Thursday, July 29, 2004

Hate among the young

One of the most troubling aspects of the recent resurgence of white-supremacist ideology and its attendant hate crimes is the reality that young people -- especially young males -- are now the primary target of recruitment by hate groups.

Even if they never join such groups (which is most often the case), young men are targeted by white-supremacist ideologues specifically because they know they are likely to act out on the belief system spread by the rhetoric they engender, which is often picked up and used by non-members who are nonetheless sympathetic. Hate groups carefully tailor their messages to appeal to young men's sensibilities, running the gamut from inflaming urban and suburban racial tensions in high schools to promoting so-called "racist rock."

Accordingly, it's mostly among young people that we've been seeing this fresh wave of currency for white-supremacist ideology and hate crimes. We may be gradually approaching the day that most of those who monitor right-wing extremism have always dreaded: the day when racism and white supremacism become "hip" and "cool" because they embody the ultimate in rebelliousness.

This concern was raised by a recent Dwight Lewis column in the Tennessean that details the racist material taken from a teenager by his grandmother in Nashville.

It's worth noting how the teen obtained the material:
Jackie told me her grandson got involved in hatred groups such the Klan and neo-Nazis after going to Florida during spring break this year.

"He met a girl in Orlando whose father was said to be a member of the Ku Klux Klan," Jackie said. "She fed on my grandson, and then he started getting all this stuff in the mail.

"When I went to visit him, he started telling about some of it. I said, 'Andy, that's not the way you're supposed to think about people.' And then he said to me, 'If I came home with a black girl, you wouldn't have any problem with it?'

"I said, 'No, Andy, I wouldn't.' "

Jackie said her grandson has been using both of his parents' computers to get in the chat rooms of hate groups.

"I think if he keeps this up, it could lead to trouble for him," Jackie said. "And I think other people ought to know that stuff like this is taking place, that it's out there on computers and kids such as my grandson are having their brains filled with this garbage."

The column references a recent Southern Poverty Law Center report titled "Age of Rage" that details what's happening on the ground:
Hate among kids has probably never been more widespread — and it doesn't stop with racist graffiti, Confederate flag T-shirts, swastika tattoos and homophobic slurs in high-school hallways.

Studies by hate-crime experts like Jack Levin, director of Northeastern University's Brudnick Center and co-author of the new book, Why We Hate, show that incidents perpetrated by youngsters, which became more frequent from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s, "plummeted" during the Clinton years.

But since 9/11, the number of hate crimes by kids has risen sharply — and they appear to be more brutal than ever. "What we're seeing," says Eric Ward, a longtime observer of extremist youth who works at Chicago's Center for New Community, "is a more militant, street-fighter culture."

As both the Boston and Farmingville incidents show, the targets of this militance have multiplied -- and so have the perpetrators. After 9 /11, a disproportionate number of the assaults on Muslim-Americans were committed by teenagers. The same appears true for attacks against sexual and gender minorities, Hispanics and the homeless.

And hate activity is no longer the province of white boys, though they're still the main offenders. Not only are more Hispanic and African-American kids getting involved in hate, but more girls as well.

Social ecologist Ronald Huff, a longtime student of both street and racist youth gangs, estimates that in many cities "anywhere from a third to 50% of gang members are girls."

In another demographic shift, the bulk of hate activity now bubbles up in the suburbs -- among reasonably well-off youth.

"Twenty years ago, big cities were hotbeds of hate," says Levin. "But as more and more minority families have moved into suburban areas, the prevalence of hate attacks has also increased there -- much of it perpetrated by kids."

Where the classic profile of a young hater in the 1980s was a blue-collar juvenile angered by economic displacement, the more typical picture now is a teenager "raised in a middle-class family in a place where almost everyone is a racial rubber-stamp of himself," Levin says.

The article also explores the underlying dynamic of what is attracting young people:
No single factor is sufficient to explain the spread of youth hatred. But the upsurge in one of its main manifestations — white supremacy — has inspired a theory developed by sociologists like Pamela Perry and Randy Blazak.

In Perry's 2002 book, Shades of White, she chronicled the racial attitudes of white kids at two contemporary California high schools — one predominantly white, one minority white. She found what Blazak calls "anomie" — French sociologist Emile Durkheim's term for the sense of confusion brought on by rapid social change.

The confusion, in this case, amounts to a basic question: "[W]hat is the new role of whites in the multicultural chorus?"

As Blazak points out in his forthcoming book, Ethnic Envy, "contemporary youth were born in the 1980s and 1990s, long after the frontline civil rights battles." White kids lack a long-term perspective on racial oppression in the U.S. — and end up saying, for instance, that "racism ended in the 1960s" and they're tired of hearing blacks "complaining about it."

They also see Hispanics, lesbians and gay men, Asian-Americans and others embraced and recognized — while straight white culture seems, from their limited vantage points, to be dissed and demonized.

"White kids feel like their racial identity is murky nowadays," says Ward. That's been partly responsible for the outbreak of Confederate flag T-shirts in high schools, both North and South, and also in several efforts — usually snuffed out by administrators — to start Caucasian clubs, mostly in California high schools.

"When they bring it up, they get their hands slapped," Ward says, "and they become pariahs. Pariahs can be dangerous."

Hate groups have tailored their recruitment pitches to these frustrated white kids. A perfect example is Jeff Schoep, "commander" of the National Socialist Movement, who says his group "lets our young people know it's all right to be white, and better yet, something to be proud of."

As I've previously explained, one of the chief manifestations of the spread of hate-group ideology is the appearance of hate crimes, largely because so much of white-supremacist rhetoric is specifically intended to inspire such acts, and so many such crimes indeed feature such rhetoric and symbology.

There certainly has been a recent spike in reported hate crimes, though whether that represents a real increase in the crimes remains anyone's guess. And it's important to note that not all of them are being committed by teenagers: two recent cases in Wisconsin -- one in Waukesha and the other in Sturgeon Bay -- were committed mostly by younger men and women in their 20s, but with supporting help from older men.

More typical, however, is a recent hate crime in Chico, California, involved racist grafitti, which is predominantly committed by teenagers. There has also been a recent influx of white-supremacist literature appearing on doorsteps in the Chico area, a clear sign of both increased recruitment activity and the likelihood of increased violence.

Fortunately, community leaders in Chico are doing the right thing. Rather than following the classic Chamber of Commerce approach and trying to sweep the problem under the rug, a local human-rights group organized an anti-hate march in Chico last Tuesday to draw community attention to the problem.

Public demonstrations such as these may on the surface seem trite or "politically correct," but they really are essential steps in sending a signal to would-be perpetrators -- who typically believe they are acting out their community's real values -- that nothing but condemnation and opprobrium await them if they commit such crimes.

Another important step, along the way, is to make hate-crime laws effective. Only a little more than half of all states actually have effective laws on the books, and it should be incumbent on state legislators to make sure they're in place. It's worth noting that a prosecutor in Kentucky recently denounced his state's bias-crime law, remarking that the current statute -- which "states that if hate were determined as a primary factor in the commission of a crime, officials may use that to deny probation or parole" -- is one of the most toothless pieces of law on anyone's books. The same is true of many other states.

Dwight Lewis's column included a passage from John Seigenthaler's introduction to My Life In The Klan, by Jerry Thompson, particularly this:
During placid periods of relative social calm, we tend to ignore or forget the still-segregated mosaic of life in the United States, knowing that our instincts for decency and equity eventually will right the diminished wrongs. In the meantime, we are a tolerant people -- willing to tolerate a modest measure of intolerance. But a few seeds of intolerance take root in extremist fields and grow wild in a climate of unconcern. The environment is ripe for trouble.

The question is, will we have the courage to confront it when it ripens in our own children?

Making a martyr

Regular readers may recall the case of Marvin Heemeyer, the man who went on a rampage in a small Colorado town with an armored bulldozer, leveling a number of local buildings before becoming stuck and apparently shooting himself. I noted back then that a number of conspiracy theories had already sprung up around Heemeyer's case, and speculated that he might become yet another accidental martyr for right-wing extremists.

A recent piece by Martin Smith in the Los Angeles Times Magazine indicates that this is precisely what's happening:
Martyr Without a Cause:
The Antigovernment Crowd Declared Marvin Heemeyer a Hero After He Died Trying to Level a Colorado Town With an Armored Bulldozer. Never Mind That the 'Patriots' Got It All Wrong.

"Getting it all wrong" is, of course, a trademark of the extremist right, which thrives on distortion and outright falsehood. And in Heemeyer's case, it seems that they're once again taking a case of outrageous miscreancy and recasting it as yet another instance of evil government tyranny:
That back story was mostly lost in the energetic mythmaking that followed Heemeyer's rampage. In truth, this was not a one-man crusade against government tyranny, as some people saw it; instead, it was a nasty personality clash between two rough-edged men with a fair amount of money at stake. And so the Granby town board became the referee in an apparent public policy dispute that masked a history of personal animosity.

I'm briefly quoted in this piece, incidentally, but the real meat comes at the end:
... [H]is sister, living in Oregon, and his sister-in-law in Castlewood, S.D., also consider it "unfair" that some people have tried to twist Heemeyer's rage at a few local enemies into something else. "Marv's father served in World War II," Cindy Heemeyer says. "And Marv was very proud of his service in the Air Force. Going through his keepsakes and stuff, those were some of the things he kept. He paid his taxes. He wasn't antigovernment at all. His problem was with just a few people."

In 2001, patriot groups also tried to adopt the McGuckin family of Sandpoint, Idaho, whose land seizure by county officials led to an armed standoff between law enforcement and mother JoAnn and her six children. Still, JoAnn McGuckin was so concerned about unwanted support from patriot groups that she later released a written statement from her jail cell: "You all are most welcome to make your own political ideas known, of course, as you wish. Please, not in my name. I cannot honor your cause[s]."

But out there in the ideological abstract, where details don't much matter, the hijacking of Marvin Heemeyer continues. Conspiracy theories multiply against all logic: One suggests that the five guns and boxes of ammo in Heemeyer's bulldozer were a figment of law enforcement imagination, and that all those bullet holes around town were the result of ricocheting police fire. (Some of them were, no doubt, as one undersheriff emptied 37 rounds into the greased rhino's few orifices, hoping to disable or kill the unknown driver). The chatter got so loud that, nearly two weeks after the rampage, the Grand County Sheriff's Department felt compelled to clarify that Heemeyer wasn't the harmless man with a gripe his supporters wished him to be. Its news release noted the "significant amount of information circulating regarding Mr. Heemeyer's lack of intent to hurt anyone during this incident" and said "statements of witnesses and physical evidence contradict that belief." It also noted that Heemeyer fired his guns at both Docheff and police officers.

No matter. The misguided mythmaking goes on. Responding to an e-mailed question for this story, John Trochmann of Noxon, Mont., cofounder of the seminal Militia of Montana, prefaced his reaction to the rampage by stressing that his organization does not "condone violence whether it comes from a private source or from public service (government)."

In signing off, though, Trochmann couldn't resist adding one last flourish. He noted that, among his compatriots, "there is suspicion that Mr. Heemeyer did not take his own life as has been alleged. We shall see."

Oh yes indeed, we shall see.

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Domestic terrorism and Boston

Ask yourselves what would happen under the following scenario:

A credible threat of terrorist violence against Republicans at their convention in New York planned by a radical Islamist faction is reported by a widely respected news service. Law-enforcement and Homeland Security officials respond to the threat with an all-out security clampdown.

Would this story, you think, receive major play on the networks nightly newscasts? Fox News and the cable gabfests? How long would it be before Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity blamed liberals for aiding and abetting this threat?

Strangely enough, a scenario very much like this appears to be exactly what has happened with this year at the Democratic Convention in Boston, where Reuters reported last week that there may be attacks on media vehicles at the convention (none of which, we hasten to note, have occurred so far):
"The FBI has received unconfirmed information that a domestic group is planning to disrupt the Democratic National Convention by attacking media vehicles with explosives or incendiary devices," the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Boston field office said in a statement.

The Associated Press reported the same threat.

That's apparently not all. According to the current [Aug. 2, 2004] edition of U.S. News and World Report, the convention itself may be the target of a chemical/bioweapon attack:
We're told that party bigwigs heading to Boston for this week's Democratic National Convention and New York for the GOP gaggle ... are being warned about a potential chemical or biological attack from terrorists. While little is known for certain, security officials reveal that the threat is worse in New York than Boston. 'Who'd want to attack [Sen. John] Kerry?' asked one."

As it happens, I can think of a broad range of right-wing extremists who would plan an attack on John Kerry well before any on George Bush. But maybe that's just me.

Now obviously, it makes a certain amount of sense not to overplay the presence of these threats, because that treads into the realm of needless fearmongering. But there ought to be some kind of serious discussion of them, and the consequences of them, in the press and elsewhere, particularly in the context of our current "war on terror."

On the other hand, I am far from assured that the current "restraint" regarding domestic-terrorist threats in Boston would remain in place were there a similar threat -- from a non-domestic source -- in New York.

I'm wondering: Has anyone heard anyone on any of the cable channels discuss these threats? Have you seen any mention of them in the nightly newscasts? I'm asking partly out of serious hope that someone in fact has brought them up. I've tried to watch as much of the coverage as possible and have seen and heard absolutely nada, nil, zippo. But it's possible I missed something.

However, I did in fact find an account of the kind of stepped-up security that has descended on Boston. Some of this, it should be clear, is the simple product of the Sept. 11 attacks; security officials have been quoted in various news accounts saying that the level of security planned for this convention was unprecedented anyway. The domestic-terrorist threat, however, has almost certainly amplified that.

Joel Connelly of the Seattle P-I reported this morning that security was reaching new heights, as it were:
No fewer than 12 Massachusetts state police cruisers were working Interstate 93 where the freeway headed north into downtown Boston. Troopers stepped into the highway, directing delivery trucks to pull over for inspection.

Bill Hamilton, a transplanted Seattleite, was riding the MBTA orange line subway back into town. One of the city's main commuter stops -- North Station -- has been shut down for the convention.

"Wasn't the half of it," said Hamilton. "At the stop before North Station, armed guards boarded the train and started to search everybody's packages, backpacks and suitcases."

But according to Connelly, all this security was because of Osama bin Laden.

Because, of course, if they're white, they aren't terrorists.

[Thanks to John H., Daniel G. and Terry A. for the tips and links.]

Orca report

Just returned from another orca-watching trip to the San Juans. It's been a sketchy year for orca sightings, but Monday we had a great experience.

I had taken Fiona, who sits in a child seat in the middle of the boat, out to just paddle around and maybe see some seals along the west coast of San Juan Island. It was a gorgeous, sunny day and a light breeze kept everything cool. My sister-in-law, Trish, was in the front seat.

We rounded a corner and discovered a phalanx of whale-watching boats stretching southward for a mile or so. And heading right toward us was a large pod of orcas.

We simply stopped, unsure which way the whales were headed. As it happens, they were headed directly for us -- at least, a large portion of the pod was. Some swam by further out, but by the time the pod of 30 or so orcas had passed us by, about 20 of them had passed near our kayak. We thumped furiously on the hull of the boat the whole time so they could detect our presence.

One drifted by just under the rear of the boat, seemingly chasing a salmon, and then surfaced about five feet behind my rudder. One tail-lobbed us in an apparent warning; another rolled and wagged its pectoral fin in the air at us. A large male fully breached about twenty yards away from the front of the boat, and you could probably hear us gasp all the way back on shore.

Fiona had been near to drifting off for her regular 3-year-old's afternoon nap just before the whales appeared, but the first one who came near the boat awoke her fully. "Wow! They're really big, Dad!" she cried.

The night before, as she was going to bed in the tent, I had read her Paul Owen Lewis' Davy's Dream, a charming story about a boy who dreams of making friends with orcas by, among other things, singing to them.

As it also happens, her very favoritest favoritest movie in all the whole wide world right now is The Little Mermaid, which happens to feature a singing mermaid whose main theme is a short melody -- "Ah ah ah, ah ah ah" -- that Fiona has of course memorized.

Shortly after the first orca appeared near our boat, she decided to sing to them. The Little Mermaid Theme, of course. And over the course of the next 45 minutes or so, she sang to them. And when the orcas began appearing regularly, closer and playing, she cried out:

"It works, Daddy, it works!"

Of course, we both congratulated her for her awesome mermaid singing skill.

Later, when we got back to shore, Auntie Trish asked Fiona: "Were you ever scared of the orcas, honey?"

"Nooooo!" Fiona retorted scornfully, as though Auntie Trish was just being silly.