Talk Newspaper: Add to the list of notable Rogue Valley features — Shakespeare, Jacksonville and Britt, a world-class river, hillsides of pears and grapes — a brand-new designation as ground zero for Oregon swastikas.
"A Rogue Valley man recently released from prison after being convicted in a string of racially motivated assaults in 2003 now leads a statewide neo-Nazi group based in Phoenix."
— Daily Tidings online, April 22
Add to the list of notable Rogue Valley features — Shakespeare, Jacksonville and Britt, a world-class river, hillsides of pears and grapes — a brand-new designation as ground zero for Oregon swastikas. The 29-year-old skinhead featured in the article says he's the "state leader of the National Socialist Movement, Oregon Unit, and has been a 'storm trooper, first class' with the movement for about six months ... he and his staff in Phoenix "¦ have distributed fliers across the Rogue Valley and Klamath Falls calling for white pride and unity, denying the Holocaust happened and demanding that illegal immigrants return to Mexico so the white race doesn't become extinct."
What comes to mind as you first read this? I'm not expecting the spread of opinion that most columns trigger. Nazis have a record that few can match for bringing us together; it wasn't very many years ago the people of Grants Pass, who can go at it hammer and tong over timber management, taxation, abortion or gay rights, united in a powerful "Not In Our Town" movement to keep out a white supremacist group that wanted to set up shop. So I'm not expecting online comments that rage against Mexicans or demand proof that the Holocaust really happened (but I've been surprised before).
My question has more to do with how seriously this story should be taken. It was accompanied by a photo of the three young men, bald as cue balls, khaki shirts and dark ties crisp, black combat boots glistening, standing in precise formation. The trappings set off a faint warning bell, but not much more; they look too frail and few to be dangerous. The leader, Storm Trooper First Class Patterson, has things to say that echo the upset confusion of other twenty-somethings trying to find their way through these agitating times. "'I started as a teen [in the white racialist movement] for the shock value, like a satanist or a punk,' he said. The fear and anger he provoked pushed him further toward hate, ultimately landing him in prison, he said. 'I was ignorant and hateful when I started'"¦ He said that years of reading in prison led him to the National Socialist Movement as a way to promote his race in a positive way. 'People call me a hatemonger, but I care about my community, my culture and my race,' he said."
Whatever the outside appearance, there's a young person in there who most of us can recognize. And life's not going real well; those identified in the article, according to police, "have a history of violent crimes, including assault and sex offenses."
How does that color this story? Can you write these guys off as a handful of confused losers, desperately latching on to a provocative identity that gives them a sense of belonging and importance? Sure, police need to keep them on the radar, but should the rest of us ignore them, shun their leaflets and their company, until they grow out of it or just go away?
That could be a naive mistake. The same article reports a recent uptick in hate groups across the country, fueled by the battle over immigration, the Obama election and the tanking of the economy. "Just this month, the Department of Homeland Security issued a report warning that right-wing extremist groups, including white supremacists, have boosted recruiting and mobilizing efforts, fueled by those factors."
Does this sound familiar? It does to those who've studied the preludes to genocides of the last century and more. "In times of strain, we see groups like this gain a stronger following," says a Willamette University sociologist quoted in the article. "We are definitely seeing a resurgence of hate."
And to believe that this organized hate (or this "care for my race," as the young Storm Trooper put it) has peaked, you have to believe that the economy has bottomed out. If it gets worse, as everyone with credibility expects, we're liable to see more brownshirts than the three in this article. Is ignoring them enough? It wasn't in Germany in the 1930s, or Rwanda or the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. My guess is that survivors of all three would tell us that the time to take an uncompromising, brilliantly clear stand against hatred is when its organizers are still few and too eccentric to seem dangerous.
Does that sound right? If so, what are you ready to do now?
Jeff Golden is the author of "Forest Blood," "As If We Were Grownups" and the novel "Unafraid," with excerpts available at www.unafraidthebook.com.