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New Frontline Documentary Tracks Rise Of Right-Wing Extremism In U.S.

Rally in Richmond, Virginia. November 21, 2020.
ProPublica/FRONTLINE (PBS)
/
Rally in Richmond, Virginia. November 21, 2020

A new documentary from PBS' Frontline and ProPublica airing on WKAR-TV investigates the rise of extremism and white nationalism in America.

WKAR's Sophia Saliby spoke with Richard Rowley who directed “American Insurrection.”

Interview Highlights

On How Law Enforcement Tracks Radicalization Into These Far-Right Groups

There's a vulnerable population, a population that has, you know, grievances or doubts about the current state of society. Then you have those people can be reached and radicalized by groups that are more militant than them and pulled into a pool of radicalized individuals. And then more extremist groups, recruit those radicalized groups into violence.

On The Similarities Between The Alleged Plot To Kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and January 6th

The parallels are chilling, and like right on the surface. I mean, the April 30th rally in Lansing where armed militia members stormed the Capitol and shut down the legislative session, it was a dress rehearsal in many ways for what happened on January 6th, you know.

On What The Future Of Far-Right Extremism In The U.S.

I think that the threat that we're worried about is not that there'll be another January 6th, right? Not that there'll be another policing failure where a crowd of protesters overwhelms the police. What we're worried about is that there's another Tim McVeigh. That someone watched this on television, or someone took part in the crowd, someone listened to Trump's rhetoric, and they believe that it is time to take what they see to be decisive action to take their country back. There's going to be a mass shooting, you know, or a bomb or something else too horrific to imagine.

Interview Transcript

Sophia Saliby: This is All Things Considered on WKAR. I’m Sophia Saliby.

A new documentary from Frontline and ProPublica airing on WKAR-TV investigates the rise of extremism and white nationalism in America.

Richard Rowley is the director of “American Insurrection.” He joins me now. Thank you for being here.

Richard Rowley: Thanks for having me.

Saliby: This film is three years in the making. It starts with the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. What did that event tell us about the state of the far right in the country?

Rowley: We're going inside the far-right movement that has grown and expanded in an unprecedented way during the Trump era, and really, Charlottesville and January 6th are bookends to the Trump presidency and inflection points for a movement that is transforming and moving into a really dangerous new phase.

So, Charlottesville, it was the largest open white supremacist demonstration in our lifetimes. It had no precedent that I had ever seen before. And it, you know, of course, erupted into violence with the murder of a counter protester [and] the beatings of dozens and dozens of people. And it sort of ripped open a tear in the fabric of American political reality where we saw this kind of ugly undercurrent, like, come to the surface.

Saliby: How are these people being radicalized into the far right? Where does the ideology start?

Because I think, for a lot of people, it doesn't start with white nationalism and Nazism, things like that. What does it start with?

Rowley: The question of how radicalization happens is a deep, complex, and fascinating one. We've talked to a lot of people in, you know, the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) and DHS (Department of Homeland Security) and law enforcement also, you know, sociologists and other experts. And there's a framework, a crude framework that law enforcement uses, which says that there are three pools of actors that they're looking at.

There's a vulnerable population, a population that has, you know, grievances or doubts about the current state of society. Then you have those people can be reached and radicalized by groups that are more militant than them and pulled into a pool of radicalized individuals. And then more extremist groups, recruit those radicalized groups into violence.

The vast majority of those people are not going to turn to violence, but that is a vast pool for extremist groups to recruit from.

So now, what we've seen is, I mean, 50 million Americans still believe that the election was stolen, that we live under an illegitimate government right now. The vast majority of those people are not going to turn to violence, but that is a vast pool for extremist groups to recruit from. And so, then you have groups like, you know, the Boogaloo Boys and the Proud Boys who are trying to push people from that population into more and more violent and radical actions, and you see that explode into something like January 6th.

Saliby: Another part of the story is the alleged plot to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer by militia groups here in Michigan.

In a way, the plans to take control of the state government and put the governor on a trial foreshadows the January 6th insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. What do you see is the connection between the two?

Rowley: The parallels are chilling, and like right on the surface. I mean, the April 30th rally in Lansing where armed militia members stormed the Capitol and shut down the legislative session, it was a dress rehearsal in many ways for what happened on January 6th, you know.

The April 30th rally in Lansing where armed militia members stormed the Capitol and shut down the legislative session, it was a dress rehearsal in many ways for what happened on January 6th

And then the kidnapping plot, with all of its, you know, I mean, it was also connected to a national movement, the broader Boogaloo movement that many of the alleged kidnapping plotters were members of is linked to the alleged murder of multiple law enforcement officers in California, a dozen guns and weapons cases and other kinds of conspiracy cases that have been brought around the country.

It's an incredible, audacious plot. Like an advanced kidnapping plot against a sitting governor in the United States? It's really a shocking escalation of the kind of tactics and scale of the violence or alleged violence that we've been seeing.

Saliby: Working on the documentary, was January 6th a shock? Or did it seem in a way inevitable, given the rhetoric coming from the Trump administration and the energy from these groups?

Rowley: The way that January 6th happened was a shock to everyone. To the participants in the event themselves. You see them wandering around the halls of the Capitol stunned that they're inside. But it was clear to anyone who was paying attention that some kind of conflagration was coming. I mean, things have been building for over a course of a year. 2020 was a year of unparalleled political turmoil and political violence in this country. It was a turning point in this crazy year.

So, one of the things that is fascinating about January 6th, and sort of startling is, you know, right now there are 300 people who have been arrested as part of the riot, you know. So, we comb through those names to try to find connections and patterns and groups and networks, and to a large degree, they're not there.

The vast majority of people who were there were unaffiliated individuals who had been radicalized to the point that they were ready to cross the line and participate in an act of insurrectionary violence.

I mean, you have a dozen Proud Boys who have been charged. You have eight Oathkeepers. Remember the Oathkeeper militias? [Then] a handful of other people who are Three Percenters or parts of other groups, but the vast majority of people who were there were unaffiliated individuals who had been radicalized to the point that they were ready to cross the line and participate in an act of insurrectionary violence that had once been confined only to the most extreme members of the far right.

Saliby: Given all of that, what is the future of these groups in the country? Are they going underground? Do you think they're going to get bolder, change, [or] become bigger?

Rowley: January 6th was clearly an inflection point. It was deeply revealing. Revealing in how widespread an extremist ideology was that made it possible for hundreds of people to engage in a riot that bludgeoned police officers to death. The people we're talking to are inside of the Boogaloo movement and other movements, you know, they say, "Now, is a moment, we're going underground, and the struggle is going to enter a new phase." That could be bravado. That could be all kinds of things.

What we're worried about is ... someone watched this on television, or someone took part in the crowd, someone listened to Trump's rhetoric, and they believe that it is time to take what they see to be decisive action to take their country back.

But I think that the threat that we're worried about is not that there'll be another January 6th, right? Not that there'll be another policing failure where a crowd of protesters overwhelms the police.

What we're worried about is that there's another Tim McVeigh. That someone watched this on television, or someone took part in the crowd, someone listened to Trump's rhetoric, and they believe that it is time to take what they see to be decisive action to take their country back. There's going to be a mass shooting, you know, or a bomb or something else too horrific to imagine.

So, that's the world we're entering, and that's the threat matrix that we're looking at. Another important thing to remember is every single Democratic presidential victory since Clinton has triggered or coincided with at least, correlated with a rise in right-wing militia activity, organizing and violence. So, now we have a Democratic sweep of all the chambers, and we also have a more mobilized and visible street presence of far-right groups than we've ever seen in my lifetime.

There is a definitely a more emboldened element inside this movement that sees itself as being validated by, you know, a former president who many believe is still the legitimate authority in this country. It's a very chaotic and dangerous time.

Saliby: Richard Rowley directed the documentary, "American Insurrection." Thank you for joining me.

Rowley: Thank you.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

You can watch the documentary on April 13 at 10 p.m. EST on WKAR-TV.

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