Ancestry Brought A Militia Member And Black Lives Matter-Supporter Together As Cousins
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
At the heart of the Biden administration's mission to fight violent extremism, there's a hotly debated question. Who's an extremist? NPR's Hannah Allam is here with a story about two cousins that show the complexity of that question.
And, Hannah, first, tell us more about these people. Who are they?
HANNAH ALLAM, BYLINE: Well, they're distant cousins who met online - Cody and Andrew. They asked that we only use their first names because they have an unusual relationship that involves security and other sensitivities. But I first heard about them at a gun rally in Richmond, Va. This was only about a couple weeks after the Capitol attack, and some right-wing extremists showed up to this rally. Among them is a guy named Cody. He's part of a militia group aligned with the Three Percenters. He's this big guy with shaggy hair. His nickname is Sasquatch. And he was carrying an AR-15. We start talking, and at some point, he mentions conversations he's been having with a cousin in Hollywood who's a Black Lives Matter antifascist activist. I'm thinking, yeah, right. But of course, I also want to know more. So we keep in touch, and it turns out this antifa cousin does exist. Their bond is real. And the next thing I know, I'm heading out into the Blue Ridge Mountains to meet Cody in a graveyard and hear more about it.
CODY: That's my great-great-great-grandma right there. And this is the one I'm going to put the headstone down for today. That's my great-great-aunt.
ALLAM: That's Cody. He's in an old family cemetery down a winding road through the mountains. He places a new granite headstone on an ancestors' unmarked grave.
CODY: I just - that's one of my big fears - is to be forgotten, you know, to be laid up here somewhere and then just forgotten, like nothing you ever did in your whole life mattered anymore.
ALLAM: Twenty-four-year-old Cody is an amateur genealogist. He's met and become friendly with several distant cousins he found on ancestry sites. Most live in the area. But last September, Cody found a match on the other side of the country
ANDREW: And he just said, hey, my name's Cody, and I think we're related, which is a very strange way to start, you know, any type of random interaction.
ALLAM: And that's Andrew, a 31-year-old music producer in LA. He was suspicious of this Facebook message from a stranger. But they have the same last name, and it's a fairly unusual one. Andrew was intrigued.
ANDREW: You know, at first, I thought he was a scammer or something, trying to steal my identity. And then once he got all the way back to, like, the 1700s, I had known through my own family research that that was correct. So I said, OK, this guy checks out.
ALLAM: Sure enough, Cody proved that they did have a common ancestor eight generations back. But for Andrew, there was still a modern-day concern.
ANDREW: Yeah. So obviously, when I first saw that Facebook picture, I was like, this guy's a Proud Boy, and we're related. You know, I was very hesitant, obviously.
ALLAM: Cody's not part of the violent, right-wing Proud Boys, but the photo does show him in full militia regalia - tactical gear, semiautomatic rifle. Andrew wondered if he was being set up by right-wing operatives because of his own activism.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Don't let nobody come up in here telling us we got to be peaceful and love these pigs.
ANDREW: I'm an organizer with several groups that are pro-Black liberation, abolitionists, pro-reparations.
ALLAM: In other words, Andrew is aligned with antifa and Black Lives Matter, movements vilified by the right. He was on the streets all summer, protesting police violence. Cody was at demonstrations, too, on the other side, part of a militia-style group ostensibly protecting property. They also had a presence at the Capitol on the day of the riots, January 6.
CODY: A couple of guys in my group went to D.C. for the protest. When they saw what was going on, they booked it. That's not what they were there for.
ALLAM: Both cousins are painfully aware of how polarized the country is, each estranged from close relatives over politics, and they stress their own bond isn't all "Kumbaya." Andrew was even a little nervous about this interview.
ANDREW: If the point of this is just to show the depth of people and how, you know, things aren't just one way or the other, I think that's really cool, you know, and less making it a buddy-buddy, antifa-and-Three-Percenter love story (laughter).
ALLAM: Andrew laughs, but talking about all this can be tough.
(SOUNDBITE OF RIOT AMBIENCE)
ALLAM: The Capitol attack put a spotlight on some uncomfortable what-ifs.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Shouting, unintelligible).
ALLAM: Andrew and Cody have each privately wondered whether things would get so bad that one day, they'd be on opposite sides of an armed conflict, like their ancestors in the Civil War.
ANDREW: Through Cody, I've learned more about my family history than any other person. And the more I learn about it, the more I feel like it kind of ties back into what's going on right now.
ALLAM: Family and history are woven into Cody's passions - the genealogy that led him to Andrew, his bluegrass music.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
CODY: (Singing, unintelligible).
ALLAM: And then there's the militia. Cody says his ancestors survived war and hardship because they were resourceful. Today's turmoil, he says, signals more unrest, and he wants to be just as prepared.
CODY: Always been taught hope for the best, expect the worst.
ALLAM: For Cody, that starts with self-defense, a right he considers absolute.
CODY: You know, I believe that all gun laws - they're infringements to me.
ALLAM: Cody calls himself a libertarian who loathes white supremacists and only reluctantly voted for Donald Trump. On social issues, he sounds like a Bernie bro - universal health care, marijuana legalization, abortion rights. But because his No. 1 issue is guns, Cody drifted into far-right Second Amendment networks.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Democrats are attempting to implement radical gun legislation that infringes on your...
CODY: I just wanted - I wanted to know what a militia was at first. And everyone was so reclusive, and you had to be a vetted member and all that stuff before they even talk to you.
ALLAM: Eventually, he says, he joined a southeastern Virginia group aligned with the Three Percenters, part of the anti-government militia movement. Cody says the idea is to be prepared for civil unrest not to provoke it.
CODY: Even if the FBI wanted to plant someone in our group, you're going to find a bunch of fat dudes running around in the woods. You know, you're not going to find any crime.
ALLAM: Andrew in LA says he was relieved when he clicked through Cody's photos and didn't see any MAGA hats or racist symbols. He tried to keep an open mind. After all, only a few months ago, he was the one the White House portrayed as a domestic terrorist.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
DONALD TRUMP: You know, they show up in the helmets and the black masks. And they've got clubs, and they've got everything - antifa.
ANDREW: Black Lives Matter, the whole summer, it's been all these - this is chaos in the streets, and Trump saying we need to hit these animals hard and stuff like that, just really incendiary language being used against us.
ALLAM: The more they talked, the more comfortable Andrew was telling Cody about his own political evolution. It began at a family reunion in rural West Virginia.
ANDREW: After we had, you know, gotten done eating our big family dinner, I heard them referring to Black people as the N-word. And this is only in 2010 or so.
ALLAM: Andrew recalls looking around the room waiting for an adult to object. No one did.
ANDREW: You know, if there's 90 people at this family reunion, then, like, how many other American families does this represent?
ALLAM: Andrew says he was a staunch conservative at the time. It took that day at the reunion and many years of conversations for his views to change.
ANDREW: Because I would have been one of those Proud Boy-Trump people when I was 18. But it was through my friends that didn't just throw me to the curb and said, hey, no, I think you're wrong. Like, let's talk about this. I challenge that idea. Tell me why you think you're right.
CODY: He knows what I do. I know what he does. At the end of the day, we're still cousins.
ALLAM: Cody says they don't try to convert. It's mostly about hearing each other out, listening.
CODY: He'll talk to me about his reparations march. And I'll talk to him about, you know, the gun lobby.
ALLAM: The reparations march - that was an event Andrew helped organize through Black-led activist groups in LA. The goal was to march in D.C. on January 21, the day after inauguration.
ANDREW: We'd been in the process for months and months of planning this event and had tickets booked, Airbnb booked and everything.
ALLAM: Then he heard from Cody in Virginia. He was watching his right-wing circles rev up for a big pro-Trump rally on January 6. He told Andrew the mood was tense, angry. This one, he warned, could be big.
ANDREW: I'm getting messages from Cody like, yo, man, you shouldn't go to Capitol still. I'm just looking out for you. You know, I want to make sure my cousin's safe.
ALLAM: Andrew watched the violence on January 6. He thought about Cody's warning from the other side. He says he thought about where the country's heading, where it's been.
ANDREW: And so it made me really think about the Civil War in terms of, yeah, there were families fighting against each other - brothers, sisters, cousins, you know? And I learned that in history, but it never really clicked with me what that is like.
ALLAM: The reparations march is finally rescheduled for February 14, Valentine's Day. Andrew flies to D.C. Cody drives three hours to meet in person for the first time. Cody walks up to the rally. The DJ plays music. Activists pose with their fists in the air on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Cody spots a white volunteer in a leather jacket that says Black Lives Matter.
CODY: It looks kind of like him. But at the same time, I don't know if that's him or not. This guy right here.
ALLAM: It's him. It's Andrew.
ANDREW: What's going on, man? Nice to meet you, cuz (ph) (laughter).
CODY: Man, welcome.
ALLAM: There's no awkwardness. They seem instantly at ease. Within minutes, Cody's helping Andrew set out folding chairs. Andrew introduces him to Tara Perry, a Black activist leading the March.
ANDREW: I just met my cousin five seconds ago.
TARA PERRY: Oh, hi.
ANDREW: This is Tara, the main organizer of the event, by the way.
PERRY: Hi. How are you?
PERRY: Hi, Cody. Welcome.
ALLAM: The warm reception is not what Cody expected.
CODY: The thing that went through my head was I was going to be approached by some Black Panther guys in the hats and stuff, you know? What are you doing here, you know?
ALLAM: It's not lost on either of them how bizarre this all is - strangers brought together by a German settler who lived two centuries ago. But they say they're willing to see where it takes them.
ANDREW: If there's a bridge between, like, the types of relationships we have - but I know there's something here as far as just finding that common ground and building off of it, so...
ALLAM: It's still early. Protesters aren't expected for at least another hour. The cousins walk down to the reflecting pool in front of the memorial. They have a lot to talk about.
CORNISH: NPR's Hannah Allam is back with me now. And, Hannah, it's really tempting to look at this unlikely friendship as this kind of, like, left-right, buddy-buddy story, as Andrew joked. But what do you make of it?
ALLAM: I think what Andrew was getting at is that he didn't want to be part of any kind of both-sides story. And fair enough. I mean, the FBI considers the far-right, which includes militia groups like the Three Percenters, the deadliest domestic threat. There's nowhere near the same number of fatalities or violent attacks when it comes to militant antifascists. But there's reality, and there's public perception. And millions of Americans do believe these are equivalent threats because the Trump White House and conservative media promoted that idea nonstop. There's a lot of talk about extremism now. And I think a story like this one gets to the murkiness of, who is an extremist? Is it just being a member of a militia group like Cody? And then what about Andrew, who wears black bloc and a gas mask to protest against police?
CORNISH: In the meantime, what effect did the Capitol attack have on these two cousins?
ALLAM: For Cody, there have been very real consequences. Last month, Cody personally felt the squeeze. Someone reported his Facebook photos to his employer, the same ones where he's dressed for combat. Company security comes in, searches his desk, grills him about where he was on January 6. And, you know, in today's debate, some will see that as good, prudent follow-up. Others might see a reminder of the post-9/11 hysteria, where law-abiding Muslims were investigated based on flimsy or no evidence. For the cousins themselves, though, in a way, January 6 brought them closer together. They met in person after that, and they say the violence did make them think hard about the stakes involved with their respective movements and about the path the country is on.
CORNISH: That was NPR's Hannah Allam.
Thank you for sharing their story.
ALLAM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.