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Extremism in the Ranks: SPLC testifies to Congress about persistence of white supremacist activity in military

SPLC Chief of Staff Lecia Brooks testified today before the U.S. House Armed Services Committee about how the military has long failed to adequately address far-right extremism in the ranks. Brooks delivered the following oral remarks, in addition to written testimony.

Good afternoon Chairman Smith, Ranking Member Rogers and Members of the Committee.

My name is Lecia Brooks and I serve as chief of staff for the Southern Poverty Law Center. I am also the proud daughter of a veteran of the Korean War and the mother of a son who served in the U.S. Army for 10 years. 

This issue is deeply personal to me.

Let me begin with two distinct points.

First, the vast majority of those who serve in our Armed Forces have no connection to white supremacy or extremism and strive, always, to uphold the best traditions of our nation’s democratic ideals. 

Second, the military has a growing problem with white supremacy and extremism – because our country does.

The white nationalist movement in the United States is surging and presents a serious danger to our country and its cherished institutions, threatening the morale and good order of those serving in our Armed Forces.  

This is not a new problem.

The SPLC has been documenting white supremacist infiltration of the military and urging officials to take action since 1986. That year, we wrote Defense Secretary Weinberger and exposed the fact that active-duty Marines at Camp Lejeune were participating in paramilitary Ku Klux Klan activities and stealing military weaponry.

One in five of those arrested in connection with the deadly Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection riots has served, or is serving, in the military.

This is a dramatic illustration of the insufficient efforts we have made to inoculate servicemembers against acting upon extremist ideologies.

Veterans and servicemembers are high-value recruitment targets for extremist groups.  They bring social capital, legitimacy, specialized weapons training, leadership skills and an increased capacity for violence to these groups. 

Over the last several years, SPLC researchers and journalists have identified dozens of former and active-duty military personnel among the membership of some of the country’s most dangerous and violent white supremacist groups. Those groups include:

  • The Atomwaffen Division, a neo-Nazi group whose members have allegedly been responsible for five murders since 2017;
     
  • The Boogaloo movement, from which three former members of the military were charged with planning to use gas-filled canisters and Molotov cocktails at a protest against the killing of George Floyd; and
     
  • The Base. A number of individuals affiliated with this violent white nationalist group have military ties – including two trained soldiers, one from the United States and one from Canada, arrested on federal gun charges in Maryland. The SPLC has analyzed more than 80 hours of calls between Base recruits and the group’s leadership and found that roughly 20% of recruits claimed to have military experience. This number is consistent with other studies.

The SPLC has been sounding this alarm for over 30 years. Today, we are here to sound the alarm again.

But we are more optimistic than ever that this president and this secretary of defense and, indeed, this Committee will devote the time and attention needed to address this problem. 

Our testimony includes a number of policy recommendations for the Defense Department and Congress.

Words matter. It’s impossible to overstate the importance of military leaders speaking out against hate and extremism among their troops.

Rules matter. Consistent with the First Amendment, the Department of Defense should expand and clarify existing prohibitions against advocating for, or involvement in, supremacist or extremist activity. We must also expand and clearly define protections for whistleblowers, chain of command oversight responsibilities and reporting requirements.

Who and what our military honor matters. The Department of Defense should immediately rename the 10 U.S. Army bases named for Confederate leaders. We are aware that a study commission has begun its work, but there is no reason to wait three years to rename these Army bases. We applaud the current Marine Corps and Navy prohibitions against the display of the Confederate battle flag and other racist symbols in workspaces, offices, vehicles and vessels. We urge the Defense Department to uniformly apply these regulations across all service branches.

And, finally, support for our troops and veterans matters. We urge you to expand support services that work to deradicalize our active-duty servicemembers and veterans reentering civilian life. 

As I said earlier, this issue is deeply personal to me. My father joined a military that was desegregated before our public schools. We had a Black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff before we had a Black president.

The military has always represented our highest ideals. That is why I was so proud when my son enlisted.

As long as there is racism in the larger society, it will be incumbent on the leadership in the military to lead the way.

The SPLC looks forward to working with you as you continue to focus your urgent attention on this important issue. Thank you.

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