As Nov. 3 election draws near, fears mount of escalating street violence
As a bitterly divided nation barrels toward the Nov. 3 presidential election, experts who study domestic terrorism and extremism are alarmed by the escalating civil unrest across the country, with one warning that “once violence becomes more normalized, it doesn’t go back in the shell.”
A summer of street protests since the Memorial Day killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis is turning more deadly, marked by the Aug. 25 fatal shooting of two protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin, by an armed youth who claimed to be protecting businesses against rioters, and another fatal shooting of a far-right activist Aug. 29 by a self-proclaimed antifa supporter in Portland.
In Kenosha, Kyle Rittenhouse, 17, faces first-degree murder charges in connection with shooting three people, two fatally. And Michael Reinoehl, 48, the prime suspect in the killing of 39-year-old Aaron “Jay” Danielson, a backer of the far-right group Patriot Prayer in Portland, was killed by members of a federal task force Sept. 2 as they attempted to apprehend Reinoehl. He claimed to be a supporter of the anti-fascist movement antifa.
Southern California has not been immune from demonstrations and protests that have turned violent over the past month or two. And though it is mostly illegal to openly carry guns in California, one street protest in Yucaipa attracted armed counter-protesters who vowed to protect local businesses from Black Lives Matter protesters.
Domestic terror threats
This “arms race” that seems to be starting up among members of the far right and the hard left is extremely disturbing, especially as the nation heads into the thick of the political season, said Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at Cal State San Bernardino, pointing out that the Portland shooting was the first known killing by an antifa supporter.
“The Portland incident is an outlier but also a bellwether,” he said. “Once violence becomes more normalized, it doesn’t go back in the shell.”
As he looks at the extremist landscape, Levin says he sees a variety of threats, largely on the far right, but also some on the left.
“You have a perfect storm in this country with a polarized population, a presidential election, a global pandemic that is frustrating and devastating people, and disinformation and conspiracy theories spreading on social media,” he said. “The biggest threat is still, far-right white supremacist groups. But you also see that Facebook has become fertile soil for the mushrooming of small groups and lone actors.”
The civilian militia in Kenosha organized itself on Facebook before heading out to the site of the protest. Facebook said it made an “operational mistake” in failing to remove that page, which encouraged armed Americans to take to the streets of Kenosha.
A vast majority of academics who study extremism and groups that monitor violent extremism, such as the Anti-Defamation League, overwhelmingly agree on data that shows a majority of violent extremist deaths over the past decade have involved far-right groups than any other, including Islamist extremists. That trend has continued after the Charlottesville demonstration by alt-right groups, which recruit on the dark web and thrive on social media sites.
Levin says anti-fascists have been violent over the last couple of years, even if that violence has been limited to street fights involving hands, fists, blunt objects and knives. But, he said, a turning point for the hard left may have been the death of 69-year-old Willem van Spronsen, a Dutch-born immigrant who was shot by Washington state police in July 2019 while tossing lit objects at vehicles and buildings outside an immigrant detention center. Spronsen, who self-identified as an antifa anarchist, was hailed as a “martyr” by those on the far left, Levin said.
But, he said, there have been no shortage of new violent extremists on the far right either, most notably the anti-government Boogaloo movement, whose members have been linked to fatal shootings of law enforcement officials in Oakland and Santa Cruz. The “Liberate” groups, like the armed group that stormed Michigan’s State Capitol in May protesting coronavirus health orders, have attracted individuals with certain ideologies, even spawning the civil guard and militia movements, Levin said.
“And then, you have people who are loners or part of a small cell,” he said. “You’re seeing a wide variety of threats that could result in a domestic terror incident as we head into November.”
Violence at rallies, protests
According to Ari Weil, a terrorism researcher at the University of Chicago’s Project on Security and Threats, at least 66 incidents of cars driving into Black Lives Matter protesters have been reported from May 27 to July 6, including 59 by civilians and seven by law enforcement. So far, there have been two fatalities, one in Seattle and another in Bakersfield, California. At least 24 of the civilian cases have been charged by law enforcement, Weil said.
Thus far, in Southern California, there have been red flags that portend potential violence in the weeks to come. In Yucaipa, on June 1, after a Black Lives Matter rally and counter-protest where some showed up with guns, including City Councilman Bobby Duncan, four were arrested for fighting at a gas station. Three were charged with battery and one person was charged with assault with a deadly weapon, in this case a telescoping baton.
Arrests also were made Aug. 1 during another protest and counter-protest when a man was arrested on suspicion of driving a car erratically, nearly striking San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputies and charged with felony assault on a peace officer and possession of a dangerous weapon.
Dr. Tonda Bradshaw, whose medical practice is on Yucaipa Boulevard, said she worries that Yucaipa is on the verge of becoming “another Kenosha” because she said people are being allowed to open-carry weapons and threaten protesters. Bradshaw, a white woman, said she participated in the Black Lives Matter rally Aug. 1 that got out of hand. In her town, she says, it’s not BLM members who stoke violence, but the counter-protesters who she claims show up to these events with large knives and guns.
“I’m just really worried about this political season,” she said. “We hang a Biden flag outside our home and we get people staring at us. One person stood outside and pretended to shoot us with his hands.”
The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) analyzed more than 7,750 Black Lives Matter demonstrations in all 50 states and Washington, D.C., from May 26, after Floyd’s death, to Aug. 22 and determined that 93% of these protests were peaceful. The nonprofit’s report, released Thursday, Sept. 3, said that in urban areas such as Portland, which has seen sustained unrest since Floyd’s killing, violent demonstrations are largely confined to specific blocks rather than being dispersed throughout the city.
Meanwhile, most recently, the city of Rochester, N.Y., has been hit with a series of protests over the death of Daniel Prude, who died after after officers put him in a “spit hood,” designed to protect police from a detainee’s saliva. According to the local newspaper, the Democrat & Chronicle, protests Saturday night ended with three injured officers treated at local hospitals for injuries suffered from projectiles and incendiary devices that were launched against them.
But the newspaper also reported that there was no official account of injuries to protesters, even though social media showed images of some hit by projectiles, including a local county legislator and a former journalist.
‘They act like spoiled children’
But those on the other side continue to blame BLM protesters, saying they are the instigators.
John Berry, who helped organize the Aug. 1 Yucaipa rally and another in Redlands in support of law enforcement officers, said it was the Black Lives Matter protesters who often resort to vandalism and violence.
“We are the law-and-order people,” he said. “We are always held to a higher standard while BLM is allowed to do what they want. They act like spoiled children.”
Berry says the idea of a militia is one that’s perpetrated by the media.
“To pay attention to the people who show up with guns and ignore what BLM is doing is like ignoring the elephant in the room and paying attention to the mouse,” he said, adding that he does not condone violence of any kind. “We are people who love our country. We treasure our communities and are standing up for what’s right.”
Some tensions also have flared up in political rallies. On Aug. 30, some reported hearing “shots fired” at a pro-Trump caravan in Woodland Hills. There also was a report of residents of an apartment building throwing beer bottles from their balcony at Trump supporters in the caravan. No one was injured.
Randi Berger, a San Fernando Valley resident who organizers pro-Trump demonstrations in Beverly Hills every Saturday afternoon, said she will not be “scared away” by anyone.
“When something bad or violent happens, there’s really nothing you can do,” she said. “It’s like an earthquake. But what I’m seeing is that people just want to get on the street and support America. If people are not afraid, it takes away fuel from the other side.”
Police preparing for the worst
Police departments in Orange County are certainly gearing up for any type of violence that may erupt during political or social justice rallies, said Carrie Braun, a spokeswoman for the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.
The Orange County Intelligence Assessment Center works with local law enforcement agencies and the FBI to monitor domestic terrorism through social media, regardless of the political season, Braun said. Officers who are part of this unit are aware of “regional and national incidents involving violence at lawful protests by extremists who support a variety of ideologies, including anti-government extremists,” she said.
“Our first goal is to protect life, property and the First Amendment rights of everyone out there,” she said. “Our goal is also to make sure no groups are trying to come in and make use of the opportunity. They’re also looking at anyone who is interested in creating violence or disturbance. We always keep an open line of communication with organizers. If there are individuals coming there to be antagonists, we want to be aware of that information before it begins to manifest.”
The Sheriff’s Department also participates in mutual aid training with other local police agencies to plan a response, should either of them require additional resources to handle a violent situation, Braun said.
‘The police should do the policing’
What law enforcement and federal officials need to do with urgency is to control self-appointed paramilitaries and militia who have no problem taking the law into their hands, said Erroll Southers, a former FBI special agent and director of Homegrown Violent Extremism Studies at USC’s Safe Communities Institute.
“The militia are walking down the street deciding they’re going to be the police now,” he said. “The police should do the policing.”
These politically charged rallies will continue in the coming months, Southers said, and there needs to be a process for rallies and protests to be treated like rolling parades.
“They should be registered like any other rally,” he said. “They should have a set route, a starting and ending point, with rules of conduct and points of contact, should there be a challenge or a problem.”
Southers said he also believes police don’t monitor armed White people as they do armed Black people, and that’s a problem.
“If I walk toward the police at night with an AK 47 slung over my shoulder (as Rittenhouse did), I won’t be alive to talk about it,” he said. “And I’m more than twice his age and a retired law enforcement agent. But it would make no difference. You can’t selectively police people.”
Need for civil discourse
The coronavirus pandemic, the protests and the upcoming election together have started a slow boil that will spill over at some point, said Jason Blazakis, professor at Middlebury Institute of International Studies, director of the school’s Center on Terrorism, Extremism and Counterterrorism.
He says when pundits on the right and even President Donald Trump praise individuals for taking justice into their own hands, that could set a dangerous precedent. Fox News host Tucker Carlson has come under fire for his statements seemingly defending Rittenhouse and Trump’s comments suggesting that the teen may have acted in self-defense.
The antidote to polarization and violence is civil discourse that aims to defuse tensions, Blazakis said.
“I really miss civil discourse and logical debate,” he said. “Instead, you have conspiracy theories that are amplified through disinformation. These theories focus a conspiratorial-minded individual on a target, be it people in the corporate world, government agencies, Jewish people or Asians. These us-versus-them narratives are dangerous and create discord.”