White extremist groups are growing — and changing

Experts say the term 'hate group' is increasingly difficult to define, as extremist groups grow in number, diversify in ideology and use codewords to spread their messages

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An anti-Nazi sticker sits on the street sign for the Honorary Heather Heyer Way. 

Kianna Gardner/News21

This report is part of the “Hate in America" project produced by the Carnegie-Knight News21 initiative, a national investigative reporting project by top college journalism students and recent graduates from across the country and headquartered at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

MEMPHIS — Ken Parker was baptized in a predominantly black church in Jacksonville, Florida, his tattoos  —  a large swastika, one Confederate flag, a Ku Klux Klan insignia and an Iron Cross  — immersed in holy water.

Less than five months earlier, Parker had been a regional director of the National Socialist Movement, and before that, a grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan. His duties included littering neighborhoods with recruitment fliers and screaming “White power!” into a megaphone at rallies.

In April, Parker resigned from the NSM and issued a statement that read, in part, “I am convinced that what I have been committed to for the last several years is hurting my walk with God … I can't keep on living this life.”

“Love thy neighbor as thyself,” Parker, quoting the bible during an interview with News21. “It doesn’t differentiate between the Jewish neighbor, a Mexican neighbor, a black neighbor. It says love thy neighbor as thyself.”

But Parker is an anomaly.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, an advocacy group that tracks hate and bigotry toward marginalized communities, there were at least 950 active hate groups in the United States in 2017, up from 917 the previous year. Experts say the term “hate group” is increasingly difficult to define, as extremist groups grow in number, diversify in ideology and use codewords to spread their messages.

Parker said he became involved in far-right groups because he said he was missing a sense of identity and camaraderie. 

“I did 11 years in the Navy on submarines, and I definitely felt the brotherhood,” Parker said. “So you get out of there and you’re unemployed, and you’re lucky if you qualify for unemployment for two months. And it’s like, ‘Aw, I’m kind of missing this sense of belonging, so I can join the Klan and get some rank and some belonging.’”

Arno Michaelis, a former racist who’s now an anti-extremism activist, was a member of the Northern Hammerskins in the late 1980s and early ’90s. The group is a chapter of Hammerskin Nation, whose website states, “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for White Children.”

Michaelis said recruiters for extremist groups target white people — often working class and ex-military — who believe they’ve been victimized and short-changed by society.

“So that’s what we would do,” he said, “is look for ways that people were suffering, look for whatever is wrong in their life, and then we would try to spin that problem into our narrative and invite them in as a means to addressing that problem.”

Scott Shepherd is a former Grand Dragon of the KKK who joined at a young age, though he had been cared for during his childhood by a black woman who is now 103. Born into a family with a dysfunctional alcoholic father, he said he joined the Klan as a teenager.

“A lot of them (leaders of the Klan) put their arm around me said ‘we're taking you and take care of you. We know you had a hard life.’ I fell for it. Hook line and sinker. And that’s how I got started with the Klan.”

About 25 years ago, he decided to quit: “Racism is like an addiction or habit. They are hard to break and you still slip up occasionally. But finally, the habit gets broken.”

For decades, the groups that make up the far-right have capitalized on fear, offering a sense of belonging to those who feel disenfranchised, Michaelis said.

“So it’s like, ‘Well, even in this horrible world where everything is out to get you and all these bad things are happening, like your race is something that will always connect you,’” Michaelis said. “Your race is something that will always be there for you, and by the way, your race is completely threatened by everyone else on Earth.’”

According to Census Bureau’s 2017 National Population Projections, non-Hispanic white people will make up just less than half the population of the United States by 2045.

“We are fastly becoming a minority in the country we founded,” said Jason Kessler, an organizer of the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, which was called to protest plans to remove a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee, hero of the Confederacy.

This fear of becoming a minority is one commonly shared among far-right extremists, regardless of otherwise differing ideologies.

“I think they’re scared they’re going to lose everything they’ve worked for, their standing in society and everything that’s dear to them,” said A.J. Marsden, assistant professor of psychology at Beacon College in Leesburg, Florida. “In our culture, it has been traditionally easier for white people to get good jobs, for them to go to school, to get a good education, et cetera, and I think they start to see their opportunities narrow.”

Michaelis said the reinforcement of this fear is key to the radicalization process.

“All white-power ideology stems from the idea that white people are oppressed,” he said. “And therefore anything goes in order to fight this oppression, the same way that anyone else who felt oppressed would justify fighting against what they see as their oppressors.”

The term “far-right” broadly describes those whose political beliefs lie at the most conservative end of the political spectrum, including groups that exist to protect “white interests,” said Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow with the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism. The far-right also includes anti-government groups and single-issue groups, such as anti-Muslim extremists.

The Southern Poverty Law Center’s Extremist Files outline defining characteristics of ideological groups within the far-right. White supremacists believe in the biological superiority of the white race and feel white people should hold a privileged position in a multi-ethnic society.

White nationalists favor the creation of a white ethnostate, or a homeland for white people, instead of a multi-ethnic society. Many extremists, including Richard Spencer of the National Policy Institute and Jeff Schoep of the National Socialist Movement, have said they support a nonviolent ethnic cleansing, in which minorities would be compensated for moving from the proposed homeland. Others endorse more forceful tactics.

In 2008, Spencer coined the term “alternative-right” or “alt-right” to describe one of the newer ideological groups in the far-right. Alt-right members believe their white identity is threatened by multicultural influences and frequently ridicule “political correctness.”

“Some of the more extreme groups out there don’t really get along with the alt-right because they feel like the alt-right is too soft, too willing to engage with mainstream conservatives. It’s too compromised,” said Benjamin Lee, senior research associate at the Centre for Research and Evidence on Security Threats, an advocacy group that tracks hate and bigotry toward marginalized communities.

Lee said the alt-right’s internet trolling makes it difficult to tell whether alt-right members are serious or not, a characteristic that contrasts them with more traditional extremist groups who trace their roots back to the early 20th century.

The Ku Klux Klan began as a vigilante group of former Confederate soldiers aiming to intimidate former slaves and other blacks after the Civil War.  The group identifies itself today as a Christian “civil rights for whites” organization.

Neo-Nazi groups assume the prejudices and symbolism of Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist German Workers Party, which ruled Germany from 1933 to 1945. Like the Nazis, the neo-Nazis share a deep hatred of Jews and intolerance of gays, lesbians and transgender people and non-whites.

Many far-right extremist groups have adapted their public images in recent years to appeal to more mainstream, modern audiences, according to group leaders. Among them is the National Socialist Movement, which is headquartered in Detroit. The NSM is one of the largest and most prominent neo-Nazi groups in the country, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The group’s commander, Jeff Schoep, said he dislikes the term neo-Nazi to describe the beliefs of the group, adding that members are reducing their invocation of Nazi-German symbols.

In November 2016, Schoep said the group was undergoing a “cosmetic overhaul,” but he assured members, “your Party Platform remains the same, your Party remains unchanged.”

“The same movement you saw in the 1970s that was putting out some of those cartoons and racially insensitive materials or things like that that would have appealed to a demographic in the ’70s,” Schoep said. “Now, it’s not something we use. I want to change with the times.”

In 2008, the group retired its “Brownshirt” uniforms, which closely resembled Nazi paramilitary uniforms worn before World War II, and instituted all-black “battle dress uniforms,” according to Schoep.

In November 2016, the NSM ceased public use of the swastika, which had previously been the centerpiece of their flags, banners and uniforms. It was replaced by the Othala Rune, another symbol used by German Nazis but one that’s far less provocative in modern America.

“We are attempting to separate the bad labels from the second World War and try to make this a little more American,” said Harry Hughes, public relations director for the NSM. “So we’re attempting to make this a little more American-looking and less German-looking.”

The groups’ web domain, however, still includes the number “88,” a shorthand substitute for the phrase “Heil Hitler” (H being the eighth letter of the alphabet).

Many other extremist groups lost their domains when website-hosting companies cracked down after last summer’s Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. Schoep said the NSM can’t be kicked off its internet platform because the group hosts its own website.

But those who are removed from major hosting platforms, like GoDaddy, can turn to alternative platforms that usually don’t censor websites.

Neo-Nazi Gerhard Lauck, has spent years providing such a platform through his website-hosting company Zensurfrei, German for “censorship free.” Zensurfrei hosts hundreds of sites from the U.S. and parts of Europe, Lauck said.  

“Gerhard has created a small corner of that world that is very hospitable to various actors and speakers,” said Bob Wolfson, former regional director of the Anti-Defamation League in Omaha, Nebraska.

Although many extremist groups focus on increasing their online reach, Billy Roper, a self-described white nationalist and founder of the ShieldWall Network, a community of race-war “preppers,” emphasizes the need for more visible demonstrations of free speech.

“Unfortunately, the internet sometimes discourages actual activism because people are too content to just sit, click and clack on the keyboard all day without actually being in person, but we're trying to change that a little bit,” he said.

Roper encourages physical meetings of members of the far-right, from private gatherings to public rallies. Rallies, however, can become violent when far-right extremist groups are confronted by counterprotesters.

But Lee, with the Centre for Research and Evidence on Security Threats, said the leaders of most extremist groups are not violent themselves, rather, it is the fringe members – such as James Alex Fields, who’s charged with murder in the death of a counterprotester at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. Authorities say Fields, who traveled to Virginia from Ohio, rammed his car into a crowd, killing Heather Heyer, 32, and injuring dozens.

“We each tend to carry around a very general definition of the far-right,” Lee said. “Most of them are are actually nonviolent, but we tend to focus on the outliers.”

Schoep said the NSM brings riot shields to their events, not because they want to be violent, but because they need to protect themselves from groups known as “antifa,” far-left counterprotesters who often engage in violence at far-right rallies.

“All of us were covered in urine because the antifa likes to throw urine balloons, feces balloons,” Schoep said. “There were chemicals. I had something that was burning my skin.”

Michaelis, the reformed skinhead, takes issue with antifa tactics and said such violent opposition only reinforces the fears that fuel far-right groups.

“When people violently oppose them, i.e., antifa, that is the single most powerful way to keep their members galvanized and part of the group and violent and attacking other people,” Michaelis said.

He said it was the people who treated him with undeserved kindness that ultimately motivated him to reject racism.

“Nobody ever beat the Nazi out of me,” Michaelis said. “It wasn’t violence and hate that led me from the movement. It was people who were very brave, who were able to respond to my hatred with kindness and with compassion.”

News21 reporters Shelby Knowles and Jasmine Putney contributed to this report.

Megan Ross is an Ethics and Excellence Journalism Fellow, Brooks Hepp is a Myrta J. Pulliam Fellow, and Kianna Gardner is a Don Bolles Fellow. 


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