Community Organizing, the White Supremacist Way
In an October 2003 episode of Fox News Sunday, now White House press secretary Tony Snow told viewers that racism is "quickly becoming an ugly memory." Flash-forward to April 2006, in the midst of the contentious immigration debate, a racist flash game spreads around the internet virally. In the game "Border Patrol," players shoot Mexicans crossing the border on the way to a welfare office. The Mexicans are crude caricatures: a gun-toting Frito Bandito decked out in full mariachi gear, a drug smuggler and a pregnant woman with children.
The game, produced by an obscure British company, spread quickly by email forwarding. After the network news started reporting on it, the game was picked up by a gaggle of racist blogs and websites.
The most chilling part of "Border Patrol" is what it ultimately represents: the increased mainstreaming of extreme hate. Using the same grassroots online media methods the progressive community relies on, hate messages bypass the mainstream media and spread political awareness as well as advertise independent music and films. An online hate subculture has taken root, and with every year it increases its reach, grabbing media attention, reaching alienated people who once had no means of communicating with each other and organizing effectively.
In some ways, the migration of radical hate to the internet and the use of grassroots networks was inevitable. The internet gave birth to a media culture that largely targets niche markets. The general media audience has fragmented into a dizzying array of microcultures that consume media targeted exclusively towards them. The iPod is the ultimate symbol of this revolution.
This has helped independent filmmakers and musicians to market their products and helped both progressive and conservative political groups to organize. The dark side of this media revolution is its exploitation by hate groups such as neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan, extreme anti-choice fundamentalists, skinheads, and White Power groups.
Although racist electronic bulletin boards have been around since the mid-'80s, the first major website was Stormfront set up in 1995 by a former Ku-Klux Klan member. It is hard to count precisely how many sites have proliferated since 1995, but estimates range from 400 to 1,200 hardcore hate sites with untold numbers of sites that promote similar racist viewpoints more discretely. Plus, no surveys take into account the number of racist web boards and forums, which are much harder to tally.
What is significant about the new sites, though, is that they do not only spread political messages but also effectively organize online communities. For example, the white separatist group World Church of the Creator used the internet to help it organize a craft fair for fundraising.
Needless to say, the ambitions of online hate groups go beyond craft fairs. They aim to cater to their flock's every need. If you want to meet fellow travelers on the road to the Third Reich, William Regnery II has just the thing for you. The heir to the Regnery publishing fortune is starting an online all-white dating service. Regnery publishing has also published right-wing luminaries such as Ann Coulter and G. Gordon Liddy.
If you need some tunes to goose-step to, you're also in luck. An entire grass-roots network of hate music has sprung up. Labels like Resistance Records and Panzerfaust distribute hate rock music to followers, selling more than 70,000 CDs. In total, hate music from 123 domestic bands and 229 foreign ones is available for purchase from 40 distributors.
If polishing your jackboots isn't enough to keep you occupied, there are always video games. The National Socialist Movement develops and hosts racist video games much like "Border Patrol."
However, hate media also has the potential to reach beyond hard-core racists by attracting the attention of the mainstream media. It does so by co-opting the strategies of viral marketing: cheaply produce a crude yet attention-grabbing message, and spread it by word of mouth until it boomerangs into the mainstream media.
"Border Patrol" represents the biggest success of this model. It was produced abroad by a U.K. company working on the cheap, and distributed by email forwarding until it drew the attention of the national media, creating an advertising spectacle with an audience of millions and drawing national attention to its repugnant political message.
The popular stereotype of a skinhead or neo-Nazi is a young, working class male who may have lost his job or feel uneasy about cultural changes. However, this label no longer applies. In fact, the largest growth in hate has been among youths in the suburbs. According to Jack Levin, director of Northeastern University's Brudnick Center, this may have been triggered, paradoxically, by racial diversity itself:
"[As] more and more minority families have moved into suburban areas, the prevalence of hate attacks has also increased there. These kids aren't prepared for people who are different. They see them as a threat. They come home in the afternoon to their empty houses, log on to the internet, visit hate sites, chat rooms, bulletin boards and get ideas."As racial minorities become more visible, some middle-class white youths are reacting with fear. Lacking the long-term perspective of the oppression of pre-civil rights America, they are also more inclined to resent minorities demanding rights and recognition. Because of the lack of honest discussions of race, class and opportunity in a politically correct and consolidated school system, alienated white middle-class youth are left to deal with their anxieties themselves. In addition, they view the shrinking of the middle class not as a consequence of globalization and the deficit economy but as a deliberate conspiracy by minorities and immigrants. In increasing numbers, youths are turning to the online hate subcultures, with deadly results.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a disproportionate amount of the 700 post-9/11 hate crimes against Muslims and Arabs were committed by teenagers. The worst of these attacks was the murder of a Yemeni man in his convenience store by four local teenagers. However, the murderous rage of racist youths has found more home-grown targets. On July 4, 2004, a 15-year old girl and her friends beat a lesbian woman so brutally that her brain hemorrhaged. On the same day, four boys aged from 15 to17 burned down the house of a Mexican family.
Hate groups nationwide recognize that their best bet for continued expansion is reaching out to middle-class youths. Hungry for legitimacy and mainstream appeal, hate groups thirst after educated and clean-scrubbed young college and high school students who can articulate racist messages to their communities and both the local and national media.
Young followers are the best means that hate groups have to overcome their negative media image as strung-out bigots. And the best way to reach young people is through the internet and music culture. Most importantly, young people make dedicated and driven activists who can speak to their peers with more credibility than adults.
In the summer of 2004, 15-year old Logan Brown organized a chapter of the Aryan Nations at Rim of the World High School in Southern California. Brown circulated a petition to ban Jewish symbols. When interviewed, Brown ranted at length about how teenagers are "brainwashed by the media -- the Disney Channel, MTV with their multiculturalism, Jewish traditions, black traditions. It's unmoral. A cesspool." Brown converses with like-minded members of the Aryan Nation's "Youth Action Corps" over the internet.
Hate speech on the internet, however morally repugnant it may be, is protected by the First Amendment. In 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected portions of the Communications Decency Act, which would have regulated pornography and other "obscene" materials, and in 1999, bills to equip public libraries with software that would filter hate speech and pornography died in Senate hearings. Thus, the individual has the right to denigrate minorities, access hate material and communicate with others who share the same prejudices. Only when speech turns into incitement to commit crimes can the law become involved.
For instance, the anti-abortion site "The Nuremberg Files" was sued for $107.9 million after its members called for the deaths of abortion doctors, providing their personal information, and crossing out a name after a successful killing. Although the award was later reduced, the case stands as an important legal precedent and a gruesome example of digital hate that turned into real-life murder.
In the beginning, all hate groups had to offer their followers was heated rhetoric and community. Now, a young and vibrant culture has sprung up along with it. The powerful sense of identity and community created by music, racist video games, dating websites, and chat groups is powerful beyond measure. As "Border Patrol" demonstrates, it can both unite geographically isolated followers and grab national attention. Because of the anonymous and individual nature of the internet, indoctrination into the culture of hate is invisible. All it takes to become the next perpetrator of a hate crime is the click of a mouse on a wi-fi network.