The number of hate and antigovernment ‘Patriot’ groups grew last year, and terrorist attacks and radical plots proliferated.
Charleston. Chattanooga. Colorado Springs. In these towns and dozens of other communities around the nation, 2015 was a year marked by extraordinary violence from domestic extremists — a year of living dangerously.
Antigovernment militiamen, white supremacists, abortion foes, domestic Islamist radicals, neo-Nazis and lovers of the Confederate battle flag targeted police, government officials, black churchgoers, Muslims, Jews, schoolchildren, Marines, abortion providers, members of the Black Lives Matter protest movement, and even drug dealers.
They laid plans to attack courthouses, banks, festivals, funerals, schools, mosques, churches, synagogues, clinics, water treatment plants and power grids. They used firearms, bombs, C-4 plastic explosives, knives and grenades; one of them, a murderous Klansman, was convicted of trying to build a death ray.
The armed violence was accompanied by rabid and often racist denunciations of Muslims, LGBT activists and others — incendiary rhetoric led by a number of mainstream political figures and amplified by a lowing herd of their enablers in the right-wing media. Reacting to demographic changes in the U.S., immigration, the legalization of same-sex marriage, the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, and Islamist atrocities, these people fostered a sense of polarization and anger in this country that may be unmatched since the political upheavals of 1968.
When it comes to mainstream politics, the hardcore radical right typically says a pox on both their houses. Not this time. Donald Trump’s demonizing statements about Latinos and Muslims have electrified the radical right, leading to glowing endorsements from white nationalist leaders such as Jared Taylor and former Klansman David Duke. White supremacist forums are awash with electoral joy, having dubbed Trump their “Glorious Leader.” And Trump has repaid the compliments, retweeting hate posts and spreading their false statistics on black-on-white crime.
In the midst of these developments, hate groups continued to flourish. The number of groups on the American radical right, according to the latest count by the Southern Poverty Law Center, expanded from 784 in 2014 to 892 in 2015 — a 14% increase.
The increase in hate groups was not even across extremist sectors. The hardest core sectors of the white supremacist movement—white nationalists, neo-Nazis and racist skinheads—actually declined somewhat, a reflection, perhaps, that hate in the mainstream had absorbed some of the hate on the fringes But there were significant increases in Klan as well as black separatist groups.
Klan chapters grew from 72 in 2014 to 190 last year, invigorated by the 364 pro-Confederate battle flag rallies that took place after South Carolina took down the battle flag from its Capitol grounds following the June massacre of nine black churchgoers by a white supremacist flag enthusiast in Charleston, S.C. Rallies in favor of the battle flag were held in 26 states — concentrated, but by no means limited to the South — and reflected widespread white anger that the tide in the country was turning against them.
On the opposite end of the political spectrum, black separatist hate groups also grew, going from 113 chapters in 2014 to 180 last year. The growth was fueled largely by the explosion of anger fostered by highly publicized incidents of police shootings of black men. But unlike activists for racial justice such as those in the Black Lives Matter movement, the black separatist groups did not stop at demands for police reforms and an end to structural racism. Instead, they typically demonized all whites, gays, and, in particular, Jews.
Just as the number of hate groups rose by 14% in 2015, so did the number of conspiracy-minded antigovernment “Patriot” groups, going from 874 in 2014 to 998 last year. The growth was fueled by the euphoria felt in antigovernment circles after armed activists forced federal officials to back down at gunpoint from seizing cattle at Cliven Bundy’s ranch to pay his grazing fees. So emboldened were activists by the failure of the federal government to arrest anyone following their “victory” at the Bundy ranch that armed men, led by Bundy’s son, began occupying a wildlife refugee in Oregon in January 2016 as a protest against federal land ownership in the West.
The 2015 hate group count almost certainly understates the true size of the American radical right. White supremacists are increasingly opting to operate mainly online, where the danger of public exposure and embarrassment is far lower, where younger people tend to gather, and where it requires virtually no effort or cost to join in the conversation. The major hate forum Stormfront now has more than 300,000 members, and the site has been adding about 25,000 registered users annually for several years — the size of a small city.
The milieu of the web is an ideal one for “lone wolves” — terrorists who operate on their own and are radicalized online. Dylann Roof is the perfect example. His journey began with absorbing propaganda about black-on-white crime from the website of the Council of Conservative Citizens, a hate group that enjoyed the attention of Republican lawmakers in the 1990s, and ended with the June massacre in Charleston. Like increasing numbers in white supremacist circles, Roof was convinced after drinking radical-right Kool-Aid on the Internet claiming that white people worldwide were the targets of genocide.
Violence Hits a New Peak
Last year brought more domestic political violence, both from the American radical right and from American jihadists, than the nation has seen in many years (see timeline of violence, below). According to a year-end report from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), “domestic extremist killers” slew more people in 2015 than in any year since 1995, when the Oklahoma City bombing left 168 men, women and children dead. Counting both political and other violence from extremists, the ADL said “a minimum of 52 people in the United States were killed by adherents of domestic extremist movement[s] in the past 12 months.”
Another tally, by the respected New America Foundation, found that by year’s end, 45 people in America had been killed in “violent jihadist attacks” since the Al Qaeda massacre of Sept. 11, 2001, just short of the 48 people killed in the same 14-year period in “far right wing attacks.” (Unlike the ADL, the foundation does not count non-political violence by extremists.)
The impact of terrorism goes far beyond the body count. Violence motivated by racial, ethnic or religious animus fractures society along its most fragile fault lines, and sends shock waves through entire targeted communities. More hatred and fear, particularly of diversity, are often the response. Several political figures have harnessed that fear, calling for bans on mosques, Muslim immigrants and refugees fleeing violence in the Middle East. And terror can breed hate crimes, as evidenced by a string of physical attacks on mosques and Muslims, particularly after a jihadist couple in San Bernardino, Calif., murdered 14 people in December.
From start to finish, the year 2015 was remarkable for its terrorist violence, the penetration of the radical right and its conspiracy theories into mainstream politics, and the boost far-right ideas and groups received from pandering politicians like Donald Trump. And the situation appears likely to get worse, not better, as the country continues to come to terms with its increasing diversity.
What’s Going On?
Eight years after the election of our first black president, two years after the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement, and half a year after same-sex marriage was legalized, Americans are arguably as angry as they have been in decades.
The bulk of that anger is coming from beleaguered working-class and, to a lesser extent, middle-class white people, especially the less educated — the very same groups that most vociferously support Trump. They are angry over the coming loss of a white majority (predicted for 2043 by the Census Bureau), the falling fortunes of the white working class, worsening income inequality, the rise of left-wing movements like Black Lives Matter, major advances for LGBT people, growing numbers of refugees and undocumented workers, terrorism, and more.
Their anger, above all, is directed at the government.
In November, the Pew Research Center reported poll results showing that just 19% of Americans trusted the federal government always or most of the time, a number that is less than a quarter of the 77% level of trust recorded in the late 1950s. Just 20% saw government programs as being well run, and 59% said the government needs “very major reform,” up from 37% under President Bill Clinton in 1997.
A January poll, this one by NBC and Esquire, found that the news makes 77% of Republicans and 67% of Democrats angry at least once a day. Whites were angriest, at 73%, compared to Latinos (66%) and blacks (56%).
“Such voters are nostalgic for the country they lived in 50 years ago, when non-Hispanic whites made up more than 83 percent of the population,” The New York Times’ Eduardo Porter wrote of lower-income whites in a trenchant essay this January. “Today, their share has shrunk to 62 percent as demographic change has transformed the United States into a nation where others have a shot at power.
“Their fear is understandable. In general, the concerns of Hispanic and black American voters are often different than those of white voters. But the reaction of whites who are struggling economically raises the specter of an outright political war along racial and ethnic lines over the distribution of resources and opportunities.”
Contributing to this war, remarkably, have been Trump and a number of other GOP presidential candidates. Trump, of course, has attacked Muslims, Mexicans and black people (he re-tweeted a neo-Nazi’s statistics falsely claiming that blacks are overwhelmingly responsible for the murder of whites). But Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush and others have made inflammatory comments about Muslims, Carly Fiorina has told false stories that demonize abortion providers, and Ben Carson and others have attacked LGBT activists and the Supreme Court over legalizing same-sex marriage. The U.S. House of Representatives took up a bill to end the resettlement of refugees, riding a wave of fear after the San Bernardino attacks. And others joined that anti-Muslim parade, ranging from Christian Right groups such as the American Family Association to the Klan.
Although many expected race relations would improve after the 2008 election of President Obama, that has not been the case. Several studies have shown a rise in anti-black racism, and a November poll by CNN and the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 49% of all Americans see racism as a “big problem.” That’s way up from 28% in 2011, and eight points higher than the 41% who thought so in 1995.
America may be headed for a better place. But the Harvard scholar Robert Putnam has argued that as ethnic diversity rises, trust both between and within ethnic groups declines. As Putnam argues, that does not mean that multiculturalism is a failure, but rather that inter-communal bridgebuilding is important as diversity increases. In other words, the road ahead will not be an easy one, and Americans of all races and creeds will need to work to rebuild a true national community.
What follows are more detailed looks at sectors of the radical right.
Years of fighting a losing battle against human rights for LGBT people culminated for anti-LGBT groups in 2015 with the Supreme Court’s June decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, ushering in national marriage equality. The ruling set off near hysteria among groups on the religious right, with people like GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee warning that it would “criminalize Christianity.” Others on the Christian Right, including Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, Focus on the Family founder James Dobson and Liberty Counsel President Mathew Staver, warned that the decision would lead to armed conflict in America.
Obergefell was not the only loss for those opposed to gay rights. A lawsuit brought by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) against JONAH, a New Jersey group that claimed to “cure” gay people of their homosexuality, resulted in its shutdown. And Illinois became the fourth state in the nation to ban the provision of JONAH-style “reparative therapy” to minors.
Facing so many defeats, anti-LGBT groups redoubled their efforts to pass so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Acts (RFRAs), meant to allow businesses to claim religious belief as a defense against discrimination lawsuits, at the state and federal level. Sixteen states considered RFRAs in 2015, and Arkansas and Indiana passed theirs. But in Indiana, a major backlash from the public and a large number of corporations convinced the legislature to backtrack and approve an amendment saying that the new state law could not be used to deny service to anyone.
Anti-LGBT groups also ramped up efforts to deny transgender people access to bathrooms of their choice, notably in Houston, where voters repealed an anti-discrimination ordinance. Trans women, who the SPLC has found are the most targeted community in America by hate criminals, suffered through a terrible year, with at least 23 of them murdered — nearly double the known number in 2014.
The year started out badly for Muslims, with the attack on the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine in Paris, and ended even worse, with an Islamic State massacre in Paris and the similar murder of 14 people at a San Bernardino, Calif., office party — not to mention the call by Donald Trump for a ban on Muslim immigration.
Groups like Frank Gaffney’s Center for Security Policy (CSP), which is being newly listed by the SPLC as a hate group, thrived in the wake of jihadist atrocities and counterattacks like that from Trump. In fact, Trump used a bogus “poll” from CSP to claim that a quarter of American Muslims support violent jihadists like the members of the Islamic State — a complete falsehood, according to several serious polls and studies. Like Trump, two other GOP presidential hopefuls, Ben Carson and Ted Cruz, spoke at one or more CSP “National Security Action Summits” last year. There was also a smattering of armed anti-Muslim protests at mosques in Phoenix and elsewhere that were staged by groups even more radical than CSP.
The country’s most influential anti-Muslim groups, CSP and ACT! for America, turned their attention about mid-year to opposing immigration by refugees from the Syrian civil war, drafting model statutes meant to ban the refugees at the county level. Some 30 state governors also said they would prohibit refugees.
After the San Bernardino attack in December, Muslim activists and others reported an enormous surge of anti-Muslim hate crimes, including shootings, mosque arsons, Koran desecrations, assaults and the bullying of schoolchildren. As the new year began, there was little evidence that the hatred was diminishing.
BLACK SEPARATIST GROUPS
Together with Klan groups, the category of black separatist groups was the other area of dramatic growth among hate groups in 2015, with several new groups forming and existing ones growing, often substantially. The number of these black separatist group chapters went up by 59%, from 113 in 2014 to 180 last year.
It seems clear that what drove this growth was an intense, nationwide focus on issues enraging many Americans, especially those of color, including the killings by police of black men, continuing institutional racism and other mistreatment of black people, often brought to public attention via homemade videos or cameras mounted on police cars or uniforms. But unlike activists in the Black Lives Matter movement and their sympathizers, black separatist groups are more interested in demonizing “the Jews” and whites than working for solutions to the very real racial problems in the country.
The new groups included the Black Hebrew Israelites in San Francisco; the Israelite School of Universal Practical Knowledge (11 chapters, based in Baltimore), and Israel United in Christ (based in Newburgh, N.Y., with 33 chapters). Others expanded enormously, including the New Black Panther Party (based in Atlanta, from nine to 18 chapters); the Israelite Church of God in Jesus Christ (New York City, from 18 to 29); the Black Riders Liberation Party (Los Angeles, from two to eight); and All Eyes on Egipt Bookstore (Milledgeville, Ga., from two to 10).
KU KLUX KLAN GROUPS
The year saw an apparent comeback of Klan groups, going from 72 in 2014 to 190 last year. But that growth is probably mainly accounted for by the disappearance last year of two major groups — the Fraternal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and the Knight Rider Knights of the Ku Klux Klan — and their members’ likely move into other groups, many of them newly formed.
Still, Klan groups were to some extent genuinely revitalized last year, especially because of the post-Charleston denunciation of the Confederate battle flag and other Confederate symbols. That attack led to a backlash from the Klan and other groups, which collectively held at least 364 pro-Confederate flag rallies in 26 states as well as the District of Columbia.
The year also saw the rise of new Klan groups and the reappearance of older ones. The new groups were the Confederate White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, the Militant Knights of the Ku Klux Klan (with 20 chapters), the Texas Rebel Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, the Rebel Brigade Knights of the True Invisible Empire, and the Traditional Confederate Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. And the United White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan came roaring back to life with 31 chapters. The Texas Knights of the Ku Klux Klan grew from one chapter in 2014 to 21 last year, and the Original Knight Riders of the Ku Klux Klan went from nine to 15 chapters.
The nation’s premier neo-Confederate group, the League of the South, continued to grow more radical last year, with founder Michael Hill fantasizing about a “race war” which, he warned, black people will surely lose. The group also trafficked even more openly in anti-Semitism, culminating in The Barnes Review, the nation’s leading journal of Holocaust denial, publishing a Hill essay.
That radicalism stirred up increasing controversy for public officials involved in the group. Two lieutenants left the Anniston, Ala., Police Department — one resigned and one was fired — after their attendance at a group convention came to light. In addition, Alabama State Auditor Jim Zeigler defended himself heatedly against widespread criticism of his speech to the group’s Alabama chapter.
The league took a leadership role among the many groups, including Klan groups, supporting the Confederate battle flag after the Charleston massacre. Neo-Confederates in general were heavily represented at the 364 documented pro-flag rallies that took place across the country in the six months after the murders.
The main drama on the neo-Nazi scene last year was the continuing meltdown of the remains of the National Alliance, once the best organized and financed hate group in America. Following the 2014 handoff of the group’s leadership by Erich Gliebe to longtime activist William White Williams, scandals multiplied.
First, Williams got into a battle with his accountant, Randolph Dilloway, who had been trying to explain that the group needed to deal with various tax problems. Dilloway ended up fleeing the group’s West Virginia headquarters under police escort, and then gave the SPLC extensive details of the group’s shady practices.
Then, by December, the always combative Williams was in similar fights with two other staffers — Garland DeCoursy and Michael Oljaca — who had moved to the compound following Dilloway’s departure. After Williams allegedly assaulted DeCoursy in Oljaca’s presence, both obtained restraining orders against him. But Williams was arrested twice in one week for violating those orders and was asked to stay out of the state until a court hearing. The local prosecutor said Williams was under investigation for other possible crimes, including battery and larceny.
The year also brought what seems to be the final demise of another neo-Nazi group, the Aryans Nations, which has been in trouble since a successful SPLC lawsuit in 2000 and the death of its founder in 2004 (see story, p. 22). Already, the group’s once infamous compound outside Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, had been sold, its building burned and its members split into squabbling factions. In November, the group’s last self-proclaimed leader, Morris Gullet, shut down his organization, which he had based in Converse, La. Shortly before that, another former leader, August Kreis III, was sentenced to 50 years in prison on three counts of sexually abusing a child.
WHITE NATIONALIST GROUPS
White nationalists — racists who generally eschew Klan or neo-Nazi uniforms and propaganda in favor of a more genteel, suit-and-tie approach — saw two major figureheads of their movement die in 2015: Gordon Baum, founder of the Council of Conservative Citizens (CCC), and Willis Carto, who was involved in a series of racist organizations and publishers and a leader in denying the Holocaust.
Baum died in March, three months before his organization would become infamous for the online postings about black crime that Dylann Roof said radicalized him and ultimately led to the June Charleston massacre. Both the CCC’s Kyle Rogers, the webmaster who made those postings, and CCC President Earl Holt were dragged through the media for their roles as propagandists. For a brief time, the press was bad enough that the CCC asked Jared Taylor, a far more articulate white nationalist than either of them, to act as its spokesman during a press barrage.
Carto, whose racist and anti-Semitic activism stretched back to the 1950s, died in October. He was the founder of an array of organizations and publications: the anti-Semitic Liberty Lobby, the Holocaust-denying Institute for Historical Review, Noontide Press, Youth for Wallace and The Spotlight, American Free Press and The Barnes Review. Although he at one time had friends in Congress and other centers of power, he was reviled by most politicians by the time he died.
Contributors to this report included Heidi Beirich, Keegan Hankes, Stephen Piggott, and Evelyn Schlatter.