A Closer Look At One Hate Group In West Palm Beach
Florida ranks No. 2 in the list of U.S. states with the most active hate groups. The most recent Hate Map, put out regularly by the Southern Poverty Law Center, shows 63 hate groups operating from Pensacola to Miami.
In South Florida, specifically West Palm Beach, the group Stormfront has been particularly influential in spreading white supremacist ideas. WLRN talked to Mark Potok, writer and expert on the radical right, about Storm Front's role in spreading hate in our state and elsewhere.
POTOK: I think what is unquestionably happening is that the radical right as a whole is growing. That does not necessarily mean that the number of groups, Klan groups, neo-Nazi groups, and so on is growing. I think what we are noticing more and more is that an awful lot of people who are essentially unaffiliated are coming into this movement as individuals; they're not actually joining groups in many cases.
WLRN: Florida is now ranked second in the country in the number of hate groups being tracked by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Why is Florida so attractive, or is it just that we're a very populous state?
Florida has some of its own unique contributing factors. I think one of the important things about Florida is how very divided it is.
If you really think about the state of Florida, South Florida is really quite a different world from Central and Northern Florida. I mean, if you go to places like Tallahassee or Jacksonville essentially you are in the Deep South. And certainly that is even more true as you get into more rural areas, not just the urban areas.
In South Florida, we have very large groups of people who are not white who are often foreign born, who are Jewish and in other ways minority. There's also a much more out LGBT population in South Florida; so all of these things set up a kind of internal conflict within the state. And I think it is where we see those kinds of up close conflicts and clashes and collisions that these groups tend to form.
Let's look at South Florida specifically and one group in Palm Beach County - Stormfront. What is this group?
Stormfront is really a huge web forum. It was started in 1995 by a man named Don Black in West Palm, where he still lives.
Don Black was a former Alabama Klan leader who went to prison in the early 1980's for attempting to invade a small Caribbean island by the name of Dominica, which he intended to turn into a white state.
Stormfront today is quite gigantic. It has more than 300,000 registered members so it's been very important over the years. It's been a real source of ideology that has helped to promote certain radical right wing leaders.
One other important thing to say about Stormfront is that it is not merely a Web site. Stormfront also organizes gatherings of people in real life, so it's not simply one of these places on the Internet where people with extreme ideas go to vent. It actually has a real world impact and helps to bring various sectors of this movement together.
I've read that there are people on the Stormfront site who are linked to murders. What else can you tell us about what this site is really doing?
I think Stormfront remains a very important fixture on the white supremacist scene. It's a part of the kind of white supremacist institutional superstructure.
At the Southern Poverty Law Center, work was done which showed that there were actually 100 murders linked to people who were registered users of Stormfront. So, while certainly the vast majority of people who go there are not murderers and probably not criminals, many of the principal players there really have been incredibly violent.
The site tries to avoid open talk of violence or blowing up federal buildings or killing black or gay people or whatever it may be. They've got a sort of pattern of respectability. They've tried to ban racial slurs and Nazi symbols in recent years. So there's this kind of very thin cover of respectability. But the fact is that it attracts some of the most violent people in the world.
The Southern Poverty Law created the Hate Map so people can see where these different groups are located. But really how are authorities using that information?
I do think that law enforcement, especially federal agencies but also state and local agencies, use the information in part simply to get a sense of how big the scene is, where the groups are located, which of the groups appear to be producing the most violence. I don't think there's any doubt, for instance, that analysts at the Department of Homeland Security look regularly at Stormfront and that is why in part organizations like Stormfront try very hard to get their followers to not discuss things like criminal activity. They don't want to be implicated for obvious reasons.
Why are organizations like the KKK or the Neo-Nazi groups not labeled as terrorists along the lines of say an ISIS or al Qaeda?
That’s because by and large it is not the groups themselves that are engaged in terrorism. Stormfront is a perfectly good example. You won't find people advocating assassinating officials or carrying out murders or that kind of thing on Stormfront. And that is true pretty much across the board in the United States.
It is very rare these days to have groups that plan criminal or terrorist actions. That was true back in the 1960's and 70's during the civil rights movement. You actually had large groups of white men, Klansmen generally, gathering in smoky rooms and planning the murder of this person or that person. Today it is typical of these hate groups that they say, quite disingenuously, [that they] are opposed to violence and so we're just here to discuss these ideas. But what happens is that people within that world at some point decide that they are sick and tired of what they often call the 'meet, eat, and retreat crowd' and decide that today is the day to begin shooting?