When rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, it shocked the country.
Suddenly, ordinary Americans came face-to-face with a dangerous brand of right-wing extremism that threatened to overturn a legitimate election and undermine 250 years of American democracy.
It couldn’t have seemed farther away—both geographically and politically—from the progressive bastion of the San Francisco Bay Area. But that hasn’t stopped far-right extremism from taking root here.
Four people from the Bay Area were among the roughly 950 individuals charged so far in the Capitol insurrection.
In October, a radicalized resident of Richmond attacked the husband of Rep. Nancy Pelosi with a hammer, nearly killing him. And State Sen. Scott Wiener has repeatedly faced threats that often target him as a gay man, despite representing what is putatively the most LGBTQ+-friendly part of the U.S.
Northern California is far from immune to the forces of radicalization that drove Americans to the Capitol on Jan. 6, experts say.
“Much like with other forms of extremism, there really is no common profile of a Jan. 6 defendant,” said Jonathan Lewis, a research fellow at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism. “They don’t just come from red states or blue states. They don’t come from the same socioeconomic background. They each brought their own personal reasons for being there.”
And the events of the past several years—the Trump presidency, the Covid pandemic and the "stolen election" narrative—have spread the grievances behind the insurrection quite far.
According to Lewis, it’s difficult to quantify the spread of right-wing extremism in the United States. The U.S. government has no registry of domestic terrorist organizations.
When an American tries to send money to or join the Islamic State, which the State Department deems a terrorist organization, they are usually arrested or intercepted at the airport. But that doesn’t happen when they join the Proud Boys or the Oath Keepers, far-right groups heavily involved in the Capitol insurrection. The organizations are not banned.
“If I wanted to donate $20,000 to the Proud Boys, I could,” Lewis told The Standard. “There’s nothing illegal about that.”
Moreover, most people who become radicalized don't become members of extremist organizations. That held true on Jan. 6.
“While extremist groups were certainly present, most people were unaffiliated,” said Emily Kaufman, associate director of investigative research at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism. “They were motivated by this narrative, this ‘big lie’ that the election was stolen.”
According to her organization, no one should be surprised to see right-wing extremism or hatred arise in the Bay Area.
Teresa Drenick, the Anti-Defamation League’s deputy regional director, notes that San Francisco experienced a wave of hate incidents against Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) during the pandemic.
In 2020, right-wing extremists murdered two police officers in Oakland and Santa Cruz County. In 2022, the Proud Boys disrupted a children’s story hour hosted by a drag queen at a San Lorenzo public library and the so-called Goyim Defense League distributed antisemitic fliers in the Bay Area.
“Extremists are active in the Bay Area, and have been for some time,” Drenick told The Standard in an email. “In the last year, we have seen them target the LGBTQ, Jewish, AAPI and other communities in furtherance of their ideological goals.”
Nonetheless, experts believe the threat of extremism has increased in recent years. The reasons are many.
When Trump told the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by” during the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, it was “a huge boost of legitimacy for this group,” Kaufman told The Standard.
The internet has also contributed to the spread of these ideas: Libs of TikTok, a Twitter account with 1.7 million followers, has been particularly effective in advancing the “baseless, dangerous narrative” that LGBTQ+ people are pedophiles, she said. And the Telegram messenger app has many channels where false information about Covid and vaccines can be shared as fact.
“These communities become dangerous echo chambers where those narratives are not challenged,” Kaufman said.
California Dreaming (of Overturning an Election)
All these tendencies can be observed in the cases against Bay Area participants in the Capitol insurrection.
Of the four, just one belonged to a recognized extremist group: Daniel Goodwyn, a coronavirus denier and self-described Proud Boy from San Francisco who had raged against the city’s mask mandates and Covid lockdowns.
On Jan. 6, Goodwyn was recorded in the Capitol building. He was subsequently indicted on five charges, including illegally entering the Capitol, violent entry and disorderly conduct, and obstruction of an official proceeding. His case is ongoing.
But Mariposa Castro, a yoga instructor from Gilroy, doesn’t appear to have been a member of any such organization. She was just a vocal Trump supporter known for her involvement in counterprotests.
For her participation in Jan. 6, Castro faced four charges similar to those against Goodwyn. She ultimately entered a plea agreement on one count of demonstrating inside the Capitol and received a sentence of 45 days in jail and a $5,000 fine.
Daniel Shaw, an election denier from Santa Rosa, also appears to have been “unaffiliated.” The FBI identified him from security footage that showed him entering through the Capitol Rotunda. He, too, faced four similar charges and plead guilty to the same count as Castro.
The most unusual Bay Area defendant was Evan Neumann of Mill Valley. He faced both the most serious charges and also fled prosecution abroad, becoming an international fugitive.
Besides the sundry allegations of illegally entering and demonstrating in the Capitol, Neumann was indicted for assaulting law enforcement officers and government officials and threatening to murder members of Congress.
He fled the United States to Ukraine, where, in 2004 and 2005, he had reportedly participated in the Orange Revolution, a pro-democracy uprising against (real) election fraud. According to his LinkedIn profile, Neumann had also run an international dating site specialized in matching California men with Ukrainian women in the early 1990s.
Neumann later moved on to neighboring Belarus, a highly authoritarian country allied with Russia. In March 2022, he was granted refugee status there.
It Can Happen Here
In the past two years, the prosecution of participants in the Jan. 6 insurrection has delivered a heavy blow to organizations like the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers. Meanwhile, the riot itself and the congressional hearing into it—both broadcast live and subject to significant media attention—have raised public awareness of right-wing extremism.
Still, the threat is real and persistent, experts say.
And extremists are looking to use controversial issues of central importance to the Bay Area to help them recruit new people or gain political power and legitimacy.
“Extremist groups want to have a common cause with the mainstream,” Kaufman said. That has led them to capitalize on anti-LGBTQ+ narratives pushed by the country’s most right-wing politicians.
To that end, liberal bastions like the Bay Area can be appealing places for extremists to gain a foothold.
“When you look at the mobilization of Proud Boys to Portland and Seattle in the past couple of years before Jan. 6, their goal was to go into this—in their view—leftist, Marxist bastion and fight against Antifa and Black Lives Matter,” George Washington University’s Lewis said.
But he warns not to focus too intently on identifiable extremist groups: The threat today is from lone actors or small cells driven by propaganda narratives and inspired to commit individual acts of violence.
“I don’t think you can disaggregate the narratives from the violence,” Lewis said. “The commonality is right-wing extremists, lone actors with easy access to firearms who are targeting an outgroup because of a conspiracy theory.”
Matthew Kupfer can be reached at [email protected]