Texas has seen a sudden surge in extremist activity within the past three years, with white supremacist and anti-LGBTQ+ groups making the Lone Star state its base of operations.
According to a new report by the Anti-Defamation League, there has been an 89% increase in antisemitic incidents in Texas from January 2021 to May of this year. Along with six identified terrorist plots and 28 occurrences of extremist events like training sessions and rallies, Texas also saw an increase in the frequency of propaganda distribution.
“Texas has a long history of white nationalist activity and for many years has had a very active presence of white nationalist and neo-Nazi groups in the state, but the report’s findings really do paint a very troubling picture of the current situation,” Stephen Piggott, who studies right-wing extremism as a program analyst with the Western States Center, a civil rights group, told Salon.
“Texas is the homebase for a number of really active white nationalist and neo-Nazi groups, such as the Patriot Front and the Aryan Freedom Network.”
This is one of the main factors driving extremism in the state. Patriot Front has contributed to Texas experiencing the highest number of white supremacist propaganda distributions in the United States in 2022, the report found.
The group has a “nationwide footprint,” with members all around the country and their messaging contributing to 80% of nationwide propaganda in 2022 – a trend replicated every year since 2019, according to the report.
Patriot Front has also held rallies in major cities across the country, including Washington, D.C., Boston, Philadelphia and Indianapolis, where the events are frequently the largest public white supremacist gatherings.
Texas’ close proximity to Mexico also makes it a hotbed for anti-immigrant activity, Piggot added, pointing to a growing number of nationalist and neo-Nazi groups focusing on immigration issues.
“They’ll have rallies where a lot of the rhetoric is focused on demonizing immigrants and using dehumanizing rhetoric about immigrants,” he said. “They’re focused on the issue of immigration because Texas is a border state, but also an avenue for getting more recruits.”
The political context further amplifies this phenomenon, Peter Simi, a sociology professor at Chapman University and an expert on white supremacists in the U.S., told Salon.
“When you look at the political context of what’s happening in Texas as far as [the movement of] anti-CRT, anti-reproductive rights, anti-gay… that is extremely conducive and consistent with groups like the Patriot Front, so they kind of thrive,” Simi said.
Last year, 31 members of Patriot Front were arrested near Idaho after police stopped a U-Haul truck near a “Pride in the Park” event and found members dressed uniformly and equipped with riot shields. Every present Patriot Front member was charged with criminal conspiracy to riot.
But this hasn’t deterred the group from putting on public demonstrations and in many cases, even documenting them. In July, close to 100 masked group members recognized Independence Day by holding a flash demonstration in Austin while carrying riot shields, a banner reading “Reclaim America” and upside-down American flags.
“Whenever they have a gathering or any type of kind of public demonstration, they have folks filming and they put out really kind of flashy videos on social media, especially on places like Telegram and it’s all designed to make it look cool and edgy,” Piggot said.
Extremist groups often use online platforms to recruit and spread their ideology. Over the past year, ADL found that online hate and harassment rose sharply for adults and teens ages 13-17.
Among adults, 52% reported being harassed online in their lifetime, the highest number we have seen in four years, up from 40% in 2022, ADL spokesperson Jake Kurz said.
“Many online platforms either recommend more extreme and hateful content or make it easier to find once searched,” Kurz said pointing to the report’s findings. “For some, this could lead to a dark spiral into hate and extremism.”
Patriot Front has emerged as one of the most aggressive groups in terms of distributing propaganda, Simi pointed out. They often even post pictures of the propaganda they’ve distributed online and circulate those images more broadly.
“In a nutshell, they’re trying to really be aggressive in establishing a physical presence through [distributing] flyers as well as through actual demonstrations,” Simi said. “They’ve also been known to do these flash mob style demonstrations and sometimes more coordinated demonstrations where they’ve shown up in places, like our nation’s capital.”
As a part of their recruitment strategies, white supremacist groups have consistently targeted the LGBTQ+ community, disrupting drag shows, targeting pride events and even going after businesses that support LGBTQ+ events. They have used slurs like “groomers” when talking about the LGBTQ+ community to draw more individuals to their movement.
“The anti-LGBTQ+ animus is probably the single greatest driver of white nationalist and anti-democracy activity that we’re seeing across the country right now,” Piggot said.
ADL tracked 22 anti-LGBTQ+ incidents in 2022 across Texas. While some actions involved extremists, others engaged more mainstream anti-LGBTQ+ entities, offering extremists opportunities to expose new audiences to different forms of hate.
“Hate and extremism seem to be a growing issue across the United States,” Kurz said. “The number of antisemitic incidents across the country are the highest we have ever measured. Instances of white supremacist propaganda are high and we are seeing an alarming amount of violence motivated by hate and misinformation.”
Kurz added that people should look at the Texas report and recognize that while some of the types of extremism are different, extremism is a problem in every community in the country.
The communities that are being targeted in Texas mirror those targeted nationwide, said Rachel Carroll Rivas, deputy director for research, reporting and analysis at the SPLC.
“Some of the real intense false conspiracies that circulate around QAnon are resulting in an increase in the sovereign citizen movement – a conspiratorial movement that is not followed and and even recognized a lot in the U.S.,” Carroll Rivas said.
Other trends in Texas that are indicative of broader extremism patterns in the country include the targeting of school curriculums, she added.
The reason why these groups feel comfortable operating in Texas is because of the role that elected officials in the state are playing in “echoing white nationalist talking points,” Piggot said.
He pointed to Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s extreme anti-immigrant actions, putting up barbed wire across the Rio Grande and a chain of buoys with circular saws.
“Governor Abbott is essentially doing the work for white nationalists by echoing and then amplifying their dehumanizing rhetoric,” Piggot said. “Just this week, he declared an invasion [at the border]. That’s a phrase that white nationalists have used to describe what’s happening on the U.S. [and] Mexico border for decades.”
In both Texas and Florida, neo-Nazis and white nationalists are “feeling energized” and have increased their activities due to seeing this type of messaging from Abbot and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, he added.
“We need elected officials to be closing the political space for these groups and denouncing them instead of amplifying their messages for them,” Piggot said.
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