New Wave Of Militancy Brewing Across The U.S.

For nearly a decade, the anti-government militant movement has been relatively off the radar and with dropped numbers during the past presidency of George W. Bush. But a new report indicates a new wave of militant groups is on the rise. Host Michel Martin speaks with Mark Potok, a civil rights expert and director of publications and information for the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., a nonprofit organization that arose from the anti-segregation movement and fights extremism and hate crimes.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

I'm Michel Martin. And this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Just ahead, you talk back to us about our programs this week, about health care, about the British government suspending home rule in the Turks and Caicos Islands. That's Back Talk and it's coming up in just a few minutes.

But first, those anti-government militia groups we used to hear so much about. During the 1990s, they were all over the headlines because of their virulent anti-government rhetoric, their harassment tactic aimed at local officials and their occasional violent clashes with government authorities like at Waco, Texas and Ruby Ridge and finally, of course, the Oklahoma City bombing.

And then they virtually disappeared from public view. But according to a new report, the militia movement is now reemerging across the country. Joining us to talk about this is Mark Potok. He tracks hate groups for the Southern Poverty Law Center, which published the report. Welcome, thank you so much for joining us again.

MARK POTOK: Well, thanks for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: What defines a militia group?

POTOK: Well, essentially these are groups that, as you suggested, have a very extreme anti-government belief. They typically see the government as a sort of agent of the New World Order that the elites who run the government are leading this country into a kind of socialistic one world government in which Americans will lose their rights and liberties. And it's a movement, you know, very animated by conspiracy theories. The idea, for instance, that FEMA has a secret set of concentration camps built around the country, you know, in order to throw good, patriotic Americans and so on.

And, you know, I point out one difference with the militia movement as we're seeing it reemerging right now is that it has become more racialized(ph) than it used to be in the past. And I think the reason for that is primarily that these people see the governments, the federal government, as the primary enemy. And of course, the face of the federal government today is a black one.

MARTIN: So, that's - I want to ask you two questions. First of all, when you say it's become more racialized, I think a lot of us had the impression that these groups always were. So, you're saying it's different now? And also, wanted to ask, how have you determine that they are reemerging? What indicators do you use to track that?

POTOK: Sure. Well, first of all, in the past, the anti - the so- called Patriot Movement, the militia movement of the '90s certainly contained white supremacists. But that was not its dominant ideology. Interestingly enough, many of the conspiracy theories that the militia movement adopted originated in white supremacist groups, but typically had their most over kind of racial anti-Semitic aspects stripped away before they were adopted in the militia movement.

The indicators we're seeing, to kind of answer the second part of your question are, first of all, we found at least 50 new act of militia training groups out there. People actually training in the woods with weapons and so on, preparing to fend off the forces of the New World Order and so on.

We have a lot of reports, a really huge number of reports of so-called sovereign citizens' activity. These are people who are really a part of the larger Patriot or militia movement, but who specifically believe that they don't need to pay any taxes. They are not liable to taxes to the government nor do they have to obey the orders or the laws of the federal government.

And in fact, this has reached such a point that the government late last year set up a special tax to fire initiative to deal with this. We've seen huge numbers, very large numbers of threats directed against judicial officials. The return of sort of so-called paper terrorism, in which some of these people filed falsely or unjustified property leans against their enemies.

And as I suggested early, we've also had a lot of reports from law enforcement agencies that are seeing the same thing around the country. As one official told us, all it lacks is a spark at this moment, a Waco or Ruby Ridge.

MARTIN: So, you're saying - you're saying that these strains were always there. That white supremacy was part of it, but perhaps the focus for others was more, you know, the tax issue or one world or the United Nations or something of that sort.

And now, that there's an African-American president, an African-American attorney general, for example, that - the racialism provides kind of a focus. What do you recommend? I mean, given that, you've been tracking these groups for an awfully long time and, you know, as we know, people have the right to have thoughts that - even if they're unpleasant ones - what do you recommend as a way to address this?

POTOK: Of course, I mean, they're totally protecting their activities generally by the first amendment or the second amendment. It seems to me that there are really two dangers presented by this movement. The one is the danger of criminal violence. We saw - although most Americans don't realize it - really a very large number, 40 or 50 fairly major domestic terrorist squads come essentially out of the militia movement or the radical right of the 1990s. You know, some of these were huge plots. In one case, the murder of 30,000 people in Texas was contemplated by one of these groups' plan, until they were busted.

So, that is a danger that we see more violence and there's a great deal of talk we're seeing it reflected. Somehow these people showing up with guns at town hall meetings and so on. It seems to me that the larger danger, the danger to - the broader danger to us as a society, is that these ideas, this false propaganda, conspiracy theories about the government and others are entering the mainstream political discourse. And I would say, aided and abated by a number of cable television commentators, talk radio hosts, and even certain congressmen, like for instance, Michele Bachmann, who talks about Barack Obama secretly setting up political reeducation camps to which all our children are going to be forced.

MARTIN: Mark Potok, we have to leave it there for now. Let us keep in touch. We appreciate you coming on to talk about this.

POTOK: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Mark Potok is director of the intelligence project at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama, where he joined us by phone. Thank you again.

You can find the report and learn more about the militia groups on the TELL ME MORE page of the new npr.org.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.