- Members of the group We Are Change say they were surprised to be named as an anti-government "patriot group" by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Dave Beard doesn't look like a violent, racist or crazed extremist. He has a soft-spoken, gentle demeanor as he talks about the Pittsburgh branch of the group We Are Change.
But after his organization appeared in a recent report by the Southern Poverty Law Center, he worries that the public will view the organization in the same light as some of the other groups on the list.
In March, the SPLC, a civil-rights organization that identifies and tracks the growth and movements of hate groups and other extremist organizations, released a report called The Rage on the Right. The report documents the explosion of groups from the "radical right."
According to the report's introduction: "The radical right caught fire last year, as broad-based populist anger at political, demographic and economic changes in America ignited an explosion of new extremist groups and activism across the nation."
Among the SPLC's data: The number of hate groups grew slightly, from 926 in 2008 to 932 in 2009; and the number of anti-immigration "nativist extremist" groups leapt from 173 to 309 in the same period. But the largest jump occurred in the category that includes Beard's group -- alleged anti-government "patriot" groups.
In the report, the SPLC provides the following definition of "patriot groups": "Generally, Patriot groups define themselves as opposed to the New World Order, engage in groundless conspiracy theorizing, or advocate or adhere to extreme antigovernment doctrines." Traditionally, the phrase has been used to describe armed, anti-government militia organizations, which began showing up in the 1990s. But in the past year, the number of militias and non-violent patriot groups have skyrocketed.
In 2008, the SLPC counted 49 groups (including 42 militias). In 2009 that number jumped to 512 (including 127 militias) -- an increase of 244 percent.
"We started seeing the first of these groups in 1994, when we started seeing a mixing-in of militias and white-supremacist groups," says Heidi Beirich, director of research for the SPLC. "At one time, the number of these groups was so low that we stopped collecting the data, but they have been surging back."
Beirich says that the genesis of the patriot groups was in the white-supremacy movement. But the SPLC report offers a disclaimer: "listing here does not imply that the groups themselves advocate or engage in violence or other criminal activities, or are racist."
That disclaimer means little to Dave Beard, a North Hills resident and a founder of We Are Change's Pittsburgh chapter, whose online Meetup site claims "123 concerned citizens." He says he was "immediately taken aback" when he saw the group listed among nine patriot organizations.
"I know the people in my group and we're all about peace," he says. "It's just weird how they paint us all with this broad brush without talking to or getting to know any of us."
Rage on the Right also listed nativist and hate groups. "To lump us in with all of these horrible groups," says Beard. "I don't want to be defined by someone else. That's why we decided that we were going to be the ones to go out and tell people who we are."
On March 21, We Are Change Pittsburgh held a rally outside Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall in Oakland to protest its inclusion on SPLC's list.
"I have a problem being lumped in with people that I don't agree with at all. I abhor neo-Nazis and other violent people," Beard says. "Having a group like We Are Change nationwide is a good thing. We're not violent, we follow doctrines of Martin Luther King and Ghandi. How can you say anything bad about that?"
On the national We Are Change Web site, the group calls itself a "citizens-based grassroots peace and social justice movement working to reveal the truth behind the events of September 11, as well as the lies of the government and corporate elite who remain suspect in this crime."
The description adds: "We Are Change has arisen from the remnants of our republic to fill the vacancy left by those who swore to preserve, protect and defend The Constitution against all enemies -- foreign and domestic. We Are Change works to educate, motivate, and activate those striving to uncover the truth behind the private banking cartel of the military industrial complex that is directing the majority of U.S. policy, and that is actively seeking to eliminate national sovereignty and replace it with a 'one world order.'"
"It's not because they're 9/11 truthers, but they subscribe to every other anti-government conspiracy that's out there," says SPLC's Beirich.
After the list was published, she says, members of We Are Change appeared at the SPLC's offices "demanding an interview" on tape about why the group was on the list. "The only way to come off the list is to no longer be engaging in anti-government hatred.
"If you continually espouse the idea that the government knocked down the towers and that people are being rounded up and put in FEMA camps and other government-bashing, some people will take that literally and sometimes they lash out against the government."
But Beard says some critics "just label someone a conspiracy theorist to shut down the conversation."
"They call them 'groundless conspiracy theories,' but no, I have questions about 9/11. The family members have questions," Beard says. "To me. being patriotic is believing in small government, as opposed to big, overreaching government. ... [T]he SPLC has taken that and demonized it."
Stephen Sloan is a professor of terrorism studies at Central Florida University. While he has focused on international terrorism, he has studied and seen domestic terrorism up close, working four blocks from the site of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. Although he can't speak specifically about We Are Change, he says that the monitoring of patriot groups is important, although it can be tricky.
"You have situations where some of these groups are violent and arm themselves, and others that are talking about the government and these conspiracy theories," says Sloan. "On one hand, they have a First Amendment right to free speech. But sometimes that speech either directly or indirectly leads to recruitment of members for these organizations, and sometimes these organizations cross the line into violence and hate speech."
Sloan says he sees the SPLC's numbers as more of a resurgence of these patriot groups than a rash of new movements.
"These groups have already been here, but certain factors -- the economy, the loss of meaningful blue-collar jobs, and in some cases even race issues brought about by the election of Obama -- have caused them to resurface," Sloan says. "These militia groups and others are a serious concern.
"Since 9/11 there has been a focus, and understandably so, on international terrorism. I think because of that, however, we have ignored the reality of the far-right-wing patriot movement."
Beard agrees that there are dangerous groups out there, groups that he does not and will not associate with. But, he says, that's not what We Are Change is about.
"Listen, it is hugely important that people listen and learn the truth. I'm nervous about what kind of country my nephews are going to grow up in, with the erosion of values, and the erosion of rights," says Beard. "The war-like way that the U.S. is conducting its business right now is not pretty.
"But, we're not a militia and we have no interest in being armed. We hand out literature ... take it, read it and make up your own minds. We're not violent people, we're not racist, and we're not crazy. We're a group of individuals who have questions and a desire to find out the truth."