During the dying days of Donald Trump’s turbulent four-year presidency, hundreds of his supporters stormed Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. in a brazen attempt to stop Congress’ certification of Joe Biden’s presidential election victory.
A disturbing proportion of the demonstrators who participated in this unprecedented event on January 6, 2021 were far-right extremists who belonged to white supremacist movements and militias and neo-Nazi groups dedicated to the overthrow of the government in a second American revolution.
The events of that chaotic winter day did not emerge out of a vacuum, says Richard Rowley, the host of American Insurrection, a 90-minute film to be broadcast on the PBS network and YouTube on Tuesday, April 13 at 10 p.m. It’s presented by Frontline, the longest-running investigative documentary series in the United States, in collaboration with ProPublica, an independent, non-profit newsroom organization.
In American Insurrection, Rowley investigates the threat posed by extreme right-wing groups prone to violence. As he points out in his somber report, its leaders and members regard themselves as patriots defending the U.S. constitution. In fact, they are linked to anti-government and white supremacist organizations.
According to Rowley, the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in the summer of 2017 was a prelude to the riots that convulsed the U.S. capital on January 6. A motley assortment of white nationalists, white supremacists, militia types and neo-Nazis descended on Charlottesville, all eager to confront anti-fascist opponents.
The antisemitic rhetoric on display there, along with an outbreak of violence that resulted in the death of a young woman, precipitated a wave of revulsion across the country. But to Trump, some “very fine people” could be found on both sides of the barricades. In Rowley’s opinion, Trump’s rhetoric from that point onward was seen as a call to action by extremists.
Charlottesville, as Rowley reports, led to further manifestations of far-right extremist violence, including an attack by a neo-Nazi thug on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in October 2018 which led to the deaths of 11 congregants.
Oddly enough, he glosses over this murderous rampage, the deadliest antisemitic incident in American history, and proceeds to focus on extremists affiliated with the Proud Boys and the Boogaloo Boys, both of which were represented at the January 6 rally in Washington.
Rowley interviews Brian James, a right-wing gang leader who broke away from the Proud Boys and who, more or less, regards Trump as an ally.
Another figure Rowley mentions is Steven Carrillo, who was radicalized while serving in the U.S. Air Force as a sergeant. Last year, he was charged with the deaths of two policemen in California. An acolyte of the Boogaloo Boys, whose members usually wear loud Hawaiian shirts, he believes that a civil war is necessary to cleanse America of its baneful influences.
Gary Croft, a militia leader currently in prison, believes the U.S. is ruled by an “illegitimate junta.” One of his comrade-in-arms, the youthful head of a Boogaloo Boys cell, claims the U.S. is “past the point of peace” and is in dire need of a revolution.
Rowley posts a clip of Elizabeth Neumann, a former Trump administration official who claims the former president ignored the white supremacist threat facing the United States today.
In Rowley’s view, a foiled plot by the Wolverine Watchmen militia to kidnap Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer, resulting in the arrest of 14 of its members, was yet another precursor to January 6.
A former Justice Department official interviewed by Rowley claims that Trump emboldened the far-right, giving them the distinct impression he was on their side.
Trump’s refusal to concede defeat after last November’s presidential election prompted extremists like the Proud Boys to mount protest marches on the streets of America, Rowley says.
Returning to the January 6 insurrection, which injured 140 police, he notes that many of the 130 protesters arrested by the FBI were linked to far-right groups and were former servicemen in the armed forces.
Rowley thinks the Biden administration takes the far-right threat seriously, but he prudently reminds a viewer that the white supremacist movement has been around for decades, and that it is not fading away.