The arrest of members of a so-called Christian right-wing militia last weekend capped a week of anger and violence that ricocheted around U.S. politics. Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which recently published a census of such groups, discusses the alarming rise of U.S. hate groups and the rhetoric that feeds them.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Now back to the FBI raids on that Michigan-based militia group, which is now accused of hatching plans to kill police officers. As the group members said, they were waiting for the coming of the antichrist.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The news that a militia group called Hutaree had been foiled in its plot to foment a violent uprising capped a week of verbal and physical rage that ricocheted around U.S. politics. The intensity of the Hutarees’ anger and the looniness of their plot seemed to have taken the media by surprise, but it didn't particularly shock Mark Potok. The information director for the Southern Poverty Law Center and former journalist who covered the rise of the militia movement in the 1990s, Potok leads the Center’s annual census of hate groups and extremism. The most recent study, just published, found that in the last 18 months, since shortly before President Obama’s election, the number of right wing hate groups had grown to 512, an increase of 244 percent, and anti-immigrant vigilante groups soared by nearly 80 percent. Potok’s job is to ferret out these groups and their plans, but he says that much of their anger and alienation is hiding in plain sight, as the Hutarees’ website, complete with paramilitary videos, showed all too well.
MARK POTOK: A great many of them are quite easy to find. I mean, we had found the Hutaree militia long before these indictments, about a year earlier, they had whole MySpace section, and then, of course, we found their website and so on. The way we collect our information ranges from the very simple – collecting media accounts, broadcast news accounts and so on – to getting into sometimes secret email groups. We have a lot of interaction with law enforcement. Someone comes out of a group, they've broken up with their boyfriend or their girlfriend and they're ready to talk so, of course, you snatch up those people and talk to them. And in addition, I have a staff of investigative reporters who do on-the-ground investigative work. So it’s certainly a - not merely a desk job.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How do you make sure your research has the maximum impact?
MARK POTOK: It has been a very good thing for us in terms of communicating with the public to count, to actually show what these groups are, what their names are, where they are located, what type of group they are. I think probably the most important single educational tool we've ever devised is the hate group map that we have on our website. And I think huge numbers of people are absolutely shocked. In fact, the Ku Klux Klan still exists; in fact, there really are uniformed neo-Nazi groups, and sometimes right there in the town next door, that they had no idea about.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How significant a factor do you think the Internet plays in fostering the anti-government movements that you've been looking at? You've talked about social media like MySpace. Are there other mechanisms that are providing fuel for this fire?
MARK POTOK: Well, let me answer in this way: In the mid-'90s, when the Internet came into existence, at least on a broad basis, most of these groups felt that this was the answer to their dreams because once they were able to get their message to the people, without sort of mediation of the elites then, of course, the people would rise up and join them and all would be well, ultimately. That, naturally, hasn't happened. The websites of these groups have been much less effective at recruiting people than the groups had hoped. That said, if you think about say a white supremacist 30 years ago, that individual tended to be a very isolated person. They couldn't really go down to the corner bar and start confiding their, their ideology to the person on the next barstool because they might get their nose broken. That same person today gets up in the morning, turns on the computer; there are all kinds of discussions going on in the various forums about strategy and ideology. People are announcing or organizing events, so that person now feels like he is part of a movement.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, we've heard a lot of hot rhetoric since the campaign and an increasingly paranoid and confrontational political landscape since Obama’s election, how do you separate the overheated speech of pundits and politicians from the hate speech of groups that pose a viable threat?
MARK POTOK: Really, I would say that the problem is, is that much of the hate speech and especially the kind of defamatory propaganda and conspiracy theories that come out of these radical right wing groups, hate groups and patriot groups, so called, is making its way into the mainstream. And that kind of conveyor belt movement from the margins to the mainstream is being very much aided, at least in the last year or two, by a number of mainstream politicians, or ostensibly mainstream politicians, and media commentators.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I assume you’re talking about politicians like Michelle Bachmann and cable TV and talk radio pundits like Glenn Beck. Am I correct?
MARK POTOK: Yes, I'm talking about when Michelle Bachmann says President Obama is setting up political reeducation camps all around the country, presumably to turn our children into Marxist robots. I'm talking about when Steve King, a Congressman out of Iowa, says that 25 Americans every single day are either murdered or run over and killed by drunken, as he would say, “criminal illegal aliens,” or when Glenn Beck on FOX News talks about the possibility that the Federal Emergency Management Agency is running a set of secret concentration camps to intern good patriotic Americans, all of that and much more. And that is becoming quite common today.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And do you see a direct connection or merely a circumstantial one between those bigmouths and the violence from these groups, not just threats but actual attempts?
MARK POTOK: Well, it’s very difficult to say, you know, Glenn Beck is responsible for this or that killing. On the other hand, perhaps there is some fairly direct association, for instance, between the many years of defamatory talk about Latino immigrants from Lou Dobbs and certain others and the fact that anti-Latino hate crimes went up by 40 percent between 2003 and 2007. There’s no way to draw a direct link. It’s certainly not legal responsibility, but moral responsibility, I think, there probably is quite a bit.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How about civilians, non-journalists, how can they use the media to battle this?
MARK POTOK: I do think that a very important role of normal everyday Americans with regard to the media is to call the media to account, when that is required. Last year there was a real campaign against Lou Dobbs. It more or less began after Dobbs seemed to cross the line into birther territory to suggest that Obama should show his birth certificate, and so on. We had never called for Dobbs’ firing up to that moment but that seemed to us to really cross the Rubicon. And we did call. And a large number of other civil rights and immigrant rights organizations repeated the call. But that was joined by thousands and thousands and thousands of everyday Americans, some of whom even did things like demonstrate in front of CNN headquarters in Atlanta. And Dobbs left, apparently at a cost of eight million dollars to CNN. So I don't think that that is something that could have been accomplished only by civil rights groups or immigrant rights groups. I do think the public played a really important role.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mark, thank you very much.
MARK POTOK: And thank you for having me. It was a pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mark Potok is the director of Publications and Information for the Southern Poverty Law Center.