What started out as an attempt to start a local neighborhood watch in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania has turned into a major controversy in the rural county, with accusations now flying about a secret militia set up to target Black Lives Matter supporters.
Our story begins several months ago, when an advertisement appeared in the September 17th edition of the free Mountain Peaks Newspaper in Luzerne County.
“Calling all Mountain Top residents aged 21-65,” the ad began.
“Are you concerned about violence in the streets, mob rule, public safety, family safety, destruction of property, and these things coming to our community?
Do you love America, God, and the Second Amendment? Support our police and want a safe community for you and your children to live in? Do you love American freedom as we have known it? If you are like-minded and able-bodied, please join this cause in a proactive approach forming a Mountain Top Watch community to prepare for the unthinkable, which has already become a reality in many cities.”
The ad went on to describe a meeting scheduled for September 29th at a local pizzeria, but that meeting never took place. Instead, as the local Citizens’ Voice newspaper reported at the time, the organizer cancelled the meeting after speaking with local police.
Fairview Twp. police Chief Phil Holbrook said he had concerns about the wording of the notice and that he felt it sent the wrong message.
“He originally approached us about starting a crime watch, and we were all for that. A crime watch is a good thing, a good idea. The way he worded things, it obviously got a lot of people concerned and upset,” Holbrook said. “I think he just worded it wrong. From everything he said, I don’t think he was looking to start anything like a militia, or do anything like that. I think he just maybe worded it a little aggressively.”
Police declined to identify the organizer, saying he had received threats as a result of the notice.
Wright Township Police Chief Royce Engler told the Citizens’ Voice that he believed a planned Black Lives Matter rally organized by several local high schoolers was the motivation behind the Mountain Top Watch group, and one of the rally organizers said he viewed the announcement of the neighborhood watch group as a threat.
Rally organizer Thomas Beurmann, 18, of Rice Twp., said he took the notice as a call to arms and a threat against his group’s efforts.
“It definitely seemed scary,” he said. “People (on Facebook) are saying that if something happens they’re going to go out with their guns and protect businesses and stuff, so just to see that it’s being organized was definitely a little scary.”
Beurmann, a 2020 graduate of Crestwood High School, said there is no set date for the Black Lives Matter rally because his group is still trying to raise money for liability insurance and working to “get around the red tape” to hold a rally at the Wright Twp. Municipal Park. Most of the people in his group are local youths and their families who have no interest in destroying property, he said.
“There are definitely people way further radical than we are who think that way,” Beurmann said. “But we love America. We love Mountain Top. We just want to see it be a better place for everyone.”
After that initial kerfluffle, the issue seemed to die down in Luzerne County. Antifa didn’t suddenly appear on Main Street in Wright Township to burn the town down, nor did armed Americans take to the streets to defend their hometown from a threat that never materialized.
Recently, however, the group appears to have launched a new recruiting effort. This time, instead of using the local paper, Mountain Top Watch is going with the strategy of putting fliers in residents’ mailboxes.
Fliers that were distributed in newspaper tubes and mailboxes last week urged interested parties to send an email to learn the address of a meeting being planned for Thursday afternoon at an unspecified location.
The flier says the effort is being organized “in response to recent threats of demonstrations in Mountain Top by (Black Lives Matter) supporters.”
“We agreed that if each of us would individually stand to defend our family and our home, we would be much more effective to join as an organized group to help each other,” reads the flier, signed by the “Mountain Top Watch Leadership Team.”
A mission statement included with the flier says the group will “not stand idly by and watch as hooligans loot, commit arson as well as commit various other crimes in our community.”
The document says the group supports the police “as the primary force to deal with any mob violence or domestic terrorism issues” but that its members will be the “last line of defense” prior to police arriving on scene as well as in the event the police become “seriously outnumbered.”
“If confronted by mob violence or domestic terrorism, we see ourselves as an organized but peaceful community reserve force ready to defend our community, if we must,” the statement says.
Granted, I’m not a local so it’s possible that there’ve been arsons and looting in Luzerne County, but if so, those incidents don’t appear to have made the local press. The last report I can find about an arson is from December of last year, and I can’t find a single incident of looting in the county, though some retail establishments did close early one day back in early June after a “young female” boasted in a Facebook post that she and others would be looting a Walmart (ultimately, the Walmart remained looter-free).
I’m not sure if the Mountain Top Watch organizers are aware of this, but they’re trying to start a shadowy and secretive group with the idea of serving as a “last line of defense” against a shadowy and secretive group that may or may not even exist here. The original Mountain Top Watch ad and the more recent flyer are both anonymous in nature, and the flyer doesn’t even reveal the location of the group’s meeting this week. It’s no real surprise, then, that some in the community are reacting with more alarm to Mountain Top Watch than the supposed threat by Black Lives Matter supporters.
Dorrance Twp. resident Patrick Wills said he found the flier in his newspaper tube on Thursday morning, and that he immediately noticed a number of red flags, including the fact that the meeting location will only be disclosed upon request and that the group application form asks about things such as weapons skills and martial arts training.
“It just sounds very sketchy to me,” Wills said. “I don’t want an armed civilian group thinking that they can pass some kind of justice in my area. It’s just not safe.”
A little unsolicited advice to the leadership team of the Mountain Top Watch: don’t be scarier than the groups you’re organizing to oppose. That means, first and foremost, putting some names and faces with the group. There’ve been several volunteer militias that have been set up in counties not too far from where I live in Virginia over the past year or so, and these groups aren’t sneaking around playing Secret Squirrel in their attempts to recruit members. Heck, they’re even talking to the New York Times.
Over lobster mac-and-cheese at a restaurant in Lynchburg, Va., Wes Gardner and Dan Abbott, leaders of the Bedford County militia, dismissed legal objections.
First they made some clarifications. The armed groups that formed across Virginia over the winter and spring were not like the extremist militias of the 1990s, Mr. Gardner insisted, nor were they white supremacist. He is in contact with some harder-edged national groups, like the Oath Keepers, he said, but he likened the typical county militia in Virginia to a “community watch”— albeit one that is also armed to fight government tyranny.
Agree or disagree with the Bedford County militia folks, but at least they’re putting themselves out there and explaining what the organization is about. If you want the support of the public you need to be able to engage publicly, and secret meetings and anonymous missives showing up in random mailboxes is one of the worst ways to reach out to the general public. If you’re one of the good guys then act like it. Frankly, if I’d received one of these recruiting flyers in my local mailbox I would have laughed and rolled my eyes, which I don’t think is the response that the Mountain Top Watch folks are going for.
Be open, honest, and transparent about your goals. Be practical and realistic in how you portray your community and how you appeal to your neighbors. Welcome strangers to see what you’re all about, instead of making folks learn the secret handshake before you let them into your next meeting.
Basically, do the exact opposite of what the Mountain Top Watch group is doing in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania. Their hearts may be in the right place, but their strategies and tactics to date are sure to create more opposition than allies or recruits to their cause.