White-power movement is hiding among us

In a new book, a UNLV prof and alum examine the white-power movement

The Las Vegas Weekly/February 18, 2010

The white-power movement is recruiting, hating, praying, bonding and rallying. But mostly it's hiding. American Swastika (Rowman & Littlefield, $35) takes readers into the "free spaces" of the white-power movement, where members emerge to speak their minds without fear of retribution.

Researched and written by Pete Simi and Robert Futrell, who met at UNLV, where Futrell is a professor and Simi was a graduate student, the book takes us into the homes of white-power believers, to their rallies, concerts and to children's birthday parties with swastika-shaped cakes. Simi, an associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at University of Nebraska, Omaha, was given special access to the groups. He and Futrell, associate professor of sociology at UNLV, talk with the Las Vegas Weekly about the experience, what they learned and why we should care.

Why do this book?

Futrell: There's really very little systematic study on these groups, their culture, where they're located and what they do. There is often an assumption that the white-power movement had died. This book shows they exist and continue to grow-just under the radar.

Were you hassled for taking this on?

Simi: There is a tendency for people to associate you with what you study, not just on an intellectual level but a personal level as well, especially when you're getting up close and personal with people and spending a lot of time with them. We've experienced this at conferences. People aren't quite comfortable with what we're doing. The assumption is that you must be on some level sympathetic.

Futrell: Most social-movement studies look at left-leaning movements. The question is, do our concepts and theories about social movements apply if we're only studying mainly one genre of movement type?

When a group is organized around a culture of violence you can be assured that some people will act on that violence. One of our criticisms is from people wanting to know how significant this really is. Well, another Oklahoma City bombing seems pretty significant. We know now that Timothy McVeigh was tightly wrapped in a set of white-power movement networks. Some of these people are stockpiling weapons. I think we want more information rather than less.

Are they all about hate?

Simi: One response is, "We've largely been misunderstood as a hate movement, but we're all about love. We exist to love other members of our race. We're really not promoting violence at all. We're simply promoting an affirmation of our own people."

Another response is acknowledging that the movement is about violence, "because violence is absolutely necessary; given the conditions that we face today, we need to engage in violence."

Futrell: Their community is wrapped in violent and paranoid ideology, but they do make emotional connections that go beyond hate for others, such as love and connection and solidarity within the groups.

Any mental-health issues?

Simi: The movement as a whole is not uniformly pathological, but there is definitely a mental-health factor with certain individuals-from chronic depression to antisocial personality, whether it was prior to getting involved, or onset after getting involved. The movement's ideas are very radical and emotion-laden. The mind-set takes a toll on people. You see a lot of pent-up anger. A lot of things come into play-substance abuse, heavy drinking, the extreme nature of the ideas and the anger that goes with believing your race is on the verge of extinction.

Who are they?

Simi: A common stereotype is that the poorly educated and lower socioeconomic status folks are the ones attracted to these groups. We find that people across the socioeconomic spectrum get involved in this. This tells us the recruitment potential these groups have is far wider than what we might initially expect. It also helps us question some assumptions of who is more likely to get involved in these groups. Also, people don't realize where these groups are situated. They're distributed widely across the country, and yet people tend to think of two places in particular, the Deep South and the Pacific Northwest. You also have places like Southern California, which is really a hot spot for these groups.

Futrell: Part of the stereotype is that these are mainly belligerent, in-your-face, easily identifiable people. In many cases they are not. That's a strategic effort on their part. Part of their strategy is to get good jobs, get an education, infiltrate institutions and create the revolution from within.

Does hiding mean they feel powerless?

Futrell: They actually feel a sense that they are empowered because they're hiding. Some argue that they are growing the movement under the radar or even just sustaining it. They feel a sense of power in doing this.

How big is the movement in Las Vegas?

Simi: There has been an ebb and flow in the area. For a while, the National Alliance, prior to their organization fragmenting, had seen some growth in Las Vegas, and was making inroads in terms of recruiting. They also had that billboard in regard to immigration, which listed their website at the bottom of the billboard.

Futrell: That website was cast as an anti-immigration website, but two or three layers in, you were on the National Alliance website. Around the same time, during a holiday break, I was up here working and there were National Alliance stickers on several of the buildings at UNLV.

Simi: The other thing Las Vegas has had in terms of Neo-Nazi and white supremacist presence tends to involve the methamphetamine trade. John "Polar Bear" Butler, who was convicted of the murder of two anti-racist skinheads, was involved in a network of neo-Nazis who were heavily involved in methamphetamine trade and other criminal activity.

Pete, why did these groups agree to meet with you?

I portrayed myself as potentially sympathetic. I specifically mentioned that I was interested in how the media demonizes that group.

How long and often were you with them?

Simi: I started fieldwork in 1997. My last major period of fieldwork was in summer of 2004, when I lived with a family for five weeks. There were also much more infrequent visits where I'd go to stay with people for two to three days.

Did anything surprise you?

Simi: The relationships I found myself building with people whose beliefs and practices are, in many ways, antithetical to my own. You spend time with these folks and you inevitably build friendships-friendship with quotes around it. That was hard to reconcile and figure out.

Why white supremacy?

Simi: I'd been interested in issues of racism since I was a child. I grew up with an African-American father figure/older brother and saw how my white friends would say things about black people, and I'd try to figure out how people come to those beliefs and why some people associate anger and hate and antagonism toward people who are different from them.

Futrell: My social-movement research had mainly been in the realm of science and technology controversies, but this was some data that I thought was fascinating and unique. Also, my family was from Louisiana and Texas. I'm from Kentucky. I saw some of this racism straight on, and it always sort of confused me why color made a difference.

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