CHEYENNE — The Three Percenters movement has gained representation in the Wyoming Legislature — at least symbolically.
A photograph resurfaced this week of freshman Rep. Marshall Burt (L-Green River) that shows a tattoo on his left forearm — the Roman numeral “III” surrounded by 13 stars, above the year 1776. The symbol is commonly associated with a far-right, anti-government movement and the popularization of militia groups.
In a written statement this week, Burt said he is not involved in any militia groups, and got the tattoo because he enjoyed the symbolism of what it stood for.
“I got the tattoo because the American Revolution symbolism appealed to me, and to me it represents my solid commitment to the Second and Tenth Amendment,” Burt wrote. “I have never been a member of a militia group, and I think we have much bigger issues to address, like reducing wasteful spending and getting patients and veterans access to treatments, rather than to dwell on something as minor as a tattoo.”
The tatoo’s symbol — which closely resembles a Betsy Ross flag — is associated with a loosely organized anti-government movement known as the Three Percenters, which has been growing in influence within American conservative politics. The name comes from the debunked claim that only 3% of colonists fought against the British during the Revolutionary War but “achieved liberty for everybody,” according to a policy brief by the Anti-Defamation League. A number of militia groups and anti-government activists have adopted the symbol.
The photograph of Burt — in which he is sitting at a table with a smiling young supporter — initially appeared online last year. National Libertarian Party chairman Joe Bishop Henchman first posted it on his public Facebook page shortly after Burt’s victory over incumbent Democratic Rep. Stan Blake in November.
After a reporter contacted Burt about the tattoo on Nov. 5, the image was removed from the post, which featured other images of the newly elected lawmaker engaging with Henchman and a handful of supporters.
The Libertarian Party did not respond to an email or phone message requesting comment.
Who are the Three Percenters?
The Three Percenters ideology has gained increasing prominence in American politics over the last decade, with a growing number of Republican officials recently making headlines for their ties to the movement.
Newly elected U.S. Representatives Lauren Boebert (R-Colorado) and Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Georgia) have both attracted attention for their associations with militia groups tied to the Three Percenters. Illinois state lawmaker Chris Miller, was found to be sporting a “III%” decal on a truck driven by his U.S. Representative spouse around the Jan. 6 riots at the United States Capitol. Members of a Three Percenter militia group also provided security at the 2017 “Unite The Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
This week authorities listed the Three Percenters among the groups they feared were plotting another attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Unlike militia groups like the Oath Keepers, however, researchers say the Three Percenters are often loosely defined, and many who prescribe to the ideology may not actually be active participants of any centralized group.
“Nobody has a firm idea of what the [Three Percenter] movement is,” according to J.J. MacNabb, a fellow with the Program on Extremism at George Washington University.
“If you are, for example, a Three Percenter in Idaho, you’re part of a militia. You show up, you train, you organize, you actually have membership,” MacNabb said. “But if you’re just kind of a Three Percenter, or if you got a tattoo or wear the T-shirt, or have a patch on your hat or whatever, you very well might not belong to any local group, and you’re not part of them. You’re part of the movement. And because it’s loosey goosey, there’s no real definition of what it means to be a Three Percenter.”
Some Three Percenter supporters may not even know what the symbology actually stands for, MacNabb said.
In interviews with people who have had tattoos similar to Burt’s, MacNabb has learned that people have many different interpretations for the symbol, she said. One believed it was pro-military. Another believed it represented support for the Second Amendment. Last year, a draft pick by the New England Patriots, Justin Rohrwasser, made headlines after he was spotted with a Three Percenter tattoo, which he said he believed was a pro-military, patriotic symbol. In fact, the symbol has gained favor among members of the military, and members of some chapters have had close ties to the military.
Burt himself is a Marine Corps veteran.
According to the Anti-Defamation League, while the media often refer to the Three Percenters as a movement or a group, they actually constitute a segment of the broader anti-government militia movement and, as a concept, can be seen as a way to “simplify, popularize and spread the ideology and beliefs of the militia movement.”
There is an unofficial Three Percenters’ website, for example, with a merchandise store and a blog detailing the movement’s beliefs. That blog also challenges various ways the movement has been depicted in the popular press, particularly following civil unrest throughout the summer and the violent riots at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
However, the site — which belongs to a group that purports to be the “original” Three Percenters — explicitly states on its (now-defunct) landing page that there “are lots of three-percenter groups” and that there was no specific organization responsible for the storming of the Capitol.
“As we’ve said many times before, we do not allow members into our organization who are racists, white supremacists, violent, anti-government, extremists, terrorists, etc.,” the group wrote in a Feb. 19 blog post. “We have a vetting standard in place to weed out these types that would seem to hurt our organization. We are law-abiding good people who love America and want to give back to our communities. We ask the news agencies to conduct accurate reporting instead of lumping all Three Percenter groups into one. We’re not all the same. In fact, we’re radically different from one another. Do better reporting.”
The symbol has been connected to anti-government violence in recent years. One of the men charged in the 2018 bombing of a Minnesota mosque was found to have run a Three Percenter group, and several people prescribing to the ideology were among those who stormed the United States Capitol.
Rohrwasser later said he regretted getting the tattoo after learning what it symbolized, and planned to have it removed, according to the Providence Journal. The United States Military has issued warnings that some of its symbols — including a combat medic trauma course symbol closely resembling the Three Percenters symbol — were being co-opted by white supremacist and anti-government groups who were attracted to the “patriotic symbology,” the Army Times reports.
“A lot of these guys who get this tattoo don’t know what it actually means,” MacNabb said. “And the fact [that Burt] ran for office is a good thing. In its purest form, a Three Percenter would never run for office. They’d try to gather up enough people to take on the government from the outside.”