White Supremacy Fuels Domestic Terrorism, Southern Poverty Law Center Says

Dec 31, 2018
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NOEL KING, HOST:

In the United States, hate crimes have been on the rise. The FBI reported larger numbers in 2015, and then again in 2016 and a 17 percent jump in 2017. And while the numbers for this year aren't out yet, in many ways, it felt like a very violent year. Take the last week in October alone. A man in Kentucky killed two black people at a grocery store after he allegedly tried to charge a black church. He reportedly told one witness, whites don't kill whites. And in Pittsburgh, a shooter killed 11 worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue. He was reportedly driven by anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant ideology.

The Southern Poverty Law Center tracks extremist hate groups and acts of violence. The Center's Intelligence Project director Heidi Beirich told me it isn't just hate crimes broadly that are rising. In particular, acts of domestic terrorism fueled by white supremacy are growing. The Southern Poverty Law Center counted about one of those every month for the past year. And Beirich said this is a trend the SPLC has been tracking for a while.

HEIDI BEIRICH: What we've seen, actually, since 9/11 is the number of people killed by white supremacist domestic terrorists is on the rise. In fact, the number of people killed in that period by white supremacists is approximately the same domestically as people motivated by Islamic extremism. The number of incidents is actually larger when it comes to white supremacists. But luckily, they've either - the plots have either been interrupted or not as many people have been killed.

KING: There's been reporting in the past year, notably in The New York Times Magazine in a piece by Janet Reitman, that suggests that for years, law enforcement just ignored the rise of white supremacy. And now we're seeing the outcome of that. Do you think that law enforcement in this country bears some of the responsibility for what we're seeing now?

BEIRICH: I do. Law enforcement - and I would also say political leaders - ignored the white supremacist threat as it was growing. There was such a focus on al-Qaida and, obviously, the horrible attack in New York City that they seemed to forget the kind of Timothy McVeighs of the world, You know before 9/11, the McVeigh attack in Oklahoma City was the largest loss of life in a domestic terrorist attack in American history. And once the attacks happened in New York, all the resources were shifted into fighting Islamic extremism. But our white supremacists continue to, you know, sort of kick along with violence. And there just wasn't a focus there.

KING: And white supremacist groups got online. They built communities on social media platforms. That helped fuel and spread their ideology. Then this past year, social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube started banning far-right and white supremacist pages and posts for violating their terms. Beirich said that was a step in the right direction to stop the spread of those ideas. But for those who are already a part of these movements, the de-platforming mixes with political frustration and can lead to even more problems.

BEIRICH: Well, what we're finding is that white supremacists right now as a result of their being de-platformed from some sites - they've had PayPal accounts pulled and Facebook pages - that this is making them increasingly frustrated. We've also seen just in the last month or two that as the border wall hasn't materialized and after the midterm elections brought Democrats into the House, that they're getting frustrated again with politics. And when white supremacists get frustrated and they don't think that there is a legitimate outlet for their activities, whether online or in the political world, we're worried we're going to see more violence.

KING: Heidi Beirich is director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center. Heidi, thank you so much.

BEIRICH: Thank you so much for having me.

KING: And we'd like to disclose that the Southern Poverty Law Center was recently a financial supporter of NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.