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The Capitol siege was far from San Diego. Its fringe ideologies were right at home

Trump supporters with Trump banners and U.S. flags gather for a rally in front of San Diego County Administration Building.
Supporters of President Trump gathered for a rally in front the County Administration Building in San Diego on Wednesday as a much larger crowd in Washington, D.C., invaded the Capitol.
(K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The unfounded belief that the election was stolen from President Trump has for months been festering in San Diego.

Stop the Steal rallies, marked by a party-like atmosphere, plainly illustrated a determined resolve to keep Trump in power.

The conspiracy theory was further nurtured online, and the ultra-conservative One America News Network pushed it to a national audience from its San Diego studios.

So it came as no surprise to many that San Diego found itself in the national spotlight last week, spurred by the shooting death of an Ocean Beach woman who was at the front of a pro-Trump mob that tore its way into the U.S. Capitol.

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The incident adds to a history of extremism that has plagued San Diego over the decades, from the recently deceased Tom Metzger’s violent White Aryan Resistance movement in the 1980s to anti-immigrant vigilantism along the border in more recent years.

“San Diegans participated in the premeditated overthrow of the democratic process,” said Joel Day, a professor of public policy at UC San Diego and a former city of San Diego official. “No, I’m not surprised, and nevertheless incredibly disappointed and horrified.”

It’s unknown how many San Diegans traveled to Washington, D.C., to protest the electoral college certification cementing Joe Biden’s win — either by attending a peaceful rally led by Trump or by later rioting at the Capitol building. The FBI, which confirmed that some participants have been identified as San Diego residents, has asked for the public’s help in naming those involved in the melee.

Among them was Ashli Babbitt, the co-owner of a Spring Valley pool service and supply company who was shot and killed by a Capitol Police officer as she tried to climb through a smashed window into the Speaker’s Lobby.

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Ashli Babbitt
Ashli Babbitt, from Ocean Beach, was fatally shot by the Capitol Police inside the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6.
(Maryland MVA/Calvert County Sheriff’s Office via AP)

Like many people across the country, Babbitt’s support for Trump was passionate, but her political beliefs also appeared to veer into fringe territory, including QAnon, coronavirus conspiracies and theories of a stolen election.

The profile beginning to emerge of her is reflected in a larger community in San Diego that has become increasingly vocal over the last year. Like Babbitt, the ideologies often overlap.

The crossover is evident as shareable memes on social media feeds, stoked by news outlets such as One America News, which has spent considerable air time claiming the election was fraudulent.

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The mix of beliefs has been on public display in San Diego at QAnon-linked rallies, anti-mask protests and Stop the Steal demonstrations. The events have drawn dozens of supporters to a few hundred.

Many of the same themes emerged in a civil defense movement that arose following a riot in La Mesa on May 30. Vigilante groups such as Defend East County have characterized themselves as pro-police, pro-law and order, and anti-Black Lives Matter. Some members have posted racist comments and advocated for violence on the group’s social media accounts.

While a small contingent from Defend East County — made up mostly of white men — has patrolled numerous peaceful racial justice protests from afar, its members have also intimidated and threatened protesters, including teenagers, and incited violence at events that were otherwise calm.

The group’s founder, Justin Haskins, was among those who traveled to Washington for the vote certification.

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Justin Haskins yells from his truck window
Justin Haskins, leader of Defend East County, heckles Black Lives Matter activists during a Caravan for Justice San Diego rally in downtown Lakeside on Oct. 4.
(Sandy Huffaker)

In a video posted on the Defend East County Instagram page Wednesday night, Haskins said he attended the Trump rally and then marched to the Capitol afterward with the crowd. He said he was stopped at a barricade outside and did not breach the building.

Wearing a MAGA beanie cap, Haskins said he was “conflicted” about what happened. Then he spent the bulk of the video defending the rioters’ actions, saying “it’s our constitutional duty to overthrow a tyrannical government.”

“At what point do you stop waving your dumbass flags and yelling your stupid chants and start taking this country back just like the patriots of 1776 did?” he asked.

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La Mesa attorney Scott McMillan attended the rally with his brother to let elected officials know “there was voter manipulation and electoral fraud” but said he stayed away from the Capitol as the situation escalated. However, he and his brother, Shawn McMillan, also an attorney, said they understood why part of the crowd breached the government building. No court has found claims of widespread voter manipulation or fraud to be legitimate, nor has the Department of Justice.

The McMillan brothers have each made headlines in San Diego before. Scott McMillan formed his own controversial La Mesa Civil Defense Group, which patrolled the city wearing yellow vests in the weeks following the May riot. He received national attention in March when he suggested in a tweet that older people should be sacrificed to save the economy during the COVID-19 pandemic because they were expensive to maintain and not productive.

Shawn McMillan is a recent Superior Court judicial candidate with a history of racist and anti-immigrant posts on his Facebook page, according a KPBS report.

What the Capitol takeover demonstrated — according to Andrew Blum, executive director at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice at the University of San Diego — is that a large group of people in principle can support certain political or social causes, even conspiracy theories, but it takes only a few to spark devastating violence.

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“That’s what’s scary about violent extremism,” said Blum. “The fringe doesn’t have to be large to be very dangerous.”

As people journey deeper into fringe ideologies and surround themselves with like-minded believers, their perception of extreme shifts.

“The individuals who breached the Capitol don’t think they were doing something extreme; it was normalized in the world they existed in,” Blum said.

The Capitol riot signaled a wake-up call for many across the nation, but experts who pay attention to extremist groups wonder if it will trickle down to places like San Diego County.

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Day, the UC San Diego professor who is director of the Truman National Security Project’s San Diego chapter, said certain groups seemed to have escaped serious law enforcement scrutiny.

“We know there are violent actors that are here in our backyard that have made themselves known,” Day said.

Local law enforcement, with government support, should be doing more to train on domestic political extremism, including how to identify and track the bad actors in online and real-time spaces, Day said.

“They have to be treated as though they are the national security threat they are,” Day said. “They are threatening to the way of life of San Diegans, threatening to elected officials and threatening to our neighborhoods.”

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Law enforcement has repeatedly explained the challenge of balancing 1st Amendment rights with enforcement action.

“Our response in deploying personnel is based on several factors, including information and intelligence. We adjust our response to any threats or actions accordingly,” sheriff’s Lt. Ricardo Lopez said Friday. “Our experience has been that when there are opposing sides present at the same event, there is a potential for confrontations. Just because you do not see personnel does not mean there is not an operational plan or deputies available to respond as needed.”

The threat of more collective violence continues and may even have grown considering the success the pro-Trump mob had in breaching the Capitol building, according to experts. Far-right groups on social media appear to be organizing similar armed insurrections across the country as the presidential inauguration nears, and have also threatened to return to Washington for the official transition of power.

Some San Diegans took to social media in the aftermath of the Capitol siege, calling for accountability for those who supported it and groups like Defend East County.

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At the same time, some local vocal Republicans and political conservatives doubled down, if anything turning up the heat.

“This is Lexington and Concord. First shots fired against tyranny,” said California Assemblyman Randy Voepel, a former Santee mayor who at one point left the Republican Party for the tea party movement because he deemed the GOP too “liberal.” “Tyranny will follow in the aftermath of the Biden swear in on January 20th.”

Davis writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune. Staff writer Karen Pearlman contributed to this report.


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