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What Groups Were Involved In Pro-Trump Insurrection?

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

All right. We are going to turn now to Kathleen Belew. She is assistant professor of history at the University of Chicago. She is author of "Bring The War Home: The White Power Movement And Paramilitary America." As you may have guessed, she studies paramilitary and white power groups.

Professor Belew, welcome.

KATHLEEN BELEW: Thank you for having me.

KELLY: What were you focused on as you watched the mob storming the Capitol today?

BELEW: You know, it's an interesting moment because I think what we're seeing is, the kinds of groups and activists that I study are one part of a broader groundswell of people who became insurrectionists today, if they were not already insurrectionists before the events of today. I think that we're looking at a broad array of people that include QAnon believers and conspiracy theorists, some parts of Trump's most devoted base, and then some activists who have been organizing quite opportunistically towards the overthrow of the United States and its democratic institutions for decades. We've seen these people on the march before in recent months in attacks on other state Houses and in marches that have occupied state Houses in Michigan, for instance, and targeted attacks on other elected officials like the governor of Michigan.

KELLY: Yeah. I was just going to ask, how do you know what groups these are? Were you seeing identifying language or symbols? Are you following social media chatter? What is indicating to you which groups may have been involved?

BELEW: So all of that. And I should clarify, I'm a historian, so I'm not the expert on symbology and identification of particular groups and activists today. But what I'm doing in an event like this one is listening to the many watchdogs, activists, FBI and DHS representatives and other experts who are conversant in the symbols of the day. And a lot of it is sort of just plain to see for anyone who's looking. So today there were photographs of Proud Boys members flashing white power hand signs. There were Confederate flags in the halls of Congress held by occupiers. We saw Pepe the Frog. We saw a number of other memes and people who are familiar to us from other recent white power activity.

KELLY: I want to ask about language and the terms that we should use when describing events today. I know that you have been tweeting today and using terms like sedition, insurrection and terrorism. And it's that last one I want to ask you about. We are getting tweeted at by people. I'm looking at my Twitter account, and they're saying, don't just call them rioters. These people are terrorists. In your view, what are they? What should we call it?

BELEW: So I suppose I should begin by clarifying that there are legal meanings of each of those words that are distinct from our conversational use of those words. But I think it's reasonable to understand this as an act of domestic terror. It is a violent action. People were hurt and killed today in an act that was meant to defray an election and to intimidate political opponents for political reasons. It was exceedingly ideologically motivated, and it has a body count, the extent of which we don't yet know as we tally up the deaths and injuries from today. I suppose now it's one death. But, you know, we haven't gotten to the end of the day, and the streets are not yet cleared in D.C. So I think it's too early to know.

I would say, too, that when we're thinking about it, I think it's also best understood as an act of insurrection. And by that I don't mean the legal definition so much as a conversational one. But what I want to get at there is that this was an action that was deliberately meant to circumvent our political system. This was a coup. This was not a bloodless coup. This was an attack on our democracy and its institutions. And it was organized, it was ideological, and it was carried out in the light of day.

KELLY: That is Kathleen Belew, assistant professor of history at the University of Chicago and the author of "Bring The War Home: The White Power Movement And Paramilitary America."

Professor Belew, thanks for sharing your expertise with us.

BELEW: Stay safe.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.