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Community groups provide frontline defense against rising hate and extremism

When the Baton Rouge, Louisiana, branch of the NAACP received word from members of the community that a patrol deputy in Plaquemines Parish was a member of the Proud Boys, a known anti-Muslim and anti-woman group, the branch leadership took action.

“Our tactics are pretty much always the same,” said Jarret Luter, political action committee chairman for the Baton Rouge NAACP branch. “It’s really a matter of course investigating it, talking to either victims or officials that have to address those issues.”

NAACP members documented social media posts in which the deputy, Brian Green, bragged about his ties to the Proud Boys organization, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has designated as a hate group. He was also listed as an administrator for the local Proud Boys chapter’s Facebook page.

“Generally, they’re pretty boastful, so of course he would go to social media,” Luter said. “That’s always the downfall. You can almost just bank on them exposing themselves.”

A week after NAACP leaders presented the findings of their investigation to Plaquemines Parish Sheriff Gerald A. Turlich Jr., Green was fired for violating the department’s social media policy by using his sheriff’s office uniform to promote the Proud Boys’ views.

The work of community groups like the NAACP provides a first line of defense against hate and extremism, instilling resilience in the communities they serve. Such work is needed as the Year in Hate and Extremism 2023 report, released this week from the SPLC’s Intelligence Project, shows the number of extremist and hate groups climbing.

“Despite an alarming spike in hard-right groups and actions, we are encouraged by communities who have joined together to push back against voices that are preaching division and hate,” said Rachel Carroll Rivas, interim director of the Intelligence Project, which monitors hate and antigovernment extremist groups throughout the United States and exposes their activities to the public, the media and policymakers.

The annual report has become a key resource for community groups, especially in an election year.

“Our report exposes these far-right extremists and serves as a tool for advocates and communities working to counter disinformation, false conspiracies and threats to voters and election workers,” said Margaret Huang, president and CEO of the SPLC and the SPLC Action Fund. “Together, we can dismantle white supremacy and ensure all communities see themselves represented in our democracy.”

A large part of the fight against extremism involves mobilizing the community.

“We represent the greater Baton Rouge area, but we do a lot of work in the surrounding areas because those have no one else to turn to,” Luter said.

A state government that has shifted further right in recent years also underscores for the group the importance of mobilizing community.

“We work in conjunction with the state branch,” Luter said. “So as far as rallying people out, it’s just a matter of getting on social media, Facebook, Instagram, wherever we are, or we put the message out on YouTube or through emails. But it’s never an issue as far as getting the message out and rallying the troops.”

Political, social messages drive hate

The new Year in Hate and Extremism report shows a reversal of the last several years when hate and extremist groups have declined in number as online radicalization of individuals has grown.

Overall, Intelligence Project researchers identified 835 active antigovernment extremist groups in 2023, up from 702 in the previous report. There were also 595 active hate groups, up from 523 in 2022. That increase is driven by the growth of active white nationalist groups, from 109 in 2022 to 165 in 2023.

Rhetoric over immigration policy has spurred the growth of extremist and hate groups of several types, according to the SPLC report’s findings. The idea of immigrants “replacing” the white Christian population is a fear manifested in the core tenets of many white supremacist, antigovernment and militia groups.

The SPLC’s report also notes that antisemitic, anti-Islamic and anti-immigrant hate grew in the wake of the Oct. 7, 2023, attack on Israel and the ongoing Israeli military operations in Gaza. But even before that violence ensued, activists faced challenges protecting immigrant rights under attack by extreme legislation introduced not only in border states but in conservative legislatures nationwide.

“One of the things that was really striking is that naturalized U.S. citizens now have fears,” said Laura Vazquez, director of immigrant integration for UnidosUS, the United States’ largest Latinx nonprofit advocacy organization. “Now, U.S.-born citizens who are Latinos fear that, based on their appearance, they will be profiled under these laws.”

A large part of Vazquez’s job is to promote policies that get more people trained and in place to ease the processing and integration of people entering the U.S.

“My work is to grow and sustain that network, but also advocate for policies that will help support community-based immigration legal service providers and, in general within the broader team here at UnidosUS, to advocate for the humane and better immigration policies,” she said.

Vazquez is spearheading the growth of a large infrastructure for community-based immigration legal services to help those trying to navigate the immigration system’s swiftly changing landscape.

“The demand for high-quality, low-cost immigration legal services is great,” Vazquez said. “I think building this capacity and building infrastructure to grow immigration legal services capacity is a form of resilience, to strengthen communities to be able to provide that accurate legal service.”

Her effort uses a 1950s-era U.S. Department of Justice initiative called the Recognition and Accreditation Program. It was designed to build more capacity for the department by using people trained to assist in immigration legal matters.

“There are more than 2,000 accredited representatives,” Vazquez said. “These are nonattorneys who have completed training and have now been given this accreditation from the Department of Justice to practice immigration law. One of the things that we’re seeing is that this an opportunity to build legal services capacity from within communities, because a lot of the accredited representatives are immigrants themselves.”

Groups like UnidosUS and the Baton Rouge NAACP are seeing successes. But the efforts at building community resilience against the challenges outlined in the SPLC’s report will be tested in unprecedented and unforeseen ways as the U.S. election season intensifies in coming months and members of extremist movements become more active.

“What we’re seeing now should be a wake-up call for all of us,” the SPLC’s Huang said. “We cannot allow these hate and antigovernment groups to drive wedges between communities and divide us from one another. Our nation’s diversity is our greatest strength.”

Illustration by Chantal Jahchan.