At NABJ panel, Southers explains extremism, warned of Charlottesville violence

August 21, 2017

USC Price Professor Erroll Southers, left, with NBC News counter-terrorism analyst Malcolm Nance (Photo courtesy of NABJ)

By Matthew Kredell

Two days before the violence and tragedy in Charlottesville, Va., USC Price School of Public Policy Professor Erroll Southers noted in a panel discussion at the 2017 National Association of Black Journalists convention in New Orleans that the largest white nationalist gathering in a decade was scheduled for that weekend with even more protesters expected to attend. He called it a recipe for disaster.

When the events unfolded as Southers had described, the media in attendance remembered. Southers, director of the Safe Communities Institute (SCI) at USC Price, did six interviews in the days following with journalists who were either at the conference or referred by someone who was there. He also published an op-ed in USA Today.

“Even before we left the room, they said they wanted to do this again next year,” Southers said of the panel titled, “Analyzing Homegrown Terrorists and Extremists.” He added, “Many people were telling us this was the best session of the conference. Everyone was saying we need to see more of you on network television, which is a good thing to hear — and my phone has been ringing since Saturday.”

Southers participated in the panel alongside Malcolm Nance, executive director of the Terror Asymmetrics Project. Moderating the discussion was Bill Whitaker, a CBS News “60 Minutes” correspondent.

Rather than having each panelist make a presentation, Whitaker turned the panel into a press conference with them fielding questions from the journalists. Southers was encouraged to find that the audience wasn’t interested in only white nationalists and jihadist extremists, but all aspects of his work as director for homegrown violent extremism studies at USC Price.

“I didn’t expect them to be interested in these other groups,” Southers said. “I thought because of the pending rally and the things this administration has been associated with, that would be it. But we delved into all three areas of extremism I always identify ideologies motivated by race, religion and/or issue-orientation. It gave me a chance to talk about many of the things we are teaching here and the research I am doing.”

Toward a new understanding

From left: Xavier Higgs, panel organizer and past NABJ-Los Angeles president; Malcolm Nance; Professor Southers; and Bill Whitaker of CBS News “60 Minutes” (Photo courtesy of NABJ)

Southers started by defining terrorism and laying out the challenges of extremism, which many people don’t understand is constitutionally protected up until it incites violence.

“When extremism becomes violent, it becomes criminal,” Southers said. “Until then, you have the right to be extremist in America. You have the right to be racist in America.”

Addressing a range of topics, Southers also discussed SCI’s research on how youth in Minneapolis were radicalized to join ISIS; his work with counterterrorism and intelligence colleagues in France and London; his teaching experiences in Israel; his testimony at a Congressional hearing on the Boston marathon bombings; and his friendship with former extremists such as a reformed neo-Nazi skinhead who went on to found the nonprofit Life After Hate.

The journalists were particularly interested in Southers’ explanation that people cannot be charged with terrorism in the U.S. presently. Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh was charged with using a weapon of mass destruction, the Fort Hood shooter with workplace violence, and the white supremacist who killed nine people at a church in Charleston, S.C., with a hate crime.

Southers supports a national domestic terrorism statute, but cautioned that it needs to be specific, and guard against the government criminalizing ideology, theology and beliefs, rather than focusing on specific criminal acts.

“If we do have a national terrorism statute, we have to make sure the government doesn’t swing too much to the other side and decide that movements, such as environmental protection, are deemed acts of terrorism,” Southers said. “It needs to specifically address a terrorist attack.”