When four members of the white supremacist group Rise Above Movement were arrested last week on federal charges that they traveled to Virginia last year with the intent to incite a riot and commit violence, many news outlets referred to the group as an “alt-right fight club.” Others called it “a racist social club.”
The Rise Above Movement, or R.A.M., is far more dangerous than these euphemistic labels suggest. An extreme hate group that grew out of California’s skinhead subculture, R.A.M. calls for the extermination of Jews and other “anti-white” enemies, not to mention the overthrow of the U.S. government.
R.A.M. is one of many violent hate groups that espouse such views. Atomwaffen Division, a neo-Nazi group that is organized into cells and whose name means “atomic weapons” in German, openly aspires to terroristic violence. Proud Boys, another group in the white-power ecosystem, has demonstrated a propensity for extreme violence.
Despite the dangers posed by such groups, many Americans tend to view their violent acts as either the work of a mentally deranged individual or the collective anger of misguided young men who are merely lashing out. This outlook is dangerously naive and one we can no longer afford to indulge.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the number of hate groups in the U.S. grew from 784 to 917 between 2014 and 2016. There are now 954 hate groups across the country. Some of these groups include “pro-white” militia that are engaged in paramilitary-style training, learning hand-to-hand combat and guerilla warfare techniques and planning strategic attacks on critical infrastructure.
If jihadists were plotting any of the above on American soil — to kill American citizens and take out U.S. power grids, among other things — our collective response would be far less permissive. Put another way, if these extremists had brown skin, we would call them terrorists.
Instead, we wave away their threats and do so despite this glaring fact: White extremists have committed nearly 75% of all terrorist attacks on American soil since September 11.
I recognize white extremism, and violent extremism of all kinds, because it was once the currency that ruled my life. In 1987, at the age of 14, I was recruited into America’s first white-power skinhead hate group, the Chicago Area Skinheads, or C.A.S.H.
By 17, I was fronting one of the country’s earliest “hate rock” bands, using music as a recruitment tool — music that would later find its way to Dylann Roof, four months before he killed nine African American churchgoers at Mother Emanuel A.M.E. in Charleston, S.C.
Throughout the early 1990s, I led a cell of the Hammerskin Nation, one of the most violent hate groups in the world. I read “Mein Kampf,” tattooed swastikas on my body and stockpiled weapons for a “white revolution.” I nearly became implicated in a plot that involved funding from Moammar Kadafi, who wanted to ignite a race war against American Jews.
Through the compassion of the people I once believed I hated, I was given the opportunity to crawl my way out of white supremacist beliefs in 1996. For the last 20 years, I have worked to dismantle the monster I helped create.
When the marchers in Charlottesville, Va., chanted “blood and soil,” I knew I was hearing a sanitized version of “race and nation,” which scores of violent Nazis, myself included, shouted decades ago at events similar to the “Unite the Right” rally.
Inspired by the writings of Hitler and the idea of “white jihad,” members of groups like R.A.M. and Proud Boys don’t need much provocation to become violent. Indeed, members of Atomwaffen Division have been charged in five killings over the past two years.
Samuel Woodward, the 20-year-old Newport Beach man charged with stabbing a former high school classmate nearly 20 times, is reportedly a member of Atomwaffen.
In Reston, Va., a 17-year-old Atomwaffen member was charged last year with murdering his girlfriend’s parents, reportedly because they had forbidden their daughter from dating him.
In Tampa, Fla., Devon Arthurs, a 19-year-old former Atomwaffen devotee who converted to radical Islam, was charged last year with shooting two of his neo-Nazi roommates after they ridiculed his sudden transformation.
In a separate case, another of Arthurs’ roommates, Brandon Russell, 22, an Atomwaffen leader, was arrested for possessing radioactive material and bomb-making devices. Among his possessions, police found a framed photo of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.
It is true that the leaders of such groups draw in disillusioned young men who believe the world has sidelined them. But just because their members look familiar to many Americans does not make them less dangerous. Their violence is part of a growing pattern of domestic terrorism and should not be excused as an adolescent blip.
Adolf Hitler also understood the strategic utility of empowering young people, feeding them a one-sided worldview built on propaganda and channeling their frustrations, real or imagined, toward a manufactured enemy.
Before the Third Reich murdered tens of millions of people, it began in small Munich beer halls, just a few loyal street thugs with a social club.