Rural skinheads put new face to old hate

A new twist on old hate

Jackson Sun, Mississippi/November 2, 2008

To those who track white supremacist groups, Daniel Cowart, a 20-year-old skinhead from Bells, is an anomaly. Not because of what he is accused of planning, but where he is from.

Cowart was in court last week, accused in a plot for a multi-state killing spree that would have culminated with an attempt to kill black presidential candidate Barack Obama.

But Heidi Beirich, who studies hate groups for the Southern Poverty Law Center, said the rural interior of West Tennessee, where Bells is located, is typically the territory of the Ku Klux Klan, who have a presence in Henderson, Decaturville and Hickory Valley.

"Skinheads are almost entirely products of cities or suburbs," she said.

But times are changing, according to those who track hate groups. The Klan of the civil rights movement and the decades that followed it are gone or dying, giving way to new groups - some evolutions of the traditional Klan - that are fueled by the Internet and becoming more intense and radical.

Hate and supremacy groups are far from new to Tennessee. The Klan was born here and grew into the most infamous white supremacist group in American history.

Today the state is believed to have about 40 separate hate groups - ranging from white nationalists and black separatists in Memphis to Neo-Nazis in Chattanooga.

Experts say the foiled plot attributed to Cowart and Paul Schlesselman, an 18-year-old from Helena-West Helena, Ark., is a perfect example of how the Internet has helped spread the message and influence of hate groups.

And they say that, with a flagging economy and popular black presidential candidate, the number of supremacy organizations and their membership could surge in coming years.

Defining a skinhead

Those who knew Daniel Cowart in Bells said last week they were shocked that the short, skinny young man who was a whiz with computers could have hatched detailed plans to kill more than 100 people and likely die in a white tuxedo in an attempt on Obama.

But those especially surprised by Cowart's arrest were minority co-workers from his past.

They said he was often friendly, not someone with designs to assault a predominantly black school and behead 14 black people - one for each word in a Neo-Nazi mission statement about protecting race and preserving the future.

One black former co-worker said Cowart was "like a best friend."

Outward racism is not a required entry point into the skinhead lifestyle, said Kathleen Blee, a University of Pittsburgh sociologist who has studied racist groups and written books on women who join.

She said that while it is true skinheads largely come from more populated suburbs and cities, they can come from seemingly any type of white household - even ones with more progressive attitudes toward other races.

"Many come into skinhead gangs attracted by music, alcohol and violence and peer community rather than their racial agendas," she said in an e-mail. "They adopt those racial ideas more fully after joining."

Beirich said many come, ironically, from similar backgrounds to minority youth who join urban street gangs.

"You probably come from a broken home, you probably come from a lower income, your mom might be working all the time and your dad's not there," she said. "We talk to a lot of people who come out of these movements and it's, 'I didn't have a family. I needed a family, and they took me in.'"

Still, Bill Nigut, the Anti-Defamation League's southeast regional director, said his group had much information about Cowart and Schlesselman in its databases. He declined to describe it because the information had been given to federal investigators.

He said it is disturbing if Cowart was able to as cleanly compartmentalize his racist feelings and activities as has been said by some of those who knew him.

"Increasingly, you can't identify these people on how they behave in their everyday lives," Nigut said. "... That's part of our fear."

Role of the Internet

Federal authorities have said the Internet played a key role in setting up Schlesselman and Cowart's plot.

A mutual friend introduced the two over the Internet. Photos found online also show Cowart with markings and activities of skinheads, including a photo from a celebration of Adolf Hitler's birthday related to the Supreme White Alliance, a skinhead group.

Cowart had a profile page on the group's social networking site, but its leadership has denied Cowart was ever a full member. Efforts to reach Steven Edwards, an SWA leader, by e-mail last week were unsuccessful.

The Internet likely was not only Cowart's path to connect to an alleged co-plotter, but also allowed him access to the skinhead lifestyle, though experts say he is not from an area where such groups have a marked presence.

They say Web sites such as Stormfront, a popular white supremacist forum, have provided racists a way to connect to groups and a kind of insulation that has pushed those groups' rhetoric and beliefs into more radical territory.

"It's cheap, it's ubiquitous, I mean everybody has access," Nigut said. "It's a wonderful way to reach your constituents."

That rhetoric can inspire violence, though indirectly. Leaders and posters are careful because a stray word and a major action could prompt an intense federal crackdown on their activities.

"These people aren't complete idiots," said Doug Jones, a former U.S. attorney who was a lead prosecutor in the convictions of two Klansmen in a 1963 Alabama church bombing that killed four girls.

"It's one thing for these people to kill someone anonymous," he said. "When you start putting stuff in there about someone who is a presidential candidate or presidential elect, you really draw scrutiny."

The Internet has also provided a way for young white supremacists to connect to organizations that are not aging institutions such as the "traditional" Klan - groups whose secrecy, style and methods are outdated and unattractive to modern racist youth.

"While there was an element of the Klan that was violent, there was also an element of the Klan that was political," Jones said. "This new generation of haters is a lot different. They don't try to work within the system. They're radical. They're violent."

Leadership from the Brotherhood of Klans, a group that owns property near Henderson, agreed to an e-mail interview with The Jackson Sun last week. A response to questions sent to the group had not been received at press time.

Attraction to others has prompted some Klan groups to become more public and "overlap" with Neo-Nazi and skinhead movements, Nigut said.

He said the Supreme White Alliance is one example of such overlap. Edwards' father, Ron, is a leader of the Imperial Klans of America, a Kentucky-based group being sued by the Southern Poverty Law Center related to the 2006 beating of a 16-year-old Panamian boy at a county fair.

Despite the Web's potential to spread influence, the type of activity Cowart is accused of usually requires a more personal connection than message boards and chat rooms can provide, said Blee, the Pittsburgh sociologist.

"The Internet brings the ideas of white supremacy to a wider audience," she said, "but it still takes personal contact, usually, to become involved in a skinhead or other white supremacist group."

Good time for hate?

An Obama victory and the downshift of the American economy could have long-lasting social and political ramifications - and be a boon to recruitment for racist and supremacist groups.

"Historically, when times get tough in our nation, that's how movements like ours gain a foothold," Jeff Schoep, leader of the National Socialist Movement, said in an October USA TODAY report. "When the economy suffers, people are looking for answers. ... We are the answer for white people."

Blee said it is certain that white supremacist groups will use Obama's candidacy to try and recruit new members and forecast a coming race war.

How successful they are is subjective, she said.

"They may grow in size, but I don't anticipate a great surge in numbers," Blee said. "Poor economic conditions can also fuel movements of the far right, like skinheads, but it is important ( to remember) that these can flourish in pretty good economic times, too, since they are small and marginal movements."

Several experts say they expect palpable white backlash if Obama is elected this week.

But while many are afraid of what could happen in the near future, Jones said there are sturdy legal and moral barriers preventing American racist groups from drawing on new racial and economic turmoil and exercising a movement of great scope and violence.

"They have to play on people's fears," Jones said. "That's why they're called hate groups."

The 16th Street Baptist Church bombing of 1963 was considered one of the most shocking in the civil rights movement, even in Birmingham, home of some of the most brutal attacks of the period. But the prosecution of the convicted Klansmen took decades.

Jones said that while the echo chamber provided by the Internet has radicalized and in some ways amplified hate groups, the high, widespread levels of racial violence seen in the civil rights era are unlikely to return to the South.

Such crimes are no longer acceptable to southern society or condoned by law enforcement, he said.

Though he thinks racial attitudes have shifted progressively since integration, he said efforts will still be needed to nudge racists into open thinking and to smash the efforts of those who express their prejudice in ways more hurtful than message board rants.

"You don't necessarily change their attitudes. ... That's not law enforcement and prosecutors' job," Jones said. "But if you can deter illegal conduct with that, you're winning part of the battle."

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