On airwaves and billboards, hate-group recruitment goes mainstream

White supremacists seek to move out of shadows

Trend alarms rights groups

February 13, 2005|By Stephanie Simon | Stephanie Simon,LOS ANGELES TIMES

ST. LOUIS - 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 as 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 on the political spectrum - even when that voice might 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.

The National Alliance, which calls for ridding the land of minorities, has led the drive to raise the profile of white supremacists.

The local chapter spent $1,500 on MetroLink ads here last month, plastering nearly every commuter train car in the city with a blue-and-white placard declaring "The Future belongs to us!" and listing the group's Web site 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."

"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.

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 far apart as New Jersey, Alabama and Nebraska.

"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, which was founded in the 1970s, one of the nation's most virulent neo-Nazi organizations. Its late founder, William Pierce, called for herding Jews and "race mixers" into cattle cars and abandoning them in old coal mines.

And although the group's Web site says it "does not advocate any illegal activity," National Alliance members have been convicted of scattered acts of violence over the last two decades, including armed robberies, bombings and murders. The FBI's senior counter-terrorism 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.

Public outreach is not new for white supremacist groups. The Knights of the Ku Klux Klan 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, but they're also instructing members to hide their tattoos and dress for rallies in conservative suits to avoid being dismissed as extremists.

Thomas Robb, the national director of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, 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.

Civil-rights advocates call this new emphasis on legitimacy insidious, because it might lure people into neo-Nazi circles before they fully understand what they're being sold.

Some of the National Alliance's ads and Web sites 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 a week before transit officials removed them in response to a complaint. Such controversy, however, generates media coverage that can be more valuable than the ads themselves.

Media reports about the Salt Lake City billboard drove 4,500 visitors to the National Alliance's local Web site in one week - compared with average traffic of 100 hits a month, Walker said.

"What evidence we've seen indicates that real-world advertisement and promotion has far more impact on recruitment than online work does," Burghart said.

"They reach a different demographic," he added. Many middle-age recruits, he said, feel more comfortable joining a group they've seen on TV or heard advertised on the radio, rather than one that makes its presence known mostly through racist rants in Internet chat rooms.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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