Lawsuits Threaten to Drain the Life Out of Hate Groups
It was an ugly incident on a lonely country road.
Victoria Keenan and her teenage son, driving home through the summer twilight, were chased down and beaten outside the neo-Nazi Aryan Nations compound by a truckload of security guards.
Two men were sentenced to prison in the 1998 attack. But civil rights groups want more. In an Idaho courtroom next week, they will attempt by way of the legal system to do what they haven’t been able to in more than two decades: Shut down the Aryan Nations compound--with its barbed wire, watchtower, chapel and “Whites Only” sign. It is one of the most important gathering places for the white supremacy movement in America.
A Kootenai County jury on Monday is scheduled to hear a civil suit filed on Keenan’s behalf by the Southern Poverty Law Center--a case that if successful could award enough damages to bankrupt the Aryan Nations and seize control of the 20-acre compound from its leader, Richard Butler.
The case, to be tried under extraordinarily high security, is part of a growing movement to use the civil courts as an economic weapon to bankrupt the purveyors of organized racism.
Increasingly, human rights groups are filing lawsuits that seek to hold the ideologues and mouthpieces of the nation’s most visible white supremacist organizations accountable for the crimes committed by their followers.
In Southern California, the Hammerskin Nation is being sued, accused of sanctioning the 1999 beating and stabbing of a black man by a group of skinheads in Riverside. And in Illinois, survivors of a racist shooting rampage by World Church of the Creator member Benjamin Smith are seeking to hold leader Matt Hale and the organization legally responsible.
“Nobody has found a shred of evidence that Matt Hale even knew about the crimes, let alone participated in them,” said his lawyer, Glenn Greenwald. Civil rights groups “have said their intent . . . is to bankrupt these hate groups by forcing them to put their resources into litigation so they don’t have any money for anything else, which I think . . . is an abuse of the court system.”
“By suing us, they demonstrate the correctness of our cause,” Hale added. “They’re demonstrating how desperate they are to stop us.”
‘The White Race Is Under Attack’
Aryan Nations officials say it is inappropriate to hold them liable for an action that occurred more than two miles away from their compound. In general, defense lawyers say, the lawsuits are an attempt to use the court system to suppress unpopular political views.
Butler, 83, is accused of recklessness and negligence in supervising his security force--and the entire organization faces claims for assault, battery and false imprisonment. “The lawsuit we’re now facing has one purpose and one purpose alone: to bankrupt the Church of Jesus Christ Christian and the Aryan Nations,” Butler said. “This land is going to be here as long as we are. We bought it, we paid for it, we’ve worked for it, and they want to steal it. . . . It’s proof positive that the white race is under attack.”
Plaintiffs’ lawyers, however, say it is important--in the widening circle of violence that has characterized racial conflict in recent years--to hold accountable not only the perpetrators but also the groups that inspired them.
“There are 1st Amendment issues that protect political speech, expressions of ideas and philosophy. But the goal is to make sure they don’t protect organizations when they advocate . . . specific courses of violence, when they ratify acts of violence,” said Andrew Roth, who is representing 24-year-old Randy Wordell Brown in two civil rights lawsuits filed against the shadowy skinhead group Hammerskin Nation and four of its California chapters.
The Southern Poverty Law Center already has a track record pursuing white supremacist organizations in the civil courts. In the best known case, the group won a $12.5-million jury verdict in Oregon against Tom Metzger’s White Aryan Resistance, whose alleged encouragement of skinhead violence against minorities was said to have influenced the beating death of a black youth in 1990.
SPLC attorney Morris Dees Jr. declined to discuss the Aryan Nations case, set to go to trial in Kootenai County District Court Monday. “We don’t want to do anything that would add to the public complaint. Any statements we have to make will be in court,” Dees said.
But in an article he wrote for a legal publication, Dees said that the goal is to hold hate group leaders responsible for the violent actions of their members. “We as lawyers cannot literally stop hate violence before it occurs. But we can penalize both the leaders and the foot-soldiers who provoke racist confrontations,” he wrote.
Punitive Damage Ruling Raises Stakes
Butler says legal fees already have put him $50,000 in debt. He has been placing $600 of his $800 monthly Social Security check into a defense fund, he says. And a judge’s ruling earlier this month that the plaintiffs will be able to seek punitive damages lent new urgency to the campaign for contributions from racist supporters across the country. Six major distributors of skinhead music have said they are donating proceeds from sales of their music to help foot the bill.
The suit has attracted wide backing in communities surrounding the compound. More than 1,000 people, for example, turned out to protest against recent Aryan Nations parades in the streets of Coeur d'Alene, and demonstrators on both sides of the issue are expected to gather near the courthouse when the trial opens.
“We would rejoice if [the suit] was the end of the Aryan Nations in our area, although we wouldn’t wish them on anyone else,” said Sandpoint, Idaho, human rights activist Brenda Hammond.
And community leaders in Coeur d'Alene--which has moved to hire a human relations coordinator to help dispel its image as a haven for white supremacists--have said they hope the suit will spell an end to an organization that for years has been a troublesome neighbor.
“A long list of criminal actions can be laid at the door of Richard Butler and the Aryan Nations,” the Northwest Coalition for Human Dignity says in a report on the suit.
Several former Aryan Nations members went on to form a group known as the Order, responsible for a series of robberies, bombings and murders in the 1980s. A onetime Aryan Nations chief of security was convicted of hiring a hit on a suspected informant. Another ex-member was convicted of bombing the home of Bill Wassmuth, founder of the Northwest Coalition and a former priest. (The Aryan Nations compound itself was bombed in 1981, doing $80,000 worth of damage to the group’s swastika-draped chapel.)
And Buford O. Furrow, charged in the shooting at a Los Angeles Jewish community center and the killing of a Filipino American letter carrier last year, was photographed at the compound wearing an Aryan Nations uniform. His marriage, to the widow of a former white supremacist leader, was performed on the compound grounds. Butler and other Aryan Nations members have condemned the attacks.
Datsun Backfired, Victim Says
“This case is important,” the Northwest Coalition says in its report. “It will send a strong message to white supremacists and others that they will be held responsible for criminal action. No matter what people believe, they may not take the law into their own hands.”
The case has attracted popular sympathy in part because Keenan and her son are locals. They said they were driving by the compound one evening when Keenan’s son accidentally tossed his wallet out the window. Just as they were circling back to look for it, their old Datsun backfired, apparently leading Aryan guards to believe a shot had been fired.
A truckload of guards began chasing them, firing their guns and driving the Keenans’ car into a ditch. One man rushed up and hit Keenan with the butt of his gun. Others struck her son, Jason, as he huddled, weeping, on the floor of the car.
“They were yelling, ‘Don’t mess with the Aryans,’ ” Keenan said. She tearfully denied that she had shot at the compound. She begged them to take her, not her son. The men seemed to have second thoughts. “Because you’re white,” one of the men told her, “we’re going to let you live today.”
Last month, as about 100 Aryan Nations members and their families gathered in Hayden Lake for what may be the group’s last annual World Congress, there was widespread belief that Dees and his group are using the high-profile lawsuits to attract donations.
Neuman Britton, the California Aryan Nations leader from Escondido who is set to take over the national group when Butler retires, said he is convinced the Keenan incident was a setup to provide grounds for a suit. “The lady just drove by, saying her car backfired. It’s very unusual for a car these days to backfire. Either she did fire a shot, or her son did, or set off a firecracker or something. It was a setup, planned and sponsored by the forces of Morris Dees.”
From prison not long ago, the man convicted of leading the 1998 assault, former Aryan Nations security chief Edward Jesse Warfield, sent a letter to Keenan, apologizing and asserting that he was “just as scared as you were” during the attack. He said he simply was trying to prevent possible harm to those he was assigned to protect.
He warned Keenan against allowing herself to be “used” by Dees. And he issued a warning: “Please don’t let Mr. Dees put you and Jason in a spot. Where you might need to look over your shoulder for the rest of your life. Because some idiot is pissed off over what’s going on with Aryan Nations. Some people are not as understanding as I am.”
During his address to the Aryan Nations’ World Congress, Britton used the suit as a rallying point.
“I rebuke you, Morris Dees. . . . You’re going to die with your flesh eaten up by maggots!” he declared.
“There’s not going to be any stopping of the hate!” Britton roared. “We’re in the staging area right now for one of the greatest conflicts there ever was--and that is a racial war!”
White Power Music on Pickup Stereos
At the congress, the mood for the most part was more celebratory than defiant. Families camped out in tents under the trees, then gathered at picnic tables for hamburgers and spaghetti. Beer was banned, but clusters of skinhead youths competed in a hammer-throwing competition and played raucous white-power music on the stereos of their pickup trucks. German martial music played over the loudspeaker, and Butler’s German shepherds nipped playfully at each other and begged for attention.
Gathering in Butler’s Church of Jesus Christ Christian and looking up at a bust of Adolf Hitler, they heard speeches from white supremacist leaders from across the country, including August Kreis III of the Posse Comitatus in Pennsylvania; Vincent Bertollini of the 11th Hour Remnant Messenger in Sandpoint, Idaho; and Russell G. Thatcher of the Aryan Covenant Church in Anderson, Texas.
“One thing I think each and every one of you knows: We do not compromise. . . . We either win or we lose,” Butler told the congregation. “You’ve got a right and a duty to hate that which would destroy your family and your loved ones.”
Later that night, as darkness fell over the compound, a towering cross and two giant swastikas were set ablaze, lighting up the meadow with an eerie glow.
“Now that is a beautiful sight,” a woman murmured, a baby balanced on one hip. Families lined up to get their pictures taken with the cross burning behind their smiles. A young skinhead from Montana, Tom Edelman, dropped down on one knee, took his girlfriend’s hand and asked her to marry him.
Then the meadow erupted in low, human roars: “Sieg heil! White power!”
A young woman sat outside the circle, stroking one of the dogs. “Peace and unity!” she called out.
Several people looked angrily her way. “What did she say?” one woman demanded. But by that time, the girl had walked outside the firelight and was gone.