The mob who stormed the US Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 was composed of a menagerie of anti-government groups with names like QAnon, The Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers, spurred on by a Donald Trump pep talk. Reaction by law enforcement has been slow. TIME Magazine reported on the situation as of Jan 6, 2022: “Only around one-tenth of those arrested—71 individuals—have received criminal sentences, while the rest are waiting for their trials or haven’t yet reached plea agreements. … So far, the median prison sentence for the Jan. 6 rioters is 45 days. An additional 18 rioters have been sentenced to periods of home detention, while most sentences have included fines, community service and probation for low-level offenses like illegally parading or demonstrating in the Capitol, which is a misdemeanor.”
But seven people died as a result of this assault! And these are the sentences! Mishandling of white supremacist and militia groups has been the rule, alas, in the Federal Government’s history for a long time now starting with Confederate officials and generals.
At the end of the Civil War, Confederacy President Jefferson Davis was confined for two years and then released on bail awaiting trial. However, on Christmas Day 1868, President Andrew Johnson pardoned just about everyone involved in the insurrection – an example that Trump has announced he plans to follow once he becomes President again. For his part, Robert E. Lee was never arrested or charged; he did lose the land which now is the site of Arlington National Cemetery – but his family was compensated later.
However, neither Davis nor Lee could accede to political office because of Section 3 of the 14th amendment which excludes former officials who have abetted or participated in an insurrection from serving again. This clause is of obvious interest today in so far as it can be applied to Donald Trump; for the text, click HERE .
The post-Civil War period gave rise to the longest lived white supremacist movement in the country, namely, the Klu Klux Klan (KKK) – a group that has functioned with near impunity into the current era. Indeed, in Nov 1979, there was the Greensboro Massacre where Klan members killed five Communist Worker Party members who were participating in a pro-labor demonstration; there was a state criminal trial and a federal civil rights trial – in both all the assailants were acquitted. Similar result for the attempted murders of black women in 1980 in Chattanooga Tennessee. On the other hand, a most effective force against the KKK has been the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) which has succeeded in impoverishing clan groups by means of successful civil suits.
Among the first of the new violent white supremacist groups to form was the Aryan Nations in the 1970s. Inconsistency being a kind of virtue for these cult-like groups, the Aryan Nations both were virulently anti-Semitic and staked the claim that people from the British Isles are the descendants of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel – a position known as British Israelism ! Under tight surveillance by the FBI, the group declined – also due to its own infighting and mismanagement. But it was not the FBI that brought the organization down in the end; rather it was that same Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) that won a $6.3M lawsuit against the Aryan Nations for their sadistic mistreatment of a Native American woman and her son.
A more violent white supremacist offshoot known as The Order emerged in the 1980s and this group descended into bank robbery and more – such as the despicable murder of Jewish radio host Alan Berg; in this case at least, the government was able to bring the murderers to justice thanks to informants etc. As The Order connected up with other violent groups (among them the KKK), the Federal Government did bring seditious conspiracy charges against 14 conspirators formally indicting them in 1988 at Fort Smith Arkansas; however, 13 of them were acquitted and the charges against the 14th were dropped.
The 1992 siege at Ruby Ridge in Idaho has become deeply symbolic for anti- government movements. People died but the two protagonists Randy Weaver (a Vietnam vet) and Kevin Harris were acquitted of all charges associated with the siege.
In 2006, a new militia group formed in Michigan with the name Hutaree, which was claimed to mean “Christian Warriors.” In 2010 in response to their activities, the government brought charges of seditious conspiracy against 9 members of the group: in 2012 the judge in the case dismissed all these charges.
And these malignant para-military groups have continued to multiply: in 2008, the Three Percenters, in 2009 the Oath Keepers, in 2016 The Proud Boys, and on and on.
In 2014, Cliven Bundy, white-supemacist and anti-government hardliner, had an armed standoff with federal government agents when he insisted that the government should not control federal lands. In support of Bundy, the Oath Keepers showed up. However, Bundy was not arrested and continued to graze his cattle on federal land without obtaining permits or paying fees.
In 2016, members of the Three Percenters joined the insurgents under Ammon Bundy, son of Cliven, at the Malheur Refuge Center in Oregon. This seizure of federal property lasted for months and one of the protesters was killed while resisting arrest. There were some convictions but even more acquittals. Cliven Bundy himself was arrested on his way to Malheur in 2016 but then all charges against him were dismissed in 2017 because of government bungling.
The rise of the right-wing conspiracy group QAnon is a new kind of phenomenon – born of the internet and social media like Reddit. Since 2017, people from all over have been galvanized by QAnon to contest the government based on crazy stuff like the Hilary Clinton led pedophilia ring in that pizza parlor in Philadelphia. Nutty as it is, when a lie passes its tell-by date, they simply come up with a new one.
The Unite The Right rally in Charlottesville VA in 2017 involved a congeries of anti-government, white-supremacist and anti-Semitic organizations among them neo-Nazis and the KKK. A counter-protestor Heather Heyer, was killed by a car driven into a crowd by a white supremacist demonstrator; this time the murderer was sentenced to life imprisonment. But all this criminal behavior was played down by then President Donald Trump who spoke about “very fine people on both sides.”
The state of Michigan has been a breeding ground for these anti-government cabals. In 2020, a movement calling themselves the Wolverine Militia plotted to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer. The group was infiltrated and the plot forestalled, leading to charges of conspiracy to commit kidnapping against 13 defendants – all of this is still working its way through the courts. The scheme was hatched following a series of protests (including an incursion by armed men into the State Capitol) in reaction to Whitmer’s strict COVID mitigation measures – measures which were derided by Donald Trump who called Whitmer “that woman from Michigan” and who tweeted “LIBERATE MICHIGAN,” an all caps fascist dog-whistle.
These groups, Oath Keepers et al., are eerily like the Blackshirts and Brownshirts of the fascist movements of Europe in the 1920s. They were an integral part of the Jan 6 Insurrection where an organized, equipped and violent mob stormed the US Capitol terrorizing members of Congress and others. The goal of this action was to interfere with the count of the Electoral College votes; and then either (1) to have the vote for president assigned to the House of Representatives or (2) to have Vice-President Mike Pence accept the bogus alternate slates the Republicans had prepared for Arizona, Michigan etc; but Pence let them down. In the first case, in an election for president in the House of Representatives, each state has one vote and the Republicans have a majority in more states than the Democrats do (even though the Democrats have more seats in the House over all) – result: victory for Trump as it was for John Quincy Adams in 1824 over Andrew Jackson who actually had won more of the popular vote and of the electoral vote. In the second case, numerous swing state electors would have been switched – result: victory for Trump as it was for Republican Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876 when alternate pro-Hayes electors from Southern states were seated in return for the end of Reconstruction, thus defeating the Democratic candidate Samuel J. Tilden who had won the popular vote.
The Jan 6, 2021 attack is not an isolated event; it has its place in the history of white-supemacist violence; and the reaction to Jan 6 is so far eerily ineffective and reminiscent of the handling of past militia violence. And now in an “in your face” moment, the Trumpist Republicans have declared that this murderous insurrection was just an example of “legitimate political discourse.” This trick of blatantly rewriting history is a classic fascist tactic.
The material damage to the Capitol has been estimated at $30M and will rise further, much further. Four attackers died during the stampede (one, an Air Force veteran, from police fire as rioters tried to breach the House chamber, the others for medical reasons), a police officer was killed during the attack and two other officers committed suicide in the following days. Up till now, the punishments meted out have been almost all “slaps on the wrist.”
Only recently has the Department of Justice begun to move up the insurrectionist chain of command and arrest ring-leaders who were not necessarily physically present in the Capitol Building that day; the government has brought seditious conspiracy charges against 11 such defendants, among them the leader of the Oath Keepers, army veteran Stewart Rhodes. This charge of seditious conspiracy was used successfully against the Puerto Rican nationalists of the 1954 assault on the Capitol and on various Marxist groups, but it has failed when used against white supremacists and militias as in the 1988 Fort Smith sedition case and as in the 2010 case against the Hutaree militia in Michigan.
One must remember that the Nazi movement in Germany first tried its notorious Beer Hall Putsch in Munich in 1923; the Putsch failed but the lame reaction to it only emboldened the Nazi party and its para-military apparatus, which placed that country on the fast lane to fascism. The Jan 6 Commission, the Department of Justice, the courts and public opinion had better all move quickly: with a lame response to Jan 6, we will be reduced to telling ourselves “It Can’t Happen Here.”
Post Scriptum For more on the disputed elections of 1824 and 1876 and their implications for our time, click HERE .
Post Post Scriptum For more on the fascist threat underlying Trumpism, click HERE .