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Since President Obama’s election, there’s been a surge in hate crimes, political murders and assassination threats in this country. Right-wing militias are on the rise in several states, and high rates of unemployment have further stoked anger against racial minorities and recent immigrants. Independent filmmakers Rick Rowley and Jacquie Soohen go inside the white nationalist movement to file an exclusive report.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, independent filmmakers Rick Rowley and Jacquie Soohen went inside the white nationalist movement to investigate the backlash. This is an excerpt of their short documentary White Power USA that aired in full on Al Jazeera English. The full piece is available on the Al Jazeera website and on the Big Noise Films website. It includes some disturbing language.
- RICK ROWLEY: In
this shed in the middle of the Arizona desert, the White Knights of
America are hosting a festival of white supremacist skinhead culture.
Here and across the country, white power groups say they are energized
and growing. For them, Obama’s election and the economic meltdown are
wake-up calls for white America and catalysts for the coming race war.
They say white pride is their only defense in an insecure and changing
CHARLES, STORMTROOP 16: But America is in crisis. I’m petrified whether I’m working the next day or not. And it’s — this is all we got. This is the last thing we got to stand on, man.
RICK ROWLEY: Charles is the lead singer for Stormtroop 16, one of the most popular bands on the Aryan skinhead circuit. He says they give voice to a silent majority that is afraid to say what it really feels about race.
CHARLES, STORMTROOP 16: This country and this entire world is full of closet racists who lack the courage to even say they’re even proud to be white, because they are sheep, and they are being led to the slaughter, man.
RICK ROWLEY: Like many in the white nationalist movement, he talks in apocalyptic terms about the future of the white race.
CHARLES, STORMTROOP 16: And we have such a huge following of people that are so incensed about this because I believe that they think that this is the ends coming, man. We were born to hate.
RICK ROWLEY: Skinheads are one of the most aggressively violent nodes in a constellation of groups that make up the white nationalist movement. There are an estimated 30,000 hardcore white nationalists and 250,000 active sympathizers in America today, according to watchdog groups. But white supremacist influence may be far greater than these numbers suggest.
LEONARD ZESKIND: They are preparing for battles of the future. And unless we prepare for those battles in the future, we’re going to get blindsided.
RICK ROWLEY: Leonard Zeskind has tracked white nationalism for decades and recently published a comprehensive history of the movement based on his life’s work. He warns that though the white supremacist groups may appear to be marginal, they exploit and enflame racial divisions that run through all of American culture, and they are moving from the margins to the mainstream.
LEONARD ZESKIND: Now it’s a broader political problem than it was, say, thirty years ago. And so, it’s a cause for greater concern. There’s a sense of white dispossession among a certain strata of the white population. They feel like this used to be their country, they ran it, and now they don’t. And they want their country back.
RICK ROWLEY: Zeskind maps a network of right-wing organizations that is adapting in order to expand its foothold in mainstream American politics. In recent years, hundreds of new groups and websites have sprung up across the country looking for issues that can make their racial politics relevant to more white Americans.
LEONARD ZESKIND: Particularly with the anti-immigrant movement, the white nationalists have managed to find a vehicle into the creation of public policy.
RICK ROWLEY: White nationalists see the anti-immigrant movement as a bridge into mainstream politics. And ground zero for that movement is here in the deserts and mountains of Arizona. Six years ago, right-wing militias began organizing here along the Mexican border. They quickly grew from a few vigilantes hunting for immigrants into a national phenomenon.
With the recession, illegal immigration from Mexico has dropped off 60 percent in the last year to its the lowest level in a decade, but it remains a hot-button issue. In November, one of the largest white supremacist groups in America, the National Socialist Movement, planned an anti-immigration march to the Arizona State Capitol. The NSM claims to have eighty chapters across America. We met Jeff Schoep, the movement’s new leader, at his hotel.
JEFF SCHOEP: Arizona is the front lines. We have a massive illegal immigration problem here in the state, so we’re here to take it to the front lines.
RICK ROWLEY: As we talked, Schoep’s men began to organize the caravan that would bring them to their march. Each car was marked with a number 88. In their simple code, eight stands for the eighth letter in the alphabet. Eighty-eight, or HH, means “Heil Hitler.”
JEFF SCHOEP: America was founded by white men, settled by white men, and it was founded as a white nation. So we’ve got our nation to lose. They call us the fringe. They say it’s a fringe movement, but I think what we’re saying is very mainstream. We’re standing up for the American people, and there’s nothing fringe about that. The membership has really spiked, especially in the past few years. It’s more mainstream now than ever before in our history.
CLIFFORD HERRINGTON: And this is our blood banner. This flag is flown everywhere in the United States.
RICK ROWLEY: Clifford Herrington was the chairman of the National Socialist Movement before they tried to go mainstream, when they still wore Nazi uniforms.
CLIFFORD HERRINGTON: You want to get a shot of my ribbons?
RICK ROWLEY: Tell me about them.
CLIFFORD HERRINGTON: Vietnam, ’68, ’69. US Army, ’66 to ’76. Vietnam, Germany, Japan and Korea. NSM since 1974.
RICK ROWLEY: As we approached the State Capitol, he started to lead a chant.
CLIFFORD HERRINGTON: No niggers! No Jews! The Mexicans must go, too!
RICK ROWLEY: Younger members of the leadership quickly silenced him and chose a theme better suited to a mainstream audience.
NSM MARCHERS: USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA!
JEFF SCHOEP: We are looking at a country now that can very well face another American revolution! Our forefathers fought and resisted tyranny in this country, just as we stand here today in defiance of illegals, in defiance of a corrupt system that would just as soon put a bullet in the back of the white man’s head! We stand here in defiance of tyranny like George Washington did, like Ben Franklin did, our forefathers! This is America, our country!
NSM MARCHERS: Sig heil! Sig heil! Sig heil!
RICK ROWLEY: In spite of their swastikas and Nazi salutes, it is clear that the National Socialist language has changed. Take away the “Sig heils,” and they sound like many other conservative anti-immigration activists in America.
JT READY: We are doing it right. We’re putting Americans first. We’re taking back our nation, one day at a time, block by block, street by street, city by city. This is our nation, which we built. We are armed. We are free. And if you want our nation, you must take it from us. We are prepared. Thank you. Sig heil!
NSM MARCHERS: Sig heil! Sig heil! Sig heil!
RICK ROWLEY: More than anyone else at the rally, JT Ready embodies the link between white supremacist ideology and mainstream conservative politics. JT was a Republican precinct committeeman in Phoenix and a candidate for the Arizona House of Representatives. His writing appeared on mainstream conservative websites, and he regularly spoke at rallies with powerful Arizona political figures. JT is a former Marine and was also an early collaborator with the vigilante groups that patrol the Mexican border. They call themselves Minutemen, after the citizens’ militias of the American Revolution. Here Ready is in 2004 with Chris Simcox, the founder of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps.
CHRIS SIMCOX: Chris Simcox, founder of Civil Homeland Defense.
JT READY: JT Ready, candidate for Arizona House.
RICK ROWLEY: JT was a rising star in the Republican Party. But after Obama’s election, he came out publicly as a member of the National Socialist Movement, which he now proclaims proudly on his license plate. JT agreed to meet with us, but he wanted to do the interview out in the middle of the desert on Highway 88.
JT READY: What I’m fighting for, primarily, at this point is the survival of the white race.
RICK ROWLEY: JT says that white Americans have been dispossessed and sees America teetering on the edge of a crisis in which their very survival is at stake.
JT READY: Any event which sparks this off — it could be during an election time, it could be the assassination of a prominent leader on either side — things could erupt. Now, within the white movement, we call it “RaHoWa,” racial holy war. And I do believe in a racial holy war, and I believe that we are already fighting that, except that our side hasn’t even begun to fight back yet. So we’re trying to waken our people for survival.
- BART McINTYRE: If you look at the potential of violence and the history of violence, the potential is tremendous.
RICK ROWLEY: Special Agent Bart McIntyre retired from the federal weapons control agency, the ATF, this January. As an undercover officer, he infiltrated a ring of white supremacist groups responsible for multiple murders.
BART McINTYRE: I mean, that was a belt buckle I would wear while we were undercover that we bought from one of the Klan rally sites.
RICK ROWLEY: He sees a perfect storm of economic and political conditions driving a rise in white supremacist violence.
BART McINTYRE: The economics, Obama being the black president, the Democratic-controlled Congress is all fueling the fires. The numbers may be small in the US, but you know there is an event sitting out there that could spark the movement, and all of a sudden you could see those numbers increase exponentially.
RICK ROWLEY: Special Agent McIntyre is not alone in his concern. Last spring, a US Department of Homeland Security report warned that right-wing extremists are now, quote, "the most dangerous domestic terrorism threat in the United States." The report’s most disturbing findings concern the movement’s attempt to recruit members inside the US military, something that McIntyre witnessed firsthand while working undercover.
BART McINTYRE: I mean, we were dealing with soldiers there out of Columbus, Georgia, and they were stealing military guns and explosives off the military base there. They were supplying it to white supremacist organizations.
RICK ROWLEY: Special Agent McIntyre fears that the country could return to the violence of the ’90s, when decorated Gulf War veteran Timothy McVeigh bombed the Oklahoma Federal Building, killing 168 people.
BART McINTYRE: Someone’s always looking to be the next martyr. A Timothy McVeigh could happen any day of any week.
RICK ROWLEY: In December of 2008, Kody Brittingham, a lance corporal in the US Marine Corps, was arrested for involvement in a string of armed robberies. In his barracks room, investigators found white supremacist material, a declaration that Barack Obama was a domestic enemy of America, and plans for Obama’s assassination. At one point, death threats against President Obama were running at record levels, averaging thirty a day. These numbers have dropped off since their peak around the time of the election and inauguration. But law enforcement around the US remains on its guard for violence from many corners of the white supremacist world.
911 DISPATCHER: 911, where’s your emergency?
GINA MARIE GONZALEZ: Somebody just came in and shot my daughter and my husband.
911 DISPATCHER: They shot them?
GINA MARIE GONZALEZ: Please, ma’am, please! She’s bleeding out of her mouth! Please!
911 DISPATCHER: How old is your daughter?
GINA MARIE GONZALEZ: She’s ten.
911 DISPATCHER: Ten? Where were they shot?
GINA MARIE GONZALEZ: In the head. In the head.
911 DISPATCHER: Are they still there, the people who were there that shot them?
GINA MARIE GONZALEZ: They’re coming back in! They’re coming back in!
RICK ROWLEY: That was the night of May 30th, 2009 at this house in Arivaca, Arizona, where Raul Flores and his ten-year-old daughter Brisenia were murdered. Their alleged killers were Shawna Forde, director of an anti-immigrant Minuteman militia, and her operations director Jason Bush, who has been linked to the white supremacist Aryan Nations. Forde talked of starting a revolution against the US government. And they allegedly planned to rob Latinos they believed were drug dealers to finance their underground activities.
SALVADOR REZA: The whole mindset of hate under the guise of fighting illegal immigration, something that we have not seen probably since the ’60s or ‘50s.
RICK ROWLEY: Salvador Reza is a lifelong community organizer here in Arizona. He’s been battling for years against the anti-immigrant and white supremacist groups that target Latinos in the state.
SALVADOR REZA: Their little minds get to the point that they’re fighting this battle against the invasion, and in essence what they’re doing is creating the conditions for what happened here in this house.
Like I bet you that little girl played on that trampoline.
RICK ROWLEY: There have been nine high-profile murders by white supremacists since Obama’s election, and the pain in the communities they affect is visceral. But these crimes represent only a small part of the white nationalist movement’s impact on America as a whole.
LEONARD ZESKIND: We’ve got to look at a bigger picture than just the narrow problem of racist violence. They’re a constant pressure on the racial fault line in American life. They want to set dynamite on that fault line.
RICK ROWLEY: Exploiting America’s racial fault line helps white nationalists impact mainstream politics. It also helps conservative talk-show hosts get viewers.
GLENN BECK: This president, I think, has exposed himself as a guy, over and over and over again, who has a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture. This guy is, I believe, a racist.
I feel like President Obama is just saying, you know what?
RICK ROWLEY: For years, the anti-immigration movement was the vehicle of choice for white nationalists looking for an impact on public policy.
GLENN BECK: Why don’t you just set us on fire? Do you not hear the cries of people who are saying “Stop!”?
TEA PARTY EXPRESS ANNOUNCER: All aboard the Tea Party Express.
RICK ROWLEY: But since Barack Obama’s election, conservative media figures have helped launch a new populist movement that white nationalists see as their best chance in decades to cross over into mainstream American politics.
TEA PARTY PATRIOTS: USA! USA! USA! USA!
RICK ROWLEY: Calling themselves “Tea Party Patriots,” installing themselves as new American revolutionaries, conservative activists have descended by the thousands on town halls, state capitols and in Washington, DC. The tea party movement claims it has nothing to do with racism, but at rallies across the country, race is never far below the surface.
TEA PARTY PATRIOT 1: Coming to a clinic near you.
TEA PARTY PATRIOT 2: And I think the guy’s a racist. I mean, you know, he’s talking about how he’s going to bring this country together. If he gets us any more together, we’re going to kill each other.
TEA PARTY PATRIOT 3: What’s the difference between the Cleveland Zoo and the White House? The zoo has an African lion, and the White House has a lyin’ African.
JACQUIE SOOHEN: But do you think Obama is a real American?
TEA PARTY PATRIOT 3: No, I do not.
TEA PARTY PATRIOT 4: I do believe that he’s trying to change the country in his own image, whatever his image is.
LEONARD ZESKIND: A number of white nationalists noticed the tea party phenomenon and said, “This is something we have to get into.” On their websites and in other venues, they started to talk about what they needed to do to push the envelope.
RICK ROWLEY: The Council of Conservative Citizens is perhaps the largest and most influential white nationalist group pushing the envelope. The Council keeps its membership secret but counts elected officials among its ranks. It has dozens of chapters across the United States, many of which have organized tea parties. The organization is the descendant of the White Citizens’ Councils, formed to combat the civil rights movement and preserve segregation. Today, its website identifies the United States as a Christian and European nation and opposes integration and race mixing.
GORDON BAUM: What’s a racist? You know, I’m not sure what the term means, even. That you’re proud of what you are? Well, everybody, I guess, is a racist of some sort.
RICK ROWLEY: Gordon Baum was part of the White Citizens’ Councils in the ’60s. Today he is the Council of Conservative Citizens director.
GORDON BAUM: Our nose is being rubbed into the fact that Obama’s black, and we better all recognize the fact that he’s a black man and he’s our president. And Mr. White American, you’re going to have your nose rubbed in it. We can do what we want, and we’re going to give ourself all kind of goodies.
The last year has been probably our most dramatic in growth, because people are really upset with the direction this country has taken. And we’re getting lots of young people, a lot of veterans coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan, that want something done before it’s too late.
CHIP BERLET: Let’s look at The Councilor of the Citizens’ Council of Louisiana. “Martin Luther King, a troublemaker, a liar.”
RICK ROWLEY: Chip Berlet runs Political Research Associates, which has been tracking the Citizens’ Councils since the ‘60s. He sees a continuum between the overt racial appeals of the past and the tea party rallying cries today.
CHIP BERLET: The kind of naked white supremacy that you see in the pages of The Councilor are no longer acceptable. And so, you develop other ways, coded language, essentially.
TEA PARTY SINGER: There’s three words you need to sing with me, and those three words are “Take it back.” [singing] Tack it back. Take our country back.
CHIP BERLET: “Take our country back.” Now what could that possibly mean? Well, our country is a white Christian nation. And the more we diluted our America with those other people, the less it was going to be America. And the idea is always that we have to take back our America from them. And you never have to say “them,” because the only people being addressed when you say “Take back America” are white people.
RICK ROWLEY: At tea parties across the country, it is impossible not to notice that the audience is always almost entirely white.
GORDON BAUM: They bring — invite black speakers to it, in hopes of attracting blacks and Hispanics. And for some reason, they just turn their back on it, and they’re not interested.
RICK ROWLEY: Gordon Baum says African Americans don’t come to the tea parties because black culture is less democratic than white culture.
GORDON BAUM: It’s a chief mentality. If Obama is the boss, that’s it.
RICK ROWLEY: Gordon Baum put us in touch with Brian Pace, the regional organizer for the Council of Conservative Citizens in northern Mississippi, where tea parties have helped with recruiting.
BRIAN PACE: Our Mississippi website, it’s been put online in July, and we’ve had over 17,000 people come to it. Just like we put another website online called white-pride.org, and that’s getting flooded with responses. It’s nonstop.
RICK ROWLEY: Pace is busy setting up new chapters around the state and runs a side business selling Confederate and white pride stickers and pins, including many with slogans we had seen at tea party protests across the country. When Pace canvasses for new recruits, he starts the conversation on the economy.
BRIAN PACE: The biggest issues right now has got to be the economy, jobs and illegal immigration. Illegal immigration is not even really a third issue; it’s more or less — it’s all about the economy. So that’s pretty much driving the growth right now.
RICK ROWLEY: The town of Ripley just formed one of the newest chapters of the Council and organized its own tea party. JD Meadows is a new Council member. He was receptive to Pace’s economic message.
JD MEADOWS: My uncle lost his job up here at BenchCraft — so did my aunt — when it shut down and moved to China.
RICK ROWLEY: Meadows showed us the factories that have been closed down in the last two years. He said that the town has watched the government bail out the banks on Wall Street while its local economy crumbled.
JD MEADOWS: Nobody wants to see the large international bankers get richer. It is a struggle. Most people around here, whether they’re Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, are fed up with the government in some way or form.
RICK ROWLEY: We sat down for lunch with the Ripley chapter of the Council. We asked the new members about the Council’s core issue — racial segregation — but got a surprising response from Meadows.
JD MEADOWS: As the Bible says, a house divided cannot stand. The same applies with the nation. If a nation is divided, it cannot stand. The media plays races off against each other, when races should the united for liberty.
RICK ROWLEY: After lunch, Brian took us aside and told us that many new members join with what he calls “elementary school politics.”
BRIAN PACE: In a way, the Council is about like a college. You know, after you get in and you start reading our beliefs and you start getting our platform, and you’ll start growing more and more.
RICK ROWLEY: The economy, bank bailout and the war get people in the door, he says. Once inside, the Council tries to educate them about racial threats to America.
BRIAN PACE: The mixing of cultures, whether it be — it could be ethnic, it could be religious, you know, it could be language. We want to preserve the Caucasian Christian culture that’s made up the United States and the South, traditionally.
RICK ROWLEY: America has changed. Tens of millions of whites voted to elect the first African American president, and tolerance and diversity are publicly celebrated as national virtues. White supremacists face major challenges, but they are convinced that racial identity remains the most powerful force in American politics.
GORDON BAUM: I think it’s become more racial because of the vote. We’re not in a post-racial America. It’s becoming more racial. Race has become a bigger issue today than it had been in twenty, thirty years. I think the tea party movement is the beginning of a very good awakening. And realize, we only need to wake up ten percent of the people to win this thing.
CHIP BERLET: As this right-wing populist movement spreads more and more anger and more and more scapegoating, and more and more elected officials and media demagogues encourage them, it’s more likely that violence will occur.
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