Brian Levin is a professor of criminal justice and the director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University in San Bernardino.
The unrest in the aftermath of the horrifying death of George Floyd saw a virtual carousel of extremists from across the ideological spectrum briefly capture America’s attention. Right now the public focus has shifted to embrace a more peaceful and diverse reform movement. However, there are lessons to be learned from the forays of extremists into these events.
Extremism has been described as a carnival-mirror reflection of mainstream sociopolitical rifts. As extremism and hate crimes tend to spike significantly in highly charged election years, we can look to extremists’ actions now to get some insights into what we can expect in the heated election campaign of the months to come.
At the most recent protests, the bulk of arrested extremists reflect a new trend: They appear to be acting as semi-competent do-it-yourselfers. The fact that most of them are not acting at the direction of some vast, nationally organized and well-trained terror network is of particular relevance.
In New York in late May, two young lawyers were charged in connection with a Molotov cocktail attack on a vandalized police car. While they participated in a Zoom solidarity meeting with reform activists, it appears that they, like many other violent extremists, took the next step, not as card-carrying members of an “antifa group” but as impulsive independents.
In Las Vegas, three members of the right-wing Boogaloo Bois, operating as an autonomous cell, were charged with plotting to attack peaceful protesters. Even in those prominent cases where investigators are looking at possible ties to groups, including a Ku Klux Klan leader in Virginia who ran his truck into protesters, carried out their attacks alone. A California man who was recently charged with murder after attacking two police officers had scrawled phrases associated with the boogaloos at the scene, but is also believed to have acted independently.
These newer independent actors, however, present unique challenges for authorities, as they leave fewer precursor clues than do traditional group members – in part because they congregate in increasingly encrypted global online platforms. And frighteningly, the availability of assault rifles has made lone gunmen more lethal, as four of the five worst mass shootings in the U.S. all occurred over the past decade.
Perhaps the two most recently publicized fringe movements, antifa (short for anti-facist) and the Boogaloo Bois, are also the most misunderstood. In the early days of the protests, President Donald Trump threatened to designate antifa a terror group, despite the fact that federal law only allows foreign groups to receive that official designation. Moreover, in congressional testimony, FBI Director Christopher Wray dismissed the notion that antifa is a group at all, calling it “more of an ideology than an organization.”
Still, in places such as the Bay Area in California and the Pacific Northwest, antifa supporters have an active loose network, whose adherents have participated in violence, usually in street confrontations with alt-right militants and Nazis. In 2018 and 2019, my workplace, the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, enumerated crimes by scores of alleged antifa partisans, including an unsuccessful armed attack at a Tacoma, Wash., detention centre that left the lone perpetrator dead. But over the past several years, through to the end of 2019, there were no homicides attributable to these individuals. More recently, various news agencies have found no direct connection – yet – to antifa groups in any of the federal criminal cases involving violence around protests.
Core antifa philosophy does embrace both violence and a rejection of the U.S. political and economic system, but the movement it spawned lacks a national hierarchy, a broad, centralized fundraising system or any unifying agreement respecting specific goals and even the propriety of violent tactics, other than directly confronting “fascism” and bigotry.
The Trump campaign’s elevation of the antifa threat in his emerging “law and order” campaign also has other politicians seizing on it. Republican congressional candidate Marjorie Greene’s viral campaign ad – featuring her brandishing an assault rifle and warning that antifa “will not burn our churches, loot our businesses or destroy our homes” while telling those “terrorists” to “stay the hell out of Northwest Georgia” – has already generated millions of views.
While various groups of armed whites have showed up at protests, the far-right Boogaloo Bois distinguish themselves with quirky rhetoric, Hawaiian shirts and a unifying philosophy centred on an impending civil war known as the “boogaloo.” Some adherents wanted to show support for anti-authority leftists, who like them also distrust law enforcement. However, many others, such as the Las Vegas plotters, are steeped in racism. That flank of the Boogaloo Bois posts ominous references to not only a civil war but a race war as well.
In the United States, the three worst months for hate crime, according to FBI data, were all around elections and political rallies: November, 2016, October, 2018, and August, 2017, the month of the violent Charlottesville rally. All those months also saw violent extremist plots or fatal attacks materialize around those events.
As we head into the heat of a particularly conflictual election season, Americans can expect a turbulent ride. In addition to spikes in hate crimes and violent extremist activity, past election periods also exhibited increased extremist internet chatter as well as online foreign interference to sow discord.
Extremists thrive around convulsive catalytic events and societal divisions. The caustic political rhetoric, spread of conspiracy theories and scapegoating abetted both the massacre at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue around the 2018 U.S. elections and the assassination of a British MP around the Brexit vote.
If extremists of all stripes, especially white supremacists, see opportunities in conflict, they have a lot to choose from as emotions run high after the COVID-19 lockdowns, economic fallout and racial unrest. When politicians fan these flames of division as a tool to lure voters by harnessing their fear and rage, they also ensnare angry extremist freelancers whose trajectory is measured in bullets, not ballots.