A White Supremacist Group Seeks a New Kind of Recruit

NY Times/July 7, 1999
By Pam Belluck

Chicago -- They peddle hatred to children, with a brightly colored Web page featuring a coloring book of white supremacist symbols and a crossword puzzle full of racist clues.

They are trying to attract women, by talking about family issues and preaching that rapists should get the death penalty. They recruit aggressively on college campuses with a blizzard of leaflets handed out by their "missionaries."

With sophistication and marketing savvy, the white supremacists of the World Church of the Creator have made it perhaps the fastest-growing and one of the largest hate groups in the country. Promulgating an anti-Jewish, anti-black, anti-Christian doctrine, the group has increased its chapters from 13 to 41 in 17 states in the last year, experts on hate groups and the group's leader say. Estimates of its membership range from hundreds to several thousand people.

"It's the most active and it's the most sophisticated," said Mark Weitzman, director of the Simon Weisenthal Center's Task Force Against Hate.

And while the group says it does not advocate violence, some members have been linked in recent years to violent incidents, including the killing of a black sailor and the pistol-whipping of a video store owner believed to be Jewish.

It is the World Church of the Creator that drew the attention of Benjamin Nathaniel Smith, the 21-year-old student who went on a rampage over the Fourth of July weekend, shooting blacks, Jews and Asians in Indiana and Illinois, killing 2 people and injuring 12, the authorities say.

In the end, on Sunday night, Smith stole a van from a woman at gunpoint and, while being chased by the police, shot and killed himself.

The authorities said Tuesday that Smith bought his guns, a .380-caliber semiautomatic handgun and a .22-caliber pistol, from an illegal gun dealer in late June. At first he tried to buy the guns from a licensed dealer, but was turned away because one of his ex-girlfriends had filed an order of protection against him.

In many ways, Smith represented the kind of recruit that the World Church of the Creator and groups like it are increasingly trying to attract: young, educated, energetic, articulate. In the last few years, hate groups, which once appealed primarily to older white men in mostly rural areas with little education and blue-collar jobs, and which later attracted young ruffians called neo-Nazi skinheads, have begun to broaden their constituencies and increase their influence inside the political and legal systems.

"This is a departure from the traditional rank and file of these groups," said Mark Potok, who follows hate groups for the Southern Poverty Law Center. "These are not people who live in trailers. There is a concerted effort on the part of white supremacist leaders to recruit college-bound middle- and upper-middle-class kids."

Benjamin Smith, the son of a doctor and a real estate agent from an affluent Chicago suburb, attended New Trier High School, one of the nation's most elite public schools, and had Jewish friends growing up. As a teen-ager, there were few overt signs that he had virulently racist leanings, but he later wrote in a white supremacist newsletter that he thought that an eighth grade class covering the Holocaust was trying "to instill a strong and lasting sense of white guilt."

In his high school yearbook, he included the slogan "Sic Semper Tyrannis" ("Thus ever to tyrants"), the words spoken by John Wilkes Booth after he shot Lincoln, and that were displayed on a T-shirt worn by Timothy J. McVeigh the day he bombed the Federal office building in Oklahoma City.

In college at the University of Illinois, Smith later wrote that he thought that the foreign students and foreign professors he met were benefitting too much from government aid.

These were the raw ingredients Smith took to the World Church of the Creator. His career ambitions also seemed a plus. Smith left the University of Illinois in February 1998 after being charged with attacking his girlfriend and with marijuana possession. He then enrolled in Indiana University in Bloomington and switched his major from computer science to criminal justice so that he could become a lawyer.

In that way he was following the example of several of the movement's younger leaders, who want to be lawyers so they can be advocates for the white race inside the nation's courtrooms. In Bloomington, Smith was so active for the World Church of the Creator that he was named "creator of the year" in 1998 because he distributed the most leaflets and recruited the most members.

Many people who came in contact with Smith said he appeared calm, not excitable, another hallmark of some of the younger leaders of groups like the World Church of the Creator and the National Alliance, a fast-growing group with headquarters near Hillsboro, W.Va., who appear to be striving to couch their extremist views in nearly rational-seeming arguments to explain why Jews and minorities are inferior.

"It's all about moderating the image and trying to fit into the mainstream," said Mark Hamm, a professor of criminology at Indiana State University who has written extensively about hate groups.

Matthew F. Hale, the leader of the World Church of the Creator and, at 27, apparently the youngest hate group leader in the country, comes across as articulate, patient, telegenic and media savvy. The son of a policeman who still lives with his parents in East Peoria, Ill., Hale is credited with reviving the group in 1996 after it nearly ended when its founder, Ben Klassen, a former Florida state legislator who invented the electric can opener, committed suicide in 1993.

Hale, who plays the violin, has had minor skirmishes with the law over activities like burning an Israeli flag, and he ran unsuccessfully for the East Peoria City Council in 1995.

"Hale is definitely the most articulate and upfront of this new generation," said Weitzman of the Wiesenthal Center. "He's trying to give his movement a veneer of respectability, as well as the blow-dried look."

Hale said in an interview Tuesday that he did not condone Smith's actions, but he also said that he felt no compassion for the victims, only for Smith and his family. He said he believed Smith was "a martyr for free speech for white people."

He said the group is committed to achieving its goals through legal means, but he also said he could think of circumstances in which violence might be acceptable under the ideology of his organization.

"As any free people, we do insist on remaining free," Hale said. "Our position is similar to that of Thomas Jefferson. If our Constitution is destroyed, if our right to free speech is denied, then we have the right to use whatever means necessary to survive and to advance our position. If you're cornered in an alley you have the right to defend yourself."

The group's credo is "Rahowa," which stands for racial holy war, and members have been linked to violent activities over the last few years.

One member was convicted of killing a black sailor returning from the Persian Gulf war in 1991 in Florida. Two members pleaded guilty to the 1997 beating of a black man and his son in Miami, and last year, also in Florida, four members pleaded guilty to robbing and pistol-whipping a video store owner they believed to be Jewish. Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center said members of the group had also been linked to a plot to bomb a large Los Angeles African Methodist Episcopal church in 1993 and to the bombing of an office of the N.A.A.C.P. in Tacoma, Wash., that year.

In addition, literature from the World Church of the Creator was found near synagogues that were burned down last month in Sacramento, Calif., and the authorities were investigating whether the group's followers were involved.

Hale said that what might have set Smith off on his murderous course was a setback in Hale's drive to become a lawyer in Illinois. Hale, who graduated from law school and passed the state bar exam, has been denied a license to practice law by a state panel that ruled earlier this year that his racist activities indicated he did not have the fitness of character to qualify as a lawyer in Illinois.

Hale appealed the ruling and Smith testified at his appeal hearing. Last Friday, his appeal was denied and hours later, Smith began shooting Orthodox Jews walking home from Sabbath services in a north Chicago neighborhood.

Hale said that although he had told Smith he planned to appeal all the way to the United States Supreme Court, Smith might have interpreted the appeal denial as a sign that the group's rights were being so trampled upon that legitimate methods to advance the white racist agenda would not succeed.



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