Black, Brown and extremist: Across the far-right spectrum, people of color play a more visible role


By Hannah Allam and Razzan Nakhlawi,

Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post

A stun grenade is fired around supporters of President Donald Trump who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

Brandon Rapolla is not who springs to mind as the face of the far right.

Rapolla’s brown skin, a reflection of his multiracial ancestry, is at odds with images of White guys in self-styled militias wearing camouflage in the woods. The militia stereotype is so entrenched, Rapolla said, that airline ticket agents have refused to believe him when he gives them a heads-up that he’s on a domestic terrorism watch list.

“This one lady — she was Asian — she said, ‘Darling, you don’t look like a domestic terrorist. It’s a mistake,’ ” Rapolla recalled. “I said, ‘Nope, I am. That’s what I’m labeled as.’ ”

Rapolla, a 46-year-old former Marine, has participated in four armed standoffs with the federal government, including the “Bundy Ranch” episode in 2014. He was active in two far-right factions — the Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters — and co-founded the Pacific Patriots Network to boost cooperation. His trajectory, he said, shows how people of color are carving space in movements that are generalized as exclusively White in membership and racist in ideology.

Rapolla’s father has roots in China and Guam, while his mother is a mix of Scandinavian, Inuit, Mexican and Greek ancestry. None of that matters, he said, when he stands alongside fellow “patriots” who share his concerns about government overreach and Second Amendment rights.

“People on the far right are automatically labeled as racist,” Rapolla said. “It’s a weapon used by elitists in order to keep their power where they want it.”

People of color are playing increasingly visible roles across the spectrum of far-right activism. Today, non-White activists speak for groups of radicalized MAGA supporters, parts of the “Patriot” movement, and, in rare cases, neo-Nazi factions. Although a few have concealed their identities, many others proudly acknowledge their backgrounds and offer themselves as counterpoints to charges of pervasive racism in right-wing movements.

The “multiracial far right,” as it’s sometimes called, adds another layer to an already fraught debate over how to address violent extremism, the top domestic terrorism threat. Understanding the makeup and motivations of far-right groups is crucial to the Biden administration’s pledge to overhaul the federal response to domestic threats in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 mob attack on the U.S. Capitol.

[Texas firm helped convince many the election was stolen from Trump]

People of color are a tiny fraction of that world, but analysts say they play an outsized role in challenging perceptions. The common refrain that white supremacy is a main driver of the far right is complicated when Black or Brown figures speak publicly for Stop the Steal, the Proud Boys, Patriot Prayer and other factions that are under scrutiny. The trend is forcing new ways to think about, and talk about, the far right’s appeal.

“It’s like a multiracial kind of fascism in that it absolutely imagines a nation that has to defend itself from marauding outsiders and invest in militarism. But it’s not in the language of ‘purity’ that we often associate it with,” said Daniel Martinez HoSang, a Yale University associate professor and co-author of the 2019 book “Producers, Parasites, Patriots: Race and the New Right-Wing Politics of Precarity.”

The roles played by people of color and their reasons for joining vary by movement, according to extremism analysts and interviews with 10 Black, Hispanic and Asian American right-wing figures. Most of the activists would not speak on the record or would allow only their first names to be published, citing fears that they, their families or employers could be targeted by left-wing opponents.

There are important distinctions in labeling, too. Although the GOP’s hard-right turn in the Trump era has blurred the line between mainstream and extreme, there remains a divide between ordinary conservatives of color and those who align themselves with right-wing movements linked to hate and violence.

“We as people of color are more of an integral part of today’s mainstream society than we ever have been, and that means you’re going to find more people of color on the right,” said Daryle Lamont Jenkins, a veteran anti-fascist organizer who leads the hate-tracking group One People’s Project. “Which is fine, until it starts going to that far right. The fascist right. The neo-Nazi right.”

During last summer’s civil rights demonstrations, people of color who showed up with right-wing counterprotesters received particular invective from the crowds. They were taunted as “sellouts,” “Uncle Toms,” or stuck “in the sunken place” — a reference to the racially themed horror film “Get Out.”

Right-wing activists of color said it was especially galling to be called racist by White social justice protesters. The real racism, they countered, is denying them the agency to follow whatever ideology they choose — no matter how repugnant it is to liberals.

“I’m not brainwashed,” said 42-year-old Emmanuel, a Puerto Rican who belongs to a far-right militia group in Virginia.

The views Emmanuel expressed were echoed almost verbatim by other people of color on the far right: They describe themselves as American, not “hyphenated Americans.” They hadn’t personally experienced prejudice, so they extrapolated that complaints about systemic racism were overblown. When they invoke the civil rights movement, it’s to explain how far the country has come, not how far it still has to go.

Marching at a rally last month with a semiautomatic rifle slung across his chest, Emmanuel rolled his eyes at the idea that he’s a self-hating Latino who’s being used as a token. Although he echoes Republican bootstraps-style talking points, he rejects party labels and identifies politically as a “constitutionalist.” He said he voted for Barack Obama in 2008, Donald Trump in 2016.

“They’re the actual racists. We’re the ones that accept everybody,” Emmanuel said of liberals who regard him as an extremist. “I don’t need you to speak for me. I can speak for myself.”

Radicalized MAGA

The mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 was overwhelmingly White, but the official speaker lineup for the rally that day was more diverse.

Vernon Jones, a Black former Georgia state lawmaker, and Katrina Pierson, a Black adviser and former spokeswoman for the Trump campaign, were among the speakers parroting the baseless assertion that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump. Another familiar face was main rally organizer Ali Alexander, born in Texas as Ali Abdul-Razaq Akbar, of mixed Black American and Middle Eastern descent.

Jason Armond

Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

From left, Ali Alexander, an organizer for the “Stop the Steal” movement, along with conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and Vernon Jones, then a member of the Georgia House of Representatives, at a rally at the Georgia Capitol on Nov. 18, 2020, in Atlanta.

Despite a murky past that includes felony convictions, Alexander became a darling of the right-wing pundit class, with ties to a laundry list of far-right extremists and to just as many MAGA Republican figures. Alexander’s rise, in large part, is linked to his willingness to use race as a political weapon.

Alexander promoted the “birther” campaign against Obama, tweeting that he is an “African man (he is not Black!).” Years later, Alexander similarly targeted then-candidate Kamala D. Harris, whose father is Jamaican, by calling her “not an American Black.” He added that he was “so sick of people robbing American Blacks (like myself) of our history. It’s disgusting.”

Today, the 35-year-old Alexander is reportedly in hiding after facing blowback for his role as an organizer on Jan. 6; federal authorities are investigating possible connections between Alexander and the Capitol rioters. Still, he has managed to keep churning out videos, seeking money and vowing revenge.

“I’ve been licking my wounds, but I’ve been plotting. I’ve been planning. I’ve been scheming,” Alexander said in February in a video on Trovo, a gaming platform he turned to after being kicked off other sites. “Because we have to do away with this whole system.” He did not respond to The Washington Post’s attempts to reach him for comment.

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Alexander is part of a cohort of ultraconservative people of color who are fixtures on right-wing lecture circuits and podcasts that trade in racist or bigoted stereotypes.

Filipino American pundit Michelle Malkin, for example, has defended the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, supported the post-9/11 racial profiling of Arabs and Muslims, and promoted anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about George Soros. After Malkin publicly praised white nationalists and the Proud Boys, she was dropped by the speakers bureau of the Young America’s Foundation, a conservative youth group. The foundation tweeted, “There is no room in mainstream conservatism or at YAF for holocaust deniers, white nationalists, street brawlers, or racists.”

Malkin did not respond to requests for comment.

“Part of their standing on the White right is that they’re constantly willing to attack other people of color and say anti-Black things in ways that kind of ingratiate them to White conservatives,” said Martinez HoSang, the professor. “Whereas there’s another group of conservatives of color that refuses to do that, sees it as racist and wants to build a conservatism that isn’t predicated on those racist assumptions.”

Extremism trackers stress that their concern isn’t with ordinary conservatives of color who support Trump. As with the broader MAGA crowd, the alarm comes with a smaller subset of extremists like those at the Capitol on Jan. 6. Domestic terrorism analysts say that rallies throughout the summer and fall led to dangerous links between Trump’s most ardent fans and organized groups with violent histories.

Matthew Busch

for The Washington Post

Jen Salinas, center, vice president of Latinos 4 Trump, is pictured with the group’s supporters in San Antonio on May 14.

Jen Salinas, a Latinos 4 Trump leader known online as Jen Loh, said she traveled from Texas to join the crowd at the Capitol — outside, she emphasized — because of her devotion to Trump as well as concerns over immigration and what she calls the liberal “indoctrination” of society.

That wasn’t the first trip where Salinas hung out with the extreme right. Previously, she posted a photo with members of the white nationalist group American Guard, who were in red hats with the MAGA slogan in Spanish. “No they are NOT racist folks!” Salinas wrote on Facebook.

On the night of the November election, she was with Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio, a Cuban American, during a bloody brawl with counterprotesters. And after the melee on Jan. 6, Salinas said, her friend Kyle Chapman called to check on her. Chapman broke with the Proud Boys and formed an explicitly white nationalist splinter group.

Joe Raedle

Getty Images

Enrique Tarrio, leader of the Proud Boys, greets people outside the Conservative Political Action Conference on Feb. 27 in Orlando.

A post on Chapman’s Telegram channel reads: “We will no longer cuck to the left by appointing token negros as our leaders. We will no longer allow homosexuals or other ‘undesirables’ into our ranks.” In an email exchange with The Washington Post, Chapman confirmed he wrote the post and acknowledged, “I am an advocate of white nationalism.”

Salinas is from the border town of Laredo, Tex., where she grew up speaking Spanish and helping her grandmother cook for the community’s Las Posadas celebrations at Christmas. She’s proud of her Mexican heritage. Why, then, would she forge ties with white nationalists?

At no point did Salinas express concern that “the movement,” as she refers to her nativist MAGA milieu, aligns her with people who are unapologetically racist.

“I mean, we all have these friends that talk about these things,” Salinas said.

‘Patriot’ movement

One recent Saturday, a mild spring afternoon with geese honking overhead, a couple dozen Virginia-based gun rights activists gathered in front of the Hampton City Hall to repeat their usual challenge to politicians calling for gun control: “Come and take it.”

The night before, the local NAACP chapter had gathered Black activists at the same spot to denounce gun violence and Second Amendment extremism. John Perkins, 65, a retired Black police officer who’s now running for Hampton sheriff, attended the NAACP event and then came back the next day to meet the armed groups for himself.

“I told myself, ‘Okay, I know my skin color is different from theirs, but I’ll know how they are once I start talking to them,’ ” Perkins said.

The small right-wing crowd immediately welcomed Perkins, prayed over him and invited him to speak. The demonstrators included Emmanuel, the heavily armed Puerto Rican who belongs to a self-styled militia. He was there with a White militia leader who’s rearing two biracial children with his ex, a Black Lives Matter supporter.

Perkins said he was most stunned to meet a woman claiming Cherokee ancestry. A Confederate flag keychain dangled from her camouflage pants as she invoked Native history in her defense of the Second Amendment, referencing “ancestors who did not make it to see this day because they were never allowed to have their guns.”

“I was surprised,” Perkins said. “I was trying to figure out why. Why are they part of these groups?”

[Eroding trust, spreading fear: The historical ties between pandemics and extremism]

Extremism analysts say right-wing activists of color typically find the greatest acceptance and ideological overlap in the world Perkins had glimpsed: the “Patriot” movement. That’s the umbrella term applied to groups that describe themselves as militias, tax protesters and others who hold conspiracist views about the government.

The Oath Keepers, a far-right network that recruits veterans and law enforcement officers, forbids discrimination and hatred in its bylaws. Similarly, the largest Three Percenter militia factions have issued statements rejecting white nationalism and have kicked out members for neo-Nazi sympathies. Civil rights groups dismiss such gestures as cosmetic — PR ploys for movements with records of violence and discrimination.

Last December, the Real 3%ers Idaho donated $1,000 toward repairing the Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial in Boise after it was vandalized and plastered with swastika stickers. The group’s money was returned in late January after an anonymous email sent to local media denounced the donation as collusion with “hate groups just weeks after an attempted coup,” according to local news reports.

“The bottom line is, we denounce all forms of religious and racial supremacy and what that means to us is that supremacy comes with oppression, and we’re opposed to oppression flat-out,” Real 3%ers Idaho leader Eric Parker said in a video about the incident.

Underneath the race-neutral facade, extremism trackers say, serious internecine splits remain about how inclusive far-right movements should be. Other forms of discrimination persist in “Patriot” circles; forums are sprinkled with anti-Jewish references and ugly Muslim tropes. It’s not that racism isn’t an issue in the movement, extremism trackers say, it just isn’t a primary factor the way it is for white power groups.

The Anti-Defamation League notes in a report that the overlap between the Patriot and white supremacist movements “has shrunk over time.”

That change made room for Joey Gibson, who is of Japanese descent, to create his Patriot Prayer campaign. Gibson regularly turns up to gun rallies and right-wing demonstrations across the country, railing against antifa and cancel culture. He’s facing a felony riot charge, accused of inciting clashes between Patriot Prayer and antifascists on May Day in 2019. He has pleaded not guilty.

Karen Ducey

Getty Images

Joey Gibson, leader of Patriot Prayer, leads a group of far-right demonstrators on Aug. 17, 2019, in Portland, Ore.

Gibson often alludes to racial struggles in his speeches and social media posts, drawing connections between the 1960s civil rights movement and his own far-right activities. He says the people who call him extremist are “label lynching.” This month, he outraged critics by using segregation and Rosa Parks to make a point about how people opposed to vaccines are treated.

Gibson said the comparisons are provocative only because liberals don’t want to contemplate themselves as today’s civil rights violators. Plus, he said, he truly does admire the activists who staged sit-ins at diners during the Jim Crow days and didn’t budge when racists poured food and drinks on them.

“When antifa goes out and throws milkshakes on people they don’t even know, it’s kind of the same thing,” Gibson said. “Just a different era.”

A 2019 essay, co-written by the activist Jenkins, described Patriot Prayer as part of “a trend of Far Right organizing that departs from their explicitly White nationalist contemporaries and often fuses anti-racist language into otherwise nationalist, misogynistic, libertarian and xenophobic platforms.”

Gibson said it’s easier for people to smear him as an extremist than take the time to listen to his critiques of big government and what he sees as the creep of socialism.

“It’s extremely frustrating and insulting to people, whether they be Black, Mexican, transgender, whatever. These people have their own philosophy and their own beliefs and they’re paying a price for not conforming,” Gibson said. “Like when Joe Biden said, ‘If you vote for Trump, you ain’t Black.’ ”

White supremacists

Last fall, an antifa account on Twitter delved into the identity of “Robbie,” an active neo-Nazi agitator in the Washington area who runs a Telegram channel filled with violent, racist posts. Using public information laid out in a series of tweets, the activist revealed that Robbie was really Sayed Javid, a 23-year-old beekeeper of South Asian descent.

Fairfax County Police

Sayed “Robbie” Javid, pictured at age 19.

“While this is an anomaly it is not unheard of. We are unsure if his Nazi companions know this about Robbie,” the antifa account tweeted. Javid did not respond to repeated attempts to reach him for comment.

“Robbie” is among the outliers, people of color at the extreme racist fringe of the far right. In several cases, they’ve been linked to bias-motivated attacks and vandalism.

Extremism watchers point to Latinos who belong to violent skinhead crews. Yousef Barasneh, from an Arab American Muslim background, was charged last year as part of a crackdown on the neo-Nazi group The Base. Alex Michael Ramos, a far-right militant of Puerto Rican descent, was sentenced to six years in prison for beating a Black man in the chaos of the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville.

This is the category that most perplexes analysts. Other extreme right causes see people of color as useful, if not welcome, because they lend legitimacy and shield against accusations of racism. People of color also find benefit — fellow ideologues, a sense of power and belonging, sometimes financial gain.

It’s far more difficult to explain why a smaller fringe joins groups that promote hate and violence against their own communities. Groups that, put simply, do not want them.

“I’ve come across a number of white supremacists of various racial backgrounds who hide that fact. They tried to overcompensate by becoming even more white supremacist,” said Mark Pitcavage, an ADL extremism researcher who has monitored far-right groups for decades. “For some people, it’s about a loss of identity because they have a foot in two worlds, but not a firm foot in either. They choose one world and abandon or deny the other.”

[Identifying far-right symbols that appeared at the U.S. Capitol riot]

Jenkins, the antifa organizer, said that in late 2015 his group was approached by a Brown man who introduced himself as a leftist activist named Mohamed. For a year, Jenkins said, Mohamed worked closely with his anti-fascist colleagues, showing a particular interest in immigration issues.

But the activists suspected they had a mole when the National Socialist Movement, a violent neo-Nazi group, started prank-calling, repeating information Jenkins said he had discussed only with Mohamed.

Jenkins and others began quietly digging into Mohamed’s past. They unearthed a news clip where the same man they knew as a Muslim anti-fascist appeared as a Latino cabdriver in New York who was under scrutiny for wearing a swastika armband while on the job. When they ran Mohamed’s phone number through searches, Jenkins said, it was registered in the same name as the cabdriver: Gabriel Diaz.

“When I saw that YouTube video and put two and two together, I was like, ‘Man, I’m so pissed at myself,’ ” Jenkins said.

Next came a six-minute confrontation in a park, recorded by Jenkins and posted on YouTube with the title “Meet Gabriel Diaz!” Mohamed, in a skull cap typically worn by Muslim men, squirms as Jenkins and another activist are heard off-camera berating him for selling them out. They tell him that one of his neo-Nazi buddies confirmed that he was Diaz.

“You’re a Dominican Black man and you’re messing around with that crew? You think they give a f— about you?” Jenkins shouts. “Why do you think it was so easy for him to betray you?”

Mohamed denies that he’s Diaz. He refuses to show his ID card. He says he “heard about” that cabdriver with the swastika armband, but that it’s not him.

“My name is Mohamed,” he says in the video.

“Your name is mud,” Jenkins replies. “Go home.”

After that day, the activists never saw him again. The Washington Post could not reach him for comment. Jenkins, whose group is typically stringent about vetting associates, said the breach was a tough reminder that right-wing infiltrators now come from all backgrounds.

Cristina Beltrán, an associate professor at New York University who researches conservatives of color, said the fact that far-right extremist groups are forced to diversify means “they’ve already lost the war.”

“In America,” Beltrán said, “even white supremacy is multiracial.”

Alex Horton contributed to this report.

The Washington Post: Breaking News, World, US, DC News and Analysis

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