The insurrection at the United States Capitol on Jan. 6 drew right-wing extremists from across America, and Southern California was no exception.
On Feb. 16, UCLA student Christian Secor was arrested at his home in Costa Mesa after the FBI identified him as the man sitting in Vice President Mike Pence’s Senate floor chair during the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection. Secor was charged with the federal crimes of assaulting or resisting a police officer, violent entry and remaining on restricted grounds, civil disorder and obstructing an official proceeding.
The arrest comes at a pivotal time for the country, as domestic extremism is posing an increased threat. The riots at the Capitol have been linked to white supremacist and extremist groups, with the Department of Homeland Security warning that these people pose a rising threat.
Secor had built a presence for himself at UCLA as he formed the pro-Trump campus group America First Bruins and posted racist and hateful opinions on a Twitter account which no longer surfaces in search results.
Ann Crigler, USC Professor of Political Science and Policy, Planning and Development, emphasized that the spread of disinformation can lead people like Secor to truly believe false information and form opinions based on unfounded claims.
“There’s disinformation coming from our own leaders coming from within more broadly and from other actors so it’s very difficult to discern sometimes what disinformation is especially if you’re caught in a bubble, your echochamber, and you really think that you’re hearing this information from very reliable sources and you don’t really know that it’s not true,” Crigler said. “That’s really really difficult to overcome.”
Secor’s actions have since been condemned by Republican and Democratic organizations alike, including the UCLA conservative group Bruin Republicans, of which Secor is a former member.
Walker Cook, a UCLA senior majoring in political science and member of Bruins for Biden, said far-right extremists do not have a large physical presence on campus.
But, he said, “there’s a very small but very vocal and highly empowered minority of ultra far-right students who see themselves as trying to upset the liberal social fabric of campus, and that inevitably turns into violent fascism.”
Bruin Republicans declined to be interviewed on the matter, but told Annenberg Media the group doesn’t condone Secor’s actions.
USC alumnus and two-time Olympic gold medalist Klete Keller also participated in the riot at the Capitol. He was charged with knowingly entering or remaining in a restricted building, disorderly conduct in the Capitol building and impeding law enforcement by the U.S. District Court in Washington on Jan. 13.
UCLA student Matthew Richard had started a Twitter thread calling for the expulsion of Secor prior to the riots, tweeting, “THREAD and call for an investigation into, and expulsion of Christian Secor, as well as SOLE registered club @/afbruins. Secor is president of campus group America First Bruins, and is an active danger. content warning on screenshots/material to follow @UCLA @UCLAchancellor,” on Mar. 31, 2020.
Raisa Ojeda, the director of communications for the Bruin Political Union at UCLA, also said she “saw the warning signs.” When Secor was invited to speak onstage at a BPU event, his hateful views were relayed in person. “He said some pretty insensitive, inflammatory comments in regard to Jewish people, in regards to generally people of color, and he hasn’t yet been sanctioned. And that’s a big issue,” Ojeda said.
Both Cook and Ojeda are unhappy with UCLA’s response to Secor’s behavior, which was limited to a statement to the student body.
“They love to issue those kind of grand, lofty statements after bad things happen without ever looking inward at their own policies,” Cook said. “They’ve yet to release a statement to students about the arrest or about how this person was ever allowed to found an overtly fascist student organization that had access to university funding and resources.”
Ojeda agrees, wishing that UCLA would have taken action before the Capitol riot took place. “It had been called to their attention long before this even happened,” she said. “It didn’t have to escalate to this point.”
There are key differences between thoughtful dialogue between groups with opposing views and the use of disinformation to spread hate.
“Disinformation is something that is purposefully going to be either inaccurate or hurtful or hateful and that’s a different thing,” Crigler said. “Free speech doesn’t allow for the incitement of violence for example, so those are things universities and organizations have an obligation to follow up on to see what people are doing and what kind of help or guidance that person needs or that group needs.”
UCLA Director of Media Relations Bill Kisliuk called the Jan. 6 riot “an attack on our democracy,” saying “as an institution, UCLA is committed to mutual respect, making decisions based on evidence and using rational debate and not physical violence.”
USC President Carol Folt also addressed the Jan. 6 riot in an email to USC students the next day. “Yesterday, we witnessed a violent assault on our democratic process as rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol. "
USC senior Mason Wise, a communications major, believes that the extremist views displayed by Secor are not isolated. “Although it seems crazy to believe that there could be people who have those beliefs, I think it would also be naive to believe that they don’t exist in USC.”
Crigler noted that it is important for universities to distinguish these issues and continue to allow for students and faculty alike to contemplate various beliefs.
“I’m not a person who is in favor of quelling open dialogue about difficult political issues,” Crigler said. “Democracy works when you have different people coming together to discuss and try to come to some kind of policy agreements or agree to disagree until the next election and you try to unseat your opponent...We have mistakenly equated the opponent with the enemy and that’s not helpful.”
Looking forward, Crigler said it was important that people learn to discern fact from fiction by establishing confidence in reliable sources of information.