And, Yes, We Know Who is Responsible.
The men standing before the cameras in Moore County were sober-faced and serious as they addressed the intentional and targeted attacks on two electric substations the night before. Forty-five thousand residents lost power, schools and businesses closed , the county was forced to declare a state of emergency and curfew, and local communities were put both at risk and on edge.
The power was out for five days, closing businesses and schools. Working class people lost wages by not being able to go work, small shops lost revenue. Children missed nearly a week of school and houses on well water couldn’t drink or bathe. At least one death has been attributed to the outage.
At the time I am writing this, there is no official word about who attacked the Moore County power grid or why. There is a real possibility we will never know. That said, while the officials at the press conference somberly rolled out their emergency plans, they did not use the opportunity to acknowledge the very serious concern on most people’s minds: Was this done by far-right extremists?
The fear is not unfounded. If it’s a coincidence that the attack shut off the lights just as the Sunrise Theater’s controversial drag show began, then it’s an absolutely incredible coincidence. Adding to already suspicious circumstances, far-right activist, psyops officer, and drag show protest organizer Emily Rainey posted “The power is out in Moore County and I know why” to her social media, followed by pictures of the darkened theater captioned “God will not be mocked.”
While the men at the press conference didn’t want to speculate, there was an elephant in the room. We know that threats is very real: Just last month 5 people were murdered in a LGBTQ+ nightclub in Colorado. We also already knew that domestic violent extremists pose a credible threat to our infrastructure. In 2021, four neo-nazi’s affiliated with North Carolina’s Camp LeJeune were charged with conspiring to attack a power grid. They never pulled it off. Last January, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security warned utility companies that extremists had “developed credible, specific plans to attack electricity infrastructure … identifying the electric grid as a particularly attractive target.” A month later, three men in Ohio pled guilty to plotting to disrupt a power grid as an act of white supremacist “accelerationism.” They also did not achieve their ends. But just four days before the attack in Moore, DHS issued yet another alert warning that “Targets of potential violence include … the LGBTQI+ community” and “US critical infrastructure.”
All of this sounds pretty outlandish, but the results of growing extremism and radicalization will at some point land on someone’s doorstep… and it very well may have been ours. Unlike Rainey, I don’t believe that “God is chastising Moore County,” but I do believe that a dangerous act of destruction is the predictable consequence of vile rhetoric and purposeful escalation that she and her counterparts participate in.
Since last spring, there has been a steady increase in the number of anti-LGBTQ+ and, specifically, anti-drag protests. I wrote about this in July, not knowing that it was going to exponentially increase through the fall. Less than two weeks before Moore County was attacked, GLAAD reported that NC leads the nation in the number of drag events targeted by protests and threats.
Proud Boys have been the consistent core of our state’s protests; the same men traveling from Raleigh to Fayetteville to Albemarle trying to intimidate attendees by wearing masks and street brawling gear such as steel knuckle gloves. At some protests, they have been joined by evangelicals holding signs about scripture and sin. Increasingly, however, they have attracted explicitly militant characters. In Sanford this October, for example, anti-drag protestors included two January 6 insurrectionists and at least one neo-nazi with “1488” tattooed on his knuckles.
It’s not just in North Carolina that militants and white nationalists have been joining anti-LGBTQ+ protests. The same day that Moore’s power grid was attacked, Proud Boys were joined by Patriot Front– an explicit white nationalist group- to protest a drag storytime in Ohio. Some were filmed doing Nazi salutes outside.
The threat is tangible enough here in North Carolina and elsewhere that venues are being forced to acquiesce. Drag shows all over the country are being canceled, many in locations and communities where they have thrived unchallenged for decades. Sandhills Pride, the advocacy group that serves the Moore County area, has canceled an upcoming holiday gathering for kids and a parent support group because it feels too dangerous to continue. “There is a real threat to children,” explained one parent I talked to in Moore County. “The far-right is making them unsafe. And we simply can’t put them at risk.”
The FBI is on the ground in Moore County and, apparently and unsurprisingly, at nearby Fort Bragg– a hotspot for neo-nazi and extremist organizing. Even if the Moore County Sheriff, who seemed to clear Rainey after saying he prayed with her, won’t address local people’s concern about far-right extremism and anti-gay threats, the FBI seems to be taking it very seriously. Across the state, a Sneads Ferry venue canceled their planned holiday drag show after being advised by the FBI about the danger.
Research from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED) shows a shift in far-right mobilization from pro-Trump and anti-BLM activity in 2021 to white nationalist and anti-LGBTQ+ activity in 2022. According to their research, white nationalism is the primary driver, but anti-LGBTQ+ actions are the mobilization. Due to the current climate in the U.S., targeting LGBTQ+ communities, especially transgender people and drag queens, allows extremists to operate on somewhat mainstream platforms in a way that they cannot if they target Black people or immigrants. In other words, even though drag shows have been happening in Moore County and all across the state and country for decades, the far-right currently sees them as an open window through which they can pull mainstream conversations and people through.
It’s not so much that “God works in mysterious ways,” as Rainey said, describing the power outage, but that radicalization and extremism works in highly predictable ways. When Rainey tells her followers “You know what to do” when publishing the names and contact information of the people she opposes or when the Moore County GOP describes a drag show as a battle between “God v Evil”, their rhetoric is bushwhacking a trail along which violent extremists easily follow.
It’s unlikely that Rainey has direct knowledge of what happened to the Moore County power grid, but if it turns out to be an act of far-right extremism, she shouldn’t be confused as to how we got here.
Two notes: One, a version of this was originally published as part of my monthly column for the Greensboro News and Record here. In that column, I frequently write about the rise of extremism in North Carolina and what we can do about it. Two, see below! The drag show in Southern Pines went on after the power was cut because, well, no matter what they try, we will always win.