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Trying to track hate, in Minnesota and around the country

  • Article by: PAM LOUWAGIE
  • Star Tribune
  • August 13, 2012 - 6:42 AM

The same organization that was keeping track of the shooter at the Wisconsin Sikh temple has identified a dozen active "hate groups" in Minnesota.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has listed organizations ranging from a group founded by a member of the former American Nazi Party to a parents' organization that opposed repealing a controversial Anoka-Hennepin School District policy on issues of sexual orientation.

Leaders of those groups and others listed by the center dispute the "hate" label. Some call the Law Center hateful and slanderous.

"The only reason why some people would consider us a hate group is because they're too ignorant to open their eyes and see what we are really all about," said a man who identified himself over the phone as Mike Schmidt, public relations director for the National Socialist Movement, which the Law Center lists as "neo-Nazi." "There's nothing on our website that promotes hate. ... Our organization is about self-preservation of our own people and the promotion and advancement of it."

He said the group does not promote or instigate violence but defends itself when attacked.

However, the group's swastika-heavy website, www.nsm88.org, extols Hitler's goals and actions, denies the Holocaust, and claims to be championing "the White race" via extensive diatribes against Jews and other ethnic groups. For example, its "frequently asked questions" site claims that during World War II, the SS was battling "the two headed Jewish monster of Communism/Capitalism."

Why each organization specifically made the Law Center's hate group list isn't readily apparent on its website. In general, it says, it defines hate groups as having "beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics."

In the case of groups the center considers anti-gay, including the Anoka-Hennepin district's Parents Action League, the center says listings are based on "propagation of known falsehoods -- claims about LGBT people that have been thoroughly discredited by scientific authorities -- and repeated, groundless name-calling. Viewing homosexuality as unbiblical does not qualify organizations for listing as hate groups."

The center's Heidi Beirich said the Parents Action League was included on their hate list for "damaging propaganda about the gay community," including calling gays and lesbians "promiscuous, dysfunctional, unhealthy."

Parents Action League leader Laurie Thompson, in e-mails, did not comment on those particular accusations but posed pointed questions of her own: "How does being pro family/pro parental rights constitute a group as a hate group?" she wrote. "How does being an advocate for parental rights to raise their children come off as being hatred?"

The center lists more than 1,000 hate groups active in the United States in 2011. In many cases, the number of such groups in a state tracks with the population, Beirich said: "The numbers really don't tell you much except for the fact that hate is really found all over the country."

The center lists three hate groups each in North and South Dakota, four in Iowa and eight in Wisconsin. In California, for instance, the center lists 84.

Overall, Beirich said, the nation has seen an uptick in "domestic terrorism from people with racist views." Those most worrisome include Neo-Nazi and skinhead groups, she said.

The center has been tracking some 20,000 individuals in the United States since the mid-1980s, Beirich said.

"Lone wolves" who act out on their own, as Wisconsin shooter Wade Michael Page is believed to have done, are more difficult to stop than groups, analysts say.

While the Southern Poverty Law Center doesn't shy away from listing groups, the federal government does not define domestic terrorism organizations the way it does foreign terrorist groups.

Still, federal authorities say they work with local law officers to keep track of potentially violent actors.

"It is a balancing act in the sense of, we're cognizant of civil liberties and the rights of peaceful assembly, and so we try to walk that fine line between the constitutional right to assemble and dissent and have unpopular views," FBI spokesman Kyle Loven said. "We try to separate those from people who we consider to be capable of direct action."

His office has an investigating squad dedicated to uncovering, disrupting and arresting domestic terrorists.

This spring, they may have thwarted one violent plan. A Mendota Heights man with suspected ties to white supremacist groups was accused of planning to attack the Mexican consulate in St. Paul, according to the Associated Press. He was indicted on federal drug charges after authorities investigated him and another man as part of a domestic terrorism probe. Court papers claimed the men had stockpiled weapons and ammunition and planned to attack the government, minorities and others.

As in that case, defendants are often charged with more straightforward crimes such as weapons violations and drug charges instead of terrorism or hate crimes.

Federal prosecutors last year used the strengthened federal hate crimes prevention act to charge a former Transportation Security Administration employee with assaulting an 83-year-old Somali man in 2010. The man admitted to targeting the victim solely because he believed the man was a Muslim Somali, according to the U.S. attorney's office in Minneapolis.

Local federal authorities did not have statistics for terrorism prosecutions. But there are thousands -- some estimate hundreds of thousands -- of hate crimes handled by local police and state courts across the country each year.

Since 2007, Minnesota has seen 189 adult convictions and juvenile adjudications for assaults, damage to property and harassment related to bias, according to statistics compiled by the state court administration.

Pam Louwagie • 612-673-7102

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