Hate Groups: Overview of the report on May 8, 2009

By Peter Katel

Two police officers drove up to a brick house in the middle-class Pittsburgh neighborhood of Stanton Heights on April 4, responding to an emergency call from a woman about her 22-year-old son. “I want him gone,” Margaret Poplawski told a 911 operator.

She also said that he had weapons, but the operator failed to share that crucial information with the police, who apparently took no special precautions in responding. Seconds after officers Stephen J. Mayhle and Paul J. Sciullo walked into the house, Richard Poplawski opened fire, killing both men. He then shot and killed Eric Kelly, a policeman outside the house. After a four-hour standoff, Poplawski surrendered. Hours after that, the Anti-Defamation League and a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter traced a March 13 Web post by Poplawski to the neo-Nazi Web site Stormfront.

“The federal government, mainstream media and banking system in these United States are strongly under the influence of – if not completely controlled by – Zionist interest,” the post said. “An economic collapse of the financial system is inevitable, bringing with it some degree of civil unrest if not outright balkanization of the continental U.S., civil/revolutionary/racial war. . . . This collapse is likely engineered by the elite Jewish powers that be in order to make for a power and asset grab.”

Obsessions with Jewish conspiracy, racial conflict and looming collapse of the political and social order have long festered in the extreme outposts of U.S. political culture. While extremists typically become active in times of social and economic stress, Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, struck in 1995 during a relatively tranquil, prosperous time.

Now, law enforcement officials warn, dire conditions throughout the country have created a perfect storm of provocations for right-wing extremists. In the midst of fighting two wars, the country is suffering an economic crisis in which more than 5 million people have lost their jobs, while the hypercharged debate over immigration – and the presence of about 12 million illegal immigrants – continues unresolved.

“This is the formula – the formula for hate,” says James Cavanaugh, special agent in charge of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) Nashville, Tenn., division and a veteran investigator of far-right extremists. “Everything’s aligning for them for hate.”

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) drew a similar conclusion in early April, adding a concern over the apparent rekindling of extremist interest in recruiting disaffected military veterans.

“The consequences of a prolonged economic downturn . . . could create a fertile recruiting environment for right-wing extremists and even result in confrontations between such groups and government authorities,” the DHS said.

The election of Barack Obama as the nation’s first African-American president also could prompt an extremist backlash. “Obama is going to be the spark that arouses the white movement,” the Detroit-based National Socialist Movement – considered a leading neo-Nazi organization – announced on its Web site.

But the Obama effect will be negligible among hardcore, violent extremists, says an ex-FBI agent who worked undercover in right-wing terrorist cells in the early 1990s. “They’re in an alternative universe,” says Mike German, author of the 2007 book Thinking Like a Terrorist, and now a policy counselor to the American Civil Liberties Union on national-security issues. “When you believe the American government is the puppet of Israel, whether Obama is the face of the government instead of George W. Bush makes little difference.”

Indeed, says Columbia University historian Robert O. Paxton, the Obama victory demonstrated that the country’s worrisome conditions haven’t sparked widespread rejection of the political system – the classic catalyst for major upsurges of extremism. “Sure, we have a black president, but if the Right were really at the door, we wouldn’t have elected him,” says Paxton, a leading scholar of European fascism.

Still, Paxton and others caution that the sociopolitical effects of the economic crisis may take a while to hit. The Montgomery, Ala.-based Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which tracks the Ku Klux Klan and other “hate groups,” reports activity by 926 such groups in 2008, a 50 percent increase over the number in 2000. “That is a real and a significant rise,” says Mark Potok, director of the center’s Intelligence Project. Despite the increased activity, the center says there’s nothing approaching a mass movement. Moreover, drawing connections between extremist organizations and hate crimes can be complicated.

“Most hate crimes are not committed by members of organized hate groups,” says Chip Berlet, senior analyst for Political Research Associates of Somerville, Mass., who has been writing about the far right for a quarter-century. “These groups help promote violence through their aggressive rhetoric. But you’re more likely to be victim of hate crime from a neighbor.”

For example, three young men from Staten Island, N.Y., charged with beating a 17-year-old Liberian immigrant into a coma on presidential election night last year were not accused of membership in anything more than a neighborhood gang. Their victim, who also lives on Staten Island, said his attackers, one of them Hispanic, yelled “Obama” as they set on him.

Mental health problems also may play a role in such violence, not all of which is inspired by hate rhetoric. In the single deadliest attack on immigrants in memory, Jiverly Wong is charged with killing 13 people (and then himself) at an immigrants’ service center in Binghamton, N.Y., one day before Poplawski’s alleged killings in Pittsburgh. Eleven of Wong’s victims were immigrants, like Wong, a native of Vietnam. Wong left a note in which he complained of his limited English-speaking ability and depicted himself as a victim of police persecution.

But in other recent cases in which immigrants were targeted, the alleged shooters did invoke far-right views. Keith Luke, 22, who lived with his mother in the Boston suburb of Brockton, was charged in January with killing a young woman, shooting and raping her sister and killing a 72-year-old man – all immigrants from Cape Verde. His planned next stop, police said, was a synagogue. Luke, whom one law enforcement source described as a “recluse,” allegedly told police he was “fighting extinction” of white people.

A similar motive was expressed by a 60-year-old Destin, Fla., man charged with killing two Chilean students and wounding three others, all visiting Florida as part of a cultural-exchange program. Shortly before the killings, Dannie Roy Baker had asked a neighbor, “Are you ready for the revolution?” And last summer, he had sent e-mails to Walton County Republican Party officials – who forwarded them to the sheriff’s office. One said, in part, “The Washington D.C. Dictators have already confessed to rigging elections in our States for their recruiting dictators to overthrow us with foreign illegals here.”

Some immigrant advocates say such comments indicate that extremists are exploiting resentment of immigrants in the hope of stirring up more attacks.

“It is the perfect vehicle, particularly with the decline of the economy,” says Eric Ward, national field director of the Chicago-based Center for New Community, which works with immigrants. “With American anxiety building, they hope that they can use immigrants as scapegoats to build their movement.”

“Illegals are turning America into a third-world slum,” says one of a series of leaflets distributed in the New Haven, Conn., area in early March by North-East White Pride (NEWP). “They come for welfare, or to take our jobs and bring with them drugs, crime and disease.”

The NEWP Web site carries the cryptic slogan, “Support your local 1488.” In neo-Nazi code, “88” represents “Heil Hitler,” words that begin with the eighth letter in the alphabet. And “14” stands for an infamous, 14-word racist dictum: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.” Its author was the late David Lane, a member of the violent neo-Nazi organization, The Order, who died in prison in 2007.

The Order, whose crimes included the murder of a Jewish radio talk-show host in Denver in 1984, sprang from the far-right milieu, as did Oklahoma City bomber McVeigh. And a source of inspiration in both cases was a novel glorifying genocide of Jews and blacks, The Turner Diaries, authored by the late William Pierce, founder of the neo-Nazi National Alliance, based in West Virginia.

Pierce’s death from cancer in 2002 was one of a series of developments that left a high-level leadership vacuum in the extremist movement. One of those trying to fill it is Billy Roper, 37, chairman of White Revolution, a group based in Russellville, Ark. Roper predicts that racial-ethnic tensions will explode when nonstop immigration from Latin America forces the violent breakup of the United States.

“We’re at a pre-revolutionary stage, where it’s too late to seek recompense through the political process, and too early to start shooting,” Roper says.

The Issues:

• Could the election of a black president and the nation’s economic crisis spark a resurgence of far-right political activity or violence?
• Are immigrants in danger from extremist violence?
• Is right-wing and extremist speech encouraging hate crimes?

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