It’s quiet around the Georgia state Capitol on weekends. The day before a recent militia rally there, the area was thick with police presence, as debate and protests over Georgia’s six-week abortion ban reached a fever pitch.
But not a trace of that law enforcement was left as a heavily armed group of 30 gathered around a PA system on the steps on a Saturday in late March.
“It’s beautiful to see all you patriots out here standing, defending our Second Amendment rights and having a redress of grievances,” Chris Hill told the crowd. “Letting each other know we got each other’s back.”
Hill’s tan Oakley sunglasses matched his military fatigues. Hanging from his shoulder was an AR-15, fitted with a bump stock. It was just a few days before a federal ban on the devices took effect.
Some of Hill’s talking points were what you might expect: gun rights and government overreach. But about five minutes in, the speech turned to Georgia’s newest anti-abortion measure, which bans abortions after a heartbeat is detected in an embryo, or at about six weeks. The bill now needs Gov. Brian Kemp’s signature to become law.
At the March rally, Hill celebrated what he saw as impending victory in the likely passage of the law. His tone shifted as he told the crowd about abortion access elsewhere.
“You’re going to have good people in Georgia saying, ‘Nah. I’ll come to your state and I’ll help protect the life of that unborn child. And I’ll kick that doctor’s ass. I’ll drag him away from that table. I’ll take him outside and — not being radical, but — he needs a foot up his ass.’ That’s murder. Somebody needs to stop a murderer. If you can stop a murderer before it happens, then your conscience is clear. Go with God. May God be with you,” Hill said.
On either side of him were graphic images of what appear to be mangled fetuses, taped up by fellow militia members.
After the speech, I asked Hill about what he’d told the crowd.
Q: Now I’ve got to ask you this. There was a period of time in this country — and fairly recently this happened again … where places where abortions were performed were attacked, were bombed … are you advocating for a return to that period?
A: Not at all. I would kick a doctor’s ass. I would not bomb his building.
Q: OK, so physical assault on an individual?
A: If it prevents that child from being killed, then yes. I would suffer the consequences of kicking someone’s ass to ensure that that child puts his feet on this earth and he opens up his eyes, or her eyes, for the first time to this world. If intervention, if physical contact is necessary to do that, so be it. I’ll pay the $130 disorderly conduct fine and that child will live.
“There’s been a connection between certain militias and anti-abortion violence over the years,” said Heidi Beirich of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors militia activity.
Militias, however, are usually most concerned about encroachment on Second Amendment rights, said Beirich. While the belief that abortions are evil is commonplace among leaders of this movement, she said, Hill’s public declaration is surprising.
“You just don’t expect to see someone own up to wanting to commit a direct act of violence against someone in the way that that quote says,” she said.
Hill, said Beirich, is among the most well-known people in the current-day militia movement. He heads a Georgia chapter of what is one of the country’s largest milita groups: III%ers (Three Percenters), though he’s not necessarily well liked across the movement.
“So he’s not just some run-of-the-mill, random person who’s there. He’s a person who’s a key organizer of a movement that has been involved in the Charlottesville riots and all kinds of political activity across the country.”
While groups like the III%ers have traditionally been thought of as anti-government, the current political landscape has complicated that focus. Outside the Capitol, Hill had asked for a show of hands from everyone who’d voted for both President Donald Trump and Gov. Brian Kemp — it was everyone.
“It’s very possible that the militia movement, now with a government that they support — Donald Trump in the White House and in various other state governments — is trying to latch onto new issues to propel their message,” said Beirich. “In other words, they’re getting involved in politics as opposed to just being oppositional to whoever’s in power.”
For Beirich, the biggest concern about Hill’s speech is about what he can’t control.
“When public figures make violent statements, it has the ability to motivate lone wolves to take their own action — in other words, it gives sanction to them,” she said.
One of Hill’s former militia members, Alex Michael Ramos, is serving prison time for his involvement in beating a black man in a parking lot during the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
However, the numbers of protests, obstructions and threats against abortion providers are on the rise again. That’s according to the Very Rev. Katherine Ragsdale with the National Abortion Federation, which tracks those threats.
“We hear this kind of language in the hate mail and the online harassment all the time. The actual threats of violence made from a public platform, I don’t think we’ve heard before,” Ragsdale said.
She believes those threats are a natural extension of exaggerated, graphic talk about abortions and providers.
“It’s the same thing we heard back in the Clinton era: ‘one inch and a few minutes from life,’ which created another groundswell of violent, dehumanizing language and then, consequently, violent actions,” said Ragsdale.
She points to a more recent example: President Donald Trump’s State of the Union description of a New York law he said would rip a baby from a mother’s womb moments before birth.
There are examples closer to home. Here’s Georgia Rep. Ed Setzler, the author of the six-week abortion ban:
“But friends, every single year in this state, 30,000 children are not just harmed — they’re torn limb from limb. Every single abortion takes the life of a human being,” Setzler said on the House floor
The phrase “torn limb from limb” is the same language used by a Kansas man who shot and killed abortion doctor George Tiller in 2009.
“I flatly repudiate any violence on abortion providers and their facilities by people who recognize the devastating harm that abortion does to our helpless children,” Setlzer told WABE, adding that even those opposed to his bill have thanked him for the tone of the debate.
He went on, ““The blatant efforts of the multi-million dollar abortion industry to silence even the talk that describes the horrors and graphic nature of abortion itself as somehow unacceptable speech, under this false claim that it’s somehow related to violence recognizes how fearful the abortion industry is of everyday Americans coming face to face with the gruesomeness and brutality of the abortion procedure and what it does to our most vulnerable young children,” Setlzer said.
“Anyone who ascribes to the pro-life philosophy but advocates for violence is not speaking on behalf of the pro-life movement, period,” Joshua Edmonds, executive director of the anti-abortion group Georgia Life Alliance, told WABE.
“[Abortion] is a deeply personal decision that people aren’t making lightly, and when we ramp up rhetoric and dehumanize people who either are pro-life or pro-choice, to the point that we forget that they’re people who deserve respect and dignity as well, we undermine our position,” said Edmonds.
Ragsdale says the militia’s speech does make her nervous, mostly for abortion providers. She has a clear message for people who want abortion access: clinics do everything possible to keep patients safe.
“Please make sure that people understand it’s safe to go get the care they need,” she said.
Correction: This report has been updated to adjust the description of the III%ers (Three Percenters) group.