Hitting before hate strikes

Hitting before hate strikes

Joseph P. Shapiro

Los Angeles police quickly traced the owner of the ammunition-laden van. But beyond the name Buford Oneal Furrow, cops knew virtually nothing about the balding man who hours earlier had allegedly shot up a Jewish community center and then killed a Filipino-American letter carrier.

Across the country in Alabama, Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center woke up one of his investigators with a middle-of-the-night phone call and told him to run Furrow’s name through the center’s massive computer database. By daybreak, Dees, on a morning news show, was giving America–and police–the first details about Furrow’s secret life at the Aryan Nations compound and his brief marriage to the widow of a white supremacist leader.

That a small, private watchdog group bested the nation’s mighty law enforcement agencies says a lot about the restrictions a privacy-loving country places on its police. It also raises questions about whether those restrictions stop federal agents from fighting a growing, more virulent strain of racist killers. In the past, monitoring hate groups fell to federal law enforcement agencies. But that changed after J. Edgar Hoover’s files, blackmail, and other dirty-tricks campaigns against “enemies” ranging from Martin Luther King Jr. to 14-year-olds wearing peace symbols. New guidelines in 1976 banned agents from keeping files on citizens or infiltrating political groups without evidence that a crime has already been committed or that violence is imminent. The task of keeping files on hate groups fell to a small group of custodians, including the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai Brith and the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

But it’s the Southern Poverty Law Center that has developed the state-of-the-art tracking system. Dees started the center in 1971 to bring desegregation suits in Alabama. Expanding his reach, he found that data helped bring hate groups to justice. He sued the White Aryan Resistance for inciting two Oregon skinheads who beat a black man to death with a baseball bat. At the trial, a recording on the group’s telephone hotline that praised the killers (taped by SPLC investigators) “sounded raw to a jury with the dead man’s child sitting in the courtroom,” Dees recalls. Jurors returned a $12.5 million verdict against WAR.

The facts. After the Ku Klux Klan torched its building in 1983, and police broke up plots to assassinate Dees, the SPLC went full force into information gathering. The work can be drudgery. Fourteen researchers with the SPLC’s “Intelligence Project” spend long hours in front of computers, cross-filing data from press reports, hate-group literature, and Web sites as well as from informers who volunteer or sell information about fellow neo-Nazis, Klansmen, and militia members. Cops call with tips, too. “What’s garbage today is gold years later,” says Joe Roy, director of the Intelligence Project. “The trick is to catalog it, retrieve it, and connect the dots.”

That takes diligence, technology–and some subterfuge. Investigators clip about 1,000 newspaper articles a week and read 150 hate magazines, which are received through disguised addresses. Deep in their computers was the information about Furrow’s life at the Aryan Nations’ Idaho compound. And among the center’s 20,000 catalogued photos was the now famous one of a grinning Furrow in his storm-trooper-style guard’s uniform, which the SPLC had purchased years before from a Spokane newspaper and showed to sources who identified the anonymous guard.

But even with this monitoring arsenal, private groups are limited in what they can accomplish. “More is at stake than what volunteer organizations like ours can do even with our best efforts,” says Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. He and others–though notably not Dees–are calling for a renewal of the FBI’s ability to monitor and even infiltrate hate groups. When Furrow shot preschoolers at the Jewish camp, “the LAPD was there three minutes after the attack,” notes Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Wiesenthal Center. “If society next time wants them there three minutes before, then they need infiltration.”

Renewing power? Civil libertarians argue that spying on citizens undermines democracy–whether it’s done by the FBI or by Morris Dees. “If you claim to be a broad-based human-rights group, you should not have a backdoor relationship with police,” says Chip Berlet of Political Research Associates, which also studies hate groups. He objects to SPLC tactics like tracing license plates spotted at rallies and then turning the names over to police. (Dees says his investigators are just using publicly available data.) While it is the FBI’s abuses that are most remembered, private conservative foundations also collected data on liberal political activists and sometimes sold it to prospective employers or published it in right-wing newsletters. More recently, the ADL in 1996 settled a lawsuit, with no admission of wrongdoing, over its collection of files on pro-Palestinian and antiapartheid groups.

Today, neither the Justice Department nor the FBI is looking for more police power. Although some officials complain about the cumbersome steps required to start an investigation–there needs to be a trigger, like a witness or a police report that a suspect is already engaging in a criminal activity or preparing one–most say they have the tools to fight hate groups. “If you look at the record over the last five years, it’s tremendous, with many preventions and investigations,” says Robert Blitzer, who until retiring last year was the chief of the FBI’s domestic terrorism section. “The Catch-22 is that you can’t prevent them all. You can’t stop a maniac from walking into a day camp and shooting, if that’s what he’s determined to do.”

Lunatic fringe. Indeed, one of the biggest obstacles to preventing hate killings stems from this “maniac” profile. Stephanie Shanks-Meile, a sociologist who studies the white separatist movement, says law enforcement tactics of infiltration and monitoring are based on outmoded concepts. Sociologists of the 1950s described “lunatic fringe groups” whose members took orders from a central leader. But now, she says, 80 to 90 percent of those arrested for hate crimes commit solo acts. Furrow, for example, was inspired by racist Christian Identity groups but apparently acted without instruction from anyone.

Today, it is more useful to view white separatists as average Americans facing dead-end futures, says Shanks-Meile. They see themselves as part of a moral middle squeezed from above by elites (represented in this worldview by Jews) and from below by the unworthy poor (minorit ies) or by the sinful (homosexuals). At rallies, Shanks-Meile met men ashamed that their wives had to work. She met skinheads who could have passed for students in her Indiana University Northwest classroom except, they claimed, they couldn’t afford tuition and did not qualify for enough aid. “The stereotype is that these people have horns and a pitchfork,” she says. But many pick up on mainstream messages about social inequality to justify their rage.

And that means, for now at least, the best prevention may be a metal detector and a steely-eyed security guard blocking the door. Staff at the Los Angeles-based Wiesenthal Center recall Furrow casing their office. They believe he was deterred by the building’s tight security. He then blundered on to the Jewish community center with its open door when he pulled off the highway looking for a gas station.

COPYRIGHT 1999 All rights reserved.

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