The mind of a modern Nazi

White supremacy rally at Capitol draws fierce local criticism

The State News, Lansing, Michigan/April 20, 2006
By Bob Darrow

Downtown Lansing abounds with politicians, and Bill White could be any one of them as he sits in a Beaner's Gourmet Coffee around the corner from the Capitol, dressed in a suit and tie, sipping a tall mocha topped with a swirl of whipped cream.

But White isn't a mainstream politician. He preaches some of the world's most despised political philosophy as a leader of America's largest neo-Nazi group.

His group, the National Socialist Movement, is in town for a rally on the steps of the Capitol this weekend. The planned rally has created a storm of community protest and media attention.

White, 28, hails from Roanoke, Va., where he works either as an urban developer or a slum lord, depending on who you ask. His white supremacist Web site is getting about 9,000 hits a day, but White, ironically, said he used to be a liberal activist like the very people who are protesting him now.

"I used to be the guy who crashed the police lines for fun," he said.

White's politics have migrated to the opposite fringe, demanding races and ethnic groups be segregated and the government be centralized under a strong socialist system.

Across the table from White sit Dan Hill and Dan Carlson, heads shaved and arms tattooed with skulls and swastikas. They are members of the group's growing Michigan chapters.

Carlson and Hill epitomize the working-class men who they say make up most of the group's membership in Michigan.

Hill is from Port Huron and works the early-morning shift at a manufacturing plant in Warren. About half of his co-workers are minorities, and he said they generally get along.

Hill and Carlson spend weekends distributing leaflets and holding rallies across the state, which they say draw new members.

The group has handed out fliers at Central Michigan University in the past, where White said they have several student members, although he wouldn't authorize them to speak with the press.

White is interested in pushing the group's politics, but Hill said being a neo-Nazi is more than a political affiliation.

"It's not just one aspect of your life, it's supposed to take over your life," he said.

According to Cheryl Kaiser, an assistant professor of psychology at MSU, people might seek out extremist groups because they feel threatened, and studies have shown that expressing negative attitudes toward others can make people feel better about themselves.

"Prejudice serves the self-esteem-protecting function," Kaiser said.

Finding others who think the same way helps people reaffirm their beliefs.

"We join groups because groups help us validate the world; they provide a social reality," she said.

Carlson, a Cadillac resident, said there aren't more than 100 members in the three Michigan chapters, but White claims the group's membership is in the thousands nationwide.

White wouldn't give an exact number but said the group keeps member applications on file.

Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate groups, estimated the group only has about 300 members across the nation.

Potok and White question each other's estimates, but they do agree the neo-Nazi organization is expanding, partly due to the collapse of similar groups, such as the Aryan Nations and World Church of the Creator.

"It's grown very rapidly over the last year, year and a half," Potok said.

Hate groups expert Rick Ross said that although neo-Nazis represent only a minute percentage of the population, the groups still pose a threat to society.

Ross is the executive director of the Rick A. Ross Institute, a New Jersey nonprofit organization that studies extremists and destructive cults.

White argues that the people who protest his group are more violent than its members — one protester threatened to "beat him to death" on Tuesday, he said — and members are generally peaceful.

But Ross said history proves otherwise, citing the examples of white supremacist leaders such as Matthew Hale, convicted of plotting to kill a federal judge, and sympathizers such as Benjamin Smith, who went on a shooting spree in the Midwest in 1999.

"The people they inspire frequently become violent, and then they step back and claim no responsibility," Ross said of neo-Nazi leadership.

Jordan Furrow, a 2005 MSU graduate who is organizing protests against the neo-Nazis, said they must be prevented from spreading fear in the Lansing community.

Furrow said he wants the group to know they aren't welcome in the community, and he believes protesters intimidate them.

"The Nazis are scared of anybody that's not straight, white men," he said.

But several experts said counter-protests can embolden extremists, and White agreed, calling the protests "a confirmation of our view."

"To some extent it excites them. It makes them feel more important," Ross said. "In another sense, it does galvanize the community to resist their recruitment efforts."

Ross said extremists prey on isolation and insecurity, particularly in younger people.

"There are many young people who are looking at the future somewhat fearfully," he said. "Those fears can be played on and used as devices for recruitment."

White, Carlson and Hill maintain that people are drawn to their group more from a general curiosity than from active recruitment.

Hill, 29, joined the National Socialist Movement two years ago but said he's been interested in white supremacist thinking since his teens.

Hill said he wasn't influenced to join the group by family but found the "scene" through the Internet.

He was raised in a rural area and said when his family moved to the city "and saw what was going on there," he started to form white supremacist views. He began reading books such as Adolf Hitler's manifesto, "Mein Kampf," and attending white supremacist concerts.

Hill said, contrary to public opinion, his views aren't uncommon in the working class.

"When people have views like ours, they keep quiet about it," he said.

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