Mark Potok, The Rise of Hate, the Radical Right, Violence and Extremism
Mark Potok is the editor of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s investigative journal, The Intelligence Report and its Hatewatch blog. Both publish researched and nuanced resources that monitor hate and extremist groups.
Potok has also testified before the U.S. Senate and the United Nations High Commission on Human Rights. Before joining the Southern Poverty Law Center, he spent 20 years as a journalist covering transformative historical events such as the 1993 siege in Waco and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.
He is interviewed by Dan Leshem, program manager of the Holocaust Denial on Trial web resource. For more information or for a transcription of this recording, please visit www.hdot.org.
This podcast is underwritten by the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties.Q. [Leshem]
Could you please describe your background, and how you came to work in your current position as director of the Intelligence Report Journal of the Southern Poverty Law Center?A. [Potok]
I came to the Southern Poverty Law Center after about twenty years in newspaper journalism. I have covered to some extent the radical Right in the United States, but certainly not as a specialty for most of my career. However, in the last few years that I was a reporter I covered the confrontation in Waco, Texas in 1993, which really had the effect of kind of ticking off the militia movement. And I also covered right from the beginning the bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building, the Murrah Building. I actually arrived on April 19th while the building was still on fire. That for me in fact was really personally a moving experience. I had a very young son at the time so the murder of 19 children in the daycare center there was particularly affecting for me. So that, and a number of other things came together essentially to bring me to SPLC.Q. [Leshem]
And can you describe your current position there and the kinds of work you’ve done?A. [Potok]
Yes. What I do at Southern Poverty Law Center is I run something called our Intelligence Project, which is the department that monitors and investigates hate groups and extremism on the radical Right in general. A big part of the job is editing and publishing the Intelligence Report, which is an investigative journal.
But we do a number of other things in my department. We write occasional white paper types of reports, we have a blog that covers day to day the American radical Right, we also do things like train several thousand police officers and Federal agents every year in the areas in which we specialize. So that is the kind of work we do, and my job involvers a lot of interaction with the press, with the media, simply because there is so much interest in this area.Q. [Leshem]
I read that the Intelligence Report started out as a sort of status update on where the Klan was finding strength and where they were gathering, as sort of an aid to police officers who were over stretched and couldn’t do that sort of investigating on their own necessarily. So how and to what extent has the Intelligence Report moved from being aimed at police officers to being aimed at, I mean to what audience do you feel like it has now, and what purpose beyond simply helping to enforce the law does it have?A. [Potok]
When we began publishing the Intelligence Report it was actually called the Klan Watch Intelligence Report in 1981. It went essentially to several hundred police officers mainly in the South, and it mainly contained news about what was then the resurgent Klan, the Klan of David Duke and some others. It really was a very simple publication which boiled down to a list of crimes and rallies and other activities by Klansmen.
In the years since then the magazine has broadened out very dramatically. We cover essentially the entire radical Right, whole sectors we never wrote about in the past, you know, the Confederate movement, the Holocaust Denial movement, radical Catholics, all kinds of things, anti-abortion extremists, and so on. We also cover the anti-government Patriot movement and the associated militias. Our purpose in publishing this magazine is to inform not only law enforcement but also Human Rights activists, reporters both in broadcast media and in print media, and really all other people who have a reason to study or be concerned directly about the growth in hate groups and hate group ideologies.
A part of our idea in publishing this journal is simply that people are better informed, or are in a better position to deal with the manifestations of this movement. Another piece of it though, I should say candidly, is that often we will publish material that has the effect of actually destroying these groups. It has happened on more than one occasion that we discover, for instance, that the leader of a particular Neo-Nazi group is secretly Jewish, or the leader of a particular Klan group secretly has a Black girlfriend, or is gay, or something along those lines. And as unpleasant as it might sound making those things public actually can have the effect of completely and utterly destroying these groups and very much hurting the radical Right.
So the magazine, while it employs the techniques and really mores and ethics of straight ahead journalism, is used in the service of something else really ‐ an attempt we’re making both to inform people about the radical Right but also to suppress its more ugly manifestations.Q. [Leshem]
From what I understand the Southern Poverty Law Center started basically as a legal organization trying to sue to stop the spread of hate-prejudiced violence, but it sounds in your description of the sort of mission of the Intelligence Report that it’s not necessarily just about lawsuits any more. How would you describe, sort of, then the new primary focus? What does it all add up to?A. [Potok]
Well, when the Southern Poverty Law Center was started in 1971 it really was a kind of classic Civil Rights organization, although it was very much focused on legal avenues. It was started by a couple of white lawyers in Montgomery, Alabama and we pursued cases having to do with voter dilution, having to do with the involuntary sterilization of certain mentally retarded Black girls, we sued the state of Alabama for maintaining an all-White State Trooper force, that kind of thing.
But the Center fairly quickly branched out into other kinds of Human Rights issues. We did a great deal of work, for instance, on the defense of death penalty cases. This because the death penalty was so much marred by its unequal application in terms of White and Black. We have continued to move outward really in more and more directions. Today in our legal department we focus a great deal on the rights of immigrants and kids, children who are caught in the juvenile justice system, kids who are put in prison of one type or another as well as some other areas. Our efforts are more broadly focused than they were in the past. It used to be that we were an organization that relied essentially on lawsuits, and our lawsuits against hate groups are really what made place probably better known that any other thing we did.
But we have a lot of other efforts going now. We have since the 1980s had for instance a teaching tolerance program, which is all about putting materials into K through 12 classes around the country that we hope will prevent the growth of future hate groups and hate in general. In addition in my own department, the Intelligence Project, we are very much about trying to essentially expose and end expressions of hatred in the mainstream, coming from politicians and news commentators and so on. We think that’s a very important aspect of the way radical Right Wing propaganda is making its way into the larger society.Q. [Leshem]
I take it that there is something about, in terms of your selection of which groups you’re going to focus on and target, that there’s something that they share in common. Is it fair to discuss hate groups as a group in order to sort of get at, for instance, what their motivations are? I mean are those sort of in common amongst all these different hate groups you monitor?A. [Potok]
Well, I would express our work in this way ‐ almost everything we do in some way relates to the 14th Amendment. The idea that citizens of this country deserve equal justice no matter who they are, no matter what they look like, where they came from, what god they worship, what color their skin is. And I’m sorry, repeat the question. I’ve quite forgotten the bulk of it.Q. [Leshem]
Is there something that in your approach to trying to stop these groups or to expose them, do you find that they share certain commonalities, certain traits that you could analyze them as a group?A. [Potok]
Yes. In describing the groups we really look at I would say the following. Hate groups essentially we define as groups that in their platform statements, in their websites, in the speeches or writings of their leaders, say that an entire group of human beings is somehow less. All White people are blue-eyed devils, all Black people are criminals, all the Jews are whatever it may be. So it’s those kinds of characterizations, characterizations that do not allow for an individual to be different but instead to be somehow damned by his or her membership in a particular group ‐ that’s really what our focus is.
Now we also look at other kinds of groups on the radical Right in the United States ‐ anti-government hatred groups, so called, are not as a general matter animated by racial or ethnic or religious hatred. However they are very much a part of the extreme Right. They are consumed with conspiracy theories that have always been on the Right, often times that began as anti-Semitic or racist conspiracy theories. They believe, in the case of the Patriots, that the government is an evil entity, that it has secret plans to impose martial law in this country to force Americans into a so-called New World Order, and so on.
You know, it seems to me the commonality is that these are all groups that basically share very particular views of the government. The hate groups, just as much as the Patriot groups, despise the government, see it as an enemy of the people, as an enemy of their quote/unquote 'freedoms’ and so on. We also see a lot of movement between the various sectors of the radical Right. So for instance we may be following a particular individual who’s a leader in the Patriot world who believes the government’s up to no good, has secret plans for a New World Order, and it’s very frequent to see that person move over into a more explicitly White Supremacist or anti-Semitic group.Q. [Leshem]
What do you think, other than sort of world domination, what do you think success looks like for these groups? What is their main aim, and what makes them feel good about themselves? I mean are they trying to create clones or are they all trying to just add more members, and to what end?A. [Potok]
Well, I think that varies from group to group. Some of the Klan groups in particular are really just opportunistic little setups to fund the leaders. I mean, very often Klan leaders are people who don’t have a job, and who basically are living off the dues of their members. However I don’t think that’s a fair description of the large majority of these groups which really do angrily seek to end a world which is becoming less and less White around them. I think that these groups would by and large dearly love to see the United States become an all White country, or at least a very much White-dominated country.
Of course the truth is they have completely and utterly lost that battle already. Even if we were to end immigration absolutely today this country will still lose its White majority simply as a matter of differential fertility rates, in particular between Whites and Latinos. So I think that what these groups are seeking, you know, they are really incredibly angry and desperate, because I think they know in their heart of hearts that they have lost, that there is no turning back the sands of time, the march of multiculturalism, of globalization and diversity, and so on.
Nevertheless they come up with theses schemes and this has been going on for some thirty years now. For instance many of the groups pursue what they call the Northwest Imperative ‐ the idea that the only salvation for White people in the United States is to carve a kind of country out of the Pacific Northwest, which of course is the Whitest part of the United States still today, and make this a country only for White people. And so their more elaborate schemes. They actually have maps in which they imagine a future dividing up of the United States. It’s a whole series of country ‐ you know, sort of give New York to the Jews, and give south Florida to the Cubans, and it goes on and on from there ‐ give the Southwest to people who are Latino, but they ultimately revolve around the idea of creating a White homeland.Q. [Leshem]
How do these groups recruit? I mean, who do they target? What kind of, I guess, carrots... what are they offering?A. [Potok]
Well, they recruit in different ways. I think it is worth saying that a great many of the young people who come to these groups do not come in on the basis of ideology. In other words probably something like half of the young people who come into hate groups don’t come in because they have a preexisting hatred of Black people or Jewish people or brown people or of gay people, or of whatever it may be. Quite the contrary; these are very often people who are simply lonely, whose own families are dysfunctional in some very serious way. So it’s a phenomenon very much like we see in other kinds of street gangs, that these are young people in many cases who are simply kind of creating an alternative family, a family on the street that seems more warm and welcoming than their own.
So the world, for instance, of racist skinheads can be a very appealing one to young alienated White kids because it’s not merely a world in which people stand around and say, you know, "We need to kill the Jews in order to make the world a better place." There’s a whole subculture that comes with the world of skinheads, and that involves music, it typically involves drugs, it involves girlfriends, and it involves a whole subculture, a whole kind of weird culture in which the leaders sit around and tell the kids, you know, "You’re right. Your parents really are idiots. They actually believe that the Holocaust occurred," that kind of thing. So that I think describes one kind of kid that comes into this world.
Especially with older people, those who are attracted to this world do tend to have preexisting hatred. If you look at adults going into Klan groups, for instance, or Neo-Nazi groups, they very typically are people who are very angry over some experience they’ve had or they have come to decide through things they’ve been reading that Black people, or Jewish people, or whoever it might be, are responsible for all the ills of the world.
In addition to what we’ve talked about these groups use sometimes very specific techniques to reach very specific kind of sectors of the population. Probably the single most effective outreach that the groups use to get kids, to get youth into their organizations, is White power music, which has grown from being tiny cottage industry some fifteen/twenty years ago to in fact being a multi-million dollar international industry today. The music is very often, for White kids who get into this world, the first taste of it they have. You know, after they’ve listened to some of this music, the lyrics of which are quite unbelievable and wouldn’t be printed in any family newspaper ‐ after they’ve listened to that time after time after time, very often they get more and more interested in the world from which that music is coming, and ultimately make their way to an actual skinhead concert, a live concert. And there they come into contact with people like them. As I said earlier they come in contact with the world, with girls, and drugs, and people who are very affirming to them, so that can be very attractive.
Finally I’d say that some groups have experimented with things like video games and other kinds of games, particularly online games with the idea that this would bring kids into their groups. I think it’s been dramatically unsuccessful. Nevertheless they continue to make these kinds of efforts.Q. [Leshem]
Are there any emerging trends that you find especially troublesome and unsettling?A. [Potok]
Well yeah, things are going in a very bad direction and they have been for some time now. We have seen over the last 10 years or so this steady if relatively slow increase in the number of hate groups to the point where we have seen something like 55% growth in these groups since the year 2000. What is particularly scary is that in the last 2 years specifically ‐ really since Barak Obama was nominated in 2008 as the Democratic candidate for president ‐ a real explosion in all kinds of groups on the radical right. We’ve seen significant growth on the part of hate groups. We’ve seen a very rapid growth ‐ something like 80% in one year ‐ of the groups that make up the extreme anti-immigration right. Then we have seen a veritable explosion, an almost 250% expansion in the number of anti-government patriot groups or militia groups.
So, all of that together tells us that something very significant is going on. I think that what’s really happening is that we are living through a backlash that is associated with a number of t hings, but in particular with the election of Barak Obama, the first black president. I think for a great many Americans ‐ hundreds of thousands of people ‐ Obama’s election represents something that really is going on in this country: namely, a major demographic change. Both thanks to immigration and fertility rates, this country is becoming less white every day, and that has very much driven some people to distraction. When they saw Obama nominated and then ultimately elected, there was a real backlash. You may remember that we saw all kinds of botched plots to assassinate Obama, two skinhead plots: A man in Maine who was found to be building a dirty bomb, a radioactive bomb, set to go off at Obama’s inauguration, and any number of other cases. All of these things reflect a real anger out there, and I think perhaps even more a king of real fear and frustration. In any event, that really is the worry.
Beyond that, I would say that what is particularly worrying ‐ beyond the very rapid growth of these groups on the right ‐ is the role that ostensibly "mainstream" politicians and cable media pundits and "personalities" have had in pushing into the mainstream demonizing propaganda and conspiracy theories. It is one thing when you have a group like the Aryan Nations out there at the fringe of the fringe of the fringe saying "in order to make the world right we need to kill the Jews" or carry out some other drastic action. It is quite another when we hear Michelle Bachman, a congresswoman from Minnesota saying that Barak Obama is secretly setting up political re-education camps. Or when we hear Glenn Beck, a commentator on Fox News, talking about the possibility that FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is secretly running a string of concentration camps in this country. Or when we hear Tom Tancredo, the former republican congressman from Colorado talking about how Mexico has a secret plan to invade and reconquer the American southwest.
Those are the things that I find frightening because the sad reality is that tens of thousands, in not hundreds of thousands or even more, Americans who hear these completely false allegations actually believe them; whereas not many people really listen to what the Aryan Nations have to say as far as prescriptions for setting our society right. Sad to say though that there are millions of people who do listen to leading politicians and media commentators who have played a really awful role, in many cases, of essentially aiding and abetting the narratives of the extreme right.Q. [Leshem]
It seems to me that when one thinks of conspiracies he will think of the "lone shooter" theory of the Kennedy assassination or the "faked" moon landing. Yet, the kinds of conspiracies you are describing, such as believing that president Barak Obama is not a citizen of this country or that Mexican nationalists are trying to take back Texas are different kinds of conspiracy theories. That is, they are in the service of a different goal. How do you understand that relationship between conspiracy and ideology?A. [Potok]
The conspiracies that emerge from the American radical right ‐ and really they animate the radical right here ‐ are conspiracies that have the effect of demonizing very particular enemies. So many of the groups that we cover believe that Mexico, which is to say "people with dark skin" are conspiring to invade our country, carry off our daughters and turn American culture into something looking more like Mexico or central America. They engage in conspiracy theories that paint the federal government, or a cabal within the government as evildoers.
This kind of conspiracy theorizing has the effect, of course, of isolating these federal officials and law enforcement as somehow being "jackbooted thugs" in the service of some imperial government that doesn’t care a damn about the freedom of Americans, and the list goes on. This goes all the way back to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. It is propaganda that identifies a very particular group as the group which is behind the evils of society and then eggs people on to attack or to marginalize that group. So I think that conspiracy theories play a very important role in America’s radical right.
They help to focus people’s hatred on very particular objects, and the sad reality is that these kinds of words have consequences. Lou Dobs, who for many years had a show on CNN in which he routinely demonized Latino immigrants with complete falsehoods, I would argue helped to raise the anti-Latino hate crime rate by some 40% between the years 2003-2007. During that period Dobs was routinely broadcasting falsehoods like the idea that "criminally illegal aliens" fill 1/3 of American prison cells, or the allegation, again false, that immigrants were somehow related to a supposed rash of leprosy cases, a rash which never occurred, and the list goes on. It was precisely in the period when Dobbs was saying these things that we saw an uptick in anti-Latino hate crime, and that is the ultimate consequence of these kinds of theories.Q. [Leshem]
It seems obvious that the SPLC can go after a hate group for specific damages when they have property, but how does the SPLC combat groups spreading more subtle forms of hate speech such as Lou Dobbs’ broadcasts or conspiracy spreading congressmen whose words have real world implications.A. [Potok]
Well it is a good question: how does one go after people who are not imperial wizards of the Ku Klux Klan or neo Nazis, but are having incredibly damaging impacts on our society. I think the real answer is to "name and shame" them. The SPLC spent several years, at first talking very nicely to Lou Dobbs in order to convince him to stick to the fact regardless of his personal opinion on immigration and border enforcement. Ultimately, we went public and became more and more critical as Dobbs became more extreme. In the end, in the summer of 2009, Lou Dobbs crossed a Rubicon of sorts when we suggested that Barak Obama needed to show his birth certificate in order to prove his American citizenship. In other words, Dobbs threw in with the so-called "birthers."
At that point, the Southern Poverty Law Center called for the first time for Dobbs to be fired from CNN. Our position was that this man is obviously incapable of even attempting to tell the truth. He can’t be controlled, and if CNN wants to hold on to any type of reputation as a reputable provider of news, aught to get rid of him. After we made that call several other human rights organizations and immigrant rights organizations threw in as well. Ultimately CNN was forced, at the cost of $8 million, to get rid of him. I think that was a very effective campaign. Getting Lou Dobbs kicked off of CNN did not cure all the ills of the world but it was a demonstration case. Our thinking was that it is important for people in positions of responsibility or authority on a news desk at major television and cable stations to be held to a standard: Truth.
At the same time you plan a difficult game when you run these types of campaigns: We are very much in favor, as an organization, of the first amendment. We will not seek in any way to suppress people’s free speech rights. That said though, Lou Dobbs absolutely does not have any particular "rights" to report on CNN. That is very much a privilege that is afforded to him by the people that actually own and run CNN. What I’m trying to say is that we attempt very much to get people in the mainstream, who are quite plausibly doing more damage than people in any of the hate groups, to be responsible for their words.Q. [Leshem]
These conspiracy trends you notice are similar to the developments in the world of online Holocaust denial where deniers constantly shift their methods and their arguments to suite the ever younger and more naïve audiences by appealing to the rebelliousness of adolescence. Do you see a similarity between these ideological messaging trends?A. [Potok]
I think it is absolutely true that people on the radical right do try to appeal to adolescents as adolescents and that they do try to play on the themes that any kid who is 16-18 is essentially interested in. So, I think that the most successful recruiting really does play on kids’ rebelliousness: the idea that every kid has when that his or her parents are fools who are completely wrong about certain things, or at best are squares who are unable to understand real free speech or real liberty. I also think it’s true that conspiracy theories are particularly appealing to people who are young or relatively uneducated or at least unwilling to think for very long about anything at all. At the end of day, conspiracy theories translate a very complicated world ‐ one that is colored by many shades of gray ‐ into a very black and white thing: "All would be going well with the world if not for the Bilderbergers or the Council on Foreign Relations, if not for black people, if not for the Jews..." or whatever it may be.Q. [Leshem]
How do we prepare adolescents to recognize and combat this type of messaging? Are there certain tools? In the non-online world it can be much easier to identify the books, magazines and ideas of hate groups by their context and appearance as well as by their content. The online world has made this type of distinction much more difficult. How is a teenager, or one naïve in regards to the matter at hand, distinguish between hate speech, bias, or something more benign?A. [Potok]
I think that ultimately the answer is to teach them critical thinking. In a way, that is a very easy answer; obviously if everyone in this country were a sophisticated critical thinker these problems, these groups would essentially go away. However, we are living in a world in which we no longer have a shared base of commonly accepted knowledge. There was a time when virtually everyone in America watched the same network news and read the same news magazines and newspapers every week. That is absolutely not the case anymore. We have seen the traditional media essentially collapse over the last few years. We have seen cable TV, along with radio, go into niche markets essentially: you have your Fox News for conservatives and your MSNBC for liberals and so on. Then, of course, you have a billion blogs out there with opinions that may or may not be based on facts but very often are not.
So, it is a very tough question to answer. I think the very best thing people can do is try to educate their children to learn to think. That sometimes implies things which may be a little surprising to parents. I have always felt that it is far to better to take one’s son or daughter on a tour of hate sites on the internet than it is to forbid them from ever visiting those sites. While this may be a poor analogy, I would compare it at least in some ways to one’s attitude towards a teenaged son reading Playboy magazine. As a parent you can spend all your time rooting around under your kids bed or in the closet to see if he’s keeping these magazines in his closet. Alternatively, one can essentially model respectful behavior towards women, in particular your wife, the kid’s mother in order to say something about respect, in order to teach the kid that women are not objects and so on.
In a similar way, I think that it is very helpful at a certain age, to take your son or daughter on a tour of a Holocaust denial site because those sites provide a very good catalyst for an interesting conversation with your child about the fact that the Holocaust really did occur and about the fact that there are people out there that really want to deny it and about the reasons that they are trying to deny it. I think the answer is complicated, labor intensive, but it is something that we all, particularly as parents, really need to do.Q. [Leshem]
Another benefit to having that conversation with your child is that it can provide an answer to the most common question I get from young people on the site, namely "now that I know about the deniers and their motivations, what can I do to confront them?" What can youngsters do?A. [Potok]
I don’t know what a 15 year old kid can do to end Holocaust denial in this world, but I do know what a 15 year old can do to end bullying in his or her school: That essentially is to stand up for the victims of bullying. At the end of the day, bullying is precisely the kind of activity that later becomes, or looks very similar, to the actions of hate groups and Holocaust deniers. It is a kind of trying to push around and impose your power on other people. I think that kinds, particularly young kids, do need to look around and evaluate their environment, where they live, where future generations are growing up and where they can do the most good. Of course, at the same time, I don’t think it is a bad thing for some of the older kids, from time to time to try to argue with these people; after all, not all of these people on the right argue that the Holocaust didn’t occur. But there are other kinds of arguments which are perhaps a bit more subtle in which kids can engage. I do think that having these kinds of interactions, even it is via a chat room or email (ie. not face to face) can help improve critical thinking skills, so I think there is something important to be said on behalf of making arguments in chat rooms and so on.Q. [Leshem]
Finally, for our listeners, are their any sections of your website that you would like to highlight?A. [Potok]
The website has been recently redesigned and is very easy to search and find things, so I would urge people to take a look at the front page of the site at www.splcenter.org. For those people who are particularly interested, as I am, in the radical right, the extreme right in this country, they might want to go directly to intelligencereport.org. There they will find 14 years worth of archives of serious investigative work looking at these groups in the U.S. I think there is a great deal of interesting material there. We also have on the website a section called "Intelligence Files" that is a large series of profiles of some of the major hate group leaders and groups out there in this country, which I think will be very interesting to people.Q. [Leshem]
Thank you so much for your time and insights into these complex questions.A. [Potok]
My pleasure. Thanks for having me.