Assessing White Supremacist Groups In The U.S. Federal authorities announced Monday that they had broken up a neo-Nazi plot to assassinate presidential candidate Barack Obama. Authorities say Obama was never in any danger. Mark Potok, director of the intelligence project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, discusses the case.
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Assessing White Supremacist Groups In The U.S.

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Assessing White Supremacist Groups In The U.S.

Assessing White Supremacist Groups In The U.S.

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Earlier this week, federal agents arrested and charged two young men who allegedly wanted to attack and kill Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama and a group of black school children. Agents identified Daniel Cowart and Paul Schlesselman as skinheads and said they had ties to white supremacist groups. Friends and neighbors of the two men say the plot was just talk. Even so, the arrests raised questions about the size, nature and danger of such groups.

If you have questions about skinheads and white supremacists, if they're active where you live, give us a call 800-989-8255, email us As always, you can join the conversation on our blog at where you can also find a link to hate watch, a blog by Mark Potok, he's director of the intelligence project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, and he joins us now from his office in Montgomery, Alabama. Nice to have you back on Talk of the Nation.

MARK POTOK: Well, thanks so much for having me, Neal.

CONAN: And you've reviewed this case. Did these men pose a real threat to Senator Obama?

POTOK: Well, I think to Senator Obama that's very doubtful. You know, people have heard about the plot, know that it was this extremely elaborate thing which involved, first attacking a black high school, murdering as many children as possible then going on to shoot 88 African-Americans then beheading another 14 African-Americans and ultimately dressing up in white tuxedos with white top hats and hurtling in a car you know, guns firing out the windows towards Obama wherever he might be and assassinating and dying at the same time.

Now I think that's obviously ludicrous, and saw something out of a Quentin Tarantino movie. But I think the reality is although it's you know, tempting to dismiss this as you know just crazy people and the fringes of the fringe, you know the reality is this that they might well have made their way into a high school and started murdering children. So you know, I think the likelihood of Senator Obama actually being a victim was extremely remote.

CONAN: Has to our knowledge, did they do anything in furtherance of the plot if they...

POTOK: Yes, they did do some things.

CONAN: Purchased weapons.

POTOK: In furtherance of the plot, and that of course is the critical element if they're going to be charged with conspiracy which they have not been charged with yet. You know, they did things like they got a map, they prepared a map of a federally licensed gun store that they intended to rob in order to get weapons for this attack, they also tried to carry out a home invasion also to cease weapons and money from you know, just a random family, they ultimately were frightened away by a dog, of all things. But you know, they had enlisted a friend, a young woman, whose mother ultimately tipped the police to this whole business, the whole plot and that's how the ATF got to them. So there were those acts and a few others, as well, acquiring weapons and so on. So you know, I think were the feds to bring conspiracy charges that - those are the things they would cite.

CONAN: And I wonder, when we say skinhead, what does that mean and what does it mean in the context of white supremacist groups?

POTOK: Well, first of all we should differentiate between racist skinheads and skinheads. Skinheads originally were not racist at all; as a matter of fact that was a multicultural movement, very steeped in Caribbean black music back in the '60s in England when it began. You know, when we talk about racist skinheads in America, we're talking about essentially a neo-Nazi subculture of people who typically do shave their heads, who do typically wear these Doc Martens boots, this tall black skinhead boots and a number of other things, braces and they have kind of outfits they wear. But, you know, what we're really talking about is a very, very violent subculture.

CONAN: By braces, you mean suspenders?

POTOK: I mean a kind of suspenders, that's right. Typically thin red or black suspenders. You know, and often there's the color shoe laces that these people wear indicates, you know, are they racist skinhead, are they an anti-racist skinhead and so on. But, you know, what the people've heard about in the country at large of course, is racist skinheads. Because they have been so associated with criminal violence with, you know, murdering police officers and all kinds of things.

These two people - one in particular, Daniel Cowart, one of the two arrestees we know to have been members of the group, the racist skinhead group, formed earlier this year called Supreme White Alliance. This was based out of Kentucky. And in fact, we have a photograph that shows Cowart with the leaders or some of the leaders of SWA, the Supreme White Alliance, celebrating Hitler's birthday in April of this year.

CONAN: Yeah, which might be a tip-off, but was the organization in any way involved?

POTOK: Well, there's nothing to suggest that's true. And I would say as a general matter, it is extremely unusual these days for an organization to plan and carry out a criminal act - mainly for the reason that they are so likely to get caught. So what we really see out there in terms of violence from the radical right is by and large what we would call lone wolves, people operating on their own or with just one or two partners, as opposed to, you know, being some kind of organizational plan.

CONAN: The leaders of some of these white supremacist groups say, look, they're - we're nonviolent that these groups are tantamount to social clubs. Is there any truth to that?

POTOK: There's no truth in that. I mean they're simply lying. That was said in fact, the other night on "Nightline" by Steve Edwards, who is the leader, was the president of the Supreme White Alliance. Edwards has at least nominally resigned basically because he got a lot of bad press over this alleged assassination plot. But, you know, I mean Steven Edwards is the son of Ron Edwards, who is the imperial wizard of the imperial clans of America, second largest clan group in America also based in Kentucky. And the fact this is that this group is rife with criminal violence, they are also very into weapons.

There was a special done on National Geographic very recently in which a lot of photographs or film shown of them, you know, shooting up the place. Steve Edwards is also a singer in a band. And the words, you know, I couldn't repeat on the air here, we'd have the FCC after us. But needless to say, you know, they call for things like no mercy on the various categories of people they think should die.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get some callers in on the conversation. Again, if you want to know more about these groups, if there active where you live. Give us a call. 800-989-8255. Email us And Judy is on the line, Judy calling us from Portland, Oregon.

JUDY: Hi there. I am just amazed in this day and age that people really think this way. I mean, and the fact that is that he isn't, you know, all black. He's half white. I don't understand why they don't even see that part of it. They're so ignorant.

CONAN: Judy.

JUDY: I'm just - I'm shaking. I'm just - I heard this the other day, I'm going, hello. Let's put these guys in prison and castrate them so they can't keep bombing, I mean.

CONAN: Watch the castration language, you know, that's and the thought, too for that matter. But nevertheless, are you aware of such groups?

JUDY: Well, you know, in Portland, Oregon, we're close enough to Idaho that you do hear about the white supremacist from time to time, and there was an incident back in the, I think it's the 70s where an Ethiopian guy was killed by some skinhead.

CONAN: Quite some time ago, though.

JUDY: Yeah. But, you know, you do every once in a while you see the graffiti. And I grew up overseas. I grew up in Japan, I'm blond hair and blue eyes. So I know what it's like to stand out in a positive, as well as the negative way for you feel like you're an outsider.

CONAN: Mm hmm.

JUDY: And so it's just - I have never ever that I could think of consider myself at all biased. I mean I have to admit - once in a while, I have concerns that I'm in an area or town where I'm the only white race. But, for the most part, I don't. So it's just appalling to me that people really, really think this way. And furthermore, I mean I would - even though it's like a Quentin Tarantino sort of a movie scenario. I mean, the fact that they would have that vivid in imagination is enough to be confirmed.

CONAN: Judy, thanks very much for the call; we appreciate it.

JUDY: Yeah, thank you. Bye-bye.

CONAN: And Mark Potok, she mentioned Idaho. Of course there are awful lot of people in Idaho who were not white supremacists, one would have to say, the great majority of the people in the state of Idaho. Nevertheless that state does have something of a reputation for - as a haven for some of these groups. Mark?


CONAN: Idaho, is it a haven for white supremacists?

POTOK: Well, Idaho has been. The northern panhandle of Idaho has been. It was made very infamous by a group called Aryan Nations, which for a time was the best known neo-Nazi group in the United States. The reality is that that group was destroyed by a civil lawsuit that we - the Southern Poverty Law Center brought in the year 2000. They were bankrupted; they were forced to sell their compound, which had been a very important gathering point for various factions of the radical right every year. It's something called the Aryan Nations World Congress. You know, I think it's worth mentioning though that, you know, we see this kind of subculture everywhere, including Portland, Oregon.

As the caller, Judy, mentioned that there was an important case. It was much more recent - it was in the late '80s - in which an Ethiopian student was murdered, a man named Mulugeta Seraw, by partisans of something called White Aryan Resistance. And that ultimately resulted in lawsuits by us, as well, that had the effect of destroying White Aryan Resistance. But, I mean, the point really is that these groups are scattered around the country in very many places. And they're certainly not limited to Idaho or the Pacific Northwest - I mean, we see them in the South, we see them up and down the coast and throughout the Midwest as well.

CONAN: Our listeners may remember allegations of another anti-Obama plot in Denver, at the Democratic National Convention. Do we know more about that one, though?

POTOK: Yeah. That one really wasn't much of a plot. I mean as it turned out, these guys were couple - three men arrested and a woman. And it turned out that they were very high on methamphetamines. When they were arrested, they were found with a number of weapons including two snipes - two scoped sniper rifles. But also 44 grams of methamphetamine, which is quite a bit of a very powerful drug. Then initially the federal authorities said that they had planned to try to shoot Obama from a high vantage point, in other words, from on top of a building or something like that.

Ultimately, as they questioned these people, they came to feel that it was merely a drug fantasy, thatthey really couldn't prove any real intent that it was simply, you know, essentially drug-fueled talk. And ultimately, there were only charged with (a) weapons charges and (b), threatening a presidential candidate simply in words as opposed to conspiring to murder him.

CONAN: We're talking with Mark Potok, director of the intelligence project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, and you're listening to Talk Of The Nation from NPR News. And next caller is Tom, and Tom is with us from Smithfield in Rhode Island.

TOM: Hi.

CONAN: Hi, Tom, go ahead please.

TOM: I'm wondering if anyone feels that white supremacist thinkers are in any way encouraged by the Republican rallies that are in some very white areas where they talk about things like we're in the real America. And they create this divisive differentiation, you know. Or it's like southern Virginia and western Pennsylvania.

CONAN: Tom, I hope you're not suggesting that either Governor Palin or Senator McCain have said anything that would be could any way be interpreted as white supremacist.

TOM: No, no. Absolutely not. But the wording that I feel like, maybe people who think that way feel like that's what they're talking about. That, you know, there's the other Virginia, there's real Virginia.

CONAN: I see. So that people may be hearing a message that was not intended. You think that question, Mark Potok, what do you think?

POTOK: Well, I don't know about that. I mean I think what is going on is that white supremacists are coming to realize that, you know, the real reaction of white supremacists up until very recently to the Obama nomination and more and more probable presidency, has been essentially one of shock. They don't quite know what to do. The movement was very split. About half of the white supremacists out there, including a number of their so-called intellectual leaders like David Duke, basically tried to see a silver lining in an Obama victory.

Duke wrote that if Obama wins, it will be a quote, visual aid, unquote to white America. In other words, what a lot of these people are hoping, that is if Obama is elected, white America or a huge hunker that it will be so shocked by the idea that their country has been stolen from them. That they will kind of rush in their millions to join clan groups and so on and finally, you know, make the revolution all the rest of it. You know, I think that what we're seeing - you know, we have seen over the last few weeks, quite a number of expressions of real nasty racism. I mean you know, images of Obama in nooses, that kind of thing.

CONAN: To be fair, we've seen Sarah Palin in nooses, too.

POTOK: That's true in one case. But I mean there has been a real rash of the Obama stuff, and that's not true of Palin. And, you know, what I would argue is that that represents at least the beginnings of a real white backlash. I don't mean to suggest that this is a huge movement. But, you know, we may be talking about 5 - 10 - 15 - 20 percent of whites who really feel that the world as they know it is going away from them, is kind of collapsing around them. And I think the other aspect of this is that there are number of things going on at once to make at least a certain quarter of population feel this way.

You know, the economy is gone into the tank. The demographics of the country are changing rather rapidly, without question. The Census Bureau recently predicted that around 2040, whites will lose their majority. And then finally, we have the very likely ascendancy of a black man into the White House into the Oval Office. So I think that, you know, some people do feel out there. It's not only members of the clan or neo-Nazi groups that their world is collapsing; they don't quite know what to make of it, and they're afraid.

CONAN: Tom, thanks for the call, appreciate it. Let's see if can squeeze one more caller in. Joanna, Joanna with us from Roanoke, in Virginia.

JOANNA: Yes, hello.

CONAN: Hi, Joanna. I'm afraid that we're going to ask you to keep it short because we're running out of time.

JOANNA: Sure. I was just bringing up the point that I think that - I'm from an area where I've actually known people who claim to be white supremacist - and they say it proudly. but they're really they feel very powerless there. You know, the types of people I've known who were economically disadvantaged. And it seems like they were don't have the power to carry out the types of things they talk about. It is more of this fantasy type. You know, trying to feel more powerful. But really not, I've never known anyone who has claimed that to whatever - have the ability or go through and carry out a horrible act. But I still think that it's of course, you know, mortifying that they have these beliefs. But it sets one up that if they were to be, I guess in a situation, a tenuous situation, they could act in a very threatening way. But I don't see them as being this well thought out group in my area. It's just kind of, you know...

CONAN: I don't mean to cut you off, Joanna. Just want to give more Potok a chance to respond. We just have a few seconds left.

POTOK: I mean I think it's a very astute observation. I think it's absolutely true that by and large, these are people who feel very powerless, for all the reasons I tried to mention a little earlier. You know, the thing to keep in mind is that while that is true, every once in a while, you know, a Timothy McVey gets through and murders 168 people in, you know, half a minute. A few years ago, there was a plot in 1998 in Texas to blow up a natural gas refinery. This came out of the small clan group. And to make a very long story short, when they were arrested, federal authorities said that had they succeeded 10 to 30,000 people, including all the people, all the students in an elementary school next door would've been killed. I mean that's 10 times the number of people who died on 9/11.

CONAN: Joanna, I'm going to have to say thank you. Appreciate the phone call.

JOANNA: Thank you.

CONAN: And Mark Potok, thank you for your time.

POTOK: And thank you for having me.

CONAN: Mark Potok, director of intelligence project at the Southern Poverty Law Center. This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News, I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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