Extremism is on the rise in Colorado and across the country

us capitol jan. 6
Posted at 5:50 PM, Jul 12, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-12 20:17:46-04

DENVER — Extremism is on the rise in Colorado and across the country, according to the state’s director of the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

“In Colorado, there has been an increase in the searches that domestic violent extremists do,” said Kevin Klein, basing the statement off a review of Google statistics.

The rise of extremist groups was the focal point of Tuesday’s Capitol Hill hearing in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 insurrection.

Fifteen Coloradans and two others with Colorado ties were arrested in the aftermath of the Jan. 6, 2021, storming of the Capitol, though not all were connected to extremist groups.

More recently, three Coloradans were arrested in Idaho along with 28 others who were found in the back of a U-haul near a pride event.

Extremism happens on both sides of the political spectrum, though Klein says he is more worried about the rise of white nationalist and white supremacist groups in particular.

“There's plenty of blame to go around. I do think that some of the white nationalist groups are probably more dangerous when we just look at the numbers in actual violence,” he said.

Klein has seen an increase in papering incidents, in which groups post stickers or placards or papers in public spaces espousing their racist views.

He’s more interested in the behavior than the content of the speech because while his division is trying to protect people from violence, there is a fine line between hate speech and free speech.

Over the past year, Colorado has seen a 54% increase in hate crimes, which is much higher than the national average of a 34% increase over that same time period.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, as of 2021 there were 18 hate groups in Colorado, including nationally known names like the Proud Boys.

Extremist views are also moving more into the mainstream, with more people sharing them online and even politicians showing support for them.

“This idea of political violence at the fringes seems to be becoming more acceptable and that gives us pause,” Klein said.

Psychologist Dr. Rachel Nielsen has been studying extremism for years. Colorado was tapped by the Department of Homeland Security to study extremism because the state has had so many mass-casualty attacks in recent history.

She is the former director of the Colorado Resilience Collaborative, whose mission is to strengthen the prevention of targeted violence, identity-based violence and hate.

Nielsen says the threat of extremism has changed over the years from groups outside of the U.S. targeting the country, to Americans having a personal grievance and then connecting it to an ideology.

The pandemic and social media added to the rise of extremism in the state and across the country, she says, and she’s not surprised many of the attackers in recent mass shootings are teenagers.

“These were kids that were isolated, didn't have much of a future potentially, didn't have any way to get to develop identity and belonging in a healthy way,” Nielsen said. “That's what we found is these are really normal needs that people have, and they're finding a horrible way to fill them.”

Extremist groups are also getting clever with recruitment, using games and apps like TikTok to spread their message. Nielsen has also noticed the propaganda becoming more mainstream.

She says unlike in the past, people can now self-radicalize online without ever needing to be in touch with a recruiter or becoming a member of one of these organizations.

“I would relate this to a public health issue. And we're really on the national level and on the state level of addressing this as a public health issue, that this is tapping into the mental health issues,” she said. “We need specialists for people who are really on the brink of hurting themselves for others.”

Nielsen says it’s important for parents, family members, school resource officers and others to watch out for people espousing extremist views and to alert someone or try to get them help before things turn violent.

Klein also says it’s important for everyone to consider their own role in perpetuating misinformation or extremist views, because a share or a retweet can go a long way in perpetuating extremist views.

“I think it's important that we look at where information comes from and think before you retweet, think before you like on a on a post. Where is that? Is it true? Those are the types of things that I think as citizens we can all do,” he said.