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A historian reacts to the guilty verdict given to the Oath Keepers founder

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes has been found guilty of seditious conspiracy in connection with the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. The jury reached its verdict today after nearly three days of deliberating and following a nearly eight-week trial. Kathleen Belew has researched and written about groups like the Oath Keepers, including in her book, "Bring The War Home: The White Power Movement And Paramilitary America." Kathleen Belew, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

KATHLEEN BELEW: Thank you for having me.

KELLY: So this verdict was read just early this evening. What was your top-line reaction?

BELEW: So the findings of seditious conspiracy in the Oath Keepers trial and across the sedition - the January 6 prosecutions more broadly are notable because, in the past, seditious conspiracy trials have not been successful ways of prosecuting militant right and white-power violence. As recently as the late 1980s, these trials were very unsuccessful and didn't work as tools for stopping this kind of a mobilization. So the fact that this is a tool that the Justice Department can use to constrain this kind of violent attack on the nation is significant. And seditious conspiracy, people should...

KELLY: So this was a win for the Justice Department, if I'm hearing you right.

BELEW: It is. Yes. And seditious conspiracy, people should understand, is a charge that requires proof both of the conspiracy, which is acting as a group or a movement of people, and sedition, which in this case has to do with the attempt to violently overthrow the nation or violently impact the election.

KELLY: I want to note that Stewart Rhodes was one of five defendants charged with seditious conspiracy in this trial. What does it tell us - that he was found guilty, along with one other defendant, Kelly Meggs, but the other three were acquitted on what has been the central charge?

BELEW: I imagine we're going to learn more about that as the details come out. But one thing is that the charging is very complex with seditious conspiracy around who does and doesn't have foreknowledge of planning and kind of mechanisms of organization. Rhodes has been quite open about his plan to become a sort of paramilitary force, either working directly with the Trump administration or kind of covertly as a strong-arm arm of the administration. But these charges are very difficult to prove and have been very difficult to obtain over time. But what it does, even if it's only a partial finding in this group of five people - even if only two are convicted - what it does is open the door to additional prosecutions on the militant right of that force as a movement instead of sort of playing into the idea that these are lone actions. And in a week where we're looking at, you know, the story about the rapper Ye dining with one white-power activist about - you know, the stories about the Buffalo grocery store shooting sentencing...

KELLY: Yeah.

BELEW: ...All of these are interconnected events within the broader landscape of militant right and white-power violence.

KELLY: Well, and I'll note there is another trial coming up involving the Oath Keepers and yet another trial for a group of Proud Boys. These are both set to start in the coming weeks. I know it's early hours - we just got this verdict this evening - but what might the possible impact be?

BELEW: I think any time there is a conviction, it sends a message both to the people doing the work of prosecuting white-power and militant right violence that it can be confronted as a movement. And it gives us, as a broader public, a way to look at this and think about it in a much more coherent way than simply reading these one-off pieces about Proud Boys doing something over here and Oath Keepers doing something over there. These are groups with deep interconnections, with a shared goal, and charges like seditious conspiracy are one of the ways that we can encounter that as a movement.

KELLY: Are you seeing reaction yet in online chat groups, social media platforms you're tracking?

BELEW: I'm sure there will be reaction. I'm a historian, so my research is actually on the earlier movement and one particular seditious conspiracy case that failed in the late 1980s and set off violence that ended up leading to the Oklahoma City bombing partly because of that acquittal. So I think, you know, the perspective for me is more backward-looking. But even still, I think this is a significant historical moment for kind of the broader story of this movement.

KELLY: And in the few seconds we have left, based on your historical study of this group and groups like it, would you expect a verdict like this to galvanize the movement or to fracture and sow some doubt?

BELEW: So verdicts like this tend to have some of both of those effects. Some people will be frustrated and turn to more violent activism. Others will feel that it is expensive and dangerous to participate and might find ways out. In either case, it is better to confront the movement than to look away.

KELLY: That is historian and author Kathleen Belew of Northwestern University. Thanks so much for your time.

BELEW: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.