I'll start right away by saying what my name implies: that I'm sort of brown--or I would be if I left my basement office once in a while and got a tan. In any case, I'm not exactly the poster child for white power, and basically have no business trying to find racist and what are termed "hate groups" in California. But some troubling data floated past my radar recently and squelched that reasoning California, it seems, has more active hate groups that any other state in the nation--by an indecent margin.
# San Luis Obispo is no great exception to this phenomenon.
Maybe there's just more to hate in California, or maybe the stats just reflect our dense population. But I think there's more to it than that. The number of hate groups is increasing across the country, and incidences of violence against Latinos are on the rise, too, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a sort of classic civil rights group based out of Montgomery, Ala.
Admittedly, "hate group" is a nebulous term. On its website, the Southern Poverty Law Center defines all hate groups as having "beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics." The center notes that, though a group is on the list, its inclusion doesn't imply that it "advocates or engages in violence or other criminal activity." Everything from rallies to leafleting could be considered a hate group activity.
In all, the Southern Poverty Law Center identified 888 separate and active hate groups in the country last year. That's up almost 50 percent from the year 2000, when the center identified 602. During that same time, California saw the biggest jump: from 63 in 2000 to 80 groups now. And three of those organizations are supposedly smack dab in the middle of San Luis Obispo County.
The Southern Poverty Law Center has been tracking what it defines as hate groups for about 30 years. The center monitors thousands of websites, attends rallies and meetings, and even trains law enforcement officers on how to deal with hate groups.
The most basic evidence that these groups actually exist locally is that they each keep a P.O. box in the city, according to the center.
So where and who are these groups in SLO?
I decided to try to find out.
Hate finds a home in SLO
The Ku Klux Klan is probably the most notorious of American-born hate groups. Historically associated with lynching and burning crosses, they're really not the type of fraternal organization I expected to find around these parts. Then again, what is the KKK but a bunch of old white men with delusions of grandeur? This area certainly has those.
It turns out that SLO has its own Brotherhood of Klans Knights, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
I saw the group referenced on Klan websites, which noted that the group "does not tolerate or condone illegal acts of any kind." And I Googled the shit out of them--which is usually effective--but I never found a website that belonged specifically to the local chapter. I did get their P.O. box from the Southern Poverty Law Center.
I sent them a letter.
They haven't responded.
Mostly invisible in real life, Klan groups are prolific on the Internet: The Empire Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, National Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, Brotherhood of Klans Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, United Realms of America Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, and Imperial Klans of America, just to name a few. It all seemed a little redundant I mean, how many websites does it take to disparage Jews and minorities?
There were some standouts among the Klan sites: www.kkk.com, for example, is like an Aryan ladies home shopping network devoted to "Bringing a message of hope and deliverance to white Christian America! A message of love, not hate!"
The site sells little ceramic Klansmen for $24.95--add $10 for light-up eyes.
The rest of the sites I came across were more or less what you would expect from the Klan, complete with blazing cross graphics and looking like they were made in someone's grandmother's basement they included such informative jewels as "911and the Jews" (a pamphlet) and an essay titled "Was Jesus a Jew?"
And, just to set the record straight, there's a site to clarify: The Klan does not endorse Obama.
I have no idea whether all of the info put out by groups identifying themselves as the Klan is sanctioned by some Grand Wizard, or if, somewhere in the Ozark mountains, someone is vainly trying to fill a void on the Internet.
There must be hundreds of Klan websites, so, in that sense, they're easy to find. The problem is that members don't usually wear the hoods around town. What I learned is that when it comes to actually, physically finding the Klan, members tend to stay invisible.
Mark Potok is a spokesman for the Southern Poverty Law Center and editor of Intelligence Project's quarterly report on hate. He said that there's a reason you don't see many obvious members: The Klan is older, cautious, and has a lot to lose.
"Very often, these groups do stay quiet," Potok said. "They are generally older--they have jobs where it might be damaging to have these kinds of beliefs--so they tend to be very cautious."
Adding that I may be looking for red herrings of hate, he noted: "They might even set up a P.O. box, but they don't live there. They live three towns away."
California's growing movement of discontent
California is full of racist skinheads--a group defined by its youth, style, and reputation for violence. Braces (suspenders) and laces in work boots (red if you've spilled blood) are a throwback to the movement's roots in the white working class. The Southern Poverty Law Center listed two skinhead groups with a P.O. box in San Luis Obispo.
One of the groups is the Golden State Skins, who have strongholds in Sacramento and in Southern California.
I found the Golden State Skinheads' parent organization online, with a photo of a group on the steps of some government building. Their faces were all blurred out, but they looked appropriately menacing in boots and rolled-up jeans. The site, however, looked pretty well abandoned--inactive for more than a year. They list a SLO chapter, but without a link or contact information.
I sent them a letter. They haven't responded.
I decided to look elsewhere.
Skinhead culture is alive and well on the Internet. There are chat groups and forums, online stores for buying wife-beaters and Doc Martins, and a thriving music industry.
I haunted one of these forums for about a month, looking for locals. I found one: a family man from Orcutt with about 20 posts, mostly harmless stuff about the wifey, but occasionally lashing out against Jews and the INS for being a sluggish bureaucracy.
These sites were about as interesting as a group of Obama Girls talking about change, only less enthusiastic and more aggressive. I tried to join the site anyway, so I could talk to the guy, but I think they were on to me. They never responded to my request to join. Maybe there's a secret password that you're supposed to give. Or maybe it's 14 words, something like "We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children."
How to become a skinhead
I had better luck finding an ex-skinhead. I found TJ Leydon through his strHATE talk blog at formerskinhead.blogspot.com, where he responds to inquiries about skinhead culture and often receives death threats for being a defector and "race-traitor." He's a former-skinhead-turned-activist who was a featured speaker at the Clinton White House Conference on Hate, and was a major contributor to Gov. Gray Davis' "Governor's Advisory Panel on Hate Groups."
In photos, he appears topless, showing the tattoos he acquired during his 15 years as a recruiter in California's neo-Nazi scene. The inked images seem more like baggage now: a convincing display, but sort of heavy and out of place on his middle-aged body.
His induction into the skinhead scene was typical: He came from a working-class background and a troubled home life. He started going to punk shows and was quickly seduced by the influence a group of skinheads had over parties he attended. Looking for more stability than he could find with his family, he found it in the white-pride movement.
I talked to Leydon over the phone while he was waiting to board a plane. With flight announcements occasionally interrupting, he filled me in on the particulars of his rise in the skinhead hierarchy: The Army, he said, taught him how to recruit, and in prison he learned how to hate. Between his stints, he actively recruited young people. Then the magic wore off.
He still has the quick confidence and charisma--even over the phone--that made him a powerful recruiting tool.
The skinhead movement is full of kids, he said. As a recruiter, he targeted high schoolers, and put on white-power concerts to create a sense of community and camaraderie.
You can give a kid a piece of paper, Leydon said, and he'll read it once. But if you give him a song, he'll listen to it a hundred times.
What's new in hate?
April 20 is a special day, a day of gross inaction and deep inhaling here in California, but it's also the anniversary of Adolf Hitler's birth, making it a time for celebration and political action among certain white pride groups.
Expect demonstrations by groups in Washington, Sacramento, and Los Angeles. While many white racist groups claim to want nothing more than their own private Israel--sans the Jews and Muslims--they nonetheless revere and rejoice over the worst human rights violator in recent history.
Most groups that the Anti-Defamation League or the Southern Poverty Law Center would identify as "racist" or "hate groups" would never identify themselves as such. Increasingly, skinheads, neo-Nazis, and Christian-based groups like the Klan are finding the immigration debate to be the perfect venue through which to discharge their gospel.
The rise of these groups can be attributed almost entirely to the new immigration debate: It's not hateful it's patriotic.
Fresh venom, coupled with a faltering economy, has created the perfect conditions for a new era of fear and scapegoating in America. In addition to the 888 hate groups that the Southern Poverty Law Center identifies, the center monitors more than 300 "extremist" groups--but don't get paranoid. If your neighbor wears boots, it doesn't make him some sort of hate machine.
Don't look too hard
The first time I saw "racist hate group" and "KKK" next to the words "San Luis Obispo," it was in The Year in Hate '06, a yearly magazine published by the Intelligence Project. I kept reading stories about these really violent skins, kids who killed people over small disputes or just for being the wrong color in the wrong place.
While the Central Coast has seen its share of hate-related violence--the boy in Oxnard who was killed for being openly gay comes to mind--these types of listings raise certain questions about how a group can be considered hateful, racist, extremist, or even active.
Potok said that the Southern Poverty Law Center revisits its list every year, and if a group falls off the radar, it's taken off. A current P.O. box, however, is enough to keep a group on.
At some point, it's important to distinguish between different "hate groups." The KKK, for example, is explicitly Christian, while neo-Nazis or the more violent skinheads are more inclined to trust that race is their religion.
When groups or members do become violent, they have different modes, ranging from calculated terror focused on specific targets to acting out against anyone who gets in their way. Often racist groups are linked together as a common threat, and because they have such a collective violent history, even smaller, less active groups are considered by the Southern Poverty Law Center to be dangerous by association.
And there's one more characteristic that many hate groups share: declaring independence from the federal government. Many groups are, by declaration, either sovereign nations or at war with the United States.
Which is probably how a Los Osos man's meeting to discuss the Constitution ended up on the Anti-Defamation League's website as an "extremist event."
The meetings, organized to discuss and interpret the Constitution, took place in San Luis Obispo. An advertisement for them ran in New Times. But the man who helped organize them was fairly shocked to hear that they were being tracked on a national website as an extremist group.
"All we were doing is talking about the Constitution," he said. "That's the same Constitution that the police and military swear to uphold. What exactly is extremist about that?"
In the end, I didn't find SLO's supposed hate groups. They don't seem to pick up their mail, and they don't advertise themselves.
Since I started looking a few weeks back, though, I have seen some racist tattoos--and some big scary guys wearing them.
I tried to contact multi-cultural clubs on the Cal Poly campus to talk about hate they might have faced, but nobody responded. Maybe racism isn't a huge problem on campus. Or maybe they just didn't want to talk about it.
A friend of mine, a Latino guy, had an ugly run-in with a couple of guys recently. Right in downtown SLO, they pushed him and made some slur about Mexicans.
The FBI, in its most recent hate crimes report (from 2006), noted four racially motivated hate crimes in the county--three were in the city of San Luis Obispo.
So, ultimately, I did find hate once I went looking for it--just not the organized kind. And while that's not exactly encouraging, it beats the hell out of the alternative.
Info box #1 Southern comfort
The Southern Poverty Law Center formed and began taking civil rights related cases in 1971. A decade later, the group made a name for itself by successfully suing the Klan. Today, the center has expanded to include the Intelligence Project and keeps tabs on all kinds of groups, including neo-Nazis, racist skinheads, black separatists, and extremist militias--all of which it considers hate groups.
For more info visit: www.splcenter.org.
Info box #2 How can I join the Klan?
The Klan is always recruiting. If you're dedicated to preserving old ideas and have the characteristics listed below, you could be a candidate--and "virtuous anger is your right."
Klansmen should be white, Gentile men and women, at least 18 years old (or with parents' permission), born in the United States, a God-fearin' Christian, and of sound mind and good character. Klan candidates must have a respectable job, too. But, if you're a wife-beater, a child abuser, or have any felony convictions, don't bother.
Thanks to the Empire Knights of the Ku Klux Klan for this info.
Staff Writer Kylie Mendonca will probably receive hate mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.