Published Thursday, July 30, 2009
People ask me all the time, “Do you still read the Herald since you retired?”
I do, and I think everybody should. There, now that I have fulfilled my retirement contract with the Herald, I can be honest with you.
Reading the Herald keeps me in touch with life in Austin and helps me to avoid embarrassing social situations. For instance, a fellow asked me, “What did you think of that immigration reform rally in July?”
Fortunately I read about it in the Herald. The newspaper had a front page story the following Monday and a whole page of pictures inside.
I confessed I did not attend the rally. Immigration reform is a serious issue, but this event was organized by a man who identified himself as a sympathizer with the National Socialist Movement.
Whenever I want to learn more about immigration reform, I avoid listening to members of that movement. I don’t know what they could add to the discussion.
The Herald’s account, one that I can now view as a reader of the paper searching for the truth, reported confrontations between people, estimated the crowd at 100 people and displayed pictures showing people pointing fingers, faces contorted, mouths open and hand-made signs.
Obviously, the Herald thought the immigration reform rally organized by a self-avowed National Socialist Movement member was important enough to merit the extensive coverage.
The other news coverage that caused me to take pause was a headline “Chase subject in Freeborn County Jail.”
The headline said it all. I didn’t have to read the story. When deputies must chase a prisoner in the nearly new Freeborn County Jail, it’s the end of civilization, as I know it.
I just hope the Mower County commissioners saw that story, too and are taking steps to insure that won’t happen in our new county jail.
There are hundreds of offenders waiting to move into the new facility being built in downtown Austin. Once they’re in jail, prisoners should stay in their air-conditioned cells watching cable TV, reading girlie magazines, calling friends on cell phones smuggled into the jail on visiting day, surfing the internet for new Facebook friends or waiting for a trip to the dentist, eye clinic or hospital to have a doctor take a look at that back ache suffered crawling out a window during a burglary attempt.
There should be no need to chase subjects in jail enjoying the accommodations provided by taxpayers.
And don’t get me started about seeing that woman’s obituary photo next to the young couple’s engagement photo the other day. Putting an obituary next to an engagement is … awkward to say the least.
I also read Chicago Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg’s July 6 effort headlined “Hamming it up at Spam Museum.”
The columnist began by recounting his visit to Johnny’s Main Event restaurant and the less than satisfactory experience.
Next, he crossed North Main Street and visited the museum.
“As far as humility, well, I’ve never been to a corporate museum that said so many unenthusiastic things about its product, such as ‘Eating Spam is better than eating bugs’ uttered by a life-sized video of a fatigue-clad soldier.”
The columnist writes a less than flattering account of visiting what is to Austin a sacred place. In closing he suggests he received a lack-luster sales job on other local attractions and claimed the museum staff suggested he could stay at a Holiday Inn in Austin or “Wellington” Minn.
Wellington? Never heard of the place.
There’s plenty to read in any newspaper. Believing it to be true is the challenge.
This column included.
Fueled by anger over the economy, immigration and the election of President Barack Obama, white supremacists have been increasing in number in the Inland region and throughout California during the past year, local and national experts say.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate activity, reports 84 known hate groups in California. The No. 2 state, Texas, has 66. About a dozen of those groups are in the Inland area, including Riverside, Hemet, San Bernardino and Temecula, according to the center.
In the past year, a new chapter of the National Socialist Movement -- a sect of the largest neo-Nazi group in the country -- started in Riverside, according to Riverside County sheriff's investigators and the Anti-Defamation League. The group has not been tied to criminal activity in the Inland area, authorities say.
"If you look at the election of the first black president and the state of the economy being what it is today, with unemployment at an all-time high, these types of things are kind of a perfect storm for these feelings to foment and for white supremacists to feel validated," said Joanna Mendelson, California investigative researcher for the Anti-Defamation League, a civil rights advocacy group.
In addition to concerns about membership going up, Inland agencies are seeing a few of the groups become more sophisticated and violent, developing criminal organizations that don't just target minorities but are also branching into drugs and weapons trafficking. Those activities are easier to conceal in remote regions like some parts of the Inland area, said Mendelson and Inland authorities.
Statistics on hate crimes committed and charges filed remain limited. The most recent state attorney general's office report was based on crimes committed in 2007.
But Inland police and sheriff's investigators and national experts point to a number of factors -- including recent violent attacks and a rise in hate propaganda online -- as evidence that hate activity is on the rise here.
Local law enforcement agencies are stepping up efforts to monitor hate groups such as racist skinhead organizations, which commonly adopt Aryan or new-Nazi beliefs and target people of certain races and religions. The goal is to put violent offenders in prison and stop criminal groups before they gain too much power.
For example, seven members of a Hemet skinhead group have been arrested in the November beating of a Hispanic man, described by Hemet police as backlash against Obama's election.
San Bernardino County authorities say they dismantled a large skinhead organization this year that they suspect was involved in multiple murders and assaults.
In addition to the skinhead and neo-Nazi groups on the Southern Poverty Law Center's list of Inland Southern California hate groups, the center includes a border security organization, an anti-gay religious group and a black separatist group, which may be deemed intolerant but are not linked to crime or violence.
Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at Cal State San Bernardino, said he believes the Inland area has the largest number of hate groups in the United States.
"When you look at the sheer number of groups in the Inland Empire to begin with, it is significant," he said.
Law enforcement officials say the Inland area follows the pattern of other areas on the outskirts of larger cities, where hate groups pop up amid a "white flight" migration out of cities and suburbs that have become more developed and diverse.
"Southern California is a prime location for recruiting of white supremacist gang members," Hemet police Detective Bob Nishida said. "They're looking for the type of people with neo-Nazi beliefs, and for this area, generally speaking, there's a lot of people with those same beliefs."
Though most of California's skinheads are not affiliated with any groups, the Inland area is an exception.
"Since the election, we've seen an increased drive for groups to unite under one flag," said San Bernardino County sheriff's Deputy Eric Ogaz.
In remote regions such as the High Desert, skinhead groups are more frequently holding "unityfests" -- joint meetings between different organizations to merge forces and have the potential to plan criminal activity, he said. Authorities see such rallies as an effort to become more violent and instill fear into the community.
"It makes more sense for them to act as a unit," Ogaz said. "There's a greater fight in a dog working in the sense of a pack."
This spring, San Bernardino County sheriff's deputies arrested seven members of the Inland Empire Skins. The suspects were accused of an October home invasion robbery and attempted murder in Hesperia, and conspiracy to commit murder of a witness in San Jacinto.
The group, based in San Bernardino and Hesperia, originated in 2002. Its members often have tattoos of swastikas and other symbols of hate against blacks, Hispanics and homosexuals.
San Bernardino County Sheriff Rod Hoops said the department suspects the group is responsible for numerous murders and assaults. The Sheriff's Department also has linked the group to gun trafficking to and from Riverside County.
While the Inland Empire Skins primarily target minorities, Ogaz said, the October home invasion and attempted murder case targeted another skinhead who was selling drugs. The organization is a traditional sect of skinheads, where members believe in remaining drug-free to keep their blood pure, and they will go after anyone known to be using or selling drugs, Ogaz said.
The same day the suspects were arrested, April 20, two women in the gang had arranged to give birth because it would have been Adolf Hitler's 120th birthday, Ogaz said.
MOTIVATIONS FOR HATE
While black people remain the most frequent target of white supremacists, experts say hatred of Hispanic immigrants is perhaps their fastest-growing motivation, both locally and nationally.
"What we've been seeing is the growth driven by anti-immigrant propaganda," said Mark Potok, director of intelligence projects for the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The economic downturn also has played a role in drawing people to white supremacist groups, Mendelson said. Two main scapegoats are Hispanic immigrants, who are blamed for taking jobs, and Jews, blamed for the banking collapse, she said.
The Riverside County district attorney's office classifies racist skinhead organizations into two categories: those traditionally focused on political ideology, and those that commit crimes more like a street gang.
"There do seem to be more skinhead gangs with prison ties moving into the Inland Empire," said Nikolaus Peterson, a Riverside County deputy district attorney. "They're not as motivated by hate as much as criminal control and dealing drugs."
Other skinheads are opposed to racism and criminal activity, he said.
"You can't paint every shaved head with the same brush," Peterson said.
Hollie Schrack, 24, of Big Bear City, is a member of C.O.O.R.S. Family Skins, which stands for Comrades Of Our Racial Struggle.
She said her "racialist" beliefs are not about hating others but about loving people of her own heritage.
"Other groups are allotted to have a significant amount of pride and venues to idealize pride for their heritage," she said. "It's sad -- we're not allowed to be proud of being white."
Schrack said she doesn't consider herself a white supremacist or superior to other races, but she does discourage interracial relationships.
Hemet police took notice of the C.O.O.R.S. gang last year following an August stabbing of another white supremacist who did not want to join the gang, Nishida said.
Schrack denies race played a factor in a beating that police say C.O.O.R.S. members committed.
A Hispanic man was beaten into a coma in Hemet in November. Four members are charged with attacking the man while screaming "White power," according to Hemet police.
C.O.O.R.S. members contend they were defending themselves after the man broke into one of their cars.
On the group's Web site, which Schrack took down after the arrests, the organization professed, "We hate with pure virtuous hatred, anything or anyone that threatens Our way of life or attempts to stand in the way of Our Racial preservation."
Local law enforcement has begun trying to crack down on many of the white supremacist groups suspected of violent crimes and drug-trade involvement.
Both the Riverside and San Bernardino county sheriff's departments have gang task forces that track the white supremacists in addition to other street gangs.
The Hemet Valley Gang Task Force has joined with the Riverside County Sheriff's Department and district attorney's office to add white supremacist groups to their gang-prevention program. Gang officers are attempting to reach teens and their families to steer them away from violence, said Nishida.
Since the C.O.O.R.S. arrests, the gang has been dormant, Nishida said.
"It hasn't gone away; they seem to always come back," he said. "There's a high chance they probably will."
Other than imprisoning group leaders and violent members, authorities say, little can be done to stop hate groups from forming, or to change their ideologies. If one group is dismantled, oftentimes more quickly form.
Still, Inland law enforcement agents say they are trying to stop the groups from gaining momentum by enforcement against smaller crimes. The intention is that tracking groups and making arrests will prevent larger conspiracies from being carried out.
"There's no such thing as a minor crime," Ogaz said. "If we don't treat these aggressively, small crimes could fester and create community-wide tension."