journalist and former Democracy Now! producer.
Byron Williams was arrested after he opened fire on California Highway Patrol officers in July. He was accused of plotting to kill employees at the ACLU and the Tides Foundation, a small foundation that gives money to human rights groups, environmentalists and other progressive causes. Now, in a series of exclusive jailhouse interviews published on the website of the watchdog group Media Matters, independent journalist John Hamilton reveals that Byron Williams was inspired by listening to Glenn Beck of Fox News and other right-wing media figures. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: In a jailhouse confession, a California man accused of plotting to kill employees at the ACLU and Tides Foundation says he was inspired by watching Glenn Beck on Fox News. Forty-five-year-old Byron Williams made national headlines in July when he was arrested after he opened fire on California Highway Patrol officers on an interstate highway in Oakland. During the shootout, Williams allegedly fired three guns, including a high-powered hunting rifle with armor-piercing rounds. Ultimately, Williams, an unemployed ex-felon, surrendered after taking multiple gunshot wounds. The ballistic body armor he was wearing may have helped save his life. Two officers were injured in the assault.
According to a police affidavit, Williams stated from a nearby hospital he had been on his way to, quote, "start a revolution by traveling to San Francisco and killing people of importance at the Tides Foundation and the ACLU," unquote. When the shooter’s mother told the San Francisco Chronicle her son had become angry after watching TV news, speculation of Byron Williams’s motive turned to Fox News personality Glenn Beck.
Now, in a series of exclusive jailhouse interviews published on the website of the watchdog group Media Matters, journalist John Hamilton reveals that Byron Williams was inspired by Glenn Beck and other right-wing media figures. The piece is called "Progressive Hunter" and notes that Williams praised Beck as a "schoolteacher on TV."
Beck is unique among cable news personalities for his frequent references to the low-profile Tides Foundation, a San Francisco-based charitable group that gives money to human rights groups, environmentalists and other progressive causes. According to Media Matters, in the eighteen months before the shooting, Beck used his Fox News show to attack the Tides Foundation twenty-nine times, claiming the small foundation is part of a secret George Soros-funded plot to infiltrate and gain control of big businesses and to indoctrinate the youth of America.
In his conversations with journalist John Hamilton, Byron Williams specifically cited a conspiracy theory broadcast on the Glenn Beck program in the weeks before the Oakland shootout that drove him over the edge: an intricate plot involving Barack Obama, philanthropist George Soros, a Brazilian oil company and the BP oil disaster. I asked John Hamilton to explain this.
JOHN HAMILTON: Well, I first met Byron Williams in the Santa Rita Jail in Alameda County, just outside of Oakland, back in August. Byron Williams is a man who believes that shadowy players are behind the Obama administration. In particular, he has a hatred for George Soros, the billionaire financier and philanthropist who funds a lot of liberal organizations. And not coincidentally, he is a frequent whipping boy on Fox News, and in particular on the Glenn Beck program.
Byron believes in a conspiracy theory, partly posited by Glenn Beck, that George Soros was responsible for the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico and that he was profiting from this oil disaster through his investments in Petrobras, which is a Brazilian oil company. And the theory goes something like, George Soros got the Obama administration, through the Center for American Progress, to declare a deepwater oil drilling moratorium in the United States, thereby elevating the value of Soros’s investments in Brazilian oil.
Of course, this theory is widely discredited. We debunk it thoroughly in my article at MediaMatters.org. And interestingly, at the time that Soros was said to have been profiting, he divested his $900 million in shares, in the second quarter of 2010, at a time, as BusinessWeek put it, that Petrobras was — its stock was falling as a result of the BP oil spill. Never mind that it wasn’t true. In Byron Williams’s mind, it was true. And he was so incensed, as he put it, by seeing the images of oil-soaked pelicans on the TV, and his belief that this disaster was started by Soros, who was profiting from it, while Americans workers, unemployed people, such as himself, were getting screwed, as Glenn Beck put it, that it inspired him to take action.
AMY GOODMAN: Did he say who he was attempting to kill, that he was attempting to kill someone?
JOHN HAMILTON: Right, well, what we have is the police affidavit, which, you know, according to the police, his stated goal was to travel to San Francisco to start the revolution by killing persons of importance at the Tides Foundation and the ACLU. There was one other interview with the San Francisco Examiner that Byron Williams did from jail. In that interview, the reporter Ed Walsh presses him on this issue. And at one point, Williams says "retribution was called for" by taking out eleven people at the Tides Foundation.
BYRON WILLIAMS: Retribution was called for with the Tides, or anybody working for George Soros, by taking out eleven people.
JOHN HAMILTON: Eleven people being the number of people killed on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig.
AMY GOODMAN: He believed that the Obama administration had hired Halliburton to blow up the BP oil well?
JOHN HAMILTON: Yes, and I think this theory that Byron Williams has is a composite of two different media players. Another person who he admires greatly is Alex Jones, who is sort of a fringe right-wing conspiracy theorist who believes that the 9/11 attacks were, you know, contracted by the government. He talks about the New World Order and black helicopters and these sorts of things. And Alex Jones originally spun this tale that somehow — that Halliburton had blown up the BP oil rig. Glenn Beck never said that. In fact, he was careful in one of his episodes to say, “I’m not saying that Soros was behind the oil spill itself. I’m saying that he’s profiting from it, and the response from it is leading to things like cap-and-trade legislation.” But he also — there’s one moment — and I think people should go to the Media Matters site and look at the moment — where he sort of gives a nod and a wink to the conspiracy theorists.
GLENN BECK: George Soros starts the Center for American Progress with John Podesta. John Podesta’s Center for American Progress selects the Obama transition team. Soros buys $900 million in gasoline-powered bras. Then, in a completely unrelated story, BP has their oil spill.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Glenn Beck talking about the oil spill and how, what — he says that Petrobras — that’s a Brazilian gas company — benefited, and the Obama administration had invested in Petrobras.
JOHN HAMILTON: Right. And, of course, you know —
AMY GOODMAN: He says.
JOHN HAMILTON: Yes. And, of course, you know, we spend some time in the article discussing — the Obama administration had nothing to do with it. There was a $2 billion loan from the Export-Import Bank of America, which was headed at the time by Bush appointees. It came months, and not weeks, after Soros had decreased his investments, not increased them, as Glenn Beck posited in those June of 2010 programs. And, of course, you know, all of this is kind of a moot point, because, again, Soros divested from his Petrobras holdings.
But, you know, Byron Williams picked up on this, and he repeatedly told me throughout my interviews, “You need to go back and watch Glenn Beck’s episodes, June of 2010. He’s exposing the most hideous corruption.”
BYRON WILLIAMS: I would have never started watching Fox News if it wasn’t for the fact that Beck was on there. And it was the things that he did, it was the things he exposed, that blew my mind. I said, "Well, nobody does this." Beck will never say anything about a conspiracy, will never advocate violence. He’ll never do anything of this nature. But he’ll give you every ounce of evidence that you could possibly need. Go look at all the stuff that you’ll find. I would suggest you go back and see, try to find the videos about — all the June videos.
JOHN HAMILTON: I mean, clearly, here’s a man who believes in some fringe conspiracy theories, and then he turns on Glenn Beck and, in his mind, he’s — they’re being validated.
AMY GOODMAN: John Hamilton, he’s is in prison.
JOHN HAMILTON: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: He’s in the Santa Rita Prison.
JOHN HAMILTON: He’s in jail.
AMY GOODMAN: You say three strikes.
JOHN HAMILTON: Yes, he’s pleading not guilty.
AMY GOODMAN: And he was in jail previously. He was imprisoned. He was convicted of bank robbery.
JOHN HAMILTON: Yeah, he has two major offenses, two strikes against him, for bank robbery convictions, a long rap sheet.
AMY GOODMAN: Why don’t you present the next clip of Byron Williams himself, what you felt is most significant? And by the way, how did you record him in the jail?
JOHN HAMILTON: Well, I had a small tape recorder, which I held to the receiver of the telephone, which I was able to get in.
AMY GOODMAN: So, why don’t you introduce this clip?
JOHN HAMILTON: I think this is one of the most important points, that, no, Glenn Beck doesn’t advocate explicitly for violence, but in Byron Williams’s mind, Glenn Beck gives you every ounce of evidence that you could possibly need.
BYRON WILLIAMS: You know, I’ll tell you. Beck is going to deny everything about violent approach, deny everything about conspiracies, but he’ll give you every reason to believe in it. He is protecting himself, and you can’t blame him for that. So, I understand what he’s doing.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Byron Williams, recorded by you in the Santa Rita Jail. Go on with what he’s saying.
JOHN HAMILTON: I think Dana Milbank of the Washington Post put it best. He has a compendium of Glenn Beck quotes. Here is some of the rhetoric that you’ll hear on Glenn Beck’s radio program or see on his TV show: “The war is just beginning," "Shoot me in the head if they try to change our government," "You have to be prepared to take rocks to the head," "The other side is attacking," "There is a coup going on," "Grab a torch," "Drive a stake through the heart of the bloodsuckers," "They are taking you to a place to be slaughtered.” I mean, these are quotes, and I could go on. I mean, there’s any number of these from Glenn Beck.
So, I think we have to ask ourselves, if this is the level of discourse on the Glenn Beck program, and if the statements about, for example, George Soros, you know, starting the Tides Foundation thirty-five years ago, which wasn’t the case, or that he’s laundering money through “his” Tides Foundation, when he’s given less than five percent of the funds, of the foundation’s total funding, those two things in tandem beg the question, does Glenn Beck bear culpability for the actions of his audience?
AMY GOODMAN: The issue of Glenn Beck and violence and the other things that he has said or the images of pouring gasoline on someone on the show?
JOHN HAMILTON: Right. Well, we titled the piece “Progressive Hunter,” and that’s taken from a line that Glenn Beck used on one of his programs. And he said, “’Til the day I die, I’m going to be a progressive hunter.” He said he was going to be like "the Israeli Nazi hunters." “I’m going to find these big progressives, and 'til the day I die, I’m going to be a progressive hunter. I'm going to find these people that have done this to our country and expose them.”
Now, he says he’s going to expose them. He’s not advocating violence. But when you liken liberals and progressives in America to Nazis and saying you’re going after them like an Israeli Nazi hunter, when you raise your level of rhetoric to that point, and you have an audience like Byron — people like Byron Williams are watching this — it’s unsurprising that we get these incidents.
And it’s not the only one. And we have a sidebar to the piece. We document other cases of right-wing vigilantes, militia groups, militia members, who pick up on the talking points that they hear on Fox News programs and cite them as reasons for their exteme behavior — people like Richard Poplawski, who was a Pittsburgh resident, who opened fire on three Pittsburgh police officers. He, like Byron Williams, was a fan of Alex Jones. He believed the Obama administration was coming for his guns. And also like Byron Williams, he was also a fan of Glenn Beck. He, Poplawski, you know, the Pittsburgh police shooter, posted to a neo-Nazi website called Stormfront a video in which Glenn Beck and Libertarian Congressman Ron Paul discuss the possibility that their — that the government is setting up FEMA concentration camps. Glenn Beck says, “It’s probably not true, but we can’t debunk it. If this were true, that would be bad.” And he promised to debunk it. Weeks went by before he finally aired an episode where he said that there were no FEMA concentration camps. So, again, it’s this sort of nod and a wink to the fringe conspiracy theorists that routinely makes it on to Glenn Beck’s programming, that’s taken up by these vigilantes.
AMY GOODMAN: John Hamilton, how does Michael Savage fit into this picture?
JOHN HAMILTON: Right. Well, Michael Savage was another influence on Byron Williams. In fact, when I first arrived in Groveland, before I even met Byron’s mother Janice, I spoke to a neighbor, Tom Funk, who described what happened on the night of — on election night in 2008.
TOM FUNK: He was yelling at the top of his lungs, just mad, and then he would turn on Michael Savage. And it seemed like he had a AM PA system, because it was just blaring.
JOHN HAMILTON: He would turn on Michael Savage?
TOM FUNK: Savage, yeah.
JOHN HAMILTON: Oh, really? So you would hear Michael Savage, the radio host?
TOM FUNK: The radio host, yeah. And he would have it on — I don’t know what kind of speaker system he had, but AM radios don’t really go that loud.
JOHN HAMILTON: So that was Tom Funk, one of the neighbors of Byron Williams, and again, talking about what happened on election night 2008, around that time. If you were listening, you would have heard Michael Savage warning of the potential for a bloodbath, if our worst fears are realized, in reference to if we elect Barack Obama president.
MICHAEL SAVAGE: I would like to open the next hour talking with you about the next phase of this bloodbath coming to America, should your worst fears be realized. I hope you’ll be here for us, because I know millions are advising themselves to listen.
JOHN HAMILTON: So, again, this was sort of the right-wing echo chamber that Byron Williams lived in. These were his media sources of inspiration.
AMY GOODMAN: So, John Hamilton, you have this guy, who has been in prison a number of times. This is his third strike, which could mean he’s in prison for the rest of his life, in jail most recently for bank robbery, violent man.
JOHN HAMILTON: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you really hold Glenn Beck, Michael Savage, responsible for this man’s violent actions, who was violent way back?
JOHN HAMILTON: Right. Well, I think we have to ask ourselves that. And again, I think we need to return to the — to two major points here. One, many of the conspiracy theories and the conspiracism that you find on Glenn Beck’s program is simply not true. It’s easily refuted. At Media Matters, you have teams of researchers every day debunking many of the things that Glenn Beck says. And, for example, the Petrobras conspiracy theory, the idea that George Soros was profiting from the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico simply wasn’t true. When you couple that with the demonization of people like Soros, who when Glenn Beck talks about him, he compares him to a gangster, he affects his accent, he’s even insulted the man’s nose hair — I mean, he says that he’s trying to bring — sometimes he says socialism, sometimes he says fascism, to the United States.
GLENN BECK: How about Tides? How about indoctrination? Forget God, it’s “In George Soros, we trust.” Oh, he’s going to get his. He is going to get his.
JOHN HAMILTON: So, when you couple the mistruths with the demonization, I think it is time that we ask ourselves, do these media figures, do these demagogues, bear some responsibility for the actions of their audience?
AMY GOODMAN: John Hamilton is author of the piece "Progressive Hunter." It’s at Media Matters, and we’ll link to it here at Democracy Now!