Racists target towns

Sun Chronicle/September 9, 2001
By Rick Thurmond

Like Sharon last month and Arlington last weekend, Attleboro apparently was leafleted months ago with hate literature by a white supremacist organization called the National Alliance.

Packets of racist and anti-Semitic fliers were stuffed in plastic bags or rolled up with rubber bands and thrown on residential lawns. Unlike Sharon or Arlington, apparently no one in Attleboro noticed or paid much attention.

That's not unusual, says a spokesman for the Massachusetts chapter of the National Alliance, a West Virginia-based organization considered to be the fastest growing hate group in America.

"There might have been a couple of complaints that got the attention of the local Anti-Defamation League," said Jeff Hackworth, who resides on Cape Cod. "That's the only way we know if somebody complains, normally."

The Boston office of the Anti-Defamation League agrees, although it might be the only point on which the ADL and the National Alliance see eye-to-eye. "They just do this stuff, sometimes quite randomly, and we won't know about it unless someone contacts us," said Andrew Tarsy, civil rights director for the Boston office of the Anti-Defamation League.

"What they did in Sharon and Arlington, they've done on a smaller scale in a dozen Massachusetts communities," he said. "These people do this every weekend all over the country, getting out their message like any other organization."

Experts who track hate groups say it's important for people to report racist or anti-Semitic literature when they come across it. "People who see it might not be offended or frightened by it. Or, they might just crumple it up and throw it away," said Fred Lawrence, a Boston University law professor and a former assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, where he was chief of the civil rights unit.

Lawrence has written numerous papers on federal civil rights crimes and authored the book, "Punishing Hate-Biased Crime Under American Law." "People sometimes think it's a mistake to discuss these things, that it gives the organization more publicity," Lawrence said. "That's a little like not going to the doctor when you're sick.

"There has to be a response," he said. "If it's discussed in a serious way, these organizations can be exposed for what they are: racist and bigoted." The National Alliance "hit" Attleboro six or seven months ago, Hackworth claims. He doesn't remember which fliers were distributed in the city. "It could have been any of them. They're generic," Hackworth said. "Attleboro wasn't hit yesterday. It was months ago."

Neither the police department nor the African-American or Jewish communities in Attleboro were aware of the fliers. "If they did, nobody reported it," police Capt. Richard Pierce said. "That's definitely something that would have caused us to sit up and take notice." Attleboro has been relatively untroubled by hate crimes since a spate of skinhead activity in the early 1990s. Most of the trouble was caused by a small group of men in their early 20s.

One of them was implicated in a 1996 murder at a Norfolk Halloween party crashed by skinheads, resulting in a brawl. Although not charged in the murder, he pleaded guilty to assault charges and was jailed.

In 1995, two self-proclaimed racists killed an African-American man during an alcohol and cocaine binge at a South Attleboro motel, but neither was tied to a white supremacist organization. Both were convicted of first-degree murder a year later.

Last January, Attleboro police investigated an incident in which a swastika flag was hung on a door in the Hillcrest housing project. Col. David Gavigan, a deputy who tracks hate crimes for the Bristol County Sheriff's Department, said the man purported to have hung the banner had a Confederate battle flag tacked up inside his apartment and listened to white-power music.

The incident was not prosecuted because residents of the apartment where the swastika flag was hung were not Jewish and there were no acts of vandalism. "We haven't had any problems with the guy," Pierce said. "He said he had no knowledge of what happened."

But, Pierce said, the department has its eye out for trouble. "Personally, I hope we have no contact with anybody from that organization," he said of the National Alliance. "Our officers are pretty vigilant about hate-crime issues."

The Anti-Defamation League says the Attleboro Police Department is among the more proactive of Massachusetts police in enforcing hate-crime laws. The Governor's Task Force on Hate Crimes reported 509 hate crime incidents in Massachusetts in 1999 involving 749 criminal offenses. Of those cases, 2 percent were believed to have been linked to organized groups.

Task force spokeswoman Christina Bouras said the incidence of hate crimes in Massachusetts probably are under-reported. "If the victims don't come forward to report it, we don't know about it," Bouras said. "In some cases, officers don't have the experience or the training to recognize a hate crime when victims do come forward."

Distributing racist or anti-Semitic literature is not a crime, Bouras said, because it is protected free speech under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Spray-painting swastikas on a synagogue is a hate crime, she explained, because it is vandalism based on religious bias.

The distinction can be frustrating for organizations that track hate crimes. Leafleting suburban neighborhoods is "consistent with what the National Alliance does," said the ADL's Tarsy. "They do not violate the law, except for littering," he said. "They know the line, and they tread it very carefully."

The leafleting of Sharon caused an uproar last month because the town of 18,000 is predominantly Jewish, and residents were outraged to find National Alliance literature tossed on their lawns.

Hate literature scattered on Arlington lawns last weekend might have gone largely unnoticed, experts say, if alert police had not come upon the leaflets in the hours before dawn and removed them before most residents awakened.

Ironically, in the strictest legal sense, Arlington police might have been wrong to collect the racist packets. "Sometimes there are ordinances against posting things, but ordinances have to be equitably applied," said John Roberts, executive director of the Massachusetts chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. "Political people do it. Even door-to-door solicitation is protected.

"You might not like what people have to say," he said. "But one of the prices we have to pay in a free society is putting up with some awful stuff from time to time. "Police should not be going around, removing this stuff," Roberts said. "It's unconstitutional."

Hackworth, the National Alliance spokesman in Massachusetts, says the leafleting is a tool used by the organization to recruit new members. "We do this because we're not allowed to advertise," he said. "We can't even get benign advertising in the newspaper. The only way to let people know we exist is to distribute fliers."

Hackworth said he doesn't remember how many packets of fliers were distributed in Attleboro. "Five hundred to a thousand pieces is normal," he said.

He described the National Alliance as "a white racialist organization. You might call us racist." Hackworth said he has received up to 20 supportive telephone calls since Arlington was leafleted last weekend, and as many as 100 e-mails. He denied the organization targets specific communities.

"We rotate to different towns," Hackworth said. "We don't want our members to have to drive out of their way to hit a town. We choose towns that are geographically convenient. "We don't really target a town," he said. "We're not looking to irritate anybody." Even Sharon, he said, was a random choice.

"Everyone asks, `Why Sharon?' " Hackworth said. "We have a couple of members there. It wasn't until after the distribution we discovered Sharon is about 60 percent Jewish. We weren't prepared for the reaction. All hell broke loose." Fred Lawrence, the Boston University law professor, is not so sure he buys that. "It's impossible to say for sure," he said. "But it's not very plausible. When you go after a town, wouldn't you go where you'd expect to have the most impact?"

The National Alliance was founded in 1974 by William Pierce, who still guides the organization from his headquarters in Mill Point, W.Va. Its stated aim is "to build a better world and a better race" and to create "a new government ... answerable to White people only."

The Anti-Defamation League has assembled an extensive data base on the National Alliance, in addition to other white supremacist organizations. The National Alliance has grown significantly in recent years, the ADL says, by recruiting young racists through white-power music companies it has purchased and through a sophisticated presence on the Internet. Racist literature and white-power music can be downloaded from the National Alliance Web site.

The National Alliance also has targeted middle-class professionals in its drive for new members. A key tactic is the distribution of literature in suburban neighborhoods and on college campuses.

While other white supremacist or neo-Nazi groups have become weaker or more fragmented in recent years, the ADL says, the National Alliance has grown by trying to appeal to a more broadly based coalition of alienated racists and educated, middle-class bigots.

The organization is estimated to have grown from 1,000 members in 1998 to more than 1,500 members this year. Pierce has boasted of having recruited judges and university professors into his ranks.

Members may join official units or cells headed by "unit coordinators." The ADL estimates the National Alliance operates about 35 cells coast-to-coast in some 30 states. But the organization's influence is believed to extend beyond card-carrying members.

Numerous acts of violence are thought to have been inspired by National Alliance propaganda, the ADL says, including the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City that killed 168 people.

That act by mass murderer Timothy McVeigh might have been lifted from a chapter of "The Turner Diaries," a novel published by Pierce under the pseudonym Andrew Macdonald that has become a kind of bible for the far-right fringe.

The book advocates the violent overthrow of the federal government and the establishment of an Aryan society. The extent of the National Alliance in Massachusetts is not clear, the ADL says.

"The national organization is well-heeled and well-represented on the Internet," Tarsy said. "Who wears their insignia locally or listens to their music is not well known.

"It's a very fluid movement on the margins of society in which operatives don't have to join an organization or affiliate in order to travel the world of hate groups," he said. "It's difficult to guess who might fall under their influence, or what acts they might commit."

"Some people in other parts of the country have been found stockpiling weapons," Tarsy said. "Others are average Americans who happen to have extremist views on racial issues.

"This particular group," he said, referring to the National Alliance in Massachusetts, "appears to have a small number of members who enjoy distributing leaflets. Period. There's no indication they are involved in criminal activity or acts of intimidation against individuals."

Such groups are not new, nor are they any more likely to exists in one part of the country, than another. "They've been with us for some time," said Lawrence, the Boston University law professor. "It's hard to know with any precision whether it's getting worse or better.

"Over the last 10 to 15 years, we've become more sensitive, so we're more aware of it," he said. "What might have been dismissed years ago as a prank or rude behavior, we now understand to be more serious. "Certain parts of the country might consider themselves to be immune, but that's a big mistake."

David Gavigan, the Bristol County sheriff's deputy, agrees. "I think it's a lot more prevalent than people suspect," he said. "We're not paying attention. There are so many distractions in our lives. That's why it's so important for people to report these things, so law enforcement can be made aware of it."

Leaders of Attleboro's Jewish and African-American communities said they were unaware the city had been leafleted with racist and anti-Semitic literature, but they weren't surprised when informed of recent National Alliance activity in Southeastern Massachusetts.

"I think that in times of stress, people often look for scapegoats or to blame other people for their problems, whether they're Jews, African-Americans or gays and lesbians," said Rabbi Elyse Wechterman of Congregation Agudas Achim in Attleboro. "Hate is hate, and it should be countered with education and good work."

"I'm not any more scared now," Rabbi Wechterman said. "The Jewish community in Attleboro has been around for 90 years. We're an integral part of Attleboro. We feel very welcome." The Rev. Steven Latimer Jr., pastor of John Wesley AME Zion Church in Attleboro, was similarly unbowed.

"America is where it is today because of its diversity," Rev. Latimer said. "In the American core, there is this moral fabric," he said. "The core of America will survive. I don't think any hate group will penetrate that togetherness, that fabric. They can crop up, but they can't stand up to that American spirit." "I feel sorry for people who fall into those traps," he said.

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