Last summer, a band of the National Socialist Movement, one of the largest and most prominent neo-Nazi groups in the United States, gathered at a downtown Williamsport park – swastika flags in hand- to spew profanity and white nationalist ideology over a battery-powered bullhorn.
Weeks later, the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan targeted several Erie County communities with two-page typed letters containing racist, homophobic, Islamophobic and anti-Semitic language. The same group distributed more notes a few days later, urging residents to “Pray for white Americans in 2020,” directing them to the KKK’s website and radio show.
Incidents like these have become more common in Pennsylvania.
Indeed, in recent years, Pennsylvania has emerged as a hotbed for hate groups, at times ranking among the top five states with the highest concentration of hate groups. The hate-filled rhetoric, attacks and slurs of these fringe groups ranged from the nuisance distribution of leaflets to mailboxes and college dorms to attention-grabbing rallies at landmarks such as the state Capitol and Gettysburg National Cemetery.
In a year dominated by the coronavirus pandemic and one of the most divisive election cycles in modern history, the activities of hate and extremists groups laid bare the concern among experts that the more brazen tactics by these groups signal a deeper saturation across the commonwealth, and indeed, normalization of their ideologies.
“There were the traditional extremists groups but there are multiple ones that came to the surface because of all the things happening, the geopolitical and political climate and the economy, even the coronavirus and the attacks on Asian Americans,” said Trooper Ismail El-Guemra of the Pennsylvania State Police. “A lot of people lost their jobs. All these things contributed. There was not one one thing but multiple factors.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center has identified 36 hate groups that were active in Pennsylvania last year. The groups are categorized into general hate, white supremacy, Black separatists, Holocaust deniers, radical traditional Catholicism, anti-Muslim and anti-LGBT. Indeed, Pennsylvania continues to have one of the highest concentrations of anti-government groups in the country.
El-Guemra, who as head of the Heritage Affairs Division monitors hate crimes, said extremists groups last year ratcheted up their tactics.
“They seemed emboldened,” he said. “They were not afraid to become visible. Usually they stay behind the virtual wall but everybody was talking about them in the media, encouraging each other to come out.”
‘Hate crimes are increasing’
As the tone of the national discourse descended into divisive vitriol, hate groups across Pennsylvania seized the moment to showcase their growing ranks and acceptance.
Armed militias and fringe extremists groups became standard features at racial justice and Black Lives Matter rallies over the summer. They ponied up to rallies calling for the suspension of pandemic lockdown measures, and then got more brazen as the political tenor intensified.
On Sept. 26, members of the far-right group the Proud Boys marched through Philadelphia wearing body armor and helmets and yelling hateful rhetoric at onlookers. The day’s event drew strong scrutiny from some activists who were critical that police seemed to extend a friendly escort to the group, which has been characterized by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group, citing its use of white nationalist memes and affiliations with known extremists.
In Pittsburgh, approximately 100 members of a neo-Nazi group the Patriot Front marched down the Boulevard of the Allies, spouting their ideological goal of making America a whites-only country.
And after the election, the so-called “Stop the Steal” movement held a rally at the state Capitol that was populated by members of armed militias, Proud Boys, neo-Nazi factions and QAnon believers.
“You had a confluence of people,” said Shira Goodman, Philadelphia regional director of the Anti-Defamation League. “You had the Covid quarantine protests, people with legitimate protests, but you also had gun rights and white supremacists taking the opportunity to meet again. That’s why even at the U.S. Capitol you saw so many patches, these symbols of different things getting conflated, and at such moments when people are coming together to protest, these groups are meeting in different ways and finding ways to recruit and connect.”
Yet putting numbers to these groups has always been a challenge. Actual data tracking of their activities – or hate crimes – gets muddier.
Correlating hate groups to hate crimes is not an apples-to-apples correlation, and one primary reason is the fact that hate crimes in Pennsylvania are historically under-reported.
Dan Gleiter | email@example.com
That’s because the number reported to the FBI by the Pennsylvania State Police is culled from reports submitted by local police agencies. The reporting mechanisms of those local agencies have long been subject to the arbitrary practices of the nearly 1,500 local law enforcement agencies across the state as well as the workings of the court system.
In 2019, the FBI reported 67 hate crimes in Pennsylvania. Last year, in the latest count available, that number had gone down to 41.
“Everyone agrees that hate crimes are very much underreported,” Goodman said. “We know from general trends that hate crimes are increasing. Anti-Semitic incidents – both criminal and non-criminal – have seen a steady increase. Some of this could be attributed to better reporting but we think more people have been emboldened over the last couple of years to act on their hateful beliefs. That is a concerning trend.”
In addition to the Proud Boys and an array of white nationalists groups, Pennsylvania has active chapters of groups such as Oath Keepers, Pennsylvania Light Foot Militia, PA Three Percenters and even more fringe groups like the Neo-Volkisch Wolves of Vinland, which are described as a neo-pagan cult of white nationalists.
Social media has largely facilitated the proliferation and recruiting of hate groups.
“It makes for different challenges in policing,” said Northern Lancaster County Regional Police Police Chief David Steffen. “We have to be mindful of everyone’s constitutional rights whether we agree or not with their motivation. The advent of technology has made it so that people who have antisocial views that aren’t necessarily within the expanse of acceptivity – it makes it easier for those guys to reach out to like-minded individuals. You see it with pedophiles and hate groups. We have a lot of things that are advantages to technology but also a lot of disadvantages.
Steffen said his jurisdiction last year reported no incidents of leaflet distribution or other activities by fringe hate groups.
“We haven’t had any leaflets or placards for the reporting period that I can even remember,” he said. “And we are aware of all that because of accreditation requirements, as far as data. We do track all bias-based crimes…We haven’t seen any increase, but we also haven’t seen any decrease.”
Steffen clarified that the Northern Lancaster County Regional’s baseline for hate crimes was zero.
“We have not had any active solicitation,” he said. “It may be happening on social media. But we haven’t had any overt solicitation.”
Emerging in urban areas
Contrary to the popularly held belief that hate groups in Pennsylvania flourish in rural outposts away from the rigors of a diverse populace, hate groups are staking strongholds in suburban and urban centers. In fact, hate groups identified by the SPLC are concentrated in metro areas where diversity is high.
“They often are most active in diverse areas,” said Stuart Wexler, one of the country’s top investigative researchers in domestic terrorism and radical religious activities. “There is this assumption that simply being exposed to people of other races and creeds makes someone more apt to be tolerant over time. I think – or I hope – that may well be true for most people, but I think it may well work in reverse for some people who resent the demographic changes in their area and lash out against them.”
Wexler, a New Jersey-based author of such titles as “The Awful Grace of God” and “America’s Secret Jihad,” points to the sudden demographic changes seen in parts of the Commonwealth.
“Parts of Philadelphia, for instance, went from being heavily white to almost-majority mixed in a matter of 30 years,” he said. “If you compare that to New York City, that kind of demographic change started decades before Philadelphia. Some people forget – the worst reception Jackie Robinson received when he broke the color barrier wasn’t in places like St. Louis, it was against the Phillies.”
Pennsylvania is home to geographically focused hate groups, but the vast majority of the groups are white supremacist in nature, and include neo-Nazi, skinhead and racist-Pagan groups, some with long-standing national or regional reach.
“It may be that Pennsylvania, because it has a few concentrated areas of great diversity mixed with a large majority of nearly-all white counties, is an attractive state for such groups,” Wexler said.
“Those less-diverse counties in the middle of the state could be viewed by these hate groups as being more receptive to the ascendant message in white supremacist circles that immigration and mixed-race marriage and multi-culturalism represent an existential threat to whiteness,” he said. “The assumption would be that a state where such demographic patterns are obvious on the news and within driving distance, such appeals might resonate more.”
Some local law enforcement officials insist that their communities have seen no hate group activities.
Deputy Sheriff Brendan Peters of Meadville in Crawford County characterized reports of such activities as “historically quiet.”
“The only thing I can recall in regard to hate groups is we did receive one flyer associated with the KKK,” he said. “It was a newsletter for their position. And we do receive communication from the Sovereign Citizens groups on a regular basis. It’s usually communication towards the sheriff. Grievances. They do recognize the sheriff as a law enforcement agent even though they don’t recognize government.”
‘Structural systemic hatred’
Chad Dion Lassiter, the executive director of the Human Relations Commission of Pennsylvania and a national expert on race relations, cautions that the ideological domain of hate is not confined to narrowly defined extremist groups.
“There is structural systemic hatred,” he said. “You have the KKK and white nationalists and neo-Nazis in Pennsylvania but you also have employers who engage in white supremacy ideology and overlook women, Jews and African Americans when hiring.
“You have presidents of school boards who don’t see why people are talking about Black Lives Matter, who don’t understand why we have racial justice conversations. It’s filtered around whiteness and white privilege. It’s structural stuff.”
Lassiter points to the case involving former Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Mark Tranquilli as example of the insidious racism and hate that transcends hate groups and is at times rooted into societal structures.
Tranquilli was suspended last year for making racially insensitive comments during court cases or conferences, including calling a juror in a criminal drug case “Aunt Jemima”.
“If you look at Charlottesville, not one person there had a KKK hood on,” Lassiter said. “Those individuals were lawyers, doctors, teachers. They were pediatricians and dentists. If you look at the January 6 domestic terrorist attack, not one wore a hood. They were our neighbors, our coworkers and family members. Systemic structural racism is in our schools, it’s in banking, housing and the court system.”
Lassiter takes solace in the fact that even as hate group activity has continued to increase in recent years, the Commonwealth has seen a growing number of municipalities and jurisdictions enact ordinances and resolutions to address protection against discrimination and bias in the workplace, housing and public arena.
“We people want to put forth resolutions that speak to truth and reconciliation or speak to racism as a public health issue in the Commonwealth,” he said. “It goes beyond the numbers to everyday people doing the work.”