The Southern Poverty Law Center in 2008 began issuing reports about members of white supremacist groups joining the military in large numbers. The FBI in 2006 issued a heavily redacted report warning of systematic infiltration of law enforcement organizations by white supremacists.
More than a decade on, what results have those infiltration efforts gleaned and how do neo-Nazi groups talk about their relations with the military and police officers?
A recently leaked trove of internal communications provides a window into the thinking of members of the modern “alt-right” white supremacist movement. The educational nonprofit media organization Unicorn Riot obtained access to tens of thousands of messages passed among hundreds of white supremacists on chat servers used to plan the August 12 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a white supremacist allegedly killed a counter protester, Heather Heyer.
Chat server user Erwin Frey claimed to have spent years preparing to enlist in the Navy before being turned away due to a nut allergy, but said in a post that he is now seeking a job as a police officer.
“Be me in my Criminal investigation class. We’re doing introductions and it gets to me. They ask me what kind of police officer I wanted to be and I responded with ‘Riot Police Officer,'” Frey wrote on the chat board. “They asked why and I instantly responded with ‘I like curb stomping protestors who cause a riot.’ I think the professor likes me.”
During one online conversation about what encounters with police in Charlottesville might be like, some white supremacist planners expressed dissenting views, but the consensus seemed to be that they could expect some level of support from law enforcements. One user called Stannisthemannis said the Virginia State Police “will be focused on antifa [anti-fascists] not us … especially if we kiss some ass with a few blue lives matter chants …. Be nice to cops and they will be nice to you.”
“Random Reminder: Cops of all races are our natural allies; we should keep it that way,” wrote another user known as Uilliam Cionnaoith – MD.
“I have several cops in my family,” Stannisthemannis wrote, “most white cops are sympathetic to us.” The online chat board user added “I’m not too worried about the cops as long as we act like whites …. Get to know more cops [in real life] No one hates niggers more than white cops.”
Archive searches for references to “police,” “cops,” “law enforcement” and similar references to uniformed authority figures revealed the gist of that conversation. While a few users disliked or mistrusted police officers, most expressed belief that many members of the police and military are on the side of white supremacy.
“Also of note is that most police and military picked that career because they wanted to aid their communities or country,” wrote a user named rflagg SC. “That’s the foundation of a collectivist fascist mindset.”
“I know so many military fascists,” Nathan TX wrote. “And many that are joining.”
In the early 2000s, some white supremacist leaders exhorted their followers to abandon the cliches of the skinhead lifestyle in order to infiltrate the worlds of business, government, and the military. Christian Picciolini, a former neo-Nazi skinhead leader from Chicago who has since renounced white supremacism, said the strategy of infiltration has worked.
“I do know very many people from the organization that I used to lead 30 years ago, the neo-Nazi group, that actually did go on to become police officers in Chicago,” Piccioloni said in a radio interview with Democracy Now. “Probation officers, prison guards, and, you know, infiltrate that way, and especially the military. Many went into the military.”
Dillon Ulysses Hopper, the leader of white supremacist group Vanguard America, is a former Marine Corp recruiter. Members of Vanguard America played a prominent role in the August 12 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville. James Alex Fields Jr., who is awaiting trial on a charge of first-degree murder after allegedly driving a car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing Heyer, was dressed as a Vanguard America member and carried a shield with their logo while in line with other members.
Fields enlisted in the Army in August 2015 but was sent home that December due to his failure to meet training standards.
Picciolini said that the doors between uniformed services and white supremacists go both ways. Non-radical police officers and military personnel are common targets for white supremacist recruiters.
“Police officers and law enforcement officers and military people are constantly, every day, in difficult situations,” Picciolini says. “And over time, people become jaded, especially after you’ve … worked in crime-ridden neighborhoods for 20 years, and you’ve had to deal with sometimes the worst of the worst people. Well, recruiters know this. Recruiters know that they become jaded, and they become prejudiced towards these people.”
The Department of Homeland Security in 2009 issued a report on the threat of right-wing extremists infiltrating the military. “Right wing extremists have capitalized on the election of the first African-American president, and are focusing their efforts to recruit new members, mobilize existing supporters, and broaden their scope and appeal through propaganda,” the report said, “but they have not yet turned to attack planning.”
A month after the report was released, a flurry of angry responses from conservative politicians and pundits resulted in then-Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano pulling the report from the DHS website.
The U.S. military is aware of the efforts that white supremacists have made to infiltrate and recruit from their ranks. They have taken some steps to combat the problem. Recruits with racist tattoos or obvious connections to white supremacist groups are rejected. But military officers and recruiters cannot read minds. The clean-cut, khaki-wearing racists of today are harder to identify than the skinheads of the 1980s.
That change in image and culture from swastika tattoos to polo shirts was in part due to the success of online radicalization of young men through the internet rather than among skinhead street gangs. Hordes of young racists came to white supremacy via memes and 4chan posts rather than through white power hardcore concerts. There was also a deliberate decision by white supremacist leaders to shed their old images to disguise themselves.
“We decided at that point, 30 years ago, that we were not going to shave our heads,” Picciolini said. “We were going to trade in our boots for suits. We were going to go enroll in college and recruit on campuses. We would get jobs in law enforcement, go into the military to get training and to be able to recruit there, and then even run for office. And here we are 30 years later with that dream—or that nightmare—realized.”