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A new way of hate

'White nationalists' exploit different methods, like new media. And they don't litter.

In early October, as Philadelphia Navy Day Regatta spectators pay little attention, members of the Keystone State Skinheads gather to lay a wreath of honor at the statue of Icelandic explorer Thorfinn Karlsefni, along Boathouse Row on Kelly Drive.
In early October, as Philadelphia Navy Day Regatta spectators pay little attention, members of the Keystone State Skinheads gather to lay a wreath of honor at the statue of Icelandic explorer Thorfinn Karlsefni, along Boathouse Row on Kelly Drive.Read moreRACHEL PLAYE / Staff photographer

IN THE GAZEBO on Fairmount Park's Lemon Hill, they gathered to celebrate their whiteness.

But the 75 skinheads - most of whom were male, bald and tattooed - didn't torch crosses, incite fights, burn houses or wear white hoods like the race-haters of the past.

Instead, they drank vitamin water and green tea, and chatted about plumbing, television and how to tell who's "shady" just by looking at them. They then paraded to the riverside statue of Icelandic explorer Thorfinn Karlsefni - among the first Europeans to set foot on North America, around 1010 - to lay a wreath in honor of their heritage.

Welcome to hate in 2008.

Supremacists who used to express their loathing for blacks, gays, Jews and other minorities with fists and fire now post fliers, blog online, ramble on talk radio, commune at invitation-only white-power concerts and gather for subdued ceremonies with subtle messages, like the Oct. 11 wreath-laying organized by the Keystone State Skinheads (KSS).

But not all white supremacists share KSS' subtle-minded message.

On Monday, federal authorities announced the arrest of two neo-Nazis, Daniel Cowart, 20, of Tennessee and Paul Schlesselman, 18, of Arkansas, who were allegedly plotting a cross-country killing rampage of African-Americans, which they planned to culminate with their assassination of presidential hopeful Barack Obama.

Steve Smith, director of the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre chapter of the KSS, said that it was the type of plan that "makes us look like we're a bunch of loonies."

"They're a couple of loony bins that give our movement a bad name," Smith said. "I don't know anybody who would even think that killing Barack Obama would solve anything.

"Anyone who tries to kill Barack Obama does a lot more harm to the white movement than anything," he said.

While Smith doesn't condone the assassination plot on Obama's life, he also doesn't support his candidacy for president - or John McCain's, for that matter, citing what he called McCain's support of "amnesty for illegal aliens."

Immigration policy always has been a sticking point for white-supremacy organizations, especially those trying to reach white, mainstream Americans who fear marginalization.

As the immigrant debate raged in recent years, hate crimes against Latinos nationally rose 35 percent from 2003 to 2006, according to FBI statistics. Most recently, Luis Ramirez, a Mexican immigrant, was beaten to death last July in Shenandoah, Pa., allegedly by four white high-schoolers shouting racial slurs. And even as KSS tries to soften its image, many members have criminal records riddled with violent offenses, from bar brawls to racially motivated stabbings and beatings.

But many white extremists are trying to reinvent themselves to broaden their appeal and smash the hater stereotype that keeps potential recruits at bay.

Locally, the KSS, the most active white-supremacy group in Pennsylvania with nine chapters statewide, now uses the name Keystone United to attract prospective members turned off by the skinhead connection. Members also now prefer the term "white nationalist" instead of "white supremacist," Smith said.

"The definition of a white supremacist is someone who wants to rule over other races," Smith said. "We don't wish to rule over others. We just want equal opportunities."

The group holds periodic family barbecues and even sent members in June to an anti-hate summit sponsored by the NAACP in Wilkes-Barre.

Beyond such strategies, this year has been a good one for converting new members, anti-hate activists and supremacists alike agree.

A perfect storm of current events with racial overtones provides constant fodder for extremists to stoke hate: a sour economy, the ongoing immigration debate, a politician poised to become the nation's first black president, increasing globalization and, in Philadelphia, long-simmering racial tensions that flared up with the recent police killings.

"The economic crisis has produced a great amount of finger-pointing at Jews and immigrants," said Barry Morrison, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League. "[White extremists say that] Jews control banking, or that they're losing their jobs to illegal immigrants. [Extremists] are looking to blame someone."

And while their numbers remain small - fewer than 200,000 of the 301 million people who live in America belong to organized hate groups, by some estimates - their ranks are growing, experts say.

The number of hate groups has grown 48 percent in the past eight years, with 888 last year, up from 602 in 2000, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC).

The average American might write off their rhetoric as the rantings of wackos. Still, some experts warn that extremists' influence is expanding.

"We are seeing racist propaganda and conspiracy theories originating with these groups making their way into the mainstream - on TV, on radio talk-shows and into the mouths of politicians," said Mark Potok, who heads the SPLC's Intelligence Project, which monitors hate activity. "There is a conveyor belt that moves from hate groups to the "Lou Dobbs Show" [and similar mainstream outlets]."

Keith Carney, a Holmesburg contractor and KSS member, agreed: "We represent pretty much every aspect of society. There are people like firefighters, policemen and school teachers who won't come to these rallies [like the wreath-laying], but who will donate to our organization."

And that has some anti-hate activists sounding the alarm.

"People should take them seriously not because of the details of their ideology, which will strike most people as absurd, but because they are injecting racial hatred into our society in an effective way," Potok said. "In the end, racial hatred usually plays out as racial violence. Once large numbers of people have these ideas, a small portion starts to act on them."

The skinheads' Fairmount Park celebration was months in the making.

But one problem that historically has plagued hate groups became apparent within minutes - disorganization.

No one had checked to see whether the location would be free. So when KSS members and supporters showed up, they were disappointed to see the Schuylkill's shores mobbed by rowing enthusiasts watching the 23rd annual Philadelphia Navy Day Regatta.

After two hours of trying to wait out the regatta, the skinheads went on with their event, much to the confusion of the rowing crowd, many of whom didn't realize the racist nature of their ceremony. Fidgety KSS speakers droned on about everything from the history of Viking explorers to "the dust clouds of history that will settle in our valley and wreak havoc."

One observer said that he mistakenly at first thought that the participants' KSS shirts read KISS, as in the makeup-wearing, pyrotechnics-loving 1970s rockers.

But authorities weren't confused.

City and state police had a strong presence at the rally, including videographers and photographers ordered by at least one supervisor to "get the faces" of all the KSS members.

Philadelphia hasn't had many high-profile incidents of racial or ethnic violence in recent years, authorities say.

Rather, haters here tend to publicly express themselves more by spray painting swastikas outside synagogues or minority-owned properties, or by posting offensive mailings and fliers:

* In August, a black electrician opened his locker at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia to find a noose inside; authorities said that the white coworker accused of hanging the noose was jealous that the black man was being groomed for management.

* After bank robbers gunned down Sgt. Stephen Liczbinski in May, flyers picturing recently slain white officers and their black killers were posted in Port Richmond, where Liczbinski died, and neighboring communities, announcing: "Guns don't kill people; dangerous minorities do."

* In April, vandals planted glass shards in holes dug in the sand of a playground at the Germantown Jewish Center. The same synagogue also was targeted by vandals who spray painted swastikas on exterior walls in January and set fire to a kindergarten classroom several weeks later.

* In January, Philadelphia police officials launched a probe after finding posters inside a narcotics officer's locker announcing: "Blue By Day - White By Night" and "White Only." The cop who hung the posters in his locker and another who created them were suspended and transferred to other units.

Generally, though, unless vandalism or some other crime is reported, authorities say that they can do little more than monitor hate groups and their activities, as they did at the wreath-laying.

"We don't agree, obviously, with any of the beliefs that they're preaching or putting forth, but it's their right to say what they're saying under the First Amendment," said Lt. James Dambach, of the Philadelphia Police Department's homeland-security unit.

And KSS members were cartoonishly careful to not invite criminal trouble at their recent wreath-laying.

After the rally - coincidentally held on the same sunny Saturday that Barack Obama made four stops in Philadelphia - Carney approached a plain-clothes officer to ask if KSS would be fined for littering if members left the wreath at the statue's base. The officer couldn't answer, and so the wreath they waited two hours to lay at Karlsefni's feet spent only a few minutes there before they took it with them. *