriculum. “I know a lot of friends who have, as well.”
The protest has Murphy and others worried about public education in their community, with some locals expressing fear that candidates in the next school-board election might prove sympathetic to the far right.
Chaplin, the Langley mayor, thinks things will get worse on the island before they get better. Still, he’s optimistic the rise of far-right forces in his community is a temporary phenomenon.
“I think, ironically, what they’re doing is going to backfire on them, because it’s actually bringing the rest of the community together in ways we haven't really been together in a while.”