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How Hate Groups Use National Unease to Thrive in NC and Beyond

Across the nation, hate crimes hit a record high in 2021, increasing more than 33 percent from the prior year. In North Carolina alone there are 28 hate and 17 active anti-government groups.

(TNS) — To a country that finds something to celebrate nearly every day of the year, proclaiming Feb. 25, 2023, a National Day of Hate sounds un-American.

And yet, a handful of neo-Nazi groups from across the nation tried it, challenging their furtive social media followers to “join in a day of mass anti-Semitic action” by hanging banners, spray-painting Swastikas and scattering fliers and stickers with incendiary messages about Jewish people.

Phil Brodsky, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Raleigh, had to take seriously the possibility that one or more neo-fascists might go further. Last year, someone painted Swastikas on an I-540 overpass, and at least three times, hateful leaflets were sprinkled around Raleigh neighborhoods, making Jewish residents feel targeted and mildly unsafe.

Brodsky shared an alert about the proposed “day of hate” with local police and synagogues, as did other Jewish leaders across the country, so they could step up their regular security measures.

“We are asking our Jewish community to be vigilant and situationally aware,” he said in an email urging people to call 911 if they saw anything suspicious.

After the day had passed with no major incidents, Brodsky tried to put it into context.

“I think we’re at a unique point in history right now,” he said.

Extremist groups are proliferating. Hate crimes, according to updated numbers released by the federal government last week, hit a record high in 2021, increasing more than 33 percent over the previous year while remaining vastly under-reported.

Beliefs once considered to be the tattered fringe of the far right or left are being welcomed and amplified by celebrities and politicians in speeches and social media posts.

“People want scapegoats,” Brodsky said. “Whatever issues we’re facing as a country, it’s the Jews’ fault.”

Or it’s because of Black people. Or white people. Or Mexicans. Or Islamists. Or Catholics. Or LGBTQ people. Or Democrats. Or Republicans. Or those with mental or physical disabilities. Or any attributes that make them “other” than whoever is looking for someone to blame.

Extremists Seek Social Collapse

Prejudice in America is as old as the nation itself. But those who monitor extremists in the U.S. say this time of widespread disquiet — fed by the COVID-19 pandemic, financial strain, residual belief that the 2020 election was stolen and other stressors — may present the best opportunity in decades for violent outliers called “accelerationists” to try to bring about the social collapse they desire.

If extremists, acting together or as scattered “lone wolves,” can exploit the moment by sowing anger and distrust while simultaneously disrupting social institutions and services such as power, water or food supplies, they believe America will descend into chaos. When it does, they believe, it will open the door for supremacists to take control and rebuild the nation as a white “ethnostate.”

The question, experts say, is whether a relatively small number of extremists, some of whom are active in North Carolina, will continue to push their views into the mainstream until words and actions once regarded as radical, anti-democratic and anti-American start to seem normal. Or people believe, as former President Donald Trump asserted in 2017 after a far-right protester drove into a crowd of counter-protesters at a rally in Charlottesville, Va., killing one and injuring 19 others, that there are “very fine people on both sides.”

“That’s the crux of the problem,” said Jon Lewis, an investigator with the National Counterterrorism Innovation, Technology, and Education Center at the University of Nebraska Omaha, a research fellow at the Program on Extremism at George Washington University and a specialist in white-supremacist and anti-government groups.

He said the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol illustrates the reach and the outsized risk posed by extremist groups that, as dots on a map, may not look like much of a threat.

“Organized groups such as the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers played a central role that day, and some of their members are on trial now for conspiracy,” Lewis said.

“But without the mob, the 30,000-odd people who were there with them, who were brought there by those conspiracies, who believed the election had been stolen, the day is quite different. There is no breach of the Capitol without those thousands of people.

“Hate groups are symptoms of the broader disease,” Lewis said — a cell here that claims a dozen members, five or six people there with an unmoderated channel on (messaging app) Telegram. The real threat, Lewis said, is the level to which their messaging is accepted and spread by people who don’t claim membership in their groups but have power or influence.

“It’s Congresspeople, elected officials and individuals who are part of the societal group in New York or D.C. or North Carolina,” Lewis said.

“The most succinct way to put it is, the call is coming from inside the house.”

Hate and Anti-Government Groups in NC

On maps it updates annually, the Southern Poverty Law Center names 28 hate groups and 17 anti-government groups active in North Carolina. The SPLC differentiates between them by the history of their evolution and their ideals for the nation’s future.

Megan Squire, who studies hate groups for the SPLC, says those typically target others based on immutable characteristics, dehumanizing or demonizing people because they’re Black, for example, or gay or an immigrant or a Muslim. The America they wish for is made up primarily of white people.

Joseph Wiinikka-Lydon, who monitors anti-government groups for the SPLC, says they generally view the federal government and internationalism, including membership in the United Nations, as part of an evil plot to strip Americans of their rights. They want an America that is decentralized, eschews international rules and relies on armed militias. Some anti-government groups want the country to have a strong Christian identity and some would like to see the U.S. as a white nation.

The SPLC notes overlap between the types of groups: an anti-government group may also be anti-Muslim, for instance, and a group that hates immigrants may also believe the government has no right to restrict gun ownership.

Both types, Squire said, “are very opportunistic at times, changing what they want or appear to want to fit the times. A lot of them are savvy enough to want to meld a little bit, enough to think about PR and recruitment.”

According to the SPLC and others who track it, extremist activity in North Carolina appears comparable to that of many other states, with a possible exception: the state has a huge active-duty military presence and the eighth-highest veteran population in the country. Nearly 642,000 veterans lived here in 2019, according to UNC demographers, and their military training makes them prized recruits for violence-prone extremists.

In October 2021, Dr. Seth G. Jones, counterterrorism specialist and director of Georgetown University’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, told the U.S. House Committee on Veterans Affairs that while extremists were increasing their attacks on military, government and police personnel, at the same time, active-duty service members and veterans also were getting involved more frequently on the side of the extremists.

Jones told the committee the data shows that “veterans — along with active duty and reservists — have been involved in a growing percentage of domestic terrorist plots and attacks. Some veterans have also been involved in extremist activity on cyber and digital platforms. In addition, extremist networks seek to embed their members in the military and actively recruit current and retired military personnel — including veterans.

“Veterans have valuable skills that extremist networks want, such as small unit tactics, communications, logistics, reconnaissance and surveillance.”

Questions About Moore County Outage

While a power outage was still spreading across Moore County on the night of Dec. 3, plunging more and more people into darkness, some residents were exhausting their phone batteries to speculate on social media about the cause.

A few wondered at first if there had been a malfunction of Duke Energy’s equipment, perhaps a wintertime overburdening of a system unable to meet demand. But as word spread that the outage was actually the result of a firearms attack on two electrical substations in the county, discussion quickly turned to a drag show that was being staged at the historic Sunrise Theater in downtown Southern Pines at the time the lights went out.

Hours before the show, protesters had been outside the theater demanding the Downtown Divas’ performance be canceled to protect local children, though no one under 18 was to be allowed in.

Several other shows by the same performers in prior months had faced opposition by some of the same protesters.

Outside a Halloween Drag Brunch at the Hugger Mugger brewery in downtown Sanford, masked members of a Proud Boys chapter had passed out recruitment fliers, carried signs about “state-sponsored pedophilia” and posed for photos while flashing white-power signs.

The power outage spread to about 45,000 customers, affecting most homes and businesses in the county, some of which didn’t have electricity again for five days.

More than three months later, a total of $100,000 in reward money offered for information leading to a prosecution in the case is so far unclaimed. The Moore County Sheriff’s Office, which is leading the investigation with support from the FBI and SBI, has made no arrests and announced no suspects except to say that whoever shot up the substations “knew exactly what they were doing.”

That description does little to limit the suspect pool; electrical substation attacks have become almost commonplace as there are about 55,000 of the sites across the nation, most in rural areas protected by nothing more than a perimeter fence. Anyone who wants to learn what type of gun to use and where to aim it can find an instructional video online with only slightly more work than it takes to get YouTube help on changing the oil in their truck.

Meanwhile, the state Senate approved legislation Tuesday to make attacks on substations and other critical facilities Class C felonies. Senate Bill 58 now heads to the House.

Lewis, the counterterrorism specialist, said that in some ways it doesn’t matter whether the substation attacks were intended to distract law enforcement to allow for the commission of some other crime; to test a technique; or to see how police and residents would respond. It doesn’t even matter, he said, whether they were carried out by an extremist cell or one guy with poor impulse control and a high-powered weapon.

The effect can be the same, Lewis said: to sow fear, distrust, even paranoia in people by suggesting that civilization hangs by a thread and that government would be impotent against a systemwide takedown, leaving them to fight for themselves and their families to secure scarce resources.

The real threat is neither the groups nor the lone wolves, Lewis said.

“It’s the power of the conspiracies.”

NC Hate Crimes Amendment

Since the attacks of 9/11, the U.S. has developed robust programs to fight the threat of foreign terrorism, which the FBI calls its “number one priority.” But the agency is more constrained in dealing with homegrown extremists, explaining on its website that it “investigates domestic hate groups within guidelines established by the attorney general. Investigations are conducted only when a threat or advocacy of force is made; when the group has the apparent ability to carry out the proclaimed act; and when the act would constitute a potential violation of federal law.”

Though Congress did define domestic terrorism in the Patriot Act in October 2001, it didn’t designate it as a federal crime. So even if the FBI investigates a group or an individual suspected of “violent, criminal acts committed by individuals and/or groups to further ideological goals stemming from domestic influences, such as those of a political, religious, social, racial, or environmental nature,” any charges brought would be for the acts themselves, such as murder, assault, theft, property damage or weapons violations.

That’s in part because lawmakers and civil liberties advocates on both the left and the right know the First Amendment is both a cornerstone of the American experiment in liberal democracy, and the reason that extremist groups are able to gain any traction within it. Congress and the Supreme Court so far have been unwilling to sacrifice the ideal of free speech for the sake of limiting speech that is hateful or might be construed by some as a call to violence.

North Carolina State Sen. Jay J. Chaudhuri, the Democratic whip, met First Amendment resistance in the state legislature when he proposed an amendment to House Bill 40. The law, which has been sent to Gov. Roy Cooper for his signature, increases the penalties for people convicted of rioting or inciting a riot that results in injury or property damage. Chaudhuri’s amendment would have increased the scope and punishment of hate crimes, improved hate crime reporting and improved law enforcement training around hate crimes.

Chaudhuri is North Carolina’s first Indian-American legislator.

“From my perspective,” Chaudhuri said, “hate crimes tear at the very fabric of our community and our democracy. If we allow hate crimes and hate groups to go unchecked, it only results in more division in our communities and in our state.”

©2023 The Charlotte Observer. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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