Today, Mark Potok, the director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project and editor of the organization’s Intelligence Report magazine spoke about hate group activity in the United States. The lecture took place during the lunchtime plenary of the a conference titled “Michigan Response to Hate: Building United Communities” in Lansing put on by the Michigan Alliance Against Hate Crimes and the Michigan Department of Civil Rights.
Potok prefaced his comments by explaining that the Southern Poverty Law Center’s goal is not simply to “monitor” hate group activity but rather they seek to destroy hate groups. He further explained that he was not going to focus on the activity of hate groups in Michigan, mentioning only briefly that Michigan has about 25 hate groups according to the SPLC’s count, ranking the state 10th in the nation. He explained that there is a history of these groups being active in Michigan, mentioning briefly the Michigan Militia and reminding the audience that the state provided Terry Nichols and also John Tanton who is in many ways the architect of the nativist anti-immigrant movement.
He further explained that while Michigan ranks third highest in the number of hate crimes in the nation, the numbers might be skewed because Michigan reports particularly well compared to other states. He emphasized that reporting is currently voluntary and asserted that in many ways, how data is collected is more important than anti-hate crimes legislation, because more accurate data would support the case for a more focused hate crime policy. He cited a 2005 Justice Department study focusing on victim reports to suggest that the actual number of hate crimes is closer to 191,000 per year, which is twenty to thirty times the number that is most frequently cited.
Potok began his discussion of the racist and radical right by explaining that such groups thrive in “crisis” situations. As an example, he briefly covered the three eras of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), mentioning that in the 1860s the KKK formed in reaction to black empowerment, that it had a resurgence in the 1920s over fears of immigration, and that in the 1950s it grew in response to Brown vs. the Board of Education. Potok explained that in the 1980s the Posse Comitatus movement grew in response to the farm crisis and channeled legitimate concerns about dislocation into anti-Jewish/anti-Semitic directions. The militia movement similarly grew in the 1990s, motivated by fear and a series of conspiracy theories that had as their basis concern about an overreaching federal government.
Following the rise and fall of the militia movement, Potok explained that there has been a rise in “race-based” hate groups particularly in the post-9/11 climate. These groups have been motivated by fears about the United States no longer being a majority white nation, although it has been 9/11 and immigration that have been the driving factors accounting for growth in the movement. Racist groups have been able to take advantage of a general climate of anti-immigrant and xenophobic sentiment to develop a movement centered on immigration. Potok asserted that this movement is “pretty well thriving” and has grown dramatically in the past five years.
Potok explained that the Southern Poverty Law Center first noticed this phenomenon in 1998. That year there was an anti-immigration rally held in Alabama that featured the burning of a Mexican flag. The rally was put on by the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) a group that positions itself as a “mainstream” entity despite its historic relationship with the racist movement. At that rally–which numbered only fifteen people–Potok explained that there was an unrobed member of the Ku Klux Klan as well as a member of the Council of Conservative Citizens.
The movement continued to grow, with Potok pointing a case a few years later in which a rancher named Roger Barnett received considerable media attention for claiming that he stopped 12,000 undocumented immigrants crossing the border. The media coverage almost universally portrayed Barnett as a victim, despite allegations that he was behaving in a racist manner and profiling people. Barnett’s actions and the coverage of them in part motivated the formation of the larger nativist movement.
The tactic of portraying themselves as “victims” of an onslaught of undocumented immigrants has been repeated by many nativist groups, including the Minutemen who’s founder Chris Simcox spoke in Lansing earlier this year. Potok explained that Simcox has repeatedly portrayed himself as the “victim” while appearing extensively in the media, including twenty times on CNN’s Lou Dobbs show alone. Simcox has been portrayed as a reputable source–a self-professed “good guy”–despite the fact that he claims he has seen the Chinese army on the United States-Mexico border and that he has been silent on the issue of white supremacists operating within the Minutemen. During the Minutemen mobilization in 2005, Simcox claimed that the FBI would do background checks to “vet” white supremacists, although no such checks occurred. An SPLC reporter covering the mobilization rather quickly uncovered two members of the National Alliance who admitted that they were participating in part to scout for “sniping” positions to be used in “future operations.” The Minutemen’s initial action got fairly “good” press from their perspective and further motivated additional nativist groups as well as anti-immigrant politicians such as Colorado Representative and current Republican Party presidential candidate Tom Tancredo according to Potok.
Since the Minutemen’s initial operation, the Southern Poverty Law Center has tracked the formation of 250 anti-immigration groups, including 144 that the Center describes as “nativist extremist.” This category includes groups that believe in directly confronting undocumented immigrants and harassing them, with an example being the San Diego Minutemen. Over the past few years, the Center has worked to expose racists and white supremacists within the movement, reporting on Minutemen co-founder Jim Gilchrist’s tolerance for neo-Nazis in his campaign and the fact that he ran on the ticket of George Wallance’s American Independence Party, Proposition 187 campaigner Barbara Coe’s involvement with the Council of Conservative Citizens, Arkansas anti-immigrant activist Joe McCutchen’s anti-Jewish rhetoric and speeches before the Council of Conservative Citizens, and Virginia Abernathy in Arizona who is associated with the Council of Conservative Citizens. Additionally, Potok mentioned how the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) has formed a network of “fake” groups to try to show that it is not racist including Choose Black America and You Don’t Speak for Me.
As an example of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s “success” in fighting these groups, Potok discussed the Center’s role in the dismantling of the National Alliance. Potok set the context by explaining that the National Alliance had a thirty-year run as a prominent racist group and that its leader–William Pierce–was a fairly sophisticated organizer. However, in July of 2002 Pierce died unexpectedly of cancer and shortly after the Center received a copy of a video in which Pierce railed against other white supremacist groups calling them “freaks and weaklings” and explaining that they were essentially too pathetic to constitute a “movement.” In an article in the Intelligence Report, the Center quoted these comments and similar comments made by his successor at length in an attempt to drive a wedge in the group. This setup a climate of infighting, especially since the organization was funded primarily through the sale of white power music via the groups Resistance Records whose core customer base was repeatedly insulted by Pierce. This article, coupled with a revelation that the group’s “Girls of Resistance Records” calendar featured strippers near the group’s headquarters rather than the exemplarily “Aryan girls” that it claimed, played an important role in fomenting the organization’s split and decline.
Potok concluded his remarks by explaining that it is important to use the media as a way of exposing racist groups and asserting that the media can be an important ally to grassroots groups fighting organized racists. Potok also sees the Southern Poverty Law Center in a similar “ally” role, explaining that they offer resources and background to grassroots organizations that are doing the organizing.