It was after Jan. 6, 2021 — after rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol — that the Three Percent of Washington started polling the group’s leaders about changing its name, said the group’s vice president Erik Rohde.
They were, to be clear, part of a Three Percenter group, which hate-watch organizations like the Anti-Defamation League describe as part of the right-wing anti-government militia movement.
But that brand had an image problem. Three Percenters across the nation were among the groups with the most indicted members related to Jan. 6. Three Percenters have been arrested for bombing a mosque in Minnesota. Three Percenters tried to kidnap the Michigan governor. Three Percenters marched beside white nationalists at the Charlottesville Unite the Right rally.
But not Washington’s Three Percenters, Rohde stressed. He said his members weren’t at the Jan. 6 D.C. “Stop the Steal” rally — he’d warned them to stay away.
For a half-dozen years, Three Percent of Washington has been trying to shed its “extremist” label. And yet, the organization has shown little interest in parting with the “Three Percenter” name. It’s not just a matter of principle — it’s a matter of influence.
“To be very honest, I would not be able to recreate the marketing traction and recruitment power” under a different name, Rohde said.
That contradiction — both running away from the Three Percenter brand and embracing it — is a paradox at the heart of the Washington Three Percenter’s strategy.
Rohde spoke extensively to InvestigateWest in phone interviews and text exchanges. He argued that his position within Three Percent of Washington has given him an unparalleled perch to fight racism and extremism, including by screening out dangerous radicals from his organization.
But he also explicitly acknowledges that much of his effort is part of a public relations campaign, intended to increase recruitment, bring in a wider array of new members and “normalize” the idea of being a Three Percenter.
That’s exactly what worries experts who track the far right, like Devin Burghart, a Seattle-based extremism expert with the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, an anti-hate organization. Burghart believes that Three Percenter ideology is inherently dangerous — and the more members the group has, the more damage it could do if it lurches further toward extremism.
“The softening of the edges are merely window dressing to try to rebuild their organization,” Burghart said. “They're still organizations that are building private armies to thwart democracy.”
The Three Percent of Washington insists, however, that it’s not trying to thwart democracy. In its bylaws, it stresses it’s not a militia and claims it’s not anti-government — so long, at least, as the government “doesn’t overstep its bounds.” The Three Percent label, however, is an outgrowth of the anti-government “militia movement” that cropped up in the wake of bloody standoffs in the 1990s in places like Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and Waco, Texas.
Drawing on the historical myth that only 3% of American colonists had supposedly taken up arms against the British, Three Percent of Washington characterizes today’s Three Percenters as our country’s “last defense” if “our government takes up arms against ‘we the people.’”
In the 15 years since a militia movement blogger dreamt up the “Three Percent” concept, the Three Percenter causes have expanded far beyond gun rights issues to battles over grazing rights, vaccine mandates, school curriculums and drag queen story hours. It’s become a lifestyle brand — a logo people slap on their truck bumper to signal a kind of gun-loving defiant patriotism — as well as the moniker wielded by organized groups across the nation.
Rohde claims his group is among the largest Three Percenter groups, though he declined to say how many members it currently has.
The Washington Three Percenters has explicitly embraced electoral politics.
“Not only have they been building bridges with elected officials who they see as like-minded, they also have been running people for office,” said Stephen Piggott, an expert with the Western States Center, a group that tracks extremism. “It’s power-building, but in a different way.”
Former Washington Three Percent President Matt Marshall, who currently sits on the board of the Eatonville School District, south of Tacoma, was one of a slew of Three Percenters elected to public office in Washington state.
Yet Marshall told InvestigateWest that his goal was more about building a strong community, getting “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 or flour,” instead of anything to do with politics.
The Washington Three Percenter bylaws urge members to prepare as if the “zombie apocalypse” were coming, recommending they gear up with camouflage, body armor and multiple firearms. But it also dedicates multiple sections to optics — about ways to improve the organization’s image, such as by saving people during a natural disaster, and ways to avoid harming it. ("Don’t wear full battle-rattle when going to WalMart.")
With that in mind, they’ve done clothing drives for veterans. They pick up trash on the three stretches of state highways they’ve adopted. It’s a strategy militia groups have used for years.
“Things like that are all attempting to portray themselves as ‘good neighbors,’” said Piggott. “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.”
Multiple national organizations have attempted to claim the Three Percenter mantle. Around the same time that Rohde became a member, in April 2018, Washington Three Percent officially formed as a nonprofit to distinguish itself from these other Three Percenter groups.
“The national organization, they weren't picky about who they let in the tent,” Rohde said. “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, highlights the Three Percenters’ record of repeatedly standing against white nationalists. At one time, they even formed a brief alliance with the John Brown Gun Club — an armed far-left organization in Seattle — offering their help in taking down flyers posted by a white nationalist group.
But attempts at creating a moderate reputation were hampered, in part, by Marshall’s continuing to publicly support a controversial elected official: Matt Shea, a Spokane-area state representative from 2009 through 2020. Shea, who wasn’t a Three Percenter himself, was a Christian nationalist who had, among many other controversies, authored a document called the “Biblical Basis for War,” which seemed to apply an Old Testament passage to “kill all males” to those who practiced communism or refused to follow biblical law. It created conflict within the Three Percenters — including for a Jewish member like Rohde.
“The ‘Biblical Basis for War’ left no room for me,” Rohde said. “We clearly have a separation of church and state in this country. And that's one that I would fight vehemently to provide for.”
THE COVID CAMPAIGN
The core of the Three Percent mythology is centered around the potential for armed standoffs, and when 2020 hit, the potential for standoffs was everywhere.
False rumors about busloads of left-wing “Antifa” radicals led the Washington Three Percenters to show up armed in Snohomish County. They led gun-rights rallies and anti-lockdown rallies. They shared a “snitch list” of Washington state residents who’d reported businesses who were not complying with the state’s COVID shutdown orders.
Rohde said the group saw “massive increases” — “in the triple digits of percentile” — of new members.
“Tyrants create patriots,” Rohde said. “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 that quickly became a challenge for screening all the new applicants. The Three Percenter brand made it easier to recruit new members than starting from scratch. But there was a cost: They kept attracting the kinds of extremists they had to reject from their organization.
No matter how much they tried to make clear that they didn’t welcome racists into their organization, he said, some of the new applicants would happily admit they were racist.
“Even though we say we are really against that,” Rohde said. He says these candidates were rejected.
Rohde said that there were fights between members who wanted to post messages from “Q” — the anonymous figure central to a right-wing conspiracy theory about a vast network of elite satanic sex traffickers — and people like him who scoffed that Q was “Scientology for hillbillies.”
Marshall was not particularly demure about his own social media practices. During the COVID lockdowns, he’d posted pictures comparing vaccination ID requirements to Nazi “Star of David” badges and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee to Hitler. Furious over the idea of public health officials knocking on his door to try to track the spread of the virus, he posted an image of rows of bullets labeled “contract tracer repellent.”
But he said he was frustrated as conspiracy talk about COVID and vaccines flourished among members. Running for Washington state’s House of Representatives at the time, he felt helpless to rein in his own group.
“I can't keep these people from spouting crazy conspiracy theories, and I'm tired of defending them,” Marshall said he concluded 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, partly as a result of those frustrations. He quit the organization entirely this past May.
“I’M A CARNIVAL BARKER”
The Washington Three Percenters’ current president, Robert Burwell, has been much quieter. It’s Rohde, who became vice president this year, who’s been the public face of the organization, arguing that Washington Three Percent is driven by protecting individual liberty.
“If you protect individual liberty, you protect all minority viewpoints,” Rohde said, claiming that the Washington Three Percenters have stood up for the rights of gays and feminists.
But the reality behind Rohde’s sales pitch is messier: The gays and feminists he’s referring to are “Sovereign Woman Speak” and “Gays Against Groomers” — two groups that inveigh against transgender rights. Washington Three Percent provided security for the two groups during a June protest, in support of a Lynnwood spa owner who declined a trans woman into female-only facilities.
Stephen Paolini, associate regional director at the Anti-Defamation League Pacific Northwest office, worries that combining military-style training with anti-trans activism is a dangerous recipe. The fact that anti-trans rhetoric has become so common on the right doesn’t make it better.
"I'm not willing to let the Three Percenters off the hook because they're getting more 'mainstream,’” said Paolini. “While what's fringe and what’s mainstream is getting blurred.”
On one hand, Rohde often struck a nuanced — at times even moderate — tone during his interviews with InvestigateWest. He argued that violence should be “avoided at all costs.” He called the 2016 armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, "a stupid, stupid, stand" that did nothing but get one of the militants, LaVoy Finicum, shot and killed.
But he plays a different tune on social media: He wrote that the Jan. 6 riots were "orchestrated by the FBI” and that if leftists "really think J6 accurately represents the lengths constitutionalists will go to preserve our founders’ government then they are woefully underprepared." He suggested elections were being stolen and called on people to "oppose pedophile grooming events.”
Last November, he lashed out on Twitter at the people mocking the more than 90,000 Idaho voters who voted for Ammon Bundy, who led the Malheur occupation, for governor.
“Imagine those 90,000 standing with LaVoy," he wrote in the tweet, "Keep laughing bitches keep laughing bitches. When Tyranny becomes law RESISTANCE BECOMES DUTY."
Asked about this tweet, he said he “literally meant stand with” Finicum — “not go attack like a government or anything like that.” He said he thinks the FBI fanned the flames of Jan. 6 but didn’t fully orchestrate it. He said he should be more careful about tweeting while angry.
But he also acknowledged some of his more over-the-top bombast online was effectively its own kind of marketing ploy.
“At a certain level, I'm a carnival barker,” Rohde said. “I'm trying to increase traction or scope of effect, trying to increase membership.”
Projecting moderation for one audience, stoking fury for another: At moments, he expressed flashes of doubt about this strategy, about what could happen if someone takes his rhetoric the wrong way.
“I don’t ever want to inspire someone to violence,” he said.
As much as he complains about being tarred with the extremist label, he said he’s experienced how pervasive and genuine far-right extremism is within other parts of the far right.
While he’s seen anti-Semitism from some of the left-wing protests after the Oct. 7 attacks on Israel by Hamas, he said he’s also seen a ton of it on the right. He said he watched people he’d once respected suddenly flirting with Holocaust denial, “people that I would have counted as friends, saying terrible, terrible things.”
Ever since he got a white nationalist kicked out of last year’s People’s Convoy — a protest movement of right-wing truckers against vaccine mandates and other grievances — he said he’s been hit with increasing numbers of “gross, gross attacks” from the racist far right. One message, posted on the social media site Telegram, called him "a f---ing little manlet Jew cuck," and threatened to filet his skin and feed it to pigs.
While Marshall, the former Three Percenter president, said his family had been threatened after far-left activists published his address, Rohde said he’s often more worried about the extremists who claim to be on the right.
“My wife has very little concern about Antifa ever trying to take a shot at me,” said Rohde. “My whole family knows, though, what different Aryan tattoos look like.”
InvestigateWest (invw.org) is an independent news nonprofit dedicated to investigative journalism in the Pacific Northwest. A Report for America corps member, Daniel Walters covers democracy and extremism across the region. He can be reached at email@example.com.