How White Supremacists Are Recruiting Educated 'Normies' Around LA

A woman walks along one of the walkways that connect the Saddleback College campus in Mission Viejo, California. Saddleback is among the local campuses and communities that have been hit with white supremacist propaganda posters in recent months. A campus spokeswoman said the posters were promptly removed. (Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC)

White supremacist propaganda has been showing up at an alarming rate throughout Southern California, on college and high school campuses and in communities, according to experts, who say much of it is part of hate groups' efforts to find new members.

"There's been a major recruiting effort in the white supremacy, white nationalist movement over the past few years, especially in California," said Lowell Smith, a former terrorism liaison officer for the Orange County Probation Department.

Smith and other experts say California, with its increasingly diverse population and left-of-center politics, has become a breeding ground for hate groups reaching out to young people, particularly disaffected young men and boys who might be susceptible to fears stoked by anti-immigrant rhetoric.

But unlike the criminal skinheads that Smith once supervised as a probation officer, newer white supremacist groups are making a push to reach out to the mainstream, with softer messages that don't necessarily incorporate overt hate symbols or language.

"They're looking for the educated people, not the uneducated, and not the criminals," said Smith, who's now a criminologist studying extremist groups at La Sierra University in Riverside.

"You're talking about people who have legitimate jobs, or college students, college graduates," he said. "And then, they try to use that base to legitimize their movement."

CONCERTS, TUTORING AND HATE

Local college campuses like Saddleback College and UC Irvine are among those hit recently with white supremacist propaganda.

On the leafy Saddleback campus, where posters typically advertising things like concerts and tutoring hang along walkways connecting the campus, posters have shown up advertising two different hate groups in the past three months.

A few miles to the north, Brian Levin keeps tabs on local hate groups' social media feeds.

"I can't tell you how many times I've called up a local campus police department after looking at their feeds on social media, saying, 'You might want to check the campus square today,'" said Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at Cal State San Bernardino.

According to the Anti-Defamation League, white supremacist propaganda has spiked sharply in recent years. The ADL reported last month that incidents of white supremacist posters, fliers, banners and other propaganda around the country increased from 421 in 2017 to 1,187 in 2018. The report also found a huge jump in the number of off-campus propaganda incidents.

A lot of that propaganda has turned up in Southern California: White supremacist social media feeds show posters put up recently on the streets of local cities like Anaheim and Orange, and on college campuses like Saddleback College and UC Irvine. There's been anti-Semitic propaganda found in and around high schools from the San Fernando Valley to Newport Beach, where last month a scandal erupted at Newport Harbor High School after photos on social media showed students at a party giving the Nazi salute over a swastika formed with plastic cups.

The next weekend, a series of Nazi posters were discovered on the Newport Harbor High campus.

"HEY, WE'RE NOT SKINHEADS"

While the posters at Newport Harbor contained overt Nazi images, including swastikas, newer hate groups are using more subtle messaging about "white identity" and "heritage" in their attempts to appeal to young people, experts say.

"They are trying to present themselves as more button-down: 'Hey, we're not skinheads, we're not people with swastikas carved into our foreheads,'" Levin said. "However, the bottom line is that for many of these groups, in private, that is exactly the lingo, exactly the kind of imagery they enjoy."

Hate groups that have been actively recruiting in Southern California lately include Patriot Front, which uses patriotic imagery and slogans like "Reclaim America."

Another had been known until recently as Identity Europa. It used images of European-style statues and an inverted triangular symbol referred to as a "dragon's eye" with slogans like "European Roots, American Greatness."

Both groups have hit local campuses and communities in recent months, documenting their propaganda drops on social media. Identity Europa, which was among those sued in the aftermath of the deadly 2017 "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, recently rebranded itself as "American Identity Movement" and has adopted a new look, using patriotic imagery.

According to watchdog organizations like the Anti-Defamation League, Patriot Front is a post-Charlottesville group that splintered from a different white supremacist group called Vanguard America, which was also sued over its involvement in Charlottesville.

It's important not to be fooled by hate groups' more subtle "identity" messages and imagery, said Joanna Mendelson of the Anti-Defamation League's L.A. office.

"Although they're repackaged their message and sugarcoated their hateful ideology, there's no difference between them and those before, those who wore Klan robes, and who would be heavily tatted with swastikas and white supremacist imagery," she said. "Same people, same ideology."

INDOCTRINATION IN THE VIRTUAL WORLD

Along with the jump in white supremacist propaganda targeting schools and communities over the last year, there's a lot more recruiting taking place online, Mendelson said.

"Young people are drawn online ... and these virtual spaces can be an indoctrination ground," she said.

It's easy to find hate-filled memes and videos on YouTube and Instagram. White supremacists post on bulletin boards like 4chan and the more extremist 8chan, and on the alt-right-friendly social media site Gab. They're also active on Discord, which is popular with gamers.

The nonprofit alternative media site Unicorn Riot recently posted leaked chatter from Discord between members of Identity Europa. Recruiting was a popular theme, like this message from January:

"Good morning guys! Friendly reminder that if everyone could channel their time and energy to online recruiting, that would greatly be appreciated!"

Another message read:

"Recruit from colleges, universities, libraries, tech companies, and law firms."

Members also talked about trying to recruit students in college conservative groups.

TROLLING SCHOOLS TO RECRUIT "NORMIES"

Some campaigns that start online spread to the real world. For example, one night last fall, an intruder climbed over a locked gate at South Pasadena High School and posted fliers around campus that read, "It's okay to be white."

The fliers were part of what's referred to as a trolling campaign.

"Trolling tactics are the bread and butter of some of the white supremacist efforts," Mendelson said. "We see them using bigoted humor and memes in order to push their agenda, and to basically poke fun at the media, at liberalism, at authoritarian figures."

The "It's okay to be white" campaign sprang up on 4chan a couple of Halloweens ago. According to the instructions, volunteers were to print out the posters, don a costume and put them up on campuses around the country.

The goal was to trigger a negative reaction from media, campus officials and others suspicious of the posters, which could then be twisted to make them seem anti-white in the eyes of "normies," slang for "normal" people. The instructions continue:

"4. the next morning, the media goes completely berserk; 5. normies tune in to see what's going on, see the posters saying "it's okay to be white" and the media & leftists frothing at the mouth; 6. normies realize that leftists & journalists hate white people, so they turn on them; 7. credibility of far left campuses and media gets nuked, massive victory for the right in the culture war, many more /ourguys/ spawned overnight."

DISTURBING POSTERS AT SADDLEBACK

Students on the Saddleback College campus on a recent afternoon said they hadn't really noticed the white supremacist posters that appeared in late January and again in February.

Perhaps they blended in with all the other posters, said Jazel Garcia, a nursing student. But she found the idea unsettling.

"If it's related to hate, then yeah, it bothers me," she said. "I wouldn't be comfortable with a situation like that ... someone [should] take action, because that's not right."

Jason Rivas, a nutrition major and president of a campus conservative group, said he disagrees with hate group ideology, but that anyone should be allowed to post materials on campus.

"In my opinion, they are allowed to post where they want," Rivas said. "They are allowed to post as long as they do not harm other people or incite violence."

Journalism student Filip Pejcinovic said that while he didn't see the recent posters, he does remember hateful posters around campus during the 2016 presidential campaign.

"I saw photos that ... looked offensive to Muslims," he said.

The posters had been put up by a campus group, Young Americans for Freedom, to promote an event. Pejcinovic took a picture of one of the posters, which equated Islam with terrorism and displayed a photo that appears to be from an ISIS video of a mass beheading of Coptic Christian prisoners.

"I found the posters very disturbing," Pejcinovic said. "I think that particular group or cause could incite violence."

"WE CAN'T JUST SUDDENLY CLOSE THEM OFF"

Brenton Tarrant, the 28-year-old white supremacist accused of carrying out the attacks on two New Zealand mosques, frequented online platforms like 8-chan, where he posted his manifesto before killing 50 people. Tarrant live-streamed the massacre on Facebook. According to European officials, he also donated money to "white identity" groups in Austria and France.

Since the New Zealand attack, Facebook has said it will ban white nationalist content.

But experts say there's so much hate content already available, the best thing educators and parents can do is have open dialogue with their students and their kids about the images and messages they may encounter.

"We can't just suddenly close them off to all these influences, because that's just not realistic," Mendelson said. "We must challenge their thinking, what they are observing and help create proper context to understand the world and the complicated messaging that they are receiving."

Meanwhile, watchdog groups and some members of Congress are calling on digital companies to do more to halt the spread of hate propaganda online. Slack recently took action, announcing last month that it was removing "known hate groups" from its accounts after Unicorn Riot leaked Slack messages between members of Identity Europa.

The Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center have anti-bias educational resources on their websites.

Editor's note: A version of this story was also on the radio. Listen to it here on KPCC.