Who are the militia members showing up at Colorado Springs protests? 

click to enlarge John “Tig” Tiegen (center) says the group showed up to counter antifa agitators. - HEIDI BEEDLE
  • Heidi Beedle
  • John “Tig” Tiegen (center) says the group showed up to counter antifa agitators.

When I was in basic training for the Army in 2003, before we were issued our weapons, the drill sergeant gave us a demonstration. He took an M-16 rifle and showed us that the selector switch was set to “safe.” He pulled back the charging handle and locked the bolt of the weapon to the rear. Then he inserted a magazine full of blank ammunition and slammed the butt of the rifle on the ground. The force of the blow caused the bolt to slip free of the locking mechanism, sliding forward, chambering a round, and then — to our surprise — firing the round. The drill sergeant was demonstrating one of the quirks of the M-16 (and its variations, the M-4, the AR-15): its propensity to “slamfire,” or to fire a round without the operator squeezing the trigger, even when the weapon was on “safe.”

It was a pretty basic lesson on muzzle awareness and safe weapon handling, and it is one that I thought about while interviewing Dwayne Magraff on the steps of the Indy’s office building in downtown Colorado Springs. Through the open dust cover on his AR-15, I could clearly see his bolt locked to the rear and his magazine full of live ammunition.

I was interviewing Magraff after the arrival of a “militia” group on June 6 sparked dissension among the Black Lives Matter protesters demonstrating peacefully downtown. The sight of men in camouflage plate-carriers toting rifles or pistols isn’t uncommon in Colorado Springs. Guns have been a regular part of the protest crowd since local protests against police brutality began on May 30, despite the militia aesthetic often being associated with right-wing, constitutionalist groups like the Three Percenters.

click to enlarge The “militia” carried loaded guns. - HEIDI BEEDLE
  • Heidi Beedle
  • The “militia” carried loaded guns.

While there have been no reports of Three Percenters at local rallies, another subset of the “militia” crowd, the “Boogaloo Bois,” have made local appearances. “Boogaloo” is weird internet slang for a second Civil War, and sometimes refers explicitly to a race war. Boogaloo adherents use a number of obscure euphemisms for the movement, including the “Big Igloo” or “Big Luau,” which is why observers have witnessed a number of white men wearing Hawaiian shirts in the protest crowd.

The “Big Luau” enthusiasts I’ve spoken with at the protests have disavowed any racist tendencies and claimed they support the popular resistance to police brutality and want to help people protect their constitutional rights. Interestingly enough, a number of “It’s Okay to be White” stickers, a phrase that also originated on the internet, have popped up along protest routes.

While it may seem like another goofy meme brought to life, Boogaloo enthusiasts have been involved in a number of disturbing incidents recently. A suspect in an ambush killing of a police officer in California has ties to the movement, as well as three men arrested in Nevada on weapons and conspiracy charges. In Denver, police seized a massive quantity of guns brought to the protests on May 29 by Chevy McGee, a 20-year-old Boogaloo Boi. An associate of McGee’s, Bradley Bunn, was arrested in May for possession of pipe bombs.

All of this is to say that protesters’ concerns about the presence of “militia” members at the protests in Colorado Springs is not just anti-gun, liberal pearl-clutching. 

The armed group that arrived in Colorado Springs on June 6 was led by John “Tig” Tiegen. Tiegen says he served as a Marine from 1995-1999, during peacetime, and then worked as a contractor for Blackwater, the group founded by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ brother Erik Prince. Blackwater is mostly known for the infamous “Nisour Square massacre” in Iraq, in which four Blackwater contractors killed 17 Iraqis in 2007 (Tiegen says he was not involved in that incident). Tiegen says he was also a survivor of the 2012 Benghazi attack, although he prefers the term “warrior.” 

“I didn’t survive; I fought back,” he tells me. Dominic Fumusa played him in the 2016 film about Benghazi, 13 Hours.

Though initially welcomed by most of the protesters when he claimed he was there to provide security and keep people safe, a search of his social media accounts showed he claimed to be there to protect property from antifa looters, and that he had made comments that seemed to indicate his support for “gunning down protesters.” 

I spoke with Tiegen on top of the parking garage near City Hall, where the protesters were gathered. His group set up a sniper position, complete with a spotting scope and rifles with suppressors and bipod legs, overlooking the crowd.

“They automatically wanted to label us white supremacists, homophobes. We’re racist right out of the gate because we brought guns.” He claims, “The reason we brought guns is because we were told by three different agencies that antifa was supposed to show up, so we came down to make sure our city didn’t get burned down.”

Tiegen wouldn’t get specific when I asked him which agencies gave him that information. Lt. Jim Sokolik of CSPD told me that “intelligence reports are law enforcement only and would not be shared with the public.” The FBI gave me a “no comment” when I asked if they had supplied Tiegen with information about antifa’s alleged secret plans, and the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives had not responded to questions by the Indy’s press time. 

Magraff claims CSPD actually told Tiegen the antifa story was bogus, “but they [Tiegen and his group] wanted to be ready anyway.”

click to enlarge Armed men stood on the parking garage near City Hall, overlooking protesters. - HEIDI BEEDLE
  • Heidi Beedle
  • Armed men stood on the parking garage near City Hall, overlooking protesters.

The claims that antifa, which is not a formal organization with official members or chapters, is sending hundreds of militants into various cities by bus have been quite thoroughly debunked, although not before causing a panic in communities across the country. In Forks, Washington, an interracial family of four on a camping trip was harassed by locals who accused them of being antifa. Similar rumors caused Chicago police to shut down highways.

Since Tiegen’s appearance at the Colorado Springs demonstrations, protesters have raised concerns about Tiegen’s association with CSPD. Lt. Sokolik told me that “CSPD did not request Mr. Tiegen or his group to come to the protest or coordinate with him.”

During my interview with Tiegen, he did claim that “the SWAT team is texting me,” after protesters became aware of the group’s presence on the parking garage roof. Additionally, a source who wished to remain anonymous provided a photo of Magraff with a CSPD officer, and Magraff claims they met with CSPD on June 6: “They wanted to calm us down because they had heard that we had heard that antifa’s supposed to be coming out here.” 

Lt. Sokolik identified the officer in the photo as Sgt. Troy  Bauer, who did speak with Magraff on June 6, but had not met the group before this. “Sgt. Bauer stated that he did not provide intel information to anyone during these conversations,” Sokolik said in an email.

Tiegen claims that the social media comment in support of “gunning down protesters” was “just a joke.”

“A lot of military guys got graveyard humor,” says Magraff, “they have a dark sense of humor.” 

While there might not be busloads of antifa driving into town, Magraff claims there is an antifa presence at the protests. “The guys shooting off the fireworks [which have caused confrontations with police] were dressed in all black, red masks,” he tells me. “I’ve seen guys with red flags. They’re throwing bottles. I saw three guys in all black, skinny white kids putting some shit over their face and they set down a little mortar tube and set it off. These are antagonizers. They’re antagonizing a peaceful protest, and somebody has to stop them.” 

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