SPLC labels White Lives Matter a hate group: Why it matters

By adding White Lives Matter to their list of hate groups, the Southern Poverty Law Center takes an important step against white supremacist groups who are increasingly seeking refuge and recruiting grounds online.

Darla Guillen/Houston Chronicle/AP/File
People with a White Lives Matter sign demonstrate in front of the NAACP office in Houston, Texas.

Unlike the KKK or Nazism, the "White Lives Matter" movement was born on the Internet. 

The group espouses anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about a secret world government and warns against interracial marriage, making no secret of its connections to neo-Nazi organizations.

Not surprisingly, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) has announced that White Lives Matter will be added to their list of hate groups. While the movement's following is small, its strong online presence is an indicator of how old bigotries are being made new again in the 21st century by a number of white supremacist groups across the country.

White Lives Matter recently made national headlines when about 20 members of the group showed up outside a NAACP office in Houston earlier this month, brandishing Confederate flags. While the protest did not turn violent, a few members of the group were armed with what the Washington Post described as assault rifles. In addition to Confederate imagery, some supporters flaunted references to various neo-Nazi organizations.

White Lives Matters differs from "the traditional KKK, which has tried to see itself as a member organization," says David Cunningham, a sociology professor at Washington University. "[You] could identify its membership through dues, structures, officers, and things like that.... In a more nebulous movement that's based predominantly online, people get attached to these ideas without being formally part of a defined group."

White Lives Matter formed as a white supremacist response to the #BlackLivesMatter movement on social media. As Black Lives Matter became more successful both online and in the physical world, memes circulating in social media with the tag #WhiteLivesMatter rose in popularity as a sort of counter-protest against black activists.

What started with hashtags and memes quickly grew more sinister under the leadership of Kevin Har­ris and Rebecca Bar­nette, who both have unapologetic ties to neo-Nazi movements. According to the Anti-Defamation League, the movement was incorporated into the Aryan Nation­al­ist Alliance, an umbrella organization of small white supremacist groups. Once the movement got going, it quickly revealed an obsession with the notion of a global conspiracy by other races to conduct "genocide" against whites.

“The White Lives Matter website says their movement is dedicated to the preservation of the white race. That tells you all you need to know,” Heidi Beirich, the director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala, told the New York Times. “They’re against integration, immigration. This is standard white supremacist stuff.”

Their website includes articles bashing Islam, Judaism, and various other "nonwhite" or non-Christian peoples, as well as several videos, including an amateur Holocaust-denying "documentary" about the supposedly misunderstood Adolf Hitler. 

According to Professor Cunningham, the online, loosely organized movement "facilitates and enables the blending of these [conspiracy] ideas, because it doesn't really require a codified sense of what your organization is doing. It allows you to kind of pick and choose ideas from a variety of racist quarters and sort of recombine them in a variety of ways people can latch onto individually."

The movement of hate groups into the digital realm has created new obstacles for law enforcement.

Before the Internet, hate groups had a strongly defined structure. This was a weakness exploited the SPLC in the 1980s, when the advocacy group was able to sue the United Klans of America, then the largest KKK group in the US, out of existence. Because a few of its members had been involved in a lynching attempt in Mobile, Ala., the SPLC successfully argued that it could hold the whole group liable for the crime.

According to Cunningham, however, the diffuse digital character of White Lives Matter would make it difficult to use a similar strategy against that group and others like it.

"You lose the ability to see them, in any kind of formal way, as part of the membership of an organization," explains Cunningham.

"It also lends an extreme air of unpredictability," he says. "As people are picking and choosing, they are also making their own decisions about what to do about these ideas, and whether or not to act on them in any way."

The SPLC's decision to include White Lives Matter on a list of hate groups may help the organization regain a legal advantage over hate groups. While the SPLC is not a government organization, it is an influential voice on the subject of fighting intolerance. According to the SPLC's website, there are currently 892 US hate groups – growing due to "anger over Latino immigration and demographic projections showing that whites will no longer hold majority status in the country by around 2040."

By monitoring these hate groups, the SPLC hopes to cast them as terrorist organizations in the eyes of the law. While the US government may struggle to take action against a loosely defined group, it has considerable latitude against terrorism, even with a group as nebulous as White Lives Matter, says Cunningham.

"One of the very important functions of the SPLC [is] to create a very clear sense that actions perpetrated by groups like White Lives Matter, and the kind of ideologies that lie behind them, are clearly terrorist acts."

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