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Politics

Capitol Stormers of the Hudson Valley

Two FBI arrests—so far—and many social media posts attest to a local presence at the DC riot, and to the viability of right-wing organizing in New York.

Trump supports marching on the US Capitol. So far, two Hudson Valley residents have been arrested for participating in the riot.
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On January 6, as a throng of Trump supporters stormed the US Capitol building in Washington, DC, many of the rioters failed to conceal their identities while brazenly engaging—and even attacking—journalists on the scene. At the time of this writing, research from the Program on Extremism at George Washington University indicates that 117 federal cases, plus 27 local ones in DC, have been filed in connection with the event. New York is among the top three states where defendants hail from, with eight residents charged thus far.

Among the mostly unmasked, would-be insurrectionists were at least three residents of the Hudson Valley. More locals were present at, or otherwise connected to, the Capitol storming. Although these individuals may have acted alone, the Valley has long been targeted for recruitment by fascists—a threat which antifascist activists have warned about, yet law enforcement has largely ignored.

Hudson Valley Residents Connected to the Riot

The first arrest of a Hudson Valley resident, William Joseph Pepe of Beacon for unlawful entry, occurred on January 12 by the FBI. Following the riot, the FBI issued a bulletin seeking information regarding multiple individuals whom the bureau suspects of involvement in the Capitol storming. One of the accompanying photos, taken by AFP staff photographer Saul Loeb and first published by The New York Times, features a man believed to be Pepe wearing a US flag bandana around his neck and grinning while looking down at his cellphone in the Capitol rotunda. (Washington, DC’s Metropolitan Police Department also used the same photo to solicit information about persons of interest.) According to a charging document, Pepe is an employee at the Metro-North train yard in Brewster and was recognized from the FBI bulletin by MTA security personnel. He has since been suspended and will likely be terminated.

The second arrest of a Hudson Valley resident, Edward Jacob Lang of Newburgh for assault, civil disorder, and unlawful entry, occurred four days later, on January 16, also by the FBI. Like Pepe, Lang was photographed on the scene by journalists with Getty, Reuters, and Pacific Press. But Lang also extensively documented his participation in the riot on his own social media, including his Instagram and Facebook accounts, which have since been taken down. Screenshots preserved in a charging document suggest that he was not only on the scene, but was involved in an attack against law enforcement officers blocking an entrance to the Capitol. In one Instagram post, Lang claims that he is the individual seen repeatedly striking officers with an apparently stolen police riot shield. (One officer and four rioters died in the event.) Social media posts from other users also allegedly capture Lang striking officers with a baseball bat and suggesting that he would use firearms in the future.

Although not currently wanted by law enforcement, Tom Torres of Warwick is another Hudson Valley resident who was present at the Capitol on January 6. In a since-deleted Facebook video broadcast from a Washington, DC hotel on the day of the riot, Torres claimed that, although reports of the violence were untrue, he would have gladly attacked Black Lives Matter supporters, antifascist activists, and even Mike Pence, according to the Times Herald-Record. Concerned researchers also found anti-Semitic Twitter posts from Torres, which have since been deleted. Torres is the owner of Caffe a la Mode in Warwick, and his co-owner, Scott Elefant, was similarly found to have made anti-Semitic social media posts, now also deleted. Loud Majority, a local group for Trump supporters founded by Walden resident Eric Oberpriller, recently rallied at Caffe a la Mode in support of Torres and Elefant.

Colin Schmitt, a Republican state assembly member from New Windsor, was not in Washington, DC on January 6, but addressed 90 members of Orange County Right to Life, an anti-abortion group, before their bus set off for the Capitol that morning. According to the Times Herald-Record, both Schmitt and Clay Boone, the Washingtonville-based president of Orange County Right to Life, claim that the assembly member spoke to the DC-bound riders about legislation proposed in Albany.

Fascist Organizing in the Hudson Valley

Although the individuals listed above have no known ties to fascist organizations, their actions should be considered within that local context. Fascist presence in the Hudson Valley ranges from individuals like Keith Hayes, a Poughkeepsie resident who openly hangs a Nazi flag in the window of his apartment, to groups such as The Right Stuff, a white supremacist propaganda platform run by Jesse Dunstan of East Fishkill.

The Hudson Valley Antifascist Network (HVAN), a collective of students, workers, and community members, has been monitoring white nationalist activity in the region since 2013, often reporting on incidents via its Facebook and Twitter accounts. According to HVAN, Patriot Front is the main fascist group recruiting in the Hudson Valley, primarily through flyering and stickering. While Patriot Front’s propaganda is couched in the language (e.g. “liberty”) and colors (red, white, and blue) of Americana, it also often features a fasces, or a bundle of sticks topped with an axe, from which the fascist movement derives its name.

“They’re active everywhere—Beacon, Wappingers, Poughkeepsie, Kingston, New Paltz,” says Dishes, an organizer with HVAN who goes by an alias to protect their identity. “As for numbers, can’t say for certain, but it’s at least a solid handful. They’ve really stepped up their game over the last year or so, which tells me they are emboldened.”

“They seem somewhat small in numbers,” concurs Stotle B, another organizer with HVAN. They add Middletown, Washingtonville, Chester, Monroe, Rhinebeck, and Pine Bush to the list of local towns hit by Patriot Front propaganda.

Even if the numbers of Patriot Front members in the Hudson Valley are relatively small, that doesn’t eliminate the potential for violence. It was the actions of one fascist, James Alex Fields of the group Vanguard America, that left one person dead and 28 injured after Fields charged his car into a group of demonstrators protesting the so-called “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August of 2017. As the Southern Poverty Law Center explains, it was in the aftermath of Fields’ attack that a section of Vanguard America chose to rebrand—as Patriot Front.

The growth of groups like Patriot Front tracks with the rise of far-right violence nationwide. Last year, in a statement to the House Judiciary Committee, FBI director Christopher Wray explained that the bureau considers “racially/ethnically motivated violent extremists” to be the greatest domestic terrorist threats, following a plateau of hate crime incidents reported nationwide, according to the bureau’s latest statistics.

Although the FBI may be taking the threat of fascist violence more seriously than it has in the past, the same cannot necessarily be said of local law enforcement. Incidents in Beacon appear representative: As A Little Beacon Blog reported, two anonymous residents tore down Patriot Front flyers that were put up on light poles along Main Street in January of 2019; when they called the Beacon Police Department to inform them of the situation, they were reportedly told there was nothing that officers could do. (According to HVAN, Patriot Front stickers have since reappeared on Main Street repeatedly, despite being consistently torn down or covered up.) In cases where law enforcement has apprehended fascists—such as in Poughkeepsie in 2018, when officers responded to a Dutchess County resident posting flyers for a neo-Nazi website, according to The Highlands Current—no charges were filed nor names released. Outside of the Hudson Valley, local police departments have even facilitated fascist organizing, such as in Washington, DC last year, when Metropolitan Police escorted Patriot Front members marching from the Lincoln Memorial to the grounds of the US Capitol, as reported by Reuters.

Regardless of police inaction, HVAN advocates that Hudson Valley residents address local fascist organizing themselves. Posters that the network uses to counter Patriot Front educate passersby of the threat posed by fascists, as well as encouraging readers to tear down such propaganda and report it to HVAN. A brief guide produced by the network also offers readers a step-by-step tutorial to recognizing and removing fascist stickers and posters, along with tips like using a glass scraper and forming small groups to regularly patrol for propaganda.

“The danger posed by these groups shouldn’t be underestimated,” says Dishes. “We need to keep exposing them to disrupt their ability to gain a foothold. People need to stay vigilant.”