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In an arrest affidavit submitted on Jan. 16, the Federal Bureau of Investigation described This Is Texas Freedom Force as “an extremist militia group.”
The new label from one of the United States’ primary federal law enforcement agencies came 10 days after the storming of the U.S. Capitol.
Dallas-area resident Guy Wesley Reffitt was arrested for his involvement in the insurrection. He was charged with trespassing, as well as obstruction of justice.
His own family cooperated with the FBI, according to the affidavit. His wife told investigators that Reffitt had threatened their children, saying, “If you turn me in, you’re a traitor and you know what happens to traitors… traitors get shot.”
Reffitt’s son told CNN that his father had changed in recent years. “He’s been more active on the internet — and obviously, the militia and the far-right extremists he’s been involved with recently. He’s been a lot more — I don’t want to say aggressive, but more scared.”
The FBI referred to the group as “Texas Freedom Force.” TITFF confirmed to Texas Public Radio that Reffitt was a dues-paying member, although the group claimed he never attended any official events or meetings.
TITFF posted a statement to its website after the arrest brought unflattering national attention to the organization. It said, in part, “TITFF is not a militia, we are not anti-governmental, we support law enforcement as long as they are upholding their oath and we call out the bad apples that break their oath.”
The Dallas FBI office responded to a TPR inquiry about the basis for the “extremist militia” label with a written statement: “The FBI investigates activity which may constitute a federal crime or pose a threat to national security. Our focus is not on membership in particular groups but on criminal activity.”
Danny Davis is an associate professor with the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University, where he teaches about homeland security. He spent years with the Army working on counterterrorism efforts.
Davis said there are reasons to be skeptical of law enforcement using labels like “extremist” to describe an entire organization.
“When you start talking about particular people that take action — terroristic action, break the law — you’ve got to talk to that individual and get his or her thoughts, as opposed to what law enforcement likes to do: lump such people into categories,” he said, explaining that agencies like the FBI tend to label alleged criminals as part of a category, like “extremist,” when possible. “Why? Because it's easier to prosecute if you're in a category as opposed to an individual.”
Reffitt isn’t the first TITFF-associated individual to be arrested by the FBI in recent months.
Self-identified “Boogaloo Boi” Cameron Rankin was arrested in November and charged with illegally possessing a firearm. TITFF previously told TPR that Rankin is not a member of the group and that he and all “Boogaloo Bois” were eventually banned from events.
TITFF president Brandon Burkhart said members and supporters are expected to represent the organization well.
“We make it 100% clear to people, to our members, that if they want to join our organization, that you fall in line under our rules,” Burkhart said.
Burkhart said the group has 60,000 members and “supporters.” The organization’s tax filings suggest TITFF had no more than 1,000 dues-paying members as of Dec. 2019.
TITFF calls itself the “protector of all things Texas.” In reality, the group focuses on memorials to the pro-slavery Confederate South. The organization unsuccessfully lobbied against the 2017 San Antonio City Council decision to remove a Confederate monument from Travis Park, and it has engaged in similar political action around the state.
More recently, the group successfully rallied against a plan to reimagine the Alamo battlegrounds. Proponents of the change argued that the new design was more faithful to the history of the site, which also served as a slave market at one time. The plan failed to receive necessary support from the Texas Historical Commission after intense lobbying by TITFF and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, among others.
TITFF’s primary objection to the plan centered on a large monument to the “defenders of the Alamo” — the Cenotaph. It was built a century after the battle. The plan called for it to move about 500 feet, just off the battlegrounds.
San Antonio District 1 Councilman Roberto C. Treviño represents the downtown district where much of TITFF’s organizing took place. He pushed for the plan to reimagine the Alamo grounds, as well as the removal of the Confederate monument from Travis Park. That agenda has made him a target for TITFF. His office provided TPR with screenshots of comments made on TITFF’s now-defunct Facebook page under a post about Treviño.
One comment read, “I’m gonna rope you so I hope you run.” Another alleged that Treviño was part of antifa. One commenter wrote, “Remove him the old fashion way.”
“This is a dangerous group,” Treviño said. “This is a dangerous militia group — a group that have shown up to City Hall, fully armed to try to intimidate people. They are absolutely ignorant of history — ignorant of so many things. And it's an unfortunate situation to be in when you're trying to get a great project that is so important to world history done.”
Burkhart said TITFF leadership tried to keep problematic comments away from the Facebook page.
“Now you would have an occasional stray person come in and post something that, you know, was not appropriate,” he said. “And when that would happen, as soon as we were notified of it, we would delete that comment immediately and get it off of our page.”
Burkhart told TPR that the group’s opposition to the Alamo plan and the removal of the Confederate monument from Travis Park is about honoring veterans. He also said the Civil War wasn’t fought over slavery.
The latter claim is rooted in revisionist history. Historians agree: the Southern states seceded and fought the Union over “states’ rights” to enslave Black people.
Lindsay Schubiner is a program director at Western States Center, where she works on a project focused on countering white nationalism.
“Paramilitary groups tend to draw from cultural and historical symbols in their region,” she said. “So it's not surprising that a paramilitary group in Texas would rely on neo-Confederate symbols.”
She said the “Lost Cause” ideology — which deemphasizes the role of slavery in the Civil War and portrays the Confederacy as valiant — is common outside of Texas, too.
“We've seen modern-day white nationalists and far-right adherents use ‘Lost Cause’ symbolism and Confederate symbols, Confederate monuments to ground their racist and antidemocratic activities in a whitewashed version of American history,” she said.
Burkhart believes contemporary white nationalists have misappropriated Confederate symbols.
“I would love to march into a KKK rally or to a white supremacy rally, grab their Confederate flag that they're flying, yank it out of their hand and tell them, ‘This is not your flag. This belongs to the South. It belongs to the Confederate States of America,’” he said. “‘It does not belong to you. Go get a different symbol.’”
TITFF members, including Burkhart, have also flashed the “3%” symbol in photographs. The hand gesture can be confused with the universal “OK” sign, but Burkhart confirmed to TPR that the symbol is a reference to the “3%” ideology — another common characteristic of U.S. paramilitary groups, according to Schubiner.
“It's based on the historical inaccuracy that 3% of the American population rose up to fight the British in the War of Independence,” she said. “The current iteration of this ideology claims that adherents are the modern-day independence or freedom fighters.”
She said many different groups share the ideology without organizing together, “But people who are 3% adherents are responsible for dozens of acts of violence over the past decade. It's an ideology that is absolutely antigovernment.”
Burkhart told TPR that his group is focused exclusively on Texas and that the leadership discouraged members from attending the events in D.C. that preceded the Capitol insurrection.
He said the group is unlikely to get involved in issues outside of Texas, especially at the federal level.
“The (TITFF) Board of Directors would have to make that decision… I doubt that it would be something that we would get involved with,” he said. “Let's say that the government started yanking our constitutional rights away from us … We're not going to go fight the federal government over that. I think our most likely action would be to start pressing for secession and to leave the United States altogether.”
TITFF previously boasted a large following on Facebook, with tens of thousands of profiles subscribed to the page. In early November, it was removed from the platform. The permanent ban struck a major blow to the group, which organized events and promoted causes on Facebook. TITFF’s reach was significantly reduced, as its other social media profiles don’t have nearly as many followers.
Facebook did not respond to TPR inquiries about its decision to remove the page, but the social media company has cracked down on extremist content in recent months.
In late May — when thousands of peaceful protestors met at Travis Park in downtown San Antonio to speak out against the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black people — a few dozen heavily armed TITFF members and supporters gathered to “defend the Alamo.”
On the day of the event, Burkhart said, “We didn’t come out here to be aggressors. We came out here to be defenders.”
About half an hour after that comment, the armed group “formed a line” when a group of Black people walked past on the other side of the street.
Dressed in military-style gear and armed with rifles, the TITFF group captured the attention of multiple people passing by, many of whom were incensed by the display on a day others had devoted to mourning George Floyd.
Throughout the afternoon, small groups from the TITFF event strolled away from Alamo Plaza and through the crowds at Travis Park. After the march ended, a few hundred protestors came to the square.
SAPD gradually increased its numbers as the situation worsened, eventually placing a line of riot police in between the Black Lives Matter protestors and the armed TITFF members.
San Antonio resident Trestan Patton was at the scene.
“When (police officers have their) back toward people that aren't doing a peaceful protest, and (TITFF members) have weapons aimed at us — it sparks up a different type of anger, and it sparks up a different type of violence that is inherited inside of our brains and inside of our lives,” he said.
TITFF claimed the day as a great victory. On social media, the group said it defended the Alamo from thousands of rioters.
In reality, the situation outside the Alamo never escalated to a riot. Isolated incidents of violence broke out, but many Black Lives Matters protestors actually deescalated those fights and protected TITFF members. Burkhart pointed out that a TITFF medic treated a protestor who had been injured.
SAPD escorted most TITFF members and supporters away after a few brawls, although some stuck around throughout the night as a handful of property damage incidents occurred on nearby blocks, which San Antonio police responded to with tear gas and less-lethal projectiles.
TITFF has claimed that it has 60,000 members. For reference, the Texas National Guard has about 20,000.
An annual membership runs at $40 for the first year and $25 for each subsequent year. The group told the IRS that it made no more than $25,000 in 2019. Based on that filing, the group had no more than 1,000 dues-paying members as of Dec. 2019.
TITFF president Brandon Burkhart clarified that the 60,000-member claim refers to both dues-paying members as well as “supporters.”
TITFF filed as a 501(c)3 — a tax-exempt, charitable organization. According to the IRS website, “501(c)3 organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.” But on social media, TITFF regularly rails against progressive politicians like Julián Castro and Roberto Treviño while espousing support for conservative firebrands like Ted Cruz.
Burkhart said the advocacy is about policy directly impacting Texas historical issues rather than party affiliation.
The IRS declined to comment on TITFF’s filings. In response to more general questions about 501(c)3 organizations, a spokesperson citing privacy laws wrote, “As your research is about a specific taxpayer, I must decline to comment on general questions as answers could be applied to that specific taxpayer.”
Burkhart told TPR that its membership ranks grew during 2020. But aside from dues-paying members, the group lost much of its following after Facebook shut down its page. Nonetheless, its operations continue. It currently has a “Remember the Alamo” event planned for early March, and it has expressed opposition to several proposals currently being considered by the state legislature. The legislative session runs through the end of May, and armed TITFF members have shown up to speak at the State Capitol in the past.
Jolene Almendarez and Kathleen Creedon contributed reporting.
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