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Radical Right Uses ‘In Your Face’ Tactics to Gain Political Traction

Hate groups get around lack of news coverage with wild publicity stunts.

Forty-five years ago, George Lincoln Rockwell had a problem. Thanks mainly to the efforts of Jewish groups to dissuade coverage, most newspapers simply would not give Rockwell's fledgling American Nazi Party any attention. So the commander came up with a solution: Impossible-to-ignore publicity stunts, from spotlit Nazi headquarters outside Washington, D.C., to rallies on the Washington Mall in full Nazi regalia, to a "hate bus" tour meant to parody then-active Freedom Riders.

A little over 15 years later, in 1977 and 1978, officials in Chicago tried to silence a descendant of Rockwell's group known as the National Socialist Party of America by refusing to allow a march in a South Side neighborhood. So the NSPA opted instead to parade through nearby Skokie, where tens of thousands of Holocaust survivors and their relatives lived. In the end, they never marched, but court battles over the proposed demonstration ensured massive publicity for the tiny group.

These tactics worked. But when men like David Duke began to try to bring radical-right ideas into the mainstream, they were shelved by many. Instead, Duke and others swapped their Klan robes and Nazi uniforms for suits and ties in a bid for high political office in the 1980s. Duke, alone among them, very nearly succeeded.

But they didn't win, and today Duke and his ilk are farther from real power than ever -- even if many of their ideas have made it into relatively mainstream venues. As a result, a growing number of radical-right groups are adopting the tried-and-true techniques of outrage -- aggressive, in-your-face publicity stunts.

In October, the National Socialist Movement capped a rags-to-riches rise to prominence with a planned march against black crime through a racially mixed, low-income neighborhood in Toledo, Ohio. Even though worried police halted the march before it began, the neo-Nazis sparked a riot that ended with the arrests of more than 120 people and the destruction of several buildings. It could hardly have gone better for the NSM, which was featured that night on almost every newscast in America.

In February, the NSM went for a repeat performance, marching through a black neighborhood in Orlando, Fla. This time, thanks partly to police preparedness, there were only 17 arrests. Still, the NSM once again won national attention.

The NSM is not alone. Since June, the infamous Westboro Baptist Church, proprietor of the "God Hates Fags" Web site, has picketed soldiers' funerals while "thanking God" for their deaths -- deaths it claims are God punishing America for being "fag-enabling." A group called White Revolution offered a reward for people who legally shot black looters after Hurricane Katrina. Anti-immigration zealots are forcing cities to provide expensive police protection for their many rallies -- a policy one leader says will punish unfriendly venues with "transference of pain." Neo-Nazis are invading rock concerts shouting "White power!" Last spring, a plane over the Indianapolis 500 towed a neo-Nazi banner. Last winter, a racist music label tried to distribute 100,000 free CDs to students in middle and high schools.

Once again, these tactics are working. At a time when much of the radical right is in disarray, belligerent publicity stunts have driven key groups forward. The NSM, a once-tiny outfit that now heads the neo-Nazi pack, is a case in point.

That may partly account for the continued growth of hate groups in America. In this issue, the Intelligence Report details the rise from 762 groups in 2004 to 803 groups last year. Over the last five years, the growth has been steady and substantial -- a rise of 33% from 602 groups in 2000 to the 803 groups operating in 2005.

It's hard to say whether the in-your-face tactics increasingly employed by the radical right will continue to propel its growth. What is clear is that these tactics are seen as increasingly useful. As Rockwell wrote in the 1960s: "When I was in the advertising game, we used to use nude women. Now I use the Hakenkreuz [swastika] and storm troopers. You use what brings them in."