L.A. Arrests Prompt New Look At Factors Behind Hate Crimes

AMERICA'S most diverse city is struggling to respond to another racial wake-up call as details of an alleged plot by white supremacists to foment a race war here reverberate across the nation.

Officials from Gov. Pete Wilson (R) to Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan condemned the alleged actions of eight suspects arrested July 15, accused in a plot to kill motorist Rodney King, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, and other local leaders, and blow up the popular First African Methodist Episcopal Church. Weapons, bombs, and plans were seized after an 18-month sting operation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

"This kind of despicable action has no place in California, no place in America, no place in any decent society anywhere," Governor Wilson says. The suspects, who live in southern California, are affiliated with two well-known white supremacist groups, the White Aryan Resistance and the Church of the Creator. Another suspect allegedly heads a group called the Fourth Reich Skinheads, a militant wing of the White Aryan Resistance.

"How many wake-up calls will it take to get America out of bed?" asks Rev. Cecil Murray, chief pastor of the 9,000-member church slated for destruction.

"This whole nation is in crisis in terms of race," he adds.

Last week's arrests capped an investigation in which FBI informants infiltrated groups as undercover agents, secretly taping conversations. Many of the suspects' neighbors showed surprise at the arrests, while L.A. residents continue to inundate the news media with expressions of horror, shock, dismay, and sadness.

As the arrests have become a catalyst for renewed interest in hate groups and white supremacists, several themes, concerns, and lessons are being voiced by behavioral researchers, justice officials, and criminal experts.

* Historical perspective. "This is a horrible episode," says Clifton Bryant, a sociology professor at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and editor of the Scientific Journal of Deviant Behavior. "But there is no reason to believe we are in for any new reign of terror by these types."

The perspective of 20th century American history - which has seen more activity by such groups as the German-American Bund and the Silver Shirts in the 1930s - makes the current arrests pale by comparison, Mr. Bryant says. The Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, '30s, and '40s was far more active as well, he says.

* Statistics. Hate-group membership has reached a historic low, while the number of hate/racial-bias crimes is going up (See chart), says Brian Levin, legal-affairs director of the Center for the Study of Ethnic and Racial Violence in Edgewater, Colo.

"The true lesson and true danger of this is not that hate groups can commit direct acts of violence," he says. "Rather, the intercommunity and interethnic bonds in our society are so brittle that isolated incidents can set the stage for engulfing a whole area in violence. If relations were better between ethnic groups right now, these attempts would be futile."

The FBI defines hate/bias crimes as a criminal offense against a person or property that is motivated, in whole or in part, by the offender's bias against a race, religion, ethnic/national-origin, or sexual-orientation group. In January, the FBI released its first report on hate crimes as required by the 1990 Hate Crimes Statistics Act. It documented 4,775 offenses in 32 states.

* Social support. "The degree to which these groups are informally sanctioned by society to me should be questioned," says Delores Craig, assistant justice-administration professor at Wichita State University in Wichita, Kan. In southern cities like Chattanooga, Tenn., and Atlanta, "communities support their activity to the extent that members flaunt it [with] business cards, public offices."

For Ms. Craig, the key question for citizens to ask is how each person responds. "The evidence so far is that most people feel comfortable letting their schools, police, and social groups deal with these problems. Few are willing to reach across community lines in ways that say: `We will not tolerate this.' Skinheads are waiting to see this response, and they interpret silence as an endorsement of their position," she explains.

* Political Motives. Kathleen Ridolfi, a criminal-law professor at Santa Clara University School of Law in Santa Clara, Calif., and a former public defender, says accused groups are usually small and isolated. "There are hate groups like this all over," she says. "Based on the major press conferences, I question whether police and FBI are making this into a big thing for political reasons, to make good on what has already happened to blacks in L.A."

* Subtle racism. "People in America don't like to admit that this kind of behavior has not been eradicated," says Bruce Jones, a political-science professor at the University of Pittsburgh. "But so long as society fails to address the subtle forms of racism that still exist, you create an atmosphere that perpetuates these more-overt forms."

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