An upcoming Chicagoland SWAT training and arms expo for police officers from across Illinois will feature a talk by far-right national security "expert" Sebastian Gorka -- an anti-Muslim extremist who argues that the United States is a "Christian nation" and boosted the presidential campaign of Donald Trump while having taken payments from the GOP candidate.
Gorka's invitation to speak at the Illinois Tactical Officers Association (ITOA) conference, slated to take place in mid October, is raising concern among human rights campaigners, who say the engagement underscores the "toxic racism and Islamophobia" on display at the event.
"Sebastian [Gorka's] entire career is largely built from, and continues to flame the fire of, Islamophobic fear-mongering tactics post-9/11," said Hoda Katebi, an organizer and artist with For The People Artists Collective and communications coordinator for the Chicago chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. "This toxic climate of militarization and fear of an 'ever-looming threat of radical Islam' is rampant across local and federal institutions and manifests in ever-more violent policing, military-grade equipment for local police, heightened surveillance and entrapment and increased spending on policing rather than community services, to name a few examples."
"Making a Living Off of Islamophobia"
Gorka, who did not reply to a request for an interview, is a regular pundit on Fox News and a national security editor for the publication Breitbart. He was hired by Stephen Bannon, who now serves as the chief of Trump's presidential campaign. In October 2015, Gorka received $8,000 from Trump while working at Breitbart. Articles about Gorka's cable news punditry are often framed to highlight his endorsement of Trump's off-the-cuff remarks on national security.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups, over the past year Breitbart "has undergone a noticeable shift toward embracing ideas on the extremist fringe of the conservative right. Racist ideas. Anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant ideas -- all key tenets making up an emerging racist ideology known as the 'Alt-Right.'"
Gorka's writings and numerous press appearances appear to be in line with this trajectory.
In a July 15 appearance on Fox News, Gorka appealed to the United States' supposed heritage as a Christian nation to argue for the monitoring and tracking of Syrian refugees living in the United States. "We don't know where the refugees from war zones are living in America?" he said. "We're a Christian nation, we should be charitable to those in need. But charity is not an excuse for suicide."
Pressed on his remark about a Christian nation, Gorka replied: "The capital C creator in our founding document, who do you think the founding fathers were referring to -- Allah?"
In his book Defeating Jihad, published in April of 2016, Gorka argued that the US should wage a Cold-War style ideological battle against "jihad" -- which he claims is rooted in Islam itself.
He reiterated this point in an article from June, in which he argued, "Ultimately we will win when the ideology of global jihadism is no longer attractive to young men and women from Orlando to Brussels, from Paris to San Bernardino. That can only be done through a strategic-level counter-propaganda campaign driven by the White House, in exactly the same way that we did during the Cold War."
Going further, Gorka has repeatedly called for the expansion of police powers to conduct suspicionless spying on Muslim communities. In a 2014 defense of NYPD mapping and surveillance of Muslim neighborhoods, he proclaimed: "What was Osama bin Laden? Muslim… Do we think these individuals hang out in Hindu ashrams or Catholic community centers? No. they hang out in mosques… Are we really saying the NYPD should be going into Jewish temples to find Muslim terrorists?"
Furthermore, Gorka's own bio advertises his ties to mercenary companies and military institutions, stating that he "serves as the Vice President and Professor of Strategy and Irregular Warfare at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, DC. Previously, he was the Major General Matthew C. Horner Distinguished Chair of Military Theory at Marine Corps University where he provided courses and lectures on Irregular Warfare. Before that, he was Associate Dean of Congressional Affairs and Relations to the Special Operations Community at National Defense University."
The ITOA, for its part, describes Gorka as an "Internationally Recognized Terrorist Expert, Author and Trainer" in its advertisement for his talk, which is titled, "Terrorist Threat -- Trends and Predictions."
Melisa Stephen, a member of the For the People Artists Collective, told AlterNet that it makes a lot of sense" that someone like Gorka would be featured at the ITOA Conference, stating: "We're talking about a man who worked as a policy consultant for Donald Trump's campaign, who frequents Fox News and makes a living off Islamophobia."
"It's important to note that Islamophobia is employed to justify police militarization, including increased partnerships between weapons manufacturers and law enforcement agencies," Stephen continued. "This is how we get organizations like ITOA that teach local law enforcement how to use military equipment and tactics that they then use to continue killing black, brown and indigenous people at alarming rates."
Fueling Police Militarization
Gorka is not the only source of controversy over the ITOA's 29th annual conference, which is slated to last five days and will take place in Hoffman Estates, Illinois, which is an hour from Chicago.
Registered as a not-for-profit corporation, The IOTA's stated purpose is to "advance the education and professionalism of law enforcement officers involved in Emergency Response functions through the exchange of ideas and information relating to tactics, techniques and to further the networking and interrelation of departments and personnel."
However, human rights campaigners say that the organization is fueling a war-like mentality within police departments. The Stop ITOA Coalition, which includes the organizations Assata's Daughters, American Friends Service Committee and War Resisters League, said in a statement:
While Chicago is still reeling from budget cuts that have resulted in the closure of over 50 public schools, mental health clinics, and severe cuts to social services, the city spends over $4 million a day on the Chicago police alone. ITOA is directly involved in training and arming those police, even using empty school buildings as training grounds for Cook County officers. Weapons manufacturers from around the world also use ITOA to sell military grade equipment to local police forces -- equipment that shocked the country when it was deployed against civilians in places like Ferguson, Minneapolis and Baton Rouge (and is used regularly by repressive governments such as Israel).
Notably, the weapons company Safariland is providing classes on classes on "less lethal technologies," "hostage rescue" and "high-risk warrant service." In addition, retired military officials are slated to teach workshops titled, "Video Diagnostics Tac Rifle & Pistol" and "designated marksman."
The ITOA, meanwhile, is just one of numerous Tactical Officers Associations around the country. The annual New York Tactical Officers Association conference attracted outcry this summer when it extended a speaking invitation to Ryan Mauro, an anti-Muslim conspiracy theorist who is designated an extremist by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Meanwhile, organizers in Illinois say they have faced a campaign of harassment after launching the Stop ITOA campaign. Debbie Southorn, a staff member of the American Friends Service Committee in Chicago and core organizer with Stop ITOA, wrote in a statement released this week: "On Monday, September 12th, a small group of organizers, myself included, launched a public campaign to #StopITOA. Less than a week later, my office was burglarized overnight and only my locked up laptop was stolen, although there were computers and other valuables out and left untouched."
The ITOA did not respond to a request for an interview submitted over email. Reached by phone, Eric Perkins from the Elk Grove police department who serves on the board of the ITOA, told AlterNet, "I am not at liberty to make any statements."