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Anarchists the focus, while the racist poison spreads

Sascha Schneider, Der Anarchist, 1894

Tampa did not live up to the law enforcement playbook.

After the FBI and DHS predicted that “anarchist extremists” would attempt to “facilitate violent criminal activity” at the upcoming national political conventions, the media was quick to disseminate the threats outlined in their August 21 Joint Intelligence Bulletin.

They might seek to disrupt the Republican convention with “acid eggs.”  They might try to close or blow up Tampa’s bridges or attack other critical infrastructure. There were, the Bulletin asserted, “some indicators” that they were “acquiring materials” to construct IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices).  

They might combine forces “with other violent extremist movements, such as animal rights extremists or environmental extremists” or collaborate with “overseas anarchist extremists.” There was some evidence that they were engaging in firearms training.  

Well before the Bulletin was issued, the city had transformed itself into a militarized fortress. But the “anarchist extremists” declined to cooperate and give the riot-ready police the excuse to fill up a newly-cleared jail.

Although the “anarchist extremists” label is now a staple used by law enforcement to justify gearing up for repression, there are signs that the FBI regards self-proclaimed anarchists as more of a nuisance than a true existential threat. 

In its heavily-redacted presentation of “Anarchist Extremist Tactics,” the FBI’s Domestic Terrorism Operations Unit portrays anarchists as generally “educated individuals from various backgrounds, often students” who are “resentful of authority figures” and use a variety of tactics from  “passive” civil disobedience to “offensive attacks staged to gain maximum media attention” and to create an image of “aggressive law enforcement.” 

They might not be much of a threat today, but they bear watching because “growing frustration in not achieving goals will likely lead to increasing activity” and “experimentation with new tactics, weapons.”

If you take press headlines seriously, you may think this is what F.E.A.R. (Forever Enduring Always Ready) represents. 

During the week of the Republican convention, the media widely reported that “four Army soldiers based in southeast Georgia killed a former comrade and his girlfriend to protect an anarchist militia group they formed that stockpiled assault weapons and plotted a range of anti-government attacks.”

F.E.A.R., the alleged “anarchist group,” with an unknown number of active duty and former US military members, had spent $87,000 purchasing bomb components and guns. According to prosecutors, it had plans to (among other things) take over a military base, bomb a dam, bomb the vehicles of local, state and federal government officials including the local head of homeland security, poison the apple crop in Washington state, overthrow the government and assassinate the president. 

Men who join the army do not usually possess the antipathy to rigid hierarchy and authority that is a distinctive feature of anarchism. What, then, led these Fort Stewart soldiers – Michael Burnett, Isaac Aguigui, Anthony Peden and Christopher Salmon – to form an “anarchist group”?

The evidence that they did so seems to rest entirely on the prosecutors’ assertion that they “wore distinctive tattoos that resemble an anarchy symbol.” According to Assistant District Attorney Isabel Pauley, Aguigui (who reportedly had been a page at the 2008 Republican convention) was the leader of what she described as "an anarchist group and militia" that included active and former troops.

"Defendant Aguigui actively recruited new members at Fort Stewart (in southeast Georgia) and targeted soldiers who were in trouble or disillusioned,” she said. 

Although there has been some (limited) questioning of the anarchist label, its easy acceptance and wide circulation by the media have deflected attention from possible links between this case and an emerging picture connecting “domestic terrorism” to racism in the military. 

On August 21, the day the FBI and DHS sounded the alarm about the threat anarchist groups posed to the conventions in Tampa and Charlotte, the US Army’s Stars and Stripes printed a Reuters article headlined “US Army battling racists within its own ranks.”

According to the piece, white supremacists, neo Nazis and other racist and anti-Semitic individuals were joining the military to get training for the coming race war. It points out that Wade Michael Page, the former soldier who on August 5 murdered six people at a Sikh temple in the Oak Hill suburb of Milwaukee, had long been known for his racist views.   

In the mid 1990s, Page served at Forth Bragg, North Carolina with white supremacists who later were found guilty of murdering a Black couple.  

CNN on August 8 quotes at length from Pete Simi, a University of Nebraska criminologist who knew Page. According to Simi, “the military experience at Fort Bragg helped instill Page's allegiance to the white power movement. ‘What he told me during the course of our time together was that he really started to identify with the neo-Nazism during his time in the military,’ said Simi, who met Page in 2001 while doing a study on white power groups in California. ‘And specifically, what he told me at one point was that, if you join the military and you're not a racist, then you certainly will be by the time you leave.’ 

“In particular, Simi told CNN, Page's military experience bolstered his perception that ‘the deck was stacked against whites.’ ‘He came to feel that there was preferential treatment for African-Americans in the military and whites were always on the short end of the stick,’ Simi continued. ‘And the more he got into the Nazi ideology, the more he came to see all of society in that way.’”

A 2008 Justice Department report found that half of all right-wing extremists in the United States had military experience.

Did the “disillusioned” soldiers Aguigui allegedly recruited at Fort Stewart in Georgia share the mindset of the anti-government militias that have exploded in number as a response to economic insecurity and the election of an African- American president?  

Far-right ‘Patriot’ organizations have increased from 149 groups in 2008 to 1,274 in 2011, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. And all around the country white men are arming themselves to “take back” their country.

In the words of Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center:

“But what may end up affecting the American radical right more than any other single factor in the coming year is President Obama and the presidential election campaign. If the primaries generate more attacks on the nation’s first black president based on complete falsehoods — that he is a secret Muslim, a Kenyan, a radical leftist bent on destroying America — it’s likely that the poison will spread. And if he wins reelection next fall, the reaction of the extreme right, already angry and on the defensive as the white population diminishes, could be truly frightening.”

The racism that pervades right-wing extremism was present at the Republican convention, in Tampa, but got scant attention in the US media. Among other incidents, the UK Guardian described two convention-goers throwing nuts at an African American CNN camerawoman and saying, “This is how we feed animals.” They were removed from the convention floor.

Instead of demonizing anarchists, law enforcement – and the media – should focus on a danger that won’t assume the form of civil disobedience or street actions designed to attract media attention: the frightening potential for violence being fuelled by a radical racist ideology embedded in the nation’s core.  

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.