This article is our final installment in a series that explores the historical and contemporary links between racial intolerance and opposition to abortion. Previously, this series examined the connections that developed in the 1980s between white supremacists and the anti-abortion movement, which bred a growing extremism and led to the first assassination of an abortion provider in 1993. This installment looks at the threats that developed in the aftermath.
On March 11, 1993, Michael Frederick Griffin approached Dr. David Gunn outside his Pensacola clinic and shot him in the back three times, reportedly shouting, “Don’t kill any more babies!” Griffin, who had been radicalized by former Klansman and anti-abortion crusader John Burt, committed the first assassination of an abortion provider in the U.S. The following year, 1994, saw a record four murders and eight attempted murders by anti-abortion extremists, and more than half of the estimated 1,500 abortion clinics in the U.S. were targets of anti-abortion crimes, such as arson or bombings, in the first seven months of 1994. Although the next two years would see decreases in some types of anti-abortion crimes, clinics have never been free of threats in any of the years since.
Since the 1990s, anti-government groups have stirred racial hatred and anti-abortion extremism on the right.
Just weeks after Dr. Gunn’s assassination, the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives ended a 51-day armed standoff at a compound in Waco, Texas, the home of a religious cult known as the Branch Davidians. The standoff began in response to reports that the cult was abusing children and stockpiling illegal weapons. The siege ended on April 19, 1993 — 25 years ago this month — when the cult’s leader, David Koresh, ordered his followers to ignite fires that soon engulfed the compound in flames. By the end of the standoff, 75 people had lost their lives.
The federal government’s actions in Waco had overwhelming public support — 70 percent according to a poll conducted shortly after the siege — but to many right-wing activists, who held a deep distrust of the federal government, Waco was a gross display of heavy-handed government intrusion; tyrannical, military-style policing; and violent intolerance of religious liberty. Waco thus became a rallying cry for a growing, militant movement in the political right.
Jack DeVault, who was on work release from a sentence he was serving for criminal anti-abortion activity, reported on the Branch Davidian trial for a conservative radio program, “Radio Free America.” In The Waco Whitewash, a book he published later, he called for vigilante action against “meddling federal agents [who] must be run out of the country.”
In addition to a rise in anti-abortion violence, the 1990s introduced unprecedented violence tied to the rapid emergence of the “Patriot” movement, which consisted of citizen militias, tax resisters, and “sovereign citizens” who viewed federal authority as illegitimate. With groups that soon numbered in the hundreds, the movement encouraged defiant members to live by their own versions of the law, which were usually based on the Magna Carta, Biblical law, English common law, 19th century state constitutions, and the original U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights (without the later amendments). In other words, they subscribed to laws that predated women’s right to vote and other modern, liberal advances. Members were also frequently associated with white supremacist groups. Timothy McVeigh, the Patriot ideologue responsible for the Oklahoma City bombing on the second anniversary of the Waco siege, was believed by many investigators to have had repeated contact with members of a white supremacist compound in eastern Oklahoma called Elohim City.
It is unclear to what extent the rise of anti-abortion and Patriot movement violence was coincidental or correlated, but clear connections eventually grew between them as the people involved saw common causes and common enemies. Some of those connections were evident in the constellation of beliefs that radicalized Eric Robert Rudolph, who spent years on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list after the bombings of Centennial Olympic Park, an LGBTQ bar, and two abortion clinics between 1996 and 1998. Writing in the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report, journalist Frederick Clarkson commented, “To many, these targets seem unrelated. But they are not.”
While Rudolph was a fugitive, his sister-in-law predicted that he would follow the example of Adolf Hitler — whom she claimed Rudolph admired — and commit suicide before he could be caught and brought to justice. Despite her predictions, Rudolph was captured alive in 2003. During his criminal proceedings, Rudolph provided his attorneys with an 11-page statement that explained the motives for his acts of terrorism. Seemingly unaware of the contradiction, he expressed disgust at the Olympics as both a capitalist and socialist spectacle, one that put corporate wealth on display to celebrate “the ideals of global socialism.” He saw the federal government as illegitimate, in part because “they forfeited their … moral authority to govern” by legalizing abortion. Homosexuality, he argued, was “another assault upon the integrity of American society.”
According to Clarkson, what threaded these various targets together was the perception that they were fronts in an advancing plot to bring tyranny to the U.S. His article goes on to describe more than 50 individuals and extremist groups whose ideologies link the Patriot, white supremacist, and anti-abortion movements. Examples included individuals like Willie Ray Lampley of the Oklahoma Constitutional Militia, who was sentenced in 1996 to “11 years in federal prison for plotting to blow up abortion clinics, gay bars, the Southern Poverty Law Center, Anti-Defamation League offices and other targets.”
Lampley was also known to have had contact with Dennis Mahon of the White Aryan Resistance, who in 2012 was sentenced to 40 years in prison for sending a package bomb to Scottsdale’s diversity director, Don Logan, who suffered injuries as a result of the incident. Prior to his arrest, Mahon told an undercover informant that he had also bombed an abortion clinic, a Jewish center, an immigration facility, and an IRS office.
Beyond the Labyrinth’s Walls
Prior to the 1990s, it was easy to see where straight lines could be drawn between racist ideology and opposition to abortion. In the late 19th century, waves of “new” immigrants from southern and eastern Europe stirred growing concerns among native-born Americans of Anglo-Saxon descent, who concluded that legal abortion would hasten their demise as other races came to outnumber them. In the late 1970s, Southern religious conservatives felt embattled as their whites-only Christian schools faced the pressures of desegregation. They unified around the issue but used opposition to abortion as a more palatable, public cause to build their base. In the mid- and late 1980s, white supremacist groups crossed over into the anti-abortion movement, introducing violent tactics and circulating conspiracy theories about a Jewish plan to eradicate the white race through abortion.
From the 1990s to the present, however, the lines became more circuitous as racial hatred and opposition to abortion were swept up in a generalized rage that also included homophobia, hostility to globalism, anti-government fanaticism, and hard-line Christian fundamentalism. Though the convergence was most noticeable on the violent, right-wing fringe, it was never entirely contained there.
Jerry Reiter, who was active in the mainstream anti-abortion movement in the early 1990s, became disillusioned as he saw a blurring of boundaries between mainstream members of the movement and the violent fringe that had targeted people like Dr. Gunn. He noticed that the mainstream peddled some of the same inflammatory rhetoric as the fringe and even gave tacit approval to violent tactics. The phenomenon took plain form when he visited an administrative center of the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, which was located in a basement space that was on loan from the New York State Christian Coalition.
Founded in the late 1980s by Pat Robertson, the national Christian Coalition had spent the early and mid-1990s putting its weight behind establishment Republicans like Oliver North, George H.W. Bush, and Newt Gingrich. Reiter’s pastors said he would meet peaceful anti-abortion activists schooled in nonviolent civil disobedience at Operation Rescue’s headquarters — which was all he could imagine, since he had witnessed the host organization take root within establishment conservatism. What he found instead was an outpost nicknamed “The Bunker,” where he was given literature that advocated violent tactics to stop abortion providers. Publications like 99 Ways to Close an Abortion Clinic advocated actions such as chemical attacks, human barricades, and bombings.
Reiter also witnessed some of the earliest networking between anti-abortion and Patriot activists when he attended the Wisconsin convention of the United States Taxpayers Party (USTP, later renamed the Constitution Party). At the convention he met “a motley assortment of conspiracy theorists” who were receptive to “racist and antigay messages,” were hostile to feminism and humanism, and were deeply distrustful of the federal government. Many were roused by a speech that warned of military takeover by the United Nations.
Among the convention’s attendees were Randall Terry, founder of Operation Rescue, and Matt Trewhella, a signatory to a Defensive Action statement that anti-abortion radicals had drafted in the wake of Dr. Gunn’s murder, a document that served as their declaration that the murder of abortion providers is justifiable homicide. At the convention, Trewhella became one of the first anti-abortion leaders to publicly call for the formation of militias.
Reiter joined the anti-abortion movement as a media coordinator, but he left as an FBI informant, providing tips about militants who wanted to see large-scale guerrilla warfare styled after the Irish Republican Army. One of them was Paul Hill, who had been an outspoken supporter of Griffin during his murder trial, and who committed his own murder of an abortion provider, Dr. John Bayard Britton, in 1994. Though Reiter’s tips did not prevent Dr. Britton’s murder, he believes they prevented another bloody confrontation that would have taken place at a public vigil honoring Dr. Gunn.
What Reiter witnessed at the Wisconsin USTP convention — meetings of the minds between militant patriots and abortion opponents — eventually found its way to the Council for National Policy (CNP) as well. Paul Weyrich and Tim LaHaye, who had been busy in the 1970s uniting Southern conservatives around the fight to preserve segregation in private Christian schools, were also involved in forming the CNP, which soon grew to a national organization that met three times per year.
According to the New York Times, Weyrich, LaHaye, and like-minded activists founded the organization in 1981 “to create a Christian conservative alternative to what they believed was the liberalism of the Council on Foreign Relations,” referring to the nonpartisan think tank that publishes Foreign Affairs. The tight-lipped CNP has rarely seen its official documents made public, but its 2014 vision statement was one exception. It called for “a united conservative movement to assure, by 2020, policy leadership and governance that restores religious and economic freedom, a strong national defense, and Judeo-Christian values under the Constitution.”
Also kept in strict confidentiality are the CNP’s member rosters, but they were leaked in 1998 to the Institute for First Amendment Studies and again in 2016 to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). The leaks revealed that the CNP was an organization where establishment conservatives mingle with right-wing radicals. Membership has run the gamut from the likes of Steve Forbes of Forbes magazine to Howard Phillips, founder of the USTP, who advocates for a theocratic state and opposes the Voting Rights Act, immigration, and abortion. Other members have had ties to hate groups such as the League of the South and the Council of Conservative Citizens (the organization that helped inspire Dylann Roof’s 2015 massacre at a black church in South Carolina).
Since CNP membership is by invitation only — and comes with a membership fee in the thousands — its refuge for radicals can hardly be chalked up to accident or infiltration. Even guests at CNP meetings are vetted by the executive committee and can only attend with their unanimous approval. Thus, members like Mat Staver of the Liberty Counsel, who wants to criminalize gay sex, are as much a part of the CNP family as its many distinguished speakers, who have included top Republicans like Clarence Thomas, James Woolsey, George W. Bush, Donald Trump, and Lindsey Graham.
The Political Arsenal of Larry Pratt
Perhaps no other CNP member better epitomizes the confluence of racist, anti-abortion, and Patriot ideology — and the dangerous resonance between the right-wing fringe and the conservative establishment — than Larry Pratt, founder of Gun Owners of America (GOA). Some of Pratt’s earliest involvement in national politics began at the 1972 Republican National Convention, where he quickly hit it off with Paul Weyrich. But while Weyrich’s career would take flight on the wings of Southern segregation and resistance to Roe v. Wade, Pratt made a name for himself in Second Amendment politics.
Pratt bought his first gun in 1968, when riots in response to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. stirred his concerns that he would need to personally deal with rioters who were beyond the control of law enforcement. That same year, Congress passed the Gun Control Act, one of the biggest pieces of gun control legislation since the 1930s. Rather than doubling down in response, the nation’s largest pro-gun organization, the National Rifle Association (NRA), adapted to the times, putting nature preservation and outdoor shooting sports at the center of its messaging. Pratt’s reason for gun ownership was left out of the conversation, leading him and other Second Amendment hardliners to form their own organizations — in Pratt’s case, the GOA, which he co-founded in 1975 with a California state senator.
Pratt has had a forum for his pro-gun views in mainstream venues like CNN, C-SPAN, and the New York Times, and he has friends in high places, including Dick Armey, Pat Buchanan, John Ashcroft, Rand Paul, and Ted Cruz. Pratt also spent part of the 1990s working closely with Texas Rep. Steve Stockman — closely enough that one journalist said he was “almost a shadow Congressman.” However, Pratt has long managed to straddle the mainstream and the fringe, and he has plenty of views that place him squarely in the latter. He told an audience at the conservative Leadership Institute, “The Second Amendment is not for hunting, it’s not even for self-defense.” Rather, it is “for restraining tyrannical tendencies in government.”
Through various side projects over the years, Pratt has also provided financial support to anti-gay, anti-abortion, and white power activists; waged war on bilingual education; and forged connections with a wide array of extremists. He has spoken before the Liberty Lobby and contributed to publications from the United Sovereigns of America — two organizations the SPLC has described as anti-Semitic.
Leonard Zeskind, who has spent almost four decades reporting on right-wing extremism, wrote an in-depth article for Rolling Stone in 1995 that detailed how Pratt was at the forefront of smaller gun-rights groups that embraced the militia movement — at a time when the NRA was holding them at arm’s length, especially in the wake of Timothy McVeigh’s terrorist bombing in Oklahoma City. In Estes Park, Colorado, and Branson, Missouri, Pratt attended large gatherings of right-wing activists, where he found common cause with people like Louis Beam of Aryan Nations and John Trochmann of the Montana Militia. As Zeskind put it, with “one foot in the political mainstream and the other in the fringe,” Pratt was putting the gun lobby “at the center of a web of right-wing warriors.”
The Gathering Storm
In his decades of research, Zeskind has seen two schools of thought among extremists. “Vanguardists” are largely separatists who remain fixed in the fringe, believing they are unlikely to attract more than a slim minority of conservatives to their cause. “Mainstreamers” like Pratt, on the other hand, act as a bridge between the two milieus, softening their messaging when needed and often putting their most non-threatening personalities at the front of their movements. They often use tepidly named front groups like the Liberty Lobby to lure more their more moderate counterparts.
The lack of a unifying strategy has splintered the extreme right but also given it longevity. By remaining small and secretive, vanguardists have “survived police crackdowns, multiple criminal prosecutions, civic opposition and legal challenges.” The mainstreamers, on the other hand, can achieve occasional electoral victories — and thereby attract new members by gradually normalizing some of their positions. They eventually shift the establishment’s baseline until it’s possible to see fringe ideas reflected in official documents, such as the Texas Republican Party’s platform, which calls for the empowerment of local sheriffs over federal law enforcement officials, complete abolition of firearms regulations, and the repeal of the Voting Rights Act and other federal laws that the Texas Legislature opposes. Maine’s Republican Party adopted a platform with similar themes, including abolition of the Federal Reserve.
The Patriot movement entered another fever pitch in 2014 when rancher Cliven Bundy led an armed standoff against federal rangers in Bunkerville, Nevada, a confrontation stemming from Bundy’s dispute with the Bureau of Land Management. Bundy garnered support from militias like the Oath Keepers — as well as from two Republican senators, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Dean Heller of Nevada, and several Arizona lawmakers, including State Sens. Judy Burges and Kelli Ward. Bundy soaked up the attention at a series of press conferences, stirring controversy when he questioned whether black Americans were “better off as slaves” and expressed concerns about welfare and abortion.
The next year, Donald Trump announced his bid for the U.S. presidency, and thereafter the country witnessed the political ascendancy of a conservative whose campaign and first months in office packed a zeitgeist of shaming women, bashing immigrants, banning visitors from Muslim-majority countries, downsizing government, and rolling back transgender rights.
Trump’s election emboldened many white supremacists, most noticeably in Charlottesville, Virginia, on the weekend of August 12 and 13, 2017. Neo-Confederates, neo-Nazis, and other extremists descended on the city for a Unite the Right rally that was held in response to the decision to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Trump initially refrained from denouncing the attendees, even as they violently attacked counter-protesters, killing one of them, Heather Heyer. In the aftermath, and after mounting pressure, Trump publicly criticized the violence.
The white supremacist website The Daily Stormer defended Heyer’s killing by calling her “fat” and “childless,” adding that she “had failed to do her most basic duty — her only real duty, in fact — and reproduce.” The Daily Stormer’s comments about the reproductive decisions of Heather Heyer, a white woman, echoed arguments from more than a century prior that had been used to rail against abortion — arguments concerned with propagating the white race to ensure its dominance over others. They were ideas shared by Theodore Roosevelt, who in 1894 said that women of “good stock” who do not reproduce are “race traitors.”
In response to The Daily Stormer’s comments, the Scottsdale-based GoDaddy, which had been the website’s host, gave its administrators 24 hours to move their domain to another provider. Other companies, including Cloudflare and Google, dropped the site as well, forcing it into what the tech world calls the dark web.
For a day, at least, The Daily Stormer’s comments made it easy to draw another straight line between racist ideology and opposition to reproductive freedom. Even as right-wing radicals have taken the view that the federal government is heavy-handed, intrusive, and tyrannical when it comes to taxation, gun control, or the protection of minorities, that concern reverses course on the issue of abortion. They recognize no complexity to the issue, no rights possessed by a woman that must be reconciled with their unwavering charge that abortion is a form of merciless killing. It is a decision, therefore, that warrants government intervention instead of individual privacy. To them, legal abortion is a symbol of the government’s moral depravity, or a weapon deployed against whites to reduce their numbers. Women have been shut out of the conversation, even the women in their own movement, whose voices often take a back seat in a male-dominated subculture.
The personal liberty and bodily autonomy of women are obstacles to the mission expressed in the “14 Words,” a slogan that was popularized among white supremacists in the 1990s: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.”