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Experts: There have been warnings of far-right violence for decades, including in the Spokane area

UPDATED: Fri., Jan. 15, 2021

After invading the building, supporters of President Donald Trump are confronted Jan. 6 by U.S. Capitol Police officers outside the Senate Chamber inside the Capitol in Washington, D.C.  (Manuel Balce Ceneta)
After invading the building, supporters of President Donald Trump are confronted Jan. 6 by U.S. Capitol Police officers outside the Senate Chamber inside the Capitol in Washington, D.C. (Manuel Balce Ceneta)

For Raymond Reyes, one of the founding members of the Institute for Hate Studies at Gonzaga University, the rhetoric, violence and imagery of the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol last week felt both troubling and familiar.

Reyes has studied and worked against hate in the Inland Northwest for decades, which at times has made him a target of white supremacists and neo-Nazis. He said the riot at the U.S. Capitol was shocking but unsurprising.

“This is the history of this country,” he said. “This is just the latest incarnation of a continued legacy, or narrative, of racism.

“It’s symptomatic of people’s lack of history.”

Many who have studied racism, extremism and militia movements across the Pacific Northwest said they recognized the rhetoric and many of the symbols that were on display in the Capitol, and there were many warning signs, especially in the Pacific Northwest, over the last several years that violence has been escalating.

Reyes was one of several people in the greater Spokane area who were working against hate groups in the Pacific Northwest in the 1980s and 1990s.

During that era, two violent white supremacist groups, the Phineas Priesthood and the Order, were committing acts of terrorism across the region, and white supremacists were organizing at the Aryan Nations compound in North Idaho, eventually marching through downtown Coeur d’Alene. During that time, a Spokesman-Review office, Planned Parenthood and Spokane City Hall were all bombed by white supremacists.

In his decades of anti-racism work, Reyes, who is of Mexican and indigenous descent, has been the target of several threats. He was once put on a hit list by a Nazi website and had white supremacists leave threats on his car. During that time, he even developed a habit of checking the undercarriage of his vehicle before getting in.

He said he’s hopeful that the attack on the Capitol will wake Americans up to the virulent racism and extremism that has been simmering in the country for decades, and motivate many Americans to look at their own political views and assumptions.

“The things we saw on Wednesday are nothing new,” he said. “It’s something old and ancient to this country.”

Bill Morlin, a former Spokesman-Review journalist who covered the Aryan Nations and the standoff at Ruby Ridge, said many anti-government movements and racist ideologies that he saw early in his career were on display at the Capitol last Wednesday.

He said there also has been a steady escalation over the past few years of violence and violent rhetoric, the most notable examples being the 2016 armed takeover of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Oregon and the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017.

“This is nothing new; it’s been going on for a long time,” he said.

Morlin said white supremacy has changed since he covered the Aryan Nations in the 1980s, but the ideas and rhetoric are similar.

“A lot of these groups have set up shop on the internet, so they don’t have central meeting points as often as they did, but they’re still meeting and they’re still communicating,” he said. “It’s a challenge for the media, and it’s a challenge for law enforcement.”

Morlin also noted that some of these groups, especially armed groups resembling militias, have been recruiting in the Pacific Northwest for the past several years, and many of those events have ties to both anti-government ideology and far-right religious ideology. He said protests at Planned Parenthood in Spokane, anti-lockdown protests and armed presence in opposition to Black Lives Matter protests, or armed militia groups claiming their presence discouraged antifa and looting in their communities, were all likely large recruiting opportunities.

“There’s a real co-mingling there of some of these people that are basically advocating a theocracy; they believe the United States should be for white Christians and white Christians only, and they use that anti-abortion message to recruit people,” he said.

Devin Burghart, the executive director at the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, said data and records the organization has collected show that there may be more militia activity now than there was in the 1990s, around the same time as the Oklahoma City bombing, Ruby Ridge and white supremacist domestic terrorism in Spokane.

“Our concern is that we’re entering another period like that now, and this current period could use events like at the Capitol, that insurrection, to forge a new movement that’s even more violent, and more dangerous than the 1990s,” Burghart said.

He also noted that some of these movements, especially militia activity, were allowed to enter the mainstream after politicians included these groups as their base, or actively participated in insurrectionist activities, such as the armed takeover of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge.

Former Washington Rep. Matt Shea was involved in the 2016 takeover, which involved militia movements, and was later accused of domestic terrorism. Leaked chats and documents have also shown Shea and others in the militia movement he is connected to making preparations for a holy war, discussing GPS devices to track political opponents and compiling dossiers on local progressive leaders.

Burghart said insurrection went far outside the Capitol last Wednesday. He said the institute tracked 40 events in 32 states that occurred at the same time as the Capitol riot, and many featured similar rhetoric.

“It’s more likely we’re going to see this activity in the future than this being the end of it,” he said.

Kate Bitz, an organizer program manager at the Western State Center, a progressive group that monitors far-right activities, said there were several parallels in Oregon and Washington that bear similarities to the events at the Capitol. Bitz said she sees Shea as sort of a bellwether for the far right, saying the lengths he and others in his circles were willing to go to further their ideas is the same mindset many had when storming the Capitol.

“I especially think his willingness to see legislative colleagues as enemies and the fact that his organization considered surveilling progressive elected officials are telling,” she said. “This is the same mentality that convinced people their only option after losing an election was to storm the Capitol building.”

She noted several other legislators in the Pacific Northwest have used similar rhetoric or had involvement with those groups, including Oregon state Rep. Mike Nearman, a Republican who was caught on video letting rioters into the Oregon statehouse. According to the Oregonian, state police are investigting Nearman’s actions. The Speaker of the House has asked him to resign.

David Leonard, a WSU professor and author who has written several books examining extremism and the far right, said what was on display at the Capitol was likely a result of a culmination of issues, a longstanding militia and extremism problem in the United States and a more recent turn to “grievance politics.”

Leonard defined grievance in this context as believing that white men are the victim of unfairness and discrimination, and many view these types of activities as taking back what is theirs and restoring things to a nostalgic version of the past.

“We can see it with this kind of politics, particularly in the post-civil rights era, the idea that white males are being left behind, being ignored, being discriminated against and not being heard,” he said. “It’s imagining whiteness as being under attack and being the victim, that anchors so many discussions and movements.”

Leonard said many of those ideas have infected mainstream culture and were present in President Donald Trump’s campaign and presidency.

“What happened is shocking; it’s not surprising,” he said. “It’s not just the last four or five years where the seeds were sown, it’s the last 100 to 200 years where seeds were sown. Those seeds have consequences, and that consequence is the level of violence and the level of destruction we saw.”

Reyes said the events at the Capitol left him feeling sad, and disturbed, but also reaffirmed his commitment to anti-racism work, and gave him hope that average Americans who were shocked by the insurrection will take this as an opportunity to re-examine their own beliefs and finally face racism head on.

He said he appreciated many leaders speaking out against what they saw in the Capitol, but one of the most frustrating statements he’s heard since the riot and other violent acts tied to white supremacy is statements like “this is not America, this is not who we are.”

“This is America and this is who we are right now, and let’s not deny that,” Reyes said. “Nothing changes until we face it; we have to face our ugly, the good, the bad and the ugly, of living in a country with a legacy of racism.”

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