Watchdog Group Warns Far-Right Extremists Feel Emboldened, View Capitol Mob As A 'Watershed Moment’

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Security forces clash with President Trump's extremist supporters after they breached the U.S. Capitol security in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 6. (Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Security forces clash with President Trump's extremist supporters after they breached the U.S. Capitol security in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 6. (Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser is calling on the federal government to help the city prepare for what she calls "large groups of trained and armed extremists" on Inauguration Day.

Some fear a repeat of last week's chaos when a mob of pro-Trump extremists stormed the Capitol. Groups tracking the violence, such as the Anti-Defamation League, say things could get worse before they get better.

Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the ADL, says the organization’s Center on Extremism warned law enforcement about the conspiracy theories and plans they were seeing posted by extremists on public internet sites, private forums and the dark web before Trump’s rally on Jan. 6.

“What happened last week literally was the most predictable terrorist attack in the history of this country,” Greenblatt says. “We knew that it was coming.”

The country can’t afford to “keep our heads in the sand” about the threat posed by upcoming rallies, he says. There’s already plans for more gatherings, he says, like the far-right extremist Boogaloo rally scheduled for Jan. 17 in D.C.

The Center on Extremism has monitored extremists on a variety of online platforms who claim the Capitol siege was a “watershed moment for the white supremacist movement” and now feel emboldened to take similiar actions to target and disrupt President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration, Greenblatt says.

Last week's insurrection was organized online, he says, and since then, social media companies have clamped down. Twitter permanently banned Trump’s personal account, and Facebook suspended Trump until after Jan. 20. Amazon Web Services suspended conservative and far-right extremist social media platform, Parler, while Apple and Google cut off user access to the app.

But the ADL says the hardliner groups and conspiracy theories that motivated much of the violence at the Capitol are still easy to find online. Tech companies have a responsibility to monitor threats of intemperate behavior online and “to realize that freedom of expression isn't the freedom to incite violence,” Greenblatt says.

Social media giants’ decisions to halt business with Parler became crucial developments in the aftermath of the Capitol siege, he says. “The degree of toxicity and violence” on the social media app “would blow your mind,” he says.

Now, Greenblatt says web security, hosting services and payment processor companies have the right to question whether they want to be associated with platforms that allow users to “foment against our democracy.”

While it may seem like a game of whack a mole — if Parler goes down, won’t some other platform replace it? — Greenblatt says tech companies’ actions are still important.

Twitter’s move to ban Trump lost him nearly 90 million followers within seconds. Parler’s users are currently in limbo, so there’s no immediate platform for Trump or his loyal supporters there. The president will likely have to move to a more marginal app, Greenblatt says.

“So even if there's a bit of whack a mole here, I think that's a healthy process as businesses realize that they can't be places for hate,” he says. “And at the end of the day, I think employees are not going to want to work at companies who are so out of line with basic core American values like decency and equality and normalcy.”

The Capitol mob was a “who’s who of the right-wing extremist movement,” Greenblatt says, amassing a range of people including a growing group of pro-Trump extremists, QAnon and conspiracy theory believers, and full-fledged militant white supremacists who seek “a racial holy war.”

A photo of a rioter at the Capitol wearing a sweatshirt that read “Camp Auschwitz” — a reference to the Nazi death camp during World War II — has been widely circulated. CNN reports the man has since been identified as “long-time extremist” Robert Keith Packer of Virginia.

“I mean, this was really an ugly scene,” Greenblatt says. “And I would say that these people don't belong in the political conversation, per say. Not at all.”

Chris Bentley produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd MundtSerena McMahon adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on January 11, 2021.


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Peter O’Dowd has a hand in most parts of Here & Now — producing and overseeing segments, reporting stories and occasionally filling in as host. He came to Boston from KJZZ in Phoenix.


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