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Extremism in WNY: How to combat extremism here and elsewhere

Photo illustration by Eileen Koteras Elibol
Buffalo Toronto Public Media

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

On May 13, attorney Heidi Jones and her team of researchers looking into Western New York’s far right, had a meeting to discuss, as she put it, “the changing threat landscape.”

She said they determined that violence would likely not come from one of the groups they’d been looking into, but rather from individuals inspired by the rhetoric of those groups, or other groups like them.

Signs and balloons are attached to the fence surrounding the Jefferson Avenue Tops Market May 21, 2022, where the racist mass shooting took place one week earlier.
Eileen Koteras Elibol
Buffalo Toronto Public Media
Signs and balloons are attached to the fence surrounding the Jefferson Avenue Tops Market May 21, 2022, where the racist mass shooting took place one week earlier.

It’s a theory calledstochastic terrorism, and entails using rhetoric to provoke random acts of extremist violence while still maintaining plausible deniability. The phrasegained some attention after a former Department of Homeland Security official used the term in aWashington Post op-ed in 2019 while discussing the El Paso shooting.

In response to what they deemed as the new threat landscape, Jones’ group decided they should host some Stop the Bleed courses, and encourage people to carry first-aid kits.

The next day, the shooting at Tops Market happened. The white supremacist alleged gunman wrote online he was inspired by the “great replacement” theory that in someways has becomemainstream.

“I was deeply angry that this happened here,” Jones said. “But also that all of the work I've been doing hasn't made an impact.”

So what can be done to curb extremism in Western New York and nationally? The answers aren't simple.

State response

Gov. Kathy Hochulsigned legislation earlier this month that requires social media companies to report how they’re responding to hate speech on their platforms, as well as creates a task force to look at what role the companies play in promoting violent extremism.

But not everyone is convinced it will be easy to tackle hate speech online.

“I think that this is something that's particularly hard to deal with legislatively, I really do,” said University at Buffalo political science professor Jacob Neiheisel.

Hate speech is not criminalized under U.S. law. The Supreme Court hasruled several times that most of what is considered hate speech is not an exception to the First Amendment.

Gov. Kathy Hochul signs legislation regarding hate speech June 6, 2022 in the Bronx.
Don Pollard
Office of Gov. Kathy Hochul
Gov. Kathy Hochul signs legislation regarding hate speech June 6, 2022 in the Bronx.

“In other countries that have less laissez-faire approaches to free speech, like in the UK, for instance, yeah, it's possible to criminalize something like hate speech. Here in the United States, it's fairly difficult to do so,” Neiheisel said. “And even in a state like New York that has somewhat stronger provisions to go after hate speech, it's still not going to stop the proliferation of kinds of things like we’ve seen.”

State officials have facedcriticism for their dormant Domestic Terrorism Task Force. Signed into law in 2020 by then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo, it was required to meet at least four times a year and issue a preliminary report last December.

However, it has yet to publish a report, and only met for the very first time last week.

That meeting was held virtually, according to a state Division of Criminal Justice Services spokesperson, but Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Buffalo Democrat, had hoped it would take place in Western New York.

“I think it sends a very strong message to start here, because this is what they made their first target,” she said. “My people are the ones they made their first target.”

Federal response

In wake of the Tops shooting, Democrats put theDomestic Terrorism Prevention Act up for a vote last month. The legislation would create special offices within the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice and the FBI to target domestic terrorism.

It passed the Democrat-controlled House before being blocked by Republicans in the Senate.

Dr. Anthony Neal, a Buffalo State College professor of Black politics, was disappointed his congressman, Chris Jacobs, an Orchard Park Republican, voted against the bill.

Trump supporters try to break through a police barrier, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, at the Capitol in Washington.
Julio Cortez
AP Photo
Trump supporters try to break through a police barrier, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, at the Capitol in Washington.

“The Republican mantra is that, ‘We are against [white supremacy], but we don't want to pass bad policy,’” Neal said, “and you end up doing nothing in the process.”

In astatement after the vote, Jacobs said the tragedy at Tops was “not a reason to pass a flawed policy.” He noted that DOJ, DHS and the FBI already have offices set up to monitor domestic terrorism, and that the proposed new offices would have “broad jurisdiction that in the wrong hands could be used to investigate political enemies and infringe on the civil liberties and constitutional rights of Americans.”

A bi-partisan gun control packagepassed the senate Thursday evening and will now be sent to the House. The legislation would incentivize states to pass red flag laws and expand background checks for 18- to 21-year-olds. It would be the first gun control measure to come out of Congress in nearly three decades.

“Whether you come at it from white supremacy extremism, foreign terrorism, domestic terrorism,” Neal said, “the common denominator is access to military-style weapons that are efficient killing machines to destroy human lives and human bodies.”

Local response

The Southern Poverty Law Center tracks everything fromhate groups toanti-government groups, the latter being described as hard-right, anti-democratic and believing that an illegitimate government of leftists is trying to bring about a New World Order.

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

There are five anti-government groups in Western New York, as well as ananti-government militia.

SPLC investigative reporter Michael Edison Hayden said communities must call out hatred when they see it, but that it’s also crucial not to automatically label those with different political views as extremists.

“We need to start building real communities everywhere in this country in order to get past whatever this horrible stage we're in,” he said, “and I think that means being able to tolerate people who have different beliefs, but draw the line hard on explicit hatred of any kind.”

Nancie Orticelli, president of one of Western New York’s anti-government groups, the Constitutional Coalition of New York State, said she’d welcome a face-to-face discussion with her critics, like Jones.

“Maybe we could find some kind of common ground just to be human beings, and to be decent and to work for the betterment of the people,” she said. “We're not going to agree on everything, we have completely different beliefs and ideologies, but I'm sure there's some things that we could agree on.”

Jones said she and her team have discussed what they’d say to far-right leaders like Orticelli. However, she said they decided they’d rather focus on helping others recognize extremism.

“That's a better use of energy,” she said.

DOJ has charged the alleged Tops gunman with numerous federal hate crime charges.Speaking in Buffalo last week, FBI officials said they are looking into anyone who communicated with the gunman before the shooting.

Editor’s note: This was the final part in a four-part series on Western New York extremism. The series will air in its entirety on Monday’s edition of Buffalo What’s Next?

Tom Dinki joined WBFO in August 2019 to cover issues affecting older adults.
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