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‘Building an Anti-Racist Vocabulary’ lecture discusses history of the ‘white power’ movement

Kicking off year four of the “Building an Anti-Racist Vocabulary” lecture series on Sept. 2 was Dr. Kathleen Belew, an associate professor in the department of history at Northwestern University.

In her lecture, which took place via Zoom, Belew discussed the “white power movement,” which is the focus of much of her research as well as her book, “Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement.”

Belew began her lecture by introducing modern instances in which the white power movement was evident, specifically focusing on the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

She emphasized that the attack was carried out by several groups of people, one of which was a small but highly-organized group of white power activists who seem to be part of a more complex movement than previously thought.

“What we thought about for a very long time as simply the Ku Klux Klan, an anti-Black movement, or the neo-Nazis, an anti-Jewish movement, or skinheads, who seemed to be attacking all kinds of people of color in the 1980s, actually appear to be part of the same thing,” Belew said.

She went on to highlight the Oklahoma City bombing, which she explained is often thought of as the work of “only a few bad apples.”

“The Oklahoma City bombing was actually the work of a social movement. It was perpetrated by not just one or a few people, but by a broad network of people who had set their sights on the same building in 1983 — so more than a decade before the bombing — and had worked together to bring about this major act of domestic terrorism,” Belew said.

In considering these groups’ cause for unity, Belew cited the Vietnam War.

“The white power movement comes together immediately on the aftermath of the Vietnam War,” Belew said.

She added that 1983 and 1984 were two extremely relevant years for the white power movement. Firstly, the movement adopted a strategy she called “leaderless resistance.”

“Leaderless resistance is what we now understand as simply cell-style terrorism,” Belew said.

The leaderless resistance strategy, Belew said, was implemented during the Civil Rights Era to prevent federal informants, such as the ATF and FBI, from infiltrating the movements’ groups. This led to difficulty in linking various related events with one another.

“For instance, we might get a story about the Tree of Life shooting or about the Christchurch shooting as isolated events, instead of stories about those events as all being perpetrated by the same movement,” Belew explained.

Belew went on to state that the Buffalo shooting manifesto was nearly identical to that of the Christchurch shooting, indicating an interconnectedness between the two.

“The other major event that happened in the years 1983 and 1984 was the introduction of networked computers,” Belew said.

For example, The Order, a white supremacist group, stole millions of dollars to buy computers that could be networked together in order to allow various other groups to communicate without being seen by law enforcement and the FBI, Belew said.

“These groups were early adopters and were using social network activism to network and create the infrastructure for violent action all the way back in 1984,” Belew said.

With their new technology, Belew said the movement grew larger over the next few years. However, in 1987 and 1988, the U.S. Department of Justice attempted a seditious conspiracy trial, meaning it tried to prove that the various activists conspired in a group in an attempt to violently overthrow the government.

“However, for many reasons, this trial did not go as the Department of Justice had hoped,” Belew said. “The movement was acquitted. And what happened afterward is that it shifted directly into the militia movement.”

Belew continued by stressing the importance of using correct and accurate terminology and language when addressing the militia movement.

“It’s tricky, because ‘militia’ is embedded in our shared historical knowledge in a really different way, because we go back and think about men with the tricorn hats instead of about paramilitary guys holding the big guns and wearing the scary masks,” she said.

Belew said that militias were integral to the founding of the United States and are even mentioned in the Constitution. However, she explained they have since been reorganized into other military structures as part of the Dick Act.

“In fact, militias are now illegal in all 50 states,” Belew said.

However, militias still exist and have been seen at events such as the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally. These militias, Belew said, are not regulated by anyone except themselves.

“So, following the legal scholar Mary McCord, I have begun to think of them not as malicious but as an unregulated private army,” Belew said.

She concluded the lecture by reiterating that building an anti-racist vocabulary is an excellent way for people to help limit the power and capacity of white power violence.

She also moved away from the 20th century and gave a final take on the modern militia movement.

“We’re now living in an age where members of these unregulated private armies are running for office,” she said. “That means that we have to worry not only about mass-casualty violence, but we also have to worry about threats to the rule of free elections, to the idea that America should be ruled by and for the people and to the idea that democracy is going to be our system of governance.”

Jenna Abu-Lughod

Contact Jenna at jabulugh@nd.edu.