Tracking the Shifting Shape of Far-Right Political Violence

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The 13 men arrested last week for plotting to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer had discussed murdering “tyrants” and trying Whitmer for “treason,” according to court documents. Under the auspices of two self-declared militia groups, they surveilled the governor’s vacation home and had plans to set off a bomb to misdirect law enforcement and to storm the Michigan statehouse, killing police officers and other officials. They face a host of terrorism, conspiracy and weapons charges. 

The thwarted plot now stands as the most high-profile example of political violence enacted or planned by right-wing and anti-government actors this year. But it’s unlikely to be the last, say researchers who study right-wing extremism. 

“I think the violence will be getting worse,” said Alexander Reid Ross, an adjunct professor of geography at Portland State University.

Ross, who holds fellowships at the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right and Political Research Associates, has been tracking and mapping incidents of harassment, intimidation, and violence involving what he describes as right-wing protesters, counter-protesters, militias and vigilantes since the Minneapolis killing of George Floyd on May 25. He has collected nearly 800 incidents, most of which occurred at demonstrations against racism and police violence, though they also include some other hate-related activities that occurred in the same time period. Some have resulted in injury and death: One prominent example is Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year-old Illinois man who shot three people during unrest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in August, killing two. 

Ross’s teaching focuses on climate change and resource conflicts; he has also written extensively about fascist politics through a left-wing lens. He does not claim that his dataset is a comprehensive account of all the politically motivated violence that has swept the U.S. this summer: He’s focused specifically on threats and acts of violence perpetrated by far-right actors. About 90% of the data comes from social media posts as well as news outlets and other websites where he has actively searched for information. The rest comes from data gathered by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), a global, non-partisan crisis monitoring nonprofit that uses a network of sources to track political violence and demonstrations.

In trying to paint a picture of what he calls right-wing vigilantism, Ross uses a broad brush: Incidents in the dataset include the noose found inside a vehicle owned by an interracial couple involved in Black Lives Matter actions in Michigan, and three men who self-identified as part of the far-right “Boogaloo” movement arrested for plotting to terrorize protests in Las Vegas. Two other examples are the three protesters who were injured by a man who drove his vehicle through a demonstration in Portland, Oregon, in June, and the man on a cross-country protest walk who was shot by local residents near Johnstown, Pennsylvania, in August.

To understand the varying forms that this terrorism and vigilantism takes, Ross sorted the data into several categories. Of the 770 incidents in his database, he classified 409 as extreme enough to go beyond harassment and intimidation. The chart below shows a breakdown of what they these more serious incidents involved, from car attacks to physical attacks to chambered rounds and pointed guns to shootings where people were physically struck. 

(A note on methodology: Ross tracked a total of 723 events since May 27, 2020. Some of these led to several incidents — for example, one event can lead to one car attack and two assaults — giving a total of 770 incidents. Out of these 770, 361 were classified as general intimidation or threats. Shooting incidents were dismissed from other gun-related categories to avoid double-counting.)

Ross has found that the sheer number of vigilante-style acts and threats he has been tracking has fallen substantially since mid-summer, as racial justice demonstrations have become more infrequent. But a rising share of incidents involve guns and violence like vehicle attacks.

For example, from October 4-11, Ross tracked only ten incidents involving right-wing counter-protests and hate-related actions in public settings, a fraction of the number that he counted in any given week in June. But three involved guns and four of them led to violence, including a paintball attack from a parking garage in Portland, a fatal shooting at a racial justice protest in Denver, and a physical altercation in Bakersfield, California, that appeared to start after a protester touched a dog.

Two of last week’s incidents that did not involve guns or violence were the foiled kidnapping plot in Michigan and a plan in Minnesota by a private security firm to send former special ops personnel to polling sites on the day of the Nov. 3 presidential election.

The trend leads him and others in his research milieu to anticipate a more serious degree of violence in the days leading up to the election, even as the overall number of incidents dwindle. Some of the energies of would-be vigilantes may be getting diverted into caravans and rallies in support of President Trump, Ross said, pushing more extremist elements in the movement to intensify their actions.

“I think there will be more plans for targeted bombings, kidnappings, and assassinations by these groups, even as interactions with left-wing protesters decline,” he said.

Others in the extremism research community share that concern. Roudabeh Kishi, the research director at ACLED, spoke highly of Ross’s work and said that ACLED is interested in incorporating his findings into its U.S. Crisis Monitor project, which has been tracking political violence and demonstrations since late May. “Generally speaking, the conclusions he’s come to jibe with our data,” she said.

Heidi Beirich, co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism and the former director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project, also praised Ross’s research and agreed with his assessment that the rate of right-wing political violence will continue to rise against a decreasing number of overall incidents. She cited President Trump’s comments in the last presidential debate that neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups such as the Proud Boys should “stand back and stand by,” boosting the profile of those groups. 

“The people who are talking about this issue now are harder-core than people who were even a month ago, which does not portend well for what we’re about to face,” Beirich said. “I sadly don’t think we’ll get through Nov. 3 without at least one major lone wolf attack.”

During the debate, Trump also said that politically motivated violence was “not a right-wing issue.” Most prominently, Michael Reinoehl, a self-declared antifa protester, fatally shot a man affiliated with a right-wing group called Patriot Prayer. This occurred at a protest in Portland that saw the president’s supporters shooting paintballs and pepper spray from the backs of pickup trucks. 

However, several analyses by academics, government agencies and media have found that violence by right-wing groups poses a far greater threat. A June review by the think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies, for example, found that left-wing violence had resulted in the deaths of 22 people in the U.S. since 1994, compared to 335 victims of right-wing violence and 5 victims of ethnonationalist violence. A Government Accountability Office report from 2017 drew parallel conclusions, stating that 73% of the fatalities caused by domestic extremist violence since Sept. 12, 2001 were connected to “far right wing violent extremist groups.” Radical Islamist groups were responsible for the remaining 27%. “There were no attacks since 1990 by persons associated with extreme leftist ideologies that resulted in fatalities to non-perpetrators,” the GAO concluded in 2017. 

While antifa groups have engaged in property destruction and violence, Ross does not track threats or violent incidents associated with left-wing actors in his database; he said that such violence has been statistically insignificant in racial justice demonstrations where protesters are unprovoked. He pointed to an ACLED study that found that nearly 95% of the 10,600 anti-racism protests held in U.S. since the killing of George Floyd have been peaceful.

Despite the Trump Administration’s rhetoric on antifa and “anarchist jurisdictions,” federal law enforcement agencies appear to largely agree with that assessment. In a September congressional hearing, FBI Director Christopher Wray said the largest “chunk” of his agency’s investigations into violent domestic extremists concerned white supremacist groups, concurring with a leaked September draft of a Department of Homeland Security threat assessment. Other DHS and FBI memos have since stated that such threats will likely increase in the days ahead of Nov. 3.

Some voting experts and political analysts also worry about a protracted period of political unrest and violence following the election if the results are disputed. Trump has refused to commit to a peaceful transition of power, and in August called for law enforcement to monitor voting sites. His son, Donald Trump Jr., recently called for “an army” of the president’s supporters to “protect ballots” at the polls.

As further evidence of violence that may be to come, Beirich pointed to the spate of politically motivated hate crimes and related acts of right-wing violence in the days leading up to the 2018 midterm elections, which included a mass shooting in a Pittsburgh synagogue, a fatal attack on a Tallahassee yoga studio, an attempted attack on a Black church in Louisville that ended in a fatal shooting inside a Kroger grocery store, and pipe bombs mailed to dozens of prominent Democratic politicians and donors. 

“I think that’s what we’re facing here,” she said. “And I think it’ll get uglier.”

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