The Things You Are Getting Wrong About White Supremacists Is What Allows Them To Grow
Twelve years ago, I packed up a Uhaul and left the home my son was born in. I drove across the country with him in a car seat, singing hours of nursery rhymes to keep him entertained.
I loved that house — a big, collapsing, and beautiful Victorian farmhouse that my friends and I had sunk years of work into to make it a home. I loved that neighborhood; sweet neighbors who would holler at me to join them on their porch or come over late on New Year’s Eve with Jello shots and gossip. I loved that city — a big, heaving post-industrial city with greying art deco buildings from a more prosperous yesteryear. But it was time to go.
There were ten thousand personal reasons why I packed up that house and sold it, but there was also one troublesome thing that had been on my mind. A few years earlier the Vinlanders — a white power hate group — had set up a clubhouse only a few blocks away. They were disruptive, violent, and scary and they were recruiting the neighborhood’s poor white kids who they hoped had no other offers or chances in life. As a young, poor single mom of a white son, I knew he could eventually be a target.
I’ll take a lot of risks, but not that one.
Only days ago, a white mob marched from the White House to the Capitol building in order to break in and disrupt the Electoral College count. Some of the mob had zip ties to, apparently, take hostages. Some had guns and other weapons. Some chanted that they were going to kill the Vice President. Someone erected a platform with a noose. Five people died. The nation remains shocked. How did we get here? We each have asked. This is not us, we each have hoped.
Then, the day after the attack on the Capitol, the Indianapolis Star — the reputable, award-winning paper — ran a run-of-the-mill story including an interview with a man named Brien James. It was reported that James had joined about one hundred other Trump supporters and Proud Boys at the Indiana statehouse to oppose the Electoral College count and he spoke to the Star as the assault was occurring in Washington. The Star then also quoted James again the next day, documenting him as just another voice in this moment in history. It read like a benign human interest story: Some men, who you may or may not agree with politically, holding a protest at the statehouse — as we do and will continue to do in our American democracy.
But I know plenty about Brien James. He was my old neighbor.
Brien James was the founder of the Vinlanders Social Club — he is one of the ones I would see goosestepping outside the local bars in steel-toed boots ready to fight. He was the one who selected my neighborhood as a place for his hate group to target. It is documented that James created the Vinlanders after he was kicked out of the Outlaw Hammerskins for being too violent — he apparently nearly stomped someone to death for refusing to do a Sieg heil in the early 2000s. He later founded the Hoosier State Skinheads. For anyone who doesn’t know or doesn’t remember, “skins” are neo-Nazis. That’s not hyperbole, that’s what they call themselves.
The Vinlander house had a flag pole in the front yard and they flew Nazi and SS flags. They would blare Skrewdriver songs out the windows and sit up on the front porch drinking and glaring at passerbys. My neighbors and I regularly had to paint over swastikas that had been spray-painted on our garages and fences.
In 2007 and just a few blocks from where the Indianapolis Star interviewed James for their story this week, a gang of Vinlanders attacked a Black man in broad daylight, stomping him unconscious in the middle of a downtown street. Three Vinlanders went to prison for that attack. One later confessed to another murder and is serving that sentence, too. Plenty of Indianapolis residents remember the vile beating — when bystanders tried to call the police for help, they were attacked or threatened by the group.
Brien James continued to lead the Vinlanders even after many of his core members were in prison. Two years after the incident in downtown Indianapolis, another Vindlander (who was also a correctional officer) was convicted of murdering his girlfriend and their child and put on death row. Police found Hitler memorabilia all through the man’s house. Later that same year, two more Vinlanders were indicted for murdering a woman because she was dating a Black man.
Both Indianapolis Star articles this week failed to include any context about who Brien James is or about his movement’s extremely violent history. That context has become extremely important as this long legacy of community violence has once again turned into clear political violence and, for the first time in history, has targetted the symbolic center of our democracy — something prophesied in The Turner Diaries, the Bible of the racist right.
We, as a nation and as individuals, are very adept at ignoring white supremacy (it may be the communal skill we have excelled in most). Even though our country experiences white supremacist violence regularly, we still can barely name it when we see it. The FBI confirms that the vast majority of terror attacks in the United States are committed by far-right white supremacists, but we continue to have no national or community plan to stop this.
From Charleston to El Paso, white nationalist terror is often incorrectly described as “lone wolf” incidents, in contrast to the broad brush that we use when we see acts of property destruction or the rare acts of physical violence at Black Lives Matter protests. Seeing white nationalist terror as incidental, organic, or outside of having a sophisticated and strategic radicalization process is not only misguided; it’s very dangerous.
Most white Americans have a good instinct to distance themselves from white nationalism. However, to do so they often use incorrect shorthands and stereotypes to denounce the “other.” Since Wednesday’s assault on the Capitol, I have seen the mob described as anything from “bubbas” to “hicks” to “uneducated trailer trash.” However, just today I saw a CEO, a district court judge’s son, a pharmacist, a mayor, and a woman who flew on a private jet to the rally all be doxxed on Twitter for their participation in the mob. Our rush to distance ourselves from unsavory racists and discounting their intelligence ends up framing the threat incorrectly. And it is allowing the white supremacists to get ahead.
It turns out that Brien James left that old neighborhood just like I did. However, unlike me, he didn’t move to another working-class neighborhood with make-do houses, he moved to the suburbs. Brien James did what lots of Nazis did about a decade ago: He rebranded.
Sure, the neighborhood where the Vinlanders set up and where I lived was a poor, white neighborhood in a decaying industrial city. I am sure that my neighbors and I probably meet most of the stereotypes people have of who is racist in America, at least by physical appearance and income level. But the tiki torches in Charlottesville were overwhelmingly carried by frat boys and orthodontists, and the Capitol was just vandalized by veterans and small business owners in MAGA hats, Phish teeshirts, and Columbia jackets. America needs to come to terms with the idea that some cleaned up Vinlanders might live next to you, too.
One Vinlander, Bryon Widner, who frequented the house in my neighborhood, left the Vinlanders in the late 2000s and had all his white power tattoos removed: Hate across his knuckles, Blood & Honour across his neck, other white power and Odinist tattoos across his face. By all accounts, Widener managed to leave hate groups and, hopefully, hate itself behind after his well-documented transformation.
But at the same time, other white nationalists also began to realize that looking like prison-tatted skinheads or Klansmen wasn’t working for them either. Their reason was more sinister than Widner’s, however: They weren’t recruiting enough members.
The groups began to restrategize. How could they move from being fringe groups and into the mainstream? Unreasonably obsessed with the fear of becoming a white minority, these groups moved towards more fascist tendencies hoping to secure minority rule. This meant, however, that they needed more white people to join them to secure power.
Derek Black, a former white supremacist, the son of the founder of the Stormfront online community and the godson of former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke, explains that white power extremists didn’t try to recruit people who already shared their beliefs, but instead recruit people who would say “I’m not racist, but…” The point of recruitment was the “but.” To do this, however, white supremacists needed a new look so as not to first scare these new recruits away. Nobody wants to think they are becoming a fascist, after all.
Trying to find a more contemporary and palatable white nationalism, Brien James ditched the neo-Nazi Vinlanders and founded the Indiana American Guard. He began claiming he was no longer be racist but instead a “nationalist” and a “patriot” — language that we all should be becoming familiar with today. To prove he was no longer racist, Brien started posting content on his social media channels from far-right conservative Blacks like Candice Owens and the Hodgetwins, mixed in with dog-whistle content everywhere else. His kinder, more gentle facade, of course, was mostly talk and his actual agenda didn’t seem to change. The first time I saw Brien James after leaving my neighborhood was nearly a decade later: He marched with his American Guard right into the fray, armed with sticks and batons, in Charlottesville.
Now, the day of the attack on the Capital building, Brien James is the head of the Indiana Proud Boys and talking to journalists — something Briend James of 20 years ago never would have been able to do. The Indy Star interviewed him as if he were just a protestor or another guy with an opinion that needs to be heard in the interest of fair reporting. A quick Google search, however, reveals that just a month ago, James was promoting the Million Maga March in DC (another event that turned into dangerous street violence) with a video that used the fascist Mannerbund Anthem as its soundtrack.
Do we believe that Brien James’ endeavors now are any different from his last five renditions of white nationalism? This man has been in versions of explicit fascist movements for 30 years, remaking himself to fit the times. It seems dangerous and risky to give him a platform in the local paper with no context of who he or what this movement is.
James is a case study in how fascist movements rebrand and try to stay relevant in mainstream culture. He is just one of many, but he just happens to be the one I lived by. When the shaved heads and white power tattoos stopped doing the trick of recruiting young kids, they changed up the game. They took a tip from Richard Spencer and cleaned up to make themselves part of the contemporary political landscape — but their views are still very much the same, repackaged and reworded. White nationalists change their look and language to stay ahead of the backlash. When we don’t look at the full picture, when we don’t educate each other about these movements and mutations, and, frankly, when we try to pretend that they are far removed from us — we are letting them get ahead.
We tend to want to believe that white supremacists and white nationalists are the backwoods Deliverance rejects of our society. However, over and over again our desire to paint ourselves as different means we don’t manage to reject them at all because we are letting them sneak in. The far-right is not dumb: Racism is not a result of ignorance, it’s the result of people seeking to manipulate power in their favor.
These movements are complex and their recruitment is a methodologically confusing and skillful strategy of memes, internet culture, normalizing violence, jokes and swearing they don’t mean what they say, pseudo-intellectualism, and insisting that they are part of the political spectrum. James may have nearly killed someone for not Sieg heiling in 2000, but in 2020 he knows you should never ask someone to do a Nazi salute at the first meeting. You’ve gotta ease into it.
The entire strategy of the alt-right in the last four years is evident in their name. They no longer want to be seen as extremists, they want to be considered a legitimate alternative on the political spectrum. That opportunity was offered to them through Trump as well as through press outlets from NPR to Fox to the Indianapolis Star each of which has conducted interviews with people who explicitly want a white ethnostate as if it were part of canonical political discourse.
I’m not a journalist and don’t know much about it: I’m just a mom who lived next door to a neo-Nazi and who knows what that does to communities like mine. I am not asking for journalists to be activists, but if the Indianapolis Star and other publications provide a platform without putting people like Brien James in context, and if people in my community continue to focus on outdated tropes without looking harder, then these movements grow and grow and grow until…
Well, this week we saw what happens when we let it grow.