William Pierce, the spiritual and intellectual leader of the white supremacist movement, died Monday at the age of 68. For many, it was a reason to celebrate.
Those who monitor hate groups are welcoming Pierce's death as a serious blow to the white power movement, which has quietly been gaining steam since Sept. 11. And while they would probably never admit it, many within the white power movement are themselves quietly lauding Pierce's passing, which they see as an opportunity to transform Pierce's National Alliance from a relatively small, ideologically driven fringe organization into something more resembling a European-style fascist movement.
Pierce had become a thorn in the side of the less ideologically pure in his own organization, those most concerned with broadening the white power base. A white power traditionalist who resisted public demonstrations and often refused to campaign for new members indiscriminately, Pierce had long opposed those more interested in membership numbers than his message. With Pierce gone, his followers can move forward with their intention to pursue a cause Pierce would never have approved of: the plight of white power's new, post-Sept. 11 Arab brothers -- the Palestinians.
Pierce, more than most white supremacists, was an elitist. The author of the influential hate manifesto, "The Turner Diaries," which Timothy McVeigh, among others, has credited with his own descent into violent hatred, Pierce clung to the notion that only the talented few were worthy of being drawn to his cause. He sought to recruit people that had good jobs and positions of authority, not, as he once put it at a National Alliance leadership conference, "the freaks and the weaklings," the uneducated skinheads who represent white power groups in the popular imagination. In his idealized National Alliance, all of the screw-ups would matriculate to other groups, like the Ku Klux Klan -- an organization Pierce derisively lauded for attracting white supremacists of a lower class.
But Pierce lived long enough to see -- as his influence waned -- the first signs of a gentler, more inclusive National Alliance. Sensing an unprecedented opportunity after the terrorist attacks, Pierce's deputies began talking of finding common cause with other groups by embracing the Palestinian cause as a vessel for their anti-Semitism. Anyone likely to be duped by the group's ludicrous new pro-Palestinian campaign is probably not smart enough to have met with Pierce's approval.
But these are desperate times for hate groups, and Billy Roper, the public face of the National Alliance and Pierce's possible successor is apparently a populist at heart.
"He's looking for anybody with a pulse," says Joe Roy, of the watchdog Southern Poverty Law Center.
The new National Alliance will be on display on August 24, when Roper's extensive -- and somewhat tortured -- public relations campaign will culminate in a protest outside the U.S. Capitol. It will be, according to Roper, the "largest gathering of white nationalists since World War II." Roper is prone to exaggeration, but it's worth taking him seriously in this case: The protest will be just the latest in a series of D.C. rallies, each bigger than the one before, and it could attract as many as 1,000 skinheads, neo-Nazis and rank-and-file white separatists.
It's also the latest development in what has been the National Alliance's post-9/11 strategy. After the terrorist attacks, Roper posted this message on his Web site: "The enemy of our enemy is, for now at least, our friends." The organization had decided to feed off the resentment and mixed emotions that came out of the attacks, and it was willing to do something that would appear, on its surface, to be bizarrely counterintuitive: embrace people of color, especially like-minded Middle Eastern separatists. "We may not want them marrying our daughters, just as they would not want us marrying theirs," Roper continued. "We may not want them in our societies, just as they would not want us in theirs. But anyone who is willing to drive a plane into a building to kill Jews is all right by me. I wish our members had half as much testicular fortitude."
In May, Roper led a rally of about 250 white power advocates outside the Israeli embassy in Washington. A boyish 30-year-old former high school history teacher clad in a suit, Roper was polite and eminently approachable as he worked the assembled press, trying hard to put a friendlier face on the National Alliance. His group's tactic has been quite simple: Ape the rhetoric of Israel's Arab critics and, along the way, make a play for some of the sympathies the world has developed for Palestinians.
At that rally, Roper put the blame for the Sept. 11 attacks squarely on Israel, saying that the U.S. government's "one-sided support of rabidly racist Israel" had led to the "ethnic cleansing" of the Palestinians. It was inevitable, Roper said, that the Arabs would ultimately do something to retaliate. (At one point, he even complained that the U.S. was funneling far more money to Israel than Africa, even though "in Africa, children are starving.") While Roper talked, the skinheads in the crowd behind him held Palestinian flags and chanted anti-Israeli, pro-Palestinian slogans. Most everyone was on message. If it weren't for the explicit tattoos, the vehemence of the slogans ("Freedom for Palestine/A Rope for Every Finkelstein"), and the occasional chorus of "Sieg Heils," they could have blended in with the 150 or so counter-protesters across the street from them, mostly Palestinian activists troubled by their new fast friends.
"I was just furious because they were just laughing at us, as if this was all fun and games," says Rami Elamine, co-founder of a Palestinian advocacy group called the Sustain Campaign, who more than once had to be restrained by his peers. "They were like, 'We'll come out here to the Israeli embassy and play like we care about this issue,' and it's all to whip up hate and anti-Semitism and racism in general. And just knowing very well that they would commit the same atrocities against us as they did against Jews and still do against Jews."
According to Mark Potok and Roy of the Southern Poverty Law Center, the rally is only one front on which white power groups have been linking up with their ostensible enemy. The National Alliance has been blanketing the country with pro-white fliers, many of which applaud the actions of their "Arab brothers" -- and chastise white power activists for not doing more. The Aryan Nations Web site now links to a Muslim Liaison, and Middle Eastern newspapers have begun reprinting white power rhetoric taken off the Internet. These new connections have flummoxed Palestinian sympathizers, who worry that they will lose political currency if they are linked in the public's mind with a openly racist hate group.
How successful has this ploy been for the National Alliance? Roper claims that "there's been an explosion" in membership since Sept. 11 and says that the total size of the organization is "still below 10,000, but growing." Potok puts the figure around 1,500, but he also points out that while the National Alliance is the most significant player in the white power movement, it is far from the only one.
Potok also says the terrorist attacks have managed to usher in an unprecedented era of cooperation between neo-Nazis, skinheads, and other white power organizations around what has become the National Alliance's rallying cry. At the embassy rally, there were representatives from groups as diverse as the Eastern Hammerskins, World Church of the Creator, and David Duke's organization, all uniting as one voice. "What we're seeing is evidence of almost unheard-of cooperation between white power groups," Potok says. "A lot of energy has been injected into the movement, and Roper is making everyone feel welcome."
But how, exactly, could any self-respecting white racist choose to work with Arab activists, even in the spirit of political expediency?
There's some history there. In June 1993, Tom Metzger, founder of the White Aryan Resistance, spoke to about 200 members of the New Black Panther Party, with whom he shared an agenda for racial separatism. More often than not, however, such attempts to bridge the gap of mutual hatred run into the expected problems.
Roper and even Pierce, however, recognized that Sept. 11 offered a new opportunity. After the attacks, many rank-and-file white power advocates made the dubious leap in logic that Palestinians = Arabs = terrorists, so it was not difficult for them to take up the fight for the Palestinian people, who were linked with hijackers (see the aforementioned "testicular fortitude"). And disenfranchised whites, fueled by class resentment, saw the Sept. 11 attacks, as Pierce put it, "a direct consequence of the American people permitting the Jews to control the government and to use American strength to advance Jews' interests." Taking an ostensibly pro-Palestinian stance that appeals to resurgent anti-Semitism, as well as a grudging pro-Arab sympathy among hardcore white power advocates, was something that National Alliance members could get behind. And the change in strategy helped draw new, energized members who showed up at rallies in increasing numbers.
But it sparked an ideological battle between Pierce and Roper. Right now, the National Alliance is in a transition period: membership has increased in recent years as other white power groups have faded from prominence, and the terror attacks and the Arab/Israeli conflict have created a kind of "now or never" attitude among certain players in the upper echelons of the organization. Pierce did grudgingly acquire Resistance Records, a "hate core" record label that has been a consistent moneymaker and rhetorical tool for the organization, but he seemed to view it as vessel to bring a large pool of people to his attention, only a few of whom would be worthy of becoming National Alliance leaders.
Roper, however, wants desperately to take in all comers.
"September 11th allows them to hook up and link into an event," says Abe Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish advocacy group. "They believe that gives them a certain sense of credibility. There's the danger that the extreme groups will spill over into the mainstream."
But the greatest danger the National Alliance's diversity campaign seems to pose is to the credibility of Palestinian activist groups. After all, if the National Alliance is chanting your slogans, it becomes none too easy to claim moral authority. There was a rumor floating around among the Palestinian counter-protesters at the rally in May that an Arab speaker was planning to address the white supremacists, much as Metzger had done with the Black Panthers. The speaker didn't show, but the counter-protesters, fearful of any further link between themselves and the neo-Nazis, were infuriated -- especially in light of the CNN cameras rolling across the street. "We wanted to find that person and give them a good talking-to," says Elamine, who was far more restrained than some of his peers.
Despite their bluster, however, Palestinian groups have not been able to come up with any coherent defense against the appropriation of their message. Observers blame this on the fact that few saw the National Alliance's shift in strategy coming. "I don't think Palestinian groups were ready for this at all," says Jerry Barlow, an activist with Anti-Racist Action. "I think they were completely blindsided." As a result, white power groups, by joining a former enemy's cause, are chipping away at the credibility of the Palestinian activists -- and slowly reducing a heartfelt ideological position into just another manifestation of anti-Semitism in the public imagination.
"This has the potential to hurt Palestinian groups in the long run," says Devin Burghart of the Center for New Community, which monitors white power organizations nationwide. "The pro-Palestinian stance among white power groups confuses the issue -- it's not as clear-cut as something like the Klan coming to town. It's incumbent upon pro-Palestinian activists to clearly denounce the activities of the National Alliance, despite the fact that [members of the National Alliance] are waving their flags."
But so far, that hasn't really been happening. At the May rally, there were roughly 100 more white power protesters than counter-protesters. It was the first time, says Elamine, that "the anti-Nazis have been outnumbered by the Nazis." Thus far, there has been no high-profile event to galvanize opposition; by dispensing with the Klan imagery and softening their rhetoric, the National Alliance has made any kind of mobilization against it more difficult. Palestinian leaders, a loose coalition, are simply not doing much to defend themselves against a coherent national campaign: they speak of doing "educationals" and have set up a few angry Web sites, but all involved realize that this is a war that must be waged in the public eye.
"If the Palestinian groups show up at these rallies with 1,500 people, it's not going to matter that the neo-Nazis are waving a few Palestinian flags," Burghart says. "But the National Alliance has all the sound bites down -- they are now more versed in the catchphrases than the [Palestinian] activists are. The Palestinians have to show people that just because the National Alliance is waving their flags, it doesn't mean they share the same message."
If they can't, the Palestinian groups may soon find that their new, unwanted friends have done more damage than any enemy ever could. And it would mean that a Pierce-less National Alliance is managing to have some small relevance after all, even if it isn't the type they were hoping for.