The pictures of MAGA mob members toting zip ties and flex cuffs on the Senate floor sent chills down the country’s spine as Americans wondered what use the rioters had planned for them.
It’s unclear why the men dressed in military-style gear were carrying the restraints—whether they planned to use them on members of Congress, police, or counterprotesters. Accused rioters Eric Munchel and Larry Rendall Brock Jr. will now have to answer to a federal court about why they were in the Senate bearing plastic cuffs. But long before the cuffs showed up on the Senate floor, zip ties were a popular piece of extremist gear that—like the military-style helmets, body armor, and tactical gear—represented the far right’s attempts to imitate and usurp the military and law enforcement functions of government.
Pro-Trump extremists on The Donald, a MAGA-oriented social media site, encouraged those attending the “Stop the Steal” rallies to arrest antifa members and “oath breakers”—a term for members of Congress agreeing to the vote count—and told attendees that “Flexcuffs are dirt cheap online. Put a big bundle on your belt like [law enforcement officers] do.”
On Parler, one user wondered why the military couldn’t force members of Congress to “fulfill their oath” and “rush the police, demand they stand down, hog tie them with zip ties, takes them capital, bring in unmarked white van, blindfold the cops, strip them naked in the vans, and the take them out to the desert, and leave them all there naked, with one blanket to share??”
“Bring zip ties to zip tie the enemy to ‘disarm’ them. They can’t throw if their feet and hands are zip tied together. While in a large group rip off their backpacks too. Stay together,” another Parler user urged. “I’m sad I’m stuck home.”
Immigrants were among the earliest victims of the radical right’s fascination with zip ties. As the George W. Bush administration began to consider immigration reform, the radical right seized on undocumented immigrants as an issue they were willing to fight over. The Minuteman Project militia, founded in 2004, drew in over a thousand followers for extrajudicial border patrols and other militias soon headed the border to harass and detain suspected migrants, often with zip ties.
Among the groups that headed to the border in the 2010s was “Rusty’s Rangers,” a militia reportedly led by Kevin Massey, who reportedly held suspected migrants at gunpoint with zip ties. The FBI later learned that Barry Croft, one of the men charged with attempting to kidnap, try, and execute Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer after Trump’s calls to “liberate Michigan” from her coronavirus quarantine regulations, had “attempted to provide support” to Massey after the FBI charged him with firearms violations, according to an October 2020 FBI search warrant application.
“The far right is a pretty diverse group but one of the subgroups that's driving it is the militia movement,” Dr. Joseph Young, a professor at American University who studies right wing extremism, told The Daily Beast. “That subgroup has been influenced by law enforcement, by the military in their dress and their garb. They're either mimicking or playing at it or, in some cases, these folks are former military and law enforcement and not acting but revealing their backgrounds.”
But the practice of toting around zip ties as part of a right-wing paramilitary cosplay became much more popular once the Trump administration came to office and brought with it a fanbase of radical right-wing supporters eager for street combat.
Robert Evans, a Bellingcat journalist and researcher who focuses on the far right, noticed a spike in militia interest in zip ties shortly after militias used them to detain a counterprotester at a “free speech” rally in Portland. Members of the violent Three Percenter and Oathkeeper militias subdued a man with zip ties at the rally, held shortly after the “Unite the Right” riot in Charlottesville, and turned him over to officers from the Federal Protective Service, which guards federal buildings.
The push to carry zip ties and restraints, Evans says, arose out of a belief that militias were ideologically aligned with law enforcement and could “arrest” left-wing opponents like antifa and other activists who confront the right at street protests.
“The zip tie discourse started with people who wanted to arrest their political enemies in the streets and evolved into what we saw on the 6th,” Evans told The Daily Beast.
As evidence, he pointed to leaked far-right chat logs obtained by the Unicorn Riot activist group, which show extremists encouraging each other to carry the improvised handcuffs.
“If the police again refuse to do anything about those wearing masks (a crime in progress) what are everyone's thoughts on subduing them and placing them in zip ties as part of a declared citizen's arrest?” extremists wrote about antifa members in a popular discord chat server after the white nationalist “Unite the Right” riot in Charlottesville, VA
Activists with Rose City Antifa, a Portland-based left-wing group, say that they’ve seen a number of right-wing activists who’ve picked up on the zip tie meme. The group shared several photos with The Daily Beast of protests from 2018 through 2020 showing right wing militia members in Portland and Olympia, Washington, seen carrying zip ties, flex cuffs, and in one case, police-style handcuffs.
“Initially we saw zip ties carried primarily by associates of far-right militia movements such as the Oath Keepers or the Three Percenters,” an RCA spokesperson told The Daily Beast. “As the rhetoric issuing directly from the president and the far right became more explicitly demeaning toward anti-fascists and the movement for Black Lives in the past year, we've seen a general increase in tactical gear, open-carrying, and police-style supplies like zip ties among hate groups like the Proud Boys, as well as ostensibly less extreme ‘conservative’ and ‘Back the Blue’ groups in Portland.”
The tactic may have remained an otherwise obscure tic of the far right but the climate of vigilantism ushered in by the national unrest Minnesota police killed George Floyd provided some mainstream exposure. As protests and riots spread across the country, Fox News host and former MTV VJ “Kennedy” urged viewers to carry zip ties and make their own “arrests.”
“If you’re going out protesting and you are a peaceful protester, take some zip ties and subdue some of these people in a citizen’s arrest,” she said. “If they are hurting people, if they’re lobbing Molotov cocktails, if they are setting things on fire, and if they are breaking things and committing crimes, go ahead and help them find what they ultimately want, which is apparently arrest.”
Once President Trump lost the election in November, however, the focus of the far right’s zip tie discourse extended not just to the usual targets like antifa and leftwing activists, but government officials as well.