With major cities across the country bracing for an unusual wave of far-right rallies in the coming days, local and federal law enforcement officials are concerned about the potential for more violence amid warnings that white supremacist groups were empowered by President Donald Trump’s response to the deadly attack in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Saturday.
There’s evidence to suggest the events in Charlottesville have motivated numerous individuals to join or actively reengage in dark web white supremacist forums.
“The chatter therein indicates that many of these actors feel emboldened and reinvigorated by the rallies and the controversial remarks made by President Trump amidst the unrest,” according to an analysis by the online datafirm Flashpoint, which tracks and monitors activity on the dark web, a part of the internet that’s accessible only by special means.
Trump has faced a wave of bipartisan backlash in the wake of a jaw-dropping press conference Tuesday at Trump Tower in which he blamed the violence that led to the killing of counterprotester Heather Heyer in Charlottesville on both sides of the conflict, not solely on the neo-Nazis and white supremacists who instigated the rally.
“You had a group on one side that was bad and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent. Nobody wants to say it, but I will say it right now,” Trump said during a contentious back-and-forth with reporters in the lobby of his midtown Manhattan building.
The mixed messages coming from the White House have only fueled the escalating rhetoric from “alt-right” figures and notable white supremacists — many of whom cheered Trump’s statements Tuesday. Law enforcement officials have indicated they are worried about more violence ahead of the widespread alt-right rallies planned in coming weeks across the US.
“I just think the rhetoric has really brought this to a different level, and that’s what we’re worried about,” Boston Police Commissioner William B. Evans said Friday when asked about an event planned in his city. “I’ve never seen so many people looking, almost looking for confrontation, and we’ve gotta knock it down.”
James Norton, a former deputy assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security under George W. Bush, said he thinks the President’s remarks “obviously reignited the issue in a not-productive way.”
“It is incumbent on the President to tone down the rhetoric and be clear that the US government has a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to racially charged hate group organizations that’s mission is to commit violence, spread fear and divide the country,” he said.
More rallies to come
Several organizers of the upcoming “alt-right” rallies have pledged that their events are about free speech, but that reasoning has done little to mitigate concerns.
“What they’re doing is choosing flashpoints around the country to try to rally their people around,” said Oren Segal, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism.
“They do it under guise of free speech or security,” he said. “But really what it is is an opportunity for them to express their hatred in the communities.”
The uptick of white supremacist online activity taking place within these secure chat rooms reflects “a new sense of motivation to either actively re-engage or get started in this community,” according to Alex Kassirer, Flashpoint’s director of counterterrorism.
And that renewed motivation has spawned a number of posts that echo the comments made by one subscriber to the white nationalist site Stormfront on Tuesday.
“Just want to say I’ve been a long time lurker, but with the events in Charlottesville I feel more supportive/compelled than ever. I want to join the fight for a White nation that rules as it was …” the post said.
The decision of several online hosting providers to deny service to alt-right websites in the wake of the events in Charlottesville has resulted in the migration of such communities to the dark web, according to Flashpoint’s analysis.
“Individuals with alt-right sympathies are actively seeking out spaces for interaction with like-minded individuals,” which will “likely result in sustained surges of activity on deep dark web white supremacist forums,” according to their recent report.
Law enforcement response
For the most part, local and federal law enforcement agencies said they will prepare for the upcoming rallies the same way they do for all public protests and rallies.
One law enforcement source at the Boston Police Department told CNN that they anticipate large crowds, but there is no indication of an uptick in white supremacist threats.
Officers “expect good behavior but will be prepared should it go bad,” the source said.
The Department of Homeland Security said it continues to work with federal and local partners “to assess threats and analyze trends in activity from all violent extremist movements, regardless of ideology.”
While law enforcement agencies may not be changing their approach following the violence in Charlottesville, CNN has previously reported that the threat from far-right groups has been on their radar for months, as noted by an internal DHS and FBI memo from May.
The memo, titled “White Supremacist Extremism Poses Persistent Threat of Lethal Violence,” was obtained by Foreign Policy and shows that white supremacists killed 49 people in 26 separate attacks from 2000 to 2016, more than any other extremist group in the US.
The authors of the memo predicted that attacks from white supremacist groups in the coming year would be mostly “spontaneous and involve targets of opportunity.”
But despite monitoring efforts by law enforcement, alt-right and white supremacist organizers have been clear that they have no interest in deescalating the situation after Charlottesville.
“I think a lot more people are going to die here before we’re done here, frankly,” said Chris Cantwell, a white nationalist and speaker for “Unite the Right” in an interview with Vice News.
Former Ku Klux Klan Wizard David Duke called the deadly protests in Charlottesville “a turning point for the people of this country.”
“We are determined to take our country back. We’re going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump,” Duke said in an interview while attending the rally on Saturday.
Duke also praised Trump’s comments on Tuesday, thanking the President for his “honesty and courage” in a tweet.
“Thank you President Trump for your honesty & courage to tell the truth about #Charlottesville & condemn the leftist terrorists in BLM/Antifa,” read the full tweet from an account that is not verified by Twitter but appears to represent Duke and features videos apparently posted by and of him.