New Year, New Extremes; Know and Beware the Alts
From Antifa to the Alt-Right, extremist organizations are trying to rebrand themselves and their enemies to appear more palatable to the middle. On this episode of Gist Say'n we will examine who they are and what they hope to achieve.
Many may be horrified by this observation, but extremists of the freshly rebranded alt-right and alt-left can have more in common with each other than with the people in the middle they are trying to win over. Laid upon a flat line the far right and far left are as far apart as the line is long, each occupying the opposite frayed edge, but pick up that line and connect the frayed edges and a more accurate picture of the two extremes comes into view. Both ends are dangerous and ignoring their existence and culpability is done at democracy’s peril.
What is an Extremist
First, let's define what we are talking about. A congressional research service report prepared in 2017 states that:
“The FBI’s public formulation of “extremism” suggests two components... First, extremism refers to an ideology outside a society’s key values, and for liberal democracies, such ideologies “support racial or religious supremacy and/or oppose the core principles of democracy and human rights.” Second, extremism can refer to the use of tactics that ignore the rights of others to achieve an ideological goal."
On one of its own websites, the FBI describes violent extremism as, “encouraging, condoning, justifying, or supporting the commission of a violent act to achieve political, ideological, religious, social, or economic goals.”
Michael Clancy, a former deputy assistant director of the Counterterrorism Division, says the FBI investigates actions—not belief systems. "We are not the thought police,” Clancy said on an FBI Podcast. “It’s the sociopaths; it’s the ones that are willing to take it a step further to get a gun, to get a bomb, to do something—those are the ones that I worry about."
James Fields, the 21-year-old white supremacist convicted on December 7 of first-degree murder for intentionally running down Heather Heyer with his car after violent protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, 16 months ago, is a prime example of the type of violent extremist the FBI worries about the most.
Why the Rebrand
Traditionally people gather in the middle, they want to belong, and want little to do with the outcasts on the fringes. The “Alts” are just new terms to describe old groups that have been around for generations as they evolve and look for facelifts that might make them more appealing to the middle.
White supremacist organizations are fine with the name Alt-Right because, in an effort to blend with non-racist groups whom with they might share other common ground, one of their own came up with the rebrand.
Far left wing movements are more upset with their new designation because they feel it shifts them away from middle democrats toward the fringes. Whether they like it or not, doesn't seem to matter, the terms are here, and their use is growing even as their meaning continues to evolve. A year ago news organizations were directed to only use these terms when quoting others. Now they just use them.
Each of these extremes likes to point at the other and claim that its doctrine is superior and that for everyone else’s safety the other needs to be destroyed. Yet, from philosophies to tactics each draws from the others well-worn playbooks.
For almost two decades, Islamic terrorist jihadists both foreign and homegrown have been the extremists to garner the lion’s share of national attention. The attacks on 9/11 brought them to the forefront and continued attacks, such as the Boston Marathon Bombers, kept them there. This, however, has not always been the case.
Historically other extremists movements have dominated the public’s attention. In the 60s and 70s, it was radical left organizations like the Black Panthers Party and the Weather Underground that dominated headlines with threats and acts of violence in protest of the Vietnam war and in support of black power and new communism. In the 80s and 90s, the most familiar strand of extremists in the United States was of the white supremacist ilk.
Tracking the Evolution of Extremes
My first introduction to the world of extremists was in the summer of 1988 when as an intern I accompanied KXLY’s lead reporter to what was billed as an annual Aryan World Congress. It was a gathering in North Idaho of white supremacists, separatists, skinheads, and Klansman from across the United States and beyond.
In the 80s and 90s a man named Richard Butler, leader of the Church of Jesus Christ Christian, or Aryan Nations, as it was known, was able to do what few before him had accomplished in the white racist corner of extremist movements. He gathered various racist organizations, plus those based on more anti-government views from across the country together, at least briefly, under one umbrella.
The retired aeronautical engineer was a neo-nazi that preached that if you weren't white you were sub-human and he dreamed of establishing an all-white homeland in America’s Northwest. A lot of nasty people passed through his organization and gatherings who went on to do horrendous things that included counterfeiting, bank robbery, bombings, and murder.
Butler, however, was always able to keep a degree of separation between himself and those acts of violence that many believe he had instigated or at least encouraged. Though he periodically faced severe criminal charges he was never convicted of anything more than trespassing.
Eventually, the FBI was able to dismantle the most significant, violent and vocal advocates of this extreme racist and anti-government doctrine. This was done, at least in part, by tracking those that passed through Butler's doors, but like other successful cultish leaders, he himself avoided conviction.
Butler's reign was effectively ended, not by criminal charges, but through a civil court case brought by Morris Dees and his Southern Poverty Law Center that left Butler bankrupt. I sat through every day of that trial and did a documentary about the end of Richard Butler's Aryan Nations.
During that same period, I drove to the mountains of Montana to interview the armed leader of the Militia of Montana, John Trochmann. In addition, I witnessed protesters bused in from out of state as neo-nazis white supremacists converged in Coeur d'Alene Idaho to clash at a parade that locals avoided like the plague. I interviewed civil rights organizers who worked tirelessly to try and keep hate and racial tensions at bay.
In 1992 I was also at the debacle that came to be known as Ruby Ridge in North Idaho, where the government’s attempts to recruit a self-sequestered separatist, ultimately cost the lives of a U.S. Marshal, a teenage boy and a mother who was shot by an FBI sniper while she held her infant child. That separatist, Randy Weaver, eventually won a multi-million dollar lawsuit against the government.
Events at Ruby Ridge along with the government's raid of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco the following year are reported to have fueled militant anti-government extremist, Timothy McVeigh's anger and distrust of the government and pushed him to act. Inspired by a blueprint laid out in “The Turner Diaries,” an anti-government novel by neo-Nazi William Pierce, McVeigh executed the then deadliest terror attack in U.S. history.
On the morning of April 19th in 1995, an explosion ripped through all nine floors of the federal building in Oklahoma City. The truck bomb built, planted and detonated by McVeigh also damaged or destroyed 300 surrounding buildings and inflicted massive human casualties. In all, the attack wounded more than 650 people and 168 more, including 19 young children, were killed.
In its day, Butler's approach worked, but it was also easy to track. The FBI used his large gatherings, and celebrated leadership, to identify white supremacist and government groups across the country. After the Oklahoma City Bombing, breaking apart right-wing extremist organizations became a priority. After 9/11 the splinters that remained scurried to the shadows and the internet, content to focus their hate on a new enemy, at least for a while.
As successful as Butler was, the numbers involved in his and related movements were nothing compared to those of the KKK at its height. Which, you might be surprised to learn, was not during the Reformation, but was in the 1920s when it was rebranded as a fraternal organization and social club.
In the mid to late 1920s, the Klan’s paying membership was touted to be anywhere from 2 to 8 million white, Protestant, largely middle-class Americans. In August of 1925, 50-thousand regalia-clad members of the Kul Kuks Klan marched unmasked through Washington DC, unmasked because officials would not otherwise allow the march to take place.
The Southern Poverty Law Center estimates that today there are between 5,000 and 8,000 Klan members in the United States, and these numbers are split between dozens of different and often warring organizations that each use some variation of the Klan name. The white supremacy movement in the United States is withered, but it’s frustrated remnants remain dangerous.
In the 2000s there have been deadly attacks carried out by individuals who profess beliefs of white supremacy and Anti-Semitism, the most recent being the fatal attack at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, but often these perpetrators lay claim to merely the ideology, not any one specific group.
They are lone actors, who are now commonly radicalized online and are very hard to detect ahead of when they commit their act of violence. One such case occurred when a gunman targeted and shot several people at the Republican Congressional baseball practice in 2017.
Since being driven to the shadows in the late 1990s, few leaders have willingly taken to the spotlight for the racist white movement. The most prominent recent exception to that is a well-spoken calculated millennial comfortable with the likes predecessor, David Duke.
American white nationalist leader, Richard Spencer, is the man who popularized the phrase “alt-right,” short for “alternative right.” It is a loose contemporary term referring to multiple unaffiliated far right-wing groups, primarily made up of white men, whose ideology aligns more with white supremacy and white nationalism than mainstream conservative thought.
White nationalists say they seek to ensure the survival of the white race and the cultures of traditionally white ethnic groups. They believe that white people should maintain their majority in majority-white countries, continue their political and economic dominance and that white cultures are superior. In recent years the movement has picked up momentum through content and memes posted on message boards and social media, and it is reported to have been emboldened by the election of President Donald Trump.
Richard Spencer is concerned with optics, but make no mistake, he is a white supremacist. Unlike many with his beliefs, he will smile and have a cordial conversation with anyone and doesn't overtly promote violence. On the contrary, he is disciplined enough to stand in front of screaming hordes of university students and claim all he wants is the opportunity to invoke his first amendment rights and have a conversation.
These unruly crowds, plus the Antifa member who sucker-punched him while he was interviewed on the streets of Washington DC during the presidential inauguration in 2016 gave him both victim status and street cred. In short, they helped make him famous.
Freedom of speech and equality, not white supremacy, are now his best recruitment tools. He had already softened his supremacy message by saying things like identity matters and that he just wants to be as smart as African-Americans when it comes to the use of identity. He poses the question, why should he be ashamed of who he is. However, he will also go on to say, “I want to bathe in white privilege” and that he dreams of bringing it back and of having an all-white America through a "peaceful ethnic cleansing."
I watched one of his attempts to speak at a college campus on YouTube. By a show of hands the division of those that were there to protest and those interested in what he had to say, was at least 20 to one. By yelling him down before he even had a chance to speak, I guarantee you, the ones there to hear what he had to say were pushed directly into his arms. The ones that already felt like a misfit and outsider had just found a home.
I believe a much more productive solution would be to listen to and try to understand why those students who had come to hear him in the first place. Keep in mind, understanding and agreement are two different things.
I once watched a young man transform, in a matter of minutes, from being a curious bystander to a rioter. He had excitedly come to try and get a glimpse of then-President Bill Clinton who was in town for the World Trade Organization Summit. While walking back to catch his ferry home, he was pepper sprayed by police as they chaotically chased protesters through the streets of downtown Seattle.
After protesters washed out the young man's eyes, he was so enraged by the unwarranted attack police had perpetrated on him, that instead of going home, he joined the protesters. Was he an anarchist, no, but he at least now had empathy for them.
In August of 2017, a rally called “Unit the Right” was to be held in Virginia. Organizers claimed their goal was to unify the American white nationalist movement and to oppose the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee from Charlottesville's Emancipation Park. The latter of which had garnered some support from non-racists on the right.
The night before the rally, however, a procession of about 250 white supremacists marched across the campus of the University of Virginia holding torches and reciting racist chants. The imagery evoked symbolic connections to Hitler Youth marches and Klan gatherings of days gone by and set the stage for a deadly confrontation.
The next day, after being pepper sprayed at the extremist rally he helped organize, Richard Spencer was ready to play up his victim card, telling viewers of David Duke's live stream of the event, that rally goers had been set up by the government which allowed communist-leaning counter-protesters to attack their peaceful gathering.
Violent skirmishes between swastika-bearing rally goers and Antifa flag waving counter-protesters resulted in at least 30 injured and did go unchallenged by police until they declared the situation a riot and the rally was canceled before it could officially begin.
Spencer’s claims, however, were voiced before he got word that one of the participates from his gathering, a self-identified white supremacist had driven through a crowd of counter-protesters as they were leaving, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and seriously injuring at least 19 others.
On Friday, December 7, 21-year-old, James Fields Jr., was convicted of 1st-degree murder for Heyer's death and now faces life in prison.
Fields, who traveled from Ohio to attend the “Unite the Right” rally, was also convicted of nine other charges, including aggravated malicious wounding and leaving the scene of a fatal accident.
He is still likely to face Federal charges as well.
“Unite the Right” held an anniversary rally this year in Washington D.C. The rally's turnout consisted of no more than 30 participants amidst thousands of counter-protestors.
According to a recent study by START, terrorist acts in the United States are down sharply from the1970s. However, tragic events such as Charlottesville and now the mass shooting at the Tree Of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh that killed 11 people, damage attempts by Spencer and others to rebrand their movement, as a kinder gentler white supremacy, and pushed middle right sympathies further from their reach.
The accused shooter, Robert Bowers, a truck driver who didn't finish high school, was not a formal member of an extremist organization. His anti-Semitic attitudes appear to be the result of an immersion into radical theories circulated online, which is where he also shared his own hateful thoughts fueled by growing frustration that no one was heeding his options. It appears he aimed his last post on Gab.com at the Alt-right movement he once hoped would embrace him. Shortly before the shooting in Pittsburgh, he wrote, “Screw your optics, I’m going in.”
As much as these tragedies hurt the Alt-right’s dreams to become normalized and accepted by the middle, they helped legitimize the Alt-left rise of Antifa.
According to a Rolling Stone article written right after the deadly events, Anti-fascists view Charlottesville and the president’s remarks stating that fault for the violence could be found on both sides, as a watershed moment for their cause.
“On our side, it’s war,” says one anti-fascist group leader who was present at Charlottesville and has participated in black bloc activity in cities up and down the East Coast since Trump’s election. “Expect greater support from average people. A lot of [normal people] and libs who would have told us to f*** off and stop being so upsetting are now crossing over into our side. We are seeing a new wave of membership coming in.”
Despite their overall depleted numbers, fear of a revival, and the universally evil reputation of neo-nazi, fascist, anti-Semitic, white supremacists is a battle cry for an extreme coalition of Alt-left actors operating under the moniker of Antifa.
The current Antifa movement in the United States is comprised of multiple autonomous, left-wing, groups loosely affiliated by their militant opposition to fascism, white supremacy and other ideologies they believe to be right-wing, including law enforcement, capitalism, and democracy. Participants in this movement are predominantly communist, socialists, radical environmentalists, and anarchists.
A principal feature of those gathered under this political umbrella is the group’s desire to take what it calls, “direct action,” using harassment and violence against those they oppose. Antifa does not believe in the right of free speech for those they target. Adherents feel that offensive speech and ideas should not be allowed a platform and that violence is justified to deny access to those who would speak it.
This latest incarnation of Antifa denounces a hierarchical leadership, and instead uses social media and the internet to organize small groups already familiar with one another, called “affinity groups.”
The movement’s purposefully fragmented and decentralized structure makes it hard for outside provocateurs to infiltrate and helps keep organizers and those who aim to misbehave, anonymous and free from reprisal.
During protests members often employ the use of “black bloc,” which is a tactic, not an organization. By dressing all in black and wearing masks the protesters can be easily identified as a group, but not as individuals.
In addition to covering groups like the Aryan Nations and Militia of Montana in the 1990s I also ran across some of those who helped lay the foundation for this current movement as Anarchists and Antifa groups at the World Trade Organization riots in Seattle and the G20 in Pittsburgh.
Translated from the Greek, anarchy means "without a leader," ultimately what pure anarchists want to achieve is a stateless society, with horizontal consensus versus hierarchical leadership. It should come as no surprise though that since Anarchists reject authority, there are many types of anarchism, ranging from ones that promote absolute individual liberty to those that endorse more communist or socialist ideas. Consensus, even among a few, can be hard to come by, but they do agree that the use of violence is acceptable.
The first time I saw them in action was as I dodged pepper spray and concussion grenades during the World Trade Organization riots in 1999. I watched “black bloc” clad anarchist’s sabotage otherwise peaceful protesters.
For days they squatted in a multi-story downtown building that was under renovation, denying entrance to its legal owner even after he went to the police. While staking out the building, I saw authorities do their own recognizance, but since the mayor had welcomed protestors into town it was determined that city hall preferred not to clear the building by force.
Even back then, force is what it would have taken. The lookouts that manned the barricaded entrances and rooftop perches told me that much themselves. At the time, I found it odd that as self-described anarchists, they were so organized. That was because I was unfamiliar with anarchy as a political philosophy. Another thing I didn't know then, was that I was witnessing the foundation being laid for the Antifa movement we see today.
In 2009 at the G20 Summit in Pittsburgh, they were still identifying themselves primarily as anarchists, but by that point, they had been recruiting people with other left-wing ideologies to join them, such as radical environmentalists. In Pittsburgh, those dressed in black bloc were still in the minority, and they once again infiltrated a cornucopia of other causes represented by peaceful protesters.
I walked among the marchers for miles straight through the center of Pittsburgh where the streets were lined with more law enforcement than there were protesters of all causes combined. The permitted march remained peaceful.
The violence occurred at side protests near Lawrenceville and the University of Pittsburgh Campus. When dumpsters where set ablaze and windows broke, it was those dressed in black bloc leading the way.
By the time of the 2011 “Occupy” movement, anarchists were beginning to question their alliance with the more peaceful far-left activists, and by the time they reached full momentum during the 2014 police brutality riots in Ferguson, the allies overran the anarchists.
Longtime anarchist author and strategist, Tom Nomad, who believes that capitalism is not sustainable, had this to say about the challenges autonomous and anarchists movements now face on a recent appearance on the anarchist podcast, “It’s Going Down.”
“When we engage in single-issue campaigns, the things that end up resulting from that are not the kinds of escalations that we hope for. What ends up happening is that the liberals compromise and we get left on our own, and what we need to figure out as anarchists is how to break that dynamic.
Because for a long time, almost twenty years ago, we had to rely on the liberals because they had the capacity to organize. During the 2005 period when we started doing counter-recruitment, we didn’t have to rely on them anymore, and we built our own infrastructure.
I think what is happening now though is the amount of people coming into radical politics right now is in a lot of ways outpacing the infrastructure that we built, and we need to figure out how to deal with that.”
The willingness of more and more liberals to embrace far left radical policy and practices swells the ranks of the movement but runs the risk of fracturing it as well. To accommodate each group’s single identity issues the definition of their enemies gets broader and broader.
However, this can also help legitimize the movement in the eyes of centric none activists, and that makes it easier for extremists to piggyback their less palpable goals onto the broader ones, at least for a while. Even though their final destination may not the same, far left and right activists and extremists don’t seem to mind using each other to help shift popular thinking a few stops further along their ideology track.
Antifascism has been around since before World War Two, ever since Benito Mussolini came up with Fascism. The original Antifa spread from Italy to German and Spain in an effort to resist Adolf Hitler’s Brownshirts and Francisco Franco’s nationalist army. Its tactics have also been a regular fixture employed by socialists to combat dictatorships in Latin America.
Antifa reemerged in the 1970s and 80s in Britain in response to a vocal skinhead movement. As the Skinhead movement spread to the United States, so came Antifa.
“Anti-Racist Action,” or A.R.A. chapters sprang up around the country after neo-Nazi Skinheads infiltrated the punk rock scene in Minnesota's Twin Cities. Clubs and venues of the angry music trend often became the stage for their skirmishes. In an era that predated the internet and the 24-hour news cycle, a large portion of Americans remained oblivious to their battles.
In the wake of the Oklahoma City Bombing, the white supremacy and anti-government movements faced intense nationwide scrutiny. As a result, the FBI dismantled its hierarchy and the movements lost momentum and dissipated. Without visible nails to hammer, the ARA did the same.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines Fascism as a political philosophy, movement, or regime that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition.
Those that make up this latest reincarnation still call themselves Antifa, but this time around their enemies are not just fascists. On its Facebook page Northeast Ohio Antifa says, "Antifascist Action focuses on the struggle against all authoritarian ideologies and groups promoting any kind of oppression."
Now Antifa reaches beyond members of the white supremacy movement to label anyone it disagrees with as a racist, anti-semitic, fascist, nazi. This range encompasses unwitting bystanders that fail to heed Antifa's directions when they block access to city streets and sidewalks, to the President of the United States.
The center tenet of anonymity makes it difficult to determine the movement’s numbers, but thousands have shown up at protests like those at Berkeley in 2017, and members of the Rose City Antifa, in Portland Oregon, the oldest current Antifa organization in the United States, routinely flood the city’s center in protest of racism, police brutality, and immigration officials.
At the direction of Portland’s city hall, skirmishes between Rose City Antifa and members of far-right groups such as Patriot’s Prayer, and the Proud Boys, who all take to the streets spoiling for a fight, go mostly uninterrupted by police and spill over onto unsuspecting residents. Neighboring authorities are amazed that things have yet to escalate beyond fists and clubs to knives and guns.
The anarchist Nomad says that in the Trump era people are rushing from outrage to outrage to outrage. He believes this is causing everyone from left-leaning moderate Democrats to the more traditional anarchists to become very frantic and lose sight of what they are trying to achieve with their actions. He says, “What it’s lead to is a lot of burn out and a lot of fragmentation.”
As a recent study done by START indicates, which extremist movement is more active or violent in the United States has changed from decade to decade. With 24-hour nationwide news coverage you might think this is the most volatile time in our history, but in truth, it is not. Numbers are up slightly from the year before, but the frequency of terror like attacks is down sharply from where it was in the 1970s, and if we look back even further it is clear that we have faced other periods of disruptive violence.
For example, in the Gilded Age of America’s late 1800s and early 1900s, it was the Anarchists with strong socialist leanings that took advantage of the invention of dynamite to unleash a bombing campaign aimed to destroy capitalism and the elite democratic state. On May 4th, 1886, the Haymarket Square bombing, riot, and gun battle, that started as a union rally, left at least 11 dead with many more wounded. Ultimately eight anarchists were convicted of crimes, four went to the gallows. It was a socialist anarchist that assassinated President William McKinley in 1901 for being an “enemy of the people.” In 1908 the New York Times reported that anarchists and others were setting off a bomb a month in New York City. In 1910 anarchists tried but failed to kill Attorney General Mitchell Palmer and to blow up the Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. In September of 1920, they succeeded in setting off a bomb on Wall Street that killed 30 people.
Though they fight for opposing sides, extremists share many of the same traits. These include the willingness to use violence, an intolerance of differing opinions, and the desire to be considered legitimate. Each shares a reliance on group-think and often use cult-like tactics to achieve it. In this day and age, another commonality is their use of the internet to organize, recruit, and indoctrinate new members.
I witnessed Richard Butler’s tactics in action. He gathered misfits and outcasts, instilled in them a sense of belonging, gave them someone to blame for their troubles, Israel and Jews, focused their hate on those deemed inferior, anyone not white or who dared disagree with his teachings, that in this case, was wrapped in a cloak of religion. According to the Harvard Professor, I interviewed back then; the format was classic cult.
I interviewed a young man more than once as he was transformed from wayward youth, in search of a family, ambiguous to race, to a professed true believer, who went to prison for trying to protect Butler from an imagined threat.
The human need to belong runs deep and can be easily manipulated by those who are morally unencumbered. Leaders of extreme movements don’t always share the same fanatic believes they inspire. Instead, for them the movement, whatever the movement, is about procuring power.
The FBI says that any combination of the need for power, excitement, affiliation, purpose, importance, and achievement also play into the personal needs people are trying to fill when they become violent extremists.
“No single reason explains why people become violent extremists, but it often happens when someone is trying to fill a deep personal need. For example, a person may feel alone or lack meaning and purpose in life. Those who are emotionally upset after a stressful event also may be vulnerable to recruitment. Some people also become violent extremists because they disagree with government policy, hate certain types of people, don’t feel valued or appreciated by society, or think they have limited chances to succeed.”