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Bad Economy May Fuel Hate Groups, Experts Warn
Last month, federal prosecutors in Roanoke lodged new criminal charges against William A. White, a prominent young movement leader who calls himself the commander of the American National Socialist Workers Party. White sent letters laced with racial epithets and swastikas to the homes of black tenants involved in a housing discrimination lawsuit, according to the seven-count indictment. He also posted threats on his Web site, Overthrow.com, and in Internet chat rooms visited by white supremacy supporters, authorities said.
Shortly before he was taken into custody in mid-October, White posted on his Web site a photo of Obama "with cross-hairs taking the form of a swastika" over his face, according to a sworn statement by FBI special agent Maureen E. Mazzola in the bureau's Chicago field division. White had solicited $10,000 that would have allowed him to print 20,000 copies of the image and distribute them in 14 "major drops" before the November election, Mazzola reported.
White is one of many hate crime suspects who have used the Internet to connect with like-minded people, said Jim Cavanaugh, a 34-year veteran of the ATF. Cavanaugh said he based his observations on long experience, not any specific pending cases.
"These three things -- the Internet, immigration and the economic crisis -- that is the molten mixture for these guys," said Cavanaugh, who leads the ATF's Nashville office. "That is the furnace of hate. As we speak, this is happening."
In recent years, the racist hate movement has veered away from large-scale, Klan-type gatherings as many of its most prominent leaders died, went to prison or buckled under personal and financial troubles, according to scholar Brian Levin. Instead, followers come together online at Web sites such as Stormfront.org, which attracts an estimated 150,000 registered users who view instruction manuals, learn movement history and exchange stories.
The Stormfront site allows users to share information about birthdays, dating preferences and "white nationalist demonstrations," as well as self-defense tips. One recent day a headline about Jewish fund manager Bernard Madoff, the alleged mastermind of a $50 billion Ponzi investment scheme, ran across the top of the site.
"The number of real, hard-core hate-mongers is quite low," added Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University at San Bernardino. "The major risk is some splintered part of a hate group or an unstable person who uses the Internet to identify methods, targets, timing and opportunity."
One of the ATF's biggest recoveries came in 2007, when agents arrested seven members of a group calling itself the Alabama Free Militia.
A government informant met a militia member at a flea market, infiltrated the group and eventually reported that he saw grenades in a member's home. The group allegedly stockpiled weapons while planning to attack a group of Latino residents near Birmingham. Ultimately, authorities seized 130 grenades, a grenade launcher, a machine gun and 2,500 rounds of ammunition. The trailer home of one suspect was booby-trapped with tripwires and hand grenades, according to law enforcement agents.
All seven men have pleaded guilty.
The FBI reported in October that the number of hate crime incidents dropped last year by a little more than 1 percent, to 7,624. But violence against Latinos and gay people slightly bucked the downward trend, bureau officials said.
At the same time, according to the Anti-Defamation League, "most sections of the country have seen a significant and troubling resurgence of racist skinhead activity" over the past five years.
The trick for investigators, the ATF's Cavanaugh said, is separating hateful words from impending violence. "They all hate, they all go to rallies, but for the most part, most of them will not go out and plant a bomb or shoot," he said. "Maybe four or five out of 100 will go out and do that. The hard part for us is to sort out the free speech and find the person who's really going to make a bomb or shoot someone."