Why It's Important For Communities To Confront Nazis

Some people think it might be better to just ignore neo-Nazis like the group trying to turn rural Leith, N.D., into a white-supremacist enclave. We explain why they are dead wrong.

(YouTube version here.)

It turns out that North Dakotans are more than happy to let neo-Nazis know they are not welcome to come in and take over their small towns.

Hundreds of protesters gathered in a North Dakota town on Sunday to speak out against plans by an American Nazi group to buy up property and take over the local government in an effort to build a bastion against diversity.

About 300 protesters, including some 200 Native Americans from nearby reservations, gathered outside the Leith City Hall where Jeff Schoep, leader of the National Socialist Movement presented his plans for turning the tiny North Dakota town -- population 24 – into a segregated place where whites can live among themselves.

Native Americans in particular took an active role in organizing the protests:

Various protest speakers took the mike and denounced the neo-Nazis peacefully, but emphatically. “We want the Nazis to know this is not a one day protest. We’ll be watching everything you do.” The protestors chanted, “No Nazis, no KKK!” A World War II Veteran said, “Let these creepy Nazi-Ku Klux people get out.” “Hey, hey! Ho ho! These Nazis have got to go!” the protesters chanted. “Our grandmothers will stand up to you! Our women will take you on!” one speaker said. “This is not your land. This is my land and you can go back home.” “On behalf of everybody here I’d like to say, go home.” “Go home, go home!” the crowd chanted.

Somewhat predictably, all this gets a mixed review from the hand-wringing conservatives at one of the leading North Dakota political blogs:

I admire what the folks at UnityND have done in organizing a social media and in-person response to the nazis, but in a way I think they’re helping those they oppose more than they like to realize.

I can’t help but feel as though the best response to the nazi “town hall” would have been no response at all.

It has to be cathartic to show up and scream at nazis. To call them names, mock their movement and denounce their bigoted ideology. I’ll bet that feels good, particularly for the large Native American contingent on hand who know a thing or two about racism, but what does it accomplish? Very little, as the right of these nazis to organize, hold meetings and purchase property is as sacrosanct as it is for any of the rest of us. Protesting isn’t going to stop them.

In fact, protesting gives them the one thing they need desperately from outside of their movement, and that’s attention.

These creeps live on the margins. Their ideas find few adherents. They have very little political and social clout. Except when they are given attention from outside of their movement.

They accomplish this by causing a stir. By doing and saying controversial things that fire up the public, and draw media attention.

Once upon a time -- when I was confronted with the decision on whether or not to devote news coverage to the activities of the neo-Nazi enclave known as the Aryan Nations -- I actually agreed with this.

And then I learned that following this advice -- ignoring the Nazis in the hope they will go away -- was a huge mistake. I have never forgotten it.

This was a debate with which I have become all too familiar over the years. I first dealt with it in the late 1970s, when I was the editor (something of a punk, at age 21) of the little daily in Sandpoint, Idaho, some 25 miles north of the new arrivals at Hayden Lake who called themselves the Aryan Nations.

I described some of my early encounters with the dilemma in Chapter 3 of In God's Country:

The letters all arrived the same way: neat, clean, carefully typed in all capitals. It was the neatness -- and the capitals -- that made them distinctive from many of the letters to the editor that crossed my desk at the Sandpoint Daily Bee. But after awhile, it was easy to recognize the correspondence from Robert Mathews.

The Bee was really a small-town paper; we only published five days a week and the paper itself was sometimes only ten or twelve pages thick. We didn't get all that many letters to the editor, so we treasured the few we got. You wrote a letter to us, it was probably going to get published.

Robert Mathews, though, was a little different story.

Mathews sent us letters regularly, one about every three or four weeks, from his home in Metaline Falls. This was actually out of the Bee's circulation area, and we knew he sent the same letters to our sister paper, the weekly Priest River Times, and its cross-river competitor, the Newport Miner. Since we preferred to publish letters from people who lived among our subscribers, we had an easy excuse not to run them.

There were better reasons, though. Almost inevitably, Mathews' missives were filled with anti-Semitic rants about the "Zionist Occupation Government" and the international banking conspiracy, at other times attacking "shiftless blacks" whose welfare burden was killing the nation with taxes. Yes, we welcomed an open debate on the pages of the Bee; but we felt like we had to draw a line when it came to spreading hate and falsehoods.

Most of Mathews' letters went directly to the "round file." Because he wrote so regularly, though, I looked for opportunities to reward his doggedness, deciding I would run the letters if they appeared free of racist or anti-Semitic references. This, however, never did occur.

Robert Mathews' letters were part of a disturbing tide of racial hate, and bizarre radical-right belief systems, that we had observed rising in the Northwest in the 1970s. The phenomenon was a puzzling one, especially for those of us in the newspaper business, because we were uncertain how to respond to it. Were we simply observing a few loud-mouthed ranters wishing to attract attention to themselves? And would covering them or allowing their hate to spew on our pages just give them the publicity, and the foothold, they sought? Would reporting on them just encourage them?

This was not the only context in which we discussed the Aryan Nations in our newsroom. We also discussed -- with the publisher/owner, Pete Thompson, in the mix -- whether or not we should even cover the activities at the compound, as well as some of the hateful material its followers trafficked in beyond even letters to the editor. And we decided not to. With our resources limited in the first place, it seemed as though giving their fringe fantasies about creating a "white Northwest" was not just a waste of space, but something that might actually help distribute those views and, worse yet, recruit fresh followers.

The moral of this story, of course, is that Robert Mathews was not just a typical writer of letters to the editor. Some four years later, he would organize a group of extremist revolutionaries who called themselves the Bruders Schweigen (Silent Brotherhood), more popularly known as The Order. By the time their yearlong crime spree was done, they ended up with an astonishing record of havoc in their wake: some twenty-odd bank robberies and armored-car stickups, including the largest take in an overland-carrier holdup in history ($3.6 million from a Wells Fargo armored car in Ukiah, Calif.); operating a large counterfeiting ring; and most notoriously, the assassination of Denver radio talk-show host Alan Berg.

As I noted in the book, the Daily Bee changed its policies by the time it was all over. In his last week alive, Mathews penned a long letter and sent it to a few newspapers, including the little paper in Sandpoint. A few days later, he was cornered by the FBI on Whidbey Island and went out in a blaze of glory, remaining inside his cabin after an incendiary device was lobbed into it. The Bee finally ran that letter.

What that incident, and many subsequent cases, convinced me of was this: We can never let our guard down when it comes to fascists and fascism -- especially when it is the real thing. We dismiss them as inconsequential at our extreme peril.

It's not that the counterpoint is meritless:

There is, in fact, a real danger that giving liars like the Holocaust deniers and the neo-Nazis any kind of publicity at all will help them spread their poison and gain new followers. In fact, it's almost certain that this will happen to at least a minor extent. However, that problem is far outweighed by the extent to which the larger society can see this kind of activity for what it is. In this sense, the kind of reporting that's done is essential; if it's shallow reporting that resorts to a phony "balancing" act, then the more likely the extremists are to succeed; the more grounded and in-depth it is, the more likely you are to blunt any potential recruitment effect.

Worse, trying to create an information vacuum only leaves society even more vulnerable. Pretending they don't exist, for one thing, plays into extremists' own mythology, particularly the belief that the "mainstream media" don't "dare" to run their conspiracy theories because it's the "truth". It also means that the widespread opprobrium they should be hearing is absent. Haters love to believe they're carrying out what the rest of society really, secretly, wants, but no one dares say so because of "political correctness."

Haters and racists thrive in darkness, and they thrive on silence. They look for approval from whatever source they can muster. For them, silence equals tacit approval.

But paying attention to haters and, moreover, standing up to them requires both constant vigilance and a keen awareness of the dangers inherent in doing so. In my experience, the best response it to make a complete mockery of them, as a crowd of counter-protesters did several years ago in Olympia. (Talk about a bunch of guys going home with their heads down and their tails between their legs.)

The important thing, though, is for these communities to be able to stand up and say "Not In Our Town". And this time it was successful.

Cross-posted at Orcinus.

About David Neiwert

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