Extremists on cops’ radar — even in ‘progressive’ California

Police officers in San Diego's Pacific Beach distgrict respond to a pro-Donald Trump demonstration after violent clashes with Trump's opponents break out. (Photo: Brandon J. Hale, via Shutterstock)

As the role of violent extremists captures the public’s attention, law enforcement and other groups in California are trying to answer basic questions: Who are they? Where are they?

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which has tracked extremist groups for years, recently released its annual state-by-state rundown of extreme right- and left-wing organizations, reflecting in part the Jan. 6 assault on Congress.

Cassie Miller, a senior research analyst at SPLC concluded that the number of extremist and hate groups across the country had actually declined from 940 in 2019 to 838 groups in 2020. Their activity, however, appears to be increasing.

The issue of such extremist groups has been especially urgent for Californians in spite of the state’s reputation for progressive social values.

In 2020, the SPLC recorded a total of 72 California-based hate groups, which they cited as promoting anti-immigrant, anti-LGBT, anti-Muslim, White Nationalist, and Neo-Nazi ideology, among others. The California groups represent about 8.6% of the national total.

In the past year, the SPLC has found, the COVID-19 pandemic has altered their traditional organizational strategies, prompting them to make increased outreach efforts through the use of social media platforms.

Additionally, Miller also attributes this to the increasing organizational “diffusion” of such groups, noting that extremists perceive an increasing level of threats and scrutiny from law enforcement, intelligence agencies, anti-fascists, and journalists, among others.

However, Miller cautions that the 2020 decline mostly represents “a shift in the organizational structure of the movement and not necessarily a decline in the threat that is posed by far-right extremists”, warning that the groups remain “highly mobilized and extremely dangerous.”

As a result of the SPLC’s research, Miller additionally criticized statements by American politicians, including from former President Trump, about purported left-wing violence, noting that far-right groups have been “responsible for the overwhelming majority of violent terror attacks in this country.”

Law enforcement agencies themselves have not been immune to such threats.

The issue of such extremist groups, which includes organizations subscribing to white nationalist and anti-government ideologies, has been especially urgent for Californians in spite of the state’s reputation for progressive social values.

Throughout the state, law enforcement agencies have taken notice, with the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Department establishing a special task force specifically to “to investigate any right-wing terrorists or terrorist groups that have any intention on harming public officials, destroying government facilities or putting our community at-risk,” according to spokesman Sgt. Michael Low.

Law enforcement agencies themselves have not been immune to such threats.

An Orange County officer was found to have attended the Capitol Hill Riots, the LA Times reported, and a deputy from the Orange County Sheriff’s Department wore a patch referring to the Oath Keepers, a far right, anti-government organization while controlling a protest.

As part of an effort to tackle extremism within law enforcement agencies, Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascon has made it clear that “extremist groups must be uprooted from law enforcement immediately”, the Times reported.

However, Margaret Huang, the president and C.E.O of the SPLC, doubts the efficacy of such efforts, stating that the “failure” of previous efforts by law enforcement agencies in challenging the threat posed by extremist groups rules out any effort “to give more power to the police”.

Editor’s Note: Anthony Robert is a Capitol Weekly intern from the University of California, Los Angeles.

Want to see more stories like this? Sign up for The Roundup, the free daily newsletter about California politics from the editors of Capitol Weekly. Stay up to date on the news you need to know.

Sign up below, then look for a confirmation email in your inbox.


Support for Capitol Weekly is Provided by: