Klan's new message of cyber-hate

Herald on Sunday, New Zealand/March 27, 2008

Pastor Thomas Robb, the softly spoken 62-year-old leader of one of the largest Ku Klux Klan organisations remaining in the United States, admits that it has been a difficult past couple of weeks.

He has been bed-ridden with flu - ever since he was a child growing up in the cold climate of Detroit, Michigan, his illnesses have lingered longer than normal.

And Robb's work, which consists of unifying the "global minority of white people", has also kept him extremely busy. "Someone wrote me an email just yesterday," Robb says. "They wanted to tell me that I was the most evil person in the world."

Despite the grand scale of his mission, Robb leads his chapter of the Klan from rather modest surroundings in Zinc, a remote northern Arkansas settlement.

Like many of the countless small towns that dot America's southern states, Zinc is undersized (76 residents, according to the 2000 census) and has a largely white population. Nearly 40 per cent of its inhabitants live below the poverty line.

Zinc lies near the invisible border that divides the northern and southern states of the US, the Mason-Dixon Line, which separates Arkansas from the Midwest confines of Missouri.

What makes Zinc different is that it is home to the headquarters of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.

The Klan, once the most feared racist group in America, still has a small yet active membership throughout the American south and mid-west - estimates put national figures at 6000 to 8000 Klansmen.

Robb credits the internet, as well as the "average American's" concern about illegal immigration, for the sustained interest in the Klan.

"A young father who is worried about the flood of immigrants into the US can go to his computer and find us," Robb says. "We are right there for him - www.kkk.com."

The second time we speak, Robb begins by explaining some common Klan terminology and traditions. "Firstly, it's not called burning the cross, it's called lighting the cross," Robb says.

"And it's not necessarily just a symbol of the Klan - it shows the power of Jesus Christ."

Robb explains that what became widely popularised as a symbol of Klan terror is not restricted to the lawns of the Klan's enemies.

"If you visit a local Methodist church here [in the South], or even a Presbyterian church, you'll see representations of crosses with flames at the base. The firing of the cross is a Christian ideal."

The images associated with the Ku Klux Klan - white hooded figures riding horses, burning crosses, and public lynchings - have proven rather burdensome for today's white American nationalists, Robb says. "We used to hold 60 to 70 rallies a year and they were very expensive. Most of the people who would come out were young people. Then the protesters would create a disturbance. "And the average middle American - the person we really wanted to reach - wouldn't come. We were frightening away the people we wanted to appeal to."

The pervasive nature of the internet not only opened the KKK up to new audiences, but also changed the Klan's identity - "the invisible empire" was suddenly able to become visible and tout its separatist message without raising public indignation. As the man who may have once held the title of the Imperial Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, Robb is responsible for leading his version of the KKK, a group that splintered and eventually became a shadow of its former self in the post-civil rights era, into an unclear future. The growth of the KKK, Robb claims, was once made difficult by the media's representation of the Klan as "hicks" and "rednecks". But established media outlets are no longer needed to raise the Klan's profile. "It used to be that we needed the media to carry the message for us," Robb says.

"But we don't really need the media any more - that's the absolute truth. The only thing we need is the internet." With new communication technologies, the KKK is able to effectively target the two audiences it has always wanted.

"The internet affords the Klan a unique opportunity to get into the living room of Middle America and allows us access to young kids," Robb says.

After moving from the realm of national shame to national joke, Robb and his supporters are determined to return the KKK to a position of national relevance. Robb refers to the "mission statement" on his website when trying to articulate what is most important to the Klan today.

"We envision an America in which our children are not confronted by anti-white and anti-Christian propaganda," he says. "Where they are not confronted with the 'joys' of homosexuality or race-mixing, but rather the condemnation of these behaviors by God."

Asked about the Klan's greatest concern for today's America, Robb responds easily. "We have troops defending borders in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Korea ... We need to bring our troops home from Iraq to defend the invasion that comes across our border with Mexico every minute of every hour of every day. That's what we need to defend."

Promoting his upcoming National Faith and Freedom Conference, an event to which all "white Christian patriots" are invited, is not the only issue occupying Robb. Bothered by a rumour spread by UK tabloid the Daily Squib, which claimed that the KKK was endorsing Senator Barack Obama, Robb has circulated a press release repudiating any link between America's most infamous racist group and potentially the first African American to occupy the Oval Office. "Barack Obama, if elected, will try to take the bread from our children's mouths and send it to Africa," Robb wrote. "What will be left to feed the hungry in the United States of America?"

False rumours about the Ku Klux Klan are a constant concern for Robb - a downside of the ease of mass communication provided by the worldwide web. "There have been a number of websites owned by Jewish men who made the websites to look like Klan sites," Robb claims on a recent posting to his website. "Yet in small print notified the reader that the site was a spoof site and totally fake." For his part, Robb, whether by posting to YouTube or publicising his website, will continue to rally to preserve the white "heritage and race" through new mediums. "We are already a global minority," he says. "We view who we are as very precious."

Eye on the supremacists

The trajectory of the Ku Klux Klan and its supporters in recent years has not gone unnoticed by concerned Americans. Mark Potok, director of the famed Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project, is responsible for continuing the founding mission of the SPLC - to fight all forms of discrimination and work "to protect society's most vulnerable members".

Speaking from the his headquarters in Montgomery, Alabama, the city in which Rosa Park's momentous refusal to give up her bus seat to a white man triggered the civil rights movement, Potok provides a succinct history of the Klan and the work of the law centre.

"While Klan groups tend to be fading, I don't think they will ever go away. [The Klan] has such a reputation and there's this kind of idea associated with the Klan - that it's somehow romantic and mysterious - and they will struggle on."

Potok says other hate groups in America are showing no such decline - the SPLC has counted 888 hate groups in the US, a 48 per cent increase since 2000. The SPLC does not restrict its focus to the Klan. Since 1981, it has monitored all radical right wing groups in the US, including neo-

Nazis and skinheads. "We work to destroy these groups," Potok said. "We sue the leader of white supremacist groups for telling their followers to commit crimes. If a leader says 'You should burn down that nigger church' and they do, we will sue the leader."

Other groups continue to monitor white supremacist groups and their use of the internet. Founded in 1913, the Anti-Defamation League is one of the US's largest and most well funded civil rights agencies. It was created after the Klan lynching of Leo Frank, a Jew convicted of the murder of a 13-year-old girl in Atlanta, Georgia, an event that revitalised the KKK in the South. Alongside dealing specifically with cases of anti-Semitism, the ADL continues to "track the activities" of numerous hate groups throughout the US and co-ordinate with law enforcement to eliminate hate crimes. The ADL's director of investigative research, Mark Pitcavage, said: "In some ways, Robb has emerged as the public face of the Ku Klux Klan."

The reason for this, Pitcavage says, is quite simple - the internet. "His website is accessed much more than other white supremacists," Pitcavage said. Robb's national leadership of the KKK is notable, as he is not as extreme as other lesser-known, more powerful Klan leaders. "Robb is definitely not one of the 'gun in one hand, grenade in the other' white supremacists that do exist. "Thom Robb was very quick to jump on new technology." It is not, however, only Robb's KKK chapter who are using the internet.

"You can find many 'Klanspeople' on MySpace," Pitcavage said.

As the Latino population of the US continues to increase, the target of the Klan's anger has become increasingly centred on central and south American immigrants.

Says Pitcavage: "In the south and the mid-west, there is a great growth of Hispanic communities. The Klan wants to capitalise on the mainstream anxiety about immigration."

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