Hatewatch

Stung by Racism Charges, Nativist Leader Pulls Out of Rallies

William Gheen, the obstreperous head of the nativist group Americans for Legal Immigration PAC, or ALIPAC, has pulled his group out of all June Arizona rallies backing that state’s controversial new illegal immigration law. Gheen said he is doing so because former Colorado Republican congressman Tom Tancredo, one of the country’s most hard-line opponents of illegal immigration, is supporting one event in which racist skinheads and neo-Nazis may be involved.

That rally, scheduled for June 5 in Phoenix, is being organized by Dan Smeriglio, founder of Voice of the People USA, an anti-illegal immigration group based in Pennsylvania. Gheen says it could hurt, not help, the efforts of those supporting SB 1070, the bill signed last month by Gov. Jan Brewer giving police wide latitude to detain anybody they think may be in the country illegally and making failure of non-citizens to carry immigration documents a crime. Critics say the law will subject Latinos, whether citizens or not, to racial profiling and police harassment in a state whose population is 30% Hispanic. President Obama, among others, has criticized the law, and a number of cities around the country have voted to protest it by halting business travel to Arizona and banning contracts with businesses there.

Gheen supports the law and initially favored the June 5 rally. But he notified supporters on Tuesday that ALIPAC won’t be attending or promoting any rallies scheduled next month in Arizona to support SB 1070. “We will have no future dealings with Dan Smeriglio or retired Congressman Tom Tancredo due to the neo-Nazi connections and this disaster they have cooked up in Arizona that puts our issue at risk,” Gheen wrote.

Gheen became concerned after a Philadelphia-based anti-hate group called One People’s Project criticized ALIPAC for associating with Smeriglio, who it said was working with racist skinheads. Gheen checked and concluded that was true. He learned, for example, that among the “friends” that Smeriglio listed on his Facebook page was Steve Smith, a regional coordinator of Keystone United, a Pennsylvania racist skinhead group with several chapters. Smith’s Facebook page also indicated he’s a fan of a Swedish white nationalist singer named Saga, whose ditties have included “Goodbye, David Lane.” Lane, a convicted terrorist who died in 2007 while serving a 190-year prison sentence, remains one of the most revered figures in the white nationalist movement. He came up with the famous “14 Words” slogan: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for White children.”

Smeriglio, 27, lives outside Hazleton, Penn., where he organized an anti-illegal immigration rally six weeks after Mexican immigrant Luis Ramirez was murdered there in 2008. Last November, his Voice of the People USA organized a Tea Party Rally Against Amnesty in Hazleton, a city that has been racially divided since passing harsh anti-immigrant ordinances. Keystone United’s website says that some of its members attended the rally, and Smith appears to have been a prominent participant at the event, bellowing through a bullhorn at passing motorists.

Adding to Gheen’s dismay: Smeriglio claimed he had obtained a permit for the June 5 Phoenix rally, but in fact did not, Gheen says. Somebody did, however — a group protesting SB 1070. The same bizarre scenario unfolded at another, unrelated anti-immigration rally last year in Washington, D.C., Gheen says.

Gheen maintains that he tried to steer people away from the Smeriglio rally in Phoenix by urging anti-illegal immigration leaders to attend a different rally one week later. But he was thwarted, he says, by Tancredo, who urged those same leaders to stick with the June 5 event, even though he had been informed of Smeriglio’s connections. “We do not feel comfortable asking our national network to travel into Arizona at great expense to attend an event that Tom Tancredo is attempting to undermine,” Gheen wrote to his supporters. In a follow-up E-mail on Wednesday, Gheen warned that Tancredo is “making a huge mistake” and “a terrible mistake.”

Tancredo’s incendiary racial attitudes are no secret. He told a Tea Party convention audience in Nashville last February: “People who could not spell the word ‘vote’ or say it in English put a committed socialist ideologue in the White House — name is Barack Obama.” He complained that Obama was elected because “we do not have a civics, literacy test before people can vote in this country.” As was widely noted after his remarks were published, Southern states used literacy tests as a means of preventing blacks from voting prior to the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Tancredo did not respond to an E-mail asking for comment on the dust-up with Gheen. Smeriglio could not be located for comment.

The rift between Gheen and Tancredo and Smeriglio is the latest in a series of fratricidal battles among leaders in the nativist movement, especially since the arrest of Minuteman American Defense leader Shawna Forde and two confederates last year on charges of shooting and killing a Latino man and his 9-year-old daughter in Arizona. And it came less than six months after Gheen dropped his support of a possible presidential run by talk radio host Lou Dobbs after the former CNN personality moderated his immigrant-bashing too much for Gheen’s taste. The offending moment came when Dobbs went on a Spanish-language television network and said that “we need the ability to legalize illegal immigrants under certain conditions.” Last month, Dobbs struck back after Gheen made the sexual orientation of South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham an issue. With Gheen on his show, Dobbs urged him to “dump the hate from your heart.”

Nor is the Gheen-Tancredo-Smeriglio imbroglio the first time one nativist leader has leveled charges of racism at another. Last December, Jim Gilchrist, head of the Minuteman Project, one of the first large nativist extremist groups to form in the last few years, said in an E-mail that Gheen and two other anti-immigration leaders — Jeff Schwilk and Chelene Nightingale — are “incurable racists who limit activist participation to only white persons, bigots.” Presumably, it was this kind of criticism that drove Gheen to distance ALIPAC from Smeriglio and company.

And so the fight goes on for anti-illegal immigration activists — with counter-demonstrators, with politicians and with each other.

THURSDAY AFTERNOON UPDATE:

Tom Tancredo has released a statement saying allegations about Smeriglio’s purported ties to racist skinheads “are not only without merit, they are the worst kind of character assassination that no decent person in politics, left, right or center, should condone.” He said he’s confident that people won’t be deterred from showing their support for Arizona residents and for Arizona state Sen. Russell Pearce, the originator of SB 1070. Pearce, it should be noted, appeared side by side in a 2007 photograph with J.T. Ready, a white supremacist who has attended at least one neo-Nazi rally. Pearce said he was unaware of Ready’s background.