WASHINGTON, D.C. – Mask mandates and business closures to fight coronavirus, Black Lives Matters rallies, and President Trump’s false election fraud claims stoked the fury of extremist antigovernment groups last year, according to Southern Poverty Law Center President and CEO Margaret Huang. Those issues prompted them to protest by the hundreds at state capitols, including Ohio’s, and by the thousands at last month’s U.S. Capitol riot that resulted in the deaths of five people including a police officer.
Huang’s organization, which started out 50 years ago as an Alabama law office fighting the Ku Klux Klan, is now a nonprofit that monitors hate groups and extremists around the nation. It released a report this week that found Ohio has the second highest number of active antigovernment groups of any state: 31. Only California’s 51 antigovernment groups exceeded the number found in Ohio, which has less than a third of California’s population.
Huang says some of the nation’s best-known extremists hail from Ohio, such as Columbus-native Andrew Anglin, who founded the white supremacist Daily Stormer website, and James Alex Fields of Maumee, who was sentenced to life in prison for ramming his car into a a crowd of counter-protesters at a 2017 “Unite the Right Rally” in Virginia that was promoted by Anglin’s website. Fields’ attack killed one woman and injured dozens of other people.
In an interview with cleveland.com/The Plain Dealer, Huang said young people in Ohio and elsewhere in the country who feel frustrated, isolated and lacking in community support sometimes find that community in online antigovernment or hate groups where people like Anglin lead them to believe the government or groups of people they dislike, such as racial minorities, have caused their problems.
“It seems like an answer to why they’re feeling so isolated, so frustrated,” says Huang, adding that the groups’ recruitment techniques mirror those of foreign terrorist organizations. “Many of them find a community there. They find people who want them to join their activities and who invite them to be part of something larger. I think in many parts of the country, not just Ohio, because you can see that these groups are found in every state, but in many parts of the country where there are a lot of young people who are frustrated, who may be economically disadvantaged, who may not have great employment or educational opportunities, they are turning to these extremist groups as a way to find community with others.”
The Ohio groups the Southern Poverty Law Center labels as antigovernment extremists include the OHIO III% United Patriots, Heartland Defenders, American Patriots Three Percent, Irregulars of Ohio Reserve Militia, John Birch Society, Oath Keepers, The Last Militia, Ohio Defense Force Home Guard and Ohio Militiamen.
Northeast Ohio-based organizations that the SPLC classifies as antigovernment include the Frontiersmen militia group of Ravenna, which the SPLC says spreads disinformation about COVID-19, Democrats and Antifa, among other topics, and Cleveland’s Silver Shield Xchange, which the SPLC says spreads conspiracy theories and disinformation about COVID-19, former President Barack Obama, China, former President Donald Trump, the 2020 election, and the supposed imminent collapse of the dollar. They also sell survivalist merchandise, including guns, gold and silver, the SPLC says.
Two of the Ohioans charged with rioting at the U.S. Capitol – Champaign County’s Donovan Crowl and Jessica Watkins – are members of a militia associated with the Oath Keepers, a loosely organized right-wing group that believes the government is stripping away Americans’ rights and focuses its recruitment efforts on former military members, federal charging documents indicate.
Huang said her organization identifies antigovernment groups by monitoring their online recruiting and event organization platforms, and through flyers the groups distribute in their communities to recruit new members, express hate, or call for people to take up arms against the government. She said her organization get the flyers from police reports or people who forward them to her organization’s six offices around the country.
“These are groups that openly advocate violence, that openly advocate white supremacy, etc.,” says Huang.
Over the years organizations including the socially conservative Family Research Council have disputed the Southern Poverty Law Center’s decision to classify them as hate groups, calling it “a hard left activist organization” whose political agenda pervades construction of its lists. In 2018, SPLC paid a $3.4 million settlement and issued an apology to a British political activist named Maajid Nawaz, who sued it for labeling him an “anti-Muslim extremist.”
Huang says Family Research Council made its hate group list for demonizing LGBTQ people and advocating policies that would deny their rights. She said several groups that have made SPLC’s lists have sued over their inclusion but her organization typically wins those challenges “because we use a clear definition and criteria for determining who falls into each category.”
“The reason we have a trusted reputation is that we do monitor these groups and we have been accurate in calling out their activities and calling out their hateful ideology,” Huang says. “If it bothers them, they should reconsider what they are saying and doing.”
According to Huang, many of the antigovernment groups existed for decades, but their numbers escalated when hard right groups took exception to a Democrat-run government after Obama’s election. Under Trump, she says many antigovernment groups focused more of their attention on state legislatures to express their frustration with coronavirus-related mask mandates and school and business closures.
“They have used this as a rallying cry to encourage people to oppose the government’s orders as illegitimate,” says Huang.
In addition to holding armed protests in numerous state capitals including Columbus and playing a key role in the riot at the U.S. Capitol, members of antigovernment groups were charged in a plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer because of restrictions imposed to limit the spread of coronavirus. Documents filed in the case against the alleged kidnap conspirators say they met twice in Ohio to discuss their scheme.
Huang says investments in education, job training opportunities and jobs in all communities would help stop the spread of antigovernment groups.
“When people talk about why international terrorists become radicalized, it’s frequently because they don’t have jobs, they can’t go to school and so they turn to terrorism as something that makes them feel a part of the community,” Huang said. “So we need to do the same kinds of things that we’ve advocated for countering terrorism internationally. You have to provide economic opportunities, you have to provide educational opportunities and when people have those alternatives, they’re much less likely to embrace extremism.”
— to www.cleveland.com