This story originally published Aug. 20, 2017. Avowed neo-Nazi James A. Fields Jr. of Ohio is now serving a life sentence after being convicted in 2018 at age 21 of first-degree murder and multiple counts of malicious wounding after driving his car into a group of counter-protesters at the Unite the Right white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va. on August 12, 2017. He killed Heather Heyer, 32, and wounded 35 others.
The national leader of a Ku Klux Klan group active in the Dayton area said he is glad anti-racist counter-protester Heather Heyer was killed and others injured when an Ohio man allegedly drove his car into them at a Charlottesville, Va., rally of right-wing groups on Saturday.
“Hail victory,” said Chris Barker, imperial wizard of the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. “Because even though he done it by accident, he was still on the white side and he accidentally hit a bunch of anti-fascists. So to me anytime an anti-fascist dies, that’s a point in my book. I’m happy about it.”
Comments like these are one of the reasons the Southern Poverty Law Center identifies organizations like Barker’s as a “hate group,” and says they pose a danger to society.
But many of the groups — including Barker’s — reject the “hate group” label and say they are out to right the world’s wrongs.
“We’re not a hate group,” Barker said. “We’re more of a civil rights organization now.”
Last weekend’s violence has shined a spotlight on the various white supremacist, Nazi and white nationalist groups that came to Charlottesville to participate in the Unite the Right rally.
But it’s also raised questions about how impactful these groups are, and whether future gatherings will lead to further clashes that endanger civilians.
White supremacists, white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and citizen militias — some heavily armed — held signs and chanted white power, pro-Nazi and anti-Jewish slogans during the rally. Anti-racist counter-protesters included church leaders, left wing groups and black-garbed anti-fascists and anarchists known as Antifa.
President Donald Trump came under withering bipartisan criticism for saying both sides were to blame for the violence.
Numerous clashes erupted and a state of emergency was declared after a Dodge Charger, allegedly driven by James Alex Fields, 20, crashed into a group of people and another car at high speed. Many had their backs turned at the point of impact, which was captured by videos and photographs, stunning the world.
In addition to Heyer, 32, of Charlottesville, two Virginia troopers died when the helicopter they were in crashed as they patrolled during the unrest.
According to the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors extremist groups, 917 “hate groups” operate in America, including 34 that have an Ohio presence.
Fields, who is from Maumee, Ohio, is alleged to have ties to white nationalists. He was earlier photographed at the Charlottesville rally holding a black shield with the logo of the Vanguard America, a white supremacist group that has denied he was a member.
Fields is charged with second-degree murder and is being held without bond.
Barker, whose KKK group is based in Pelham, N.C., said he believes Fields was just defending himself when his car struck the group of counter protesters on a Charlottesville street.
“I think the young guy just panicked and he just hit the gas,” said Barker. “A Dodge Charger, those things accelerate very fast and once you accelerate it you can’t slow it down. It ain’t no stop-on-a-dime-type car.”
Hate groups operate in Ohio
The SPLC defines the groups on its list as all having “beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics.”
The SPLC list was compiled using hate group publications and websites, citizen and law enforcement reports, field sources and news reports, according to information on the group’s website. “Locally identified groups are tracked where members participate in hate group activities which can include criminal acts, marches, rallies, speeches, meetings, leafleting or publishing,” the group says.
Some of these groups have a long history in Ohio. The KKK made Ohio and Indiana strongholds in the 1920, and more recently Ohio became home to newer groups like the Aryan Nation and The Daily Stormer, a Worthington-based neo-Nazi website that was booted off the Go Daddy domain after it published a slur-filled story attacking Heyer.
“Ohio has seen quite a bit of extremist activity over the years,” said Art Jipson, a University of Dayton associate professor of sociology and criminal justice who has studied extremist groups. “Some of it is just history, the historical basis of these groups has been here for a very long time.”
Jipson and his colleague Tom Hagel, professor of law emeritus at UD, said right-wing extremist groups capitalize on economic dislocation, fear of change and white fears that non-whites will get their jobs.
“It’s an ideology that appeals to the notion of glorious nostalgia, the good old days, usually seen through an incorrect lens of the 1950s,” Jipson said.
But although the SPLC list is dominated by right-wing groups — including white supremacist, white nationalists, neo-Nazi, racist skinhead and anti-Muslim groups — it also includes black separatist groups like the New Black Panthers and Nation of Islam, both with Dayton operations.
“I think it’s a misrepresentation of what the New Black Panther party is really all about,” Donald Domineck, area representative of the group, said in an interview. “We give away food. We give away shoes. We have a community cleanup. We give away turkeys at Thanksgiving. We have a big Christmas program….We do AIDS outreach.”
Aaron Baer, president of Cincinnati-based Citizens for Community Values, also objected to his group being included on the list. The CCV, which has fought against gay marriage, is “a Christian organization,” said Baer.
“It’s absolutely insane to try to draw any lines between Christians and these racists out there marching,” Baer said. “I have to say that an anti-Semitic, KKK, Nazi rally is antithetical to the Gospel, it is antithetical to Christianity.”
Whites ‘fed up,’ KKK ‘grand dragon says
The KKK, perhaps the most recognizable group on the SPLC list, has six factions in Ohio. Barker’s “grand dragon” in Ohio is a 39-year old Hamilton man.
This news organization interviewed him, but couldn’t verify that the name he gave is his real name. He said the KKK is a Christian group trying to defend the rights of white people and that whites “are getting fed up with the way things are.”
He fears Heyer’s death will hurt the movement.
“Our cause will not be helped by what happened because people are automatically going to think we are all killers and that we all hate to that extent, when we do not,” he said. “So I think what happened is not good for recruitment to say the least. It’s a tragedy and it’s very sad that it happened, actually, but I think the person was provoked by the counter-protesters.”
Sonny Thomas, a founder of the now-defunct Springboro Tea Party, attended the rally to report on it for his podcast. He, too, said counter protesters were chiefly to blame for the violence.
“For the most part, the only time the right retaliated was every now and then they’d pick up some of the debris that was thrown at them and they’d throw it back,” Thomas said.
Hagel rejects the notion that anti-racist protesters are in any way to blame, and multiple videos appear to make that case.
The “overwhelming responsibility for all of this should be thrown at the feet of the people that showed up with torches, that showed up with Nazi flags, Confederate flags, were chanting Nazi statements…and fully armed with AK-47s,” Hagel said.
Hate crimes increasing
Jews were a verbal target by many of those who massed in Charlottesville, and there seemed to be little reluctance on the part of many to shout anti-Jewish slogans during and after the rally.
That’s becoming more commonplace, according to a local leader, who says anti-Semitism is more “out in the open.”
“We are feeling it now more than we have in the past,” said Cathy Gardner, chief executive of the Jewish Federation of Greater Dayton.
In a news release on Tuesday, David Pierce, the group’s board president, condemned “hate groups of every kind who begot the violence in Charlottesville. Their message of intolerance and bigotry must be rejected by a moral society.”
Hate crimes are on the rise in the United States and in Ohio, according to the most recent FBI statistics collected by the Ohio Office of Criminal Justice Services. Nationally, the number of hate crimes — most of them race related — went from 5,796 in 2012 to 5,850 in 2015. In Ohio, the increase was even more dramatic, rising from 257 to 416 during those three years.
Jipson fully expects the 2016 hate crime numbers will be up after a contentious political year filled with anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiments.
“A hate crime is not just a physical assault against someone,” he said. “It is an effort to erase, to annihilate, to destroy.”
U.S. Attorney Benjamin C. Glassman of Ohio’s Southern District said hate crimes are a form of domestic terrorism and pose a continuing threat that has only increased with the growth of the internet.
But while new groups have emerged, he said, some targets have never escaped law enforcement’s radar.
“One of the principal reasons for the creation of the Department of Justice as a Cabinet-level agency in 1870 was to investigate and prosecute terrorist activity by the Ku Klux Klan,” he said. “The Department will never shirk that foundational obligation.”
Note that all markers do not represent specific locations. Those that are statewide have been placed towards the center of the state for ease of understanding.