The SPLC’S Report on Anti-Government Extremism – Interview Part 2

11 mins read

In the wake of the January 6 insurrection, the Southern Poverty Law Center put out a three-part report about anti-government extremism, studying how specific elements like the pandemic, election disinformation, and the Black Lives Matter protests may have led to the events at the Capitol. 

The report was released concurrently with the SPLC’s “Year in Hate and Extremism,” an annual review tracking the activity and growth of white nationalist groups in the United States.

Stephan Cox, host of the Washington State Indivisible Podcast, sat down recently with Kate Bitz, a program manager with the Western State Center, an affiliate of the Southern Poverty Law Center, to discuss the reports and what they may indicate for a post-Trump America. Following up on yesterday’s publication of the first part of the interview, today we present the second half.

Stephan Cox: I will just mention that Indivisible is pushing very hard for both HR 1, the For People Act, and also the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. As you study voter suppression, do you think of any historical precedent that matches or, as Mark Twain would say, “rhymes” with where we’re at right now?

Kate Bitz: Yes. I know that a lot of people look to 20th-century Europe and see similarities there. But the closest historical precedent to what we’re seeing right now is something that happened in our own country in the post-Reconstruction era. Black Reconstruction [in America, 1860-1880] by W.E.B. DuBois is the most current book that you can read that was written over one hundred years ago. We have already seen successful mass voter suppression in this country in conjunction with a social movement seeking to overthrow multiracial democracy and restore white dominance. That was in the 1880s and 1890s. I really encourage everyone to read up on the Wilmington Coup of 1898. You can find a lot of parallels there to the storming of the Capitol.

SC: It seems like white nationalism may ebb in this country but it doesn’t ever go away. Why do you think that is?

KB: We’re a country that has always espoused very high-minded democratic ideals. Many people have come to the United States looking to make democracy a reality. But this country was also founded on stolen land, on genocide, and on enslavement. Our movements for justice have always been there, but we’ve had to work very hard against the status quo to expand our idea of inclusive democracy. So I can’t feel personally shocked that white nationalist movements continue to organize, that they’re trying to roll back the gains we made during the civil rights era, and that there are still people trying to turn our country into a white ethno state. The only thing that can blunt the impact of white nationalist organizing is to build a strong, equitable, and inclusive democracy. That’s a long-term project. 

SC: One thing that stuck out to me in the SPLC report was a decline in hate groups over the past two years. Did these groups consolidate? Did fewer groups just become more active? 

KB: We should put that statistic in context. SPLC counted eleven percent fewer hate groups in 2020 as compared to the last three years. However, we’re still at historic highs. We’re not seeing a major decline from the historic high of the past three years. But these numbers also tell us a lot about the recent history of far-right organizing. Just before the Unite the Right rally in 2017, hate groups were organizing very openly, calling themselves the new alt-right. Heather Heyer’s murder at that rally made it very clear who those groups really were and how harmful and violent their ideology is. That’s when we started to see a lot of community pushback. A lot of white nationalist groups at least temporarily disbanded under that pressure in 2017. Since then you’ve seen a rise in decentralized cell-based organizing that is aimed less at influencing politics and more at organizing intimidation and violence in our communities. This is where you start to see really awful things happen, when people are convinced that there isn’t a way to use politics to further their goals, and so they go out and commit a mass shooting. 

SC: What are some of the groups and movements that you are tracking that we should be most concerned with here in the Pacific Northwest?

KB: The Pacific Northwest has been a very contested terrain historically. Hate groups often find a foothold here. In part this is because of our demographics. Oregon was explicitly founded to exclude Black settlement. At the time this was described as an anti-slavery measure, but the effect is that we are one of the whitest regions in the country. This is a place where hate groups can organize and recruit. Some of them have occasionally announced an ambition to turn this part of the United States into a breakaway state, a white homeland called “Liberty.” Every town is going to be a little bit different in terms of who is organizing there and who is of most concern. My advice for community groups is to keep an eye out for groups that appear to be gaining political power or access to local elected officials. 

SC: Do you see January 6 as the culmination of anti-government extremism activity, or do you see this more as a spark point or beginning?

KB: It’s hard to say that it is really one or the other. It probably does mark for some of these groups a shift in who they’re willing to work with and how public facing they’re willing to be. But despite the fact that they all showed up together on January 6, they’re not all going to have the same reaction to or interpretation of that event. We may see more fracturing from here forward. For example, we’ve seen some QAnon believers claiming that Trump is about to take back power and that Biden’s inauguration was staged. On the other hand, certain factions of the Proud Boys are saying that Trump has served his purpose and is no longer useful for their movement. One thing that I can definitely say is that Trump’s acquittal from impeachment in the Senate is a signal of a lack of accountability: not just for the former president, but for these groups who have seen him as their leader. 

SC: What are some of the things that the Southern Poverty Law Center recommends that we do to fight back against these hate groups and anti-government extremists?

KB: First there are things we should not do. There’s been a lot of discussion about creating a new domestic terrorism statute, or a listing of designated domestic terrorist organizations. That’s a really shortsighted idea. It would adversely impact our civil liberties as Americans. It could be used to expand racial profiling, or be wielded to surveil and investigate communities of color and political opponents in the name of national security. Let’s not go that route. The same goes for programs countering violent extremism. We have over a decade of data on these programs showing that they really are not effective and that they tend to target immigrants, Muslims, and Black Americans.

This is part of the reason why a big focus at Western State Center is working with communities. The problem of anti-government extremism and white nationalism is not a law enforcement problem. It’s a problem for all of us. So, for example, we work pretty closely with educators. We have a tool kit on confronting white nationalism in schools, we’ve hosted trainings for educators to learn more about protecting young people from getting involved with these harmful groups, and we’ve just released a conversation guide for parents and caregivers on how they can talk to their kids about this. 

It’s so exciting to see grassroots groups working on protecting voting rights, increasing civic engagement by dismantling voter suppression, and helping people hold their elected officials accountable. We can make sure that power stays where it belongs: in the hands of the majority of Americans who want a strong inclusive democracy. The same is true of the strong movement for racial justice and decarceration that’s taking shape in our country. All of the work that folks within Indivisible are doing to meet those goals makes my job a lot easier. 

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We invite you to watch or listen to the full interview.

DemCast is an advocacy-based 501(c)4 nonprofit. We have made the decision to build a media site free of outside influence. There are no ads. We do not get paid for clicks. If you appreciate our content, please consider a small monthly donation.

Stephan Cox is a public radio and broadcasting veteran who has helmed shows for PRI, and KUSF, and has reported for NPR. He is the host of the Washington State Indivisible Podcast.

Cynthia Eller is a writer based in Los Angeles. She's really eager for term limits in Congress and ditching the filibuster.

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