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Extremism in WNY: How the region’s far-right groups are reacting to the Tops shooting

Extremism in WNY
Photo illustration by Eileen Koteras Elibol
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Buffalo Toronto Public Media

Editor's note: This is the second in a four-part series.

As President Joe Biden spoke inside Buffalo’s Delavan Grider Community Center last month to honor the victims of the racist Tops Market shooting, dozens gathered on the sidewalk across the street.

One of them was Pete Harding.

In 2020, the Cheektowaga man could be found getting into shouting matches with Black Lives Matter protesters, or leading demonstrations against COVID-19 restrictions. Then images surfaced of him entering the U.S. Capitol building on Jan. 6 and attempting to set ablaze media equipment outside.

“If we can take the Capitol building, there is nothing we can’t accomplish,” Harding said in a Facebook Live video on Jan. 7, 2021.

His charges are still pending.

Outside Biden’s speech, Harding was holding a large white flag with a red cross in a blue square.

Pete Harding with Christian flag
Tom Dinki
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WBFO News
Pete Harding stands with the Christian flag outside the Delavan Grider Community Center where President Joe Biden was speaking May 17, 2022.

The Christian flag dates back to the early 20th century, but some say the flag more recently has come to symbolize Christian nationalism.

“Where anyone who isn't Christian is excluded from democracy,” said Heidi Jones, a Buffalo attorney and activist researching the far-right, “that the only people who count are white Christians.”

Harding’s attorney, Jason DiPasquale, said the flag was meant to show solidarity with the shooting victims, not Christian nationalism. He said Harding got it from his pastor, although he declined to identify the church.

Harding’s appearance in the predominantly Black neighborhood surrounding Tops is just one of the ways Western New York’s far-right is reacting to the shooting.

Leaders of local far-right groups have for the most part taken to social media to defend themselves against allegations of racism and using dangerous rhetoric. They argue the focus should instead be on how the 18-year-old white supremacist suspect fell off law enforcement’s radar despite warning signs.

“Don't keep looking at me and thinking that I'm the racist. Let’s go after the real racists,” said Nancie Orticelli of West Seneca, president of the Constitutional Coalition of New York State. “And let's go after government agencies, like the FBI, who knew about this 18-year-old kid, and the schools knew about him. Let's start holding those people accountable for their own red flag laws that they ignored. And let's hold those people accountable, not Nancie from West Seneca.”

Constitutional Coalition of New York State

The Southern Poverty Law Center identifies five anti-government groups and one anti-government militia in the Western New York region. It describes these groups as hard-right, anti-democratic and believing that an illegitimate government of leftists is trying to bring about a New World Order.

And anti-government groups often overlap and work alongside hate groups, according to SPLC, and traffic in conspiracy theories that often malign the same marginalized communities that hate groups target.

One of the groups is Orticelli’s Constitutional Coalition of New York State, which holds a weekly radio show on WEBR and monthly meetings at an Elma church. The group has also led anti-mask protests, and recently supported school board candidates who oppose vaccine mandates and Critical Race Theory.

But Orticelli denies their far-right label, saying they advocate for every legal American citizen, regardless of race, and that their members aren’t just conservatives.

“Probably the only group of people that we do not have in our organization are socialists, because they don't like us,” she said.

Orticelli said she contemplated not doing her radio show the Monday after the Tops shooting. She had received online criticism accusing her and the Constitutional Coalition of using dangerous rhetoric.

“The only thing that I've ever heard anyone say where I personally have made a statement along those lines is that I said that we need a revolution. And revolution isn't necessarily violent,” she said.

“[I’m] standing up for the rights and freedoms for all, and now I want every people group to be removed except the white people? Like, I don't know where that came from and how that's being attributed to me.”

Constitutional Coalition of New York State
Constitutional Coalition of New York State
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Nancie Orticelli (center) hosts the Constitutional Coalition of New York State's weekly radio show June 13, 2022.

The Coalition's first show after the shooting denounced racism and violence, but also accused Democrats of pandering to people of color, making racism seem worse than it really is, and even wanting to legalize abortions up until one month after a child is born, a false right-wing conspiracy theory.

“We are absolutely becoming like back in the day during the Aztecs and the Incas when they used to sacrifice people,” Orticelli said during the group’s May 16 show. “And people just think this is normal.”

WBFO asked Orticelli if she believes in another conspiracy theory. The “great replacement” theory, espoused by the alleged Tops gunman, states that the Democratic Party is systemically replacing white voters with people of color.

“No, I don't believe in the replacement theory at all,” Orticelli said, before adding, “I don't know. I know what it's saying. It’s saying to remove white people. I don't think, I don't think, I don't, at least I hope that's not what they're doing. But I have no tangible proof as to any of that. So I don't ascribe to that ideology. I do think there's a lot of pandering, but, no, I don't believe in that.”

The New York Watchmen

Jones said the Constitutional Coalition is not the most far-right group in the area, but likened them to a “gateway” to more extremist thinking.

“You start showing up at Constitutional Coalition events, that gets you introduced to Watchmen,” she said.

The New York Watchmen have provided security at events for the Coalition and other far-right groups. Started in response to civil unrest during 2020 racial justice protests, it’s considered an anti-government militia by SPLC. Watchmen members have had affiliations with the Proud Boys, a SPLC-designated hate group whose leaders have been charged with sedition for Jan. 6. 

Asked for more information about the New York Watchmen, a SPLC spokesperson said the group has “engaged in paramilitary style training” and “advocated for violence.”

New York Watchmen clash with counter-demonstrators
Members of the New York Watchmen clash with counter-demonstrators at Niagara Square in downtown Buffalo in December 2020.

Uniformed Watchmen clashed with left-leaning counter-demonstrators at Buffalo’s Niagara Square in December 2020. No arrests were made.

Founder Charles Pellien talked about the incident at length in his New York Watchmen podcast.

Displaying an image of a counter-demonstrator on the ground with a bleeding head wound, Pellien said, “He got his head cracked. Antifa left their blood on the sidewalk that afternoon, and now they’re going to think twice. I mean, they better think twice.”

Although the Watchmen claim that the counter-demonstrators started the altercation, members celebrated the violence.

When Pellien explained on the podcast that a person seen kicking a counter-demonstrator on the ground was a member of “another patriotic group,” Watchmen members applauded.

“Had that been a Watchman, we probably would have had a talk with him. Right, Brett?” Pellien asked his co-host, Brett Biro.

“Yes, of course, of course,” Biro said while laughing.

In a since-deleted Facebook post, Pellien reacted to the Tops shooting May 14 by writing, “Black neighborhood, white suspect in custody. Buckle your chin straps.”

Pellien did not respond to an interview request, but in another Facebook post about extremism allegations against him, called himself, “nothing more than a harmless patriot.”

He’s also taken to Facebook to give his thoughts on the threat of white supremacy.

“The only white supremacy in this country other than psycho mental cases is white liberals in positions of power claiming minorities cannot succeed without them as their savior and placing the victim tag on people to convince them they can not rise above on their own. That is the true white supremacy,” he wrote. “Yeah I said it. I’ll stand by that statement. And I won’t hesitate to say it again in the future.”

New York Watchmen podcast
Yowowa Media
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New York Watchmen founder Charles Pellien (left) and Brett Biro host a podcast posted Dec. 23, 2020, to discuss the group's altercation with counter-demonstrators in Niagara Square.

As for the New York Watchmen’s members, Harding described himself as a member of the group in a 2020 Facebook Live. And Orticelli’s husband, Nicholas, has been photographed wearing a Watchmen uniform.

However, Orticelli denied that he’s a member.

“Wearing what they had with their merch didn’t mean you were a member,” she said.

As for the group’s relationship to the Proud Boys, Orticelli said the two separated after Jan. 6.

“In fact, there were a lot of people from the old Watchmen group that stayed with the Proud Boys, and so they just kind of went their way more toward Niagara County,” she said. “And the rest of the Watchmen just kind of fell apart, or just decided not to pursue what they were doing anymore.”

However, a nonprofit called “New York Watchmen for Freedom” registered for incorporation with the New York State Department of State in April.

As for the Proud Boys, the nearest chapter is in Rochester, according to SPLC’s hate map.

Groups don't agree on every approach

Another local anti-government group on SPLC’s watchlist is the Marching Patriots of East Aurora.

Orticelli describes the group as the “most peaceful, loving group ever.” Members would gather on weekends to wave American flags and sing the national anthem. They’d often bring their children.

“There was no rallying — it was literally just a march of families,” Orticelli said, “I cannot tell you how many strollers were involved.”

However, the Marching Patriots were also in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 6. Harding was wearing the group’s hoodie when he entered the Capitol building.

Pete Harding in Capitol building
FBI
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Pete Harding (right) walks through the U.S. Capitol building Jan. 6, 2021 wearing a Marching Patriots hoodie in video footage obtained by the FBI.

Whether it’s the Marching Patriots’ family-friendly events or Harding’s Christian flag, Jones said local far-right extremism is often disguised.

“They use their Christianity and their patriotism to draw people into thinking they're just mainstream folks having a nice, family-friendly event, and folks don’t realize the extremism behind those events,” she said.

The Marching Patriots dissolved after Jan. 6 because they “didn’t want to be part of any narrative where there was violence,” Orticelli said. She added that members had instructed each other to stay together and not enter any buildings.

“Pete separated himself from the group and did not listen to the instructions,” Orticelli said. “Pete was doing his own thing as usual.”

Orticelli said there’s “no love lost” between her and Harding.

“We did keep the peace for the sake of the unity of the groups, but we were not close,” she said.

After Jan. 6, the Constitutional Coalition put out a statement that Harding was no longer welcome. Other groups went even further, saying none of their members could associate with him at all.

“It did kind of cause a little bit of a division with some patriots,” Orticelli said.

And, while noting that Harding may have good intentions, Orticelli said she doesn't agree with his decision to visit the neighborhood surrounding Tops.

“Sometimes you need to just let people grieve and heal,” she said. “And if you know that your presence is going to cause any kind of friction or any kind of upsetting people going through something so horrible, I think that you should have the sensitivity to just stay away for a little bit.”

Editor’s note: Part Three, airing Thursday, will examine Western New York political figures with ties to far-right groups, and how they’re reacting to the Tops shooting.

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