By Miriam Raftery
May 9, 2009 (La Mesa)—“There is an alarming increase in hate crimes in the United States,” James McElroy, chairman of the board for the Southern Law & Poverty Center (SLPC), told members and guests at the La Mesa –Foothills Democratic Club on May 6th. “We try to shine a little light on it. Hate is like a fungus under a rock. Shine a light and you can eradicate it.”
A new SLPC report found 926 hate groups nationally in 2008—a 54% increase since 2000 and a 4% rise since 2007. California has 84 hate groups, more than any other state—and most are in Southern California. Immigration tensions, a faltering economy, and election of the first African-American president are fueling the rise, along with an "alarming mainstreaming" of hate speech and racism in the mass media, McElroy believes. (View an interactive map to learn which hate groups are in your area: http://www.splcenter.org/intel/map/hate.jsp#s=).
Asked by East County Magazine how prevalent hate groups are locally, McElroy replied, “There are a lot of groups in San Diego…We’ve actually had an offshoot of a prison group of white supremacists in San Diego with several chapters.” Other home-grown hate groups include Aryan Nations, skinheads and neo-Nazis, he noted. Minutemen, another group active locally in anti-immigrant activities, is on an SPLC watch list but is not designated as a hate group.
McElroy’s speech came just one day after Britain announced that it had banned 16 people from entering the country because they had been designated as hate-mongers who could incite public hatred and violence. The list of banned persons includes U.S. radio “shock jock” Michael Savage (real name: Michael Wiener) and Fred Phelps, an American preacher who has staged protests at funerals of gay persons. Savage has vowed to sue the British government in response.
McElroy does not support the ban and believes in free speech. Instead, he calls for teaching tolerance in homes and schools. Toward that end, the SLPC has prepared teaching kits that are free for teachers on request, including two films that won Academy Awards. The Children’s March is a documentary about attacks launched on schoolchildren during desegregation of schools in Birmingham, Alabama. One Survivor Remembers recalls the Holocaust. Now a new film, Viva La Causa, documents turbulent times during the grape strike led by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta.
The SLPC spokesman knows first-hand how hate speech and hate groups can foster violence. As an attorney in Del Mar, he helped obtain a $12.5 million civil judgment against white supremacist leader Tom Metzger, who once ran for Congress locally and won the Democratic primary, much to the horror of local party leaders. The case stemmed from the death of an Ethiopian college student who was beaten over the head with a baseball bat by recruits of Metzger’s.
“Metzger saw skinheads as powerful street soldier in the war on race. They were young, fearless, eager for violence, and easily manipulated,” said McElroy. Although Metzger urged his followers to travel to Oregon to teach a like-minded group “how to clash and bash”, a criminal case against Metzger was dismissed because he was 1,500 miles away when the murder occurred. But the SLPC came up with a novel legal theory—holding a leader responsible in a civil case for damages. The SLPC sued Metzger on behalf of the slain student’s young son. The SLPC was awarded Metzger’s house and other assets, including about $200,000 a year in donations that he received through a P.O. box.
“We sold Metzger’s house to a nice Latino family—and the neighbors thanked me,” said McElroy, who disclosed a happy ending to the tale. He adopted the victim’s son, who is now an airline pilot.
As for Metzger, he now lives in Indiana, earning $20,000 a year. “He roars now and then, but like an old lion, he doesn’t have any teeth,” McElroy observed, adding that Metzer is now believed to be out of the hate business.
In another prominent case, the SLPC sued Richard Butler, head of the Aryan Nations, a Christian identity movement. “He believes Jews are non-human and deserving of extermination.” At a training camp in Idaho owned by Butler, two teenage guards armed with AK-47s pursued a car they believed had Jews inside. They shot at the car, pulled a woman and her son out and terrorized them. Neither were Jewish. The SPLC obtained a $6.2 million verdict that included ownership of buildings in the compound, which were later burned down to create an environmental teaching area for a college.
The most recent case tried was against Ron Edwards, leader of the Imperial Clans of America. The defendant showed up in court with a tattoo on his shaved head that read F**k SLPC. “I guess you could say we got under his skin,” McElroy jested. Edwards was accused of recruiting men who had a “boot party”, skinhead lingo for kicking a victim with steel-toed Doc Martin boots. The victim, who suffered a broken arm and shattered eye socket, is “still traumatized to this day,” McElroy said.
Edwards claimed he did not encourage any illegal conduct. So the SLPC won by calling a surprise witness:: a man who revealed that he had been recruited by Edwards to murder Morris Dees, co-founder of the SLPC, in Idaho. Fortunately for Dees, the man was arrested by the FBI on other charges before he could complete the hit assignment. After winning a $2.5 million judgment against Edwards, Dees later became friends with his would-be killer, who is now out of prison and has turned his life around, said McElroy.
Edwards’ son, however, has carried on the legacy of violence and was recently arrested for conspiracy to kill Barack Obama before the election by crashing a car into Obama’s motorcade.
“The Obama presidency has created a backlash among White Supremacists,” McElroy said. Monitoring Internet blogs on Election Day, the SPLC found violent-oriented hate speech. For example, Hal Turner, a neo-Nazi leader, wrote, “Someone will kill him and I will celebrate.”
Hate groups also talk of “sleeper cells” in Supremacist groups, similar to the sleeper cell l the led Timothy McVeigh to bomb a building in Oklahoma City after Ruby Ridge, killing 167 people.
McElroy called the present situation a “perfect storm” for hate groups, which customarily fuel bigotry and intolerance during tough economic times, when people seek out scapegoats. There is also an increase in “patriot militia” groups fueled by hatred of government; many are also anti-semitic and/or racist. In addition, concerns over immigration are fueling a rise in recruits for hate groups.
A new factor that is “causing us even more concern than in the past is the mainstreaming of the extremism by people who should know better,” said McElroy, who named CNN’s Lou Dobbs and Sean Hannity on Fox News as examples.
For eight years, the SPLC tried to get the Bush White House to take seriously concerns over an increase in white supremacy in the military. “White supremacist leaders are trying to get their recruits into the military,” McElroy said, adding that many enter special forces or the infantry to “learn skills necessary for the coming race war.” He reflected, “If you take people into the military with KKK tattoos, what does that do to m morale when Jews and African American-Americans are working under a white supremacist?”
Now, by contrast, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has confirmed that white supremacism is a problem in the military. In addition, “ vets coming home are being approached by white supremacists trying to recruit them,” McElroy said. Social networking sites such as Facebook and My Space are tools now used by white supremacist recruiters. But he added, “We think we’ve finally got someone listening to us in the White House.”
Most recently, the SPLC has started an immigrant justice project, filing class action suits against large companies that hire and abuse immigrants.
The SLPC is considered one of the leading authorities on racist and hate groups in this country, according to Congressman Nadler, who recently chaired a Congressional committee on hate crimes-related issues.
Not all hate can be eliminated through prosecution, though leaders can be rendered powerless. Educating children, teachers and parents is also key. Some racist and supremacist groups use sophisticated marketing tactics, such as distributing free CDs with hate speech lyrics to high school students.
East County has been the scene of several violent hate crimes in the past couple of years, including the beating of an African-American military member who suffered brain injury. Most recently, Sheriff's officers have asked the public's help to identify assailants of seven people in an attack following an April 2009 party in Deerhorn Valley that is believed to be racially motivated.
As for the mainstreaming of extremism by prominent media figures, ridicule has proved one effective tool for defusing credibility. One of the “wackiest” false claims made was by Lou Dobbs, who erroneously stated that 7,000 cases of leprosy in the U.S. have been caused by illegal immigrants. Even after 60 Minutes proved the claim false, Dobbs refused to retract his statement. So the SPLC took out full –page ads in the New York Times and USA today. In addition, the Colbert Show skewered Dobbs in a comedy skit on TV.
The SLPC distributes an Intelligence Report to law enforcement agencies across the nation. The report keeps tabs on the activities of hate group and nativist organizations fostering racism and hate.
New legislation in Congress, HR 1913, would authorize federal help including grants to assist state, local and tribal law enforcement authorities in the prevention and prosecution of hate crimes. In California, san Diego Assemblywoman Lori Saldaña authored a bill to crackdown on hate speech. Her bill was passed by the Legislature last year, but vetoed by Governor Schwarzenegger. Saldaña plans to go forward with the bill in the future, an aide disclosed.
Larry Howe, immediate past president of the La Mesa-Foothills Democratic Club, has some first-hand knowledge of his own on keeping tabs of extremist groups as a former CIA agent. “These are things we should be very concerned about,” he said. Howe praised the SPLC, noting, “These are people who have come up with non-violent, highly effective solutions…using the power of the law.” He concluded, “I encourage everybody in this room to support these people.”
To learn more about the SPLC, visit http://www.splcenter.org/index.jsp.