The Tip of the Iceberg

Posted December 17, 2009 in Feature Story

Near the corner of Madison and Indiana, a group of neo-Nazis and anti-racist activists recently clashed. It turned out, however, to be more than just a battle of ideologies.


The Inland Empire branch of the National Socialist Movement, perhaps humiliated after being run out of town at their last protest, had decided to stage yet another rally.


But this Oct. 24 protest-counterprotest was anything but a repeat of the first round. For one, the neo-Nazis doubled their numbers from eight to 16. For another, California NSM director and Riverside resident Jeff Hall was present, whereas last time, purported car trouble prevented his appearance. (Perhaps he toes the NSM line by driving an American car rather than the dependable Japanese models preferred by his underlings?) Another big difference: Counterprotesters, rather than being dispersed at two separate rally points, converged at the corner. Furthermore, they had almost a month to organize, which allowed them to push their numbers as high as 700, by some estimates.


But the starkest difference was the police presence. At least 75 police officers from the Riverside and Corona police departments dressed in riot gear surrounded the white supremacists. SWAT was there and surveillance teams spied on the crowd from the roof of the nearby Farmer Boys, while plainclothes agents filmed and observed from within the crowd.


Due to the police protection, the NSM members were able to hold the sidewalk for three whole hours and spread their message to the press and their opponents. Among them: “You’re animals!” “Go back to the jungle! 2012 is coming for you!” “That’s what happens at the donkey show in Tijuana. It breeds you people!” “That’s what happens when white Spaniard priests have sex with monkeys in the jungle!” “Jews, go home!


Not exactly the type of messaging I would use if I were trying to appeal to a broad cross-section of American society, but then again, nobody ever claimed that these Nazis were a bright bunch.


Stop the Violence

In order to gain some perspective on this group, I spoke with Professor Brian Levin, director of Cal State San Bernardino’s Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism and longtime monitor of these types of groups.


He says that although the NSM is the largest neo-Nazi group in the United States, it is relatively small, numbering only a few hundred at most. However, they have been quite active this year, sojourning to the southern border and holding small protests in other parts of the country, including what may have been the largest they were able to muster, a Nov. 7 rally in Phoenix.


The topic soon turned to tactics. Levin expressed concerned about the potential for conflict between the neo-Nazis and counterprotesters.


“I don’t think that physical confrontations with a small number of Nazis advance anything,” Levin tells the Weekly. “It only advances their cause. Often it’s the anti-racists that end up fomenting violent activity and all it does is play into the hands of the bigots.”


When asked for his opinion about direct action tactics, he replies, “One’s political position does not give one license to assault people. The fact that people are bigoted does not give license to assault them.”


So how does the social justice cause deal with neo-Nazism?


Levin’s suggestion is that anti-racists instead “focus on how pathetic they are.” He also encourages media not to cover them [Oops, I guess we messed up here—Editor’s note]. He writes off the concern that ignoring them will allow their movement to grow.


“When the Klan marches through Pulaski, Tennessee, the whole town shuts down,” Levin says. “They shutter their windows for a few hours until they leave. It’s very effective.”


Hate Going Mainstream?

So why now? Why Riverside? Why target day laborers?


Levin explains that it fits a wider historical pattern of hate groups. The Ku Klux Klan was founded to enforce white supremacy over blacks after the defeat of the Confederacy, but saw its largest growth in membership by scapegoating immigrants during the 1920s.


Now the NSM is attempting to gain a foothold in the mainstream by using the issue of immigration, which is a topic of legitimate political debate. Their demands are similar to those of more mainstream groups, such as the Minutemen who, despite efforts to distance themselves from violence and racism, have been tainted by the presence of white supremacists at their events and the participation of open racists in their campaigns.


Shawna Forde, a major activist in Minutemen circles, was just this summer accused by police of the home invasion murder of Raul Flores and his 9-year-old daughter Brisenia. Forde was apprehended shortly after leaving the compound of Glenn Spencer, the paranoiac founder of the militantly anti-Mexican “American Border Patrol.”


Other “mainstream” anti-immigrant groups, such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform, Choose Black America, Numbers USA and the Center for Immigration Studies all trace their origins to one John Tanton, an environmentalist-turned-anti-immigrant-strategist with longstanding ties to white supremacists.



The Anti-Immigrant Glue

In short, the anti-immigrant movement is well-financed and well-connected. In Levin’s words, “All hate groups drink from the same well, and have had varying successes. But anti-immigration is the glue holding the movement together.”


His analysis points to a problem much larger than a few dozen Nazis on a street corner or even larger than a movement numbering in the hundreds: structural hate.


For example, at the national level, it wasn’t until this past October that federal hate crime protection was extended to victims and survivors of crimes based on “gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability,” through President Barack Obama’s signing of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. Gay rights activists had long pursued the legislation, only to be struck down at every turn during the Bush years. However, more groups have yet to be protected, including the homeless, who have suffered rashes of attacks in the Inland Empire, and the undocumented.


Here in California, anti-immigrant groups led by San Diego real estate developer Ted Hilton tried and failed for a ballot initiative that aimed to deny medical care to the children of undocumented parents. According to some analysts, the language of the proposal could go as far as to jeopardize the U.S. citizenship of those children—a right safeguarded by the Fourteenth Amendment.


Even closer to home, we have the example of Joseph Turner, the founder of the anti-illegal-immigrant organization Save Our State, who was hired by San Bernardino County Supervisor Neil Derry earlier this year as a special projects coordinator. White supremacists were frequent participants in Save Our State’s rallies during the group’s heyday. Turner was even quoted defending his dubious associations, saying that “just because one believes in white separatism that that does not make them a racist.” And now Turner is cozy with the highest echelons of county government.


“Love For Humanity”

These are just visible examples of race hatred and anti-immigrant elements that are part of or trying to become part of the system. But, according to Michael Novick of Anti-Racist Action Los Angeles, who was present at both rallies, the true racism is the system itself.


“The agents of state repression enforce the same relations of exploitation and oppression as the explicit racists,” Novick says. He cites the economic system, the political system, the criminal justice system, the public education system and the corporate media as examples of systems that have disparate outcomes for people of color.


His solution? “Organize anti-colonial autonomous communities of resistance into a movement oriented toward love for humanity.”


Novick’s solution may be a bit more radical than Levin’s. However, both would surely agree that regardless of where it’s coming from, racism and hatred must be exposed and condemned.


Regardless of the tack taken, whether it is a strategic brush-off (Levin’s approach) or a direct confrontation (the Oct. 24 counterprotest), this struggle draws us closer to egalitarianism, justice, and democracy; values that are not only central to the American experience, but that also eclipse nationalism and offer hope to everyone.


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