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17 Jul 2019 22:39
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  •   Home > News > International

    Nazis, Ku Klux Klan fliers and a dog named Adolf: Is this small US town a hotbed for white nationalism?

    This picturesque US region calls itself 'God's Country'. But when a few residents found a new ideology, it became known as a hotbed of white nationalism.


    The tipping point for Potter County, Pennsylvania came in the form of fliers.

    "Are there troubles in your neighbourhood? Contact the traditional American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. You can sleep tonight knowing the Klan is awake," they read.

    They were delivered strategically, shielded from the dew by plastic bags and weighted against the wind with rocks.

    Hundreds appeared on lawns and porches one Saturday morning, just weeks before the 2016 election.

    For years, white supremacists had lived in the region, a serene farming area of rolling green hills and red barns, known as "God's Country".

    Until then, their presence had never raised much alarm among residents.

    But with the fliers, their extremist beliefs suddenly reached into homes, and, as news of the propaganda drop went viral online, their presence entered the national consciousness.

    Emboldened, the once-underground groups started meeting more frequently and openly.

    Billing themselves as "a Terror Machine coming to a town near you", they posted public calls for "all white patriots" to join their cause.

    They ran ads in the local newspaper. They conducted weapons training. They made plans.

    In 2018, six members of a group called the "Aryan Strike Force" were charged with plotting a suicide attack at a local anti-racism protest.

    Prosecutors said they intended to strap a bomb to a terminally-ill man and send him into the crowd.

    As the media pounced to document the events, "God's Country" earned a new nickname: "a hotbed for white nationalism".

    The once-sleepy Potter County shook with a new, negative energy.

    Local leaders fought the bad press, an interracial couple fled and a family of neo-Nazis began plastering their hilltop home with signs of their ideology, bringing more and more unwanted attention.

    The neo-Nazi next door

    Just off Main Street in the town of Ulysses sits a yard decked out with swastikas, Confederate flags and wood carvings of Norse gods.

    "I try to display as much patriotism as I can. … It creates conversation," says Daniel Burnside, the tattooed, bearded man who owns the property.

    "If it creates angst, if it creates discomfort in people, maybe they need to explore why that angst and discomfort is there."

    Mr Burnside scoffs at the idea of tolerance for others.

    "Pity is the worst thing I can have if I want to save my culture for my posterity," he says.

    As cars pass by on the country road edging his property, Mr Burnside calls himself a "proud racist" and asserts that the United States was "set aside for white Western Europeans".

    He claims that the shootings in Christchurch were a hoax, and that the recent attacks on American synagogues should not be prosecuted as hate crimes.

    "I think it's motivated by love for the white race," Mr Burnside says.

    "It's a double-sided coin. Hate on the view of the people who think something like that shouldn't have happened. And love on the side of people who think something like that needs to happen."

    He characterises a shooting that left 11 dead in 2018 as "making a statement in blood".

    When asked if violence is justifiable, he responds with, "it's been justified for 5,000 years. This nation wasn't created by not being violent".

    Mr Burnside is blunt and speaks sometimes in a stream of consciousness that is hard to follow.

    He wears his politics quite literally on his sleeves.

    He once enlisted in the Navy and wanted to serve, but received a medical discharge after being struck by a car and now works as a chainsaw woodcarver.

    He and his wife are raising nine kids and a menagerie of farm animals on the three-building compound.

    Up until recently, it was considered the regional headquarters of the National Socialist Movement (NSM).

    The Southern Poverty Law Centre, a US non-profit that tracks extreme ideologies, has designated the NSM as "one of the largest and most prominent hate groups in the US … known for its violent anti-Jewish rhetoric and racist views".

    The group once claimed 61 chapters across 35 states, and is named in a lawsuit as allegedly partly responsible for a fatal race rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017.

    The NSM fell apart in March after an African-American activist hoodwinked the organisation's leader and took over as president.

    But Mr Burnside is undeterred, and he still plays a role in propagating its message "to kind of filter through and say, OK these are the main points, this is what's happening and why things are moving in that direction".

    His antisemitic views extend to the media, and he hosts his own radio show and posts on social media to spread his extremist message.

    Then there are the lawn decorations and the handful of demonstrations and meetings that Mr Burnside has hosted in the area.

    "Regardless of what laws are put against me to practice, [I'll use] my voice to recruit people to understand what it takes to save a nation," he says.

    According to the latest US Census data, 97 per cent of Potter County's 16,600 residents are white.

    "But it's my nation. It's not what I can see, it's what I can't see — the next community over," he says, gesturing to the far side of his property where a dog named Adolf barks for attention.

    'He sits up there on his hill. We go about our lives'

    Just before an explosive television interview with Mr Burnside went viral, residents plastered the county with more than 150 signs reading, "Hate has no home here. Love wins!"

    Community leaders are pushing back hard on the implication that they're allowing white nationalism to prosper by tolerating it.

    "The fact is we have one family who has some very unpopular views in a small town," says Roy Hunt, the Borough Council President for Ulysses.

    "When you have one family at the edge of town like that, in a town of less than 650 people, that stands out. So it garners more attention than it should. He really is not representative of this town or the area or the county."

    Sitting around a table in the municipal office, community leaders say the media is unjustly bringing attention to the town.

    "Around here, we ignore him," says resident Louise Cooney.

    "We ignore it. He just kind of sits up there on his hill, and we go about our lives. Because you know, he feeds on attention."

    They worry that the town's reputation will be irreparably damaged, and it could affect the economy.

    The region has seen a decline in the manufacturing jobs it once partially depended on and hopes to rebuild wealth through tourism and the presence of telecommuting professionals.

    They say the media attention is a greater threat to the area than Mr Burnside's beliefs.

    "We keep apprised of what is going on as much as we can. We will deal with something if and when it happens," says Potter County commissioner Paul Heimel.

    Due to America's free speech protections, there is little they can do except monitor the situation.

    In 2018, a sheriff's deputy was suspended without pay for removing a Nazi flag from Mr Burnside's property.

    He returned the flag but was charged with theft and resigned from the police department.

    "There are some people here that are genuinely scared," said Mr Hunt.

    "I think he thrives on that because that gives him a sense of power and control over something in his life. But most of us, I don't want to say we are scared."

    A son of Potter County driven from his home town

    A wave of emotions crested over Joe Leschner when he awoke to the KKK flier in his driveway that morning.

    As someone born and raised in Potter County, he knew vaguely of the region's Klan history and the fringe ideologies that existed in the minds of a few neighbours.

    Still, with the fliers came a cocktail of confusion, surprise and fear.

    You could say the implied violence comes with high stakes for Mr Leschner.

    His wife is black.

    "My wife was in shock, I was in shock and we — literally, me and my mother — got in the car, and we went around town picking up as many as we could," he recalls.

    For years, Mr Leschner's work and interests took him all over the world.

    He met his Jamaican wife, who declined to be interviewed for this story out of fear, in New Orleans, and the pair moved back to Potter County to be closer to Mr Leschner's family.

    But he started getting comments as he went about his day working at a local restaurant.

    "You're not in a big city anymore. You're not in the Cayman Islands anymore. You're back home in Red [conservative-leaning] America. You better watch what you say," he recalls hearing.

    Then someone posted a wedding photo of the couple on a Russian social media site, which is popular with white supremacists.

    Mr Leschner had the German caption translated, finding it called for their lynching.

    When he caught wind of a planned "white unity meeting", he planned a counter rally.

    He was pleased to see a few dozen of his neighbours show up in support.

    But he says he also saw a few white supremacists drive by, make a gun signal with their fingers and point it directly at his chest.

    "It has made us fearful for our life sometimes," he says of the threats.

    "My wife especially, being from Jamaica. They just don't have this down there. The people in her country are just so kind and welcoming."

    He and his wife have since moved out of the area.

    Mr Leschner now considers himself a political activist.

    He receives threats whenever he shares his views on social media or agrees to a television interview, but he says he won't stop anytime soon.

    "When you see somebody being racially profiled, you see someone getting picked on because of their faith, their colour of their skin, their nationality — stand up and do something, you know?" he says.

    "That's what this country is built on. It was built off people from all over the world and here we all are saying that one colour is better than another now? No, it's not right."

    On that day when the fliers arrived, Mr Leschner personally gathered as many as he could find and posted a Facebook video volunteering to collect others.

    He says he returned a batch of fliers to the KKK — tied with a pink bow.

    'We're in a very precarious position right now'

    Experts who study white extremism in the US say the situation in Potter County is not unique.

    "I think it's absolutely something to be frightened of," says Kathleen Blee, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh.

    "We're in a very precarious position right now in this country — and I would say in many countries."

    Professor Blee says most white supremacists in the US believe they are being trampled or invaded by other groups.

    "Some percentage, a small percentage, of them feel the need to act on that in deadly ways," she says.

    According to the National Defamation League's Centre on Extremism, 39 of the 50 extremist-related murders committed in America in 2018 were carried out by white supremacists.

    That number is up from 2017, when the centre reported white supremacists were responsible for 18 of the 34 crimes.

    The Anti-Defamation League reported white supremacists' propaganda efforts increased 182 per cent in 2018, with 1,187 distributions.

    And the Southern Poverty Law Centre (SPLC) reported that the number of hate groups operating across the US has increased for a fourth straight year, totalling 1,020.

    That's the highest number seen since the SPLC started tracking hate groups in the 1990s.

    It's difficult to collect accurate numbers worldwide, but experts say white nationalism is an increasingly omnipresent threat.

    "I think it's a mistake to think of the US either in isolation or as the leader in this. This is a global phenomena," Professor Blee says.

    She says political rhetoric, by no means limited to the US, is one of the factors contributing to the increase in activity.

    "The President refers to immigrants as 'invaders' and white supremacists also use the word 'invaders'," she said.

    "It's a dangerous position when politicians of any sort are toying with the same kinds of language and references that people are using in a white supremacist world."

    The professor says social media has also played a large role, transforming hate groups from underground, word-of-mouth affairs to ubiquitous entities accessible via a Google search.

    Online, the groups are becoming harder to supervise and police, she says, and that's further hampered by America's free speech protections.

    "Ulysses can put up big neo-Nazi signs and spew all kinds of hatred and it's very difficult for the law to touch them. Because unless they act, it's not a violation of American law," Professor Blee says.

    "The question is where would it not be tolerated? The person happens to live there. There are probably people in that county who are sympathetic. But this would be true for many, many parts of the United States."

    'Zero pity. Zero tolerance. Zero diversity'

    Knowing that the law allows for the beliefs to be sustained, Professor Blee and other researchers think critically about how individuals join or leave white supremacist groups.

    Daniel Burnside says he started getting into the ideology around 2013.

    He's offered varying explanations for what hooked him in, creating the sense that it happened so fast he didn't have time to attach a narrative to it.

    He told one reporter that it all started after his second child was diagnosed with autism.

    He told another that a book by Henry Ford led him down a biblio-rabbit hole, culminating in a sort of philosophical awakening.

    A documentary from Vice News offered a different catalyst: his messy divorce from a half-Dutch, half-Indian woman hooked on heroin.

    Professor Blee says there are few shared characteristics between those who find themselves attracted to the ideology.

    She's observed that most white supremacists are personally recruited by other white nationalists.

    Similarly, it can take a personal connection to get someone out of it.

    "It's almost always not an ideological choice but a personal choice. There's almost always something in their personal life that's out of sync with their white supremacist belief," Professor Blee says.

    "For example, they have a child who has a physical handicap, so they're brought up in the face of neo-Nazi ideas about handicapped persons and they're forced to make a choice."

    Mr Burnside says he's made that exact choice already once in his life when he and his wife chose not to proceed with a pregnancy due to a problem with the baby.

    "Every day we get up, we make decisions. I made a decision not to bring a sick child into the world, and I'm willing to stand by that decision until I die. Nobody will ever, ever convince me otherwise," he says with conviction.

    From his loudly adorned compound on the outskirts of town, he pledges that he'd disown any of his nine children who came out as gay or entered a mixed race relationship — any action that didn't align with his beliefs.

    The message is clear: he's not willing to let Potter County return to its quiet anonymity any time soon.

    "I don't care. You can't have pity to be a national socialist. Zero pity. Zero tolerance. Zero diversity. It's just simple. There's nothing difficult about it. There's no grey line."

    © 2019 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved


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