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CLARENCE PAGE What the plot to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer tells us about militant extremists

CLARENCE PAGE What the plot to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer tells us about militant extremists

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Sometimes it hurts to be right.

I have received more than a little mockery in my inbox in response to my concerns about right-wing wackos, left-wing loonies and other militants.

Pipe down, I have been advised by some readers, especially when I imply a link between the internet-fueled resurrection of white extremism and President Donald Trump’s penchant for tweeting or speaking attaboy comfort to the likes of the far-right Proud Boys, the self-described “western chauvinists” to whom he called out “Stand back and stand by” when asked for a repudiation during a presidential campaign debate.

But my suspicions don’t sound as alarmist now that the FBI has charged 13 men with terrorism, conspiracy and weapons charges in connection with an alleged plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and take her to Wisconsin for “trial.”

Her offense? They didn’t like the lockdown she imposed to slow the spread of COVID-19. In April our “favorite president,” as he recently branded himself, tweeted a call to “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” from the lockdown.

Yeah, right. An invitation from the president to “liberate” themselves presumably from the country over which he presides seemed to most rational people to be too assured to take seriously. But not everyone is rational.

According to an FBI affidavit detailing the kidnapping plot, the alleged ringleader was said to have been particularly outraged by the state’s closure of private gyms. Heaven forbid that he should be denied the right to tone up his abs at a time that he sees fit to be fit.

But if this sounds like another laughably crazy Keystone-crooks caper, think again.

“In white power discourse, kidnapping people for ‘trial’ is often followed by references to lynching,” writes Kathleen Belew, assistant professor of history at the University of Chicago, an expert on white power movements, in a Washington Post op-ed. “Whitmer might have been assassinated by this group.”

That’s not much of a stretch for a group allegedly determined enough to plot an attack on Michigan’s state capital and a kidnapping across state lines – which presumably also would have included Illinois and Indiana.

Maybe that possibility was on Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s mind when she responded, “It’s chilling,” and “I think all roads lead back to Donald Trump.”

Oh, there we go again, right? Always blame Trump. Unfortunately, when he throws out words like little hand grenades, he deserves it.

President Trump and Attorney General William Barr like to focus on anti-fascist antifa and “anarchist” “left wing” groups, even declaring three cities – Portland, Seattle and New York – to be “anarchist cities” that could lose federal funding for allegedly tolerating crime.

Yet, acting Homeland Security director Chad Wolf writes in the department’s new threat assessment report, released Wednesday, that he is “particularly concerned about white supremacist violent extremists who have been exceptionally lethal in their abhorrent, targeted attacks in recent years.”

It’s also important to note that the FBI originally was tipped off to the militia group’s alleged plot by a member who was concerned not about racial militancy but about plans to target and kill police officers.

Indeed, race is only one element in the rise of angry right-wing militancy, although its visibility often adds fuel to the fire. That’s alarming – and, having lived through too many crises of racial tension since the early 1960s, I am not easily alarmed.

I am sadly reminded of 1996, the year after the Oklahoma City truck bombing, when militias last made big – and bad – news. That was the year when the pioneer Black journalist Carl Rowan, one of the first African American columnists to be syndicated in mainstream newspapers, released an unusually angry book called “The Coming Race War in America: A Wake-Up Call.”

I respected Rowan as a mentor and role model who inspired me to enter the business, but even I thought his book was a bit alarmist at the time. Groundbreaking stars of color included Oprah Winfrey, Colin Powell, Tiger Woods and a young law school grad named Barack Obama. To me, it was a time of great hope.

But recently I have to wonder whether Rowan’s “Wake-Up Call” was only a step or two ahead of its time. Our troubles, in other words, are about more than just race, even if racial tensions are the most visible sign.

Email Clarence Page at cpage@chicagotribune.com.

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