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Living With Neo-Nazis: Seven Years in the Belly of the Beast

Living With Neo-Nazis: Seven Years in the Belly of the Beast

Sociology professor Peter Simi lived among U.S. white supremacy activists for seven years, and knows how they think, why they are rising in prominence, and maybe even how to stop them

Keren Tzuriel Harari  | 10:07  16.08.2019
On August 5, 2012, 43-year-old Wade Michael Page drove to a diner in Wisconsin where his ex-girlfriend worked. Upon learning she was not there, he entered a Sikh temple up the road and opened fire with a semi-automatic pistol he bought, legally, eight days prior. No one knows why Page decided to do so, killing six people and injuring another four before shooting himself in the head.

After his general discharge from the U.S. army in 1998, Page became a white power skinhead, with ties to several white supremecist and neo-Nazi groups, including the Hammerskins, described by the anti-defamation league as as the U.S.' best-organized neo-Nazi skinhead group. His outspoken hatred was focused mostly on Jews and African Americans, so his decision to go after Sikhs left people perplexed.

Peter Simi. Photo: Chapman University Peter Simi. Photo: Chapman University Peter Simi. Photo: Chapman University

Among those stunned by the news was Peter Simi, a Chapman University professor who studied white power and neo-Nazi groups in the U.S. for over two decades, and lived among them for seven years during his studies. He knew Page personally—he lived with him for several months, a decade before his murder spree. He hung out with people like him, lived in their houses, went to their festivals, laughed at their racist jokes.

Simi was well-aware of Page’s racist opinions and of his perception of violations against white rights in America, the researcher told Calcalist in a recent interview. Page used to complain that calling a gay person a faggot or refering to Jews as dirty was considered a hate crime, but calling a white person honky was freedom of speech. Simi remembers him as intelligent, well-read, and very active in the neo-Nazi music scene, where most of his activism was concentrated. Page was a part of several hate rock bands, including End Apathy, which he founded in 2005 in the hope of finding a way to “end people’s apathy.” He called his time as a musician the best years of his life, Simi recalled.

“Of all the people I hung out with, Page was one of those who did not have a violent history,” he said. While aggressive in his speech, Simi remembers seeing Page actively avoid violence. “When I learned he was the Wisconsin shooter, I felt like someone had punched me.”

Simi asked himself whether he could have done something to prevent the incident, whether the writing was on the wall, but concluded that he could not have done anything. “Granted, a decade has passed and a lot of things have changed, but I’ve always felt very comfortable around him,” he explained. Many of the people he met during those seven years were going in and out of correctional facilities, but that was not the case with Page, he said.

Simi remembers one time they were getting ready for a Hammerskins party, and Page told him about a journalist who was invited to one of those parties and beaten to death by drunk party goers at the end of the night. “Page warned me those guys were dangerous and offered to help me, so I felt comfortable with him,” he said.

Simi’s shock over the shooter’s identity quickly shifted into insight: when there is a whole culture that is built around hatred and violence, it is very hard to pinpoint the person who will enter a temple, or a synagogue, or a school, and do something terrible.

When he was living with these groups, Simi said, he was scared most of the time, at least partly because they were very unstable people, and he could never know what any one of them will do at a certain moment. Meeting new people, he had to be careful not to ask too many questions or come off as intrusive, which could make him a target. He relied a lot on his instincts to figure out the power play. “You could say I’ve created a second identity of sorts,” he said. “I don’t agree with people who say the white race is facing extinction and I don’t laugh at jokes where the punchline is that you should burn more Jews because it would be cool. They use a lot of humor and a lot of quotes that are interesting from a cultural point of view, but experiencing it first hand was revolting.”

Some moments were more jarring than others. In one party, to the soundtrack of Hate Train, a skinhead who knew Simi was a researcher came up to him and told him: “remember, if it turns out you’re a cop, I will personally catch you and slit your throat, after killing your family.” In another instance, he went to a restaurant with a group of Aryan Nations members—some of them tattooed, wearing leather, and generally sticking out like a sore thumb. When they sat down, people whispered and stared, and Simi realized that for those watching, he was one of the gang, and it was a strange feeling: “God, people think I’m a neo-Nazi.”

Simi’s interest in racism started in his childhood. His father died when he was nine, and he grew up with his mother, a feminist and an activist against racism, in a Sacramento suburb. She would show him documentaries about the Ku Klux Klan to teach him about racism, but he also met it in real life.

There was an African-American boy he admired, Ken, who played basketball with the neighborhood kids. Once, when Ken missed out on a game, the other players—who were white—called him racist names. Simi, surprised, started documenting those instances of racism in a notebook. An incident that made a particular impression occured when he was 16, when he was watching a movie about Los Angeles gangs in the 1980’s with a friend and the friend’s father. Mid watching, the father remarked that all black people should be “flushed down the toilet.” He wasn’t a Ku Klux Klan member, Simi said, but a member of the PTA, which made Simi even more curious to understand the origin of these attitudes.

His childhood curiosity took a more official turn when he was writing his master’s thesis at the University of Nevada. In the phone book, he found a number for Aryan Nations, a neo-Nazi organization classified in 2001 as a “terrorist threat” by the FBI. Simi called the organization’s offices and told them he wanted to make them the subject of an academic study. “Are you white?” the representative asked. When he answered in the affirmative, he was told he was welcome anytime.

Later, he started approaching other neo-Nazi groups, explaining that he wanted to contrast their public image with their actual activities. It was a calculated move, he said, because those groups feel they are demonized in the media, and overall they feel very victimized. After a meeting that took several hours, during which they got to know him, the members of those organizations invited him to live with them. Which he did, sporadically, for seven years between 1997 and 2004. He studied many such groups from the inside, learning their motives, their objectives, their recruitment methods. When the internet became a major recruitment tool, Simi’s research pivoted as well, now focusing on those active on far-right websites such as 8Chan, and on those who were active in such groups but broke away.

Simi’s research was deemed important enough to win grants from government bodies such as the U.S Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security. Over the years, he also became one of the top experts on the subject, the one contacted by news outlets after mass shootings and massacres to explain just what those white supremacists are thinking. Earlier this month, following the shooting in El Paso, Texas, in which one gunman killed 22 people and injured another 24, ABC tapped him to explain how lone wolf terrorists evolved over the years. While in the past they were middle-aged or older, in recent years the trend has reversed and they are younger, he said then. They use the internet to discuss ways to be more efficient when killing or to debate the pros and cons of certain violent actions.

According to Simi, there are several factors that could be behind the growing hatred towards other ethnic groups seen in recent years—immigration, economic changes, and technological changes, all of which are transforming social dynamics and leading to the accumulation of vast amounts of easily accessible information, much of which is propaganda. Because of the way that information is organized on social media, people are more likely to be exposed to information that already matches their point of view, and that impacts closed-minded people most of all, Simi said.

“My information is accurate and therefore, anything that does not conform to my perspective is fake news,” is the mindset. That kind of black and white thinking is the hallmark of many extreme groups, Simi explained, adding that they want to get rid of everything they feel is threatening their justified privilege. For those groups, violence is the way to purify society and maintain that privilege. In white supremacy groups, who believe they are under both a spiritual and physical attack, who believe there is a conspiracy to erase the white race, violence is considered self-defense, Simi said. These people respond with violence to anything they perceive as provocation, such as mixed couples, he saidת adding that their sense of victimization is a mainstay of their ideology.

Simi believes that at least in the U.S., it is not that there are more neo-Nazis today, but rather that they are gaining visibility. In August 2017, a white supremecist rally called Unite the Right took place in Charlottesville, Virginia. On the second day of the rally, August 12, self-identified white supremacist James Alex Fields Jr. drove his car into a crowd of counter-protestors, killing one woman and injuring 19 other people. And suddenly, people started asking where all those neo-Nazis were coming from.

Extremist groups always existed, Simi said, but people either ignored them or did not notice them. What happened in Charlottesville opened people’s eyes to white power groups, and naturally, when you are more aware of a phenomenon, you think it happens more frequently, he said. But what is true is that the political environment has changed and the technology has changed, and so those opinions are coming to the forefront.

“We need to be concerned about it, especially when it comes to politics and political parties,” Simi said.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s role in what is happening cannot be stressed enough, according to Simi. These people are characterized by a strong feeling of loneliness and of separation from the ruling power, he explained. They feel as if they know the truth, but are blocked from exerting the influence they think they should have on society, and what they really want is the power to steer society in the direction they think it should go. When a president that expresses at least some of the same views is elected, they feel empowered.

Many of these people would say Trump is not the answer, but that he is a step in the right direction, Simi said.

Life among white supremecist groups helped Simi break some of the stereotypes he had regarding them—that they are stupid, losers, drunks, and of weak character. Stereotypes are easy, and it would have been comforting to think that white supremecists tend towards those beliefs because they are less educated, jobless, or frustrated with their lives, but that is false, Simi said. People who partake in these groups come from varied socio-economic and educational backgrounds and that illustrates how much greater the recruitment potential for such groups is than people are imagining, he added.

Neo-Nazis. Photo: AFP Neo-Nazis. Photo: AFP Neo-Nazis. Photo: AFP

Recruitment today is performed mainly online, Simi said, but face-to-face recruitment exists as well, via two surprising avenues: mixed martial arts clubs and music festivals.

The MMA-music combo was widely covered in April 2018, when 1,000 neo-Nazis convened in eastern Germany, in the Polish border town of Ostritz, to celebrate Adolf Hitler’s birthday. At the Schild und Schwert (Shield and Sword) festival, participants wore shirts bearing slogans such as “Adolf was the best” and “white is my favourite color,” bought racist merchandise, listened to heavy metal bands, and watched an MMA tournament organized by a white supremecist club.

MMA clubs are a big thing in the U.S. now, even more in Europe and Russia, where there is a large neo-Nazi group called White Rex, Simi explained. In Ukraine a lot of MMA clubs mix in white supremacy tenets, and in Germany clubs are also targeting kids with the same messages, he said. At the same time, music and musical scenes were always an avenue through which neo-Nazis recruited. “They have their own events, but they also take part in existing music scenes such as punk and heavy metal,” he said.

MMA clubs and music festivals provide a safe space for racist movements. Since they espouse ideas that go against mainstream thought, they need spaces that will enable them to tell stories, try out new concepts, interact socially, and create and express an identity, Simi said. They also use them for logistics and strategizing. “It is very important if you are part of a stigmatized group, otherwise your opinions can dissipate,” Simi said.

While MMA and music can be used to recruit outsiders, the children of neo-Nazis are recruited at home. Simi spent hours sitting in the living rooms of white supremecists, listening to them teach their kids about race wars, about darkies and faggots and Jewbags. He took part in birthday parties where the cakes were shaped as swastikas. He saw children gifted toy soldiers decorated with SS symbols. He met kids who saluted their parents with the Sieg Heil salute.

For such people, family is the basis of the movement, Simi explained. For white supremacist parents, the objective is to pass your beliefs on to your kids, or the white race will not survive. They believe the white race needs people that will give birth to more kids with “racial awareness.” Sometimes these kids are home-schooled, but if they attend public schools, they are taught the symbols, gestures, and music at home, he said.

Simi recalls one five-year-old who could do the Nazi salute and sing along to neo-Nazi music word-perfect. “They dress their children like Nazi soldiers, skinhead warriors, or Ku Klux Klansmen—anything to integrate young kids into the movement,” he said. “It normalizes the movement. The kids don’t know anything else.”

It is hard to shake beliefs acquired at such a young age, Simi said. When kids hear the N-word at home and are taught that black people are more prone to criminal activity, the messages they receive when they come into contact with other white supremecists sound familiar, he said. “They are preconditioned.” Some parents understand that being too extreme risks rebellious children going in the other direction, so they stress the importance of maintaining traditional values and being proud of your racial background rather than focusing on demonizing others, Simi added.

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The good news? You can get out. During his studies, Simi interviewed a boy raised on white supremecist values since birth. “Instead of playing regular war games in his backyard, he played Kill the Jew,” Simi said. “That’s what he was taught.” Then, in middle school, he was sent to public school for the first time. An almost all-white area, but he was still exposed to different ideas than those he heard all his life. He started having doubts, listening to “forbidden,” liberal music like grunge. In high school, he no longer identified with the movement and his family’s ideals. Eventually, Simi said, his parents and siblings followed, and today none of them are involved in the movement.

Another of his acquaintances was a member of a white power organization. Her daughter was shot, and saved by two black doctors. The incident led the woman and her husband to try and change their racist outlook: they relocated to a mixed community in southern California, and got along with their latino and black neighbors.

One day, the woman made an order at a fast food restaurant and when she exited she realized the cashier got her order wrong. The cashier insisted she did not make any mistakes. “Those Mexicans, they barely speak English and she accused me of trying to avoid paying for my food, so I got angry,” the woman told Simi. She called the cashier racist slurs, added a few white power slogans and a Nazi salute, and then stormed out, got into her car, and burst out crying. She was embarrassed, and angry at herself for the outburst, she told Simi. “I don’t do that stuff anymore, but I was so angry that all I saw was red, and I wanted to beat her to death,” the woman recalled.

When a person leaves a racist movement, sometimes he or she will go through a long journey before they can change their perspective, Simi explained, adding that leaving the group doesn’t necessarily mean leaving those ideas behind. It is the state’s responsibility to help those people rebuild their lives, he added.

The first step to stop the rise of white supremacy is to stop ignoring it and recognize there is an issue, Simi said. “It might sound simple, but the U.S. failed, miserably, in recognizing how deeply white power-based violence has become entranched, and it is hard to make progress when the default is denial.”

Something like the South African post-appertehied model of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission could help, Simi said, but reconciliation is not possible without truth. So his second recommendation is education, starting even before kindergarten. Kids need to be taught to see differences as an asset and an advantage, not as a barrier. It should be one of the first building blocks of education, he said, but regrettably, the system usually does not tackle these issues before middle school or high school, and by then, it is too late.

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