Countering organized violence in the United States

Department of Homeland Security police officers clear Black Lives Matter protesters from Terry Shrunk Plaza in Portland, Ore., on August 22, 2020. (Photo by Alex Milan Tracy/Sipa USA)No Use UK. No Use Germany.
Editor's note:

The following statement for the record was submitted to the House of Representatives Committee on Homeland Security’s Subcommittee on Oversight, Investigations, and Accountability on May 16, 2023, for the “‘Mostly Peaceful’: Countering Left-Wing Organized Violence” hearing.

Chairman Bishop, Ranking Member Ivey, and members of this distinguished subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to submit a statement for the record.

Political violence in the United States is a grave threat not only to the lives of Americans, but also to the health of American democracy. Violence poses a threat to political leaders and to Americans who participate in politics. It polarizes our already-divided country and undermines political discourse.

Although this hearing focuses on left-wing violence and movements like Antifa, it is vital to recognize that in recent years violence linked to white supremacist, anti-government, and other causes lumped under the label “right-wing” have proven far more lethal and more politically consequential. Congress must use its powers to bolster law enforcement, improve our understanding of the threat, and otherwise fight the scourge of extremism. All political leaders must reject those who espouse violence and extremism, creating a clear line between legitimate politics and illegitimate extremism.

The remainder of this statement has three sections. I first provide some caveats on the labels used, as both “right-” and “left-” wing movements are divided, and the uses of terms are politicized. In the second section, I compare left-wing and right-wing political violence, noting in particular the grave danger that anti-government and white supremacist violence has posed in recent years. In the final section, I offer recommendations for reducing the threat of political violence in the United States.

Some Caveats on Labels

Using the labels “left-wing” or “right-wing” to describe political violence invariably leads to the conflation, sometimes accidental and sometimes deliberate, of extremist activity with the actions of legitimate political activists. To be clear, the overwhelming majority of the millions of Americans who are concerned about police violence against minority communities and similar legitimate causes associated with the political left in the United States have nothing to do with the violent extreme; similarly, the overwhelming majority of the millions of Americans who favor strong gun rights, are concerned with federal government overreach, worry about the level of immigration, and otherwise share concerns associated with the political right have nothing to do with the violent extreme. We can, and should, have a robust debate with people espousing their views, even if unpopular, without the threat of violence. By using the labels “left” and “right” to describe violence extremists I am trying to separate out legitimate politics from illegitimate violence.

Making this more difficult, and in contrast to jihadist groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS), both left- and especially right-wing extremists are difficult to categorize, with few robust organizations but strong informal networks. “Antifa” is a label under which left-wing extremism is often lumped. Contrary to much commentary, Antifa is not a group or an organization in any traditional sense; rather, it is a set of beliefs shared by a few activists, many of whom disagree with one another considerably. Antifa is short for anti-fascist (itself a word used broadly and inconsistently), and many of its members today focus on what they consider to be anti-racist activism. They do not have a tight organization or coherent command and control, and indeed the concept of hierarchy is anathema to many local groups. In a few cities, their ranks are slightly coherent, but in most places, it is a small group of informal activists. Much of the information put out about Antifa, including by prominent figures such as President Donald Trump, has exaggerated its coherence and reach. Russian influence operations have also attempted to amplify disinformation linked to Antifa.

Many Antifa adherents do not favor violence of any sort. Others argue it is necessary to be prepared for violence in self-defense. Some of these attend rallies, such as those protesting police brutality, prepared to defend protesters against groups like the Proud Boys. They are prepared, indeed at times eager, to brawl with them. Others “Doxx” their opponents, publishing embarrassing private information (usually on their neo-Nazi or other right-wing extremist activities) to get them fired or shamed in their communities. A smaller number do use violence without even the excuse of self-defense, such as the Antifa adherents who joined broad, and mostly peaceful, anti-Trump or pro-Black Lives Matter protests and smashed the windows of local businesses or threw Molotov cocktails. In a very small – but still notable – number of cases, Antifa activists have used more lethal forms of violence. In July 2019, one activist attacked an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center in Tacoma, Washington with a rifle and bombs. As this spectrum of activity related to violence suggests, using the label “Antifa” thus tells us little about the specifics of an adherent’s goals or methods.

This organizational chaos is even more pronounced among right-wing extremists. Some are anti-immigrant, some focus on the Black community, and many are anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim. Some hate all these communities. Others are strongly opposed to the federal government to the point that they see government officials as agents of tyranny. Making this more complex, many among these extremists embrace a range of conspiracy theories, and some embrace a virulent form of male supremacy. Organized groups themselves are weak: almost every major attack involving right-wing terrorism in the United States was conducted by individuals with little or no group involvement — so-called “Lone Wolf” attacks. An important exception to this was the January 6, 2021, insurrection, in which violent groups like the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers played leading roles, although even there the majority of participants were not affiliated with these extremist groups.

Left Wing vs. Right-Wing Political Violence: Comparing the Dangers

There are different ways to measure the danger posed by political extremists, but one of the simplest is to look at the number of people they kill. In the post-9/11 era, on the left, the United States has seen one murder, which occurred when Michael Forest Reinoeh, a left-wing extremist, shot and killed a member of the right-wing extremist organization Patriot Prayer in Portland in 2020. The killer had previously provided “security” for left-wing protests. He described himself as anti-fascist, but he was not a member of any local Antifa group.

Numbers for right-wing extremist violence are far higher, with numerous high-profile terrorist attacks as well as lower-level assaults, vandalism, and other forms of violence. Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, far-right extremists have killed 130 people in the United States, more than any other political cause, including jihadists. Notable attacks in recent years include the 2018 Pittsburgh Synagogue attack, the 2019 El Paso mall killings, and the 2022 Buffalo market attack. A range of far-right extremists, including organized groups such as the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers as well as hundreds of unaffiliated conspiracy theorists, anti-government extremists, and ordinary supporters of President Trump, also stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, in a direct assault on American democracy. Far-right extremist violence has not abated: earlier this month, on May 6, 2023, an apparent neo-Nazi with misogynist leanings shot up a Texas mall, killing eight people.

Another concern is the role of right-wing extremism in the ranks of the military and among police officers. Although the overwhelming majority of law enforcement and military personnel reject extremism, even small numbers of extremists in uniform are of concern given the important role these entities play in American society, including their position at the frontline of the battle against violent extremism itself. Here the difference with left-wing extremism is considerable: many left-wing adherents reject authority, see the police and military as instruments of authoritarianism, and otherwise are far less likely to join their ranks. Many right-wing extremists, in contrast, glorify military and police forces in theory, though in practice they have attacked them. Violent extremist crimes among those with U.S. military backgrounds have increased significantly in the last decade, and such members have played important roles in anti-government extremist groups like the Oath Keepers and disorganized anti-government movements like the Boogaloos.

In contrast to far-right extremists in the past, today’s violent far-right often targets law enforcement. On January 6, 2021, of course, far-right extremists were responsible for the death of a Capitol police officer and the wounding of over 100 others. A right-wing extremist also threatened an FBI facility in Cincinnati in 2021. Anti-government extremists have regularly attacked and killed local police, questioned their authority to enforce the law, resisted arrest, and otherwise pose a grave threat to law enforcement.

Another danger of violence is that it infects and degrades politics. After the 9/11 attacks, Americans of all political beliefs came together, supporting a strong response to jihadist terrorism. Unfortunately, during its four years in office, the Trump administration increased public fears of white supremacist and anti-government violence because of its perceived toleration, and at times even encouragement, of these causes. Trump’s rhetoric matched some white supremacist talking points, playing down police violence against Black people, calling Mexican immigrants “rapists,” declaring COVID-19 to be a “Chinese virus,” telling Black and other minority members of Congress to “go back” to their home countries, claiming a mythical “deep state,” and demonizing the FBI. When violence occurred, as it did during a 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia organized by white supremacists, Trump opined that their ranks included “very fine people.”

Political support, or at least toleration, of extremism also occurs at the state and local level: political figures have at times embraced racist and anti-government ideas, and a few even have ties to violent organizations. The demonization of the FBI when it carries out legitimate investigations of American politicians is another instance of how politics can degrade an effective response against extremism. At times, the effects are simply to turn good Americans off politics, with many who would otherwise engage in local politics afraid of, or simply disgusted by, the constant stream of abuse from extremists.

Extremism of one political variety encourages its opposite. Antifa, in fact, rose in both its appeal and its activism with the rise of the white nationalist “alt-right” early in the Trump administration. Similarly, many right-wing extremists claim they are acting in self-defense, often promoting outlandish conspiracy theories to prove that Antifa and others are controlling events and thus justifying their violence.

Recommendations for Better Fighting Political Violence

The U.S. government, including the U.S. Congress, should take several steps to fight political extremism of all stripes.

A first step is to understand the problem beyond isolated examples. Data on extremism is bad in the United States, and Congress should require and resource better reporting at the federal, state, and local levels. Despite attempts such as the 1990 Hate Crimes Statistics Act, many local jurisdictions, including many that have troubling histories, simply do not report on hate crimes, and those that do report often are inconsistent. Legislation that required consistent reporting and resourced local jurisdictions would improve our understanding of violent extremism and allow a better distribution of resources. The FBI and the Department of Homeland Security should use this data to produce regular reports on the threat of extremism in the United States.

Ensuring the ranks of U.S. law enforcement and the U.S. military remain free from violent extremism of any sort is also vital. This requires careful screening of recruits, training that helps inoculate them against extremist recruitment, and other measures that reduce the danger to ensure that those charged with protecting America do so fairly and impartially.

Existing laws offer law enforcement many ways to disrupt violent extremist activities. On social media, many openly threaten others in specific terms and otherwise reveal their intentions. Many extremists violate state gun laws and rules against private paramilitary militias. Congress should encourage federal, state, and local officials to use their authorities to target those entities that have a propensity toward violence.

Both right-wing and left-wing extremists use social media to publicize their messages and to harass their enemies. Online harassment is especially common against people of color and women, making their lives far more difficult and discouraging many from engaging in political discourse. Social media companies should be strongly encouraged to crack down on such harassment.

Political leaders should also work to delegitimize violent extremists of all stripes, drawing clear lines between those engaging in politics — even on contentious issues such as abortion, immigration, gun rights, and police abuse — and those who favor or legitimate violence. Leaders should disavow any connections to those who espouse violence against minorities, law enforcement, and others. A model is President George H.W. Bush, who declared neo-Nazi and former KKK leader David Duke a “charlatan” and called for him to be rejected by voters when Duke ran as the Republican candidate for governor of Louisiana in 1991. Such condemnations are the right thing to do. They also discourage extremists from trying to take over the political process and ensure that U.S. law enforcement agencies know they can use the proper power of the law against violent extremists without political criticism.

Strong leadership is necessary in the fight against extremism. It is my hope that hearings such as these can both identify weaknesses that must be corrected and also educate the public on the need to stop political violence of any sort.