Inspired by a series of hate crimes and the current election season, white supremacists have grown angrier and more energetic in 2016, according to experts.
It’s been one year since nine black parishioners were gunned down in the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, murders that then-21-year-old Dylann Roof — who is white — is accused of committing. Last July, Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced a 33-count indictment against Roof that charged him with federal hate crimes for the June 17 attack, alleging that he sought to ignite racial tensions across the United States with the massacre. Friends of Roof have said that he wanted to start a race war. His trial is set for Nov. 7; prosecutors will seek the death penalty.
That massacre came during what experts described as a multi-year surge in activity among white supremacists, a surge that has continued into this year. And presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump may be fueling the fire.
“A lot of the extreme right perceives Trump as being largely sympathetic to many of their views,” said Mark Pitcavage, a historian for the Anti-Defamation League. “They rather enthusiastically support what they perceive as anti-Hispanic attitudes on his part, anti-Muslim attitudes on his part and other similar ideas.”
Pitcavage said the current surge — which he said began in 2009 shortly after President Obama took office — has been an unusually long one, something he said could be due to Trump’s rhetoric.
At the heart of the surge, experts said, have been many “lone wolves,” who, like Roof, are not officially affiliated with hate groups but get their inspiration from these groups. That can make it difficult to track the number of white supremacists and other extremists in the country, so experts focus on the number of hate crimes carried out by those lone wolves.
The Southern Poverty Law Center released a report in February 2015 — the center’s most recent available data — revealing that domestic terrorist attacks occurred, on average, once every 34 days from April 2009 and February 2015. The study included violence from people on the radical right and homegrown jihadists, often from lone wolves.
“I think we’re going to continue to see that. We’ve certainly seen a number of incidents [this year],” SPLC president Richard Cohen said, adding that Omar Mateen, the gunman who killed 49 people Sunday in an Orlando nightclub, “has all the earmarks of a lone wolf attacker.”
Lone wolf white supremacists have also often been the perpetrators in those attacks, Cohen said, such as Roof and Michael Page, the shooter who killed six people at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin in 2012.
Kathleen Blee, a sociology professor at the University of Pittsburgh, added that lone wolf white supremacists often take inspiration from those types of crimes, which she said might explain the pattern in attacks.
“They feel like they’re acting on behalf of a larger movement,” Blee said. “People in uniforms marching around is pretty small, but then there’s these other tendencies, which are really disturbing.”