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Arrest of Neo-Nazis in Obama Assassination Plot a Reminder of Enduring White Supremacist Culture in US

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Is a potential Barack Obama presidency bringing white supremacist subculture out of the shadows? Following the arrest of two neo-Nazis for plotting to assassinate Obama, we speak to investigative journalist James Ridgeway, author of Blood in the Face: The Ku Klux Klan, Aryan Nations, Nazi Skinheads and the Rise of a New White Culture. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: A federal magistrate in Tennessee will decide today whether authorities can continue to hold two white supremacist neo-Nazis accused of plotting to kill Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama.

On Monday, police arrested twenty-year-old Daniel Cowart and eighteen-year-old Paul Schlesselman for possession of unregistered firearms, conspiring to steal firearms and making threats against a presidential candidate. Police say the men were plotting to kill 102 African American students and then assassinate Barack Obama. While police say no formal plan was ever developed, a search is on for other individuals who may been involved.

Officials told ABC News that Obama has been the target of an estimated 500 threats, most of which are not taken seriously. But in an estimated dozen or so cases, the threat was considered serious enough that law enforcement agents were assigned to track down suspects.

AMY GOODMAN: Daniel Cowart is believed to have been a member of the Supreme White Alliance. Earlier this year he was photographed at a birthday party for Adolf Hitler along with other members of the neo-Nazi group. Days before the arrests, investigative journalist Jim Ridgeway visited Columbia, Missouri and talked to Steven Boswell of the neo-Nazi group the National Socialist Movement about Barack Obama’s campaign. This is a part of what Boswell had to say.

    STEVEN BOSWELL: I hear words coming out of people’s mouths today that I never heard ten years ago, fifteen years ago.

    JAMES RIDGEWAY: Like what?

    STEVEN BOSWELL: Like “revolution,” like “assassination,” like “race war.”

    JAMES RIDGEWAY: You mean, assassination of Obama?

    STEVEN BOSWELL: Yeah. Average, normal Americans’ mouths, people who have never been involved in the movement. You hear them talking about a new American revolution. You hear them talking about that Obama will be assassinated, that there’s going to be a race war coming up, and we better get ready for it.

AMY GOODMAN: Jim Ridgeway joins us now from Cleveland, Ohio, where he’s been covering the presidential race for the Guardian newspaper as part of the paper’s “On the Road to the White House” feature. James Ridgeway has followed radical right movements in the United States for decades. He’s the author of the book Blood in the Face: The Ku Klux Klan, Aryan Nations, Nazi Skinheads and the Rise of a New White Culture, also senior Washington correspondent for Mother Jones magazine.

Jim, welcome to Democracy Now! Talk about, first, the assassination attempt, how seriously it should be taken, and this man that you interviewed named Boswell.

JAMES RIDGEWAY: Hi, Amy. Well, it’s very hard to tell exactly how serious to take these threats. The reason that it’s more — possibly more substantive than it would appear on the surface is that there were several sort of coded references to works of David Lane. David Lane was a very active member of The Order, and The Order was a violent underground gang in the ’80s. And he was sentenced to prison. He was involved in the murder of Alan Berg, a radio talk show host, and sentenced to prison for 190 years, and he died a couple of years ago.

What these coded messages were, was there was something — there was a reference to [fourteen] words, which was a sentence that he had written that says, you know, “We must secure the existence of our people [and a] future [for] white children.” That’s a seemingly banal statement. And then there was another reference to something called Eighty-Eight Precepts, and that is a reference to an essay he wrote in which he argued for a white homeland. In the ’80s, this movement sought, you know, to get everybody to go out to Idaho or to eastern Washington and set up what essentially was, you know, some sort of a white bastion. And it was there, you know, that the Aryan Nations was.

OK, so then we come to the present situation. Now, most people think that this movement is kind of like splintered or died out. But, you know, people have said that all along, and the result, when they were saying that, somebody blew up Oklahoma City. So you’ve got to take this seriously.

So, Boswell is aligned with, you know, the sort of residue of George Lincoln Rockwell’s neo-Nazi Nazi organization, which never really amounted to that much of anything in the movement, in the far-right movement. The far-right movement was more, you know, driven by various offshoots of Ku Klux Klans and the Posse Comitatus, which was somewhat active in the Middle West. So — but they always hung around the edges, the Nazis did. On the other hand, Boswell, you know, talked — when he talked to us, he talked about meeting with various people like the members of the Klan, and the Klan — Klans have been active in Missouri and for a long time, and, you know, they may be still active. So it’s unclear how serious to take all this, but the fact that these guys were into David Lane suggests to me that there might be more to this than meets the eye. But —-

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, Jim Ridgeway, what happened to David Lane and also to Robert Jay Mathews, who was another key leader of these right-wing groups back in the ’80s?

JAMES RIDGEWAY: Well, Lane was arrested in the ’80s and sentenced to jail for 190 years. He was involved in the murder of Alan Berg, the Denver talk show host. Bob Mathews, who was a leader of The Order, was hunted down by the FBI and shot and killed -— or bombed out, actually, on Whidbey Island off the coast of Washington state.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And in terms of — you mentioned the Oklahoma City bombings. For those viewers and listeners who may not have been following this years back, what’s the connection between that and The Order and these right-wing groups?

JAMES RIDGEWAY: Well, the government, you know, has always claimed that there were only three people involved in this — you know, McVeigh, Terry Nichols and Fortier — and they have, you know, pooh-poohed the idea that there was a wider conspiracy. On the other hand, any number of journalists and others who have looked into this think there was a bigger conspiracy that possibly involved, you know, the Kansas Militia, that involved a group called Elohim City, which was a sort of a polygamist Christian identity compound in the Ozarks. And the thinking was that much of the Oklahoma City plot was actually developed in these places.

Now, the reason that this is to be taken seriously is that the ATF, which arrested these two guys, was the organization, was the agency, which actually had an informant at Elohim City, and this informant reported to her superiors in the ATF that she had overheard discussions of the Oklahoma City plot and, in fact, had actually accompanied members of Elohim City to the Oklahoma City environs, where they basically scoped out this building. And even though the ATF had this information, they did absolutely nothing. And in a subsequent trial where the informant was charged with other matters, the judge — and she related all this — the judge then took the step of basically sealing the evidence, because he didn’t want it to interfere with the Oklahoma City trial of Tim McVeigh and Terry Nichols. So it’s always seemed to me and to other people that there’s plenty of grounds for reopening this investigation into Oklahoma City and take a look at the role of this far-right movement in it.

AMY GOODMAN: And then, the case that got some attention, Daniel Cowart, one of the two men arrested Friday — I’m looking at the Southern Poverty Law Center — a member of the racist skinhead group Supreme White Alliance, SWA. They had these plans, supposedly, to kill, as we said, 102 African Americans, beheading fourteen of them, then heading on to Barack Obama. The SWA main site also carries a page — this is according to the Southern Poverty Law Center — that lists as a friend Steven Edwards, the current president of SWA. Edwards is the son of Ron Edwards, who’s the Imperial Wizard or national leader of the Imperial Klans of America, IKA, based in Kentucky. As you travel around the country, do you see these groups strengthening, Jim Ridgeway?

JAMES RIDGEWAY: Well, I don’t think you see the groups so much strengthening, but what has happened is that racism in general, racial comments, you know, have come to the surface much more, you know, in greater numbers and more openly, because of the Obama candidacy. And you hear all sorts of racial slurs all over the place. So, this subject, this atmosphere, this kind of racial energy, is very much in evidence. And some of these people undoubtedly are motivated and encouraged by this, you know, that they — it’s hard to know to what extent, but they clearly come forward much more openly than they have in the recent past.

AMY GOODMAN: Where are you headed next?

JAMES RIDGEWAY: We’re headed to Pittsburgh. We’re in Cleveland right now, and we’re going to Pittsburgh, and then we’ll arrive in Washington for Election Day. And this is a project of the GuardianFilms, which is part of the Guardian newspaper. And we started out in Los Angeles, and we’ve gone across the country in two RVs, putting out stuff every day.

AMY GOODMAN: We’ll link to your website at ours at Democracy Now! Jim Ridgeway, investigative reporter and senior Washington correspondent for Mother Jones. The special series, “On the Road to the White House,” for the Guardian.

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