- Mark Potokdirector of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Less than a week after Attorney General Eric Holder revived a task force to look at domestic terrorists, a married couple aligned with the anti-government Patriot movement shot dead two Las Vegas police officers, killed a civilian bystander, and then turned their guns on themselves. Jerad and Amanda Miller had recently spent time at the ranch of Cliven Bundy during his standoff with the federal government. Police say they proclaimed “the beginning of the revolution” and laid an American Revolutionary flag and a swastika symbol on the dead officers’ bodies. The Las Vegas shooting came just two days after a man tied to the “sovereign citizen” movement attacked a Georgia courthouse, throwing smoke bombs and shooting a sheriff’s deputy, who returned fire and killed him. Authorities say the shooter, Dennis Marx, had homemade explosives, and food and water, suggesting he planned to take hostages. Holder’s decision to revive the domestic terror unit comes five years after Republican outrage led the Obama administration to withdraw a key report on the resurgence of the radical right wing. We are joined by Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors U.S. hate groups and extremists. “The [right-wing militia] movement is on fire at the moment, and it may get worse before it gets better,” Potok says.
AARON MATÉ: A candlelight vigil was held outside of a Las Vegas pizza restaurant last night where two city police officers were shot dead on Sunday. The shootings were carried out by a husband and wife who had long spouted right-wing anti-government views online. According to police, Jerad and Amanda Miller shot the officers at point-blank range. They took their weapons and ammunition and covered the bodies with a flag reading “Don’t tread on me.” The flag’s design dates back to the Revolutionary War, but more recently has been associated with the American tea party movement and “Patriot” groups. The Millers also reportedly pinned a note on one officer’s body saying, quote, “This is the beginning of the revolution.” The couple then fled to a Wal-Mart, where they killed a third person. After a shootout with police, Amanda Miller reportedly shot dead her husband and then turned the gun on herself. Kevin McMahill is assistant sheriff in Clark County, Las Vegas.
ASSISTANT SHERIFF KEVIN McMAHILL: We’re trying to make a determination what it is that could have been the motive, what was the motivation behind their targeting police officers and walking in with no warning and executing our officers. I can tell you that there is no doubt that the suspects have some apparent ideology that’s along the lines of militia and white supremacists.
AMY GOODMAN: On June 7th, one day before the shooting, Jerad Miller wrote on Facebook, “The dawn of a new day. May all of our coming sacrifices be worth it.” Five days earlier, he wrote on Facebook, “We can hope for peace. We must, however, prepare for war… To stop this oppression, I fear, can only be accomplished with bloodshed,” he wrote. Both Jerad and Amanda had recently spent time at Cliven Bundy’s Nevada ranch during a recent standoff there between armed militia members and federal agents. In April, Miller was interviewed by Reno NBC affiliate KRNV at the ranch.
JERAD MILLER: I feel sorry for any federal agents that want to come in here and try to push us around or anything like that. I really don’t want violence toward them, but if they’re going to come bring violence to us, well, if that’s the language they want to speak, we’ll learn it.
AMY GOODMAN: The shooting in Las Vegas came just two days after a man in Georgia attempted to attack the Forsyth County Courthouse. Dennis Marx, a former TSA employee with ties to the “sovereign citizen” movement, allegedly attacked the courthouse on Friday, throwing smoke bombs and shooting a sheriff’s deputy, who returned fire and killed him. Authorities say Marx had homemade explosives and food and water, suggesting he planned to take hostages.
To talk more about these cases, we’re joined by Mark Potok, director of Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center. He’s joining us from Montgomery, Alabama.
Mark, welcome back to Democracy Now! First talk about what happened in Las Vegas, the killing of the police officers, laying a swastika on them and the “Don’t tread on me” flag. Who are the Millers?
MARK POTOK: Well, looking at their postings, actually, I don’t think there’s much white supremacy there. I don’t see that at all, actually. The swastika, I think, clearly was saying the police are Nazis. He posted, Jerad Miller, quite a lot about liberty, freedom, the need to rise up, his willingness to become a martyr and so on. But he very rarely got into the details of his ideology. He was clearly part of the Patriot movement. The one thing he really talked about a lot was guns. And that, of course, is a central concern for the Patriot movement. At one point, he talked about, you know, if you even disagree that the Second Amendment should be interpreted in such a way, in a very liberal way, in terms of gun ownership, then you should be hung from a lamppost, if you don’t leave the country. So that seemed to be really the central idea.
I think that the Bundy standoff was incredibly important in terms of the Patriot movement, and very likely for the Millers, as well. I think there are tens of thousands of people around the country associated generally with the Patriot movement who saw this as a huge victory. After all, the federal law enforcement officials backed off. They simply backed away when all those people at the Bundy ranch pointed their weapons at them, and let Cliven Bundy’s cattle go. So, you know, this was seen as a great victory, and very possibly, it seems to me, for the Millers, it was a victory that signaled the beginning of a war, and seems to have encouraged them to go on and join the battle, essentially.
AARON MATÉ: And, Mark Potok, they were reportedly kicked out of the Cliven Bundy ranch after fellow militia members learned of their past. Do you think there might have been more people like the Millers at the ranch? And did, of course, this whole standoff foster a culture that enabled militants to come and assemble?
MARK POTOK: Yes, I think it enabled them and encouraged them to come and assemble. I think despite what Cliven Bundy has said, the reality is the Bundy family welcomed people from the militias and other organizations like that, armed to the teeth.
You know, to me, the central moment in the Bundy standoff was when you had a dozen or so of these militiamen literally pointing scoped sniper weapons at the heads of law enforcement officials. That’s virtually unprecedented, at least without bloodshed immediately following. And, you know, at the end of the day, I think the government did the right thing to back off, but, my god, it came close to a real bloodbath.
Yes, so, to answer the question, I think there were probably quite a lot of people at the Bundy ranch who really are itching for a fight. People were talking revolution. They were talking bloodshed. They were very well armed. And so I think that the Millers, perhaps, were a little less atypical than is being suggested.
AMY GOODMAN: And then talk about what happened with Dennis Marx in Georgia.
MARK POTOK: Well, Dennis Marx was a man unknown to us until he attacked this Forsyth County Courthouse. From what the police are saying, he’s a self-described sovereign citizen, kind of a subset within the Patriot movement of people who believe the government, the federal government, has no right to impose its laws, its tax laws and so on. Now, you know, I’ve not seen any of the documentation supporting the idea that he is a sovereign citizen. But certainly, he had some kind of political motive. He apparently intended to storm into that courthouse to take hostages. And then, from there, we really don’t know. He was killed. There’s no real manifesto left behind to explain his actions.
But it does seem to be a part of this upsurge we’re seeing by Patriot groups or people on the radical right, in general. You know, there was another very similar case the day before, last Thursday, in, of all places, New Brunswick, Canada, where a Canadian with very extreme ideas about gun ownership, similar to the militias here in the United States, actually murdered three police officers before finally being captured there. So, I think the movement is at least a bit on fire at the moment, and it may get worse before it gets better.
AMY GOODMAN: This is is all in the context, Mark Potok, of the last few weeks, the decision to revive the domestic terror unit within the Justice Department. Can you talk about what that is?
MARK POTOK: Well, this was a unit which was dedicated—which brought people from different agencies together and was dedicated, really, to looking at non-Islamic domestic terrorism—in other words, the kind of terrorism that very much was on the minds of law enforcement after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 and until 9/11. What actually happened was this committee, this executive committee, met regularly for quite a few years and apparently was rather useful, at least in coordinating agencies’ response to this threat, and was scheduled to meet literally on the morning of 9/11, of September 11, 2001. Of course, that was canceled after the al-Qaeda attacks, and the committee never met again. A couple of weeks ago, my boss, the CEO of the Southern Poverty Law Center, actually wrote a column telling this story, and it wasn’t long after that that Attorney General Eric Holder announced the revival, the reformation of this committee. It may even have been a response to Richard Cohen’s column. But in any case, it seems like a good thing. It’s pretty clear—
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, it’s interesting Holder said, “We must also concern ourselves with the continued danger we face from individuals within our own borders who may be motivated by a variety of other causes from anti-government animus to racial prejudice.” Following the announcement, Jerad Miller wrote on his Facebook page, quote, “Well if you have been waiting for the thought police, here they are.”
MARK POTOK: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, this is also very interesting, right, because when this domestic terror—when the government was looking at domestic terrorism at the beginning of the Obama administration, they were forced to withdraw a report on domestic terror—in fact, I think we were talking to you about it back then—because of the response of the right in Congress.
MARK POTOK: Yeah, I’m not sure they were exactly forced to withdraw the report, but they, in my view, in an act of real political cowardice, did withdraw the report, which said nothing untoward, which was very prescient and very accurate in what it said about the resurgence of the radical right in the United States since, essentially, the appearance of Barack Obama on the national political scene. So, yeah, I mean, there has been a kind of taking an eye off the ball of domestic non-Islamic terrorism. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. All the studies by terrorism experts show that in the last few years this kind of terrorism has become more of a threat than at least homegrown jihadist terrorism. And really, in terms of numbers of people killed by various types of terrorists since 9/11, we’ve seen more of that from the domestic radical right. You know, of course, that’s not to minimize jihadists. I mean, after all, 3,000 people died on 9/11.
AARON MATÉ: Mark Potok, is there a tally of how many murders have been linked to white supremacists in the last few years?
MARK POTOK: I’m not sure I could come up with a number like that. You know, I just don’t know off the top of my head, but there have been quite a lot of killings. I think what probably played into Holder’s announcement, as well, was the fairly recent killings of three people at Jewish institutions in Overland Park, Kansas, by a very well-known neo-Nazi guy named Glenn Miller—now the last name is now Cross. So, this has happened repeatedly, particularly since Obama took office. Not long after he took office, I’m sure many of our listeners remember, that a Holocaust museum guard was shot to death by yet another well-known neo-Nazi. There was the attack on the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, in which six Sikhs were murdered. So the list, it just seems to keep going on and on and on. As soon as one starts to forget about one incident, another mass murder comes up.
AARON MATÉ: Well, let’s turn to more comments from Las Vegas shooter Jerad Miller made about Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy earlier this year. In a Facebook post on April 9th, Miller wrote, quote, “I will be supporting Clive Bundy and his family from Federal Government slaughter. This is the next Waco! His ranch is under siege right now! The federal gov is stealing his cattle! Arresting his family and beating on them! We must do something. I will be doing something.” While at the Bundy ranch, Miller interviewed family member Ryan Bundy Let’s go to a clip.
RYAN BUNDY: We’re in Riverside, Nevada, and we are here to stand our ground against the federal government’s tyranny.
JERAD MILLER: OK, and has anything specific happened to you that you would like to talk about real quick?
RYAN BUNDY: Well, me and my family are one and the same. I haven’t had any—too many run-ins besides snipers trained on me and watching my brothers being taken down a time or two. But, you know, the whole issue isn’t about the incidents here. It’s about the reason we’re here altogether.
JERAD MILLER: Exactly. So, you know, what exactly are they doing to your family’s cattle and to the ranch itself?
RYAN BUNDY: Well, they’re destroying the ranch. But more importantly, they’re destroying our rights and our freedoms, our liberties.
AARON MATÉ: That was Jerad Miller interviewing a family member of Cliven Bundy, his son. Shortly afterwards, Miller said on Facebook he and his wife were asked to leave the Bundy ranch because of his criminal past. Mark Potok, there was a huge firestorm around Cliven Bundy, but then, of course, all this right-wing media enthusiasm for him died down after he was recorded making racist comments. But where do things stand now with the Bundy ranch today?
MARK POTOK: Well, I think there’s no question at all—I know there’s no question—that federal authorities are looking at bringing charges, the very serious charges, against many of the people involved. You know, to no one’s surprise, it turns out it’s not legal to threaten law enforcement agents by pointing scoped sniper weapons at them. So, you know, I think that’s what’s happening on the government’s side. I think, very likely, it will be quite a few months before we see real action. I think the government’s going to be a whole lot more careful about the optics of how they go in when they finally do.
But, you know, on the other side of the equation, I think the militia movement is very much hoping, as Miller discussed, that this will be another Waco, in the sense that Waco was really the ignition point for the first big wave of the militia movement in the 1990s. That is the event that brought hundreds of thousands of people into the movement, people who believed the government had essentially murdered the Davidians. So, you know, that is the hope, that the Bundy standoff will somehow ignite the civil war.
AMY GOODMAN: Mark Potok, you mentioned guns, and even Miller was kicked off of the Bundy ranch because, they said, of his criminal past. He went on Facebook, and he asked if he could get a gun, because he couldn’t buy it, and ultimately he could. And I want to go to this issue of guns and the NRA and the laws, the Indiana law that has become a major issue right now. I’m looking at The Week and the headline, “The Indiana Law that Lets Citizens Shoot Cops.” And quoting the beginning, “Police officers in Indiana are speaking out against a new law that gives citizens the right to use deadly force to protect themselves against a public servant who oversteps his authority. Tim Downs, president of the Indiana State Fraternal Order of Police, says the law (signed in March by Gov. Mitch Daniels, but only now getting national attention) might give people the impression that they can shoot police with impunity.” He says, “It’s … a recipe for disaster,” he tells Bloomberg. Can you talk about the significance of this? It’s something that the Millers also celebrated, that if a police officer engages in an unlawful act—let’s say, trespassing on property—that that person can be shot. This was legislation that was supported by the NRA, and when the governor signed off on it, Governor Daniels, he said he had some hesitation about doing it.
MARK POTOK: Well, it’s certainly radical legislation, and it is certainly part of a larger movement. We’ve seen proposals come up in a number of states around the country to, in effect, nullify the authority of federal law enforcement agencies to operate within certain states. So there are proposals that say, you know, if a federal agent, law enforcement agent, is going to come to our state or our county to arrest someone to carry out an investigation, whatever it may be, they must first obtain the permission of the county sheriff—you know, clearly unconstitutional, but also clearly connected to the county supremacy movement of which Cliven Bundy was a part, the idea that only—the county sheriff is the highest legitimate law enforcement authority, that anyone above that level is not legitimate. You know, these ideas all go back to racist groups of the 1970s and 1980s, in particular, the Posse Comitatus, which was—you know, when I say it’s a racist group, it was a violently racist and anti-Semitic group. Many of its leaders talked about, you know, murdering millions of Jews and so on.
In any case, this is very much sweeping the country in various forms and probably pouring yet more fuel on the fire of Patriot hopes, Patriot hopes for a final confrontation. You know, again, I think when you look at the writings of Jerad Miller, the one thing he really does keep coming back to is weapons. He’s angry at the government for various reasons having to do with, you know, he had an arrest for marijuana, he failed a drug screen and was sent back to jail for seven weeks last year, and certainly was angry about that. But really it all came down to his weapons and his inability to own one as a felon.
AMY GOODMAN: Mark Potok, I want to thank you for being with us, director of Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, speaking to us from Montgomery, Alabama. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a moment.