The election of the nation’s first black president, Barack Obama, triggered an explosion in the number of militia and so-called “patriot” groups across the U.S., a new report from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) finds.
The report, released Thursday, finds that while there were 149 such groups active in the U.S. when Obama was sworn in, in January 2009, the number today is 1,274 — an increase of more than 755 percent over the first three years of the Obama administration.
The SPLC defines the “patriot” movement as made up of conspiracy-minded individuals who see the federal government as their primary enemy. The movement includes paramilitary militias as well as groups of “sovereign citizens,” who believe they are not subject to federal or state laws, nor obligated to pay federal taxes, according to SPLC.
The center also reports a steady rise in the number of hate groups in America — from 604 in 2000, to more than 1,000 last year. Those include anti-gay groups, anti-Muslim groups, black separatists and “Christian Identity” groups, which hold racist and anti-Semitic views that overlap with neo-Nazi beliefs.
The spike in these groups can be attributed to a combination of factors, including the sluggish economy, radical propaganda and anxiety over the election of a black president, [the SPLC’s Mark] Potok said.
Potok said although many individuals involved in patriot militias are not criminals, a handful of these groups have been responsible for a significant amount of violence in recent years.
Potok, a senior fellow at the SPLC and the editor-in-chief of the annual report, told theGrio militia/patriot groups first appeared in significant numbers in early 1994, in response to what some saw as the government’s overly violent response to the Ruby Ridge and Waco standoffs with anti-government and religious groups in 1992 and 1993. They caught national attention with the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building by Timothy McVeigh and his cohorts in 1995, and then peaked at around 858 such groups across the U.S. in 1996.
“Then they begin to decline for a variety of reasons, and they more or less peter out at the end of the decade,” said Potok. “So what you get by 2000 is about 150 of these groups; they’re still around but they’re not very active.”
But Potok said the resurgence of the militia groups coincides with the appearance of then-Senator Barack Obama on the public scene, and increased as his campaign for the White House gathered steam, and as the economy teetered toward collapse.
“In 2008, we have 149 patriot groups,” Potok said. “Then in August [of 2008], Obama is nominated. As the fall progresses it looks like he’s going to win. Then in October , we have the subprime [mortgage] meltdown. So very quickly, even in the fall [of 2008] we see a bunch of assassination plots [against Obama] develop. In 2009, the number jumps to 512 groups, in 2010, it’s 824. It’s continued to grow. It’s really quite dramatic.”
Potok told MSNBC the number of these groups has accelerated as many of these groups increasingly fear Obama will be re-elected. Separate anecdotal evidence shows a sharp increase in gun sales in the U.S., as the November election nears. Gun sales also surged after the 2008 election.
Some of the militia groups merely conduct military-style drills and exercises. Others say they are simply arming themselves to defend their Second Amendment/gun rights. But occasionally, members of “patriot” groups have been tied to violent plots. Since the Oklahoma City bombing, numerous such plots have been documented, with government employees frequently the target:
From an SPLC release coinciding with the the report:
With the recent growth of the radical right has come what most experts agree is a rash of domestic terrorism, much of it aimed at President Obama and other authorities. In the last year, several examples have cropped up. In Michigan, members of the Hutaree Militia are currently on trial for planning to murder a police officer and then attack the funeral with homemade bombs in an effort to spark a war against the government. In Georgia, four militia members are facing charges of conspiring to bomb federal buildings and attack four cities with the deadly ricin toxin. And four members of the Alaska Peacemakers Militia are accused of planning to murder judges and law enforcement officials as part of a plan to overthrow the federal government.
As for the concurrent rise in hate groups, the SPLC found 1,018 such groups active in the U.S. in 2011, with the largest numbers to be found in California (84), Georgia (65), Florida (55), and Mississippi (41)> And while the Pacific Northwest and Arizona have been long associated with militia groups, the states with higher concentrations tend to be in the south.
And while Obama is not the sole focus of either the patriot or hate groups’ attention, Potok said in the report release, that the presidential election is fueling some of their rage, along with issues related to the economy. From the SPLC release:
The dramatic expansion of the radical right is the result of our country’s changing racial demographics, the increased pace of globalization, and our economic woes,” said Mark Potok…
“For many extremists, President Obama is the new symbol of all that’s wrong with the country — the Kenyan president, the secret Muslim who is causing our country’s decline,” Potok said. “The election season’s overheated political rhetoric is adding fuel to the fire. The more polarized the political scene, the more people at the extremes.”
Many Americans are enraged by what they see as America’s decline, and opportunistic politicians have done their best to stoke those fears and demonize President Obama in the process. For some, the prospect of four more years under the country’s first black president also is an infuriating reminder that whites will lose their majority in this country by 2050.
View the SPLC’s list of active patriot groups in the U.S. by state, here.