They flashed Nazi salutes in February outside the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.
They’ve mixed it up on message boards like that of The Daily Stormer, a prominent white supremacist website, and through secure online chat apps, too.
And on a blog called AltRightMN, which shows about 4,400 visits since starting up early this year, they’ve claimed to have recruited a network of followers to wage a battle defending “racial reality, religion, white identity, and nationalism.”
Well before the chaos and killing in Charlottesville, Va., put them in the national spotlight, far-right activists were making their presence known in less conspicuous ways in Minnesota. But their reach is difficult to gauge, in part because Minnesota has been less fertile territory for hate groups than other states, and also because those who are here tend to mobilize under the cover of darkness.
“People have this stereotype that it tends to be more in Southern areas or rural areas, but that’s not actually true,” said Lisa Waldner, a University of St. Thomas professor who has tracked domestic hate movements. “We find it all over the country.”
Former U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger said the violence in Charlottesville “brought to the national consciousness” activity he and other officials have long monitored locally.
Last year, Luger prosecuted the nation’s biggest case of would-be ISIS recruits but also targeted hate crimes and led talks on Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. Now in private practice, he is preparing to announce his next foray into counter-extremism work, adding that Charlottesville has underscored the need for more proaction in preventing radical violence.
“What are we going to do about this?” he asked.
Hard to quantify
Just how prominent extreme-right activity is in Minnesota, and elsewhere, is hard to measure. Unlike international terrorist organizations, the government does not maintain a list of domestic terror groups.
In the South, decades-old Confederate monuments have been at the center of ongoing protests and violence in recent days. But in Minnesota, the spike in hate incidents has been tied mostly to issues surrounding immigration and religion.
Minnesota authorities reported a record 14 anti-Muslim incidents last year, and the FBI this week announced a $30,000 reward for help in identifying the culprit behind this month’s explosion at a Bloomington mosque.
Meanwhile, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas (JCRC) has tallied a surge in anti-Semitism in Minnesota, with 13 incidents reported so far this year and 20 last year. Fliers stating “This country is your birthright, don’t give it up” and “Real Christians, drive out your parasite class” have appeared everywhere from the University of Minnesota’s Twin Cities campus to streets in Fargo.
““There have been these moments around which extremists unite to perpetuate fear, intimidation and hate,” said Anthony Sussman, the JCRC’s director of communications and community security. “It doesn’t take long for that to reach a boiling point.”
That happened last week in Charlottesville, when James Alex Fields, a 20-year-old Ohio man, plowed his car into a throng of counter-protesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others. Attorney General Jeff Sessions called it an act of “domestic terrorism.”
One group that marched alongside the American Vanguard organization that Fields reportedly supported, the National Socialist Movement (NSM), got its start in Minnesota decades ago. Waldner said she observed a 2007 Jewish book-burning led by the NSM in the Twin Cities shortly before the group moved its headquarters to the Detroit area.
Jeff Schoep, a Minnesota native who has been the group’s “commander” for more than 20 years, led the NSM into Charlottesville last week and “decked” a counter-protester while there, according to an “after action report” posted on the group’s website that also predicted future violence.
Waldner said white supremacists and nationalists, long considered fringe actors, are now feeling emboldened to exploit a “potential crack” in society, aided by President Donald Trump’s public remarks.
“They see him as somebody who can deliver on their goals,” she said.
Locally, encounters this year between activists who described themselves as alt-right supporters and anti-fascists have led to brawls — the first involving punches thrown in February inside the Minneapolis Institute of Arts after alt-right supporters were seen flashing Nazi salutes. A month later, counterprotesters sprayed chemical irritant inside the State Capitol during a pro-Trump rally and in May prevented about 30 local alt-right activists from entering the building for another show of support for the president.
So far, Minnesotans claiming to represent the alt-right movement have kept a modest online presence — at least publicly.
An e-mail from the Star Tribune to the AltRightMN blog earlier this year drew a response from a man identifying himself using a pseudonym, Anton Rays, and who described the local movement as “just individuals who support Trump and the Alt-Right, which is an umbrella term that covers a lot of ground.” Before the May rally at the Capitol, anti-fascists published Rays’ personal information — a process called “doxxing” — and identified him as the man who flashed the Nazi salute at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.
Earlier this month, AltRightMN said its blog would cease updating at its current web address and that the movement would be organizing into “splinter cells” to avoid infiltration. The blog also promised “mysterious business cards and fliers” would be scattered statewide — some of which turned up this week inside Little Free Libraries across the metro.
“It is honestly kinda cool to see all these white people waking up and taking action,” read the blog’s last entry.
Daniel Koehler, a German counterterrorism researcher who was contracted last year in Minnesota to help introduce the country’s first federal court terrorism “disengagement and deradicalization” program, has counseled both jihadist and neo-Nazi extremists and their families. Koehler said the main psychology behind both types of radicalization is basically the same.
“Of course the content and goals can differ, but both groups are convinced they are the victim of an existential threat posed by an evil and superior enemy who needs to be fought and destroyed in that final battle of good vs. bad,” said Koehler, a fellow at the George Washington University Program on Extremism.
Luger said Minnesota has seen a greater instance of lone actors perpetrating hate crimes than attacks carried out on behalf of organized groups. But aside from cases of mental illness, Koehler said people don’t radicalize in “total isolation” and instead “within the interaction between human beings either online or offline.”
“Violent radicalization,” he said, “is a social-psychological process which needs interaction with other human beings to move ahead.”