Portland, Oregon, has a reputation as a city with progressive values, a love of nature, a strong LGBTQ community, and a heavily Democratic voter base. The television comedy Portlandia satirized it as the home of women-only bookstores and restaurants where diners can visit the farm that raised the chicken on the menu. But Oregon also has another, less-well-known identity as the only state to have been admitted to the union with a law in its constitution excluding black people. Though the law was repealed in 1926, this unsettling history has drawn many racist organizations to the state over the years.
It has also attracted one of the nation’s foremost experts on hate groups, Randy Blazak. A former professor of sociology at Portland State University who also taught at the University of Oregon, Blazak has monitored the activities of racist skinheads, neo-Nazis, and Klansmen, as well as newer far-right groups like the Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer. As chair of the Oregon Coalition Against Hate Crimes (CAHC), he’s worked with government agencies and community and civil-rights groups to combat racism and protect those targeted by it. According to an annual FBI report, hate crimes against persons (as opposed to property) reached a sixteen-year high nationally in 2018, with notable increases in attacks against Latinos and transgender people.
The left-wing antifascist group Antifa also has a large presence in Portland and is known for clashing with ideological opponents in the streets, sometimes damaging property and assaulting Proud Boys and others. The CAHC does not support such tactics and rejects “violence in any form, including against those who may perpetrate hate.”
Blazak grew up in Stone Mountain, Georgia, a notable gathering place for the Ku Klux Klan. While doing research for his master’s and doctoral degrees in sociology at Emory University in Atlanta, he went undercover to study racist skinheads and learn what motivated their hatred. He challenges the idea that we should automatically shun anyone who has held racist views. His research has shown that people who join hate groups are often motivated by economic uncertainty, alienation, and “old-school” masculinity, and over time they can change their views: a racist skinhead may become a “SHARP,” a Skinhead Against Racial Prejudice.
Blazak is married to Mexican artist and writer Andrea Blazak-Barrios, and he left his position at Portland State University in 2015 to stay home with their daughter and work as a consultant and speaker. He currently teaches at Portland Community College and is the co-author of Renegade Kids, Suburban Outlaws and editor of the anthology Hate Offenders (randyblazak.com). He’s been an expert witness in court cases ranging from homicides to “a case about a teenager who got a bit crazy in a mosh pit.” He’s worked with the National Institute of Justice and the Southern Poverty Law Center and has appeared on the BBC, NPR, CNN, and Al Jazeera. Since President Donald Trump’s election in 2016, Blazak has increasingly been asked to explain phenomena not just on the fringe but in the political mainstream.
Before becoming a leading expert on hate, Blazak was manager of the Atlanta rock band Drivin’ N Cryin’, and the modest Portland bungalow he shares with his wife and daughter also houses a substantial record collection. He says he’s witnessed, through his wife’s experience, how the racist, anti-immigrant politics of the Trump administration create fear. Lately his work has focused on collective trauma suffered by members of marginalized communities. In conversation he often interrupts his observations with asides about music or irrepressible chuckles that belie the seriousness of his work.
Schmid: You’ve described Stone Mountain, Georgia, as a “Klan town.”
Blazak: Yes, the Klan town.
Schmid: How did growing up there shape you and your work?
Blazak: Well, first of all, I wasn’t born there. My family is from Ohio, and my dad worked in the steel industry. When the industry collapsed, we moved south and ended up in Stone Mountain in 1972. One of the first things I learned as an eight-year-old newcomer was: the Civil War never ended. [Laughs.] I was branded not only a Yankee but a “damn Yankee,” which is a Yankee who moves to the South and stays.
Stone Mountain has a giant carving of three Confederate “heroes”: Stonewall Jackson, Jefferson Davis, and Robert E. Lee. If I couldn’t immediately name who was depicted on Stone Mountain, I would get punched. I had a friend whose dad played guitar and knew all these great country songs, like “Wildwood Weed.” I liked the man, but he was a known member of the Klan. Until the 1980s the Klan held regular rallies every Labor Day on property around Stone Mountain. The lake I swam in as a kid is named for the family of James Venable, who founded and was a longtime leader of the National Knights faction of the Klan.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s schools in DeKalb County weren’t integrated through forced busing, but we had something called “majority-to-minority transfer”: if you went to a school where you were in the racial majority, you could voluntarily transfer to a school where you would be in the minority. Not a lot of white kids decided to go to majority-black schools, but there were some black kids who came to majority-white schools hoping to get a better education. As the number of black students at my school increased, the Klan showed up to hand out flyers on the edge of the parking lot. I remember a man dressed in normal clothes, but with a Klan pin, handing out literature about how the “invasion” of black people would bring crime, rape, drugs, and gangs. And the next day the flyers would be all over the school. It just breaks my heart to think about those black students who left their neighborhoods in search of better schools and then had to deal with this.
As a kid I did have the feeling that my neighborhood was changing, and I was conflicted about it. The music that I loved most had black roots. A black friend in my folk-guitar class had turned me on to early hip-hop and reggae. Music was my world. But I also was susceptible to the Klan’s message. For our senior ring we could pick the stone, and for mine — which is somewhere in this house — I picked mother-of-pearl, as sort of a subtle white-power symbol. I wanted to defend my whiteness against all this change. I didn’t really have the intellectual tools to make sense of what was happening. I was probably one of those kids who would say, “I’m not racist, but . . .”
Then I went off to Emory University and took a sociology class. It was as if a light went on. They should have called that class “Everything You Think You Know Is Wrong,” because it helped explain things that I had just sort of accepted in my hometown.
Schmid: Some skinheads stole your Vespa scooter in 1986. You’ve described this as a pivotal moment. What happened, and why did it become so important to you?
Blazak: I had been a fan of British “mod” subculture since I was fifteen years old. [The mods were youths who wore tailored clothes, rode Vespa scooters, and listened to R & B and early British rock bands. — Ed.] In college I sold my car and bought a Vespa. I was part of a little scooter gang in Atlanta. We would protest whatever Ronald Reagan was doing that week, and we started having run-ins with the local skinheads. They would show up at demonstrations to defend Reagan and label us all communists. Sounds familiar, right?
When I was in grad school, my scooter went missing. Someone told me the skinheads had stolen it and set it on fire in a field. Suddenly this skinhead problem was serious, now that it had affected me. [Laughs.] The skinheads may have been harassing people of color, women, and feminists, but now that they’d stolen my scooter, it was personal.
So I switched the focus of my master’s thesis. Until that point I’d been working on something about shipping trends in the Netherlands in the 1600s, but I had no passion for it. Then the skinhead thing came along, and I had passion for that.
Schmid: As research for your master’s thesis, you hung out with racist skinheads in Orlando, Florida, for thirteen months. What was that like?
Blazak: I’d decided that the most effective way to do my research was to go into the movement as if I were a sympathizer and find out what motivated them. The skinheads in Atlanta knew me, so I went to stay with my younger brother in Orlando. I located the skinheads there and played the part of a sympathetic, naive white guy. I let them recruit me at a Danzig show.
It was both exciting and scary. I got off on being a spy in this alternate universe, but there was always a risk of discovery. The skinheads were highly paranoid about infiltration by police, civil-rights groups, and journalists, so I was always being asked questions. When I finished my master’s thesis in 1991, I was glad that part was over. But I wanted to turn it into a dissertation, which meant I had to show that these racist groups weren’t just a Southern phenomenon. I had to do more interviews and more infiltration in places like Chicago, which was really the birthplace of American skinheads. Those guys are hyperviolent, and that was a bit dodgy. I also went to Europe and did interviews in Berlin with neo-Nazis who claimed their grandparents had been in the SS [Schutzstaffel, among the most brutal and feared Nazi groups — Ed.].
Schmid: When you went undercover, did you look the part? Did you shave your head and wear steel-toed boots?
Blazak: I played the role of a subculture kid they could recruit. At the Danzig show I had on my jean jacket with the Metallica patch. If I had shaved my head, I wouldn’t really be the one asking questions. I would already know what it was to be a skinhead. So I always played the naive guy on the margins, which gave me permission to ask questions like “What’s ZOG?” [ZOG, or Zionist Occupied Government, is an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory about Jews secretly controlling Western governments from the shadows. — Ed.]
It was a weird world. One time I went in for a meeting with my adviser, and I had this shiner. My eye wasn’t swollen shut, but I had a pretty good bruise there. “What happened to you?” he said.
“Oh, I’m just working on research,” I said.
Schmid: Did that happen in a mosh pit?
Blazak: No, there was a fight at a skinhead house over who was whiter: One guy had brown eyes, and a guy with blue eyes said, “I bet you have something in your history that makes you not white.” The brown-eyed guy was offended, and a fight broke out. They were rolling around on the ground when the blue-eyed guy bit a chunk of the brown-eyed guy’s ear off. Blood was spurting, and I was trying to break up the fight, because I was the most sober person there. That’s when I got punched in the face.
But that’s not the end of the story. They had a house cat named Adolf, and the cat grabbed the ear and ran under the house with it. [Laughs.] I swear to God. I was together enough to know that if we got the ear, we could take it to the hospital, and they could sew it back on. So there were drunk skinheads in the crawl space calling, “Adolf! Adolf!” Meanwhile blood was pouring out of this guy’s head. Finally we went to the hospital without the ear. The doctor offered to take skin off the guy’s butt and fashion something that looked like that part of his ear, and all the skinheads immediately started calling him Butthead. So he said no and left. He might have had a big chunk missing out of his ear, but nobody was calling him Butthead.
One thing I learned from that incident was that most of the violence these guys committed was among themselves. They talked a lot about going out and beating up people and racial holy war, but mostly they were trying to prove to one another how tough they were. I began to look at their racist posturing as a performance of masculinity. That helped me frame what was going on. Until then, I’d focused on the changing economy, deindustrialization under Reaganomics. Now I realized these guys also saw gay rights and feminism as an attack on their masculinity.
Schmid: You’ve studied these groups for longer than most. What changes have you seen over the last three decades in the tactics and mentality of white-supremacist groups?
Blazak: The big change is the impact of the Internet. You used to have to be physically present to belong to a group, but now you can join that community online. It’s also less organized now, because it’s decentralized. In the 1990s a new motto emerged: “Leaderless resistance.” [Oklahoma City bomber] Timothy McVeigh was at the vanguard of that.
In the past there was a certain risk to hanging out with skinheads or going to a Klan rally. Now it’s like a twenty-four-hour-a-day rally happening online, and it fosters the type of extreme rhetoric that was actually being tamped down by some skinhead groups who wanted to soften their message and hide all the violence underneath so they could attract a more mainstream following.
Online they can have it both ways: on their website they can present a more mainstream message, and on message-board sites like 8chan they can call for violence and civil war on a daily basis.
The Internet has also changed how young people are brought into the movement. Thirty years ago you had to be handed a flyer or know somebody who knew somebody. Now kids are getting messages through Instagram and on gaming platforms like Discord. I’ve been talking to students — not high-school students but middle-school students — telling them to watch out for these messages. Swastikas are popping up in middle schools, and a lot of it is because of this new access to youth.
The Internet has also changed how young people are brought into the movement. Thirty years ago you had to be handed a flyer or know somebody who knew somebody. Now kids are getting messages through Instagram and on gaming platforms like Discord.
Schmid: So the Internet and social media created a new delivery system for hate groups’ message, but how has the message evolved since the 1980s and 1990s?
Blazak: It really hasn’t evolved in terms of its core beliefs: that straight white males are under threat, and their country — emphasis on “their” — is being taken away from them. What’s changed is who they identify as the main threats. Nobody was talking about transgender people in 1988. Hate groups weren’t talking much about Muslims back then, either. Latinos, too, were far down on the list of enemies.
The style has changed, too. There’s more of an effort to blend in. It’s still the same ideology, but it’s less openly confrontational. They find mainstream issues that fit their narrative. It could be gay marriage one year, immigration from Latin America another year, and transgender bathroom use the next.
I was doing a study of the Volksfront skinheads in Portland in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and they found the easiest way to recruit high-school kids was to go to schools where students were starting gay-straight alliance clubs or holding a gay-pride event. They would talk to young males about how real manliness was being eroded by the homosexual, feminist, liberal agenda.
The success of the alt-right, Patriot Prayer — all those folks — is that they don’t appear racist in the traditional way. They don’t use the N-word. But they’re anti-immigration, and they want to defend “their” Western culture from Muslim people. It’s a kinder, gentler mask over the same old hate. They try to look like a civil-rights organization that’s worried about genocide — the “genocide” of white people.
Schmid: One of the places where hate groups recruit is in prisons. You’ve said that when white people are incarcerated and find themselves in the minority, it can be a “rational decision” to join a racist prison gang. Is this country’s world-record rate of incarceration feeding the growth of hate groups?
Blazak: Sure. The war on drugs quadrupled the prison population between the 1980s and the 2000s, and it was disproportionately racial minorities who went to prison. Before long, white inmates were no longer the majority. So if you’re a white offender, and you’re in there with Latino and black gangs, you’re feeling extremely vulnerable. The white gangs, including European Kindred and the Aryan Brotherhood, emerged as protection rackets. Nobody wants to be victimized.
What these hate groups do is say, “We’ll protect you, but when you get out, you have to kill a black man.” They call it the “credit system.” Sometimes that credit is paid inside the prison: “I need you to go over and stab that guy.” But other times that credit is paid on the outside, after someone has been released. Probably the most famous example of this was John King, who had not been known to be a racist before he went to prison. He was a petty criminal. But in prison he was gang-raped by black inmates and then indoctrinated into the Aryan Circle, which is a prison version of the Klan. He came out covered in swastika tattoos, and he and two other white men chained a black man named James Byrd Jr. behind a truck and dragged him to death. This was in Texas in 1998.
You might ask, “Why don’t they just walk away? They’re not in prison anymore.” Well, there’s a good chance that former inmates are going to go back to prison. If they don’t follow orders while they’re out, they’re going to be punished when they go back in. That dramatic dragging death was just a very visible example of how racist prison violence leads to violence outside the prison system.
Schmid: French sociologist Émile Durkheim coined a term you’ve used in your research: “anomie,” or social instability due to the breakdown of social norms. Why is it important?
Blazak: Durkheim was writing in the late nineteenth century, a time of massive social change. People were moving off farms and into cities because of the Industrial Revolution, and European government was shifting from monarchy to democracy. When change happens really fast like that, people don’t know how to respond; the norms that have held society together for decades, maybe centuries, are gone.
Right now we’re undergoing rapid technological change, and the economy has changed very quickly. The number-one U.S. corporation sixty years ago was General Motors. Now it’s Walmart.
And, of course, there’s demographic change. We’re a much more ethnically diverse country today. White people all of a sudden have gurdwaras [Sikh centers of worship] in their neighborhoods or Latino kids in their schools. And gender roles have changed. Almost as many women as men are working now. And sexuality: gay people were stuck in the closet fifty years ago; now many of them feel free to come out, even in rural Mississippi. So in a short period of time we’ve gone through incredible changes, many of which have upset the “natural authority” of straight, white, able-bodied males.
There are two ways of responding to that rapid change. One is to embrace it. The other is to push back against the change and try to “make America great again” by returning it to this mythical past. And the skinheads romanticize the past with a vengeance. They see the position people like them once had in society — the economic security, the authority over women and nonwhite people — and now it’s gone. The idea of working in a factory and buying a house: that’s gone. That middle-class American dream is gone. They can’t say rude things to a woman without getting a MeToo hashtag, or make a joke about a minority without being labeled a racist. They see that privilege being taken away from them, and they say, “Wait a minute — we created this country.” That’s what you hear a lot from these guys now, this Western chauvinism: “We created the Western world. You’re stealing my world.” It’s the magic word: my. Like: “A black woman took my job.” Well, it wasn’t your job. You never had that job.
In a way, my work in the eighties and early nineties foreshadowed the widespread anomie to come. In Orlando in 1988 the skinheads were seeing their dads and moms getting laid off from textile mills. That was an indicator of the large-scale shifts underway in society. More recently it’s been magnified by technology. The memes and fake news stories spread like wildfire online. Social media has fanned the flames of anomie.
Social media has also had a snowball effect on the violence. The Christchurch shooter in New Zealand in 2019 was enamored of the Norway shooter in 2011, who believed he was protecting his country from minorities and liberals. And then the Christchurch shooter became the model for the El Paso Walmart shooter, who is now being held up as a hero online. It’s pretty easy to find these messages on 4chan and 8chan. It’s not even on the dark web; it’s just sort of the shady web.
So there is this contagion effect; each act of violence feeds the next act of violence. And because the movement is decentralized, and these people aren’t members of formal groups like the Ku Klux Klan, there’s no leader to say, “Hey, cool your jets. You’re going to bring the heat down on us.” It’s just a bunch of individuals sitting in their basement, collecting weapons, and deciding, “It’s time.”
Schmid: President Trump has given a national platform to fringe conspiracy theories. Does he contribute to this contagion effect?
Blazak: There are two views on Trump among white supremacists. One is that he’s a white nationalist like them. Sometimes he pretends to like people of color — he talks to rapper Kanye West, for example — but he’s going to advance the cause of white nationalism through Muslim bans and detention camps better than [Klansman-turned-politician] David Duke ever could. The other school of thought is that he’s just an opportunist. He has a Jewish son-in-law and has been friendly to Israel, so he’s not one of them. But they also see him as opening a door, and they’re going to ride him as far as they can. Either way, his rhetoric is inflaming these groups, making them feel legitimate, and encouraging them to come out of the woodwork.
During the Obama years the alt-right were online trolls, living in the shadows. Then, when Trump started his campaign, they came out on the streets and became a physical presence in communities. At the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally many of the marchers had “Make America Great Again” hats on. They feel a certain degree of support now, and in a sense they do have that. There are many Americans who think the Proud Boys are defending them and that Antifa wants to drag America into a communist dictatorship. So, yes, Trump has helped to mainstream white-nationalist conspiracies.
We know from the past that public discourse can drive hate crimes. After the 9/11 attacks, hate crimes against Muslims increased almost 800 percent. Then George W. Bush went to the national mosque in Washington, D.C., and said this was not about Islam; this was about international terrorists. In 2002 crime numbers dropped dramatically. The public discourse about transgender kids and Latino immigrants can either drive or prevent hate crimes against them.
Hate is like a drug, because it gives you a rush. It’s empowering, especially to young men, especially when you incorporate violence into it. There’s a charge from that sort of old-school masculinity.
Schmid: What can ordinary Americans do when hate is emanating from the Oval Office?
Blazak: The first thing is to be honest about our own issues, and I include myself in this. White fragility is a concept I didn’t even know about two years ago — how hard it is for white people to talk about race without getting defensive and emotional. We have to figure out how to be more open to those conversations. America is becoming a browner nation. America is becoming a more openly gay and sexually free nation. The genie’s out of the bottle. We have to figure out how to manage it. We can’t go back to some mythical past.
The second thing is to make sure the people targeted by white supremacy have the support they need to get through this moment in history. There are people of color and queer people and immigrants who have been repeatedly traumatized by what’s happening. So let’s reach out and make sure those people have the resources and emotional support they need.
Part three is reaching out to the oppressor. This is why I work with groups like Life After Hate, whose mission is to help people leave hate groups. There are people in that world who can be brought over to our side. Part of the problem right now is that we’re just so divided as a country. There’s so much animosity. When somebody on my Facebook feed posts something about Muslims trying to bring Sharia law to the U.S., it’s easier for me to call him an idiot than to say, “Hey, do you want to talk to Ashraf, my Muslim friend? He has some insight on this.”
I think we should strive for political civility and reach out to those people to bring them over, because it has been done. As a kid growing up in a Klan town who chose a white stone for his class ring, I could have ended up in that world. My life is so much better on this side. I would never have met my wife, who is Mexican, or my gay friends, or my transgender students. I think about people like my father, who is wrapped up in the notion that America is changing for the worse and we have to defend it. He misses out on so much. I tried to take him out to a Thai restaurant, and he said, “Oh, I don’t eat Oriental food.”
Schmid: When someone leaves that world, is it like recovering from an addiction?
Blazak: Yes. Hate is like a drug, because it gives you a rush. It’s empowering, especially to young men, especially when you incorporate violence into it. There’s a charge from that sort of old-school masculinity.
The good news is that most men, at some point, realize that version of masculinity leads to prison, drug addiction, or death. Many men have left the hate movement because it was not providing what they needed, especially after they became parents. And a lot of men leave because a woman in their life — it could be a teacher, a foster mother, a daughter — says, “If you care about me, stop doing that.” So there is this natural exit process. But before it happens, there can be violence. The sooner we can get people out, the better.
Schmid: Is that why you’ve said, “There may be more value in hugging a Nazi than punching a Nazi”?
Blazak: Yes, because a lot of people who are caught up in the world of hate are victims, as well. They’re victims of bad ideologies, horrible family settings, abusive fathers. The skinhead world provided an image of masculinity for them to plug into. I’ve seen it happen over and over. I’ve also seen many people leave that movement and become advocates for the other side. Punching them only pushes them further into that black hole, because it makes them defensive; they want to prove their point and rage even more.
Reaching out an open hand to them can actually break through that wall they’ve built. I’m proud to say I have friends who are former neo-Nazis. Some of them were involved in violent crimes. But these guys can do amazing work with young people, pulling them away from the world of hate. I’d rather have them on my side.
There’s a great book that I assigned in my hate-crimes class called Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead: The Frank Meeink Story as Told to Jody M. Roy, PhD. Frankie is a friend of mine now. When I was doing my Chicago research, he was known as the Nazi skinhead in Philadelphia. He went to prison, and when he got out, he found a job delivering antiques for a Jewish boss. He was sure his boss would screw him over, but the guy actually gave him extra money to help him get back on his feet. That boss could have looked at this kid with swastika tattoos and refused even to talk to him, but instead he gave him a job. Frankie just couldn’t be a Nazi anymore after that.
Schmid: How difficult is it for members of white-supremacist groups to leave the fold?
Blazak: A lot of those who leave are branded as “race traitors.” I knew some who wanted to leave but were afraid that, if they did, they would have no community: the hate group would shun them as turncoats, and the antiracist community would see them as racist for life. They stayed in the skinhead scene because there weren’t many alternatives for them. We talk about this with Life After Hate — how you have to have a community that will welcome these people when they come out.
Schmid: So the main barrier to leaving is social isolation?
Blazak: Yes, social isolation and the idea that you can’t just step from one subculture to another. I mean, there are a few who go from being racist skinheads to being SHARPs, but most just stay in, because it’s like family. That’s the language they use: “We’re brothers till our deaths.” It’s hard to walk away from your brothers, even if you think they’re on a dead-end path.
Schmid: Portland once had a reputation as “Skinhead City.” Why?
Blazak: In the 1990s the Northwest was a destination for white supremacists, who saw the region as a kind of white homeland. They believed that when the race war happened, they might not gain control over the whole United States — they weren’t going to get Mississippi, for example — but the Pacific Northwest was disproportionately Caucasian. So maybe they could carve out their own nation here. The Aryan Nations compound in Idaho was promoting this idea, trying to get white supremacists to move to the Northwest to “colonize” it.
A group called the Order went on an infamous crime spree in the 1980s. They murdered a Jewish talk-show host in Denver named Alan Berg. They robbed an armored car, and the money went to the Aryan Nations to fund a racial holy war that was going to create a homeland in the Northwest.
In the nineties there was a sense in the movement that they might actually pull it off. They were looking at Yugoslavia as their role model, because after the fall of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia had split into ethnically homogeneous countries. The talk of racial holy war came to a peak around Y2K. They thought that when the computer systems collapsed, the airplanes fell out of the sky, and the prison gates opened, that would be their moment to launch this offensive. In fact, there were several serious plots thwarted by the FBI, including one to blow up a dam in Northern California.
Schmid: How do skinheads imagine this “racial holy war” playing out?
Blazak: For the skinheads this notion of racial holy war, or “RAHOWA,” has always been based on the fear that we’re close to a tipping point in which whites lose control of society. They lose control of the media, the financial institutions, the education system, and it’s all turned over to the multicultural hordes of lesbians and transgender people and nonwhites. So there’s a pressure to save America from all these changes that are unseating the “natural” authority of straight white males — what’s now referred to as the “great replacement.”
That’s the conspiracy part. The second part is the action plan: instigating violence in the hope of raising a racially motivated revolutionary army to engage in a second civil war to save America from the “global Jewish cabal.” Timothy McVeigh in 1995 was hoping to inspire like-minded “patriots” to take up the mantle and continue the reign of terror until America was purged of its enemies.
As we’re looking ahead at the 2020 election and what’s going to happen, these revolutionary types have regained strength. Their online rhetoric now, at least as I read it, is, if Trump loses the election, that’s their green light to go.
Schmid: Are there other parts of the country where the threat of hate groups is greater?
Blazak: As far as who’s the most dangerous in terms of body count, the sovereign-citizens movement, which views government agents as enemies of the people, has killed the most law-enforcement officers, especially in the Midwest. In the Deep South there’s a renewed level of activism because the South is changing demographically. The 2019 Democratic victories in Louisiana and Virginia are evidence of this change. So Southern hate groups stand to become more violent in the near future. The Pacific Northwest still has its history of white supremacy and an identity among hate groups as a kind of white homeland. And when we look at data from hate crimes, Southern California is where the most people are getting beaten up.
So there’s a lot of different activity going on. Anywhere there’s a rapid demographic shift, hate crimes go up. Right now that is in suburbia. The 2018 data show an increase in violent attacks in areas outside of big cities.
Schmid: Do any of these white-supremacist ideologies clash with one another?
Blazak: Yes, they clash a lot. There are clashes based on different religious perspectives. There are clashes based on the role that violence should play. There is a huge clash over Donald Trump. They’re kind of split right down the middle about him. But even with these disagreements, they’re all fellow travelers.
When you get these people together at a rally, they’ll argue over hairstyle, or the right kind of music to listen to, or the right food to eat. In some instances there is a clash over who gets invited to the white-people club. The alt-right has space for African Americans in its movement, as long as they’re anti-Latino and anti-Muslim. What percentage of whiteness is necessary for someone to be a legitimate member of the movement? Are Jews allowed in? In Orlando one of the skinheads had a Jewish mother, and when the rest of the group found out, they tried to kill him. He now lives in Israel.
There’s a big debate about the role of women: Should women have positions of authority in the movement, or should they be in the kitchen making sandwiches? But there’s still the common goal of restoring control over America to straight white men. On that, they’re all on the same page.
Schmid: Is it possible you’ll someday separate your career into Before Trump and After Trump?
Blazak: We are at this fork in the road. It’s going to get worse before it gets better. Either Trump gets reelected and we have more of this happening, or he doesn’t get reelected and a small group of his supporters refuse to accept it and we see a spike in violence. Whichever way it goes, I’m going to be busy the next few years.
[Political activist] Angela Davis has said the election of Trump is the last gasp of white-male supremacy. We’ve made progress on race, gender, and sexuality, and this is the big pushback. I had a conversation with [feminist icon] Gloria Steinem at an event where I was speaking, and I asked her, “How do you explain this Trump thing?” She said, “When a woman is being beaten by her husband, she is most at risk of being killed by him when she’s trying to escape. That’s what’s happening to America right now.” We are escaping our abuser, and he’s trying to kill us.
Schmid: What toll has studying hate taken on you?
Blazak: Sometimes I feel guilty that I’m not more messed up from it. I’ve seen dead bodies and autopsy photos. I’ve testified in murder trials. As a white person, I have the privilege of diving into this world and then walking away from it. People who are targets of violence by white supremacists can’t walk away.
I got into this because I felt obligated to try to understand how friends of mine had ended up in the Klan. It was exciting to take risks, to meet guys who might want to kill me. It made for a good story. That’s changed since I became a parent. I used to bring those people to my house. I had a skinhead living in my basement while he detoxed from heroin addiction. I don’t do that anymore. I stopped doing the prison research when my daughter was born, because those guys have power that goes beyond prison walls.
Schmid: Antifa has a large presence in Portland. When President Trump and Senator Ted Cruz suggest Antifa should be labeled “domestic terrorists,” do you think they’re creating a false equivalency in terms of the violence on the Left and the Right?
Blazak: It’s not even a false equivalency, because they don’t talk about the Proud Boys or the alt-right as domestic terrorists. It’s a clever strategy to link the Left with a small group of anarchists. If they can spread memes of violent, black-clad Portlanders, then they can control people’s idea of what the Left is. The Republicans want to convince people in swing states that what’s happening in the liberal parts of the country is a threat. My old high-school friends from Georgia are convinced that Portland is run by anarchists who will beat up anybody in a “Make America Great Again” hat. We had an incident recently that, surprise, surprise, got national airplay: a guy wearing a red hat got beaten up in southeast Portland. When you dig a bit deeper, though, you find that he was going into bars and screaming at people and challenging them to a fight. But the story that gets told is that a guy was just walking down the street with a Trump hat on and got attacked. To the Right that’s life in Portland. That’s why they believe they have to support this president, because they don’t want those leftists taking over the country.
Schmid: The mainstream media have emphasized differences between Antifa and the hate groups they oppose, but are there any similarities?
Blazak: There is a hypermasculine element in both groups, this notion of solving problems directly and with force. There’s also a similar sense of a looming apocalypse, that we’re at a tipping point and have to stop America from becoming either a socialist or a fascist dictatorship. It’s exciting to battle in the streets for some noble cause. Whether or not you’re actually helping the cause is another matter.
There is a real threat of fascism, and I think you and I would consider ourselves antifascist, even though we wouldn’t call ourselves “Antifa.” But I also think the media focus too much on the violent aspect of the antifascist movement and not enough on groups like PopMob [Popular Mobilization, a Portland-based activist group] and organizations that are raising money to help immigrants. There’s a lot of work being done on the antifascist side that doesn’t get media coverage because the images of the black-clad anarchists and red-hat-wearing Proud Boys clashing in the streets are so media friendly.
Schmid: You don’t condone fighting in the streets. The better strategy, you say, is when Nazis come to town, let them “sing in the wind.” Can you explain that?
Blazak: I’m torn. Because I want to say, “Not in my town; get out of here.” I want to shout them down. I want the people who are traumatized by these folks to know the community says, “No.” There is incredible value to showing up and saying, “No.” But it may also be exactly what those folks want. They love to come out and take pictures of “these crazy liberals.”
So I’m posing this question: What if our response is working on antiracism and antifascism in our communities on a daily basis, and when hate groups show up, there’s nobody there? Sort of like when an offshoot of Patriot Prayer tried to provoke Antifa by protesting in front of [Democratic Portland] Mayor Ted Wheeler’s house. Antifa didn’t show up because they don’t like the mayor, either. And there was little media coverage. The Patriot Prayer protesters were just standing around with their American flags, and then it was over. Isn’t that a model of how to do this?
Schmid: So the opposite of hate is not love, it’s indifference?
Blazak: Yes. I don’t want to “feed the wolf,” as a Native American person once put it to me. These hate groups are very media savvy and love to create memes. They can use an image of somebody dressed in black with his face covered and say, “This is Portland. This is liberalism. This is voting Democrat.” I mean, I think they’re going to do that regardless, but I believe using humor, like Popular Mobilization does, is probably more effective than fighting them in the street. I’m a John Lennon fan. He and Yoko Ono wanted to be “clowns for peace.” It didn’t bother them if people thought they were crazy for having a “bed-in” to protest war. Let the public laugh. At least they weren’t killing each other.
Schmid: You’ve worked closely with communities heavily impacted by hate. Why is understanding their trauma important?
Blazak: This is the focus of my work now. I think we’ve done plenty to understand why people join hate groups and commit hate crimes. The focus now really needs to be on the impact hate has on communities that are repeatedly traumatized. One of the reasons I’m focused on this now is something like guilt. As a white person, I don’t really see the trauma. For example, if I’m doing a PowerPoint presentation about hate crimes, and I put up an image of a cross burning because I’m going to talk about the Klan, for me it’s just a historical photo, but African Americans might see that image and think of their ancestors being lynched and having their genitals cut off. Just seeing that image is unlocking trauma that’s been there for generations.
When I was growing up in the South, white people would say, “Slavery ended in 1865. Get over it.” Well, then came Jim Crow, and now we have to deal with police shooting unarmed black men in the street. I’ve had an African American person tell me that when he walks into a room, he has to read the room and figure out, How friendly is this audience? Do I have to smile all the time so they’ll know I’m not a threat? Do I need to step back and not be too aggressive? That is evidence that the problems are not in the past.
I want white people to be more sensitive to things like microaggressions and how we can traumatize someone just with our body language. For example, if a white woman is walking down the street and sees a black man and clutches her purse a little tighter, he experiences that. What is the cumulative effect on people who have had to experience this over and over? Or if there’s a rumor that Patriot Prayer is going to be marching in the streets of Portland, I think, “Here I go again, doing a bunch of media interviews.” But there are people of color and queer people who are thinking, “Should I leave my house?” My Mexican wife, after the El Paso shootings, wasn’t sure it was safe for her to go outside; people might want to kill her because she’s a brown person.
When I was growing up in the South, white people would say, “Slavery ended in 1865. Get over it.” Well, then came Jim Crow, and now we have to deal with police shooting unarmed black men in the street.
Schmid: The world can seem like a very dark place at times. What gives you hope?
Blazak: The millennial generation is more likely to have friends with different sexual orientations and different ethnic backgrounds. If those young people, who are now in their thirties, all vote, we’ll be OK. It’s mostly my dad’s generation that is holding on to this antiquated notion of what America is supposed to be, and they are eventually going to, um . . . shuffle off this mortal coil. I’m not wishing for anyone’s death. I’m just saying the shift will happen. It’s a natural progression for America to become more diverse and inclusive. My fear is that, between here and there, there will be carnage: an Oklahoma City 2, or an El Paso 2. There’s going to be a lot more bloodshed and trauma before we get to that point. But I’m confident we will get there. Generation Z, my daughter’s generation, is the most racially mixed and most diverse, and they are the worst nightmare of the old white supremacists. The one thing white supremacists always want to protect is the color line.
Hate groups still recruit some young white males. Identity Evropa, for instance, are targeting community colleges. But most members of the younger generation understand the value of diversity. So my faith is in them. I often think they need to get off their phones and find physical places to meet, but they’re fine. They’re doing it in their own way. They’re Snapchatting their diversity to each other.