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June 08, 2023

Hate groups’ political influence in Pa. and beyond growing, watchdog says

At least 70 extremist groups have been identified in Pennsylvania, including chapters of Moms for Liberty, which hosts its annual summit in Philly this summer

More than 1,200 hate and anti-government extremist groups were active across the United States in 2022, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s latest report on the nationwide prevalence of extremists who target people of color, LGBTQ people, Jewish communities and other religious minorities.

While the overall number of hate and anti-government groups tracked by the SPLC has remained relatively steady in recent years, trends and tactics have changed over time, according to the organization’s annual audit. And some groups identified by the organization, which has long analyzed U.S. extremism, gained influence among a segment of elected Republicans.

“As these groups have grown bolder, right-wing lawmakers have acted in lockstep pushing legislation to control our bodies, to erase Black history in schools, and to criminalize the LGBTQ+ community,” she continued.

Titled "The Year in Extremism and Hate 2022," the report attributes some trends to “growing GOP extremism,” specifically naming some officials in federal and state offices, and cites comments from Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia about the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Rep. Greene’s office and leadership of the U.S. House Freedom Caucus, the group that represents the chamber’s most far-right members, did not respond to requests for comment on the report.

The survey, published annually since 1990, monitors leafleting and recruiting, “alt-tech” social media platforms, subversion among law enforcement, militia activity and anti-inclusion campaigns at the school district level.

Researchers at Tuesday’s press conference said they found increasing extremist activity in numerous states, including Florida, New York, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Ohio and Virginia.

The report identified at least 70 groups in Pennsylvania, including a number of chapters of Moms for Liberty, a conservative group that increasingly has inserted itself into policy debates at local school boards.

Pa. LGBTQ groups mobilize against Moms For Liberty gathering in Philly

The gunman in the 2022 mass shooting that claimed 10 lives at a Buffalo grocery store in a predominantly Black neighborhood had compiled a manifesto based on the racist and anti-Semitic “Great Replacement” theory — one of the ideologies tracked by SPLC’s report.

Of the 12 “alt-tech” social media sites tracked by the SPLC in 2022, five of them ranked among the top 10% most visited domains in the U.S., researchers found. The report defined “alt-tech” sites as platforms and message boards with little to no content moderation.

Gab, one of the platforms that continues to be a “safe haven” for extremist rhetoric, according to the report, was the site where Robert Bowers, the alleged gunman in the 2018 deadly Pittsburgh synagogue attack, published his anti-refugee screeds before opening fire on three Jewish congregations — one that had just hosted a refugee support event.

Eleven worshipers died in the attack. Bowers is on trial in federal court in Pittsburgh.

The groups

The SPLC defines hate groups as those that attack or malign people, “typically for their immutable characteristics.” The report’s criteria for anti-government groups include seeing the federal government as an “enemy of the people” and often spreading baseless conspiracy theories.

The report identified 523 hate and 702 anti-government groups active in 2022.

The activities of several groups are detailed in the 39-page document, including the targeting by Proud Boys members of more than 40 LGBTQ events in 2022.

The report also detailed some groups’ activities in Congress and state legislatures.

The Florida-based Moms For Liberty, with chapters throughout the U.S., targeted school curricula, including a chapter in Tennessee that campaigned against a book about Martin Luther King Jr. as “anti-white,” according to the report.

Moms For Liberty co-founder Tiffany Justice testified in front of Congress in March during a hearing focused on a 2021 FBI memo about threats to local school officials.

Aftermath of Jan. 6, 2021 

SPLC’s report found that militia activity declined after playing an outsized role in the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol — though a decentralized anti-government movement continues to grow.

The drop was “largely a result (of) members and leaders being held accountable for their role in the Jan. 6 attack,” said Rachel Carroll Rivas, deputy director of research, reporting and analysis for SPLC’s Intelligence Project.

Researchers found that the Oath Keepers — whose founder Stewart Rhodes was convicted of seditious conspiracy in the Jan. 6 attack — significantly declined in local chapter numbers.

While four Proud Boys leaders were convicted of seditious conspiracy in the attack, their chapters have increased to 78 in 2022 from 43 in 2020 but are now “more autonomous,” with notable growth in Tennessee, said Cassie Miller, senior research analyst for SPLC’s Intelligence Project.

Anti-government groups’ tactics shifted, and local leafleting and flyering “have gone up dramatically,” Miller said.

The report provides several recommendations, including increasing public and private investment in community-centered prevention, advocating for civics and inclusion education in schools, mandating that local police departments report hate crimes for the FBI’s annual report, and holding social media sites accountable.

Capital-Star Editor John L. Micek contributed to this story.

Pennsylvania Capital-Star is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Pennsylvania Capital-Star maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor John Micek for questions: Follow Pennsylvania Capital-Star on Facebook and Twitter.