The deadly shooting at a Sikh temple near Milwaukee is renewing concern about the white supremacist movement in the United States, which experts say is on the rise in large part because of the weak economy and a visceral distrust among some people of the first African-American president.
Wade Michael Page, who gunned down six people Sunday before being shot and killed by police, was a member of a hardcore rock band that was part of underground movement featuring racist ideologies and he had coded racist tattoos. Police have not released any details as to Mr. Page’s motivations.
Despite the increase in the number of hate groups, however, it is relatively rare for their vitriol to result in actual violence, experts say. Instead, their invective shows up on website chat rooms and in social media like Facebook and Twitter, using relatively obscure names oftentimes related to Adolf Hitler.
White supremacist members, often with shaved heads and tattoos extolling the Nazi cause, meet periodically at barbeques and concerts that receive little advance publicity. Their music is often filled with lyrics that appeal to alienated individuals.
“The election of President Obama was a lightening rod for the extremist community,” says Brian Levin, director of the Center for Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. “They regard his election as a marker for the destruction of American society.”
High unemployment caused by the lingering economic recession often fuels resentment, causing groups to lash out at immigrants or others often competing for low-wage jobs. The Sept. 11, 2011 terrorist attacks caused a backlash against Muslims, and attacks have been reported on Sikhs by people confusing them with Muslims.
At the same time that hate groups appear to be on the rise, hate crimes have fallen to a 14-year low, Mr. Levin says. Hate crime homicides are relatively rare.
“The last ten years we’ve averaged under a dozen a year,” Levin says. “But most years it’s in single digits.”
When they do take place, the odds are good a white supremacist was involved. According to Mark Pitcavage, director of investigative research at the Anti-Defamation League, 85 percent of all extremist-related murders are committed by white supremacists.
The ADL, which has been tracking the groups for decades, estimates there are at least 100,000 people in the US who call themselves white supremacists.
“There are far more we have not identified, 100,000 could be low balling,” Mr. Pitcavage says.
Levin estimates there are about 1,000 hate groups with such names as Hammerskins, the Aryan Terror Brigade and the American Nazi Party.
“There has been a yearly increase” in the number of such groups, he says.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, an Alabama organization that also tracks such groups, there is a hate group in every state. California, with 84 such groups, has the most, followed by Georgia (65), Florida (55), Texas (45) and Mississippi (41).
The most violent group, according to Pitcavage, is the Texas Aryan Brotherhood, which the ADL says has committed at least 29 murders.
Even when group members are arrested, they continue operating in prison, Pitcavage says. According to the Houston Chronicle, a four-year statewide investigation by law enforcement into the group resulted in the prosecution of 34 members for murder and racketeering. Another 30 ended up in state prisons.
According to Pitcavage, gaining membership in a hate group such as Hammerskins requires a trial period for other members to assess a prospective member. In the case of Page, he appears to have joined the group early in 2011 and became a full-fledged member by late 2011, Pitcavage says.
Discussion of Sunday’s shooting appeared on several online chat rooms that appear to cater to racist or hate groups. Someone using the user name End Apathy, which was the name of Page’s band, has six posts on Stormfront.org, a site that says it exists to promote the interests, values and heritages of whites. The posts, the most recent one from this March, promote shows by End Apathy as well as events by Definite Hate, Blue Eyed Devils, and Max Resist, all bands that Page was also associated with.
Lyrics from one Blue Eyed Devils song include the lines “Now I’ll fight for my race and nation, sieg heil,” among other anti-Semitic and racist calls to action.
On sites such as Stormfront, organizers obscure details and only post vague information about the specific location and time of events like Hammerfest, an annual concert and gathering put together by the Hammerskins. They direct users to a forum for Hammerskin members and then provide contact information for an organizer only the day of, so attendees, some of whom travel from as far as Australia, can get in touch and find the show.
In an interview with Label 56, Page’s record label, Page is quoted as saying his start in the white supremacist music scene dates to a Hammerfest concert in Georgia in 2000. The label deleted the interview from its website, but cached versions were still available online.
In the interview, Page is quoted as saying that the topics for his songs vary from sociological issues to religion “and how the value of human life has been degraded by being submissive to tyranny and hypocrisy we are subjugated to.”
White supremacists use mainstream social media tools to spread ideas and communicate as well. A Facebook search turns up group commemorating Hitler and sharing racist images. Organizations such as the American Nazi Party have active Twitter accounts. Most self-described white nationalists primarily communicate on forums dedicated to "white pride."
Almost right after the shooting in the Sikh temple, users of Stormfront began to post messages. One of them worried that the person doing the shooting was a “white perp.” The poster, someone by the name of Proud White Chap, worried that after the shooting in the Aurora, Colorado movie theater last month, Congress would “join forces” and confiscate guns from people, infringing on constitutional protections for firearms.
Some visitors to the chat room theorized the Sikh temple shooter must have been a government plot to stir up sentiment against white supremacists. Others note that the sites are getting many more views in the wake of Sunday’s shooting, possibly by law enforcement or journalists.
Many of the posts are signed with 838, which, using letters that coordinate to those numbers, stands for “Hail the Crossed Hammers.” Others reference 88 for “Heil Hitler” or 14, for the 14-word phrase “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children” that is commonly found in hate-crime literature.
Page had a 14 tattooed onto his left shoulder.