A Year After Deadly Rally, Where Does 'Alt-Right' Cause Stand?

Aug 9, 2018
Originally published on August 9, 2018 11:39 am
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OK. We are approaching the anniversary of the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va. And we're going to take stock now on where the "alt-right" movement stands a year later. The "alt-right" was a term that surfaced leading up to the 2016 election to describe this vast and complicated mix of far-right groups, including those with white supremacist, nativist, anti-Muslim or anti-Semitic views.

Joining me now is NPR's Kirk Siegler. He is based here in LA, and he has been tracking this movement. Hi there, Kirk.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So what should we know about the movement here in the summer of 2018?

SIEGLER: Well, one year later, I mean, I think the early consensus is that this movement is still rather strong, and online recruitment is also strong. And this is according to a lot of sources I've been speaking with who monitor domestic extremism and hate groups. But you know, there's also some splintering going on among these groups, which is not necessarily surprising after Charlottesville. And you know, as you mentioned there in your lead, it was never really one firm, cohesive thing, this sort of far-right extremist movement.

GREENE: So what do you mean by not cohesive and splintering?

SIEGLER: Well, you remember - in Charlottesville, if we go back just for a second, you had hundreds of men who were out in the open brandishing neo-Nazi, white supremacist symbols. And now some of them are in legal trouble. The others were said to have returned home to their communities, where they were ostracized. And so there's this division on where this movement, if you will, should go next. And at the same time, a year later, we're seeing this rise in other far-right groups who are not as closely aligned to white nationalism. And you know, I think that's further complicating things.

GREENE: Well, I know you spent some time with some of these groups you're talking about in the Pacific Northwest. And we're going to listen to your reporting, so set it up for me.

SIEGLER: That's right. So I was in Portland this past weekend, where there was a rally held by two groups that have really been a growing presence on the far-right scene since Charlottesville, especially here on the West Coast. These are the Proud Boys. These are self-described Western chauvinists. That's the West, not the Western U.S.

GREENE: Western because some of these groups say that their agenda is to protect Western culture. I mean, that's the way they put it.

SIEGLER: Exactly. That's Proud Boys. And the other one is Patriot Prayer. And these groups in particular, their sort of preferred venues are college campuses and liberal cities. And that's why Portland, Ore., was in the spotlight. So let's hear from that now.


SIEGLER: Mostly young men dressed in paramilitary-style fatigues and black motorcycle helmets or khakis with red pro-Trump ball caps are squaring off with a crowd of counterprotesters.


SIEGLER: Proud Boys, like this man Travis, who refuses to give his last name, say they've shown up to protect their free speech rights.

TRAVIS: We're not here to cause issues. We're not here to start the violence. But we damn will sure finish it.

SIEGLER: And most don't elaborate on what the specific political issues are that they support. Another guy initially agrees to talk to me with this blunt caveat.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: And I'll listen in. And if it streams, I'm going to find you and call your ass out. If you screen it and it doesn't sound anything like what I said, I will find you and call you out.

SIEGLER: As is often the case, the Portland rally ends in dramatic fashion, with scuffles with anti-fascist counterprotesters and police firing tear gas into the angry crowd trying to disperse it.


SIEGLER: And there were hundreds of people here for this protest. Yet there were hundreds of thousands more people in this metro area who ignored it all. And as usual, a lot of TV cameras and streaming cellphones were trained on the organizer Joey Gibson, the founder of Patriot Prayer.

JOEY GIBSON: And if you look all over the news, you'll see news coverage about my campaign.

SIEGLER: Gibson ran for the U.S. Senate in Washington state as a Republican. He lost in the primary this week handily, but that may be beside the point.

GIBSON: And one of the things that I learned from Trump is he knows how to troll the left. OK? He knows how to troll the media.

SIEGLER: Watching all of this, it can, at times, seem like someone's Twitter feed or online chatroom that's being acted out in real life. And that's by design, says Randy Blazak. He's an expert in far-right extremism at the University of Oregon.

RANDY BLAZAK: They're not really a movement in the traditional sense that they have a cohesive political platform and kind of an endgame. It's more about the agitation and creating the conflict that creates a space for them.

SIEGLER: Blazak, who also chairs the Oregon Coalition Against Hate Crime, says this has been a powerful recruiting tool for the far-right, especially after Charlottesville.

BLAZAK: Gibson is very charismatic. He knows how to give a good speech. He himself is not a white person. He's a biracial person and can help broaden their message by playing that role of not being your grandfather's white supremacist movement.

SIEGLER: This also represents a division that's emerged after Charlottesville, says George Selim of the Anti-Defamation League's Center on Extremism. He says there's a lot of debate online among hard-line activists about whether they should stick to overtly white nationalist themes going forward.

GEORGE SELIM: You know, how they want to represent themselves - is it with Nazi-like symbolism or imagery, or is it in polo shirts and khakis that's ensconced in kind of white supremacist ideology that could be more palatable to the American public?

SIEGLER: In the Northwest anyway, which is largely white and has a long history of anti-government extremism, it's clear that at least some of these far-right activists see themselves as being on the front line of a culture war over the future of this country.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.


SIEGLER: Kathryn Townsend drove down to Portland from her home in Gig Harbor, Wash. She says liberal politicians are mischaracterizing the movement. It's libertarian more than anything else, she says - and not racist.

KATHRYN TOWNSEND: My daughter is half Spanish. I'm 65. If I had any white supremacist tendencies or experience, it would have showed up before now.

GREENE: One of the voices there in a story from NPR's Kirk Siegler who is in our studio still with us. Kirk, that woman there saying she's not white supremacist, not racist. I mean, these groups - it sounds like many of them don't know exactly how to identify themselves. So it does sound like this is a splintered movement. And yet, there's going to be this "Unite The Right" rally in Washington, D.C., coming up. So what should we make of all this?

SIEGLER: Well, exactly. It's hard to tell exactly even just from hearing them. But I should say, one of the reasons we did the story featuring the Proud Boys - the Proud Boys traditionally distanced themselves from white supremacists and disavowed Charlottesville altogether, though, David, I have been seeing some traffic online with some of the activists pressuring the Proud Boys to come to the rally. You know, the one thing that's clear is it's going to be tense. There's going to be a lot of security. The white supremacists, organizers of this thing - so it's going to be tense. There are state of emergencies declared in Charlottesville. We really don't exactly know what might happen. But I keep saying tense, and I think that's it. And I think there are a lot of questions right now.

GREENE: All right, talking there about the one-year anniversary of Charlottesville this weekend when there are "Unite The Right" rallies being planned in Washington, D.C. NPR's Kirk Siegler talking about this movement. He's been tracking it. Kirk, thanks.

SIEGLER: Thank you.

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