White supremacist groups around the country are moving aggressively to recruit new members by promoting their violent, racist ideologies on billboards, in radio commercials and in leaflets tossed on suburban driveways.
Watching with mounting alarm, civil rights monitors say these tactics stake out a much bolder, more public role for many hate groups, which are trying to shed their image as shadowy extremists and claim more mainstream support.
Watchdog groups fear increased violence from these organizations if they grow. But perhaps an even greater fear is that the new public relations strategy will let neo-Nazis recast themselves as just another voice in the political spectrum -- even when that voice may be advocating genocide.
“The concern is that this will bring them new members and money, and that they will get some real traction in mainstream politics,” said Mark Potok, who tracks hate groups for the Southern Poverty Law Center. “We are completely in favor of the 1st Amendment. [But] they poison the public discourse with ideas like ‘Jews are behind it all and need killing.’ ”
The National Alliance, which calls for ridding the U.S. of minorities, has led the drive to raise the profile of white supremacists.
The local chapter spent $1,500 on MetroLink ads here in St. Louis last month, plastering nearly every commuter train car in the city with a blue-and-white placard that declares “The Future belongs to us!” and lists the group’s website and phone number. The same chapter bought airtime on local talk radio last fall, urging whites to unite and fight for the survival of “white America.” One member of the chapter, Frank Weltner, has long hosted a radio show that advocates a white supremacist viewpoint.
“We want to use mainstream advertising to say to the public: We’re not a shadowy group. This is what we believe in, and we’re proud of it,” said chapter leader Aaron Collins. “We’re trying to give people courage. We want to show them, if you stand up for what you believe in, you’re not going to be crucified.”
With that goal in mind, other chapters of the National Alliance have posted billboards in Utah, Nevada and Florida. The group has also coordinated massive leaflet drops, distributing 100,000 racist fliers in a single night in states as diverse as New Jersey, Alabama and Nebraska.
The National Alliance even bought a membership list and mailing labels from the Florida Bar Assn. last year so it could send an eight-page recruitment letter -- complete with anti-Semitic cartoons -- to 2,500 criminal defense lawyers.
“If we had the money to advertise during the Super Bowl, we’d try that too,” said Shaun Walker, the organization’s chief operating officer.
Civil rights monitors consider the National Alliance one of the most virulent neo-Nazi organizations in the country. It was founded in the 1970s by the late William Pierce, who called for herding Jews, homosexuals and “racemixers” into cattle cars and sending them to abandoned coal mines.
Although the group’s website says it “does not advocate any illegal activity,” National Alliance members have been convicted of violent acts over the last two decades, including armed robberies, bombings and murders. The FBI’s senior counterterrorism expert told Congress in 2002 that the National Alliance represented a “terrorist threat.”
“They clearly have a track record of encouraging members to take their vision of race war to the streets,” said Devin Burghart, who monitors hate groups for the Center for New Community in Chicago.
Potok estimates that the National Alliance has fewer than 700 members, but it’s one of the best-financed supremacist groups in the country because it owns a music label, Resistance Records, which long dominated the white-power music scene.
The white supremacist movement encompasses scores of other small -- often feuding -- organizations, with total membership estimated at 100,000. They too are reaching out.
Last fall, residents of Columbia, Mo., awoke to find the Aryan Alternative -- a new tabloid promising “uncensored news for whites” -- next to the Sunday paper on their driveways. In Louisville, Ky., in December, a branch of the Ku Klux Klan sneaked fliers inside copies of the Courier-Journal rolled up for home delivery.
And in a bold bid to recruit youths as young as 13 to the movement, the Panzerfaust record label last fall gave away thousands of CDs packed with hard-driving white-power music, distributing them in schools and malls in numerous states, including California. Sample lyrics: “Do you feel the pride as the skinheads march by? Do you see as I do that our enemies must die?”
The Panzerfaust company dissolved this month when one of the label’s founders accused his business partner of being half-Mexican -- an ethnic heritage considered treasonous in the white-power world. Already, however, other groups have stepped up teen recruitment, selling swastika pendants online and promoting a “pro-white radio station” that streams supremacist ballads, heavy metal and rock songs.
Public outreach is not new for white-supremacist groups. The Knights of the KKK have been picking up litter for Missouri’s Adopt-a-Highway program for years.
But hate-group monitors say the latest recruitment campaigns are much broader than any they’ve seen before.
Neo-Nazi organizations are not only putting up billboards, they’re also instructing members to hide tattoos and dress for rallies in conservative suits to avoid being dismissed as extremists. Thomas Robb, the national director of the Knights of the KKK, urges his members to serve on community boards and in political parties so they can push their white-power agenda from positions of social respect.
“I encourage them to do that, absolutely,” Robb said. “Though it has to be done gently.”
The National Alliance, meanwhile, is increasingly tailoring its leaflets to current events. Local members seize on any racial tensions in their community as an excuse to blanket the area with articles explaining the white-power worldview.
As Walker, the chief operating officer, put it: “The current powers that be constantly demonize us. But if we can get our message out to enough people, we’ll gain legitimacy with the public.”
Civil rights advocates call this new emphasis on legitimacy insidious, because it could lure people into neo-Nazi circles before they fully understand what they’re being sold.
Some of the National Alliance’s ads and websites make it look “like the focus is on mainstream conservative issues,” said Karen Aroesty, the Midwest director of the Anti-Defamation League. The Las Vegas billboard, for instance, urged: “Stop Immigration.” The one in Salt Lake City declared: “Securing the Future for European Americans.”
Although no one offers hard numbers, white supremacists contend -- and their sharpest critics agree -- that the recruitment strategy is working.
Many of the promotions are short-lived; the MetroLink ads were up just a week before transit officials removed them in response to a complaint. Such controversy, however, generates media coverage that can be even more valuable than the ads themselves.
Media reports about the Salt Lake City billboard drove 4,500 visitors to the National Alliance’s local website in a single week -- compared with average traffic of 100 hits a month, Walker said.
When the flap about the MetroLink ads made news here, the National Alliance got so many calls that the phone company insisted that the group upgrade its voice mail system, said Collins, the chapter leader. He wouldn’t give precise numbers, but said 80% of the callers listened to the two-minute white-power message on the group’s answering machine, then hung up. He said there were two angry callers but that many people asked for more information. “I had to appoint three people just to call people back,” he said.
“What evidence we’ve seen indicates that real-world advertisement and promotion has far more impact on recruitment than online work does,” said Burghart, the Chicago human rights monitor.
“They reach a different demographic,” he said. Many middle-aged recruits, he said, feel more comfortable joining a group they’ve seen on TV or have heard advertised on the radio, rather than one that makes its presence known mostly through racist rants in Internet chat rooms.
Hate groups recognize the power of that outreach. So they intend to keep at it.
“You know the old saying: It pays to advertise,” Walker said. The thought chills Marilyn Mayo, an associate director of the Anti-Defamation League.
“Only a very small percentage of the population supports them,” she said. “But they always will attract a certain number -- and how many is too much?”