Where once they were found mostly in the dark corners of the internet, at members-only conferences, backwoods barbeques and on rare occasions at rallies in small towns, white nationalist groups are facing heightened scrutiny since Dylann Storm Roof murdered nine African Americans attending a Bible study class at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.
Before the Charleston Massacre, the white nationalist movement faced numerous challenges: Older leaders had died or moved on, there had been serious infighting among competing groups, and financial problems had become endemic.
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Meanwhile, younger technology-savvy activists are grappling with taking greater advantage of the internet and developing a stronger social media presence. “A new crop of leaders were remaking the movement to fit the times,” the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights’ Devin Burghart told me in an email exchange. Using new media platforms creates space for connecting and broadening ideological discussions among white nationalists, an opportunity that wasn’t available to previous generations.
Most of these developments were happening outside the lens of the national media. Only a few organizations have consistently monitored and reported on hate group activities, even though since 9/11, homegrown terrorists have been responsible for nearly 50 deaths, including police officers, sheriff’s deputies and civilians in Overland Park, Kansas, and Brockton, Massachusetts.
In the week since Charleston, white nationalist leaders are trying to dial back the hate speech, becoming unusually silent. Groups such as the National Alliance, the National Socialist Movement and the National Policy Institute have eschewed making any comments at all. Others, including Stormfront, American Renaissance and the Vanguard News Network, haven’t issued any official statements, though their websites are filled with hate speech supporting Roof’s act.
“As is often the case after these horrific incidents, most white nationalist leaders go to ground and maintain radio silence as best they can” said Devin Burghart, “The responses of white nationalists generally tend to fall into three categories: deny, deflect, and defame,” said Burghart, who has been monitoring and writing about white nationalist/supremacist groups for many years.
“Not wanting added heat, they initially deny that any ‘real’ white nationalist would have done such a thing (despite their literature reveling in acts of murder and genocide). At the Stormfront website – whose tagline is, ‘We are the voice of the new, embattled White minority!’ – founder Don Black regularly scrubs comments that seem supportive of racist killers.”
On the Stormfront website, Black has “remind[ed] people not to make violent statements and that violence is not the goal of their movement,” said Sophie Bjork-James, an anthropologist and a postdoctoral fellow at Vanderbilt University and an expert in white supremacist social movements.
“I don’t really see these organizations trying to reach out to the mainstream news with a statement because white nationalists typically believe in the anti-Semitic conspiracy that all news venues are controlled by either a Zionist Occupation Government or a Zionist conspiracy,” Bjork-James added. “Thus only white nationalist forums are viewed as providing an ‘unbiased’ view, as there is significant distrust of all other forms of media.”
Burghart explained that white nationalist groups try to “deflect attention away from white nationalism, claiming that these incidents [were] a ‘psy-ops’ or ‘false-flag’ operation by the government aimed at smearing white nationalists.”
While white nationalist leaders have largely gone silent, rank-and-file white nationalists are flooding websites with comments, often “defaming the dead,” says Burghart. Many white nationalists say the African-American churchgoers killed in Charleston deserved to die because they were Black. They contend that Blacks commit crimes against whites. They post racist comments about photos of the victims. They do everything they can think of to dehumanize the victims.”
At Stormfront, the first major internet hate site, which now claims nearly 300,000 registered users worldwide, “Silent Pride” writes:
This could be viewed as a distasteful act but it could be part of the recent White resistance taking place. Of course shooting up a church isn’t the way what i mean is more and more Whites are speaking up and fighting back. There are … more videos showing young Whites fighting back. While i wouldn’t support this i would like to point that out. Whites will continue to show their anger more and more, things aren’t going to be pretty.
Stormfront’s website maintains that it is “a community of racial realists and idealists. We are White Nationalists who support true diversity and a homeland for all peoples. Thousands of organizations promote the interests, values and heritage of non-White minorities. We promote ours. Yet we are demonized as ‘racists.’ ” (Italics in original.)
In the immediate aftermath of the massacre, VNN (Vanguard News Network) website, created a thread titled “White shooter at large, kills 9 at black church in South Carolina,” and its comments embodied a large chunk of the white nationalist anti-Black, anti-Semitic and conspiracy-oriented agenda.
“We cannot understand this shooting outside of the history of white supremacist violence in the United States,” Sophie Bjork-James told Vanderbilt News. “The organized white supremacist movement is actively engaged in new media, providing online spaces for disaffected whites to hone and develop white supremacist ideas. Stormfront.org frames whites as an embattled minority and offers an alternative news venue that portrays whites as the victims of Black racial violence. Though Stormfront moderators claim they do not advocate violence, this perspective can lead to violence that perpetrators see as justified.”
“While it is not clear that Dylann Roof was part of an organized group, cell groups and even individuals operating under the theory of ‘leaderless resistance’ as articulated by white supremacist organizer Louis Beam have been a source of political violence in the US for decades,” Frederick Clarkson, senior fellow for religious liberty at Political Research Associates, a social justice think tank in Massachusetts, told me.
In his now exposed manifesto, Roof wrote: “We have no skinheads, no real KKK, no one doing anything but talking on the internet. Well someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me.” Roof also talked about the media’s coverage of the Trayvon Martin case as having driven him to greater “awareness.”
Pre-Charleston, white nationalist groups, and their leadership, were in a state of flux as “so much of the political energy that animated the white nationalist wing has been co-opted by the Tea Party,” says Burghart. “So many of the issues that white nationalists used to mobilize around – racism, demographic change, nativism, Islamophobia – have been stolen away by the mass movement that fueled the Tea Party.”
Sophie Bjork-James pointed out that changing racial demographics in the country could produce “more random violence.”
“As the gap between white nationalist aspirations and the changing US racial landscape [widens], frustrated separatists may feel they are compelled to enact violence. Every challenge to institutionalized white supremacy since the abolition of slavery has been accompanied by an organized white supremacist movement, and I don’t see this ending.”
Dylann Roof may have acted alone, but his actions have forced the white nationalist movement to more immediately deal with its crisis of identity. Will white nationalist organizations publically embrace their hate politics – perhaps romanticizing their mission in the way of ISIS? Or will they rein in frustrated supporters while deemphasizing violence and still promote their racist ideology?