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Putting white power organizations into context
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A photo of Dr. Kathleen Belew
Dr. Kathleen Belew

After the white supremacist and Southern Poverty Law Center-designated hate group purchased a church in Murdock, the group had to apply for a conditional use permit to practice there. The Murdock City Council approved the permit during their December meeting. The permit must be renewed yearly. 

Watch: Putting white power organizations into context

Dr. Kathleen Belew is a teacher (University of Chicago), historian and author. Her most recent book, Bring The War Home, is a culmination of 10 years of researching the white power movement in America, from the Vietnam war to the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. She explains how, as a country, we've never faced America's history of white supremacy and we've also failed to see white power terrorism as part of a larger movement.

"We usually encounter stories about white power violence through the idea of 'the lone wolf.' We usually think about the shooting in Pittsburgh is anti-semitic violence, the shooting in Charleston is anti-black violence, the shooting and El Paso is anti-Latino violence. And they are all those things, but they're all also white power violence," she explained. "They were carried out by people who have in some cases social ties with each other, people who have ideological framing in common, they use the same slogans, they use the same symbols. So this is not something that is inexplicable and mysterious, this is part of a social movement that is dedicated to this kind of violent activism and has been for decades if not generations."

She said that the Oklahoma City bombing is a good example of this. "Most people still think of [the Oklahoma City bombing] as the work of one or a few bad actors, but actually is the work of a social movement," she said. "This is a social movement that has deliberately tried to evade our understanding. It wants to disappear and it's used several strategies over the years to try to avoid being described and understood."

Dr. Belew's studies have revealed how white power movements mobilize people to violence by using trends, sort of like what's highlighted in a recent documentary distributed by Independent Lens, Feels Good Man. Briefly, Feels Good Man is about how the white supremacy movement coopted the Pepe the Frog character. You might be familiar with Pepe the Frog; it was meant to be this goofy frog, but it turned into a hate symbol used by white supremacists. It's one of the more recent examples of how the white power movement uses trends to spread their messaging. Dr. Belew explained that white power activism is very opportunistic and uses what's cool, like Pepe the Frog memes to gain popularity.

"That works in two different kinds of ways. One is that it will ride whatever the prevailing tensions are within a community to foment violence. And then the other way that they're opportunistic is by kind of tacking to the prevailing cultural trends," she explained. "The time I study in the 1980s, a lot of activists switched to wearing camo fatigues instead of the uniforms that they'd had before. Part of that is because they were interested in paramilitary tactical readiness, but part of that is just that paramilitary uniforms were cool in the 1980s."

She said that white power activists are very good tacking to the prevailing cultural trends so that they can spread their messaging in the easiest way possible. "In some cases, that means wearing a suit and tie and going on TV and saying, 'I'm not racist, I'm racialist.' In some cases, that means a tiki-torch and a polo shirt, but it just has to do with what's acceptable within a given cultural moment and they're very, very good at reading those windows of opportunity."

When thinking about the geography of the White Power Movement, Dr. Belew said that this movement is incredibly diverse in every way but race, tackling what many people call the urban-rural divide. "This is a movement that brought together white power activists of a lot of different ideologies. People across a lot of different class backgrounds, educational backgrounds, it's in every region of the country and it unified people across urban, suburban and rural spaces," she said. She did make the distinction that, even within this greater united community there are profound cultural differences."The notable one in the time of my study is that in the rural areas, the activist tended to be more socially conservative. We're talking about faith-based white power communities with very gender normative practices. Whereas in the cities, you were more likely to find things like skinhead activism," she said. "Skinheads in the early 90s ... women would wear heavy makeup and go topless, they would be into alcohol and drugs and serious music scenes. That wasn't the case for people in the rural areas most of the time."

But the unifying factor? All of those white power activists saw themselves and being under attack. Unite or become obsolete. "They said, 'we have to figure out how to accept all of these people into our movement because if we don't, the whole race will be annihilated and that'll be it.'"

Thinking about this from a solutions-based perspective, Dr. Belew said that because this is a phenomenon that requires ignorance and inattention across multiple levels, there are also multiple levels of response that can have a big impact. One is providing resources for teachers and parents. Another is grassroots organization. Murdock resident Victoria Guillemard co-founded the local organization Murdock Area Alliance Against Hate.

Guillemard said that when she heard that the AFA was moving into town, she felt powerless. She wanted to create a space where she would education herself and her community on what the AFA is and how to fight against them. "I wanted to have friends and family members have a space where they could go with their questions and where we could form a group that was education-based and focused on, not just what was happening at that very instant, but also the future of Murdock if a hate group was gonna move in."

Guillemard said that she's gotten a lot of support and information from Heathens Against Hate, an organization that promotes inclusive Heathenry.

"The way that the AFA has been described to me by other Heathens is that they are an off-branch, very small and a very extremist version of the Asatru belief system; that many other churches including other Asatru religions have denounced them, and that as a whole Hethenism is not inherently racist," she said. "There's even a declaration called the Declaration 127 that was signed by other Heathen and Asatru congregations, denouncing them because of their dangerous belief systems."

In an email, Ethan Stark from Heathens Against Hate explained that Declaration 127 is named after the 127th stanza from a manuscript that Heathenry relies on for virtues and ethics. The full declaration is under revision to address overall racism found in Heathenly beyond the scope of the AFA, but it was initially drafted for individuals and organizations to formally and officially denounce and disassociate with the AFA. Over the past number of months Stark has organized information Zoom meeting to offer similar information to other residents of Murdock. 

"He gave them a space to go to learn about where you can safely practice a Nordic religion without having the white supremacist belief system," Guillemard said.

In previous reporting, the lawyer for the AFA wanted to show that they are good neighbors. Stark disagrees. "When they're saying that they're good neighbors, you're going into Murdock that is 90 plus percent Caucasian. And when you're saying good neighbors, there's that subtlety of, 'we're good neighbors to particular people.' And so I don't believe this good neighbor schtick," Stark said during an informational Zoom meeting for Murdock residents. "It's something that many other exclusionary groups have pretended to be."

Guillemard is a second year law student at Mitchell Hamline School of Law and, while she couldn't make a statement on the current situation or unconditional use permits as a whole, she did say that it's the Religious Land Use an Institutionalized Persons Act that's the governing law in this matter.

"It's tragic that a hate organization is able to manipulate and control a situation knowing that they are preying on the vulnerability of an indigent community, specifically Murdock as a municipality. Murdock is very underfunded. It does not have resources and they know that litigation is the number one fear that is holding back the city council on voting based on their beliefs," Guillemard said. "I feel it in my heart that city council members would not be granting a conditional use permit if they did not have fear of litigation in their hearts."

Dr. Belew mentioned that using the moniker "white nationalism" is a confusing misnomer. In a New York Times Opinion piece, she writes that, "the nation at the heart of white nationalism is not the United States. It's the Aryan nation imagined as a transnational white polity with interest fundamentally opposed to the United States, and for many activists bent on the overthrow of the federal government."