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Understanding the Scope and Profile of White Supremacy Hate in the U.S.

August 8, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
The ongoing FBI investigation of this week's shooting at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisc. is examining gunman Michael Wade Page's ties to neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups. Judy Woodruff talks to Mark Pitcavage of the Anti-Defamation League and Pete Simi of University of Nebraska, Omaha about the rise of extremist groups.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now an update on the man responsible for Sunday’s shooting rampage in Wisconsin.

Law enforcement authorities said today that Wade Michael Page took his own life on Sunday with a single shot to his head after police had shot him in the stomach. Page killed six people and wounded three others at a Sikh temple on Sunday.

FBI officials said they are still trying to learn of a possible motive and are investigating his links with white supremacy and neo-Nazi groups. An army veteran, Page played guitar and bass with so-called white power rock bands that are known for hateful lyrics.

During a press conference today, FBI officials were asked how they track white supremacy groups.

TERESA CARLSON, FBI: This is an issue where law enforcement has to continually balance the civil liberties, the rights that every U.S. citizen has to think what they want, believe what they want, and say what they want.

Obviously, we cannot investigate people for any of those things. So, no matter how horrendous or reprehensible those things may be, until somebody actually threatens, there’s a threat of force or violence, we cannot open an investigation on them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For more about these groups and about Page himself, we turn to two people who have followed this closely. Mark Pitcavage is the director of investigative research at the Anti-Defamation League. And Pete Simi is an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha who studies extremist movements. He’s the author of the book “American Swastika.” He met Page while doing research.

And, gentlemen, we thank you both for being with us.

Mark Pitcavage, to you first.

We know that language matters in talking about these extremist groups. How do you describe the groups that — that Wade Michael Page was known to be associated himself with?

MARK PITCAVAGE, Anti-Defamation League: Well, the major group that Page associate himself with was a racist skinhead group called the Hammerskins.

And the Hammerskins are one of the largest and oldest hard-core racist skinhead groups in the United States. They started in Texas in the mid to late 1980s and spread out from there. They have pockets of members and supporters in a number of different places around the country, the largest one being in Florida, but also in North Carolina, where Page himself lived for a number of years.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you’re describing it as a racist skinhead group. How do you distinguish that from other so-called white supremacist groups, hate groups? How would you — help us understand what this particular group stands for, how it stands out from the others.

MARK PITCAVAGE: Sure.

The white supremacist movement in the United States today actually has five main submovements in it: neo-Nazis, traditional white supremacists, like the Ku Klux Klan, racist prison gangs, Christian Identity, which is a racist and anti-Semitic religious sect, and racist skinheads.

Now, racist skinheads have more or less the same ideology as neo-Nazis do, but what differentiates them is that racist skinheads also constitute a distinct subculture, where they have a subculture that began in Great Britain in the late ’60s and early ’70s. And, eventually, a racist offshoot of that subculture developed and came to the United States.

And they have distinct traditions and clothing and hairstyles and musical styles, and like any subculture, like the punk subculture or the goth subculture. And so, the Hammerskins are distinct because they’re one of the most respected groups in that subculture.

And, in particular, they have a very dominant role in the white power music scene in the United States, hosting every year a number of the major white power music concerts — major by their standards — and a number of white power music bands affiliate themselves with the Hammerskins.

And Page himself had been associated with the Hammerskins for a number of years, largely through his two of his bands, End Apathy and Definite Hate. And then, by 2011, he actually formally became a Hammerskin himself.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Pete Simi, you — as we were saying, you actually got to know Wade Michael Page. You spent some time with him. Tell us about him and about how he fit in with this group.

PETE SIMI, University of Nebraska, Omaha: Well, I met Page back in 2001.

And at that time, I was conducting field work in the United States with members of white supremacist groups across the country. I had been doing that since 1997. And by about 1999, I began to focus on southern California and had met a number of folks that were active in white supremacist groups in that area.

And I met Page through another one of my contacts, another one of my research contacts. Page ended up living with this person. So they were housemates. So, for about — from 2001 to — for almost three years, Page became one of my regular research subjects, one of my regular contacts who I ended up spending quite a bit of time with doing interviews, but also just kind of hanging out around his house, talking with him, kind of observing him, going to music shows with him, and just trying to figure out kind of how he got involved and why he got involved.

And what I learned from him was that, you know, he had moved out to California shortly before I met him. He moved out there to join a band, Youngland, and became a member of that band, and that was first white power band he became involved in.

He had met some of those members of that band earlier around 2000 at a music event. And this was, you know, a couple of years after he had gotten out of the military. He met some of these folks from this band Youngland and really liked them. They kind of clicked. And shortly thereafter, he decided to relocate to southern California.

And he was pretty new to southern California when I met him. So he was kind of just starting to get kind of acclimated to the scene in southern California, and he was hanging out with members of lots of different groups. He didn’t have any specific membership or affiliation with any one particular group at that point in time.

But he was definitely starting to get involved, and was really identifying with the music part especially.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Pete Simi, can you characterize for us what he believed and how the music fit in with that?

PETE SIMI: Well, when I met him, he was already pretty indoctrinated into neo-Nazi ideas. He was very anti-Semitic by that time. He was talking about a Zionist or small Jewish conspiracy to essentially dominate world affairs.

He spoke a lot in terms of anti-black terms and felt that blacks were preying on whites on a regular basis. He felt that whites were generally discriminated against within society, and that whites routinely got the short end of the stick and were essentially on the verge of extinction.

So, he had by that time really adopted some of the core elements of a kind of white supremacist world view.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Mark Pitcavage, we know you have made a specialty — a special — taken a special interest in studying the music of these groups.

How does the music, the lyrics, how does — how do they use the music to express their views?

MARK PITCAVAGE: Well, you know, as you know, music can be extremely powerful, directly or indirectly.

And they use the music in a number of different ways. Obviously and probably what concerns most people is that they can use music to agitate their audiences, to make them angry, and to direct that anger at particular targets, at Jews, at non-whites, at immigrants, at gay people.

But they also use the music for other reasons as well. The music can convey a shared sense of community, a sense that they’re all together as part of the same struggle, the same movement. Sometimes, the music will — the lyrics will recall or glorify heroes or quote martyrs of the white supremacist movement.

Sometimes, it will exalt particular groups, it will be sort of self-promotional. And all of these things together basically form — form one of the pillars of the subculture that permeates the white supremacist movement.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me ask you, Pete Simi, what about the attitude, just quickly, of these groups toward violence? And how do they draw a line between having such strong views and signaling to their members whether it’s all right or not all right to act on those views?

PETE SIMI: It’s a fine line.

There’s a — I mean, the rhetoric, whether it’s the music, whether it’s other types of propaganda literature, things on websites or just the everyday conversations that occur among folks that are involved in this world, it’s filled with very aggressive talk. And violence is a prominent feature in terms of how they see the world.

In particular, because they see that whites are on the verge of extinction, they feel that violence to a certain extent, to a large extent, is justifiable. You can view — even unprovoked predatory violence can be viewed as a form of self-defense by whites to try and essentially save the race.

And so the line between advocating violence very clearly and trying to take a more kind of subtle approach sometimes is easy to skew. And some groups that are heavily involved in violence, after it occurs, will denounce an act of violence such as the incident in Wisconsin, as Volksfront did fairly recently. They denounced the incident.

So, it’s a very fine line between the advocacy and the actual practice of violence.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, it is a big, big subject, and obviously one that’s very troubling. And we thank both of you for talking with us.

Pete Simi, Mark Pitcavage, thank you both.