The Montana Human Rights Network

Fighting the Far Right with Research

About Abby Scher

In April 2005, Kevin McGuire, an engineering student at the local state university, ran for the Bozeman, Mon. elementary school board. He was a newcomer in town, hailing from Santa Rosa, Calif., and part of the white flight flowing into the state. His parents had bought him a house. At one point, McGuire walked around with a swastika shaved into his head.

The summer before, the town was in an uproar because someone was anonymously spreading flyers from the National Alliance, a white supremacist, anti-Jewish group. The flyer featured a big photo of a child under the headline “Missing: A Future for White Children,” like children on milk cartons. “There will be no future for her in the Third World America that our nation’s enemies are planning…”

Then in the run up to the Presidential election, Bozeman residents received a National Alliance election guide denouncing globalization, the loss of American jobs to the third world, the shrinking white population, and US-waged Zionist wars. Like other fascist literature, the flyers mixed widely held concerns with anti-Semitic conspiracies: “George Bush … cynically used the tragedy of September 11th to silence dissent and to launch the war for Israel his Zionist neocon handlers wanted.”

People wondered who was tucking neo-Nazi literature in their corner of Montana paradise. Bozeman is a cow town turned university center, whose 30,000 residents include wealthy folks drawn by the beauty. Everybody was talking. Some people started organizing. That summer, they reinvigorated the Gallatin Human Rights Task Force.

By December, their mystery was solved. At a City Council meeting that month, Kevin McGuire “came out” as the town’s National Alliance representative. At the same meeting, human rights activists presented a petition with almost 1000 names calling on the council to denounce the flyers, which it did. A month later, more than 1000 people marched in the bitter cold through the heart of Bozeman to celebrate Martin Luther King’s birthday and visibly show that white supremacy does not belong there. And the Bozeman School Board approved a resolution proposed by the Gallatin Valley Human Rights Task Force saying “All Are Welcome Here.”

McGuire’s candidacy, which he based on discrimination against European Americans in the school curriculum, inspired double the usual turnout in the school district race. He was soundly trounced, winning 3.6% of the ballots in the April election – 157 votes out of just over 4200 cast. Thanks at least in part to the Gallatin Human Rights Task Force.

There are many strands to the story of how the Gallatin Human Rights Task Force marginalized McGuire’s white supremacist program — while organizing for gay and other civil rights — in their town. But let us focus in on one piece — how research is a vital part of their organizing. Research helps lower the fear of residents, informs activists for their interviews with the media, disarms the arguments of the far right and keeps conspiracy theories that interfere with organizing at bay.

Some local activists do their own research, but in Bozeman’s case one of the leaders of the Gallatin Human Rights Task Force was Stacey Haugland, a board member of the Montana Human Rights Network. So she knew the Network would have the background on the National Alliance and could help place McGuire in the political firmament.

“The biggest support we got from them was huge amounts of research,” said Haugland. Haugland, a nurse/midwife, originally became involved with the Human Rights Network when she was targeted by anti-abortion activists with “Wanted Dead or Alive” posters while serving as a very visible abortion provider in Bozeman. “Travis [McAdam, the Network research director] showed up and said: this is their history.”

The Montana Human Rights Network also informed the Bozeman group of successful tactics used to fight white supremacists in other towns, like the need to reach out to congregations and do interfaith organizing, and not to compromise with racism.

From McAdam, they learned the National Alliance —which by the summer of 2005 fell into disarray from leadership squabbles — had a history of violence. That is part of their attraction. And in McAdams’ two visits to Bozeman, they learned the National Alliance is distinctive among white supremacist groups because it has a source of income in Resistance Records, a white power music label. They also try to “mainstream” themselves by putting the overt racist or anti-Semitic language in the closet to present themselves as a benign “European rights” organization — just as McGuire attempted to do by talking about “European Americans” in his school board race. And they learned that literature drops are the National Alliance’s calling card.

“It announces the National Alliance is around and it really puts the people National Alliance doesn’t like on notice and puts a degree of fear in them,” McAdam explained.

Just receiving that information on literature drops ratcheted down the fear in the area.

“People said, ‘oh I’m so glad whole neighborhoods received them,'” McAdam recalled. “‘I thought I was being targeted.’ — either because they are liberal, or Jewish, or a son or daughter is married to a person of color…”

The Montana Human Rights Network also shared the experiences of dozens of other struggles throughout Montana — a magnet for far right groups — and the northwest, relying on research by colleagues at Southern Poverty Law Center in Atlanta, and Political Research Associates in Boston [see box].

Based in the state capitol, the Network has affiliated human rights groups in towns across the state, and two staff organizers who support their development, along with someone assigned with representing their interests in the state legislature. “Our research component differentiates us from other groups doing community organizing in the state,” McAdam explains. “So when something happens, we’ve seen it before. So we are able to go into the community that is facing some sort of crisis situation and we can say, ‘here is what is going on.'”

“The Montana Human Rights Network provides historical perspective and organizing advice,” Haugland agreed. “They say, well, in Billings, this is what happened.”

In 1993, Billings made headlines for challenging anti-Semitism and white supremacy when the whole town stood up against the harassment of Jewish and native American residents (as seen in the documentary Not In Our Town). On the advice of the Human Rights Network, the Gallatin Human Rights Task Force brought in a leader from Billings, Margaret McDonald of the Montana Association of Churches. With McDonald’s support and advice, the interfaith organizing in Bozeman has created rich relationships and strong, visible statements of solidarity among Mormons, Sikhs, Jews, Protestants and Catholics. The tolerance can extend to gays and lesbians. A woman student marveled that at a recent Holocaust memorial hosted by the Mormon congregation, her Mormon professor asked to meet her girlfriend.

Another piece of organizing advice given by Ken Toole, the codirector of the Montana Human Rights Network, was: Give no quarter. Other encounters with the far right show that you must confront each individual even if they seem isolated, Toole said. Otherwise your Montana town will seem attractive to other group members who will then flow in from out-of-state; you don’t want one to become many. And bargaining with them does not work — as Toole said, how do you bargain over white supremacy? You need to create a sense in the community that this is outside social bonds and bounds.

Research brings in experience and tactics to help organize a community response. It provides activists with the brute facts and context for understanding what you are in the middle of. Those able to deploy that research are better able to win media attention from reporters seeking “both sides” of the story. And research itself can become part of the organizing strategy, as people contribute to the knowledge of what is happening in their town and gain a small sense of control in the process. But it has no impact on its own unless residents create new relationships with people they’ve never spoken with before to create a positive view of the town.

As Tarso Luis Ramos, former research director of the Western States Center in Portland, Ore., once remarked, research isn’t a “silver bullet.” It will not discredit the opposition on its own and make them shrivel up and go away.

Research is also more effective when local activists are part of the research team.

McAdam, as research director of the Montana Human Rights Network, does a lot of the “opposition research” on the right that local activists use to counter its influence. A native of Great Falls, Mon., he tracks far right groups in his state and their members, partly through their public statements in newspapers and websites, partly by attending their events, but also with the help of activists in small towns around the state who call in with information.

Seeing McAdam in action is seeing a community enterprise. For instance, since 2000, he has tracked threats and attacks from the far right on environmentalists in the Flathead area in the north of the state in an attempt to stimulate attention from the media and law enforcement. Kate Hunt, a sculptor whose activist role in the Flathead seems to be local researcher, continues to call McAdam regularly and send him recordings of a local hate radio jock that she monitors while working in her studio.

McAdam’s published research on the threats in the Flathead, created with the help of people like Hunt, helped win media attention to the problem by providing credible expert testimony. But the police only got heavily involved once they were threatened directly themselves. The documentary Fire Next Time, broadcast in July on public television’s POV, documents this dynamic, and relied on Montana Human Rights Network research [see box].

McAdam’s next report will be on McGuire, tracking more of the white supremacist’s background, the names of the other members of his Bozeman group — once again with the help of the locals. “I get a lot of calls, tips — ‘I saw this guy handing out National Alliance literature. I got a license plate.’ I sort fact from fiction.”

With the other Human Rights Network staff, he builds an analysis of what is going on, so that they provide a context and not just “the facts” for those who need it. By telling a larger story that stitches together an understanding of how far right groups have an impact despite their tiny numbers, they inoculate against left-wing conspiracy theories.

One social context is the broader field of electoral politics: how far right ideas against planning and for inviolate property rights (ideas that cast environmentalists as fascists trying to take away people’s rights), move “from margin to mainstream” as Toole puts it. A Human Rights Network study from 2000 charts the rise of the Constitution Party in Montana with exactly those politics, bringing together what McAdam calls “the wackiest of the Christian Right with the antigovernment politics of the militia movement.” In 2004, a local candidate from the Constitution Party secured 40% of the vote for a seat in the statehouse representing the Flathead area.

Last spring, McAdam prepared a backgrounder for a state legislative committee on the “Sheriff ‘s First” bill that would have designated sheriffs as the only legitimate law in a county — requiring the federal government to secure their permission before operating within its borders. His research traced the bill’s roots in the far right’s idea of “posse comitatus” and local sovereignty.

“We have a very comprehensive concept of the right, all the way from the Republican Party to the kooky far right. And so we track how those kooky ideas come into the mainstream,” says McAdam. “That differentiates us from those who see these groups as dangerous because they’ll occasionally blow something up.”

What is striking when talking to local activists in Montana is that they are desperate for information about the individual who has come into their town (who is Kevin McGuire?) or a particular group (who is the National Alliance?). It is personal to them. You can see the attraction of providing one of Ramos’ “silver bullets,” perhaps one of those old-style spider web charts that suggest guilt by association. The Human Rights Network provides that detail, but doesn’t stop there and offers activists an analysis of why and when the far right’s views are potent.

New Research Directions

At a June leadership retreat sponsored by the Montana Human Rights Network on the outskirts of Yellowstone Park, the staff posed the role of research in a totally different context — building political power in the state.

This proactive stance is totally in keeping with the Network’s program. A few years ago, it expanded from opposing the far right in the state to more deeply challenging the ills that make that form of politics attractive to residents who are economically disenfranchised. To promote broader access to health care or widespread planning to preserve the environment against far right anti-planning sentiment, Toole and his codirector Christine Kaufman both ran for the state legislature — and won. Their leadership retreat brought together legislators and advocates for training and strategizing.

“The Nazis [like Kevin McGuire] give us the opportunity to have a whole lot of people in the room,” explained Toole. “But you got groups that are a mile wide and an inch deep.” Coalitions have been known to dissolve once the agenda expands to promoting civil rights for gays and lesbians. In wrestling with the quandary of how to build a broader progressive base, he and his allies turned to research for help. But in this context, it is not just research on a particular far right group or tactics in fighting it, but on the strongly felt sentiments of voters and potential voters in the state.

“The reason research is so important is how are we going to build power if we don’t know where we are starting from,” said Greg Haegele, Deputy Conservation Director with the Sierra Club in San Francisco who ran the retreat’s research discussion. He is no stranger to the issue in Montana, having generated data while running political campaigns in the state and while serving as director of a policy institute formed by the Human Rights Network.

Without research that illuminates the landscape, campaigners would be working blind, or with old information derived from past experience. Montana is deeply polarized, and confusing. It has slightly more registered Republicans than Democrats, yet elected a Democratic governor and Democratic senators, while backing Bush in 2004.

Yet the form of research Haegele is talking about is not the standard “opinion” polling done by parties in an election year or the parties’ nasty style of “opposition research” where they try to dig up dirt on their rivals. These research techniques evade the deep context that those truly engaged with challenging the far right feel is so necessary to understand if they are to communicate beyond the shallow truisms of progressives. And polls often miss the subcultures governing a small state like Montana, where a gun toting hunter of Democratic candidate like Brian Schweitzer was just elected governor.

“On the progressive side, I don’t think we have pollsters who can get at the deepest issues,” said Haegele. “We’re really focused on the appearance level.”

He says what is actually needed is to understand the deeply motivating feelings of people that he calls “public sentiment,” feelings which go beyond the issues captured in “public opinion” polls, around cultural issues, the role of government, etc.

Without good research, progressives are tempted to fight “the battle you didn’t choose,” or whatever pops up in front of them. Or you assume low-income voters are with you — without looking at current information. “If you don’t know where you are, you aren’t going to spend your resources wisely about where you want to go.”

Still some in the room wanted to understand the bolt and tackle of the right.

“We don’t spend the time to study the other side to know why they are effective,” said Jason Miller, a leader with the state carpenters’ union.” Locally what moves them? How do they run their campaigns? Where does all the money come from and how does it get dispersed?”

Another job for Travis McAdam of the Montana Human Rights Network.

Groups researching the Right
in support of organizing:

  • People for the American Way
  • Center for New Community, Chicago
  • Montana Human Rights Network, Helena
  • Political Research Associates, Boston
  • Southern Poverty Law Center, Atlanta
  • Texas Freedom Network, Austin

Fighting Hate in the Flathead

The story of how a homegrown militia, a local hate radio personality named John Stokes and anti-environmental sentiments created a volatile threat to progressive activists and town officials in the northern Montana area called the Flathead is told in “The Fire Next Time: A Not in Our Town Special” broadcast in July on PBS’s POV.

Created by Patrice O’Neill, executive producer of The Working Group based in Oakland, Calif., it is a follow up to her 1995 documentary, “Not in Our Town.” This first documentary showed how residents of Billings challenged local white supremacists, and has been used in local organizing and town discussions ever since. In creating both, O’Neill drew upon Montana Human Rights Network research, and she continues to read its newsletter to keep track of the far Right in the state.

“The thing that they had done so effectively is that they had been monitoring John Stokes’ radio show for a number of years. They were able to look at repeated patterns, to get a gauge on what is going on there, and quote accurately,” O’Neill said.

John Stokes is a former real estate developer from Washington state who bought a Flathead radio station and broadcast the location of local environmentalists with the invitation to go after them. As locals called the Montana Human Rights Network about the problem, its staff put them in touch with each other and helped them form a group to challenge the threatening atmosphere that had public officials and environmental advocates frightened for their lives. That group included Kate Hunt, a local sculptor who worked with Network researcher Travis McAdam in monitoring John Stokes’ hate radio broadcasts and continues to send him tapes.

“Travis McAdam did a wonderful job and cataloged [Stokes’ broadcasts] really well,” O’Neill said. “You often don’t have it recorded: People say, ‘Oh, I heard so and so on the radio.’ Well what exactly did they say and when?”

Throughout O’Neill’s documentary you hear Stokes’ radio threats that were catalogued by the Montana Human Rights Network.

Abby Scher is a sociologist and former editorial director of PRA. She also served as PRA’s interim research director.