As racists age, disparate groups sprout anew
This article originally appeared in the Sept. 9, 2009 edition of the Portland Observer.
The Portland Observer
“Stumptown,” and “the City of Roses,” are monikers associated with the progressive, livable city of Portland.
But Portland is also known by a less sanguine nickname: “Skinhead city.”
Hate groups once had a widely-felt presence in Portland. But those who track white supremacists in Oregon say that the membership of established hate groups has aged, giving rise to more disparate groups that are more difficult for law enforcement to monitor.
With Oregon’s hate groups in a state a flux, it’s increasingly tricky to assess how dangerous they might be, according to hate group monitors.
Since the collapse of the confederacy at the end of the Civil War white supremacists have viewed the Pacific Northwest as a potential all-white homeland. Oregon has had its share of violent outbursts motivated from racial hatred in the 1980s and 1990s, and two notorious hate groups were spawned in its prisons.
In 1994, Volksfront was founded by four inmates in an Oregon prison, according to information from the Anti-Defamation League. The founders included Randal Krager, who served time for an assault on an African-American father of four who was left paralyzed, and for making threatening phone calls to Jewish people, among other offenses.
A hulking man with a Nazi “SS” tattoo on his forearm, Krager was pivotal in building Volksfront to one of the Pacific Northwest’s most prolific hate groups.
Volksfront grew rapidly. It drew membership from prisons and people right off the street. It slid its tentacles into Portland’s white working class, and reached out to youths struggling with their identity.
It put out racist publications and sponsored rock concerts featuring bands with names like “Intimidation One” and “Jew Slaughter.” Its members committed violent acts throughout the Northwest, including a cross burning and the brutal murder of a man in Tacoma, Washington in 2004.
At its height, Volksfront was forging alliances with other hate groups. It claimed to have purchased property in the Pacific Northwest for a whites-only homeland, and was setting up international chapters.
But around the late 1990s and early 2000s something changed with Volksfront. News reports noted the group’s diminished presence, and to the surprise of many, Krager renounced violence. The organization’s website now presents itself as “an international fraternal organization for persons of European Decent.”
According to Ryan Burkeen, a deputy with the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office, Volksfront is less prominent because its core membership has aged. Some of them now have families, and are tired of cycling in and out of prison, he said.
“We don’t deal on the street with Volksfront. We just don’t,” said Burkeen who has been working on gang issues for the last five years. He adds that the last large public display from the group was Aryanfest in 2005. The event was held in Cascade Locks and attracted about 200 people and concluded without incident.
Randy Blazak, an associate professor of sociology at Portland State University and researcher with the Coalition Against Hate Crimes, said that Volksfront once had such clout that smaller hate groups and individuals essentially shied away from doing anything without getting its approval. Blazak added that Krager has left the state, hastening the group’s decline.
Oregon has also taken a harsher tact toward hate groups. Shortly after Mulugeta Seraw, an Ethiopian student, was brutally murdered by Portland skinheads the police set up a hate crimes unit, while the Legislature passed hate-crimes laws and voters approved get-tough-on-crime ballot measures.
“When we turned the heat up on these guys and put a lot of them in prison they said, ‘this sucks,'” said Burkeen.
Blazak said that with Volksfront in decline, there are a few smaller and less-organized hate groups lurking on Portland’s east side, in addition to the Hammerskin Nation across the Columbia River in Vancouver, which is perhaps the best known.
“When there are smaller groups there isn’t as much communication; there aren’t as much finances; there’s fewer things to be able to grab onto,” explained Daniel Nielsen, assistant special agent in charge for the Portland Division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, who confirmed Blazak’s assessment.
The advent of the Internet has made it even more difficult to know how big a threat an “organization” is, according to Blazak. Sometimes a foreboding website that appears to have many committed members is just one person in their mother’s basement, which Blazak said was the case in one instance.
“That is always a problem because those groups aren’t going to give up their membership list,” said Heidi Beirich, research director for the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups nationally.
Without large public events, said Beirich, it’s hard to gauge how big a group is.
Blazak said that one person can download and print out hateful fliers or stickers from the Internet and litter their neighborhood with them. Recently this happened in the Sellwood neighborhood in southeast Portland when someone got stickers from the racist National Alliance. Last year, someone released balloons marked by swastikas in various parts of the city.
“How much of it is real and how much of it is imagined? Let’s face it, a lot of these guys go out and thump their chest, but are they really doing a whole lot? No, because they’re not anxious to got to jail,” said Nielsen.
But ugly incidents continue to proliferate across the state, according to reports from anti-hate groups. Earlier this year two Troutdale teenagers painted racial slurs and swastikas on tombstones in a Jewish section of a cemetery. This summer a Pendleton man yelled an anti-Jewish epithet before head butting a judge for the city’s annual wiener dog race, among other occurrences tracked by the coalition. Three Native American men were beaten by men yelling racial slurs in Portland earlier this year. Two Medford men pleaded guilty to burning the letters “KKK” into the lawn of a racially-mixed couple’s house, among other incidents.
Hilary Bernstein, community director for the Anti-Defamation League’s Pacific Northwest Region, said that her organization received 12 complaints about hate groups in Oregon as of June, which she said is unusually high. Many involved National Socialists in southern and central Oregon.
The SPLC claims there are only seven hate groups in Oregon, but only four espouse a white supremacist ideology.
“It’s out there on the fringe, but it’s just not the same” said Mary Wheat, spokesperson for Portland Police who previously worked as a bias crimes detective.
However, Wheat said that the police still butt heads with European Kindred, an infamous hate group founded in 1998 in Oregon’s Snake River Prison, but the group has changed.
EK is now better known for organized crime than organized hate, according to people close to the issue.
“They go about business differently than your Crips and Bloods,” said Burkeen, who explained that EK engages in low-level crimes that aren’t likely to be on the nightly news.
Hate group monitors and old news reports make virtually no mention of EK committing overt racist act. Instead they detail white males selling meth, committing ID theft, burglarizing resident of Portland’s east side, and intimidating witnesses. The SPLC doesn’t even list it is a hate group.
Driven into Hate
Blazak said that whites who are typically driven into hate groups fear an erosion of their positions of privilege in America’s dominant culture. The election of the first black president at the loss of industrial jobs play into this dynamic, and ensure that hate groups will continue to proliferate, he said. It’s just a question of what shape they’ll take.
A Department of Homeland Security report released last spring warned that the election of a black president, rumors of looming gun restrictions, and a glut of veterans unable to readjust to civilian life could create conditions ripe for right wing extremism.
The report was blasted by conservative pundits as politically charged before a rifle-wielding white supremacist opened fire in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in June killing a black security guard.
The man was later revealed to have a long history with hate groups, and had been tracked by the SPLC.
No one saw it coming. Could it happen it Portland?
“I’m not going to say there’s not going to be that nut job out there,” said Nielsen.