Tracking Extremists:  A new study shows a rise in "Patriot Groups" here in Connecticut

The good news: Connecticut's "hate group" index appears to be holding fairly steady. The bad news: the number of far-right wing, anti-federal-government-conspiracy "Patriot groups" in Connecticut more than doubled last year.

That's the word from the Southern Poverty Law Center, which annually tries to track the rise and occasional fall of what it considers potentially dangerous extremist organizations across the United States. And the dramatic rise in "Patriot" and militia groups in this state follows a national trend that saw their numbers boom from 824 in 2010 to 1,274 last year.

According to the center, Connecticut's share of these ultra-conservative anti-government groups went from just three back in 2008 to eight in 2010 to 17 in 2011.

But one Connecticut conservative, Tanya Bachand, a New Haven-area Tea Party activist, insists the report is way off base. "I'm shocked they would list some of these groups," she says. "These are not people stockpiling guns and tuna fish and waiting for the revolution."

The center's report defines Patriot movement organizations as "conspiracy-minded groups that see the federal government as their primary enemy." (Hate groups are considered organizations that advocate or practice hatred, hostility or violence against specific types of people based on race, gender, sexual orientation or religion.)

"If they did any research at all into those Connecticut groups, at least half of them are not even close to being 'militia' groups," Bachand argues, adding that she's not a member of any of the organizations listed in the report.

Bachand believes the authors of the Center's annual report "label as anti-government nuts" anyone who "actually thinks the Constitution has limits and… the 10th Amendment has meaning… People who are concerned about the growth of the federal government and its intrusion into state and local matters."

Groups listed by the Southern Poverty Law Center as "Patriot Movement" types here include "We the People," which Bachand says is a lobbying organization.

Another on the list, the "10th Amendment Center," she describes as a conservative "think tank" based in Washington, D.C.  According to the group's website, its goal is to "preserve and protect the principles of strictly limited government." (The 10th Amendment says all powers not specifically granted to the federal government are reserved for the states and the people.)

Of course, then you have some others on the list, like the "Connecticut Survivalist Alliance," which denies it's an "extremist" group and says its goal is not allowing the "Meccachurian (presumably Obama) to finalize his total destruction of America."

Mark Potok, the principal author of the Southern Poverty Law Center's latest report, says his organization's distinction between traditional hate groups like the KKK or neo-Nazis and the Patriot groups is "based 100 percent on ideology."

"We consider both [hate groups and Patriot groups] to be part of the extreme right," Potok says. Actual violence involving these groups doesn't come into how they are categorized, he says, adding that, "We've seen just as much violence come out of the Patriot Movement as we have out of the hate groups."

In 2010, the center identified six hate groups in this state. Last year, that number dropped to five, ranging from a neo-Nazi group and a KKK chapter.

(The Connecticut Historical Society and Real Art Ways will hold a lecture Friday, March 30, concerning one aspect of the KKK you may not have heard about: how the racist organization's ranks swelled here in the early 20th Century, in part because of an influx of French Canadians.)

The shifting nature of the organizations the center tracks as hate groups, and their often small membership, can account for some of the fluctuations in the numbers.

One of the groups that disappeared from this state's hate listing in 2011 was the "Connecticut White Wolves," a self-described "white nationalist skinhead organization" based in Stratford. At least two of the group's members were convicted on federal gun-related charges in 2011.

Kenneth Zrallack Jr., the then-29-year-old supposed leader of the group, was acquitted after a jury trial. He was at the time reputed to be a top figure in something called "Battalion 14 Connecticut Chapter of North East White Pride." That organization, along with the White Wolves, were two of the three hate groups that dropped off the center's Connecticut list in 2011.

The others that made that category last year were the Creativity Movement (neo-Nazi in philosophy); the Nation of Islam (black separatist and anti-Jewish), and the National Socialist Movement.

The study pointed to the election of Barack Obama as our first black president and the economic hardships of the recession as key reasons for this surge in far right-wing cultures like those of the Patriot Movement.

But Scott McLean, of the political science department at Quinnipiac University, believes the economy and the controversy over illegal immigration are more important factors.