New York Attorney General Letitia James says the country needs "moral leadership" again to help combat the recent rise in white nationalism and domestic terrorism.

The president of the United States, she says, denigrates women, Mexicans, the disabled, Muslims and others but "refuses to denounce white nationalism." The nation, she said, hasn't been this divided since the Civil War.

"What we need is decency back to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue," said James. "And to make changes to the law to hold these individuals responsible so they will go back to covering themselves under the sheets."

James' strong remarks were part of the extraordinary Presidential Summit panel event on Wednesday regarding white nationalism and domestic terrorism in America. It took place during NYSBA's weeklong 143rd Annual Meeting at the New York Hilton Midtown in Manhattan. 

The event, witnessed live by over 500 people and livestreamed to members across the state and worldwide, was moderated by Craig M. Boise, dean and professor of law at the Syracuse University College of Law. 

Other panelists were David D. Cole, national legal director, American Civil Liberties Union; Frank Figliuzzi, Jr., former FBI assistant director for counterintelligence, NBC News/MSNBC national security analyst; Nan Whaley, mayor of Dayton, Ohio; and Leonard Zeskind, founder & president, Institute for Research and Education of Human Rights and author of "Blood and Politics: The History of the White Nationalist Movement from the Margins to the Mainstream"

Law enforcement is paying increased attention to home-grown extremists, including radicalized white nationalists, who have been responsible for the rising number of hate incidents and mass shootings in the United States. 

Last year, hate crimes reached a 16-year high. Specifically, white nationalist groups surged nearly 50 percent, growing from 100 chapters in 2017 to 148 in 2018, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

James said in New York, 45 hate groups have been tracked and most recently, the state has seen a 20 percent increase in anti-Semitic attacks. 

"We're working with law enforcement to monitor hate groups," said James. "It has to be a priority. We can't sit idly by and do nothing."

Figliuzzi lamented the fact that law enforcement does not have a law that spells out domestic terrorism. He said FBI agents and other law enforcement need more tools at their disposal, as currently they lack the same techniques used in the fight against international terrorism in order to prevent attacks before they happen.

His "code name" for the phenomenon is "thoughts and prayers."

"Thoughts to figure out who the next mass shooter is," said Figliuzzi. "And prayers for the inevitable victims of the next mass shooting."

Whaley is familiar with dealing with tragedy after a man shot and killed seven people and wounded 17 in Dayton, Ohio in August 2019. She recently attended a conference of mayors and discussed best practices following a mass shooting. When it comes to mass shootings, "we now recognize it's not a matter of if but when," said Whaley.

Whaley is particularly uncomfortable with protests where the participants are so heavily armed, as was the case in Richmond, Va. recently. She'd prefer protests were unarmed.

"When people are armed to the teeth, the conversation stops," Whaley said.

Stand up
Zeskind predicts that the worst of the violence in the white nationalism movement is yet to come. He believes the key factor behind the actions of white nationalists is that the Census Bureau has projected that white people will officially become a minority in a nation of minorities by the middle part of this century.

"I've been doing this 40 years. I've seen a lot close up and this is the worst I've seen it," said Zeskind. "And we're not seeing the worst that's going to come."

In order to combat it, Zeskind believes local communities have to stand up and speak out against it. 

"Educate yourself, learn how to stand up," said Zeskind. "Community organization will defeat this movement."

Civil liberties
However, the desire to keep the public safe also has another side that isn't often discussed - concerns about potential civil liberties violations when law enforcement agencies conduct surveillance of groups and individuals based on their political beliefs and orientations.

Cole said we need to learn from history and not overreact, such as with the treatment of Muslims post-9/11.

"Condemnation is critical to send white nationalists back in their basements and chatrooms," said Cole.

But Cole said everyone, including lawyers should be skeptical of the need for a new domestic terrorism law. He said groups advocating violence isn't a crime, nor is joining the group.

"Our history shows that when you give the government the power to do that, it gets abused," said Cole. "Do not succumb to the temptation… that is to engage in guilt by association or ideological criminalization."


Watch the Presidential Summit here.


  • Letitia James, Esq., New York State Attorney General, makes a point during Presidential Summit at the New York State Bar Association Annual Meeting. Also pictured are Craig M. Boise (left), Dean Professor of Law at Syracuse University, College of Law and Leonard Zeskind, President, Institute for Research and Education of Human Rights. The event was held at the Hilton Midtown in New York, on Wednesday January 29, 2020. / Russ DeSantis Photography and Video, LLC