A white supremacist group called the National Youth Front posted this flyer at Boston University.

Credit: National Youth Front

Defining Domestic Terrorism Part One: Hate Groups Move Online and On Campus

July 10, 2015
Rancher Cliven Bundy, middle, addresses his supporters along side Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie, right, on April 12, 2014.
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Photo Credit: Newsweek
Dylann Roof
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On a recent night near Kenmore Square, bright red posters, printed in Boston University colors, were tacked and taped on doorways, poles and windows all along Commonwealth Avenue. The posters condemned an incoming African-American professor, Grundy, who sent out a controversial tweet criticizing white males. The posters reference that tweet and complain that "Black privilege means not being fired after saying that white college males are a problem population."

The message resonated with some BU students.

"They’re saying that white people can’t be racist towards black people but black people can do whatever the hell they want," said a student named Nicolas. "It's a double standard. They’re compensating for what happened 200 years ago, which there should be a statute of limitations on."

What this student doesn’t know is who is behind the posters. The National Youth Front, or NYF, says it is dedicated to "the preservation of all white people." Senior Will Belt saw three men hanging the posters near BU’s Martin Luther King memorial — just days after Dylann Roof murdered nine black worshipers in a church in Charleston, S.C.

"So I look up and there’s three guys walking kind of like stopping along the way on Commonwealth Ave putting up posters," Belt said.

Belt, who heads BU’s black student union, Umoja, followed the men.

"Every poster that they put up, I would take it off and put into my backpack," he said. "And it was around the Kenmore area where they turned around, and I’m pretty sure they noticed I was behind them."

The shooting of black parishioners in Charleston has re-ignited concern over racial terrorism in the U.S. and the extreme right-wing ideology by which it is informed; Hate groups are trying to influence followers in any way they can, including on college campuses here in Boston.

The NYF is affiliated with the American Freedom Party, which openly advocates white supremacy. It is only the latest in a growing number of extremist organizations targeting college campuses, including those in New England.

But Mark Potok, who edits the "Intelligence Report" for the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., (SPLC) says hate groups fueled by mainstream resentments and perceived slights over crime, affirmative action, immigration and other grievances see potential for growth.

"We see them as much on university campuses as in other places in the society," Potok said. "We see them — maybe not quite as much — but places like Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts, as well as the Deep South."

If it feels like we’ve been here before, we have. The 1990s "sovereign citizen" militia, Christian Identity and Aryan Nation movements were grounded in similar racist, antigovernment ideologies. Today, the militia movement is back.

The most prominent so-called Sovereign Citizen today is Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy. He was embraced by conservative media for refusing to pay more than $1 million owed to the government for grazing cattle on public land. Federal authorities backed down when dozens of heavily armed militia poured onto Bundy’s ranch in a show of defiance.

"I don’t recognize the United States government as even existing," Bundy said.

Sovereign citizens oppose the 14th Amendment, and many, like Bundy, hold deeply racist views.

"Were they better off as slaves picking cotton and having a family life and doing things or are they better off under government subsidy?" Bundy said last year.

These ideas — no matter how distasteful — are protected by the First Amendment. The problem, says Potok, is when these ideas motivate individuals to go a step further, like Roof today and Timothy McVeigh 20 years before.

"The lone wolf phenomenon is something that has been developing for 30 years now," Potok said. "It's people like Timothy McVeigh, who act essentially alone or with one or two confederates." Timothy McVeigh, a self-declared sovereign citizen, along with a co-conspirator Terry Nichols, bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995. This domestic act of terrorism says Charlie Sennott of the Groundtruth Project, who covered the bombing, was first thought to be the work of radical Islamists. The Oklahoma City bombing killed 168 people and injured more than 680 others. It was later learned that McVeigh was heavily influenced by an infamous Neo-Nazi work of fiction, "The Turner Diaries", in which the right-wing "heroes" detonate a bomb that levels FBI headquarters.

Potok says a number of factors today are driving lone wolves into the hands of extremist groups, but the main factor says Potok is fear of a nonwhite nation:

"There are a very significant number of white people in the population who feel the country that their Christian white forefathers supposedly built is somehow being taken from them," Potok said. "And the appearance of Barack Obama on the scene very much much symbolizes that change."

In the early morning of November 8, 2008, just hours after Barack Obama gave a rousing victory speech in Chicago, three men splattered gasoline on the doors, floors and windows of the Macedonia Church in Springfield, Mass., an African-American House of Worship.

"Those men were convicted of civil rights violations, there’s no question," Potok said. "They were burning the church because it represented black America."

A 2009 report by the Department of Homeland Security warned that Obama’s election and an ailing economy might prompt a violent backlash.  The report was withdrawn in the face of Republican criticism.  But police departments around the country took notice.

"My colleagues and I did a survey of law enforcement agencies around the United States." said Charles Kurzman, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who interviewed cops from Portland Maine to Portland Oregon.

"The most commonly cited threat from violent extremism is from what we call anti government violent extremism, which  includes sovereign citizens militias and these other sorts of groups that have an ideology that suggest that the US government is illegitimate"

In other words, law enforcement officials said that domestic terrorism is of greater concern than ISIS, Al-Shabaab and al Qaeda inspired attacks, said Kurzman.

"Three-quarters, it appears, [of] agencies said that’s one of the top three threats that they’re facing," he said. "Thirty-nine percent of the agencies said that al Qaeda inspired violent extremism was one of the top three threats, so about half as widespread as the anti government extremism."

Ironically, 2014 FBI statistics show the number of hate groups in decline, but law enforcement officials believe the smaller extremist groups may be more influential on potential lone wolves. "You can point to the couple in Las Vegas who assassinated police officers last year in a restaurant," Charles Kurzman said.

Where hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan and lynchings of blacks, Mexicans and others were once accepted, violence motivated by hate is now criminalized. That’s why hate groups hope to inspire others like Roof to take action, Potok said.

"It’s very, very rare now to see these kinds of criminal actions [planned] in a smoky room filled with white men," Potok said. "It just doesn’t happen like that anymore. The real thinkers on the radical right, such as they are, have understood that if you have an organization that is essentially making criminal plans as an organization you are going to be taken down. Much more typically you will see people who might be involved in hate groups are sort of around the fringes of that world. They are absorbing all that propaganda."

The ideas pushed by these organizations are directed at people like white BU student Jim Russell. Outside BU's Marsh Chapel, he studies an online poster from the National Youth Front. He likens it to an army recruitment ad, with a finger pointed at him.

"I’ve seen a lot online and it’s been interesting to watch because the hate groups trying to organize are trying to be subtle," Russell said. "But I think those people can very quickly tell that whatever it is they’re trying to sell, that’s not what I’m about."

But Russell worries that such dangerous ideas might find a receptive ear from someone on this vast campus who may know little or nothing about the messenger, but agrees with the message.

Defining Domestic Terrorism Part Two: Legal Meaning of a Loaded Word

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Boston University student and WGBH News intern Christina Erne assisted in researching this report.


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