Director of Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center. He is author of the report 'Rage on the Right: The Year in Hate and Extremism'
The Justice Department has charged nine members of a Michigan-based Christian militia group in connection with an alleged plot to spark a war against the federal government. Meanwhile, a white power skinhead from Tennessee has pleaded guilty to charges of conspiring to carry out a killing spree targeting African Americans, including then-presidential candidate Barack Obama. We speak to Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center. [includes rush transcript]
ANJALI KAMAT: Nine members of a Michigan-based Christian militia group have been charged in connection with an alleged plot to spark a war against the federal government. On Monday, the Justice Department said the group, known as the Hutaree, planned on killing a law enforcement officer and then bombing the funeral procession. According to the indictment, Hutaree members hoped the funeral attack would weaken law enforcement morale ahead of a full-scale uprising against the government. Eight members of the group were arrested over the weekend in raids in Michigan, Ohio and Indiana. The ninth suspect was arrested Monday. A witness to an FBI raid in Indiana said he saw law enforcement officers seize a cache of weapons.
WITNESS: Oh, they had full tactical gear. They had the shields, helmets, bulletproof vests, assault rifles — everything, the whole nine yards, just like you see on TV.
ANJALI KAMAT: Prosecutors say Hutaree members
have trained in weaponry and bomb-making since at least 2008. Video posted on YouTube shows armed Hutaree members conducting military-like training exercises. The individuals in the videos are dressed in full combat gear and carry weapons. In one video, they burn the flag of the United Nations before hoisting their own flag in its place. Part of the group’s website reads, quote, "Jesus wanted us to be ready to defend ourselves using the sword."
AMY GOODMAN: Well, earlier this month, the Southern Poverty Law Center released a report called “Rage on the Right: The Year in Hate and Extremism.” It tracks a major rise in domestic right-wing extremist groups in the United States. According to the report, the number of right-wing militias tripled last year to 127. Two chapters of the Hutaree militia, one in Michigan, the other in Utah, were included on the list.
Mark Potok is director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama, and that’s where he joins us.
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Mark. What do you know about this group?
MARK POTOK: Well, thanks for having me.
You know, what we — well, frankly, we knew very little. We spotted them early in 2009. They seemed to be a very small group, two very small chapters. And what was remarkable about the group was their very particular kind of Christian millennial spin on what are really very common theories in the militia movement. I mean, basically, virtually all militias, the secular militias, have an idea about what is going on out there and the nefarious role that the federal government is playing. What they basically believe is that the government is planning to impose martial law, herd Americans who resist into concentration camps, and ultimately the government will be subsumed in some kind of a new world order. A sort of socialist hell is the way it is imagined. You know, this particular group had this very strange spin on the whole theory, in which the enemy was not so much a secular new world order as the Antichrist. And they identify the Antichrist very closely with the UN and, in particular, with Javier Solana. So they’re very similar to the other militias we’ve seen come roaring back in the last year or so, although they have this very particular twist.
ANJALI KAMAT: And Mark Potok, has your group been following the Hutaree for a while? Tell us when you first found out about them.
MARK POTOK: Well, we first spotted them in early 2009. And really, they didn’t look a whole lot different from many other militias we track. They were very paramilitary in their orientation. As you said in your introduction, they had a great many videos showing pretty remarkable combat operations or combat training. You know, this wasn’t merely people shooting at targets. It was people carrying out field exercises, using smoke bombs and so on. So, you know, it looked rather similar to real military training. But, you know, that is true of a great many of the militias, so, you know, there wasn’t any particular indication that these people, in particular, were ready to go operational.
AMY GOODMAN: And why are they based — and the information you have on the raids in Ohio, Indiana, Michigan?
MARK POTOK: I’m sorry. Why are they based in those states?
AMY GOODMAN: Yes, is there a particular reason in those states, and what the FBI — how the FBI found out information about them?
MARK POTOK: No, I mean, I don’t think there’s any particular meaning that they’re in those states. I will say that Michigan has been quite a hotbed for the militias. Of course, I’m sure many people remember that Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, the Oklahoma City bombers, had contacts with militias in Michigan. So that is, you know, a state where this movement has been roiling and boiling all the way since the 1990s, and it’s a state where we’re seeing great deal of activity again now.
I think that the federal agents somehow got wind of something going with these guys, and it’s pretty clear from reading the indictment and some of the supporting affidavits that they had someone in that group, some kind of confidential informant, going back to 2008.
ANJALI KAMAT: And Mark Potok, let’s take this back a little bit, before the DOJ made this announcement this week regarding the Hutaree militia. There have been a number of incidents over the previous weeks, and lawmakers are continuing to receive threats in the wake of the healthcare vote. New York Democratic Congressman Anthony Weiner was forced to close an office in Queens Thursday after his staff received a threatening letter with a suspicious white powder. The letter directly referred to Weiner’s support for healthcare reform. At least ten House Democrats have reported death threats or incidents of harassment since last week.
As Congress was preparing to vote for the healthcare reconciliation package last week, Republican Congressman Steve King of Iowa addressed a group of Tea Partiers and urged opponents of healthcare reform to beat the other side to a pulp.
REP. STEVE KING: I’ve got to go back up and vote again against the reconciliation package, but I wanted to come down here in this little window of about twelve minutes so I could say to you, God bless you. You are the awesome American people. I am overwhelmed with gratitude and the power of who you are and what you’re willing to do. And if I could start a country with a bunch of people, they’d be the folks that have been here standing with us the last few days. Let’s hope we don’t have to do that. Let’s beat that other side to a pulp! Let’s chase them out. Let’s chase them down. There’s going to be a reckoning!
AMY GOODMAN: That was Steve King addressing Tea Party gathering. Mark Potok, your response?
MARK POTOK: Well, one thing I can say is that Steve King has played a really nasty role for a number of years now. I mean, this is only the latest from him. Steve King has spent a great deal of energy defaming undocumented immigrants. He has made a claim for many years now that undocumented immigrants in this country murder twelve Americans every day, and drunken illegal aliens, as he would say, run over and kill another thirteen Americans every day. This claim is false. It is not remotely close to the truth. You know, we actually looked into this claim, and it’s utterly false. It’s not even remotely close to the truth. You know, so he is one of the people who I would argue are out there, people in the ostensible mainstream, who have absolutely been heating up the situation, who have been pouring all kinds of vitriol and conspiracy theories and so on into the public square. So I think what we’re seeing is a reflection of that.
I really do feel that public figures and certain commentators have helped to heat up the whole situation. You know, and in some ways, the culmination of that was exactly what we were talking about just earlier with what’s happened to many congressmen. It’s probably worth noting also that the many bricks thrown through congressmen’s windows around the country in the last week or so were apparently inspired by a call from a particular Alabama militia figure, a guy named Mike Vanderboegh, who wrote two Friday’s ago on his blog a long screed: “Break their windows. Break them now. Break them again,” and on like that. So we’re seeing, you know, all kinds of factors come together that are helping to drive this real rapid expansion of the right, this real rage on the right.
AMY GOODMAN: And then Congress member Louise Slaughter of New York was one of at least four cases of vandalism targeting Democratic offices across the country late last week. She stopped by her office in Niagara Falls to see the damage caused by the vandalism last week.
REP. LOUISE SLAUGHTER: When I go out on the floor of the House — and I’m going to do so — I think about you. I think about the calls that we’ve had, the awful things that have happened to you in healthcare, worried about your jobs. We’re all in this together. We all belong together in what we’re trying to do. And it is such a wonderful thing to be American, and we have got to — if we’re going back forty years, and I hope to heaven we are not, in the way we treat each other, we have got to stamp that out right now.
I could not believe, last Sunday, probably one of the most beautiful days the Lord has made, was really destroyed for all of us by the actions that took place on the Capitol grounds. In the first place, it’s the only time I’ve ever known them [inaudible] they came right up to the Capitol. They — usually there is sort of a distance there. And some of my colleagues went out on the balcony, looking a great deal like Mussolini, if you remember, those of us who are of a certain age, egging them on with megaphones, holding up signs saying "Kill." Some of my African American colleagues — the great icon of civil rights, John Lewis, was harassed by people with very petty and small minds. What I saw coming out that day was not any concern particularly about healthcare. I know what it was. I’ve seen it before. But we have to make absolutely certain that America is stronger than that, it is better than that, and we know that it is.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s New York Congress member Louise Slaughter. When we come back from break, we’ll continue with Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center. He’s joining us from Montgomery, Alabama, to talk about his report, "Rage on the Right." Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: Our guest is Mark Potok, director of Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center. Anjali?
ANJALI KAMAT: Mark Potok, can you explain to all of us how you would connect some of the incidents we just talked about regarding anger over the healthcare bill to the broader movement of extremist groups that your center has been tracking? And also talk about what you found in your latest report.
MARK POTOK: Well, I mean, let me start with what we found. What we found in the report was an absolutely enormous expansion in these groups in just the last year or so, year to maybe eighteen months. A lot of it is connected very directly to the rise of Barack Obama, a black man to the White House. And that, I think, really is a representation of larger fears about the changing racial demographics of this country. The idea that whites will lose their majority in this country in the year 2050 is very, very frightening to a relatively large subset of Americans. So, you know, we found that the number of so-called patriot groups, which includes militias, have grown by a really astounding 244 percent. That works out to 363 new groups that appeared last year. We also saw a very big expansion in the number of extreme anti-immigrant groups, the so-called Minuteman groups. The number of hate groups, too, are at record levels.
So, you know, how does that connect to what we’re seeing going on in the more mainstream political sphere? Well, I think that what has happened is that we see many politicians, many ostensibly mainstream cable news commentators, radio commentators, and so on, very much kind of pouring vitriol onto the flames, pouring fuel on the flames. You know, what it seems to be is a kind of pandering for votes or pandering for ratings.
But whatever the real reason is that these people are willing to engage in this kind of talk, you know, what has really happened is — you know, it begins, in a sense, with Sarah Palin saying not that she disagrees with proposed healthcare reform, but that the President is setting up death panels to decide whether our grandparents live or die. It begins with people like Tom Tancredo, the former Colorado congressman, saying Mexico is secretly planning to invade the United States and reconquer the American Southwest. And it goes on and on, when Glenn Beck on Fox News talks about the possibility that FEMA may be building and maintaining a set of secret concentration camps, when Lou Dobbs on CNN, as long as he lasted, until late last year, talks about similar kinds of ideas about Mexicans invading the country, about so-called illegal aliens bringing leprosy to this country and so on.
All of this kind of propaganda is, first of all, entirely false, but I think more to the point, it’s really defamatory and aimed at very particular groups of people. So, you know, Obama is a fascist. Obama is a Nazi. Obama is a Marxist. You know, this kind of talk, I think, obviously does absolutely nothing to further any kind of real political process and, in fact, results in the kind of things we’ve been seeing in the last few weeks.
You know, so the rage on the right we write about is certainly very hot in the true radical right-wing groups, but what’s extraordinary about what we’re seeing right now is how it’s leaked out into the much larger, much broader political process. You know, I don’t think you can describe the Tea Parties, per se, as extremist groups, but I also think that it is undeniable that they are shot through with extremist ideas, ideas like the secret Mexican invasion, like FEMA concentration camps, with strains of racism and with many individuals who come out of harder-line groups.
AMY GOODMAN: Mark Potok, what about the white power skinhead from Tennessee who’s pleaded guilty to charges of conspiring to carry out a killing spree targeting African Americans that would culminate in the killing of then-presidential candidate Barack Obama, David — Daniel Cowart?
MARK POTOK: Well, in some ways, it’s an absolutely nutty plot the man had. This guy was a member, Daniel Cowart, of something called the Supreme White Alliance, and they really had this fantasy about absolute carnage. I mean, their whole plot was going to start with the murder of as many African American high school students at a particular school as possible. You know, I think the important thing to understand is that this is one of two racist skinhead plots to murder Obama that occurred even before he was elected.
In addition, we’ve seen since then a man found in Maine to be building a dirty bomb, which he intended to set off at Obama’s inauguration. The day after the inauguration, another man, this man coming from a suburb of Boston, walked out of his house one day — well, the day after the inauguration — and started to murder black people. He told police later he intended to go on that night to murder as many Orthodox Jews as possible at a local synagogue. The reason? He had been reading on white supremacist websites that the white race in America was being subjected to a genocide.
And it goes on from there. I mean, we have seen in the last year or so six different law enforcement officials murdered by right-wing extremists. So there’s been — it’s really heating up out there. What I’m trying to say is that the rise of Barack Obama to power has really sparked a kind of a vicious backlash and, I think at least anecdotally, what seems very clearly to be an uptick in domestic terrorism, or at least planned domestic terrorism.
ANJALI KAMAT: And Mark Potok, how would you say the rise in the right compares — the period that we’re living through right now compares to the period right before the Oklahoma bombings?
MARK POTOK: Well, I think there are a lot of similarities. I lived through that period and covered as a reporter the Oklahoma City bombing, and I remember very well the kind of general fury out there on the land directed at the federal government, in many ways this the sort of culmination of Republican demonizing, really, of the federal government. I recall that immediately after the Oklahoma City bombing, a poll was run which asked Americans whether or not they agreed with the proposition that the federal government was in imminent threat to their safety and civil liberties. Thirty-nine percent of Americans said yes at that time. You know, at the time I thought that was extraordinary and quite frightening. Today, that poll was rerun just a couple of weeks ago, and it was found that the number is now 51 percent. So, you know, are we at the point where another Oklahoma City bombing is a possibility or at least a worry? Yeah, I think absolutely.
And I think there is a difference this time around, and that difference is really what I’ve tried to suggest already: it’s a much broader-based movement. It’s leaked out into the much larger political process. We see this kind of really incredible demonizing of certain groups of people going on in the Tea Parties, going on in big swathes of the Republican Party and in other formations, as well. So it’s a scary time.
You know, it’s probably worth saying that I don’t think this means the country is, you know, headed for rack and ruin and, you know, we’re one step away from fascism. I think we are living through a backlash, much as was seen in this country after women got the right to vote, after the slaves were freed, when Catholic immigration began to change a formerly Protestant-dominated country. So, you know, presumably, we will get through this, as well, but it’s a tough time.
AMY GOODMAN: What about Joe Stack, Mark Potok, the Austin man who flew his plane into the IRS? It was remarkable how the media dealt with him versus those they call terrorists. They were actually careful not to call him a terrorist. I think the back-and-forth in a Newsweek email trail between editors was they decided not to do this, because he could be your, well, neighbor next door. What about — how does he fit into this picture?
MARK POTOK: Well, I think he is a part of it. To be fair, I think it’s perfectly clear that Joseph Stack was mentally ill. That seems certain. But I looked at a lot of his material, listened to some of his podcasts, and so on, and Stack was certainly angry at all kinds of things. He was angry at the Catholic Church. He was angry at unions, at corporations, at corporate executives. But he kept circling back in what he wrote about to the government as the primary evil, and in particular the IRS.
What’s interesting about Joseph Stack is that he says, in his kind of final screed, he talks about having met with radical tax protest groups, which really are a part of the larger patriot movement, the militia movement, back in 1987. So, you know, whether or not he was mentally ill and that was sort of the primary motivation, the fact is, is that he had absorbed directly from the radical right ideas which helped him focus his anger on the IRS. So, you know, I see what he did very much as a part of the fury that we’re seeing out there and really the political fury, even if he may not have been as political as some of the other people we’ve seen in this movement.
AMY GOODMAN: And the naming of the — by mainstream right-wing bloggers, of the Southern Poverty Law Center in the media as, what, left-wing hate groups — your response to that, Mark Potok?
MARK POTOK: Well, I mean, I guess it’s a bit of a joke. I mean, I’m not quite sure what to say about it. You know, we’ve been called many things by people who don’t like what we have to say. You know, we’ve gotten an awful lot of anger for suggesting, for instance, that the Tea Party movement has radical elements, but I think it’s absolutely undeniable.
You know, last week, for instance, the founder and president of something called teaparty.org put out a huge email blast in which he described all those who voted for the healthcare reform bill as National Socialists, as Nazis, people who put other human beings into the gas chambers. So, you know, when we point out things like this, it seems to provoke an enormous outpouring of anger.
You know, I notice that much of the kind of right-wing blogosphere that you refer to has characterized all of what happened to the congressmen last week as very likely a kind of liberal or left-wing set up, this was all a plot to make Republicans or the Tea Parties look bad. And, you know, all I can do when accused of things like that is, you know, kind of shrug my shoulders and laugh. I don’t know quite what to say about it other than it’s obviously false.
ANJALI KAMAT: And Mark Potok, can you talk about the role of social media — social networking groups, how the right-wing uses these groups? Sarah Palin’s Facebook page had a map of Congress people to target. And you’ve previously talked about how right-wing radio hosts called out on particular people to target. Can you expand on this?
MARK POTOK: Well, you know, the right-wing blogosphere has done some — I’m sorry, ask me that question again. I’m not sure I fully understood you.
ANJALI KAMAT: Can you just explain how it is that people, from Sarah Palin, politicians like Sarah Palin, to right-wing media commentators, whether it’s Glenn Beck or people on hate radio, calling out people to target?
MARK POTOK: Well, you know, I think that social networking sites have been terribly important in allowing these kinds of defamations to spread extremely rapidly. That’s really what has happened as a result of these sites and the internet, in general. You know, I should say, sort of parenthetically, that social networking sites have become really where the action is on the radical right, as well as the more kind of center-right. You know, these sites have been very, very effective in moving forward the movement in general. You know, it’s remarkable to see. For instance, to go back to the Hutaree militia, the very large number of videos that they produced on YouTube, if you went to their Facebook page, you would see that they had, you know, 366, quote-unquote, "friends" and that these friends were real — they were all the other well-known militias, basically, in the country. So it gives you a sense of, you know, how easily these groups are able to merge with each other, to talk with one another, and to gin up the anger that is out there.
AMY GOODMAN: On April 19th, the Tea Party movement is having a big meeting in Washington, a big convergence. April 19th, of course, is the anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing. They also say that it’s the Battle of Lexington and Concord, the anniversary of that. What about the significance of this date in all that you’re talking about, Mark?
MARK POTOK: Well, there will be a huge march, and it really is ironic that they’ve chosen April 19th. I mean, this April 19th will be the fifteenth anniversary of the murder of 168 people in Oklahoma City. You know, naturally these groups describe it instead as the day the first shots were fired in Lexington, the first shots of the Revolutionary War.
You know, I think that what is coming up on April 19th very much represents the kind of cross-pollination we’re seeing among different sectors of the right. This is, nominally, at least, a Second Amendment march. But the reality is, is that a great many patriot groups, so-called, militia groups and so on, will be participating. In addition, across the river in Virginia, the local national park, there’s going to be a sort of subsidiary gun rights rally in which everyone comes armed. They have chosen this particular place because this is as close to Washington as they can get and openly carry both short weapons and long weapons. So, you know, I don’t know that we’re necessarily going to see anything bad happen on April 19th. I’m certainly not predicting that. But I think the symbolism of it occurring on the fifteenth anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing tells you a lot.
AMY GOODMAN: And finally, the issue of free speech and how that must be protected. I mean, yes, you have Sarah Palin on her website putting the Democratic congressional districts in the crosshairs and talking about reloading, but how do you fit free speech into all of this?
MARK POTOK: Well, listen. Virtually all of these statements that we’ve been discussing are absolutely protected under the First Amendment, and I think they should be. I think to try and suppress this kind of speech is both useless and very probably worse than useless, you know, can create a real backlash. Very typically these groups react to criticism by saying that people like myself and the Southern Poverty Law Center and other critics are trying to suppress free speech, which I think is really false.
On the other hand, I do think that it is very important for citizens, in general, to kind of name and shame the people who make this kind of a defamatory propaganda, the people who further utterly false conspiracy theories. I thought it was very important that last year a number of civil rights groups came together, as well as a great many sort of average citizens out there, to really raise a clamor about Lou Dobbs on CNN and his continued defamation over years and years of Latino immigrants. And ultimately, of course, it resulted in Lou Dobbs leaving, apparently kicked out, or really bought out at a cost of $8 million from CNN. So, you know, I think that people — there is a way to react to this kind of business. I certainly don’t think that it’s trying to legally suppress speech. And in any case, that certainly couldn’t be done under the Constitution.
AMY GOODMAN: Mark Potok, I want to thank you very much for being with us, director of Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, speaking to us from Montgomery, Alabama.