Neo-Nazis are on the rise in America. Nearly a month after a gunman killed 11 Jewish worshipers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, we look at the violent hate groups that helped fuel the massacre. On the same day that shooter Robert Bowers opened fire in the synagogue, a neo-Nazi named Edward Clark, with whom Bowers had been communicating online, took his own life in Washington, D.C. The man’s brother, Jeffrey Clark, has since been arrested on weapons charges. The brothers were both linked to the violent white supremacist group Atomwaffen. We speak with A.C. Thompson, correspondent for Frontline PBS and reporter for ProPublica. His investigation “Documenting Hate: New American Nazis” premieres tonight on PBS stations and online.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Nearly a month after a gunman opened fire at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, killing 11 Jewish worshipers, we spend the rest of the hour looking at the rise of neo-Nazis in America. Tonight, a new documentary airs around the country by Frontline and ProPublica reporter A.C. Thompson. It’s titled Documenting Hate: New American Nazis.
POLICE RADIO: We’re under fire. We’re under fire. He’s got an automatic weapon. He’s firing out of the front of the synagogue.
A.C. THOMPSON: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, October 27th, 2018.
POLICE RADIO: 34-10. Please send the medics up here!
POLICE RADIO: I’ve got one alive. We’re evac-ing one right now. He’s still alive.
A.C. THOMPSON: Robert Bowers storms into the Tree of Life synagogue with an AR-15 and kills 11 Jewish worshipers.
POLICE RADIO: 7-1. Suspect’s talking about: “All these Jews need to die.”
PITTSBURGH POLICE SPOKESPERSON CHRIS TOGNERI: We have multiple casualties inside the synagogue. We have three officers who have been shot.
FBI SPECIAL AGENT BOB JONES: Members of the Tree of Life synagogue, conducting a peaceful service in their place of worship, were brutally murdered by a gunman targeting them simply because of their faith.
A.C. THOMPSON: Another act of terror in America, the country again left to ask, “Where does this hate come from? Could it have been prevented?”
REPORTER: It’s just been 24 hours since Robert Bowers stormed into this synagogue and said, “I just want to kill Jews.”
A.C. THOMPSON: Over the past few years, I’ve been reporting on a resurgent white supremacist movement. I’ve seen its ideas migrate into the mainstream. I’ve seen violence in cities across the country. And now this: what looks to be the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in American history. And I fear there will be more to come.
AMY GOODMAN: Synagogue gunman Robert Bowers had a long history of openly railing against Jews and immigrants on social media sites, circulating racist memes and asserting Jews are the enemy of white people. In his posts, Bowers made specific and repeated threats against Jews, including one just before allegedly attacking the Tree of Life synagogue. He wrote, “HIAS”—he was referring to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society—”HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people”—referring to the caravan and the immigrants on the border.
On the same day that Bowers opened fire in the Pittsburgh synagogue, a neo-Nazi named Edward Clark that Bowers had been communicating with took his own life in Washington, D.C. The man’s brother, Jeffrey Clark, has since been arrested on weapons charges. The brothers were both linked to the violent white supremacist group Atomwaffen.
Well, for more, we go to Boston, where we’re joined by A.C. Thompson, correspondent for Frontline PBS, reporter for ProPublica. His investigation Documenting Hate: New American Nazis premieres tonight on PBS stations around the country and online at pbs.org/frontline.
A.C., welcome back to Democracy Now! for this second of your series. You posted that report about what happened, on the same day Bowers opened fire in Pittsburgh, in Washington, D.C. Why don’t you begin there?
A.C. THOMPSON: You know, so, this is a fascinating, fascinating aspect of this story, and disturbing, right? So, we all know what happened in Pittsburgh. We have Robert Bowers. We have a man who was spewing anti-Semitic, racist invective online. He was using the platform Gab to network with other white supremacists. He’s accused of going into the Tree of Life synagogue and killing 11 worshipers, attacking police and so forth.
The story that comes out after that is really bizarre, fascinating and disturbing. And this is the story. We have two brothers in Washington, D.C. They are part of the white nationalist scene, and they start out sort of hanging out with Richard Spencer and that crew, and they gravitate more and more and more to the full Nazi fringe. They get involved with Vanguard America, which is one of the groups that marched in Charlottesville, one of the groups tied to the murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville.
And then, what we know, after that, looking through the chat logs of the extreme neo-Nazi group Atomwaffen Division, we know that one of the brothers shows up in those chat logs as somebody who was hanging out with Atomwaffen’s northern Virginia contingent. His online handle shows up in there communicating with other northern Virginia people, people from his area.
Police go to the scene of—to the house that the two brothers shared recently, and they find Atomwaffen literature, as well. By this time, one of the brothers, Edward Clark, has committed suicide. He committed suicide on the morning of the synagogue massacre, right around the time of the synagogue massacre. And the other brother, Jeffrey Clark, gets arrested for weapons charges, for having high-capacity magazines, ammunition magazines. And they find all this racist literature and Atomwaffen literature.
So now what we’re looking at is this Atomwaffen Division, extreme neo-Nazi group, being tied to this incredible act of violence in Pittsburgh. And we’re really not sure where the story is going to go from here, but it’s a really interesting, disturbing development.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, A.C., I want to turn back to your investigation, Documenting Hate: New American Nazis. This clip is about the neo-Nazi group Atomwaffen.
A.C. THOMPSON: Atomwaffen was founded in 2015 by Brandon Russell, a national guardsman in his early twenties. He moved into this apartment complex with three other members of the group. One of them, an 18-year-old high school dropout named Devon Arthurs, would bring Atomwaffen to the attention of the authorities.
HALEY HINDS: Friday night, Tampa police arrested 18-year-old Devon Arthurs. He confessed to killing his roommates, 22-year-old Jeremy Himmelman and 18-year-old Andrew Oneschuk.
REPORTER: Arthurs told cops a fourth roommate, Brandon Russell, participates in neo-Nazi chat rooms.
HALEY HINDS: The common thread that connected all four roommates was neo-Nazi beliefs.
A.C. THOMPSON: Why had Arthurs apparently shot two of his roommates? His father agreed to talk to me about what happened that day.
ALLEN ARTHURS: I was working in my office and the cellphone went off, and it was Devon. And he said, “Dad, I’m sorry. I’ve really messed up. I’ve really messed up.” I said, “What’s the matter, buddy? What’s going on?” “The two guys, the two that were staying or whatever, they’re dead. I shot them. They upset me, and I shot them.” I tried to hold it together, and I said, “Put the gun down or any weapon down and go turn yourself in, right now. Right now.” All I was hearing: “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, dad. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” I said, “Just turn yourself in.”
A.C. THOMPSON: Allen Arthurs says Devon began gravitating to neo-Nazi ideas when he was 13 or 14 years old.
So, is this Junior ROTC? What is—
ALLEN ARTHURS: Yeah, that’s ROTC, in high school.
A.C. THOMPSON: He was really interested in the military.
ALLEN ARTHURS: That’s what he said.
A.C. THOMPSON: What do you think he was really interested in?
ALLEN ARTHURS: There were two other brothers and another member of that ROTC that were obviously into the neo-Nazi stuff.
A.C. THOMPSON: So you think he was joining the ROTC group because there were other kids that were into Nazism in the group?
ALLEN ARTHURS: Yes. Yes, definitely. And he had gone to Tampa—
A.C. THOMPSON: Arthurs says his relationship with his son became increasingly strained.
ALLEN ARTHURS: By that—because by that time, we weren’t talking, and I didn’t even—you know.
A.C. THOMPSON: Devon ended up dropping out of high school. He eventually moved into the Tampa apartment with Russell and the other Atomwaffen members.
A.C. THOMPSON: Did you ever talk to Devon since the incident?
ALLEN ARTHURS: He said that he would not—when he figured out what Brandon was going to do, he couldn’t live with himself. That’s all he’s ever said to me.
A.C. THOMPSON: Tampa police refused to talk to us about the case, but I obtained video of Devon Arthur’s police interview. Over and over, he tells detectives about Atomwaffen.
DEVON ARTHURS: Atomwaffen Division is a terrorist organization. It’s a neo-Nazi organization that I was a part of. But the things that they were planning were horrible. They were planning bombings and stuff like that on countless people. They were planning to kill civilian life.
POLICE INTERROGATOR: Well, were they specific in their plans?
DEVON ARTHURS: Uh, power lines, nuclear reactors, uh, synagogues.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Nuclear reactors, synagogues. That was neo-Nazi Devon Arthur in his police interview after allegedly shooting and killing two fellow members of Atomwaffen. A.C. Thompson, take us back to the founding of Atomwaffen and how the group has developed.
A.C. THOMPSON: It’s a really interesting story. So, Atomwaffen develops the way a lot of these groups develop now: out of the online world. It starts with young men conversing on a fascist forum called Iron March. And on that forum, Devon [sic] Russell would post memes about how he loved school shooters, about how he loved Adolf Hitler. He posted a picture of himself carrying a Mossberg shotgun with a T-shirt that said “Natural Born Killers” and a Nazi eagle below it.
And at one point in 2015, he said, “Hey, I’m starting this group. I’ve been thinking about it for a long time. If you want to get involved, contact me. We’re going to be about the militant stuff. We’re going to be about sort of armed struggle for the fascist cause to take over the government and start a race war and impose our fascist ideas on this country.” And that’s how he got followers. People joined up with the group that way.
And it networked using the internet, using modern communications tools, so that there have been nodes of the group created all over the country that are all sort of linked using encrypted chats, using various tools to keep them in communication. We now think there are somewhere between 50 and 80 members of the group. We know there’s members in Canada. We know people in Australia have gotten involved. And we know that the group is linked to five different murders.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: What about their ideological guru that you talk about, James Mason? Who is he, and what’s his relationship to the group?
A.C. THOMPSON: So, James Mason was kind of an obscure figure in the neo-Nazi movement. He had been involved with the American Nazi Party of George Lincoln Rockwell. He had been involved with other neo-Nazi groups, but he wasn’t really a main player. Mason’s deal is, he says, “Hey, we’re not going to create Nazism, fascism in America through the ballot box. We’re not going to do it through politics. We’re not going to do it through political protest. We’re going to do it through the gun. And the way that we’re going to do this is terrorism, assassination, acts of hyper-violence and just general chaos. We’re going to collapse the system, and then we will take charge.”
And that message, which he promulgated in a newsletter called Siege throughout the '80s, has been adopted by this new generation of white supremacists who say, “Yeah, that's what we want to do. That’s the most extreme thing we can do. Let’s do it.” And they have sort of adopted him as their guru, as their intellectual eminence.
AMY GOODMAN: How important are these people? How many are there? And let’s go back, A.C., to when President Obama first came into office, this report on the threat of white supremacy and domestic terrorists that was squelched by right-wing congressmembers who demanded it not be released. Is this what they were tracking?
A.C. THOMPSON: Yeah. This is exactly what they were tracking. And I think we should say also it was retracted eventually by the Obama administration. Yeah, I mean, that’s when this whole thing starts ticking up: 2008, 2009. You see resistance to the first African-American president in this country. You see dissatisfaction from veterans coming home from wars that have been very hard on them, and they’re returning to a disastrous economy and having difficulties fitting in, in some cases. And you see anger about potential gun control legislation.
What has happened since then is all these things have ticked up. They’ve escalated. And now we’re in a much more dangerous place than even Daryl Johnson at DHS was predicting at that time. One of the things that he predicted is he said, “Look, I’m concerned that these returning veterans will get involved with these groups. We’ve seen it in the past. It may happen again.” And that is exactly what’s happened.
You know, the vast bulk of servicemembers are decent, wonderful people. My father served in the Army; my grandfather served in the Army. I can tell you this. But there has consistently been this small, hard core of members who get involved with these white power groups like Atomwaffen and end up doing pretty serious damage to the country.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But, A.C., on this issue, though, given the fact that this group is so small—you were mentioning that many of them come out of military experience. The reality is that our country has been in virtually perpetual war.
A.C. THOMPSON: Right.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: So there’s been a constant churn of soldiers going out to fight the enemy—
A.C. THOMPSON: Right.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —learning how to kill and coming back to the country. I’m wondering what your sense is, this situation of perpetual war, how it’s affected not just the veterans who might get involved in these extremist groups, but also who might be susceptible, once they’re back in civilian life, to this picture painted by a Trump or another political conservative of the need to fight the enemy?
A.C. THOMPSON: You know, that’s—you put it exactly right. And that’s actually what we hear from the veterans who have gotten involved with the white power movement. They say “perpetual war.” They say, “We have been sent to these wars that have been disastrous, that have ruined our friends, that we’ve seen horrible, horrible things happen. And now we feel broken, and we feel damaged, and we’re looking around for answers.” And where they’re finding answers, some of them—honestly, some of them are finding answers in progressive politics, in really decent causes. And some of them are finding answers in neo-Nazism.
I was just reading chat messages sent by one member of Atomwaffen who served in Afghanistan. And he said, “The small moral part of me that still exists has nightmares about the people I know being blown up, about seeing them blown up in combat.” And he says, “And I feel guilt because I was a squad automatic gunner with a belt-fed machine gun, and I remember killing women and children inadvertently, accidentally, and I feel great guilt about it.”
And the thing that happens then is this guilt and anger is being channeled into this obviously incredibly noxious neo-Nazi ideology. But you’ve nailed it exactly. This perpetual war is having damaging effects back here.
AMY GOODMAN: A.C. Thompson, we have to break for 30 seconds, then we’re going to come back, correspondent for Frontline PBS, reporter for ProPublica. His investigation Documenting Hate: New American Nazis premieres tonight on PBS stations and online at pbs.org/frontline. When we come back, we continue with A.C. Thompson to look at the connections between the U.S. military and white supremacy. Stay with us.