Experts warn Congress of festering militia violence and white supremacy
Militias in America are infested with white supremacists and pose a danger to national security while infringing on the everyday person’s constitutional rights, extremism experts told members of Congress on Wednesday.
Over five sessions and many weeks, members of the House Oversight Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties have met to talk about the rising level of hate in the U.S. and the threat posed to all Americans by domestic fundamentalists, extremists, racists and white supremacists.
This threat, long present in the nation’s history, has been etched into sharper relief in recent years from the shooting of Black worshippers at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in 2015 to the murder of a protester at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017 to the mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and more recently, to the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol where five were killed as extremists — with paramilitary help and in some cases, real military experience — attempted to overturn the results of the 2020 election.
A vote in the Senate to approve a formal commission investigating the security failures of that attack in January has been proposed but to nearly uniform opposition from Republicans in both the House and Senate.
They mostly peg the commission as superfluous and argue it will be used as a political weapon against the GOP in the upcoming midterms. For Democrats, the commission has widespread support among members and is considered a natural outflow of an attack on the seat of federal government that was extensively planned and even advertised for on social media.
Politically charged divisions over what terrorism or homegrown extremism can be defined as or how it is authentically assessed — just among lawmakers — has made reaching some sort of compromise on how to legislate and reduce the growing violence while protecting lives and rights a challenge.
During Wednesday’s hearing, that dichotomy was on stark display as Republican Representatives Andy Biggs of Arizona and Pete Sessions of Texas, both of whom objected to certifying results of the 2020 election, used their time for questioning experts about the rise of militias in America to call for an end to violence from “both sides.”
For Biggs and Sessions, the outsized problem is antifa. Though the lawmakers repeatedly discussed it as if it were an organized group, antifa is not a group but an ideology that rejects fascism, according to the FBI. Incidentally, most of the violent domestic terror incidents in 2020 — 66% of them, according to a recent report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies — were committed by white supremacists and other far right extremists, not those identifying with antifa ideology, anti-capitalist ideology or with the individuals who are a part of the civil rights movement Black Lives Matter.
“This is consistent with what the FBI has said,” committee chairman Jamie Raskin, a Maryland Democrat, said Wednesday. “That’s two-thirds of all instances of violent domestic terror incidents. I don’t know why we seem to feel if we are pointing out extremist activity by violent right wing groups, they have to somehow say, ‘antifa did this’ or whatever. We’re trying to deal with real problems impacting state legislatures and the U.S. Congress as recently as January.”
Representative Ayanna Pressley, a Massachusetts Democrat, after listening to Republican lawmakers make comparisons between groups like the Oath Keepers and Black Lives Matter said those who would do that, “spit on Dr. Martin Luther King’s name.”
“You are in fact spitting on Dr. King, on his name and his legacy, an original architect of Black Lives Matter. He was protesting police brutality, poverty, racism and militarism and doing it non violently and was affirming that Black lives matter and was murdered because of it,” she said.
The Department of Justice on Wednesday announced it was rolling out new initiatives to deal with rising violence. But in terms of actually defanging constitutionally unrecognized militia groups like the Oath Keepers, who prosecutors allege conspired with other extremists to launch the attack at the Capitol, consequences for their actions have been piecemeal.
Mary McCord, legal director for the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown University, explained to lawmakers there has been some limited success in using anti-militia laws and anti-insurrection laws at a state level to mete out justice.
“With state cases, it’s novel litigation because you’re using criminal laws to try and bring civil enforcement actions, which state by state, is something that is permissible or not,” McCord said. “There’s a lack of enforcement on the criminal side by local law enforcement but these are not local problems, as we’ve seen repeatedly in the last year and historically.”
Militias have, in fact, traveled across multiple states to gather in opposition to authority or the federal government. Charges brought against Oath Keepers involved in the Jan. 6 attack hailed from at least six different states. If a federal law were to exist that would fill in the gaps where civil measures could actually be enforced against extremists, then organizations could be taken down, not just individuals.
This, McCord said, is the key to systemically dismantling these groups.
One group in the U.S. today known as the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, or CSPOA, was founded by Oath Keepers board member and onetime Arizona sheriff Richard Mack.
On their website, the group claims it has the power to reject state and federal law they independently deem unconstitutional. They also claim the power of a “constitutional sheriff” exceeds the power of the U.S. president.
Representative Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, a Democrat, noted that Mack has claimed at least 400 fellow constitutional sheriffs have participated in coordinated training efforts that have spanned at least 265 private sessions per year.
The Southern Poverty Law Center has flagged the constitutional sheriff movement for years as a dangerous force that actively recruits real sheriffs to support antigovernment activities. Stewart Rhodes, founder of the Oath Keepers, was a key speaker at the CSPOA conference in 2019.
“We have seen this as a real problem and one of the reasons we see such a lack of enforcement is that most state attorneys general do not have general criminal enforcement authority, so the enforcement falls on local law enforcement officers or locally elected district attorneys,” she said. “So in place where you have constitutional sheriffs in charge of local law enforcement who are often supportive of militia or sometimes a member, or sometimes have even advocated for recognition of local militias, this is obviously a [problem].”
Notably, Tlaib pointed out, CSPOA in the past year has posted Covid-19 public health measures and have even offered a six week course on “ending tyranny” and “taking down the deep state.”
Peter Simi, associate professor of sociology at Chapman University, told lawmakers that people must start to think about what “violent extremism” really means.
“Certainly the most important indicator of violence would be fatalities,” Simi said. “This idea that [Black Lives Matter] or ‘antifa’ are committing more violence is not consistent with what we know about the fatalities. It just doesn’t seem to be borne out in that respect.”
New Jersey’s Attorney General Gurbir Grewal agreed, saying that propping up the Black Lives Matter movement as somehow comparable to groups like the Proud Boys, Boogaloo Boys or Oath Keepers was mostly a “distraction” tactic.
“Sometimes it’s intentional, sometimes it’s unintentional but in any case, when the effort to discuss militias and white supremacist extremism is consistently met with ‘what about so and so,’ it is a distraction and it also reflects a deeply entrenched perceptual bias,” Simi said. “We need to root that out in the same way,” Simi said.
Some people can look at images, including those videos of people streaming over barriers and viciously beating police at the U.S. Capitol and question whether those on screen “look like extremists or terrorists,” he added.
“But that begs the question: what do extremists and terrorists look like? Extremism and terrorism aren’t about what a person looks like, they’re about what a person thinks, feels and how they behave. If you think, feel and act like an extremist, then you are an extremist and it should not matter if you look like the next door neighbor,” Simi said. “In some cases, extremists or terrorists will wrap themselves in an American flag, or be members of the U.S. military.”
Jan. 6 was not new or an aberration, according to Simi.
“When people say as Americans, ‘we don’t do this,’ I appreciate the sentiment but the sentiment is wrong. As Americans, we do this and have a long history of doing this. Pretending otherwise does not help us solve the problem. Right wing extremism has been allowed to fester for decades because the U.S. has denied and minimized this problem,” Simi said.