Presidential election prompts an explosion of racist threats against Obama — including one sent to this newspaper
By Joe Piasecki 12/04/2008
The letter was delivered on a slow Friday in August. Like some sort of fictional ransom note in a Hollywood film caper, it appeared to have been crudely generated on a photocopier with lettering done in block caps. The envelope bore a fake name and return address.
But this was serious, disturbing stuff. The words at the top of the page read “THE ASSASSINATION OF BARACK HUSSEIN OBAMA,” and whoever sent it to this newspaper took the time to paint blood-red bullet holes onto the chest and forehead of a photograph of him.
Sharp, angry pen strokes and similarities in writing style appeared to connect the letter to an earlier one (also using a fake return address) that denigrated Michelle Obama and this reporter’s coverage of her summer fund-raising visit to Pasadena.
Reporters immediately took both letters to the Pasadena Police Department, which turned them over to the Secret Service to investigate. The Secret Service has not shared any information about their findings, and a spokesman reached last week would not detail how many Obama-related investigations were ongoing, saying only that all threats are investigated.
Considering the eruption of hundreds of racially motivated hate incidents nationwide since Election Day — from cross burnings to nooses hanging from trees to Obama assassination betting pools to incidents of actual physical violence — and a spike in activity among white supremacist groups, the Secret Service must be very busy.
“There’s no question that we’ve seen a rise in the number of hate incidents in the wake of the Obama election. We’ve seen some nasty hate crimes: an attack by white teens in Staten Island, New York, on a black youth the night of the election — they were wielding a baseball bat and screaming ‘Obama’; there was a black church burnt to the ground in Massachusetts; a cross burned in the front yard of a family in New Jersey,” said Heidi Beirich, a researcher with the Southern Poverty Law Center.
While most recent race-related incidents have not been tied directly to organized white supremacist and skinhead groups — several of which are based in Southern California — there has been an increase in organized racist activity surrounding the election, said Marilyn Mayo, co-director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism.
“We’ve already seen more activity around white supremacist groups. They feel they can make inroads into the white population like they haven’t before,” said Mayo. “There have been a number of extremists who have been careful not to make a direct threat against Obama, but say they hope someone kills him.”
White supremacist organizers may incite hate, but rarely carry out violent activities — leaving the dirty work to lone-wolf extremists with whom those views resonate, explained Rick Eaton, a senior researcher for the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. “What happens is you get these individuals who may have some association with organized groups or may have just looked at their Web sites combining some of that processed hate with their dislike for the president-elect, thinking ‘I’m going to make a statement,’” he said.
One case in point: On the eve of the election, federal officials uncovered a plot in Tennessee by two young men on the fringes of the white supremacist movement to go on a race-related killing spree that included Obama as a target. They had hoped to kill 88 people — a number symbolic to the white power movement (the eighth letter of the alphabet is H, and two Hs abbreviate Heil Hitler).
Closer to home, the Los Angeles Times mailroom on Oct. 10 opened a letter that read “Death to Obama” and contained a white powdery substance that turned out to be harmless, according to the media blog LAObserved.com. Earlier that week, an Obama campaign office in Palms was evacuated, due to another suspicious envelope that prompted a visit by the bomb squad.
Since Election Day, the Chicago Tribune has counted more than 200 hate-related incidents — nearly all of them by individuals who were not involved in organized hate groups — and the journalism industry magazine Editor & Publisher has also been compiling reports, adding reader accounts to its growing list.
One such story came from an Iowa high school student, who said one of her classmates was suspended for saying, “Well, it’s called the White House for a reason. We need to get that Goddamn nigger out of there.” The girl was concerned that no action was taken regarding other children who discussed how they could get a high enough vantage-point to shoot Obama.
Other incidents detailed by E&P include the spray-painting of swastikas on a Michigan Democratic clubhouse and an extended discussion by high school students in Sarah Palin’s hometown of Wasilla, Alaska, about whether Obama should be assassinated.
There have been no reports of hate-related incidents in Pasadena or the Pasadena Unified School District, according to the Pasadena Police Department, and spokesmen for the Los Angeles County Sherriff’s Department and LAPD report no hate-related incidents since the election.
Over the weekend following the election, however, vandals in Torrance spray-painted racial slurs on Obama supporters’ homes and cars, according to police reports.
But the bulk of organized racist Obama backlash, however, has been taking place on the Internet. Anonymous posters to both white supremacist chat rooms and mainstream news Web site comment sections have increased attacks on black and Jewish Americans in general and Obama in particular, said the ADL’s Mayo.
The international white supremacist Internet chat room stormfront.org features dozens of anonymous users who claim to be from Southern California, including at least one claiming to live in Pasadena (using the handle Aryan_Pride_88) and two in Glendale.
In June, the Weekly reported that the Topix service, which allows readers to respond online to stories in papers such as the Pasadena Star-News and the Daily News of Los Angeles, was plagued by users promoting hate speech.
“Anyone has the ability to make comments, and white supremacists are going to take advantage of that. There was a report on the financial crisis, and a Yahoo! finance [chat] group became a forum for anti-Semites to express their views that Jews were behind the financial crisis. Yahoo! was responsive, but comments were being posted faster than they could delete them,” said Mayo.
Trying to get the message out anywhere possible is a strategy that, ironically for those who express hate for non-whites, parallels al-Qaeda’s call for members to commit this sort of electronic jihad, said Eaton.
The Anti-Defamation League’s Racist Skinheads Project has identified more than two-dozen white supremacist, neo-Nazi or skinhead groups in California, but most organized Southern California hate group activity takes place outside Los Angeles in Orange, Ventura, Riverside and San Bernardino counties. However, a few small groups are organizing in the San Fernando Valley.
A report earlier this year by the LA County Human Relations Commission found that 17 percent of all 2007 LA County hate crimes — 131 of them — showed evidence of white supremacist ideology.
However, the vast majority of those hate crimes were committed by the type of lone wolf Eaton describes, individuals who buy into hateful ideologies but are not known to have strong hate-group connections.
“Is there going to be a serious increase in hate group activity in this area? I don’t think that’s necessarily the case,” said Eaton, who has worked for the Simon Wiesenthal Center for more than two decades, both monitoring groups on the Web and sometimes infiltrating their membership.
“The lone wolf philosophy has been promoted by the white supremacist movement for more than a decade now,” said Eaton. “That’s the danger. Whatever they do, they will plan their attacks privately, in secret.”