Over the past month, reports have emerged of armed white nationalists provoking violence in Minneapolis — leading local organizers to create block-by-block patrols defending communities from violence. To better understand what’s happening in Minneapolis — and what antiracist organizers can do to combat white terrorism — The Forge sat down with the University of Chicago historian Kathleen Belew to talk about the growth of the white power movement in the post-Vietnam era, the surge of white terrorism during the Trump years, and how antiracist organizers can respond. This interview has been edited and condensed. 

 

As an observer, it seems like white nationalist violence has escalated over the last few years. From Charlottesville to El Paso to the Tree of Life Synoguge shooting, and, now, we’ve gotten reports of white power activists attempting to incite violence during the protests against police violence. Do you think we’ve seen an escalation of this movement during the Trump years?

The answer is absolutely yes. One critical thing for activists to understand, as well as for general readers to understand, is that we're now in a moment where we're talking about generations of organizing by white power activists that has mostly gone unchecked. What I document is the move towards what I classify as the white power movement, which is distinct from earlier moments of Klan and neo-Nazis activity. First of all, because activists are coming together under one banner and second, because their intent is revolutionary change.

So, whereas an earlier moment of white nationalism proper would have been the 1920s Klan, which is all about 100% Americanism and marching on the National Mall and trying to claim the nation as a space of whiteness. The people that I'm looking at are really not interested in that so much as they're interested in overthrowing the country, expelling populations of color, killing racial enemies, and eventually trying to figure out either a white homeland or a white world.

That is the radical and very violent movement we're facing today. And, for a variety of reasons, the nation has really never come to terms with it in that way. So everything from 1983 forward, I would encourage people not to think about it as white nationalism because that implies overzealous patriotism. But “the nation” in white nationalism isn't the United States. The nation is the Aryan nation. It's imagined as a transnational white polity that's meant to unite white people and expel everybody else.

 

Do you think white power activists are taking advantage of this moment to incite further violence in order to achieve that ultimate goal?

I think that is what's happening. I would caution that the reports are hard to verify at this juncture. So one of the ways that I'm a historian is that I try to hang back until I have an archive of information and some specific detail before I move to analysis. But I think what the earlier history can show us is that the kinds of opportunities that the white power movement has been looking for, for decades, to foment social disorder and social unrest in order to bring about race war are exactly what we're seeing right now.

The scenes of using peaceful protest by people of color and fomenting them into violent discord in order to bring white people to their cause, that's all laid out in The Turner Diaries, which is a dystopian novel that's worked as a how-to manual for the Right across generations. All of it is ... it's right out of the white power playbook.

The work ahead is to keep this story in our sights. Often what happens in our news cycle is that people tune in when there's a lot of attention and then tune out again when other crises come about. And, of course, we're in a news cycle of constant crises and constant turnover. But in order to really see what happened at the protests and to figure out how much white power involvement was there, we're going to need to be following the story through FBI investigations, social media reports, watchdog organization reports. 

There's a lot of challenging elements to that. One of them is that, in many cases, it's really difficult to tell who is a uniformed officer, either of a police unit or of a military unit, and who is a white power activist who is just dressed like a military officer. I think that's even more concerning when people aren't showing where they're deployed from and they're just declaring that they're federal troops, which [is] not a real designation. I think civilians and organizers have a right to know who is deployed where and which officers people are reporting to.

One really alarming thing that I saw was in the photos coming out of DC, like the Lincoln Memorial photo, those officers are wearing different uniforms, which leads me to wonder if we're looking at a melange of military police, national guard, but possibly also private contractors and possibly even militiamen. And I think it's going to be very difficult to know that until we get some real answers about who's deployed where and about which units are in play. We have to keep asking those questions and we have to keep recording and taking photographs of the people being deployed in the specific uniforms because that's going to be really important for figuring this all out after the fact.

 

So your sense is the white power militiamen may be coming in and posing as National Guard or army in order to police the protesters?

I don’t know. I don't think anybody knows who is doing policing. I have not gotten any sort of cut and dry reports of this, but I also have seen a whole lot of people with no insignia and no nameplate information. I think that the absence of accountability opens the way to militia participation. And what we have seen, and I'm sure your readers will already be up on this story, but we have seen militias operating in a police capacity in places like Portland in the protest after the stabbings on the train there. We saw militias detaining protestors and holding them for police arrest.

So I think the important thing to do is that if we think about a Venn diagram of policing and white power activism, there is some space of overlap. What that space is, is where we need to be focusing attention. I don't personally think it's helpful to say all police are white power activists. Although obviously we have problems with all of policing being a hyper-militarized violence space. That's not the same thing as saying, all police officers hold to these specific political and revolutionary beliefs, but some of them do. So figuring out where that line is, is going to be really important. But one of the interesting things that's happened is that, when we think about a paramilitary white power movement, the same processes have paramilitarized both civilian policing and white power activism at the same time. 

There's an image I like to use when I'm teaching this to my students [from] the 1992 standoff between federal troops and [a] white power family, the Weaver family at Ruby Ridge in Idaho. The Weaver family is encamped in the little mountain cabin, surrounded by federal officers. And at the bottom of the mountain, there's a roadblock of sympathetic white power activists who are demonstrating in favor of the Weaver family. At one point, a group of skinheads tries to resupply the Weavers with more guns and ammunition and they're caught and they're arrested. But the picture of that arrest shows the ATF officers arresting the skinheads and they are wearing the same uniforms. So there's a way that the same uniforms, weapons, tactics, and training have shaped both of these forces such that there's a natural sphere of overlap that really enables recruitment.

 

Can you talk about those recruitment tactics?

If we go back to the second era Klan in the 1920s, which is the really big one, that's the one that's 4 million people, 10% of the state of Indiana. It takes a ton of elected offices. People usually think about that era of the Klan as being anti-black and antisemitic -- and it was anti-black and antisemitic, but it was also very opportunistic in exploiting local racial tension. So on the border, it was anti-Mexican. In the Northeast where we had big immigrant populations, it was anti-immigrant. In the Northwest, where there were big union drives, it was anti-labor. In Indiana, where Notre Dame University was, it was anti-Catholic. So it was willing to ride into whatever the local problem was, gin up anger, and then use that to pull people in. And that's been the way the Klan has worked throughout its long history, at least from the 1920s forward.

Boogaloo is really just a new terminology for what they've been doing for a really long time, which is to both engage in a very intense belief that there is an apocalyptic race war around the corner, and to prepare for and try to bring about that race war. You might hear about accelerationist tactics. That's not new either. All of this is in The Turner Diaries. All of this has been the central white power organizing strategy from the early 1980s forward.

The Oklahoma City bombing was the largest mass casualty event on American territory between Pearl Harbor and 9/11. But most people don't know what it was. Most people think of it as the act of one or a few mad men, not part of [a] coordinated movement, violence that represents people in all regions of the country, people across education and class background. In every way but race, this was a tremendously diverse movement that brought in a ton of different kinds of people. And that's why it's so hard to pin down who exactly is in Boogaloo and where it is on the spectrum, but it is certainly a white power movement in that it contains white power activists who are seeking to bring about race war.

 

How do you define the white power movement?

When I say the white power movement, what I'm talking about is a broad array of far right groups that came together in common cause against the government and against the nation, beginning in the late 1970s and really solidifying in the early 1980s. So Klansmen, neo-Nazis, Posse Comitatus, a bunch of smaller anti-government groups, a bunch of white separatists groups, people who believed in Christian identity, which is a political theology that says that white people are the chosen people and that they are called to carry out race war before Christ can return. So there's a broad array of people brought into this movement as a unified force. 

There's a lot of energy spent on [figuring out] exactly who is a skinhead, which symbols go with skinheads, which symbols go with neo-Nazis, which symbols go with Klansmen. Where is the line between a legitimate Boogaloo movement and a white power revolutionary uprising? There’s a lot of line drawing. For activists in this movement, that's just not how it worked. That's not how people participated. It's very common for people to move through groups. It's very common for people to have multiple memberships. And I think that organizers on the Left will understand this. There's all kinds of feuds between groups that do not dissuade people from their beliefs in the cause, but they're just interpersonal rivalries and disputes and little biases. So some sociologists have said things like, this is too fragmented to be a social movement. There's too much disagreement about what the outcome will be. I would challenge people to show me any social movement in the 20th century that doesn't have that as a characteristic.

The other reason that I use the phrase white power movement is that that's what they called themselves more than they call themselves any of these other terms because there's a lot of fighting about, do we want to be white nationalists or white separatists or white supremacist? People have failed to take it seriously, people have failed to listen to what these people have said that they're doing. And there's a whole lot of reasons that people do that. But you know, when people call them crazy or say that they're inept or say that they're disorganized or say that they're too horrible to believe, what we miss is that they are still perfectly capable of carrying out acts of violence and they are organized and they are incredibly good at some parts of what they're doing.

I mean, this movement has been online, effectively using proto social media to organize since 1983, '84. They've been doing this since before most of us had even thought of it as a possibility. And so, I mean, not taking it seriously is a mistake that we've made for too long and ignoring it has not made it go away, [but] has only amplified its capacity.

 

I read an article that described white power activists as part of a “loose movement.” But in some ways, all movements are loose movements. Think of the New Left — there were a lot of different groups that came together around shared goals. 

Exactly, and often had feuds and sometimes didn't agree on the outcome or the strategies and all this. Yes. Sociologists have gotten very deep into figuring out things like which symbol goes with which group, which slogan goes with which group, exactly which group each person is in, exactly what does each one believe. I think that's a very natural and human impulse to want to understand something that feels so foreign. But, as a result, we’ve got these very rigid definitions [and], actually, it didn't work that way for activists on the ground. White power activists in the '80s very often would circulate through groups, would change their identification, would have multiple symbolic frames for themselves.

So for instance, it's very common in the '80s to see something like a burning of a swastika and a cross at a rally that included both neo-Nazis and Klansmen and skinheads. It was very common for people to attend a white power congregation and a Klan chapter and a neo-Nazi meetup or something like that. It was really more of a melange. There is even one Swedish sociologist who came to observe it, who called it a smorgasbord, which I think is a very apt way to think about it, actually.

I'm not sure that most movements don't work that way. [But] when you're outside of something, I think it's easier to say, "Oh, well there's a feud between these two people. So they're not really part of the same thing." But actually, what we see is, across time, activists did see it as part of the same thing. They did describe themselves as being part of a movement.

And not only that, but they're motivated by a real apocalyptic fear of racial change that made it very urgent and non-optional. People really felt under siege and they really were preparing for war. And we also see that they're interconnected through women's relationships. So, even groups with so-called feuds. You often see marriage bonds between groups, you see shared childcare, picking people up from the airport, people staying over at another believer’s house when they're going through town, marital counseling, and church services. This is a social movement with all of the parts of that. Not just operational, tactical stuff.

[But] the other reason that people haven't seen it as a movement is that the white power movement was also attempting to disappear at the same time. It adopted in the early 1980s, a strategy called leaderless resistance, which is effectively cell-style terrorism. The idea being that one or a few activists would work towards common goals without being in direct communication with each other or with leadership. And that was actually implemented mostly because of FBI infiltration of Klan groups during the civil rights era. But the bigger legacy is that it's been very difficult to understand it as a movement because what we get are a whole bunch of stories of “lone wolf actors” and a “few bad apples,” rather than an organized system of people who are all working together for a common cause. What we're talking about now is a movement that has been operating almost unstopped since 1979 and has been organizing and growing across decades, if not across generations.

 

How do white power activists communicate with each other?

I would assume a lot of it is on social media and through electronic communication. We have one really good example of that in Dylan Roof, who seems never to have met another activist in real life, but is really clearly a white power movement true believer. We know that from the Rhodesian flag patch, which was never an issue during his lifetime, but Rhodesia -- [now] Zimbabwe, of course -- was a huge issue for earlier white power activists who saw [it] as under siege by communists and black revolutionaries and thought that the white people there would be endangered if it transformed into a democratic system. So Dylan Roof wearing that patch and the way he formed his manifesto around The Turner Diaries shows that he's really indoctrinated and deeply involved in the movement without any need for real life contact. In the past, the online organization and organization through print materials was matched with a lot of social activity. And that [also] seems to be the case now.

 

So, there’s two parts of the movement. One are these underground cells that are planning violent activities, and the other is spreading culture and ideology.

Exactly. If you think about The Order, which is a white power terrorist group active in the '80s, a very successful one, they stole millions of dollars from a bunch of stores and armored cars in the Pacific Northwest and California, and then distributed that money all around the country in order to get a whole bunch of different groups to buy computers and go online. And then [they] sent around an activist to teach them how to go online so that they could all be on a thing called Liberty Net, which in 1983, '84 was kind of the proto-social network messaging and activism site.

A group like that was mostly underground. The record of the key people in The Order shows that they would move around doing illegal activity. They would bring their wives and families with them. But at the same time, they would also do things like attend church services at area nations, which was an above board site for the movement that had a lot of movement leaders there on a regular basis. So they were connected with each other, which is just to say that the above ground stuff is connected to the underground even if those connections aren't always clear.

 

Can you talk a little more about the ways that activists have used the internet and social media?

White power activism has always struggled with various kinds of bans on how they can communicate in print. For instance, it was illegal to take hate literature into Canada. One of the things they did before the internet was figuring out how to smuggle materials to and from Canada. The internet of course takes down all of those kinds of barriers. So the white power movement founded a site called Liberty Net in 1983/84. It's not exactly the internet proper. It's more of a series of coded message boards that you could log into, but it really functioned like a social media site. They posted things like hit lists and assassination targets and ideological content, but they also posted stuff like personal ads and recipes and things like that. These kinds of content really worked together to cement the movement as a social movement rather than simply trying to direct people toward violence. It's both parts that work in tandem.

 

It's striking because 1983 seems so early to be online. 

It's often really misunderstood. I see a lot of misreporting saying that these groups have just gotten onto social media or that Stormfront, which came online in 1995/96 was the first website. The fact that they'd been doing this for so many years is really material to how well they use social network activism. A lot of current leadership in the movement is second generation. I think that there is some evidence that there's generational throughlines and there's lessons learned. They recognize what has worked and what hasn't and they adapt.

 

Given your deep understanding of the white power movement and how it's organized, do you have any thoughts on the best way to organize against it?

One thing that the lone wolf narrative does is divide communities when they find themselves in the crosshairs of this violence. If we tell a lone wolf story, we see El Paso over here as an act of anti-immigrant violence. The Tree of Life synagogue is over here as an act of antisemitic violence. And Dylan Roof's shooting is over here as an act of anti-black violence. All of those are white power violence. And that means that all of those communities have a common interest in opposing it. I would love to see it reported that way more often. One concrete thing people could do is simply oppose the use of the phrase “lone wolf,” which gets us absolutely nowhere. I think that there are instances where things are actually apolitical violence related to personal reasons, related to mental illness, related to the availability of guns. But when it is violence that comes with a manifesto and an ideology, it's our job to figure out how to understand what it was intended to do and how to oppose the full movement.

 

Anything else you'd like to add?

I appreciate the work of people that are really in the streets trying to confront this in real time. Historians have the benefit of hindsight and we have a certain degree of distance that is just a lot different than people who are doing the hard work of trying to understand what's happening around them on a day-to-day basis. Because this is a movement that has really tried to disappear, simply focusing on it and explaining it and understanding it has value.

 

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