Skin in the Game: How Antisemitism Animates White Nationalism

This article appears in the Summer 2017 edition of The Public Eye magazine.

One September weekend in 1995, a few thousand people met at a convention center in Seattle to prepare for an apocalyptic standoff with the federal government. At the expo, you could sign up to defend yourself from the coming “political and economic collapse,” stock up on beef jerky, learn strategies for tax evasion, and browse titles by writers like Eustace Mullins, whose White nationalist classics include The Secrets of the Federal Reserve, published in 1952, and—from 1967—The Biological Jew.

The sixth annual Preparedness Expo made national papers that year because it served as a clearinghouse for the militia movement, a decentralized right-wing movement of armed, local, anti-government paramilitaries that had recently sparked its most notorious act of terror, the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal courthouse by White nationalists Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols. A series of speakers told expo attendees the real story: the attack had been perpetrated by the government itself as an excuse to take citizens’ guns away.

Not a lot of Black folks show up at gatherings like the Preparedness Expo, one site in an extensive right-wing counterculture in which White nationalism is a constant, explosive presence. White nationalists argue that Whites are a biologically defined people and that, once the White revolutionary spirit awakens, they will take down the federal government, remove people of color, and build a state (maybe or maybe not still called the United States of America, depending on who you ask) of their own. As a Black man, I am regarded by White nationalists as a subhuman, dangerous beast. In the 1990s, I was the field organizer for the Northwest Coalition Against Malicious Harassment, a six-state coalition working to reduce hate crimes and violence in the Pacific Northwest and Mountain States region. We did a lot of primary research, often undercover. A cardinal rule of organizing is that you can’t ask people to do anything you haven’t done yourself; so I spent that weekend as I spent many—among people plotting to remove me from their ethnostate.

It helped that, despite its blood-curdling anti-Black racism, at least some factions of the White nationalist movement saw me as a potential ally against their true archenemy. At the expo that year, a guy warily asked me about myself. I told him that I had come on behalf of a few brothers in the city. We needed to resist the federal government and we were there to get educated. I said I hoped he wouldn’t take it personally, but I didn’t shake hands with White people. He smiled; he totally understood. “Brother McLamb,” he concurred, “says we have to start building broad coalitions.” Together we went to hear Jack McLamb, a retired Phoenix cop who ran an organization called Police Against the New World Order, make a case for temporary alliances with “the Blacks, the Mexicans, the Orientals” against the real enemy, the federal government controlled by an international conspiracy. He didn’t have to say who ran this conspiracy because it was obvious to all in attendance. And despite the widespread tendency to dismiss antisemitism, notwithstanding its daily presence across the country and the world, it is obvious to you, too.

The bombing of the Oklahoma City federal courthouse by White nationalists Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols was painted as a conspiracy by the government itself as an excuse to take citizens’ guns away.

From the time I documented my first White nationalist rally in 1990 until today, the movement has made its way from the margins of American political life to its center, and I’ve moved from doing antiracist organizing in small northwestern communities to fighting for inclusive democracy on a national level, as the Gender, Racial, and Ethnic Justice program officer at the Ford Foundation until recently, and now as a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center. Yet if I had to give a basic definition of the movement—something I’ve often been asked to do, formally and informally, by folks who’ve spent less time hanging out with Nazis than I have—my response today would not be much different than it was when I began to do this work nearly thirty years ago. American White nationalism, which emerged in the wake of the 1960s civil rights struggle and descends from White supremacism, is a revolutionary social movement committed to building a Whites-only nation, and antisemitism forms its theoretical core.

That last part—antisemitism forms the theoretical core of White nationalism— bears repeating. Let me explain.

Antisemitism forms the theoretical core of White nationalism.

The meteoric rise of White nationalism within national discourse over the course of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and freshman administration—through Trump’s barely coded speech at fascist-style rallies, his support from the internet-based “Alt Right,” and his placement of White nationalist popularizers in top positions—has produced a shock of revelation for people across a wide swath of the political spectrum. This shock, in turn, has been a source of frustration within communities of color and leftist circles, where White liberals are often accused of having kept their heads in the sand while more vulnerable populations sounded the alarm about the toll of economic crisis, mass incarceration, police violence, deportation, environmental devastation, and—despite and in reaction to the election of Barack Obama—the unending blare of everyday hate. This is an understandable reaction. It’s one I’ve often shared. But the fact that many of us have long recognized that the country we live in is not the one we are told exists doesn’t mean we always understand the one that does. Within social and economic justice movements committed to equality, we have not yet collectively come to terms with the centrality of antisemitism to White nationalist ideology, and until we do we will fail to understand this virulent form of racism rapidly growing in the U.S. today.

To recognize that antisemitism is not a sideshow to racism within White nationalist thought is important for at least two reasons. First, it allows us to identify the fuel that White nationalist ideology uses to power its anti-Black racism, its contempt for other people of color, and its xenophobia—as well as the misogyny and other forms of hatred it holds dear. White nationalists in the United States perceive the country as having plunged into unending crisis since the social ruptures of the 1960s supposedly dispossessed White people of their very nation. The successes of the civil rights movement created a terrible problem for White supremacist ideology. White supremacism—inscribed de jure by the Jim Crow regime and upheld de facto outside the South—had been the law of the land, and a Black-led social movement had toppled the political regime that supported it. How could a race of inferiors have unseated this power structure through organizing alone? For that matter, how could feminists and LGBTQ people have upended traditional gender relations, leftists mounted a challenge to global capitalism, Muslims won billions of converts to Islam? How do you explain the boundary-crossing allure of hip hop? The election of a Black president? Some secret cabal, some mythological power, must be manipulating the social order behind the scenes. This diabolical evil must control television, banking, entertainment, education, and even Washington, D.C. It must be brainwashing White people, rendering them racially unconscious.

“The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion,” first circulated by Czarist secret police in Russia in 1903, established the blueprint of antisemitic ideology in its modern form.

What is this arch-nemesis of the White race, whose machinations have prevented the natural and inevitable imposition of white supremacy? It is, of course, the Jews. Jews function for today’s White nationalists as they often have for antisemites through the centuries: as the demons stirring an otherwise changing and heterogeneous pot of lesser evils. At the turn of the twentieth century, “The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion”—a forgery, first circulated by Czarist secret police in Russia in 1903, that purports to represent the minutes of a meeting of the international Jewish conspiracy—established the blueprint of antisemitic ideology in its modern form. It did this by recasting the shape-shifting, money-grubbing caricature of the Jew from a religious caricature to a racialized one. Upper-class Jews in Europe might have been assimilating and changing their names, but under the new regime of antisemitic thought, even a Jew who converted to Christianity would still be a Jew.

In 1920, Henry Ford brought the “Protocols” to the United States, printing half a million copies of an adaptation called “The International Jew,” and the text has had a presence in American life ever since. (Walmart stocked copies on its shelves and for a time refused calls to take them down—in 2004.) But it is over the past fifty years, not coincidentally the first period in U.S. history in which most American Jews have regarded themselves as White, that antisemitism has become integral to the architecture of American racism. Because modern antisemitic ideology traffics in fantasies of invisible power, it thrives precisely when its target would seem to be least vulnerable. Thus, in places where Jews were most assimilated—France at the time of the Dreyfus affair, Germany before Hitler came to power—they have functioned as a magic bullet to account for unaccountable contradictions at moments of national crisis. White supremacism through the collapse of Jim Crow was a conservative movement centered on a state-sanctioned anti-Blackness that sought to maintain a racist status quo. The White nationalist movement that evolved from it in the 1970s was a revolutionary movement that saw itself as the vanguard of a new, whites-only state. This latter movement, then and now, positions Jews as the absolute other, the driving force of white dispossession—which means the other channels of its hatred cannot be intercepted without directly taking on antisemitism.

This brings me to the second reason that White nationalist antisemitism must not be dismissed: at the bedrock of the movement is an explicit claim that Jews are a race of their own, and that their ostensible position as White folks in the U.S. represents the greatest trick the devil ever played. The bible for generations of White nationalists is The Turner Diaries, a 1978 dystopian novel by the White supremacist leader William Pierce, published under the pseudonym Andrew Macdonald. The novel takes place in a near-future in which Jews have unleashed Blacks and other undesirables into the center of American public life, and follows the triumph of a clandestine White supremacist organization that snaps into revolutionary action, blowing up both Israel and New York City. Its narrator, a soldier in the White revolutionary army, insists that “trying to distinguish the ‘good’ Jews from the bad ones” is as absurd as the way “some of our thicker-skulled ‘good ol’ boys’ still insist on trying, separating the ‘good niggers’ from the rest of their race.” Contemporary antisemitism, then, does not just enable racism, it also is racism, for in the White nationalist imaginary Jews are a race—the race—that presents an existential threat to Whiteness. Moreover, if antisemitism exists in glaring form at the extreme edge of political discourse, it does not exist in a vacuum; as with every form of hateful ideology, what is explicit on the margins is implicit in the center, in ways we have not yet begun to unpack. This means the notion that Jews long ago and uncontestably became White folks in the U.S.—became, in effect, post-racial—is a myth that we must dispel.

Antisemitism, I discovered, is a particular and potent form of racism so central to White supremacy that Black people would not win our freedom without tearing it down.

I’ve been terrorized by structural racism and White nationalist activism all my life. Contrary to a popular image of White nationalists living exclusively off the grid, far from people of color—who are imagined to live exclusively on it—White nationalists are our neighbors. As a kid in Southern California and as a young adult in Oregon, deep in a West Coast punk scene that in some ways looked a lot like the U.S. in 2017, they were literally mine. Because I grew up Black in a city and a scene where people of color were under attack by White nationalists, the immediacy of the movement’s threat and its hatred of dark-skinned people like my family and friends is something I have always known. I thought I understood what motivated them, and I thought their motivation always looked like me. What I learned when I got to Oregon, as I began to log untold hours trying to understand White nationalists and their ideas, was that antisemitism was the lynchpin of the White nationalist belief system. That within this ideological matrix, Jews—despite and indeed because of the fact that they often read as White—are a different, unassimilable, enemy race that must be exposed, defeated, and ultimately eliminated. Antisemitism, I discovered, is a particular and potent form of racism so central to White supremacy that Black people would not win our freedom without tearing it down.

. . .

Long Beach, California is planted on the line that locals call the Orange Curtain, the border between the working-class and immigrant neighborhoods of southern Los Angeles County and the White conservative suburbs of Orange County. By the time my mom and I moved down from L.A. in 1976, when I was in sixth grade, this endless sprawl of White flight was increasingly interrupted by people of color looking for affordable housing in safe neighborhoods. The civil rights and radical social movements of the 1960s and early Seventies had already been smashed by the state or self-destructed. White nationalism, on the other hand, was part of the scenery. Just down the street from one of our Long Beach apartments was an outpost of the John Birch Society, the foremost right-wing anticommunist organization during the Cold War—now having a Trump-era revival—which officially disavowed White supremacism and antisemitism but fought the civil rights movement and described the communist menace as an international cabal.

I was bussed to school in middle-class suburbs through the fanciest neighborhoods I’d ever seen, where White people rolled down their car windows to call us monkeys or tell us to go back to Africa. At school, White kids initialed SWP on their desks: Supreme White Power. One of our local celebrities was Wally George, a public access television star whose show, “The Hot Seat,” was a forerunner to the hate radio of shock jocks like Rush Limbaugh and Tucker Carson. As teenagers we’d get stoned and watch his show for laughs. But there was fear, too, beneath the laughter. Neonazis, a kid on the bus told us one morning, were marching in a nearby park. I’ve avoided that park to this day.

(Photo courtesy of the author).

The L.A. punk scene of the late 1970s brought me into constant, unavoidable contact with proto-White nationalist youth. The scene was utopian and dystopian, thrilling and violent, gave me friends for life—Black, White, and Filipino, U.S.-born and undocumented—and killed some of them. The scene attracted the brightest minds and the burgeoning sociopaths from across lines of race and class. Chaos broke out at shows and kids formed gangs. There were racist and antiracist skinheads. Someone wearing a swastika armband might be a neonazi or might just be fucking around. The cops stationed outside shows terrorized everyone present. We didn’t expect to make it far into adulthood and we had fun, until the war on drugs intensified and we knew it was a war on us.

When I was twenty-one, working minimum-wage jobs and playing in a garage band called Sloppy 2nds, some friends announced they’d be starting college at the University of Oregon and asked me to come with them. When I imagined anything north of San Francisco and south of Seattle, all I conjured were endless stands of trees. I said no. But working one night shift, pumping gas at the Union 76 station, the Specials song “Do Nothing” came on—“Nothing ever change, oh no/Nothing ever change”—and I knew that if I didn’t leave southern California I would die soon. So I moved with a multiracial group of L.A. punks to the remote college town of Eugene, Oregon and we bunkered down in a house we called Camp Iceberg because we never turned on the heat. Sloppy 2nds disbanded and when it later reformed without me, it became Sublime, the most famous Long Beach band of all time.

(Photos courtesy of the author).

White liberals have long imagined Oregon as a kind of haven. Portland has now largely replaced San Francisco as the destination of choice for White youth with West Coast dreams of alternative living. But it is also where the White liberal imagination becomes a libertarian one: implicitly, it imagines a place free of people of color and therefore pregnant with the possibility of social harmony. But Oregon’s Whiteness—and, particularly, its non-Blackness—was the product of deliberate, violent exclusion; founded by White supremacists before the Civil War, by the 1920s the state boasted the largest Klan membership west of the Mississippi. Klan campaigns often chose Catholics as their immediate targets, because Blacks were not allowed to reside in Oregon until 1926.

The White nationalist movement that emerged in the last decades of the twentieth century grew across the country. But it was Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming that neonazis in the 1980s carved out as the territorial boundaries of their future Whites-only state, a region that self-identified “Aryans” from around the country began to colonize with nothing short of White national sovereignty as their goal. “Ourselves alone willing,” declared White nationalist leader and Aryan Nations organizer Robert Miles, “we shall begin to form the new nation even while in the suffocating embrace of the ZOG.” In White nationalist parlance, the United States is the ZOG, or Zionist Occupied Government. It was in the Northwest that the nascent militia movement—notorious in the 1990s after standoffs between White nationalist compounds and the FBI in Ruby Ridge, Idaho and Waco, Texas—declared war on their country loudly enough they could no longer be ignored.

Ironically, then, if I had moved to Oregon to get away from the unpromising life expectancy for a Black male punk in southern California, the people who had decimated urban life in my home state had gotten there first. In 1978, California’s White conservative voters passed the infamous Proposition 13, which cut taxes and slashed social services, turning the state into a laboratory for the Reagan revolution. Poverty and drug crime increased, and the same White folks who had gutted Californian cities in their flight to the suburbs after World War II now fled up the coast. I arrived in liberal Eugene in 1986, walked into workplace after workplace, and despite my resume, my smile, and my charm—funny, but no one was hiring. I didn’t understand Oregon yet; I thought it was just me.

Meanwhile, the growing clashes between racist and antiracist skinheads in the punk scene that had made life in Long Beach dangerous were a fact of life in Oregon as well, and often took place beyond the reach of the law. As part of their nation-building project in the Pacific Northwest, White supremacists were establishing their own common law courts, their own religions, and their own paramilitaries. They attacked and sometimes killed cops, and the local authorities, cowed, turned a blind eye. So when gangs of neonazi punks terrorized people of color and other vulnerable groups in Portland, it was coalitions of the communities under attack that struck back and eventually beat them off the streets.

I began to fight white nationalism because my world, my scene, my friends, and my music were under neonazi attack.

In the end, I began to fight white nationalism because my world, my scene, my friends, and my music were under neonazi attack. The great postpunk band Fugazi was on a national tour, and an unwanted audience of neonazis had begun turning up at their shows. Fugazi would stop playing, give the neonazis five dollars, and refuse to start up again until they left. A venue in Eugene cancelled a scheduled appearance when rumors spread that skinheads were planning to disrupt the show, and the community erupted in anger. By that time, I was a student and an activist. I had stumbled into student of color politics while attending community college and now co-directed the Black Student Union and Students Against Apartheid at the University of Oregon. I spent a semester in France and while I was away, a 28-year-old Ethiopian international student named Mulugeta Seraw was beaten to death by White supremacists on a Portland street. I returned to a community deeply shaken and in mourning. But it was in the wake of the cancelled show that I founded an organization, Communities Against Hate, in the way these things often happen: no one else wanted to do it. We created a zine called The Race Mixer (“Miscegenation At Its Finest”), reporting on the activity of hate groups in the Northwest; during the standoff at Ruby Ridge, we stood outside the Portland City Hall dressed as Klan members to warn against the spread of the militia movement. Two years later, in Eugene, Communities Against Hate got Fugazi to come back and play.

. . .

The Turner Diaries, a 1978 dystopian novel by the White supremacist leader William Pierce, takes place in a near-future in which Jews have unleashed Blacks and other undesirables into the center of American public life.

When folks ask me, skeptically, where the antisemitism in the White nationalist movement lies, it can feel like being asked to point out a large elephant in a small room. From the outset of my research on White nationalism all those years ago, it was clear that antisemitism in the movement is everywhere, and it is not hidden. “Life is uglier and uglier these days, more and more Jewish,” William Pierce wrote in The Turner Diaries. “No matter how long it takes us and no matter to what lengths we must go, we’ll demand a final settlement of the account between our two races,” the narrator promises at the book’s conclusion. “If the Organization survives this contest, no Jew will—anywhere. We’ll go to the uttermost ends of the earth to hunt down the last of Satan’s spawn.” White nationalism is a fractious countercultural social movement, and its factions often disagree with each other about basic questions of theory and practice. The movement does not take a single, unified position on the Jewish question. But antisemitism has been a throughline from the Posse Comitatus, which set itself against “anti-Christ Jewry”; to David Duke’s refurbished Ku Klux Klan, which abandoned anti-Catholicism in the 1970s in order to focus on “Jewish supremacism”; to the neonazi group The Order, inspired by The Turner Diaries, which in the mid-1980s went on a rampage of robberies and synagogue bombings in Washington state and murdered a Jewish radio talk show host in Denver; to evangelical leaders like Pat Robertson who denounced antisemitism but used its popularity among their followers to promote an implicitly White supremacist “Christian nationalism”; to the contemporary Alt Right named by White nationalist Richard Spencer, which has brought antisemitic thought and imagery to new audiences on the internet—and now at White House press conferences.

Doing primary research on hate groups revealed the contours of the movement’s antisemitism in even more intricate detail. At a time when many larger social justice organizations refused to take White nationalism seriously, regional groups like Communities Against Hate, Coalition for Human Dignity, Montana Human Rights Network, Rural Organizing Project, and dozens of others did much of the groundwork documenting its theories, strategies, and warring currents. That’s why in 1990, for instance, antiracist activists were itching to get our hands on a copy of Vigilantes of Christendom, a self-published book by a writer named Richard Kelly Hoskins influential on the Christian Identity circuit. (I scored a copy by marching into a book vending tent at a White supremacist rally and marketing it to passersby as a life-changing volume I had read at the behest of a White friend.) We learned that Hoskins’s book appropriated the Old Testament story of Phineas, a prominent Israelite who marries outside the faith and is punished for his transgression by a rogue member of the tribe who kills him and his bride with a spear. Historically unpopular within the rabbinic tradition for appearing to endorse this lawless act, Hoskins’s work celebrated the tale. To join the Priesthood, he wrote, an Aryan must act as a latter-day Phineas by perpetrating lone-wolf attacks against inferior races and their White apologists.

The Phineas Priesthood does not, in an organizational sense, appear to actually exist. But for decades, domestic terrorists—like Eric Rudolph, a Christian Identity acolyte who killed people in a string of bombing attacks at Southern gay bars, abortion clinics, and the 1996 summer Olympics in Atlanta—have allegedly seen themselves as Phineas Priests. Like the Phineas Priesthood, one small formation that might stand in for the whole, contemporary White nationalism has no clear center. Yet it does have a deadly commitment to revolutionary violence against racial others, and to the state apparatus perceived to do their bidding. And like the Priesthood, it rests upon a tortuous racial cosmology in which Jews form a monstrous, all-powerful cabal that uses subhuman others, including Blacks and immigrants, as pawns to destroy White nationhood.

Over years of speaking about White nationalism in the 1990s and early 2000s in the Northwest and then the Midwest and South, I found that audiences—whether white or of color, at synagogues or churches, universities or police trainings—generally had a relationship to white nationalism that, at least in one basic sense, was like my own. They knew the scope and seriousness of the movement from personal experience, and—if they didn’t take this for granted to begin with—they were not shocked to discover its antisemitic emphasis. The resistance I have encountered when I address antisemitism has primarily come since I moved to the Northeast seven years ago, and from the most established progressive antiracist leaders, organizations, coalitions, and foundations around the country. It is here that a well-meaning but counterproductive thicket of discourse has grown up insisting that Jews—of Ashkenazi descent, at least—are uncontestably White, and that to challenge this is to deny the workings of White privilege. In other words, when I’m asked, “Where is the antisemitism?,” what I am often really being asked is, “Why should we be talking about antisemitism?”

And indeed—why? Why, when the president of the United States appears bent on removing as many dark-skinned immigrants from the U.S. as he can, and when men who look like me are shot in the street or tortured to death in prison with impunity? Why, when the leadership of some mainstream Jewish communal organizations level false charges of antisemitism in order to silence critique—whether by Jews or non-Jews—of Israeli government policies? Why, after decades of soul-searching by Jewish antiracists has established a seeming consensus that Jews—with Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews posited as an exception—should regard themselves as White allies of people of color, eschewing any identity as a racialized people with their own skins at risk in the fight against White supremacy? Why, when Jews are safe and claims to the contrary serve to justify rather than to challenge racial and other oppressions, like conservative commentator Alan Dershowitz’s cynical recent attempt to discredit antiracist and anticolonial struggles by declaring intersectionality an antisemitic concept? Why, when Jews of European descent are supposedly “White,” have long been, will ever be?

Antisemitism fuels White nationalism, a genocidal movement now enthroned in the highest seats of American power, and fighting antisemitism cuts off that fuel for the sake of all marginalized communities under siege from the Trump regime and the social movement that helped raise it up.

I can answer this question as I have been doing and will continue to do: antisemitism fuels White nationalism, a genocidal movement now enthroned in the highest seats of American power, and fighting antisemitism cuts off that fuel for the sake of all marginalized communities under siege from the Trump regime and the social movement that helped raise it up. To refuse to deal with any ideology of domination, moreover, is to abet it. Contemporary social justice movements are quite clear that to refuse antiracism is an act of racism; to refuse feminism is an act of sexism. To refuse opposition to antisemitism, likewise, is an act of antisemitism. Arguably, not much more should need to be said than that. But I suspect that much more does need to be said. To the hovering question, why should we be talking about antisemitism, I reply, what is it we are afraid we will find out if we do? What historic and contemporary conflicts will be laid bare? And if we recognize that White privilege really is privilege, what will it mean for Jewish antiracists to give up the fantasy that they ever really had it to begin with?

And yet this impasse seems finally to be breaking down. It has long been the case that at moments when the left has suffered another devastating and seemingly inexplicable political loss, my phone rings more often; now that the White nationalist movement has come to national power, it is ringing off the hook. The public and private discussions I’ve had just in the past month suggest a hunger to understand antisemitism—within and outside the Jewish community—the likes of which I have never witnessed before. Certainly many American Jews who regard themselves as White are feeling less so over these recent months as the candidate-turned-president seemed reluctant to disavow his endorsement by David Duke, the most notorious White supremacist in America. Meanwhile, Jewish cemeteries are desecrated even as the administration directs the FBI to double down on the surveillance of Muslims and focus less on the White supremacists who constitute the principal domestic terrorist threat in the United States. Jewish thought leaders and journalists are being harassed on social media. Just last week, White House press secretary Sean Spicer caused a furor by favorably comparing Adolph Hitler to Bashar al-Assad of Syria in remarks that, whether intentionally or not, echoed the apologetics of Holocaust deniers.

We do not yet know where Trump’s coalition will land on the question of White nationalism. That Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner is Jewish should not in itself be of comfort; there were Jews who worked with Hitler, too, and Blacks in the Confederate army. But it is important to note that the White nationalist faction of the administration led by Stephen Bannon—now ousted from his position in the National Security Council—is just one of several warring parties and currently appears to be losing ground. In other words, we do not yet have a fully activated White nationalist administration. (If we did, we’d know.) At the same time, the fact that this remains an open question at all likely invites more than a few ostensibly “White” Jews to contemplate the provisional nature of their Whiteness, their privilege. Privilege, after all, is not the same as power. Privilege can be revoked. And this means too that progressive movements and social change organizations must come to understand that all social movements have influence, including those that seek to construct a society based on exclusion and terror.

Privilege, after all, is not the same as power. Privilege can be revoked. And this means too that progressive movements and social change organizations must come to understand that all social movements have influence, including those that seek to construct a society based on exclusion and terror.

Sometimes I wish I had a better story to tell about how I arrived at this analysis—a story more dramatic or more heartwarming, somehow more about me. If I live and work, as I do, in the kind of daily, intimate Black-Jewish coalitions that were a mainstay of the civil rights movement but are now supposed to be fraught with mutual suspicion, I must have experienced a historically uncanny revelation or been drawn to the Jewish community through some mysterious pull of identification. It’s true that back in Long Beach, on days I opted out of middle school, the man at the corner deli would call me over and give me blueberry blintzes. He was the first person I knew was Jewish. I didn’t know what that meant, but the blintzes were good, and when you don’t have a lot of food, they are even better. But I also remember the delicious sushi a local Japanese restaurant gave me. I still love sushi, and blintzes, but neither helped me to understand racism or social change. There was no kumbaya experience, no light bulb, no moment where I became Paul on the road to Damascus. It was just common sense to study my enemy, White nationalism. And like any worthwhile research project, it has taken time.

A central insistence of antiracist thought over the past several decades is that, as with any social category produced by regimes of power, you don’t choose race, power chooses it for you; it names you. This is why all the well-meaning identification in the world does not make a White person Black. Likewise, as much as I draw inspiration from the Jewish community, and as much as I adore my Jewish partner and friends, it was my organizing against antisemitism as a Black antiracist that first pulled me to the Jewish community, not the other way around. I developed an analysis of antisemitism because I wanted to smash White supremacy; because I wanted to be free. If we acknowledge that White nationalism clearly and forcefully names Jews as non-white, and did so in the very fiber of its emergence as a post-civil rights right-wing revolutionary movement, then we are forced to recognize our own ignorance about the country  we thought we lived in. It is time to have that conversation.

 

 

#First100Days Crash Course: Week 6

Coinciding with Trump’s first 100 days in Office — a period of time historically used as a benchmark to measure the potential of a new president — PRA will share readings, videos, and tools for organizing to inform our collective resistance based on principles for engaging the regime, defending human rights, and preventing authoritarianism. Daily readings will be posted on our Facebook and Twitter accounts and archived HERE.

Week 6: Racism and White Supremacy

White supremacy is a term is used in various ways to describe a set of beliefs; organized White hate groups; or a system of racial oppression that benefits White people. As an ideology, it is the belief that the socially constructed “White race” is superior to other “races.” As a system, White supremacy in the U.S. is maintained when White people defend, deny, or ignore the reality of the continued systematic subordination and oppression of people of color. White supremacy is the most powerful form of racism in the US, and it has two major forms: racism by Whites used to justify the oppression of people of color; and the racialized construct of antisemitism in which Jews are falsely claimed to be a distinct non-White race, and are then deemed a sinister race. 

Racial inequality remains deeply embedded within U.S. social and economic structures, even as its forms and justifications are in flux. Claims to White racial superiority, though not entirely dead, were largely washed aside by the civil rights struggles of the ’50s and ’60s. Since that time, so-called “colorblind” racism has become the dominant racial ideology in the United States. Opposition to affirmative action, indigenous treaty rights, and other government programs is commonly justified with the claim that equal rights among racial groups have been achieved and that we as a society are, or should be, “beyond race.” This belief in the diminishing importance of race makes it more, not less, likely that stark racial inequalities will persist since they will remain unchallenged.

To bolster their colorblind rhetoric, some sectors of the Right promote spokespeople – and provide patronage to conservative intellectuals and institutions – from communities of color. Growing immigration, especially from Latin America and Asia, threatens Whites’ numerical majority, and, along with the government’s massive post-911 campaign of racial profiling, is inspiring a nativist and White supremacist backlash. Anti-Semitic conspiracy theories have also experienced resurgence since the 911 attacks.

Featured resources:

Additional Readings:

Media (Click to download):

Engage: Transformative Bail Reform

via The Movement for Black Lives: “Almost two years ago, Kalief Browder died after suffering abuse and torture at Rikers Island for three years – all while he was waiting for a court date. This gross injustice happened because many of our towns still rely on money bail, a broken system that keeps Black people in jail even before they are ever convicted of anything.”

Check out the interactive Transformative Bail Curriculum that M4BL co-created with partners across the country HERE.

Profile on the Right: Steve Bannon

Steve Bannon at the Bloggers Briefing in October 2010. Photo: Don Irvine via Creative Commons.

Stephen Bannon is the former CEO of Brietbart News Network—which he promotes as “the platform for the Alt Right”1—and is now Donald Trump’s chief strategist and a key player on national security issues. Bannon has a history of antisemitism and has been called “one of the foremost peddlers of white supremacist themes and rhetoric.”2 He has expressed admiration for anti-Muslim hate groups, ridiculed the Black Lives Matter movement by remarking that “some people … are naturally aggressive and violent,” and likened civil rights advocacy to Communism.3

Bannon is a key player among a team of advisors who helped Trump develop an “action plan” for his first weeks in office, which included weakening Obamacare, putting a freeze on federal hiring, strengthening immigration enforcement, and preventing refugees and visa-holders from seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the U.S.4 The ACLU has called Trump a “one-man constitutional crisis,” and said that his policy proposals—largely developed and backed by Bannon—“blatantly violate the inalienable rights guaranteed by the Constitution.” Taken together, the policies enforced by Trump and Bannon violate the First, Fourth, Fifth, and Eighth Amendments to the Constitution.5

Under Bannon’s leadership, Brietbart News has promoted racist, anti-Muslim, and anti-immigrant ideals, and has published such articles as “The Confederate Flag Proclaims a Glorious Heritage,” “Political Correctness Protects Muslim Rape Culture,”6 and ”Bill Kristol: Republican Spoiler, Renegade Jew,”7 among others. When Bannon was named Trump’s chief strategist, former KKK leader David Duke called it an “excellent selection.”8

During his first week as president, Trump gave Bannon a full seat on the principals committee of the National Security Committee. Trump’s order places Bannon alongside secretaries of state and defense and downgrades the roles of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and director of national intelligence.9 Republican Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) called Bannon’s appointment a “radical departure” and said Trump’s “reorganization” was concerning. CNN national security correspondent Jim Sciutto said it “raises questions about whose voices will be most prominent about key national-security decisions in the country.” 10

In addition to Bannon’s history of racism and xenophobia, he has—unsurprisingly—engaged in misogynistic rhetoric. With Bannon’s guidance, Brietbart News published such pieces as “There’s No Hiring Bias Against Women … They Just Suck at Interviews,” “Does Feminism Make Women Ugly?” and “Birth Control Makes Women Unattractive and Crazy.”11 In 1996, Bannon’s then-wife accused him of domestic violence. In a 2011 radio interview, Bannon likened the women’s movement to “a bunch of dykes,” and in 2015, Brietbart News compared Planned Parenthood to Hitler.12 He was caught on tape calling one of his female employees a “bimbo,” and saying he was going to give her a “reality check,” “kick her ass,” and “ram [her accusations] down her fucking throat.”13

In a 2014 speech to a Christian conservative group, Bannon criticized then praised Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying the “Judeo-Christian West” should take cues from Putin, particularly on issues of nationalism. “Strong nationalist movements in countries make strong neighbors,” Bannon said. These statements came after Bannon claimed the Alt Right is “the voice of the anti-abortion [and] traditional marriage movement [and] we’re winning victory after victory after victory.”14

Is Bannon a White supremacist? Does he seek to infiltrate the administration with White supremacist views and normalize the Alt Right as a patriotic and political movement, rather than a racist, misogynistic, and xenophobic platform? Bannon has gone to great lengths to avoid the “White supremacist” label, and those close to him disavow claims that Bannon has racist and misogynistic attitudes.15 It’s important to note that Bannon refers to White supremacists as “White nationalists,” which fuels the nationalistic beliefs he touted in 2014 while normalizing the ideals of White supremacy.  This is also the man who called for every flagpole in the South to proudly fly the Confederate flag—remarks that came just days after nine African Americans were murdered at an historic Black church in Charleston.16

Bannon, a former investment banker with Goldman Sachs’ New York office, earned a master’s degree from Georgetown University and attended Harvard Business School. After leaving Goldman Sachs, he launched a boutique investment firm, which he eventually sold. Bannon is also a former naval officer. Prior to working with Trump, he had no political experience.17

As Bannon increasingly bends Trump’s ear and shifts national focus toward dangerous and alarming ideologies, it’s critical that the American people—and the global community—understand the man behind Trump’s curtain and the potential and irreparable damage his power has already caused—and will continue to cause—until and unless he is overhauled from his position of influence.

Endnotes

[1] Sarah Posner, “How Donald Trump’s New Campaign Chief Created an Online Haven for White Nationalists,” Mother Jones, August 22, 2016, http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2016/08/stephen-bannon-donald-trump-alt-right-breitbart-news.

[2] “Stephen Bannon: White House Role for Right-Wing Media Chief,” BBC News, November 14, 2016,  http://www.bbc.com/news/election-us-2016-37971742.

[3] Sarah Posner, “How Donald Trump’s New Campaign Chief Created an Online Haven for White Nationalists,” Mother Jones, August 22, 2016, http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2016/08/stephen-bannon-donald-trump-alt-right-breitbart-news.

[4] Josh Dawsey, Eliana Johnson, Annie Karni, “The Man Behind Trump? Still Steve Bannon,” Politico, January 29, 2017, http://www.politico.com/story/2017/01/donald-trump-steve-bannon-234347.

[5] “The Trump Memos: The ACLU’s Constitutional Analysis of the Public Statements and Policy Proposals of Donald Trump,” ACLU, https://www.aclu.org/report/trump-memos.

[6] Milo Yiannopoulos, “Birth Control Makes Women Unattractive and Crazy,” Breitbart, December 8, 2015, http://www.breitbart.com/tech/2015/12/08/birth-control-makes-women-unattractive-and-crazy/.

[7] David Horowitz, “Bill Kristol: Republican Spoiler, Renegade Jew,” Breitbart, May 15, 2016, http://www.breitbart.com/2016-presidential-race/2016/05/15/bill-kristol-republican-spoiler-renegade-jew/.

[8] David Horowitz, “Bill Kristol: Republican Spoiler, Renegade Jew,” Breitbart, May 15, 2016, http://www.breitbart.com/2016-presidential-race/2016/05/15/bill-kristol-republican-spoiler-renegade-jew/

[9] Glenn Thrush and Maggie Haberman, “Bannon is Given Security Role Usually Held for Generals,” January 29, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/29/us/stephen-bannon-donald-trump-national-security-council.html

[10] Natasha Bertrand, “Trump Just Made an Unprecedented, Radical Change to the National Security Council,” Business Insider, January 29, 2017, http://www.businessinsider.com/trump-steve-bannon-national-security-council-2017-1.

[11] Heather Saul, “Steve Bannon: Some of the Worst Breitbart Headlines Published Under Donald Trump’s Chief Strategist,” The Independent, November 14, 2016, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/steve-bannon-breitbart-donald-trumps-chief-strategist-a7416606.html.

[12] Kate Storey, “Who is Steve Bannon? 15 Things to Know About Trump’s Chief Strategist,” Cosmopolitan, http://www.cosmopolitan.com/politics/a8288455/who-is-steve-bannon-trump-chief-strategist/

[13] Claire Landsbaum, “Trump Campaign Chief Caught on Tape Calling a Female Employee a ‘Bimbo,’” September 1, 2016, http://nymag.com/thecut/2016/09/steve-bannon-once-called-a-female-employee-a-bimbo.html.

[14] “Business Insider: Bannon’s 2014 Vatican Speech Strikes Fear on Wall Street,” Brietbart, November 16, 2016, http://www.breitbart.com/big-government/2016/11/16/business-insider-bannons-2014-vatican-speech-strikes-fear-wall-street/.

[15] Ian Tuttle, “Steve Bannon is Not a Nazi,” National Review, November 14, 2016, http://www.nationalreview.com/article/442189/steve-bannon-trump-administration-alt-right-breitbart-chief-strategist

[16] Casey Michel, “Steve Bannon’s Dangerous Campaign to Rebrand Racism as American ‘Nationalism,’” Quartz, November 18, 2016, https://qz.com/841036/is-steve-bannon-a-white-supremacist-trumps-advisor-wants-to-rebrand-racism-as-american-nationalism/.

[17] Kate Storey, “Who is Steve Bannon? 15 Things to Know About Trump’s Chief Strategist,” Cosmopolitan, http://www.cosmopolitan.com/politics/a8288455/who-is-steve-bannon-trump-chief-strategist/

Tracking Blackness: A Q&A with Dark Matters Author Simone Browne

Click here to download the article as a PDF.

This article appears in the Spring 2016 edition of The Public Eye magazine.

We tend to think of mass surveillance as a relatively new phenomenon, a byproduct of the digital revolution. Examples of high-tech surveillance spring readily to mind, including the NSA scooping up our emails, Samsung televisions picking up living room chitchat along with your voice commands, and Oral Roberts University collecting data on its entire student body via Fitbit activity trackers. But, as it turns out, our high-tech surveillance society had lower-tech precursors.

Simone Browne, an associate professor of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, describes her new book, Dark Matters: On The Surveillance of Blackness, as a conversation between Black Studies and Surveillance Studies—the latter a young discipline devoted to investigating the technological and social dimensions of surveillance. Browne’s research shows that surveillance was an essential part of transatlantic slavery, a system that held millions of people against their will and tracked them as property. And she argues that slavery created an ongoing demand for technologies to monitor Black bodies. The day-to-day enforcement of slavery raised familiar-sounding questions: Is this person who they say they are? Are they allowed to be here? How do we know? Dramas of surveillance and counter-surveillance played out constantly.

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Browne argues that awareness of being under constant surveillance is an enduring condition of Black life. Source: Carley Comartin License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/

If surveillance is the state watching the individual, sousveillance is the individual looking back at the state. The history of slavery is full of examples of both kinds of watching. Slave catchers hunted down runaway slaves for money. The catchers were themselves carefully watched, and the news of a slave catcher’s whereabouts could also spread rapidly through the Black community. Abolitionists also circulated handbills warning free Blacks and their allies to be on guard against slave catchers.

Surveillance still goes both ways today, as activists counter police oversight by recording interactions on their own cameras and protesters at rallies for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump film their own attacks, not trusting event security cameras to hold anyone accountable.1

The long history of mass surveillance in the United States began with slavery.

The long history of mass surveillance in the United States began with slavery. Slaves sought to free themselves by escaping to free territories or impersonating free people, and the system had well-developed mechanisms to thwart them. Slave traders branded the flesh of their captives to mark them as slaves. Further, slavery in the United States was so thoroughly racialized that being Black was tantamount to proof of being enslaved—skin color becoming evidence of legal status. Slaves who gained their freedom by “passing” as White had, in effect, eluded the biometric profiling of their day.

To this day, communities of color are subject to intensive surveillance, both public and private. Police helicopters are a familiar presence in some neighborhoods. Young men of color are overwhelmingly more likely to be selected for stop-and-frisk police encounters. Browne argues that awareness of being under constant surveillance is an enduring condition of Black life.

This March, Lindsay Beyerstein interviewed Simone Browne about Dark Matters and what it says about surveillance in our current political climate.

How did you come to write this book?

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Dark Matters: On The Surveillance of Blackness, published by Duke University Press, October 2015. Photo: Duke University Press.

I was working on my dissertation on Canadian/U.S. border security and I got into reading the Surveillance Studies literature. One thing that I found that was missing was a discussion of the archive of slavery because it seemed so important to situate surveillance as a key practice that underwrote transatlantic slavery. So, when it came time to write my own book, I wanted to put Surveillance Studies in conversation with Black Studies.

An enslaving society does a lot of work to keep track of people as property. How does that technology and expertise carry forward into our modern surveillance society?

I didn’t want to make the link that they are one and the same, but that some of the practices that we see happening now have earlier articulations or iterations. There were a few instances that I looked at: Mainly biometric technology, but also tracking people with passports, which we still use now. Also, the ways in which bodies and people become disciplined by way of light. That is, how illumination can make bodies visible, trackable, countable, and controllable. I looked at branding and biometric technology. I also looked at the Book of Negroes [a record of Black Loyalists, former slaves who were eligible to leave the U.S. to settle in Canada after serving in the Revolutionary War] as an early passport to cross the Canada-U.S. border.

There were also lantern laws. These were 18th century laws in New York City and other places that said that Black and Indigenous people had to carry a lit candle after dark if they weren’t in the company of White person. Lantern laws existed in other times and places but there was something specific about the regulation of Black people on the move that I saw as a way to think about how certain technologies become supervisory devices.

So, the lantern was a piece of technology that was mandated because Black people were deemed more suspect than everybody else?

That’s one way of putting it. It was a form of identification. Other people would have been walking with lanterns, too. But the idea was that that any White person would be deputized to seize that Black/enslaved person who was walking without a lantern. You can think about the ways in which White people become deputized through White supremacy today around Black bodies in and out of place. I’m thinking of a Trump rally. Even with people who go to a rally as protest or as observation might be marked as out of place there and subjected to violence. Being Black, wearing a hijab, other markers of being out of place at a Trump rally, and then being subjected to violence from police or Trump supporters.

You talk about slave branding as a precursor to modern biometric ID. How did that work?

There was branding for identification, but also as a form of punishment.

I looked at the ways that the body becomes a mark or a measure of enslavement. If you think of biometrics simply as marking or measurement. How we use it today as identification, verification, or automation, thinking of iris scans, face scans, finger scans…. All of those ways in which the body is reduced to parts, pieces, and performances for identification and verification purposes. I wanted to see if there were moments when those get racialized. Branding became a racialization process during transatlantic slavery.

You write about the hearings at the Fraunces Tavern in New York City and the creation of the Book of Negroes, a document that listed 3,000 Black Loyalists who served with the British during the American Revolution and who sought to be evacuated to freedom after the war. What happened?

A page of the Book of Negros, compiling the name of the 3000 Black people who left New York City in 1783. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

A page of the “Book of Negroes,” compiling the name of the 3000 Black people who left New York City in 1783. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

This was something that happened around the British evacuation of New York City [after the American Revolution]. Many people who had answered the call to fight with the British had entered into a bargain with them. These were people who had escaped slavery. They’d worked with the British as soldiers but also as support staff: cooks, spies, laundresses, and so on. Also at this time you had slave catchers coming to New York to seize former slaves who were set up on ships ready to leave the country mainly bound for Canada or Europe. People would be seized on those ships and taken to New York’s Fraunces Tavern every Wednesday from May to November to argue for their freedom by demonstrating that they were behind British lines at time of occupation and therefore entitled to go free.

What was the process of arguing for one’s freedom?

The tribunal was tasked with adjudicating claims under Article Seven of the Provisional Treaty of Paris, which said that the British could not leave with Patriot property, namely “Negroes,” and that that “no person is permitted to embark as a Refugee, who has not resided Twelve Months within the British Lines, without a special Passport from the Commandant.”

The British created the Book of Negroes, which was basically a record of the loss of human property. It was a record of who left [the country]. They would record their names, where they were born, who had enslaved them, how they ran away, information about their bodies, how they were branded, racial descriptors, and so on.

[The people pleading their cases at the Fraunces Tavern] had claimed their freedom. At that moment, you had slave catchers or others deputized to “take them back.” We’re using the term “property” but these were human beings.

You talk about the difference between surveillance and sousveillance. Would it be fair to say that surveillance is the powerful watching the powerless (like the NSA opening our emails) and sousveillance is the powerless watching the powerful (like citizens filming police brutality)?

A drawing by Mann's six-year-old daughter, illustrating surveillance versus sousveillance. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

A drawing by Mann’s six-year-old daughter, illustrating surveillance versus sousveillance. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

There’s a graphic in the book designed by surveillance scholar Steve Mann. For Mann, sousveillance is the b-side of surveillance. Surveillance is mainly oversight, governing, policing, and the protection of private property. Mann sees it as almost always repressive. The b-side would be about undersight, about looking back—often through wearable computing, like body cameras and cellphone cameras.

There are other forms of surveillance and sousveillance. Uberveillance is surveillance through bodily data, like a chip. Dataveillance is the use of surveillance through aggregate data algorithms. In the book, I also coined the term “redditveillance” [to talk about crowdsourced review of surveillance] using publicly accessible CCTV, Flickr, and 4chan. You saw redditveillance, for example, during the Boston bombing, but there it misidentified [innocent] people.

So for me it wasn’t particularly useful to think of surveillance as always repressive or always liberatory. It’s not necessarily good or bad.

There was a low-tech equivalent of “redditveillance” during slavery where people would be “open-sourcing” which slaves had escaped lately, right?

Yes. Collective eyes and watching. Of who’s really Black? Or who’s passing? Or who’s meant to be enslaved? You can also think of that in terms of women fighting online harassment. Women are being doxxed and being “swatted” (law enforcement teams maliciously sent a person’s house through collective sousveillance online).

When Black Lives Matter protesters bring their own cameras to Donald Trump rallies to document abuses, is that sousveillance?

I think it would be. The other question is: To what end?

You sent me a story about Adedayo Adeniyi,2 who wasn’t even a protester. [Editor’s note: Adeniyi is a Black Nigerian student who attended a Donald Trump rally in Fayetteville, North Carolina in March 2016. He was unfairly ejected by security after two strangers started arguing next to him, but not before 70-year-old Trump supporter Jason Wilton Wetzel hit him in the face. Adeniyi recorded the assault on his cellphone.] I watched the video. I could hear him saying, “That’s not me, I’m not with them. I don’t even know those people.” And he still got punched by a Trump supporter.

It’s clear from the video [that Wetzel] must have known the camera was on him. The camera might have become an invitation. So the idea of having a recording is important, but it gets tricky for a couple of reasons, even with those videos, since there’s still an anti-Black lens that those videos are watched through. Rodney King raising his arms to protect himself gets interpreted as a form of violence, as a hand about to hit. Ramsey Orta, who had recorded the killing of Eric Garner, there are reports of him being harassed by NYPD after Garner was killed and the video went viral. Last fall in Sacramento, a man recorded a SWAT team raiding a house across the street. Police shot him on his own property. They said the camera could have been a gun.3  A camera can make a person the target of more harassment from police, or literally target practice for police.

You write about the ways in which surveillance changes our subjectivity. We start acting as if we’re being watched. Do you think Wetzel felt like he had to perform White aggression because the camera was on him?

It’s possible. We’d have to ask him what he felt. He later said he didn’t know what came over him, that he’s not a racist. So, there was a performance of an excuse for it after the fact.

In the book I was talking about how Black hyper visibility shapes Black people’s ways of being—shopping while Black, walking while Black, driving while Black—and what that might do to the psyche.

You write about modern biometrics and Black bodies, how these devices are calibrated, and what they see and don’t see. Some devices read stereotypically White features with ease, reliably picking up on the subtle nuances that distinguish one blue eye from another, but failing to register stereotypically Black features. Being “legible” to a security system can make the difference between entering effortlessly and being shut out.

Teej Meister, “Whites Only?,” YouTube video, uploaded September 2, 2015.

Teej Meister, “Whites Only?,” YouTube video, uploaded September 2, 2015.

Think of biometrics doing a few things. Identification: Who are you? Are you enrolled in this database? Verification: Are you who you say you are? Are you the person whose biometric is encoded in this passport or Green Card? Automation: Is anybody there? Like a sensor on a faucet in a washroom.

In some cases you have certain bodies that, in biometric parlance, “fail to enroll” or “become illegible.” Earlier technology would read light irises quite successfully but darker irises might not be read.

So the question becomes who is the prototype? I called it prototypical Whiteness. There’s a famous video4 of a sink in a convention center. You have a seemingly Black hand, and soap dispenser is not working. With a White hand, soap appears. How are these technologies designed to serve particular bodies?

It’s interesting that racialized surveillance has made Black people more visible in some ways, but then you’ve got all these technologies that are decreasing Black visibility because they’re calibrated to capture the nuances of White bodies.

That’s the conundrum. It might be quite liberatory to be unseen by these technologies.

I close the book looking at a YouTube video5 with about three million views. It was of two workers in Texas testing the face-tracking camera of an HP computer. One worker, he calls himself Black Desi, asks us to watch what happens “when [his] Blackness enters the frame.” The camera doesn’t pan or zoom or tilt of follow him. But when his White colleague enters the frame, it seemingly works just fine. I use the question “what happens when my Blackness enters the frame?” What happens when Blackness enters discussions of the discussions of surveillance, what does it do to those very discussions?


About the Author

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The Nation, Ms. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times’ City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog, a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.


Endnotes

1 Trump’s campaign manager appears to have been caught assaulting a reporter on his own campaign’s security system. “I’m rich,” Trump told his supporters, “So, I have tapes.” Trump claims his footage vindicates the campaign’s version of events. Meanwhile footage was being posted, reposted, and critiqued all over social media. The police reviewed the tapes and charged the campaign manager with misdemeanor battery, but prosecutors ultimately dropped the charge. See: Eli Stokols, Hadas Gold, and Nick Gass, “Trump Turns Blame on Reporter in Battery Case,” Politico, March 29, 2016, http://www.politico.com/story/2016/03/trump-campaign-manager-charged-with-misdemeanor-battery-221336. Also, Dylan Byers, Tal Kopan, and Tom LoBianco, “State will not prosecute Donald Trump’s campaign manager,” CNN, April, 14, 2016, http://www.cnn.com/2016/04/13/politics/corey-lewandowski-donald-trump-charges-dropped/.

2 Shaun King, “Trump Supporter’s Sorry Excuse After Assaulting Black Teen At Rally Undeserving of Sympathy,” New York Daily News, March 14, 2016, http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/king-charge-trump-supporter-assaulted-black-student-article-1.2563579?cid=bitly.

3 “Police Shoot Man For Recording Them With Phone, Claim They Feared For Their Lives,” Counter Current News, September 12, 2015, http://countercurrentnews.com/2015/09/police-shoot-recording-man/.

4 Teej Meister, “Whites Only?,” YouTube video, uploaded September 2, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WHynGQ9Vg30.

5 Wzamen01, “HP Computers Are Racist,” YouTube video, uploaded December 10, 2009, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t4DT3tQqgRM.

Racial Double Standards in a Mass Shooting Threat Case: David Lenio & White Nationalism

Click here to download the article as a PDF.

This article appears in the Spring 2016 edition of The Public Eye magazine.

When I worked for a gun violence prevention organization in 2015, I often spent time on Twitter as part of my job.1 And that’s what I was doing on Valentine’s Day 2015: tweeting worldwide news2 about two deadly shootings in Copenhagen, Denmark. One of the shootings was at a free speech event in a café and the other was at a local synagogue, both following the publication of controversial cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammed.3 My tweets drew the attention of a Holocaust denier who, I subsequently learned, was also a White nationalist who owned three guns and lived on the outskirts of a White separatist community in Montana. His online interactions with me over the next few hours led me to discover that one day before, and episodically over the previous seven weeks, he had tweeted threats to shoot grade school children and Jewish leaders.4 During our encounter, he repeated some of these threats, specifying that he wanted to “put two in the head of a rabbi.” I reported him to the FBI and to local law enforcement as a potential mass shooting threat who also appeared to be planning a suicide-by-cop scenario.5 (Apparently referring to how some mass shooters have been killed by police, the man tweeted his desire to massacre school children “until cops take me out.”6) “Thank God Monday is a holiday,” one officer in Montana later told me, “because we have another 24 hours to catch him before the schools open.” And catch him they did. Two days after our Twitter encounter, police arrested David Joseph Lenio, a 28-year-old who had recently moved to Kalispell, Montana, from his parents’ home in Grand Rapids, Michigan.7

Photo of author Jonathan Huson on the documentary, Hate in America: A Town on Fire by Investigative Discovery released in 2016 talking about David Lenio's case,

Author Jonathan Hutson in the 2016 documentary, Hate in America: A Town on Fire, which is about David Lenio’s case. Photo courtesy of Investigation Discovery.

This essay explores two journeys. One is that of a wealthy and privileged young man who sought a White supremacist “homeland,” but ended up taking a detour through the criminal justice system, before being released this spring without bail and without facing prosecution. The other journey is my own: the story of what happened after our paths crossed and what I learned from our respective involvements in the judicial system and what those experiences say about the state of race and justice in the United States.

While people of color and Muslims encounter many “on-ramps” into the system, a White mass shooting threat suspect instead found numerous easy exits and “Get Out of Jail Free” cards.

I didn’t know it then, but getting involved in Lenio’s case would change my life and inform the national conversation about how to detect and deter online threats of mass violence.8 From this relatively front row seat to the legal process, I would come to witness what many communities of color already have intimate knowledge of—the structural disparities in the U.S. criminal justice system. While people of color and Muslims encounter many “on-ramps” into the system, a White mass shooting threat suspect instead found numerous easy exits and “Get Out of Jail Free” cards.9 The case would come to illustrate the kind of disparate prosecution of far-right terrorism cases which Naomi Braine has detailed in these pages, writing in the Spring 2015 issue of The Public Eye that:

The differential treatment of Islamic and far-right terrorism cases only becomes explicable through the lens of political calculation. The Right Wing is an entrenched element of the U.S. cultural and political power structure, raising the costs of high profile law enforcement action. The primary targets of federal anti-terrorism investigations have been Muslim men defined by their vulnerability rather than their power.10

Perhaps law enforcement obtains more convictions of Muslims because the FBI focuses on Muslim communities, and constructs scenarios to entrap their members, while simultaneously failing to act promptly on information about possible terror threats from the Right until their militant actions become all but impossible to ignore.

Much of this story plays out on Twitter, where David Lenio’s tweets serve as road markers for an ideological tour of the outer reaches of the Far Right, its culture of conspiracism, and the xenophobic anger of White men who feel dispossessed of their economic birthright in the kind of fury that drives the supporters of Donald Trump.

The Making of ‘A Potential Terrorist’

He would go on to find a calling as part of a populist, nativist movement which advocates the rise of a new strongman in the U.S., scapegoats minority groups, and seeks to establish a White homeland in the Pacific Northwest under authoritarian rule.

At the time of his Twitter spree of horrific threats, Lenio was a line cook in a restaurant who falsely claimed he was homeless and blamed his economic struggles on Jews. He would go on to find a calling as part of a populist, nativist movement which advocates the rise of a new strongman in the U.S., scapegoats minority groups, and seeks to establish a White homeland in the Pacific Northwest under authoritarian rule—an ideal most adherents call the Northwest Territorial Imperative11 and which Lenio sometimes calls Cascadia.12 In the bio of one of his several Twitter feeds, Lenio indicated his support for 9/11 conspiracism and bombastically described himself as “a potential terrorist.”13 This picture is far different than the one we could paint of Lenio, as the snowboarding son of an influential investment banker in one of Michigan’s most affluent cities.

Lenio’s father, Remos Joseph Lenio, co-founded a private investment bank in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in September 2015.14 For decades, he has specialized in serving closely held, family-owned businesses. A conservative Christian who shows support on Facebook for libertarian conservative congressman Justin Amish (R-MI)15 and the libertarian classic Atlas Shrugged, Remos Lenio also shares close business, social, and philanthropic ties16 with the billionaire Dick and Betsy DeVos family of Grand Rapids.17 The elder Lenio also seems to share the DeVos’s vision of turning Grand Rapids into a “Christian Wall Street.” He initiated the $28 billion church financing industry’s first-ever loan syndication deal when he was a partner in Hartwick Capital of Grand Rapids in 2004. Lendees included mega-churches such as Mars Hill Bible Church,18 where Betsy DeVos serves on the board in nearby Grandville, Michigan.19

The multi-billion dollar fortune of the DeVoses, who are Christian Right leaders and one of the conservative movement’s guiding families, flows from their founding of the Amway Corporation. As Mother Jones reports, “DeVos family members have invested at least $200 million in a host of right-wing causes—think tanks, media outlets, political committees, evangelical outfits, and a string of advocacy groups. They have helped fund nearly every prominent Republican running for national office and underwritten a laundry list of conservative campaigns on issues ranging from charter schools and vouchers to anti-gay marriage and anti-tax ballot measures.”20

David Lenio’s own political evolution may have begun with his father’s politics, but it appears to have spanned a wide range of conservative ideologies, from Ron Paul Libertarianism21 to the Far Right.22 Though his religious identity is unclear from his public statements, Lenio has described himself in a Twitter bio as a supporter of the Second Amendment “and Jesus, too.”23

Rather than publicly identify with any particular ideological camp, Lenio seemed to exemplify the free-floating anxieties and rage of some White men who feel dispossessed.

But his politics diverged from conventional libertarianism and Christian Right positions at some point, taking a turn towards the conspiratorial and the overtly White supremacist. Rather than publicly identify with any particular ideological camp, Lenio seemed to exemplify the free-floating anxieties and rage of some White men who feel dispossessed. His tweets often focused on mass shootings and terrorist attacks, which he invariably labels as “false flag” attacks—covert operations perpetrated by Israel or the CIA. He claimed on one occasion that Israel was behind the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut (which he called “Sandy Hoax”),24 and on many other occasions, charged that Israel was responsible for 9/11. He also wrote in support of White separatist movements, tweeting in November 2014, “White people need to organize racially, because the other races & democrats are organizing on some anti-white bullshit that needs countering.”25

A month after that tweet, he moved to the town of Kalispell in Montana’s Flathead Valley, which is well-known on the Right, as well as in human rights and law enforcement circles,26 as a locus of one of several White supremacist enclaves known collectively as Pioneer Little Europe (PLE).27

The PLE movement was founded over a decade ago to be, in the words of its organizational prospectus,28 “a conscious white community” that “comes to dominate a geographical area.” Investigative reporter Judy L. Thomas writes:

The manual describes a plan to “swamp” a target area by taking over its local political and economic systems, forcing out those who don’t share their beliefs. White nationalists would live in close proximity to businesses that offer cultural facilities and services, some of which would openly support their political revival.

The movement has gained some traction in Montana.

In the past few years, dozens of white supremacists have relocated to the Flathead Valley, where civil rights activists say they are forging alliances with anti-government Patriots because of their shared hostility toward the government. 29

A Citizen Report

On the day that he arrived in Kalispell in late December 2014, Lenio tweeted his desire to shoot up a grade school in the town, linking his threat to his economic situation. “I David Lenio,” he wrote, “am literally so indebted & #underpaid that I want to go on a sandy hoax style spree in a kalispell, MT elementary #school 2014.”30

Over the next several hours, he fired off four similar tweets.31 He wrote that he wondered how long it would take before he generated national media coverage and other forms of attention for beating the “shooting spree high score” of the 20 kids and six adults who were massacred at Sandy Hook Elementary School—one of the deadliest school shootings in U.S. history.32

Jonathan Hutson’s tweet asking about the location and identity of @PyschicDogTalk2 on Febuary 14, 2015. Photo courtesy of Investigation Discovery.

From that day until his arrest about six weeks later, his tweets focused obsessively on mass shootings. At times, it appeared that he was grappling with his mental health, as with this February statement: “If I can’t even afford habitat to live on, why the fuck shouldn’t I shoot up a #school and #teach the world something about ‘mental health’?”33 In a prior YouTube video posted in August 2012,34 Lenio voiced a desire for the kind of infamy that comes to mass shooters. He also expressed a distrust of psychiatry and prescribed medications, as well as a fear that his guns might be taken away if he were found to be seriously mentally ill in a way that could make him a danger to himself or others.35

When a White male suspect threatens or carries out a mass shooting, the public conversation often rejects the label of terrorist while highlighting the suspect’s perceived mental state in an attempt to explain his acts.

Lenio’s tweets suggest that, consciously or not, he was setting himself up to be viewed as mentally ill—a factor which, if he could prove it, might mitigate his guilt. That he would introduce this concept is not surprising. When a White male suspect threatens or carries out a mass shooting, the public conversation often rejects the label of terrorist while highlighting the suspect’s perceived mental state in an attempt to explain his acts primarily as a result of mental illness, which could result in an acquittal or a lighter sentence. “It’s as if one cannot, according to the conservative playbook, be both white and a terrorist,” writes Black Lives Matter activist and Daily News columnist Shaun King.36

In contrast, when a person of color or a Muslim engages in similar behavior, the public conversation tends to disregard questions of possible mental illness while emphasizing the suspect’s ethnicity or religion. This dynamic, and the racial double standard it represents, stymies discussion of how White male privilege or even White supremacist ideology—a potentially aggravating factor that could result in a harsher sentence—motivates violence.

It’s also ironic, since White males commit a majority of mass shootings in the U.S. According to data compiled by Mother Jones on 80 U.S. mass shootings between 1982 and 2016, White suspects, almost exclusively males, were responsible for around 60 percent of the attacks.37 That survey notes that most of the shooters had displayed signs of possible mental illness, such as paranoia and depression. The report’s lead author concludes, “Maybe what we need is a better mental health policy.”38

But the fact that most of these shooters displayed signs of possible mental illness does not amount to proof of mental illness, nor does it demonstrate causality. In 2014, Eric Madfis, an Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice at the University of Washington, used an intersectional approach to examine the disproportionate rate of mass killings by White men in the United States. He reached a different conclusion:

Among many mass killers, the triple privileges of white heterosexual masculinity which make subsequent life course losses more unexpected and thus more painfully shameful ultimately buckle under the failures of downward mobility and result in a final cumulative act of violence to stave off subordinated masculinity.39

But whatever his motivations and mental health status, by February 12, 2015, Lenio was calling for the rise of a new strongman—“a Hitler”—to lead a White supremacist movement in fixing the U.S. economy, and stating that he was prepared to go down in a hail of bullets while killing Jews. He continued the same day with the “bet” that he could easily kill a dozen schoolchildren, which, he claimed, “Sounds better than being a wage slave.”40 Minutes later, he imagined more than 30 dead grade school students and called attention to his motives by tweeting, “I bet I’d take out at least a whole #classroom & score 30+ if I put my mind to it.” He then wrote. “#Poverty is making me want to kill folks #mental health.”

FBI studies show that terrorists, including school shooters, often signal their intentions in advance—sometimes to peers or authority figures, and other times to complete strangers.41 While I would normally ignore such hateful rhetoric, David Lenio seemed to fit the profile with the dozens of threatening tweets he’d posted since arriving in Kalispell. When Lenio began to confront me on Twitter, after my own tweets related to the shootings in Copenhagen, I read through his feed and became concerned. I saw his repeated threats to shoot schools and synagogues, and tried to crowd-source the problem of identifying and locating him, tweeting, “WHO and WHERE is @PsychicDogTalk2, who tweeted on Feb. 14 about shooting up a school and executing grade school kids?” Lenio responded by asking where my kids go to school.

I decided to make a citizen report to law enforcement, sending a timeline of Lenio’s threatening tweets, contextual information about Lenio’s apparent White nationalist sympathies, and a profile overview of his threats and his seeming desire for a suicide-by-cop scenario.

When police investigated the next day, on February 15, they discovered that Lenio had taken steps to put his ideas into action: he’d retrieved a cache of rifles and ammunition from a storage locker near his apartment.42 He also had a loaded semi-automatic handgun with him in his van at the time of his arrest and two extra ammunition clips, as well as several jugs of urine—materials that could potentially be used to create a primary charge for a bomb.43

SIDEBAR: What’s in a Jug of Urine?(click to expand)

That fact that Lenio stored jugs of urine in his van invariably catches observers’ attention. But neither federal nor state or local police ever asked Lenio about this bizarre find.

We don’t know why Lenio was storing jugs of urine because law enforcement failed to explore this potential lead. But if they had they might have made a shocking discovery.

Urine has been used to make urea to serve as the main charge in homemade urea nitrate bombs69 in the U.S., as well as in Afghanistan, Israel, Iraq, and Pakistan. In the U.S., the best-known case of a urea nitrate bomb is the February 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.70 In fact, it is a serious enough problem that the Department of Homeland Security offers a training curriculum that includes teaching firefighters and other first responders to be on the lookout for jugs of urine71 as a possible sign of what scientists have called “exceptionally easy-to-make” improvised explosive devices (IEDs).72 The Associated Press reports, “One instructor noted that the discovery of jugs of urine led to the arrest of potential bombers in New Jersey.”73

One bomb-making manual, published by a self-described militia member a few weeks after White supremacist Timothy McVeigh bombed the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in April 1995, calls urea nitrate IEDs “piss bombs.”

Although urea nitrate bombs are well known to much of law enforcement, experts in counterterrorism, and the violent, revolutionary precincts of the Far Right, most of the rest of us have been left in the dark about it. Unfortunately, some of “the rest of us” include law enforcement officers responsible for an area that is infested with growing numbers of White supremacist revolutionaries.

Urea nitrate looks like sugar and can be made with accessible and non-traceable materials, such as urine, ordinary coffee filters and pans. Such items are at the fingertips of most people, and particularly available to someone like Lenio, who was working as a restaurant cook.74 Later, a Kalispell police officer to whom I spoke75 said he could not recall whether they had found coffee filters, pots, aluminum foil, and something that looked like sugar crystals near the jugs of urine. He didn’t know whether the jugs actually contained urine, or whether the urine had been boiled down to urea, or whether the evidence still exists.

That the investigators did not appear to be interested in the possible domestic terrorism implications of the jugs of urine stored by this suspect—who had already threatened the mass murder of children and Jewish leaders, and who appeared interested in joining a local clan of White supremacists—is troubling.

Homeland Security to this day teaches first responders nationwide to be on the lookout for jugs of urine as a possible sign of bomb-making activity. When alert first responders who had undergone counterterrorism training encountered jugs of urine in a New Jersey apartment in 2004, they knew they were seeing potential bomb making materials. An investigation turned up evidence of a plot to make urea nitrate bombs to target tunnels linking New Jersey with New York City.76 But in that case, an instructor for the Homeland Security training course stated77, the apartment was occupied by people from the Middle East, who were subsequently deported.

Maybe there’s an innocent explanation for Lenio storing jugs of urine or urea in his van— which, of course, by itself is not a crime. What is perplexing and significant is law enforcement’s lack of curiosity, from the federal level on down, and the implications of such a blind spot toward a White suspect and the double standard of dealing with potential domestic terrorists for our national security.

This dangerous double standard persists despite that fact that, as Naomi Braine has written for The Public Eye, “In the nearly 14 years since 9/11, more people have died in the U.S. from politically-motivated violence perpetrated by right-wing militants than by Muslim militants.”78

Two local law enforcement agencies deployed extra officers to guard area schools and notified every parent in the school system about the security threat.44 And on February 16, the FBI, along with law enforcement officers from four other agencies,45 arrested Lenio. He confessed on video to issuing the tweets, stating that he was glad that law enforcement had increased school security in response. However, Judge Heidi Ulbricht would later rule this confession inadmissible because the FBI failed to Mirandize Lenio until after he made these statements.46

Too White to Jail?

After the arrest, however, the investigation of Lenio for his myriad threats softened. To begin with, police said they could find no connections between Lenio and Kalispell’s local White supremacist networks, despite publicly available posts on social media and blogs documenting Lenio’s ties to White nationalist leaders in the Flathead Valley, particularly members of the White supremacist community Pioneer Little Europe.

The mostly conservative, libertarian, and gun-friendly population in Montana’s Flathead Valley takes a live-and-let-live attitude toward White nationalists who espouse rugged individualism and back-to-the-land lifestyles.

Pioneer Little Europe (PLE) is not so much a location or an organization as an organizing method for bringing White nationalists together. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, two White supremacists named Hamilton Michael Barrett and Mark Cotterill developed the PLE concept and promoted it on the neonazi website Stormfront47 as a way for White nationalists to develop affinity communities within existing towns in order to gain political influence and provide each other social and economic support.48 The mostly conservative, libertarian, and gun-friendly population in Montana’s Flathead Valley takes a live-and-let-live attitude toward White nationalists who espouse rugged individualism and back-to-the-land lifestyles. Two-hundred-and-fifty people in Kalispell earn their living making guns or gun parts,49 which provides economic security from skilled labor as well as a steady supply of potentially untraceable weapons.

Unsurprisingly, the result of PLE’s presence in an area can be polarizing. In Kalispell, it led to episodes of violence, as documented in the recent film “Hate in America: A Town on Fire,” co-produced by NBC’s Peacock Productions and the Southern Poverty Law Center.50

caption here

Screenshot captured by Jonathan Hutson of one of the many tweets made by David Lenio on Saturday, February 14, 2015.

While the police would say they struggled to link this group and Lenio, it appeared that not only had Lenio been drawn to the region by members of the PLE, but his expressed opinions and threats mirrored those of PLE activists. Recruiter and spokesperson for PLE April Gaede had tweeted to Lenio from her account @AprilintheNorth at least four months before he moved to Kalispell. Gaede, who makes bolt-action hunting rifles51 in Kalispell and is an outspoken Donald Trump supporter, encourages White supremacists to move to Kalispell for its job security, low crime rate, and the opportunity to build community with White nationalists.

Gaede also has close ties with right-wing terrorists. For example, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) reports that in 2007, Gaede was accorded the “honor” of disposing of the ashes of David Lane, the leader of a neonazi group called The Order who died while serving a 190-year federal sentence in connection with the murder of Jewish talk show host Alan Berg in 1984.52 On New Year’s Day 2016, Gaede tweeted: “When Trump is elected, we will have a new national holiday. #DayoftheRope.”53

Both Gaede’s association with The Order and her “Day of the Rope” tweet are related to William Pierce’s noxious 1978 novel The Turner Diaries, a fantasy of race war and genocide that the SPLC dubbed “the bible of the racist right.” The Order was inspired by a fictional group in Pierce’s book that aimed to overthrow the U.S. government, which they believed was controlled by a cabal of Jews; in real life, The Order’s terrorist attacks included robberies of banks and armored cars to fund White nationalist groups,54 as well as the bombings of a theater and a synagogue. The Turner Diaries also describes a day of lynching during which neonazis string up “race traitors” from lamp posts: an event which comes to be known, in the book, as “The Day of the Rope.”

Over the years, the book’s description of race war has been used as an inspiration and blueprint for other White nationalist terrorists, including Timothy McVeigh—the man responsible for bombing the Oklahoma federal building in 1995—who had several pages of the novel in his possession at the time of his arrest.55 (It’s also worth noting that McVeigh used what was called a “fertilizer bomb,” a truck loaded with ammonium nitrate, in his attack in Oklahoma City. A “piss bomb” of the sort that David Lenio may have intended to make is another kind of fertilizer bomb, composed of urea nitrate.)

Excepts from the letter written by former Aryan Nations leader Karl Gharst calling for support for David Lenio. Photo courtesy of Investigation Discovery

Lenio’s association with Kalispell White nationalists didn’t end with Gaede. While Lenio spent five months in the Flathead County Detention Center following his arrest, another PLE adherent and former Aryan Nations “staff leader,” Karl Gharst, supported him and possibly visited him. Gharst turned to the internet to rally White supremacist support for Lenio,56 falsely claiming that I had baited Lenio into making his threats—this despite the fact that Lenio had been tweeting his threats for six weeks before he initiated contact with me. (Gharst was himself arrested in 2004 for threatening to kill a Native American woman who worked for Child Protective Services.57 He was taken into custody on the Idaho compound of Aryan Nations founder Richard Butler and spent five months in the same jail where Lenio would later be held.)

A White Supremacist in the Criminal Justice System

The deficiencies in the handling of Lenio’s case continued with its prosecution. In July 2015, Judge Heidi Ulbricht released Lenio into the custody of his father, without bail.58 The prosecution did not object. As conditions of Lenio’s release, the judge ordered him to stay off social media, to get a mental health evaluation, not have access to guns, and refrain from contacting witnesses. However, the justice system failed to ensure that Lenio comply with the terms of his release. He refused to obtain the mental health evaluation until finally Judge Ulbricht granted his defense attorney permission to obtain a mental health evaluation from Lenio’s own physician and to file it under seal.59 So the public does not know whether Lenio has received a diagnosis and, if so, whether he is receiving any treatment. The deferral of the evaluation and the secrecy as to its findings is of a piece with the preferential treatment which Lenio has received.

Additionally, though law enforcement wasn’t aware of this fact, Lenio’s Facebook page had been updated several times60—including with antisemitic statements and quotes from former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke—while he was in jail, although inmates are not supposed to have access to cell phones or the internet.61 Further, although PLE member Karl Gharst posted messages online suggesting he might have visited Lenio in jail—messages that described Lenio’s conditions of confinement and describing their conversations—the justice system had no record of whether or not a visit had occurred, because the jail kept no logs of Lenio’s visitors.

The trial was originally slated for August,62 and then rescheduled until November 9. On November 9, it was delayed again, as Deputy County Attorney Stacy Boman stated that her office and the defense were trying to resolve the case in the judge’s chambers, out of public view.63 One outcome of this would be that if Lenio were not adjudicated as mentally ill, or convicted of a felony, then the state of Montana would return his three guns and ammunition, and he would be able to pass a Brady background check that would let him purchase an arsenal.

Photo of author Jonathan Hutson in the 2016 documentary, Hate in America: A Town on Fire, which is about David Lenio’s case. Photo courtesy of Investigation Discovery.

I had initially been called to be a witness in the trial, but when it wasn’t held I traveled to Kalispell anyway to hold a press conference, along with local rabbis, parents of local school children, and leaders from the human rights group, Love Lives Here in the Flathead Valley.64 I felt the public had a right to hear the evidence, to know what the justice system would do to protect school children and religious leaders, and to be warned that Lenio could be rearmed by virtue of the state’s lax prosecution.65

But for the fact that Lenio is White and the son of a politically-connected banker, he might have faced more serious charges; he might have been tried more swiftly; his security in jail would have been tighter and records would have been kept of neonazi leaders visiting him there. If the court had deemed him to be eligible for pretrial release, then he might have been required to wear an ankle monitor and his bail would likely not have been waived. Further, he would have been held accountable for violating the conditional terms of his release: his failure to obtain a psychological evaluation and his continued presence on social media, where he posted at least 348 times since his release in July. Lenio’s flouting of the judge’s orders made news in Montana and nationwide, but local Flathead Valley law enforcement offered no explanation for why he was not rearrested.66 At the same time, 37 other inmates in the same jail were rearrested for violating their release conditions.67

The charges have been dropped, and the state of Montana has returned Lenio’s guns without any further conditions or public explanation.

This March, three weeks before Lenio’s trial was finally set to be held—he was ultimately charged with a felony count of intimidation—the defense attorney announced that the prosecutor and judge had agreed to a deferred prosecution. This means that Lenio, who had already broken the conditions of his release, is expected to be a law-abiding citizen and keep his attorney informed of his location for two years. Meanwhile, the charges have been dropped, and the state of Montana has returned Lenio’s guns without any further conditions or public explanation. If he is found to break the law over the next two years, then the prosecutor could decide to pursue the case. Otherwise, Lenio’s record will be wiped clean.

Did Incuriosity Kill the Case?

Although the prosecution of Lenio may be over, we can say this much about the significance of the case: that it draws sharp attention to the problem of differential prosecution in the U.S. criminal justice system. The case began as one of threats of mass murder on social media by a possibly mentally ill individual. One of the more pressing questions was whether he would be able to get his guns back when it was all over. But over time, serious issues of the disparate treatment of criminal suspects in terms of race and class have come to loom large. What’s more, my further investigation suggests that if law enforcement had been even a little bit curious about the seemingly inexplicable jugs of urine Lenio had in his van at the time of his arrest, they could have understood them as possible bomb ingredients, with clear implications for potential domestic terrorism.  (See above sidebar: “What’s in a Jug of Urine?”) Law enforcement turning a blind eye to a potentially larger threat, which might have involved others, and may have put the rest of us at risk of violence from right-wing terrorists.

The Right’s entrenchment within U.S. cultural and political power structures raises the costs of high-profile law enforcement action against right-wing suspects.

As Naomi Braine writes in her exploration of differential prosecution of Muslim and far-right terrorism cases, the Right’s entrenchment within U.S. cultural and political power structures raises the costs of high-profile law enforcement action against right-wing suspects. What happened in Kalispell exemplified this. White nationalist leaders, such as Gaede and Gharst, make their presence felt there. They have many supporters, and they attract unstable figures such as Lenio to participate in their PLE affinity group. When police claimed not to see any connections between Lenio and the local White nationalist groups, and when they failed to meaningfully investigate evidence of a potential terrorist threat, it seems a case of willful blindness: not seeing what is inconvenient to see.

Beyond the possibility that Lenio could make good on his threats in the future, a second casualty of the case is the public’s confidence in the justice system. In the wake of the prosecutor’s decision not to prosecute Lenio, local resident Jerry Weissman wrote a letter to the editor protesting, “Letting Lenio go is not justice.”68 He continued, “Who will hang their heads in ultimate shame if this powder keg of a person explodes and takes children’s lives? Who will mourn if lives are taken, especially when proper care could have been taken to remove threats to the citizens of our country?”

David Lenio's tweet several weeks after the documentary, "Hate in America" was released.

David Lenio’s tweet several weeks after the documentary, “Hate in America” was released.

On March 24, when the “Hate in America” documentary premiered, David Lenio returned to Twitter. In what seemed like a taunt, he pinned to the top of his profile a series of exchanges from our February 2015 encounter in which I tried to identify and locate the man who had tweeted threats to shoot grade school kids. Several weeks later, on April 12, he indicated that he remained fixated on the idea of shooting school children when he tweeted: “What do you think costs more in most US cities? A gun with enough ammunition to kill 99 school kids or the security deposit on an apartment?”

Whatever Lenio does or does not do, it will take far more vigilance to see that the criminal justice system works without the filters of racial, religious and class bias that fast track the prosecution of some suspects but let others off the hook. That the likes of David Lenio manage to avoid accountability for crimes that would have derailed the lives of most of the rest of us should shock us out of our complacency.


About the Author

Jonathan Hutson is a human rights activist and strategic communications consultant at Global Media Max in Metropolitan Washington, D.C.


Endnotes

1 I served at the time as Chief Communications Officer for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. More than 63,000 people and organizations follow me (@JonHutson) on Twitter, because of my influence in human rights, social justice, LGBTQ issues, transgender equality, reproductive freedom, conservation, and global health. The Montreal Institute on Genocide Prevention has recognized me among its list of 74 Global Humanitarian Twitterati.

2 Here is my tweet at 9:23 p.m. on February 14, 2015: “#Freespeech will not be silenced, even as gunfire erupts at a café and a synagogue in Copenhagen http://nyti.ms/1JekieA #terrorism”. https://twitter.com/JonHutson/status/566784933407248384.

3 Andrew Higgins and Melissa Eddy, “Terror Attacks by a Native Son Rock Denmark.” The New York Times, February 15, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/16/world/europe/copenhagen-attacks-suspect-is-killed-police-say.html?_r=0.

4 Bill Morlin, “Man Arrested in Montana After Alleged Threats to Kill School Children and Jews,” Hatewatch, February 17, 2015, https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2015/02/17/man-arrested-montana-after-alleged-threats-kill-school-children-and-jews#disqus_thread.

5 Vince Devlin, “Kalispell School Threat Suspect ‘Tangled’ with Wrong Twitter User,” The Missoulian, February 19, 2015, http://missoulian.com/news/local/kalispell-school-threat-suspect-tangled-with-wrong-twitter-user/article_9c3a4af7-eb20-526a-8598-17304d9e9f24.html. I provided federal and local law enforcement agencies with several things based on my research: a timeline of tweets that appeared to cross the line between free speech and criminal threat; a profile of him, based on his social media presence; and a strategy to identify and locate him.

6 Bill Morlin, “Man Arrested in Montana After Threats to Kill School Children and Jews,” Hatewatch, February 17, 2015, https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2015/02/17/man-arrested-montana-after-alleged-threats-kill-school-children-and-jews#disqus_thread.

7> Bill Morlin, “Court Papers Detail Alleged Threats from Holocaust Denier,” Hatewatch, March 19, 2015, https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2015/02/17/man-arrested-montana-after-alleged-threats-kill-school-children-and-jews#disqus_thread See also Vince Devlin, “Suspect Threatened to Shoot 100 Kalispell Schoolkids,” The Missoulian, March 17, 2015,http://missoulian.com/news/local/kalispell-school-threat-suspect-tangled-with-wrong-twitter-user/article_9c3a4af7-eb20-526a-8598-17304d9e9f24.html .

8 Martin Kaste, “Awash in Social Media, Cops Still Need Public to Detect Threats,” All Things Considered (NPR), February 23, 2015, http://www.npr.org/2015/02/23/388449799/awash-in-social-media-cops-still-need-the-public-to-detect-threats.

9 Jonathan Hutson, “White Banker’s Son Threatens to Shoot School Kids and Jews, Gets ‘Get Outta Jail Free’ Card.” Huffington Post, November 16, 2015, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jonathan-hutson/white-bankers-son-threate_b_8579146.html.

10 Naomi Braine, “Disparate Legal Treatment of Muslims and the Radical Right.” The Public Eye, June 19, 2015, http://www.politicalresearch.org/2015/06/19/terror-network-or-lone-wolf/#sthash.bDPRht1N.MHVeuJjb.dpbs.

11 Aryan Nations founder Richard Butler popularized this term for enclaves of White nationalists in the Pacific Northwest after he set up a neonazi compound in northern Idaho in the 1970s. But overt White nationalists are not the only militants to seek haven in Montana. For example, the Rev. Chuck Baldwin, a Patriot leader who ran for president on the Constitution Party ticket in 2008, moved to the Flathead Valley in 2010. He leads the Liberty Fellowship church in Kalispell, whose members include Randy Weaver, a white supremacist who engaged in a notorious standoff with federal authorities in 1992. Ryan Lenz, “A Gathering of Eagles: Extremists Look to Montana.” Southern Poverty Law Center, November 15, 2011, https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/intelligence-report/2011/gathering-eagles-extremists-look-montana.

12 David Joseph Lenio has held at least four Twitter accounts: @leniodj, @PsychicDogTalk, @PyschicDogTalk2 [sic], and @PsychicDogTalk3. The first of these accounts featured an avatar that read, “I am a potential terrorist. I know the truth about 9/11.” Twitter has shut down @PsychicDogTalk and @PyschicDogTalk2 for violating their Terms of Service by threatening violence. However, the Twitter bio for @PsychicDogTalk can still be viewed online through a third-party app. It describes his location as “Cascadia, at the apex of time.” The Cascadia Independence Party (CIP) is a secessionist movement that advocates the independence of “Washington, most of Oregon and Idaho, parts of Montana and Alaska, and most of the Canadian province British Columbia.” CIP website, “What We Do,” http://cascadiaindependenceparty.strikingly.com/#what-we-do.

13 Bill Morlin, “Court Papers Detail Alleged Threats from Holocaust Denier.” Hatewatch, March 19, 2015, https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2015/03/19/court-papers-detail-alleged-threats-holocaust-denier See also Vince Devlin, “Suspect Threatened to Shoot 100 Kalispell Schoolkids,” The Missoulian, March 17, 2015, http://missoulian.com/news/local/suspect-threatened-to-shoot-kalispell-schoolkids/article_075b6e83-1997-5c20-91c3-7ec6db2e2a3d.html.

14 Remos Lenio and Phillip Blanchard launched Tillerman & Co. of Grand Rapids in September 2015. They had previously been partners in turnaround firm DWH, LLC of Grand Rapids. Demetri Diakantonis, “People Moves of the Week,” Mergers & Acquisitions, November 3, 2015, http://www.themiddlemarket.com/news/people_moves/people-moves-of-the-week-tillerman-arsenal-goodwin-258750-1.html.

15 Politico has called Justin Amish, who founded and chairs the House Liberty Caucus, “the House’s new Ron Paul.” James Hohmann, “The House’s New Ron Paul.” Politico, April 1, 2013, http://www.politico.com/story/2013/04/the-houses-new-ron-paul-justin-amash-089485.

16 For example, Betsy DeVos serves as Honorary Chair, and Remos Lenio serves on the executive leadership team for the American Heart Association’s 20th Anniversary of the Grand Rapids Heart Ball slated for December 2016. https://ahagrandrapids.ejoinme.org/MyEvents/20162017GrandRapidsMIHeartBall/Leadership/tabid/766588/Default.aspx In addition, Remos Lenio’s CV states that he holds a seat on the MiQuest board of directors. http://tillermanco.com/images/RemosLenioCV2015.pdf MiQuest is among the groups sponsored by the Richard M. and Helen DeVos Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation. https://www.gvsu.edu/cei/competitions-funding-160.htm Remos Lenio’s LinkedIn profile states that he is also a founding board member and past president of the Association for Corporate Growth – Western Michigan, which has featured Dick DeVos as a speaker. Retrieved from http://grsouth.wzzm13.com/content/dick-devos-key-bringing-southwest-airlines-grand-rapids-supporting-airtran.

17 The son of Amway co-founder Richard DeVos, Dick DeVos served as Amway’s President and ran an unsuccessful campaign for Governor of Michigan in 2006. His wife Betsy Prince DeVos, former chair of the Michigan State Republican Party, and Board President of Mars Hill Bible Church, is the sister of Blackwater founder Erik Prince. See Andy Kroll, “Meet the New Kochs: The DeVos Clan’s Plan to Defund the Left,” Mother Jones, January/February 2014, http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2014/01/devos-michigan-labor-politics-gop. See also Benjy Hansen-Bundy and Andy Kroll, “The Family That Gives Together,” Mother Jones, January/February 2014, http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2014/01/devos-family-foundations-heritage-americans-prosperity-blackwater.

18 Daniel Schoonmaker, “Is This Christian Wall Street.” Grand Rapids Business Journal, April 10, 2006, http://www.grbj.com/articles/66232See also Daniel Schoonmaker, “Collection Plate, Meet Wall Street.” Grand Rapids Business Journal, April 10, 2006, http://www.grbj.com/articles/66233.

19 Betsy DeVos also holds the title of President of the Council of Elders. Kelefa Sanneh, “The Hell-Raiser,” The New Yorker, November 26, 2012, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2012/11/26/the-hell-raiser-3. In 2011, the Dick and Betsy DeVos Foundation gave $525,000 to Mars Hill Bible Church, according to the Foundation’s annual report. http://www.guidestar.org/FinDocuments/2011/382/902/2011-382902412-08bfa3ae-F.pdf.

20 Andy Kroll, “Meet the New Kochs: The DeVos Clan’s Plan to Defund the Left.” Mother Jones, January/February 2014, http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2014/01/devos-michigan-labor-politics-gop#sthash.9BXvf4Kh.dpuf.

21 In an April 2013 YouTube video on the Boston Marathon bombing and the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting, originally posted under his pseudonym David Dave, Lenio endorsed Ron Paul for President. In his video, he also blames the Boston Marathon bombing on the CIA or the Mossad, and characterizes the Sandy Hook mass shooting as a hoax. His YouTube account, in which he currently uses the pseudonym gc hg, links to, and promotes, his writings under his Twitter handles @PsychicDogTalk and @PsychicDogTalk3., https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aOu7CAFGAyI.

22 Ron Paul is a self-described paleo-conservative who has stated his support for neo-Confederates and secessionists. Rachel Tabachnick and Frank L. Cocozzelli, “Nullification, Neo-Confederates, and the Revenge of the Old Right.” The Public Eye, November 22, 2013,  http://www.politicalresearch.org/2013/11/22/nullification-neo-confederates-and-the-revenge-of-the-old-right/#sthash.RKoqSGLs.dpbs.

23 Scoopnest has archived the Twitter bio of Lenio’s @PsychicDogTalk account, which Twitter shut down in January 2015 for violating its Terms of Service, http://www.scoopnest.com/user/PsychicDogTalk/.

24 He also characterizes well-documented mass shootings including those in Copenhagen, in Tucson, Arizona, and Aurora, Colorado, as well as the bombings at the Boston Marathon, among others, as “false flag” attacks for which he blames Israel.

25 This tweet from @PsychicDogTalk is archived at http://vnnforum.com/showthread.php?t=207710&page=14

26 David Holthouse, How White Supremacists Are Trying to Make an American Town a Model for Right-Wing Extremism: A recent influx of white supremacists and Patriot group members to the town of Kalispell, Montana, is causing alarm. AlterNet, November 22, 2011, http://www.alternet.org/story/153162/how_white_supremacists_are_trying_to_make_an_american_town_a_model_for_right-wing_extremism.

27 David Holthouse, “High Country Extremism: Pioneering Hate.” Media Matters for America, November 15, 2011, http://mediamatters.org/blog/2011/11/15/high-country-extremism-pioneering-hate/154613.

28 H. Michael Barrett, “Pioneer Little Europe (PLE) Prospectus a.k.a. ‘Stormfronts of the Street’.” http://s3.mediamatters.org.s3.amazonaws.com/static/pdfs/pleprospectus.pdf

29 Judy L. Thomas, “Neo-Nazi Is Shopping for Land in Kansas.” Kansas City Star, October 2, 2015, http://www.kansas.com/news/local/article37425801.html.

30 Jonathan Hutson, “White Banker’s Son Threatens to Shoot School Kids and Jews, Gets ‘Get Outta Jail Free’ Card.” Huffington Post, November 16, 2015, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jonathan-hutson/white-bankers-son-threate_b_8579146.html.

31 Jonathan Hutson, “White Banker’s Son Threatens to Shoot School Kids and Jews, Gets ‘Get Outta Jail Free’ Card.” Huffington Post, November 16, 2015, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jonathan-hutson/white-bankers-son-threate_b_8579146.html.

32“Newtown Shooting Victims,” Newsday, December 14, 2012, http://www.newsday.com/news/nation/newtown-shooting-victims-photos-1.4336461.

33 Bill Morlin, “Man Arrested in Montana After Alleged Threats to Kill School Children and Jews,” Hatewatch February 17, 2015, https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2015/02/17/man-arrested-montana-after-alleged-threats-kill-school-children-and-jews#disqus_thread.

34 David Lenio, “Release the Security Camera Footage of the 2011 Tucson AZ Shooting!” YouTube video uploaded August 8, 2012,https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yPcxszkJ61A Lenio originally uploaded the video under the pseudonym David Dave, and subsequently changed his pseudonym to “gc hg.”

35 The first quote is at 4:30; the second is at 9:39.

36 Shaun King, “Muslim Shooters Like Syed Farook Are Easily Called Terrorists While White Mass Killers Never Get That Label.” New York Daily News, December 3, 2015, http://www.nydailynews.com/news/crime/king-white-mass-shooters-called-terrorists-article-1.2454528.

37 Mark Follman, Gavin Aronsen, and Deanna Pan, “U.S. Mass Shootings: 1982-2016.” Mother Jones, originally published on December 28, 2012, and updated to include data through 2016, http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2012/12/mass-shootings-mother-jones-full-data.

38 Mark Follman, “Maybe What We Need Is a Better Mental Health Policy.” Mother Jones, November 9, 2012, http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2012/11/jared-loughner-mass-shootings-mental-illness.

39 Eric Madfis, “Triple Entitlement and Homicidal Anger: An Exploration of the Intersectional Identities of American Mass Murderers.” Men and Masculinities 17, no 1 (April 2014):67-68, accessed May 17, 2016.  http://jmm.sagepub.com/content/17/1/67.abstract.

40 Bill Morlin, “Court Papers Detail Alleged Threats from Holocaust Denier,” Hatewatch, March 19, 2015, https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2015/03/19/court-papers-detail-alleged-threats-holocaust-denier.

41 Peter Bergen, “Who Do Terrorists Confide In?” CNN, February 3, 2016, http://www.cnn.com/2016/02/03/opinions/terrorists-confidants-leakage-bergen/index.html.

42 Jonathan Hutson, “Guest Post: Nuts to Silence.” Montana Cowgirl, November 28, 2015, http://mtcowgirl.com/2015/11/28/guest-post-nuts-to-silence/.

43 Brendan James, “How a Gun Control Advocate Helped Stop a Man Threatening to Shoot Up a School,” Talking Points Memo, February 20, 2015, http://talkingpointsmemo.com/livewire/david-lenio-montana-threats-jews-children.

44 Justin Franz, “Kalispell Man Accused of Threatening Schools Posed ‘A Very Real Threat.” Flathead Beacon, February 18, 2015, http://flatheadbeacon.com/2015/02/18/kalispell-man-accused-threatening-schools-posed-real-threat/. See also Alli Friedman, “Man Accused of Threats Against Flathead Co. Students, Jews.” NBC Montana, February 17, 2015, http://www.nbcmontana.com/news/man-accused-of-threats-against-flathead-co-students-jews/31323966.

45 Agents from the FBI, the Kalispell Police Department, the Whitefish Police Department, the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office, and the Northwest Drug Task Force were involved in the arrest of David Lenio. The FBI took the lead in the interrogation.

46 Justin Franz, “As Trial Nears, Details Emerge in Intimidation Case.” Flathead Beacon, June 30, 2015, http://flatheadbeacon.com/2015/06/30/as-trial-nears-details-emerge-in-intimidation-case/. Bill Morlin, “Twitter Threat Defendant Defies Judge, Continues Hate Speech on Social Media.” HateWatch (Southern Poverty Law Center), November 13, 2015, https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2015/11/13/twitter-threat-defendant-defies-judge-continues-hate-speech-social-media.

47 Registered users of Stormfront have been behind almost 100 murders, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/extremist-files/group/stormfront.

48 Mark Potok, “Closed Circuit.” Southern Poverty Law Center, November 20, 2013, https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/intelligence-report/2013/closed-circuit.

49 Felicity Barringer, “In Montana Town’s Hands, Guns Mean Cultural Security,” The New York Times, February 20, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/21/us/in-montanas-kalispell-guns-are-a-matter-of-life.html?_r=0.

50 Discovery Communications, “Investigation Discovery Premiers Second Installment of Series ‘Hate in America’ Exploring Growing Domestic Issue of White Supremacists and Anti-government Radicals.” Press release, March 21, 2016, https://corporate.discovery.com/discovery-newsroom/investigation-discovery-premieres-second-installment-of-series-hate-in-america-exploring-growing-domestic-issue-of-white-supremacists-and-anti-government-radicals/.

51 April Gaede, who tweets as @AprilintheNorth, has posted photos of her work in Kalispell assembling bolt action hunting rifles. She tweeted one such photo on December 8, 2015, https://twitter.com/aprilinthenorth/status/674264327268921344.

52 Profile of April Gaede (Southern Poverty Law Center), https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/extremist-files/individual/april-gaede.

53 Retrieved from @AprilintheNorth Twitter account https://twitter.com/AprilintheNorth/status/682834077292969984

54 Beneficiaries included William Pierce’s National Alliance and Frazier Glenn Miller, Jr.’s White Patriot Party. In November 2015, a judge sentenced Miller to death for the fatal shootings of three people at Kansas Jewish sites. Associated Press, “Jewish Site Killings: Death Sentence for White Supremacist Frazier Glenn Miller,” November 11, 2015, http://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/jewish-center-shootings/jewish-site-killings-death-sentence-white-supremacist-frazier-glenn-miller-n461071.

55 Camille Jackson, “The Turner Diaries, Other Racist Novels, Inspire Extremist Violence.” Intelligence Report , October 14, 2004, https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/intelligence-report/2004/turner-diaries-other-racist-novels-inspire-extremist-violence.

56 Karl Gharst, a/k/a morserkarl, took to a right-wing conspiracist site, LibertyFight, to post a statement in support of Lenio, in which he falsely claimed that I had provoked threats that Lenio had tweeted between December 30, 2014 and February 14, when I learned of Lenio’s existence because Lenio initiated contact with me. Gharst’s statement is available online at https://disqus.com/by/morserkarl/.

57 Bill Morlin, “Man Accused of Twitter Threats Has Aryan Nations Supporter,” HateWatch , August 20, 2015, https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2015/08/20/man-accused-twitter-threats-has-aryan-nations-supporter.

58 Justin Franz, “Man Accused of School Threats Released.” Flathead Beacon, July 20, 2015, http://flatheadbeacon.com/2015/07/20/man-accused-of-school-threats-released/.

59 Megan Strickland, “Twitter Threat Case Faces Another Delay.” Daily Inter Lake, February 8, 2016, http://www.dailyinterlake.com/members/twitter-threat-case-faces-another-delay/article_aec382ca-ce17-11e5-b8ed-d39fa3af80fd.html.

60 Bill Morlin, “Twitter-threat Defendant Defies Judge, Continues Hate Speech on Social Media.” Hatewatch (Southern Poverty Law Center), November 13, 2015, https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2015/11/13/twitter-threat-defendant-defies-judge-continues-hate-speech-social-media.

61 Vince Devlin, “HateWatch: David Lenio Has Violated Terms of His Release 348 Times.” The Missoulian, November 13, 2015, http://missoulian.com/news/local/hatewatch-david-lenio-has-violated-terms-of-his-release-times/article_04810fc6-1e7f-515f-bc73-5390e9944fd9.html.

62 The author received a subpoena dated July 16, 2015, in State of Montana v. David Joseph Lenio, Cause No. DC-15-040C, to appear at a jury trial slated to begin August 3, 2015.

63 S. Boman, email to author. October 30, 2015. S. Boman, telephone interview with author, November 5, 2015.

64 Vince Devlin, “Flathead Valley Group Wants Nothing Less Than a Felony Conviction for Lenio,” The Missoulian, November 10, 2015, http://missoulian.com/news/local/flathead-valley-group-wants-nothing-less-than-a-felony-conviction/article_4a720fa1-d82c-562c-8ef4-cb8e3dcccfdb.html.

65 Francine Green Roston and Jonathan Hutson, “David Lenio Reloaded?” Opinion column in Flathead Beacon, November 19, 2015, http://flatheadbeacon.com/2015/11/19/david-lenio-reloaded/.

66 Vince Devlin, “HateWatch: David Lenio Has Violated Terms of His Release 348 Times,” The Missoulian, November 13, 2015, http://missoulian.com/news/local/hatewatch-david-lenio-has-violated-terms-of-his-release-times/article_04810fc6-1e7f-515f-bc73-5390e9944fd9.html.

67 Flathead County Sheriff’s Office – Jail Roster.  https://apps.flathead.mt.gov/jailroster/.

68 Jerrold A. “Jerry” Weissman, “Letting Lenio Go Is Not Justice.” Letter to the Editor, The Daily Interlake, March 24, 2016, http://www.dailyinterlake.com/opinion/letters/letter-letting-lenio-go-is-not-justice/article_ed883820-f1da-11e5-ba98-079703a87180.html.

69 Urea nitrate can be used as a main charge in improvised explosive devices, according to a 1969 U.S. Army handbook on improvised munitions. By 1970, saboteurs were passing around U.S. Army demolitions manuals and using them to make bombs. UPI, “Want to Build a Bomb? Get U.S. Army Manual,” May 6, 1970, https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=110&dat=19700506&id=cpBaAAAAIBAJ&sjid=N0oDAAAAIBAJ&pg=7285,2080077&hl=en.

70 Peter Barnes, “N.M. Tech Class Teaches Response to Terror Attacks.” Associated Press wire story in the Albuquerque Journal, February 1, 2005, http://abqjournal.com/news/state/299694nm02-01-05.htm

71 Peter Barnes, “N.M. Tech Class Teaches Response to Terror Attacks.” Associated Press wire story in the Albuquerque Journal, February 1, 2005, http://abqjournal.com/news/state/299694nm02-01-05.htm

72 Tamiri T., Rozin R., Lemberger N., and Almog J., “Urea Nitrate, an Exceptionally Easy-to-make Improvised Explosive: Studies towards Trace Characterization.” Anal Bioanal Chem, (National Center for Biotechnology Information) 395, no 2 (September 2009):421-428, accessed May 17, 2016, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19575193.

73 Tamiri T., Rozin R., Lemberger N., and Almog J., “Urea Nitrate, an Exceptionally Easy-to-make Improvised Explosive: Studies towards Trace Characterization.” Anal Bioanal Chem, (National Center for Biotechnology Information) 395, no 2 (September 2009):421-428, accessed May 17, 2016, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19575193.

74 The use of urine to improvise explosive devices and gunpowder is so well known in military and paramilitary circles that it has been going on for centuries. Napoleon’s army collected urine from soldiers and livestock to make gunpowder. See Brian Benchoff, “Gunpowder from Urine: Fighting a Gorn,” Hackaday, June 15, 2015, http://hackaday.com/2015/06/15/gunpowder-from-urine-fighting-a-gorn/

75 S. Warnell, telephone interview with author, January 5, 2016.

76 Joseph J. Kolb, “Preparing for the Inevitable: New Mexico Univ. Prepares First Responders for Bombing Incidents.” Journal of Counterterrorism (International Association for Counterterrorism & Security Professionals), Vol. 19, No. 3 (Fall 2013), pp. 54-57, http://issuu.com/fusteros/docs/iacsp_magazine_v19n3. A leading expert in bomb investigations writes in his textbook used by the FBI that the presence of urine at a crime scene indicates possible “clandestine manufacture of urea nitrate.” James T. Thurman, Practical Bomb Scene Investigation, Second Edition (2011), CRC Press, p. 88, http://www.amazon.com/Practical-Investigation-Criminal-Forensic-Investigations/dp/1439819599.

77 V. Romero, telephone interview with author, January 6, 2016.

78 Naomi Braine, “Terror Network of Lone Wolf?” The Public Eye, June 19, 2015, http://www.politicalresearch.org/2015/06/19/terror-network-or-lone-wolf/#sthash.S10xajqt.dpuf.

What Is ‘Lone Wolf’ Terrorism in the Digital Age?

On July 23 of this year, John Russell Houser opened fire inside a Lafayette, Louisiana movie theater, killing two women and injuring nine others before turning his gun on himself. Houser was a disaffected loner with a history of publicly expressing Far Right views, although most of his political activity had taken place online. In January 2014, reacting to the arrest of a Greek neo-Nazi parliamentarian, Houser wrote on one of the party’s affiliated websites, “you must realize the power of the lone wolf.”

Dylann Roof

Dylann Roof

The concept of autonomous “Lone Wolf” terrorism as a dominant strategy for U.S. political extremists has been widely discussed recently, especially after the horrific mass shooting in Charleston earlier this year, which was allegedly planned and carried out independently by Dylann Roof. It is also the focus of Naomi Braine’s research report “Terror Network or Lone Wolf,” published in the Spring 2015 issue of The Public Eye magazine. Braine demonstrates the tendency of U.S. law enforcement and media to frame Far Right terrorists as Lone Wolves, while Muslim militants who act similarly are usually described as part of international jihadist terror networks. She raises the question of whether the Lone Wolf paradigm is a realistic approach to combating right-wing terror: is a landscape of disparate Lone Wolves, standing apart from political networks, really the most accurate representation of domestic terrorism in the United States today?

Indeed, Roof’s case suggests that in the digital age, it may be easier than ever before for individuals to be turned towards political violence in a relative vacuum. But it also suggests that the very concept of what group membership means has shifted with technological changes, thereby blurring the distinction between Lone Wolves and traditionally organized political actors—a difference that is central to the Lone Wolf paradigm.

A long-running debate exists concerning what, exactly, a Lone Wolf is. The concept is linked to the notion of “leaderless resistance”—a tactic promoted by White nationalist Louis Beam in his 1983 essay of the same name. Beam suggests that, in order to avoid detection by the authorities, White nationalists should eschew traditional top-down organizational structures and instead form small “phantom cells,” which operate independently of higher leadership and are more difficult to track. To further enhance security, he also discourages communication between cells. In Beam’s formulation, both individuals and small groups can constitute cells. Lone Wolf terrorism represents an even more strictly decentralized variant of leaderless resistance: it refers to actions wholly planned and carried out by an individual working outside of any organized groups.

The best-known proponents of the strategy under this name were White nationalists Alex Curtis and Tom Metzger; Metzger’s essay “Laws For The Lone Wolf” urges right-wing terrorists to avoid involvement with any and all “membership groups.”

While Lone Wolf terrorists are influenced by the ideologies of external groups, they cannot be affiliated with them in any significant way.

Defining and identifying Lone Wolf terrorism is important because, according to former PRA senior analyst Chip Berlet, “different investigative techniques with different levels of government intrusiveness are required depending on the type of target. Therefore accurate descriptions of target terrorist formations and potential terrorist cells are crucial for the effectiveness of stopping actual acts of terrorism.”

The matter quickly becomes more confusing, however. It is impossible to determine how many White nationalist Lone Wolves have existed who were directly inspired by these doctrines. It is also unclear how much contact Lone Wolves can have with their political milieu, and what forms that contact can take.  Beam, for example, said they could keep abreast of their movement through “newspapers, leaflets, computers, etc.”

The notion of the Lone Wolf has been adopted by right-wing monitors and academics and applied more broadly to include other political movements; it has also changed meaning. Some extend the term to describe people who are members of political groups, but acted alone in their crimes (such as Michael Wade Page, the Oak Creek gunman, who was a member of a Nazi skinhead gang). Others use it interchangeably with leaderless resistance, referring to the actions of more than one person. Some insist that to be true Lone Wolves or members of phantom cells, participants can never have had prior involvement in political organizations. Could a Lone Wolf ever have belonged to a membership group, and if so, how long in the past—one day or twenty years? Finally, the mainstream media has recently tended to erroneously use the term to imply that Lone Wolves are not ideologically motivated actors.

So, does Dylann Roof qualify as a true Lone Wolf? Thus far, under the traditional definition, the answer seems to be yes. Although he self-identifies as a White nationalist in his so-called “manifesto,” Roof was not a member of any organized racist group. The closest he may have come to formal participation was potentially commenting on the White nationalist website The Daily Stormer. And while Roof had expressed White supremacist views in pictures on his Facebook page and personal website, he did not inform anyone in advance of his attack that he was planning to commit racially motivated mass murder.

Nonetheless, something is different here: Roof’s manifesto reads like the testimony of a committed racist partisan, referencing organized White nationalist groups by name and weighing in on some of the movement’s internal debates. Even if he acted alone and never held group membership or had in-person social ties, there is more to the relationship between Roof and the larger White nationalist movement than simply referring to him as a Lone Wolf would suggest.

Tom Metzger

Tom Metzger

There could, perhaps, be a more complicated relationship between Lone Wolf actors and the larger political movements they are aligned with. In 2003, Simson Garfinkel, a researcher who has studied domestic terrorism, wrote that the de facto outcome of leaderless resistance was the division of the Far Right movement into two parts: one seemingly innocent element that publically expressed Far Right ideals, using coded language to name targets for domestic terrorism; and the other an underground element made up of phantom cells, that derived its objectives and views from the first group. The only connection between the two is that the second group is aware of the first’s opinions; the two elements do not communicate directly. (Braine’s article goes further, showing how many so-called Lone Wolves have longstanding social and political ties to larger political movements.)

Newer, Internet-based groups further cloud these questions about what “group membership” means. The Internet is filled with groups and organizations of every conceivable ideology and belief set, but each can have its own version of what constitutes “membership.” For example, the “hacktivist” network Anonymous presents itself as a membership group, but has no formal membership protocols and no membership list, public or otherwise. Inclusion in the group is contingent only on one’s awareness of its cause and willingness to identify as a member—journalist Carole Cadwalladr wrote that “if you believe in Anonymous, and call yourself Anonymous, you are Anonymous.”

Despite well-reasoned claims to the contrary, Dylann Roof may indeed have been what is traditionally considered a Lone Wolf terrorist—but that distinction is based on analytical frameworks developed before the rise of today’s Internet.1

Determining whether an actor fits into the category of Lone Wolf, or is better described as a participant in leaderless resistance or organized terrorism, is based on an outdated binary definition of group membership, in which actors and larger groups are unequivocally either affiliated or unaffiliated with one another. In the digital age, now that belief in the cause and self-identification as a group member can be the only prerequisites for inclusion, it might be entirely possible for a Lone Wolf to act completely independently and still be fully politicized members of political movements, participating in movement debates and interacting with other members online—indeed, for Roof, this seems to have been the case.

To best represent the new nature of domestic terrorism, a new set of terms and a new model of these concepts and acts may be necessary.

*PRA associate fellow Spencer Sunshine contributed to this report.


 

[1] It’s important to note that early proponents of leaderless resistance tactics, such as Beam and Metzger, were no strangers to the Internet’s potential benefits for Far Right political actors. In 1984, one year after publishing “Leaderless Resistance,” Beam established a computer bulletin board system (BBS) called “Aryan Liberty Net,” affiliated with the Aryan Nations white supremacist organization. Soon afterwards, Metzger started his own BBS—the “W.A.R. Computer Terminal,” affiliated with his White Aryan Resistance group. By posting racist literature on their U.S.-based BBSes, Beam and Metzger were able to disseminate White supremacist ideas to people in foreign countries where hate speech was banned or restricted. Despite these computer networks’ connections to the progenitors of Lone Wolf terrorism, however, one aspect of their implementation and content distinguishes them from today’s Far Right Internet: unlike the ubiquitous Internet of today, the narrowly focused BBSes were explicitly affiliated with established hate groups and primarily intended for use by group members; in an article in the Inter-Klan Newsletter and Survival Alert, Beam claimed to be implementing “special electronic code access available only to Aryan Nation/Klu Klux Klan officers and selected individuals.” Although Beam and Metzger employed the Internet for political purposes at the same time that they were promoting leaderless resistance and Lone Wolf terrorism, the engagement of White supremacists with early Far Right BBSes is significantly different from the relationship between the contemporary Internet and Lone Wolf terrorists. Whether users of those BBSes constituted Lone Wolves, under Metzger’s original definition, remains an open question.

 

Anti-Death Penalty Activism Reinforces Racist Status Quo

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s widely-protested ruling in Glossip v. Gross, which maintained that execution by lethal injection does not constitute “cruel and unusual punishment,” capital punishment continues to be an issue of national debate. While the partisan divide in death penalty support has been running strong for decades, significant anti-death penalty organizing can now be found on both sides of the aisle.

death penalty

Last May, Nebraska’s Republican-dominated legislature voted to abolish the death penalty, leading to much optimistic discussion about conservatives’ perceived change of heart on this long-divisive issue. This new wave of activism from non-traditional allies—a marked shift from conservatives’ typical platform of strong support of capital punishment and a “tough on crime” approach to criminal justice—has come as a welcome surprise to many progressives working toward criminal justice reform.

However, while abolishing the death penalty would clearly be a positive step forward, it is a limited and inadequate objective—particularly if achieved without any meaningful discussion of the racism and structural inequalities that produced and continue to drive our modern justice system. Even if the involvement of this small band of conservative anti-death penalty activists manages to finally tip the scales in this decades-long struggle, the changes most likely to be enacted will be purely superficial, culminating in what Dean Spade describes as “formal reforms that mask the perpetuation of the white supremacist status quo.”

Eliminating one unjust policy won’t actually change the number of people dying under state control (or the racial disparities that persist among those sentenced to life without parole).

The conservative approach to anti-death penalty organizing not only perpetuates this status quo through the promotion of a harmful “post-racial” ideology, but also manages to enhance support for the rest of the carceral system by centering reform around fiscal restraint, rather than on rehabilitation and justice for incarcerated people.

The unsettling truth about the way policing and sentencing are carried out in this country has been established time and time again; it’s clear that no criminal justice movement can make any genuine change without addressing these problems. Some may argue that abolishing the death penalty will put an end to the racial disparities in whom the state decides to execute, but the alternative to being sentenced to death in an execution chamber is being sentenced to die in a prison cell. Eliminating one unjust policy won’t actually change the number of people dying under state control (or the racial disparities that persist among those sentenced to life without parole). In fact, fighting the death penalty without simultaneously fighting the White supremacy upheld by the justice system at every level will likely exacerbate the problem by making it even easier to ignore.

Ignoring White supremacy is a fundamental facet of conservative anti-death penalty organizing. The clearest evidence of this can be found in these activists’ refusal to talk about the role of race in death penalty sentencing or the carceral system as a whole. Grover Norquist, a conservative criminal justice reform advocate and the founder of Americans for Tax Reform, revealingly accused the Left of not taking these issues seriously because of their insistence on discussing how racism is an integral part of the prison industrial complex. “They’ve left the entire area of reform to the right… [the Left] can’t talk about prison reform for 15 seconds before [they] want to yell ‘racist’… People just shut down as soon as you pull that crap.”

Norquist isn’t alone in his resistance to an anti-racist framework, either. When Right on Crime, an organization dedicated to exploring new conservative approaches to criminal justice, details its “Conservative Case for Reform,” there is no mention whatsoever of race. Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty (CCDP) also tiptoes around this issue, focusing on the fact that life or death often boils down to a “lottery of geography,” and that many defendants wind up stuck with terrible lawyers. The effects of geography and inadequate legal representation on sentencing outcomes cannot be separated from race, yet CCDP rather conspicuously refuses to mention it, as though we are living in a “colorblind” society where race no longer matters.

This is what conservative activists are advocating when they focus their efforts solely on the death penalty and refuse to discuss race—an approach that ultimately won’t do much to address the problems that plague our justice system.

According to journalist Anna Holmes, adopting a “colorblind” perspective means believing that “race relations are soon to be replaced as a major concern,” an attitude that often amounts to “an attempt by white people to liberate themselves from the burden of having to deal with [the U.S.’s racist historical] legacy.” This is what conservative activists are advocating when they focus their efforts solely on the death penalty and refuse to discuss race—an approach that ultimately won’t do much to address the problems that plague our justice system.

Worse yet, their steadfast refusal to acknowledge how the justice system maintains White supremacy facilitates the perpetuation of these systemic injustices. Their methods, especially the way they talk about incarcerated people, reinforces the idea that if you’ve committed a crime, your life is disposable. Marc Hyden, a former NRA representative now working for Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, says that “the question is not whether people who commit heinous crimes deserve to be executed – it’s whether we trust the government to efficiently and effectively carry that out.” Senator Caroline McGinn, a Republican fighting for death penalty abolition in Kansas, echoed this sentiment when, speaking about the death penalty, she “urged fellow legislators ‘to think outside the box’ for ways to save money.”

Their focus on fiscal responsibility highlights how the conservatives’ view of criminal justice reform has little to do with rehabilitation, and more to do with swiftly and efficiently keeping criminalized people out of sight and out of mind. Abolishing the death penalty will simply enable the state to continue doing this in the most cost-effective way possible.

The only exception, when conservative anti-death penalty activists have demonstrated significant interest in saving people on death row, seems to be when the condemned is the “right kind” of victim. When Black people are sentenced to die, these activists tend to focus on the injustice of capital punishment in abstract terms of fiscal irresponsibility and excessive governmental involvement, rather than the humanity of those the state wishes to kill. However, when White women are sentenced to die—especially when they’ve experienced a religious conversion—the story is often completely different. This is where the Economic and Religious Right have found a way to come together: both sides can make arguments against capital punishment that support their long-held principles, whether it’s fiscal restraint or the untouchable sanctity of White Christian womanhood.

For example, religious conservatives were vocally opposed to the execution of Karla Faye Tucker, who claimed to have a conversion experience in prison after murdering two people with a pickaxe. With key leaders of the Christian Right like Pat Robertson fighting for her release, she reached near-celebrity status. At the time of her death, polls showed that “despite Texans’ support for capital punishment, those who favor[ed] Tucker’s execution [were] a minority.” More recently, Kelly Gissendaner, another White woman on death row who converted to Christianity in prison, has found a similar outpouring of support from religious conservatives.

The problem is that only a fraction of the people whose lives are taken by the U.S. criminal justice system are White, Christian women. When conservative activism focuses on the humanity of these women but ignores the lives of everyone else, it supports the justice system’s broader lack of concern for the life and well-being of people of color.

If conservatives continue their misdirected advocacy without examining the structural inequalities at work within and outside the justice system, the abolition of the death penalty will be a hollow victory.

If other red states follow in Nebraska’s footsteps, the U.S. will gradually move closer to a national end to capital punishment. The 40 or so people executed by lethal injection each year will instead be sentenced to death by incarceration, but the question of whether any significant change will have been accomplished remains. If conservatives continue their misdirected advocacy without examining the structural inequalities at work within and outside the justice system, the abolition of the death penalty will be a hollow victory. All the mechanisms of mass incarceration will continue to operate as normal, or even with increased public support and fiscal and political resources. Undeniably racist policing and sentencing practices will continue to ensure that race remains a crucial determinant of who goes to jail and who doesn’t. Out of control incarceration rates will continue to tear families and communities apart, contributing to inescapable cycles of poverty that, in conjunction with discriminatory policies in housing, hiring, and lending, make recidivism nearly impossible to avoid. Incarcerated queer and transgender people of color will still be disproportionately subject to sexual violence, often at the hands of prison guards who will never face legal consequences. Incarcerated people will still be denied adequate medical care and could even face coerced sterilization. And prison guards will continue to employ solitary confinement as a means of punishment and control, a process that amounts to nothing short of torture, yet is used with startling frequency. These are the awful, everyday realities of the U.S. justice system, built upon centuries of systemic discrimination, none of which will be disrupted by conservative anti-death penalty activism.

Working to end capital punishment and move toward a less punitive justice system can still be worthwhile, but only if these reforms are part of a much broader strategy to root out White supremacy—in our criminal justice system, and throughout society.

Charleston & Chattanooga: How “Hatred” Hides History

On July 16th, a 24 year old man attacked 2 military sites in Tennessee with a gun, killing 4 people before dying himself.  A month earlier, on June 17th, a 21 year old man shot 9 worshippers at an historic Black church in South Carolina, and fled the scene before being arrested the next day.  According to media reports, both perpetrators are young men who have had trouble finding a productive direction for their lives and may have had substance use problems. And in both cases their visible social circles did not expect or support their turn to violence.  In addition, these young men reportedly come from families that do not share their political or religious beliefs; Mohammod Abdulazeez’s family has assimilated to American society while maintaining Muslim practices, and Dylann Roof’s parents and grandparents live comfortably in racially diverse contexts.

The Charleston and Chattanooga shooters had very similar lives and stories. Yet one's actions are labeled as terrorism, and the other's as "hate."

The Charleston and Chattanooga shooters had very similar lives and stories. Yet one’s actions are labeled as terrorism, and the others’ as “hate.”

Despite the personal similarities, these two instances of lethal violence have been characterized in the media and national discourse in very different ways. The language of terrorism and search for ties to Muslim movements in the Middle East has come into play immediately in the Abdulazeez case, although (as of this writing) it is still unclear how this will unfold.  In contrast, the language of “hate” quickly dominated in regard to Roof, in the context of growing evidence of connections to White supremacist organizations.

In legal terms, both ‘terrorism’ and ‘hate crime’ are additions to existing charges, and bring enhanced penalties in the event of conviction.  In cultural terms, these are two very different frameworks for motivation, particularly in regard to political context for action.

Setting aside legal technicalities, hatred is an emotion while terrorism is intrinsically a political act.  Hatred may be a motivation for action, including actions classifiable as terrorism, but the language of emotion focuses our attention on the individual and his/her inner life.  In regard to Dylann Roof’s assault on the Emmanuel AME church, the language of ‘hatred’ certainly reflects the emotions many Americans associate with the racist symbols Roof used, but it deflects attention away from the profoundly political structure of White violence against African Americans throughout U.S. history.

The FBI defines terrorism as violent or dangerous acts that appear intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population, or to influence policy and/or conduct of government.  It is still unclear what motivated the assault on two military sites, but a solo young man armed with a gun has little ability to influence government to act according to his beliefs.  The assassination of nine worshippers at an historically significant Black church on a day with particular resonance for that church has a much greater potential to “intimidate or coerce a civilian population,” regardless of whether or not Roof was acting at the direction of established White supremacist organizations.  His actions exist in an historical continuum of White violence against Black communities – with both the motivation and consequence of intimidation, marginalization, and coercion of various kinds.  The rash of arsons at Black churches in the weeks that followed provides a concrete reminder of the ways that individual actions embody collective processes, regardless of whether the individuals involved coordinate their actions.

The category of ‘terrorism’ has expanded and been used in profoundly problematic ways over the past 20 years, with camping trips redefined as jihadi training and pervasive surveillance of ordinary life in Muslim communities. However, we need to carefully scrutinize how use of the word ‘hatred’ can obscure political violence.  The systematic assaults on African American communities now and in the past may or may not reflect personal hatred, but they have unambiguously political motivations as well as consequences.  The language of hatred obscures political and historical context by directing attention to the personal situation and emotions of specific perpetrators, a process that individualizes actions that follow clear systemic patterns. Dylann Roof’s online manifesto and website provide more evidence of political beliefs, however repulsive, than of personal animosity.

In my recent research report “Terror Network or Lone Wolf”in The Public Eye magazine,  I argue that the “lone wolf” label obscures substantial evidence of movement affiliations among the vast majority of right-wing terrorists who act alone or with one other person:

Research has shown that, at the time they engage in political violence, the majority of so-called lone wolves are over 30 years old, and have had significant histories of participation in Hard Right movements.”

While Roof is younger and less experienced than this profile would predict, his writing, photographs, and even his words in the church before the shooting place him solidly inside an extended lineage of White racist violence which includes lynchings, the KKK, and countless assaults on Black churches and ministers.  Roof told the worshippers at Emmanuel AME church that one of the reasons he was going to shoot them was because Black men rape White women, an accusation with a horrifying history in relation to lynching.  The recent film Selma depicts the horrific 1963 bombing of a Birmingham church that killed 4 young girls, providing a visceral reminder of the use of assaults on Black churches as a tactic to instill fear in Black activists and communities.

“Terrorism” may or may not prove to be a useful framework or label for the actions of Dylann Roof and other violent White supremacists, but “hatred” is clearly inadequate as an explanation for recurrent patterns of action that span decades, if not centuries.   We should also question whether “terrorism” is the most useful or accurate label for the actions of a young Muslim with a complicated family history and well-documented  substance abuse and mental health issues.

The Continuing Appeal of Racism and Fascism

My recent PRA article “Drawing Lines Against Racism and Fascism” documented how cryptofascists and pro-White separatists are attempting to make inroads into progressive political and counter-cultural circles. It was based on a number of recent incidents where conflicts had arisen between antifascists and these untraditional Far Right activists. However, the dynamic I wrote about is so common that soon after the article was published, new events were reported in the media, and readers—who were previously unknown to me—shared their stories of similar encounters.

Some of these incidents came to light as comments on Walter Reeves’s Daily Kos post, “Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing; Racism, Anti-Semitism and Fascism: Infiltrating the Left,” which was based on “Drawing Lines.” In the lively discussion thread that followed, one commenter talked about encountering anti-Federal Reserve conspiracy theories (laced with anti-Semitism) at Occupy Wall Street, while a second had run into fascists in discussion circles about “ancient history and religion.”

The comments also revealed a more serious situation, involving a neo-Nazi man who regularly attends an atheist group’s meetings. One commenter wrote (in their own Daily Kos blog) that: “He seems to have a single focus: to bring up one of his many offensive topics (wildly racist ideology, holocaust denial, women should not be allowed to vote, gay bashing, praising Hitler…).” The blogger said the neo-Nazi continuously offended existing members with his comments and scared off new ones. His past forcible incarceration in a state mental health facility, along with his claims of gun ownership, intimidated the organizers enough that they were unable to stop his repeated disruption of the group.

Situations like the one involving this atheist group are complicated to deal with. But they underscore why progressive groups should both be prepared for such encounters, and have a plan ready to deal with them—comparable to having an evacuation route set and go bag ready for emergencies: you will probably never need it, but if you do, you’ll be glad it’s there.

“Drawing Lines” also recounted the story of a formerly imprisoned eco-activist who seems to have converted to a form of mystical fascism, and is now promoting his ideas in Pacific Northwest counter-cultural music scenes. Less than a week after my piece published, another former eco-prisoner—who also has converted to racist political views—popped back up. In 2008, while still in prison, this other activist was outed as having embraced racist ideology, and supporters cut ties with him. Now out of prison, an anti-fascist group put out a warning that he was attempting to worm his way back into the Seattle activist scene, particularly in animal liberation and Cascadian independence circles—both of which I had pointed to as targets of Far Right participation and/or cross-recruitment.

Interest by racists in the Cascadian independence movement (in the U.S. Pacific Northwest and Canada’s British Columbia) has produced a reaction from antifascists.

Interest by racists in the Cascadian independence movement (in the U.S. Pacific Northwest and Canada’s British Columbia) has produced a reaction from antifascists.

Less than two weeks after “Drawing Lines” was published, Ryan Giroux was arrested after a rampage in Mesa, Arizona, which left one dead and five injured. He is a skinhead who has been associated with the Hammerskins and Aryan Brotherhood, two of the most violent U.S. racist organizations. An old mugshot was circulated, showing him with a Thor’s Hammer tattooed on his face—a symbol associated with neopagan Heathenism (also discussed in “Drawing Lines”). While Giroux’s religious beliefs are unknown, the potential for the media to associate violent racism with the Heathen religious community as a whole prompted a quick response from Heathens United Against Racism (HUAR). They issued a statement saying their members “denounce Giroux, his associates, and any others who assisted him in perpetrating his terrible actions. … We call on all Heathens and Pagans to join us in standing for a Heathenry that is all-inclusive, genuinely tolerant, unquestionably opposed to bigotry, and rejects all who would co-opt our spiritual practice to advance their narrow-minded, dead-end, hateful agendas along with those who enable their continued presence.” HUAR also called for the ejection of supporters of the “racialist corruption of Heathen practice” and promised support for the Giroux’s victims.

No group (especially a minority religion) should be collectively held responsible for, or be obligated to denounce, the actions of individual adherents. However, if they do choose to respond to media coverage, HUAR’s statement—emerging from a community that is specifically targeted for recruitment from organized racists—is a solid example to follow.

Other instances of this phenomena were in Europe, but related to U.S. politics. The day after “Drawing Lines” was published, the U.S. government showed it was also following developments in post-Third Position fascism. In relation to the ongoing violence in Ukraine, which has spilled over into the United States, the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control added Aleksandr Dugin to its sanctions list. Dugin promotes an aggressively expansionist form of Russian ultranationalism, derived from fascist strains like Third Positionism and the European New Right. In the United States, he is supported by New Resistance (which is named in my article), and is a former member of Russia’s National Bolshevik Party. In 2008, I wrote in The Public Eye magazine about this party’s popularity in post-Communist Russia, saying “the National Bolsheviks remain a powerful political movement today with a huge grassroots and youth base. As they grow older, they will remain influential in Russian politics for decades.”

Today, the U.S. government seems to agree with my assessment.

Finally, a number of people pointed out a situation in Britain that matched what I wrote in “Drawing Lines,” about the presence of people of color in groups that are explicitly inclusive of fascists, or promote or endorse White separatism. In this British situation, an animal rights declaration (called Non-Humans First) was written by a well-known animal rights activist, who is also a person of color. The declaration asks signatories to welcome racists into its fold, saying explicitly that “No one should be excluded from participation in animal rights activities based on their views on human issues.” (Signatories include groups which say they are based in Israel and Latin America.) The NHF declaration comes in the context of Far Right activists wanting to become involved in British animal rights activism. 

British animal rights activists opposed to a badger cull rejected calls to join forces with activists who were linked to Far Right groups.

British animal rights activists opposed to a badger cull rejected calls to join forces with activists who were linked to Far Right groups.

One comment (made in response to an article that denounces NHF), highlights a conceptual point in “Drawing Lines.” The commenter, defending NHF, wrote that people who “are racist and believe in racial separation…should be for allowing animals their separation from the human race.” This illustrates how newer forms of White separatism differ from White supremacists in approaching and appealing to normally non-racist political, social, and cultural movements; therefore, separatists and supremacists should not be treated synonymously.

These recent examples show how similar situations are more common than one might think. What I showed in “Drawing Lines” is that, while Left-Right crossover movements are not uncommon, these new forms—such as individual people of color arguing for working with fascists under an inclusive umbrella that respects “diversity”—present new problems for progressive activists to wrangle with. While not always easy, I hope that “Drawing Lines” can help activists understand why this phenomena came about, and encourage them to make policies and plans with how to deal with these forms of cross-recruitment and participation by Far Right activists and their enablers.

Ed note. If you witness Far Right participation or cross-recruiting in progressive political circles, send me a tip: s.sunshine@politicalresearch.org.

 

Racist Nevada Assemblyman Ira Hansen’s Long Family History of Reactionary Third-Party Politics

Assemblyman Ira Hansen (R) stepped down as speaker-elect of the Nevada Assembly on Sunday, following national publicity of a report on his racist and misogynistic columns in a local newspaper—including his labeling of Black people as “simple minded darkies.”  But given that memories are short, and politicians’ ambitions never die, this may be a good time to discuss  the Hansen families’ 50+ year history of right-wing third party politics, from George Wallace’s 1968 presidential campaign to the present.

Nevada Assemblyman Ira Hansen

Nevada Assemblyman Ira Hansen

Hansen is denouncing the “orchestrated attack” on his character, claiming that the inflammatory quotes are 20 years old and taken out of context—his use of the word “negro” in lower case in reference to President Obama is not two decades old—but it is true that national press failed to provide context for Hansen’s rapid rise to prominence in Nevada’s GOP.

The Independent American Party of Nevada

The Hansen clan, including Ira Hansen’s father, grandmother, aunt, and uncles, and other relatives, are practically synonymous with the state’s third largest party, the Independent American Party (IAP). The IAP in Nevada has included in its ranks Sharron Angle, who later ran for Senate as a Republican, and Cliven Bundy, who publicly abandoned the GOP and signed his registration form at an IAP event held in his honor in May, 2014. The IAP is the fastest growing party in Nevada, now with over 70,000 members and doubling in size since 2005.

"The

The John Birch Society (JBS) tried but failed to build GOP support for a 1968 presidential ticket with Ezra Taft Benson and Strom Thurmond for vice president. Benson was one of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles of the Mormon (LDS) church and the former Secretary of Agriculture in Eisenhower’s administration. After the attempt failed, the JBS played a significant role in getting George Wallace on state ballots as the American Independent Party presidential candidate. Wallace asked Benson to be his running mate, but LDS President David O. McKay either strongly advising him to decline, as published in 1968 by the Bell-McClure Syndicate for newspapers, or refused to grant him permission, as indicated in an article in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, by D. Michael Quinn and based on letters in the Wilkinson Papers at Brigham Young University. Daniel Hansen was one of many John Birch Society members who campaigned for George Wallace in western states and was one of Wallace’s many Mormon supporters. Wallace won five Southern states and 13.7 percent of the vote in Nevada. Ezra Taft Benson, whose work to align the church and JBS in the 1960s was controversial, would become the 13th LDS Prophet and President in 1985.

The Party was founded by Ira’s father, Daniel Hansen, as part of an effort to get Alabama Governor George Wallace, a hardcore segregationist, on the ballot in Nevada for the 1968 presidential election. (See the sidebar about the role of Daniel’s fellow John Birch Society members and Mormon leadership in campaigning for Wallace in Western states.)  The IAP of Nevada was affiliated with the American Independent Party (AIP) in the 1960s and 70s, and later with the theocratic Constitution Party.

Daniel Hansen was the runner up in balloting for the vice presidential slot on the ticket with Gov. Lester Maddox in 1976, and would run unsuccessfully in Nevada for Governor and Congress before his death in a car accident in 2002. The IAP would continue, with Daniel’s sister Janine and brothers Christopher and Joel, also running as perennial IAP candidates.

The Hansens have been leading culture warriors in the fight against women’s and LGBTQ rights.  Led by Janine, the Hansens organized the STOP ERA [Equal Rights Amendment] movement in the western states. Janine continues today as the leader of Nevada’s Eagle Forum and as the Constitutional Issues Chairman of the national organization founded by Phyllis Schlafly. Janine has published a voter guide since 1988 and lobbies the Nevada Assembly on behalf of Eagle Forum.

Daniel Hansen wrote that homosexuals are “termites of civilization [who] have brazenly oozed out of their closet to proclaim that they have a right to maim, molest and embarrass society.” In 1994, the IAP published a 16-page advertising insert for local papers titled “The Homosexual Agenda Exposed,” promoting an amendment to the Nevada constitution that would permanently legalize LGBTQ discrimination. Talking Points Memo described it as including “virtually every homophobic myth ever conceived” after obtaining a copy during investigation of Angle’s role in the IAP.

By the 1990s, the Nevada IAP affiliated with the Constitution Party.  Daniel served as Western States Chairman for the national party, followed by Janine who represented Michael Peroutka’s presidential campaign at the Alaskan Independence Party convention in 2004.  She continues as Western States Chairman in the national party today.  (Peroutka has been featured in PRA articles concerning his successful infiltration of the Maryland Republican Party and election to an influential county council position.)

Janine and Christopher Hansen were behind a 2006 schism in the Constitution Party. The Hansens are Mormon (LDS) and Christopher, as the IAP candidate for governor, ran on a platform opposing abortion which included the Mormon church’s support of exceptions for rape, incest, and the life of the mother, as documented in Janine’s voter guide. This was unacceptable to some of the Constitution Party leadership, since the party adheres to a strict written policy “opposing abortion 100%, no exceptions.”  In the power struggle that followed, the Hansens and IAP were not expelled from the national party, and nine state parties disaffiliated in protest. Ironically, those states included Maryland, resulting in Peroutka being essentially locked out of the party which he had represented in the presidential election.

Ira Hansen himself has expressed disdain for his relatives’ third party efforts, complaining that “IAP candidates can only be spoilers and never win any major races themselves.” Only Ira, running as a Republican, has achieved success beyond a local office.  “I don’t want anyone to think I have anything to do with the Independent American Party,” stated Hansen, according to the Las Vegas Sun, which described him as not wanting his fellow Republicans to wonder whether he belongs to the GOP just to get elected. He disassociates himself from his relative’s IAP activity, even getting up from his seat and walking out of the Assembly when his Aunt Janine was testifying. 

The Battle for the Soul of the GOP

But Ira Hansen wouldn’t be the first politician to join the GOP out of expediency.  Sharron Angle joined the IAP and worked with the Hansens in circulating petitions to the get the party back onto the state ballot in 1992. Talking Points Memo interviewed three IAP members, including Janine Hansen, who described Angle’s departure in 1997 as a strategic move in order to run for office.

Ira Hansen’s critiques of the GOP sound much like those of his late father. In a 2014 interview, Ira claimed that it was Nevada Republicans who doomed Sharron Angle’s run for the Senate, and joined radio host Janet Mefferd in bemoaning what they described as the party establishment’s “leftward drift.”

Ira Hansen also appears to share his relative’s views on state’s rights and their admiration for Cliven Bundy—who gained notoriety after refusing to pay the fees for letting his cows graze on public land for decades, although the notoriety was short-lived after he made some incredibly racist comments on Fox News.

Janine Hansen welcomed Bundy into the IAP and described him as “her hero” in May, at an event honoring him for his “courage in standing up for state sovereignty.”  Bundy spoke for more than a half hour, calling for states to take over the federal land within their boundaries, including national parks.

Ira Hansen joined several other Assembly members in calling for the Nevada Attorney General to conduct an investigation of the Bureau of Land Management following its standoff with Bundy. “Whatever Mr. Bundy’s unfortunate comments [addressing the racist remarks] were, Mr Bundy is really not the issue per se,” Hansen told local news. “It was the overreaction by the Bureau of Land Management.” He is a co-sponsor of a bill in the Assembly creating a task force to “conduct a study addressing the transfer of public lands from the Federal Government to the State of Nevada.”

Like Bundy, Ira Hansen has also been fighting authorities for decades.  He is a professional trapper and refuses to pay fines accumulated for violations to the Nevada Department of Wildlife.  In this, Hansen echoes his Uncle Christopher who touts his refusal to file income taxes and made himself “Presiding Sovereign” over a political-religious entity called “The First Christian Fellowship of Eternal Sovereignty.”  The organization of about 650 “patriot saints” uses their “Testament of Sovereignty” to fight OSHA, the IRS, and other county, state, and federal entities.

In 2008, Ira Hansen and several relatives joined a local Nevada camp of the Sons of the Confederate Veterans (SCV), advertised as the largest SCV camp outside of the South.  A 2009 SCV newsletter includes a reprint of a column by Hansen titled “The Confederate Battle Flag – Symbol of Manly Courage.” (The SCV newsletter points out that Hansen knows the Stars and Bars was not the Confederate battle flag, but that he’s trying to connect with those not aware of this distinction.)

In the column Ira Hansen reveals he does his writing in a room adorned with a Confederate flag, but it’s the following paragraph that confirms his allegiance to state’s rights:

“Anyone who has read the Confederate Constitution, studied the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, read Calhoun’s arguments on nullification and delved into the ideology behind the attempts at seceding knows the Southern position represents the original intent of the majority of our founding fathers. The death of the Confederacy was in fact the death of Federalism, the division of power between the equal States with a common, intentionally weak central government handling primarily the foreign affairs and general needs of this union of states known as the United States of America. By way of contrast, today, as Nevadans know oh so well, the central ‘Federal’ government is an almost unbridled and an increasingly dangerous power, while the states have become practically impotent.”

Hansen also co-sponsored a 2001 bill in the State Assembly claiming state sovereignty under the Tenth Amendment, and demanding the federal government “cease and desist, effectively immediately, mandates that are beyond the scope of these constitutionally delegated powers.”

In a year when the party establishment was supposedly outflanking the Tea Party wing, Ira Hansen’s rapid rise to prominence in the Nevada Republican Party indicates the ongoing appeal of the reactionary politics embraced by the Hansen family over the last half century.

For more on the growth of neo-Confederate ideology see Nullification, Neo-Confederates and the Revenge of the Old Right.

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