Friday, August 01, 2014

Arsonist Who Attempted to Burn Down Gay Bar Gets Exceptional 10-year Sentence

[Cross-posted at Hatewatch.]

Musab Mohammad Masmari, the man who tried to burn down a popular  gay bar in Seattle on a packed New Year’s Eve, has been sentenced to 10 years in prison.

The sentence, handed down on Thursday, was considered exceptionally stiff, after Masmari had agreed to a plea bargain on arson charges only, meaning he would not face the federal hate-crime charges that were considered in the case. According to the Seattle Times, the sentence more than doubled the time agreed to in the plea bargain.

Masmari, a 30-year-old American citizen of Libyan extraction and upbringing, was caught on camera as he carried a container filled with gasoline through Neighbours, a popular bar in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, on New Year’s Eve. Shortly afterwards, patrons smelled smoke and found the container on the landing to a set of stairs engulfed in flames; their prompt action quickly doused the fire.

An estimated 750 people were in the bar at the time, and the matter quickly became a hate crime investigation. “It was just a great thing that people acted as fast as they did to put out the fire,” a police spokesperson said. “We could have had mass, mass casualties, and we’re very lucky that that didn’t happen.”

Some of the people present at the bar that night were in the courtroom during Masmari’s sentencing hearing on Thursday. Shaun Knittel, a Seattle LGBT-community activist, said he and others in the community were “disgusted” with the plea bargain’s five-year sentence. Neighbours, he said, was packed that night with “people who are irreplaceable to us.”

“This was a blatant attack on our lives,” he said.

U.S. District Judge Ricardo Martinez told the courtroom he would use his discretion to impose the exceptional sentence because Masmari had clearly targeted his victims because they were gay, and because of the possibility of a huge loss of life.

Masmari, who claimed in a presentencing statement that he had blacked out that night after drinking a bottle of whiskey, did not speak during the hearing. His attorney said the stiff sentence was not entirely a surprise, “due to the political nature of this case.”

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Secretive Texas Militias Now Patrolling Along Border, Paper Reports

[Cross-posted at Hatewatch.]

The San Antonio Express-News published a report this week that listed some of the groups that have been involved in the patrols and included numerous photos of the militiamen.

Strikingly, the patrols are being organized secretively, and all the militiamen involved have insisted on anonymity.

The photos published with the report show dozens of men wearing camouflage gear and carrying a variety of semi-automatic weapons, patrolling areas of the border of southern Texas. In some cases, the men are wearing masks; in others, their faces have been blurred by photo retouching.

The individual who provided the photos insisted on blurring the visible faces of participants, saying they need anonymity to protect against retaliation by “cartel and gang members.” Nonetheless, some of the men in the photos contacted the paper and demanded that it remove the images, blurred or not, from the website.

Kolten Parker, the reporter who handled the story, told the SPLC that he and his editors tried to independently confirm as many details as possible, given that the militias have been secretive about who they are and when and where they are conducting patrols.

“We’ve spoken with ranchers in the area where these patrols are occurring, and we’ve seen plenty of evidence that they are,” Parker said. Judging from the 30 or so photos that the paper ran, he said that so far the patrols are being conducted in a well-organized manner.

Barbie Rogers of the Patriot Information Hotline told the paper that there are 10 “operations on the ground in Texas” this week.

When the militia patrols were first announced last month, the chief spokesman – a 37-year-old truck driver from Von Ormy named Chris Davis – stirred up concerns about potential violence by explaining, in a now-deleted video, how to solve the border problem: “How? You see an illegal. You point your gun dead at him, right between his eyes, and you say, ‘Get back across the border or you will be shot.’”

Davis shortly disappeared from view, closing down his operation and refusing any further media interviews. It shortly emerged in the Express-News that Davis had been discharged from the Army in 2001 “under other than honorable conditions in lieu of trial by court-martial,” according to a summary of his military service.

Another news report from Texas, from KBMT-TV in Beaumont, Texas, featured an “unorganized militia” in Southeast Texas. The group’s self-described “commander” is a middle-aged man named David Smith.

The news report buys into Smith’s claim that his militia bears no resemblance to militias in other countries and utterly ignores the long association of militias with radical antigovernment “Patriot” movement extremists.

Notably, however, Smith insists that his militia isn’t going to be running around too far from home. “If they can take care of their community along that border, that’s fine,” he said, “but if we leave our communities to just go running down to the border, then we leave our communities unprotected.”

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Arizona State Militia Says It’s Mainstream – It’s Not

[Cross-posted at Hatewatch.]

A new “statewide” militia group that is attempting to organize in Arizona has been careful to portray itself to would-be recruits and law enforcement as a non-radical, mainstream organization that cooperates with local authorities. Calling itself the Arizona State Militia (ASM), the group claims to have successfully recruited a number of veterans of the U.S. military.

But as with similar efforts in Idaho and elsewhere, if you scrape a bit at the fa├žade, the same old antigovernment paranoia and conspiracy theories are lurking in plain view.

ASM is operated by a pair of men who insist on maintaining anonymity by using pseudonyms – one calls himself “Colonel Reaper,” while the other calls himself “Colonel Kratos.” This ongoing lack of transparency stands in stark contrast to the openness with which they carry their guns in public.
No one from the group responded to requests for comment from Hatewatch.

The militia made headlines when it appeared at a recent anti-immigrant demonstration in Arizona. None of the militiamen spoke on camera, but they were described by others as providing “security” for politicians and public figures who appeared at the demonstration.

ASM insists that all of its members must undergo a background check before they are admitted. This is a claim we’ve heard from militia and related groups in the past, notably the Minuteman Project. It often later emerged that their background check process was deeply flawed and their ranks were filled with people with long criminal records (in the case of the Minutemen, the most notorious example was onetime leader Shawna Forde).

ASM has a code of conduct and sworn oath for its members that includes a ban on “illegal activity” and “racism or discrimination based on race, sex, or ethnicity” (evidently, a bias based on sexual orientation is still permissible). Most of all the militia insists that it is not an “anti-government group”
but rather hopes to work cooperatively with local authorities.

“We are not here to over-throw or restructure the government,” ASM’s website proclaims. It continues:

As Arizona State’s premier group of law-abiding, Constitutional Patriots- living, working, and training throughout the state; we strive to improve our community and to help our members hone and sharpen their defensive skills. We will use these skills to help our local communities in cases of emergency, natural disaster, or war. We pride ourselves on the fact we are an open group accepting all races and genders with open arms. In life as well as the fight for freedom we are all equal are we not?

The group made a stab at establishing their community bona fides in May by taking part in a home building project with Habitat for Humanity of Central Arizona, posting pictures and text about it at their blog. ASM claimed that “they invited us to join the build” and said they’d be involved in a June build and promised to post photos. So far, those have not appeared on the website.

Hatewatch’s inquiry with Habitat for Humanity of Central Arizona about ASM’s involvement went unanswered.

ASM also hopes to establish its bona fides with testimonials on its website from military veterans who have supposedly joined the militia, some of whom say they are combat veterans. (Of course, since the organization insists on anonymity, these claims are impossible to check out.)

In September of last year, TV station KPHO in Phoenix ran an investigative report from a correspondent who went undercover to an ASM meeting and found that its recruiters were offering advice to veterans and military contractors about how to get around military prohibitions against militia involvement.

As the KPHO report noted, Arizonans have reason to be suspicious of anyone calling themselves a militiaman and setting out to patrol the American border, since the state has been home to a number of criminal cases arising from the activities of so-called border watchers, including Forde’s horrific murders. More recently, Minuteman cofounder Chris Simcox was arrested and currently awaits trial on three counts of child molestation.

“Colonel Kratos” told an interviewer from a Montana-based, antigovernment Patriot radio show that he believes a lot of militias have gone astray after becoming distracted by what he called “side issues.”

“It defines a lot of them when they get involved with things they really shouldn’t get involved in,” he told the interviewer. “And it becomes a mindset. The individuals that run this organization have the mindset that we are a strict constitutional militia. When you allow personal opinions or personal things to get in the way of the bigger picture, it creates havoc for any organization.”

“And what we don’t allow in our organization is power struggles,” he continued. “We all understand what our role is. It isn’t about any one of us. It’s about the organization as a whole, and the community and the state.”

He advised people looking to join a militia to avoid any organization that describes itself as radical or involved with fringe concerns. “If they’re involved with positive community things that help those communities, and they’re staying out of those social issues and they’re not portraying themselves as an antigovernment organization, one that is simply there to exert their belief in the Constitution and the state’s rights, that’s somebody you want to take a serious look at,” he said.

Despite these claims, it’s clear that ASM is fueled in no small part by the paranoid conspiracy theories that help fuel the broader militia and Patriot movements, including a belief in an overwhelming “New World Order” plot to enslave Americans. This is referenced in several places on the militia’s website.

Likewise, ASM’s Code of Conduct, rather than offering a reassuring explanation that all militiamen will be civic-minded in their approach to their duties, instead focuses – at least in the first half – on how the militiamen should behave if captured by their enemies: “I will evade answering further questions to the utmost of my ability. I will not make any oral or written statements disloyal to my beloved state and its citizens, or harmful to their continued struggle for liberty and freedom as prescribed in the constitutions of Arizona and the United States.”

The second half of the Code, as it happens, is a nearly verbatim recitation of the Ten Orders We Will Not Obey that form the heart of the credo of the Oath Keepers, another Patriot organization that revels in conspiracies and paranoia, and whose radical ideology was on display at the Bundy Ranch standoff in Nevada this spring.

ASM appears to be just another radical antigovernment group in the vein of the many militia and Patriot groups that have come and gone before them.