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Mar-30-2022 12:30printcomments

Oregon has Sixth-Highest Number of Domestic Violent Extremism Incidents in the Nation

Oregon enacted legislation in 2021 that may help with risk mitigation efforts, but improvements are still needed

Oregon insurrection
Photo courtesy the Statesman Journal/photographer Brian Hayes

(SALEM, Ore.) - Over the past decade, Oregon witnessed the sixth-highest number of domestic violent extremism incidents in the nation. The troubling increase of domestic violent extremism in recent years, both in Oregon and nationwide, indicates a clear risk to Oregonians that requires a strategic, informed response.

Today, Secretary of State Shemia Fagan and the Oregon Audits Division released an advisory report that addresses this risk and identifies efforts Oregon state agencies can undertake to thwart it.

“Oregon must be an inclusive place where everyone is and feels safe,” said Secretary of State Shemia Fagan.

“The rise in domestic terrorism is an immediate threat to Oregonians and we cannot simply wait for the next incident to occur. We can and must take immediate steps to prevent individuals at risk from being radicalized and becoming violent.”

Auditors found the state lacks some of the tools present in the governance framework of other states. Key findings include:

  • Oregon is one of only 16 states that does not have any legislation defining or criminalizing domestic terrorism or domestic violent extremism at the state level. Such legislation may provide the state with mechanisms to mitigate future risk.
  • The Oregon Homeland Security council is set up to govern the challenges, but it can do more to focus on domestic violent extremism by establishing a specific statewide strategy, with measurable outcomes, for countering violent extremism risks.
  • Identifying individuals at risk of becoming violent is critical to threat management. Current law enforcement and state employee training is limited. Increased opportunities for training statewide may increase effectiveness in identifying potential threats.
    Note: Terms like domestic violent extremism, domestic terrorism and hate crimes are defined on page 3 of the report.

Domestic violent extremist incidents in Oregon have targeted lawmakers, protesters, and the general public

Domestic terrorism and violent extremist attacks in Oregon have varied in scale and severity. The state has endured a number of high-profile instances of domestic terrorism, not only recently, but dating back at least to the 1980s.

In 1984, members of the Rajneesh movement contaminated ten restaurants in The Dalles with salmonella. The group was practicing for a planned attack on election day, intending to sicken residents in an attempt to suppress voter turnout and influence the outcome of a county election.

As a result, 751 people fell ill and 45 were hospitalized in what has since become known as the largest bioterror attack in U.S. history.

In 2020, protests in Portland turned violent and resulted in one protestor killing another. Over the course of several months, civil rights protests and demonstrations took place in Portland where demonstrators showed up daily and advocated for criminal justice reform. Tensions ran high from the nightly protests and were increased with the involvement of federal law enforcement and opposition groups.

This tension culminated in an act of domestic violent extremism when a member of the far-right group was shot and killed; a member of the far-left group was charged with his murder but was shot and killed days later by law enforcement officials.

According to the FBI’s definition, this criminal act of homicide was an act of domestic violent extremism and served to harm the far-right community and further inflame tensions.

On December 21, 2020, the Oregon Capitol was breached by rioters associated with far-right groups.

Rioters broke glass, attacked reporters, and assaulted police with bear spray. These actions led to the arrest of five men, four of whom pleaded guilty to their actions, and one who will stand trial in 2022.

The attack directly impacted those officers who were charged with defending the building, but also had lasting psychological impacts on the legislative members and their staff who were in the building at the time.

A similar incident would take place days later, January 6, 2021, when protestors breached the U.S. Capitol, resulting in the death of five people, four police officers, and the traumatization of countless individuals.

What to Do Next

One of the major challenges in addressing the risk of domestic violent extremism is educating the public to prevent radicalization to violence in the first place.

In this context, within its Constitutional authority, the state has responsibilities for preventing radicalization owing to the risks posed to public health and safety where the benefits of prevention are paramount.

Funding for such programs is a challenge as, traditionally, grants to counter domestic violent extremism are focused on law enforcement or security-hardening activities.

In 2021, DHS issued a two-page primer entitled, “Media Literacy and Critical Thinking Online.” The report notes mitigating the threat of sophisticated manipulation campaigns requires a “whole-of-society" response that includes building public resilience.

The report goes further to note the understanding that under no circumstance can the government dictate what content is consumed; instead, public education is critical.

This summary document provides a high-level overview that may be useful in developing a sense of skepticism for online information. Development of statewide public information campaigns using these documents as a foundation may prove effective in strengthening public resilience [to extremism].

For much of 2021, there have been numerous calls to mitigate the threat posed from law enforcement staff or government employees who may act on behalf of violent extremist beliefs, generally described as an "insider threat".

These calls for risk mitigation culminated on June 15, 2021, when the White House released its National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism.

As part of its strategy, the Office of Personnel Management is reviewing screening questionnaires for civil employees in “sensitive” positions, such as those with access to critical infrastructure or personnel records. As a result of the elevated threat, the U.S. Department of Defense is considering the prohibition of extremist activities for civilian and contract workers.

Some state and local governments have also worked to pass laws and make other policy changes that increase the ability to screen law enforcement personnel.

Ultimately, Oregonians continue to be at risk from the trauma caused by these incidents, which can have lingering effects and may have a greater impact on communities already suffering from the COVID-19 pandemic or racial injustice.

This continued trauma can impede the ability of individuals and communities to succeed, thrive, and enjoy their economic, social, and cultural rights.

Read the full report on the Oregon Secretary of State website: https://sos.oregon.gov/audits/Documents/2022-12.pdf

Source: Oregon Secretary of State

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