Demonstrators attend a counter protest rally, organized by the NAACP, in response of a planned Klu Klux Klan rally to be held nearby May 20, 2017 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images)

How a Small City in Pennsylvania Became A White Nationalist Target

Energized by Trump, outright white supremacists are moving from the fringes into active roles in local Pennsylvania politics.

BY Michael Deibert

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"Lancaster's battle for its soul is a common one in America."

One night this past October in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, a lovely old city of around 60,000 about 90 minutes west of Philadelphia, a handful of protesters strode to the middle of the nearly-deserted Penn Square and unfurled a banner next to a memorial to U.S. soldiers who died fighting the forces of fascism and racial supremacy.

“Import the third world, become the third world,” it read.

After the small group chanted “You will not replace us,” a speaker declaimed into the night that “everyone loves Lancaster,” before inveighing against the place, assailing the city’s welcoming attitude towards refugees—the town takes in up to 20 times more refugees per capita than the rest of the US—and accusing it of allowing “Syrian invaders” into the United States.

In a subsequent video Tweet of the protest—backed by amateurish synthesizer music and with the face of one participant strategically blurred—Identity Evropa, the group that said it was behind the banner-unfurling, claimed that it was protesting “immigration and the demographic displacement of White Americans.”

Of the two self-described leaders of the street theater, the Twitter profile of one, Evan McLaren, notes that he works as the executive director of white supremacist Richard Spencer’s National Policy Institute. The other, William Clark, is a self-identified Identity Evropa member.

Pennsylvania targeted by white supremacist resurgence

Cited as a racist white supremacist organization by both the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), Identity Evropa was founded in California by Nathan Damigo, a former Marine who received an Other Than Honorable (OTH) discharge from the corps after robbing a California cab driver at gunpoint because he believed the man “looked” Iraqi.

Damigo served five years in prison, and after his release cycled through several iterations of different white supremacist organizations (including one affiliated with the extremist American Freedom Party) before founding Identity Evropa in 2016. He later gained notoriety when a video of him punching a 95-pound left-wing female protester in Berkeley, Calif. earlier this year went viral.

Damigo resigned from his leadership position this past August, replaced at the helm by Elliott Kline, a resident of the nearby city of Reading, whose public moniker, Eli Mosley, is a nod to British Union of Fascists leader Oswald Mosley.

The group’s modus operandi—what it refers to as “Project Siege”—is to post provocative flyers around college campuses to attempt to draw attention to its cause.

This past autumn, in advance of their appearance in Lancaster, stickers and posters promoting Identity Evropa were found plastered around the county’s Elizabethtown College and Millersville University. Elizabethtown College president Carl J. Strikwerda released a statement saying that the institution “strongly condemns the placement of the stickers and posters as well as Identity Evropa's purpose and philosophy…[And] as a community, affirms the values of peace, non-violence, human dignity and social justice for all.”

Likewise, Lancaster city officials have made their distaste for the group clear.

“White supremacy has no place in Lancaster,” said Lancaster mayor Danene Sorace. “The idea that the color of one’s skin is a justification for supremacy of any kind is absurd and has been proven false repeatedly.”

Trump paving the way for the far Right

Energized by the candidacy and election of Donald Trump—who hailed “very fine people” after a white supremacist melee roiled Charlottesville, Va. and resulted in the death of Heather Heyer in August—political currents of varying shades of white nationalism, white supremacy and neo-Nazism have come into the public eye as at no time in decades.

As if to make their admiration for the president clear, protesters in Charlottesville, some wearing Trump's signature red “Making America Great Again” hats, chanted “Jews Will Not Replace Us” and “Blood and Soil,” the latter a translation of the German nationalist slogan Blut und Boden and popularized by the Nazis during their rise to power, as they marched. At a protest in Washington, D.C. against an extension of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) immigration policy last year, Identity Evropa’s Kline told attendees through a megaphone that “Donald Trump made us, white Americans, feel that we were the Dreamers … Donald Trump won because of us, because of our movement.”

The reemergence of the far right is a phenomenon for which Pennsylvania, a state far from the deep south but from time to time susceptible to extremist politics, could be seen as something of a harbinger.

According to an August 2017 report by the SPLC, Pennsylvania ranks sixth in the nation in terms of active hate groups, with 40 different organizations calling the state home.

“There's no question that hate groups in general were very empowered by the Trump campaign and are making the leap from the internet to the real world,” said Heidi Beirich, the director of the SPLC's Intelligence Project.

A historic struggle with racism

In Pennsylvania, however, a legacy of violent racism is nothing new, despite the state's history as a linchpin of the Union during the 1861-65 Civil War and as the location of the pivotal Union victory over the Confederacy at Gettysburg, the largest battle ever fought in North America.

The state's long, percolating history of racist violence stretches back at least until the mid-1700s, when a group of Scotch-Irish frontiersmen who had settled along the Susquehanna River became known as the Paxton Boys (named after a settlement in present-day Dauphin County) and conducted a spate of racially-motivated violence in the south-central and eastern portions of Pennsylvania.

On Dec. 14 1763, in a naked land grab, the gang murdered six members of the Susquehannock tribe (known as Conestoga among English-speakers) and burned their cabins for good measure.

When 16 of the remaining Susquehannock were placed in protective custody in the old city jail in Lancaster (just next to the site of the present-day Fulton Opera House), on 27 December, the Paxton Boys broke into the jail and killed, scalped and dismembered the six adults and eight children who sheltered there.

Despite Lancaster County's prominent role as the political base of the fierce abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, who represented the region in the U.S. Congress for most of the era between 1849 to 1868, the years following the Civil War saw a strata of Pennsylvania society show another face to the world.

In the first half of the 20th century, as documented in the historian Philip Jenkins' book Hoods and Shirts: The Extreme Right in Pennsylvania, dozens of white supremacist groups studded the state's political landscape. By 1925, the Ku Klux Klan claimed that it had about 250,000 members statewide and the anti-semitic radio preacher Charles Coughlin commanded a large following.

More recently, the former Democratic mayor of York, Charlie Robertson—in office from 1994 to 2002—was acquitted by an all-white jury after being charged along with 9 others for the murder of African-American Lillie Belle Allen during a race riot that rocked the city in July 1969.

Some of the seven who pleaded guilty or no-contest to the murder said they had received ammunition from Robertson, then a York city police officer, and that he had urged them to kill African-Americans while screaming “white power!” (the latter charge Roberston admitted). Robertson never issued a public apology to the Allen family.

Racist rhetoric making political inroads

In recent years, outright white supremacists have moved from the fringes into active roles in local Pennsylvania politics.

In November 2016, Steve Smith—who co-founded the white-supremacist skinhead group Keystone United in 2001—was reelected to the Republican Party committee for Luzerne County, of which Wilkes-Barre is the county seat. Smith quickly shared news of his victory on Stormfront, the largest white supremacist forum.

Smith is a former member of the neo-Nazi Aryan Nations, formed by white supremacist Richard Girnt Butler in the 1970s, and of the National Association for the Advancement of White People, the latter founded by former Knights of the Ku Klux Klan leader (and convicted felon) David Duke. Keystone United’s website cites its goal as “uniting all racially aware skinheads in the state of Pennsylvania” and boasts of “standing shoulder to shoulder … in defense of other White Nationalists.”

Such inroads hardly take place in a vacuum.

“There have been reports of incidents in schools after the presidential election, as well as other hate incidents such as the desecration of the Jewish cemetery in Philadelphia, the bomb threats in the Jewish community centers and threats to Muslim communities,” said Christina Reese, press secretary for the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (PHRC), which is tasked with enforcing state law that prohibits discrimination in employment, housing, commercial property, education and public accommodations. “Muslim communities across the state have been intimidated and a number of schools across the state have experiences racial tension incidents.”

In August, police found swastikas and racial epithets spray-painted throughout Chester County, while in May of last year, the East Coast Knights of the True Invisible Empire of the Ku Klux Klan claimed to have held a cross lighting ceremony on a southern Lancaster County property. A counter-demonstration in Lancaster city attracted several hundred people. 

Nor has the whiff of white supremacy been confined to the political margins.

U.S. Representative Lou Barletta, (R-Hazleton), an avowed Trump supporter, serves on the national board of advisors of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), which the SPLC has designated a hate group due to its links with the far-right Belgian political party Vlaams Blok (since renamed Vlaams Belang after a Belgian court found it racist and effectively disbanded it). Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who chaired what Trump had dubbed an “election integrity” commission and who has made often-unsubstantiated claims regarding voter fraud, has served as an attorney for the Immigration Reform Law Institute. FAIR's legal arm.

FAIR's founder, John Tanton, has openly embraced eugenics and promoted the idea of the the sterilization of genetically “undesirable” groups (Tanton remains listed on FAIR's National Board of Advisers).

Barletta is currently challenging Pennsylvania's Democratic Senator Bob Casey for the latter's senate seat in the 2018 elections.

Last year, Barletta introduced H.R.83 the “Mobilizing Against Sanctuary Cities Act,” in which he advocated stripping all federal funding from so-called sanctuary cities (including Philadelphia), that is, as cities that limit their cooperation with the federal government on what they view as unjust immigration laws.

Barletta denies harboring racist views.

“Groups fueled by hatred or a false and repugnant sense of racial supremacy have no place in American society, and I strongly condemn them,” Barletta asserted via email.

“FAIR, which is a non-partisan organization with over 1.3 million diverse members, also condemns any individual or group that engages in hateful or violent behavior.  I am proud to be on the Advisory Board for an organization that seeks to fix our nation's broken immigration system to help improve our nation's security, economy, workforce, healthcare, and environment.”

In August, state Sen. Scott Wagner, who represents part of York County, was recorded disparaging the businessman and philanthropist George Soros as a “Hungarian Jew” who harbored “a hatred for America.” Wagner is running to become the Republican challenger to Pennsylvania's incumbent Democratic Governor Tom Wolf.

Wagner did not respond to requests for comment, but previously expressed no remorse at the remarks and complained about not understanding why “everybody's getting their knickers around their ankles over this.”

Though Lancaster city itself has grown increasingly diverse—as of 2010 its demographics hovered around 55.2 percent white, 39.3 percent Latino and 16.3 percent African-American—it's not hard to find the occasional Confederate flag in the more rural parts of the county. And both the county and state as a whole remain in a struggle to come to terms with the both their past and present when it comes to race. It was a struggle that was present before those few Identity Evropa members strode into Penn Square one cool October night.

It is a struggle that echoes the one of the nation at large.

“Lancaster's battle for its soul is a common one in America,” said Kevin Ressler, the co-founder of the Lancaster Action Now Coalition, which describes itself as protecting and empowering marginalized, oppressed and targeted communities.

“Why on Earth would people fly Confederate flags in Lancaster?” Ressler posed. “It isn't their heritage or their history, unless they see their heritage as white and inherently superior. Our community is really good at gathering in the streets responsively to tragedy in other communities and while this is one of the most important first steps, there must be more steps. Lancaster feels, always, a place at battle with two distinct identities.”

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Michael Deibert is an author and journalist whose work has appeared in the Guardian, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Miami Herald, Le Monde diplomatique, Folha de Sao Paulo and the World Policy Journal, among other venues. He has been a featured commentator on international affairs on the BBC, Al Jazeera, Channel 4, France 24, National Public Radio, WNYC New York Public Radio and KPFK Pacifica Radio. He is the author of Haiti Will Not Perish: A Recent History (Zed Books, 2017), In the Shadow of Saint Death: The Gulf Cartel and the Price of America's Drug War in Mexico (Lyons Press, 2014), The Democratic Republic of Congo: Between Hope and Despair (Zed Books, 2013) and Notes from the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti (Seven Stories Press, 2005). Follow him on Twitter at @michaelcdeibert.

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