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How has extremism in Ohio changed since Jan. 6?

A photo of a large brick building on a street corner. A small neon-type sign can be seen in one window.
Leila Goldstein
Federal prosecutors say Jessica Watkins was one of the “most extreme insurgents” involved in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. The FBI raided the bar she owned in Woodstock, Ohio.

Ohioans played a sizable part of the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

Almost 50 of the more than 700 people later convicted for their actions that day hailed from here— and some were part of anti-government militias or other groups with extremist beliefs. Army veteran and Woodstock, Ohio, resident Jessica Watkins was one of them. Recordings used at her subsequent trial captured her railing against Vice President Mike Pence for allowing Congress to certify the election results.

jessica watkins (480x600, AR: 0.8)

Transmissions from walkie-talkie app Zello to fellow members of the militia group the Oath Keepers placed her inside the Capitol as violence ensued.

"We are in the mezzanine, we are in the main dome now," she said in the recordings. "They are throwing grenades, shooting people with paintballs, but we are in here."

Watkins has recanted some of her anti-government beliefs since, saying she fell for misinformation. She's serving eight years in federal prison for obstructing Congress and interfering with police.

And while Watkins, and many others who stormed the Capitol three years ago are behind bars, experts say extremism is alive and well in Ohio. But now, they argue, it looks different.

What's changed

Katie McCarthy, a researcher with the Anti-Defamation League, said high-profile convictions of people like Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes and Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio, put a damper on those groups.

"Post-Jan. 6, the Oath Keepers, the militia groups, the anti-government groups sort of collapsed," she said. "They’re still around, but we don't really see a whole lot of activity from them now. I think a lot of that is just due to the fear post-Jan. 6. There's a lot of paranoia about the feds coming after these guys."

Southern Poverty Law Center Research Analyst Jeff Tischauser agreed. But he said that doesn't mean extremism is leaving Ohio. Watkins had started her own small militia as an offshoot of the Oath Keepers prior to Jan. 6. Tischauser said groups like that are on the rise, even as the bigger groups wane.

"The folks who might have joined a national organization like the Three Percenters or the Oath Keepers are now more likely to be joining regional militias. There are a number of regional militias that have popped up in Ohio."

Analysts like Tischauser and McCarthy are keeping tabs on other kinds of extremist groups with explicit white supremacist beliefs.

"When it came to white supremacist events nationwide in 2023, Ohio ranked second in the country," McCarthy said. "They had 21 incidents in 2023, which was up from, I think, 15 in 2022."

A neo-Nazi group Blood Tribe held at least three demonstrations in Ohio last year, including protests at a drag event in Columbus. A few dozen members brandished swastika flags and a banner reading "there will be blood" at the event.

And in March, drag group Cincinnati Sisters canceled a book-reading event in Milford after they said they got threats from a white nationalist group called the Ohio Active Club.

Tischauser said that's part of a larger trend.

"If you want to see where the pulse is for hate and extremism groups, it's looking at Pride events," he said. "For the last several years since J. 6, we've seen just an overwhelming amount of attention on [LGBTQ] Pride events by the far right."

What's next

Other groups are wrapping extremist anti-government or white supremacist beliefs in subtler language to try to recruit more people and gain a foothold in local political systems in Ohio, experts including Tischauser and McCarthy say.

Researchers are seeing people with extreme beliefs trying to become poll workers or poll watchers, for example, or running for office in municipalities across the state.

"When you have a whole bunch of individuals who believe that the 2020 election results were stolen, that the election was rigged, and now they're trying to get in and become poll workers and be folks that are involved in that vote-counting process in 2024, it's a little concerning," McCarthy says.

In a statement after the presidential primary election last month, Ohio's Secretary of State Frank LaRose assured the public the state's elections are and will be secure.

McCarthy with the Anti-Defamation League says the focus and aims of extremist groups in Ohio have shifted since 2021.

"The 2024 election is definitely a concern," she says. "But I don't think we'll see Jan. 6 2.0."

Nick is a general assignment reporter for WVXU in Cincinnati.