The Facebook message instantly struck Andrew as suspicious.
The note was from a stranger in Virginia named Cody who claimed to be a distant relative based on the uncommon last name they share. NPR is withholding it for security reasons. Cody's profile picture showed a burly masked man in militia-style get-up with a semiautomatic rifle slung across his chest.
"Um. Yeah. I was concerned," recalled Andrew, a 31-year-old music producer in Los Angeles. "That's probably the nicest way I could say it."
Andrew figured it was an identity-theft scam. Or, because the note had arrived during last summer's racial justice protests, maybe a right-wing infiltration attempt related to his work as an organizer with Black Lives Matter groups.
"I was very hesitant, obviously," he said. "But I also was intrigued. I've never met another person with my last name that I didn't have a direct relationship to."
Andrew warily accepted Cody's offer to trace his genealogy. Cody returned with records showing that they were eighth cousins; the research checked out with Andrew's own. "Once he got all the way back to the 1700s," Andrew said, he was convinced that Cody was legit. He wanted to learn more.
But there was still that unsettling profile pic with the body armor. The AR-15.
"I was like, 'This guy's a Proud Boy,' " Andrew said. "And we're related."
Cody, 24, is not part of the violent Proud Boys, but he does belong to a different segment of right-wing extremism. About two years ago, he joined a small Virginia-based gun group that's aligned with the Three Percenters, a cornerstone of the anti-government militia movement. Two members — not Cody — were at the Jan. 6 rally at the U.S. Capitol. When the two saw it descend into violence, Cody said, "they booked it," and didn't join the mob.
"You gotta be kidding me. Some dude with horns on his head running around?" Cody said, mocking the rioters. "It was ridiculous."
In Andrew, Cody couldn't have stumbled upon a more different relative if he'd tried. At demonstrations against police violence, Andrew wears the black bloc uniform of militant leftists, along with a gas mask and a helmet inscribed with "Black Lives Matter." He's an organizer, "a white ally," with Black-led activist groups fighting for reparations and the abolition of policing systems. With a laugh, Andrew described his politics as "about as far left as you can get."
Andrew and Cody sit on opposite coasts and opposite sides of the political spectrum, each representing movements accused by the other of fueling domestic terrorism. It's unlikely they ever would've met, much less struck up a dialogue, were it not for their chance connection through a German settler who lived two centuries ago.
In separate interviews with NPR, the cousins said they recognize that their bond runs counter to national trends of deep polarization and mistrust. At the same time, they're careful not to present what Andrew called "a buddy-buddy, antifa-Three Percenter love story." Their talks are deep and respectful, they said, but the differences are real.
"He knows what I do. I know what he does," Cody said. "He'll talk to me about his reparations march, and I'll talk to him about, you know, the gun lobby."
According to the FBI, the extreme right is the deadliest and most active threat in the U.S.; far-left violence is much less frequent and seldom fatal. Still, no matter how lopsided the picture, the "both sides" framing persists. Millions of Americans believe the threats are equivalent, thanks in large part to the former Trump administration and conservative media outlets exaggerating the risk of the "radical left."
Now, there's a barbed question at the heart of the Biden administration's pledge to fight violent extremism: Who's an extremist? And as federal authorities insist they police criminal action, not ideology, there's renewed debate over how and when extremists should be monitored. Does Cody's militia affiliation make him a national security risk even if he doesn't violate any laws? Should authorities track militant leftists like Andrew?
As they began their correspondence, Andrew clicked through Cody's Facebook photos and was relieved to see that gun rights seemed to be his focus. There were no MAGA hats or racist posts, he recalled. The cousins latched onto common interests, such as music. Cody plays the banjo; Andrew produces hip-hop and K-pop. They also traded family lore about moonshiners and war deserters.
Eventually, gingerly, they broached the harder parts of their history, the parts that linger in modern-day unrest. They wrestled with the discovery of Confederate relatives. Another was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. But stretching back even earlier, Cody said, their first ancestors on U.S. soil were German Baptists whose sect ardently opposed slavery.
The cousins' dialogue has since expanded to today's thorny issues of race and identity and to the type of nation each of them envisions. Like many Americans, Andrew and Cody are struggling with the pain of estrangement from close family members who disagree with their politics.
The Capitol riot illuminated the uncomfortable what-ifs of their own relationship. They've each privately wondered whether divisions would get so bad that one day they'd be on opposite sides of an armed conflict, like their ancestors in the Civil War.
"Through Cody, I've learned more about my family history than any other person," Andrew said. "And the more I learn about it, the more I feel like it kind of ties back into what's going on right now.
Family and history
Deep in the Blue Ridge Mountains one recent afternoon, Cody knelt at the grave of a long-dead relative, smoothing the earth for a new headstone.
He then pressed the granite slab into place, restoring a name to a great-great-aunt's unmarked grave.
"That's one of my big fears — is to be forgotten," Cody said. "To be laid up here somewhere and then just forgotten, like nothing you ever did in your whole life mattered anymore."
Family and history are woven into his favorite hobbies. Genealogy quests take him along winding mountain roads to cemeteries where some old graves are still adorned with colorful memory jugs, an Appalachian tradition. Cody's relatives have played bluegrass music for generations, another legacy he has kept alive by learning the dulcimer, mandolin and fiddle.
And then there's the militia.
Cody said his forebears survived war and hardship because they were resourceful. Today, he said, wider unrest seems inevitable given the recent turmoil, and he wants to be similarly prepared.
"I've always been taught: Hope for the best, expect the worst," he said.
For Cody, that starts with self-defense, a right he considers absolute. He dismissed all gun control laws as "infringements."
Nicknamed "Sasquatch" for his shaggy hair and linebacker build, Cody married his high school sweetheart a year ago. He said he only reluctantly voted for Donald Trump and despises white supremacists. A self-described libertarian, Cody advocates universal health care, believes systemic racism must be dismantled and supports marijuana legalization, marriage equality and abortion rights.
Cody sounds like a Bernie bro — until it comes to guns. In the nation's political tribalism, the Second Amendment is claimed by the right, so that's where Cody drifted. His interest in gun rights led him to right-wing online forums, which in turn piqued his interest in organized Second Amendment groups. Militia groups.
"Everyone was so reclusive," Cody said of his attempts to make contact. "You had to be a vetted member and all that stuff before they even talked to you."
Eventually, Cody joined a small, southeastern Virginia faction that focuses on self-defense and prepping. He said the group rejects white supremacist ideology and includes Black and Puerto Rican members. Cody says the idea is to be prepared for civil unrest, not to provoke it.
"Even if the FBI planted somebody in our group, you're going to find a bunch of fat dudes running around in the woods," he said. "You're not going to find any crime."
When NPR first met Cody at a gun rally in January, he was dressed as he was in the Facebook pic that alarmed his cousin Andrew: tactical gear, plus the AR-15 loaded with armor-piercing rounds. He stood on a street corner by the statehouse in Richmond with other members of his militia group, outnumbered by journalists who'd come to see "the far-right threat" up close.
Nearby, a few "boogaloo" extremists whom Cody is friendly with were yelling into a bullhorn about armed rebellion against the government. They posed with their rifles under signs saying that weapons were banned in the area by local ordinance. That was Jan. 18, not two weeks after the storming of the U.S. Capitol. Throngs of police watched closely but made no move against them.
The scene outside the Virginia statehouse encapsulated a long-standing laissez-faire approach by authorities toward predominantly white paramilitaries. So-called patriot groups have been allowed to build armed movements whose stated goal is the eventual overthrow of the "tyrannical government." Despite high-profile standoffs with the federal government, they've operated as if they're untouchable — their rhetoric protected by the First Amendment, their arsenals by the Second.
The Capitol attack, however, could be a game-changer. Outrage over the deadly breach is turning into demands for "war on terror"-style tactics to combat the violent right. So far, more than 320 people face federal charges in the Capitol siege; semi-organized factions such as the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers were slapped with conspiracy cases.
Right-wing groups that once were comfortable are beginning to find themselves in the crosshairs. Even Cody's tiny startup militia has lost its Facebook page twice.
Last month, Cody personally felt the squeeze. He said someone alerted his employer to his Facebook photos, the ones of him in body armor, including one where his work badge was visible. He said company security guards searched his desk and grilled him about his whereabouts on Jan. 6. He went along with it, Cody said, because he had nothing to hide, but he warned that such moves would backfire.
"We can train and be as scary looking as they want," Cody said. "The moment they start investigating us and sending people to our houses, then they're picking the fight."
Incensed over the trouble at work, Cody said, he decided to post more Facebook pictures. Again, they showed him wearing tactical gear and carrying his rifle.
This time, the caption read: "To my secret admirers, you know who you are." He ended the post with a kissy-face emoji.
A political transformation
On a phone call from Los Angeles, Andrew began the tale of his long-lost cousin who happens to be in a right-wing militia by acknowledging that everything about it is bizarre, including the backdrop.
"It's kind of a very random story that probably could've only happened during quarantine," he said.
That first message from Cody arrived while Andrew was in lockdown, with more time than usual to go down a genealogical rabbit hole. As their correspondence deepened, he spent weeks learning about his ancestry, as well as about Cody's world of guns and doomsday preppers.
Andrew said it make him think about his own evolution, from growing up in a conservative Republican household in Florida to getting pepper-sprayed by cops on the streets of Los Angeles.
"I would've been one of those Proud Boy, Trump people when I was 18," Andrew said. "But it was through my friends that didn't just throw me to the curb and said, 'Hey, no, I think you're wrong. Let's talk about this. I challenge that idea. Tell me why you think you're right,' and actually having these back-and-forths, I was able to grow."
Andrew said his transformation began at a family reunion in the hills of West Virginia. He'd grown up with his father telling him stories about their Appalachian heritage, but Andrew hadn't visited in person. When he did, Andrew said, he found that his paternal relatives were "the sweetest people."
Until it came time for after-dinner conversation.
"After we had gotten done eating our big family dinner, I heard them referring to Black people as the N-word," Andrew said. "And this is only in 2010 or so."
He recalled looking around the room, waiting for an adult to object. No one did. That moment, he said, set him down an activist path.
"There's 90 people at this family reunion," Andrew said. "How many other American families does that represent?"
Andrew said his politics quickly moved from conservative to libertarian, then from liberal to leftist.
By 2011, he said, he was participating in Occupy-era protests, his first experience with serious organizing.
Fast-forward to 2021, and Andrew's Instagram feed, a showcase for his latest music, also shows him in full street-battle gear with his fist in the air or with fellow activists chanting, "F*** the police!" at protests. His comments are laced with references to "direct action," a more confrontational activism in response to police violence or threats from right-wing vigilantes.
"NOW is the time to get out and FIGHT against systemic racism and police brutality!" Andrew wrote in one caption.
As it turns out, the Second Amendment is an area of agreement for Andrew and Cody. While Andrew doesn't share his cousin's zero-restrictions stance, he does support gun ownership, especially as protection for Black and other communities of color.
"When you see how these white mobs are able to get away with what they do, I think one of the biggest common factors is that they're all armed," he said.
Andrew said he was also pleased to hear Cody thinking seriously about reparations, a key plank in Andrew's activism. They've spent long calls talking about the immeasurable pain and loss caused by slavery. They said the eradication of Black history comes into sharp relief against their own easy connection through family records dating back centuries.
Andrew told Cody about a reparations march he was helping to organize in Washington, D.C. It was scheduled for Jan. 21, the day after the presidential inauguration. The goal was to force attention to the issue on the Biden administration's first full day in office.
"We'd been in the process for months and months of planning this event," Andrew said. "Had tickets booked, Airbnb booked and everything."
Then he heard from Cody in Virginia. Cody was watching his right-wing circles rev up for a big pro-Trump rally on Jan. 6. He told Andrew the mood was tense, angry. This one, he warned, could be big.
"I'm getting messages from Cody, like, 'Yo, man, you shouldn't go to the Capitol. I'm just looking out for you. I want to make sure my cousin is safe,' " Andrew said.
On Jan. 6, Andrew watched the rioters on TV and saw the dream of a reparations march evaporate. He was on the phone with other activists, discussing logistics and security concerns and "trying to decipher what was going on."
"Are these people going to leave? Are they going to stay? Are they going to take over the country? It was one of the most chaotic times of my life," Andrew said. "It changed everything overnight. We had people saying there's no way in hell we can do this march."
Once the initial shock wore off, Andrew said, he thought again about Cody's warning from "the other side." He thought about where the country is heading, where it has been.
"It made me really think about the Civil War in terms of, yeah, there were families fighting against each other," Andrew said. "Brothers, sisters, cousins, you know. And I'd learned that in history, but it never really clicked with me what that was like."
"We've got to live in the same country"
After the storming of the Capitol, the area became a ringed-off fortress patrolled by the National Guard. With calm restored, the reparations march eventually received new permits for a new date: Feb. 14, Valentine's Day.
Andrew flew to D.C. from L.A. with several Black activists. Cody drove three hours from Virginia to meet his cousin in person for the first time.
On the morning of the march, Cody showed up to the Lincoln Memorial, a big white guy in jeans and work boots looking a bit lost among the Black activists chanting reparations slogans or posing for photos with their fists raised. A DJ played go-go music. Volunteers arranged pamphlets and buttons at booths.
Cody scanned the crowd until he spotted a white organizer dressed in a leather jacket with "Black Lives Matter" scrawled across the back. It was Andrew.
The cousins greeted each other with COVID-19-era elbow bumps, their smiles showing behind their masks.
"Nice to meet you, cuz!"
There was no awkwardness. Within minutes, Cody was helping Andrew set out folding chairs. Andrew introduced him to Tara Perry, a Black activist and lead reparations organizer, explaining that Cody was a "cousin I just met five seconds ago."
"Hi, Cody. Welcome!" Perry said.
"Howdy," Cody replied.
This was not the reception Cody had envisioned. He admitted that he'd imagined "some Black Panther dudes in the hats" confronting him and asking what he was doing there. He laughed when asked whether his militia buddies would ever attend an event like this.
"If they were here, they would be here for me, and they would probably all be armed and keep their eyes about them," Cody said. "Just because of the stereotypes about Black Lives Matter."
Andrew said he knows that some people in his own activist circles wouldn't approve of his bond with Cody. To many, he said, a militia is a militia is a militia. And the label is often used interchangeably with "white supremacist" or "domestic terrorist." Talking about nuances on the right isn't exactly popular, and it became even less so after Jan. 6.
Andrew quickly added, as a disclaimer, that he wasn't advocating giving platforms to dangerous racists. He has no problem slapping a "domestic terrorism" label on violent hate groups. But he said he's uncomfortable with broad-brush portrayals of everyone on the right as irredeemable hatemongers.
That's not how Andrew sees Cody.
"I know Cody, but everyone else is going to look at him and see him the same as every Proud Boy, boogaloo, Three Percenter militia person," Andrew said. "But I think it's worth pursuing at least some sense of commonality because we've got to live in the same country as a lot of other people we disagree with."
Besides, Andrew noted, only a few months ago, his side was the one the White House portrayed as enemy No. 1.
"Like Black Lives Matter, the whole summer it's been, 'Oh, this is chaos in the streets,' and Trump saying, 'We need to hit these animals hard' and stuff like that — really incendiary language being used against us," Andrew said. "We've got to be careful because all it takes is the next person in power feeling like you're a terrorist and then all of a sudden you're in that group."
It was still early. Marchers weren't expected for at least another hour, so Andrew and Cody walked down to the monument's famous reflecting pool.
They had a lot to talk about.
Senior producer Walter Ray Watson contributed editing and sound design to this report.