Rising threat | Explosive growth of ‘patriot groups’ in Wisconsin and nation

Lisa Neff, Staff writer

With the wave of enthusiasm for Barack Obama’s promise of hope and change came a second wave of conspiracy-minded, right-wing “patriot groups” that are growing in number and militancy.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, headquartered in Montgomery, Ala., recently reported surging numbers of anti-government patriot groups that remind those at the civil rights organization of the mid-1990s, when Democrat Bill Clinton was president. That was the era of the Brady Bill, the assault weapon ban, and the religious cult showdown in Waco, Texas.

SPLC documented 149 active patriot or militia groups in 2008, the year Barack Obama was elected president. In 2011, SPLC identified 1,274 patriot groups. In 2012, the number climbed 7 percent to 1,360, including 321 militias. The number of patriot groups today exceeds by more than 500 the high-water number in the 1990s.

SPLC publishes annual counts and analyses of U.S. extremist groups. The counts include active, established groups – not lone “keyboard commandos,” said Heidi L. Beirich, director of the SPLC Intelligence Project.

Patriot groups are defined by the SPLC as opposing a “New World Order” and promoting anti-government doctrine and conspiracy theories. 

Experts theorize that the revival of far-right, anti-government radicalism has been spurred by the economic recession, a Democratic administration, the first black president and intensifying debate about immigration, the environment and gun control. Accompanying the rise in militia groups are increasing calls for secession, nullification and civil war.

“The year that Obama was elected, we started to see these groups rise and rise and rise,” said Beirich, whose department consists of 15 staffers who read far-right publications, monitor websites, track events and activities and collect police reports.

There were 30 active anti-government groups in Wisconsin in 2012 – that’s a slight increase from the 26 identified in 2011. Several, including groups in Appleton and Milwaukee, are affiliates of the John Birch Society, an anti-communism, limited-government organization founded in 1958 by, among others, Fred Koch. The SPLC list also includes the Constitution Party in Milwaukee, the Northwoods Patriots in Eagle River, We the People, Southeast Wisconsin Volunteers, Northeast Wisconsin Militia, Badger State Volunteers and the Tenth Amendment Center.

Some of these groups self-describe as patriot groups or militias while others dispute the SPLC classification.

Several Wisconsin militia websites, for example, contain lists of weapons, ammunition and survival gear that members should have and urge visitors “to protect our property and families by any means necessary.”

But a post for the Badger State Volunteers states, “We are Constitutionalists, survivalists, self-sustainers, and educators plain and simple. We are NOT a religious group! …We are NOT a racially motivated group! We do not care about your color. We only care that you believe in the preservation of The Constitution of the United States of America.”

Far-right universe

The anti-government crusade is one of three basic ideological movements in the far-right universe. The others are the fundamentalist movement that consists of Christian identity groups that fuse religious fundamentalism with white supremacy ideas and the racist or white supremacy movement, according Arie Perlinger, director of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point and author of the recent study “Challengers From the Sidelines: Understanding America’s Violent Far Right.”

The number of fundamentalist and white supremacist groups also remains at a near-record high. An expansion of hate group numbers began in 2000, a response to the country’s changing demographics.

“What is interesting about the hate group numbers is they were climbing at a rapid rate. …They’ve darn near doubled over the last decade,” said Beirich.

SPLC maintains a “hate map” on its website, a page where browsers can click on a state and see its number of extremist groups, as well as a list: 82 in California, 53 in Georgia, 62 in Texas, a handful in Maine and Vermont and 11 in Wisconsin, up from eight last year. The organizations are described as neo-Nazi, Christian identity, black separatist, racist skinhead, anti-gay and KKK. In Wisconsin, they can be found – perhaps not easily – in Mountain, Eau Claire, Milwaukee, New Berlin, Monroe and Shawano.

Beirich stressed that patriot groups are “entirely different” from hate groups, but “we often see people move between these groups.”

None of the groups on the far right advocate equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people. Some advocate death sentences for gays, or internment or deportation.

“In general,” Beirich said, “all the groups we monitor are anti-LGBT. Unfortunately that is the dominant mode of thinking” on the far right.

She added that not all of the far right extremist organizations advocate violence, but some do.

And, said Perlinger, “since 2007, there has been a dramatic rise in the number of attacks and violent plots originating on the far right of American politics.” Perlinger said that right-wing violence from 2000-2011 surpassed right-wing violence in the 1990s by a factor of four.

His research shows that militia group attacks result in higher numbers of injuries and fatalities than attacks by other right-wing extremist groups, and militia groups are more likely than other extremist groups to use explosives and fire arms.

Domestic terror

In another report, the Congressional Research Service identified more than two dozen domestic terrorist incidents since September 2001.

The surge in patriot groups prompted SPLC president and CEO J. Richard Cohen to write to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano with a warning.

Cohen began with a reminder that six months before the October 1994 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City, the SPLC wrote to Attorney General Janet Reno about the growing threat of domestic terrorism.

“Today,” Cohen wrote, “we write to express similar concerns. In the last four years, we have seen a tremendous increase in the number of conspiracy-minded anti-government groups as well as in the number of domestic terrorist plots. As in the period before the Oklahoma City bombing, we now also are seeing ominous threats from those who believe that the government is poised to take their guns.”

The SPLC asked the federal officials to establish an interagency task force to assess “the adequacy of resources devoted to responding to the growing threat of non-Islamic domestic terrorism.”

Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the SPLC and the author of the organization’s recent analysis on extremist groups, said, “We are seeing a real and rising threat of domestic terrorism as the number of far-right anti-government groups continues to grow at an astounding pace. It is critically important that the country take this threat seriously. The potential for deadly violence is real and clearly rising.”