Obama inauguration a recruiting tool for hate groups

The Chicago Tribune/January 22, 2009

Hate groups and militias across the country, known to thrive on feelings of economic desperation and political impotence, are eyeing 2009 as a year of awakening.

"Every time the television shows an image of Obama it will be a reminder that our people have lost power in this country," said a recent posting on an Arkansas-based Ku Klux Klan Web site. "The betrayal will stare them in the face each time they watch the news and see little black children playing in the rose garden."

For all the racial optimism that comes with Barack Obama's presidency, there is concern in some circles that the confluence of a shattered economy and the election of the nation's first black president may promote a surge in hate group activity not seen since the late 1980s and early 1990s.

"I think it's very clear that we're at a worrying moment now, despite the remarkable accomplishment of electing a black man president," said Mark Potok, who heads a department at the Southern Poverty Law Center that monitors the activity of extremist groups. "We are seeing several things coming together that favor the continued growth of these groups and this movement."

Internet traffic caused two major white nationalist Web sites to crash in the days following the Nov. 4 election, and the Southern Poverty Law Center reported more than 200 hate-related incidents stemming from Obama's victory. An array of neo-Nazi and white separatist Web sites are now calling on people to join their ranks in response to Obama's election. One New Jersey-based group is imploring people to sign up and "help save Western civilization."

"Obama's election is essentially a rallying point for those who would preserve a white America," said Rick Ross, a national expert on controversial groups and movements. "They believe the power of the white majority is slipping away and it's a terrible thing and this is the climactic moment. It's a rallying cry for the faithful."

Many racist Web sites had clocks apocalyptically counting down to Obama's inauguration. One had a picture of a tombstone that read: "United States of America; Born: July 4, 1776; Died: Nov. 4, 2008; Suicide." Several sites encouraged members to wear black armbands on Inauguration Day.

"There are many groups in the U.S. who, on the basis of their religious beliefs, believe Obama is not qualified to lead anyone," Ross said. "They truly believe God has ordained that someone who is not white is inferior and is not part of God's plan. They can't get their heads around the idea that their country has elected a man who is not white as president."

The farming crisis of the 1980s, coupled with swelling concern over immigration and affirmative action, led to the growth of militias and other separatist movements in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The April 19, 1995, bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building by Timothy McVeigh made such groups a prominent public concern and resulted in a sweeping and effective law enforcement crackdown.

Militia and hate group activity had waned significantly since then, and Potok and other experts believe this current surge in recruitment may be little more than the wistful flailing of groups likely to remain marginalized.

"Whether this will translate to actual membership growth remains to be seen," Potok said. "What we're seeing is a backlash that's very typical when a society has a great leap forward. I don't think the backlash people are the majority at all."

Lonnie Nasatir, a regional director of the Anti-Defamation League in Chicago, said that while the recent online chatter from hate groups is disturbing, it has yet to coalesce into any sort of organized threat.

"There's no real leading extremist group that is really rallying the troops," Nasatir said. "There's a real void in leadership. What they're hoping is that maybe this will be the catalyst for more people to join their ranks, so they can become one consolidated front.

"We certainly hope that doesn't happen."

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