On October 27, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms announced the arrest of two young neo-Nazis, Daniel Cowart and Paul Schlesselman, who allegedly plotted to assassinate Barack Obama. The strange event suggests that a criminal element within the white supremacist movement is hell-bent on racial violence if Obama becomes president.
On the other hand, key leaders of the movement’s organized front see a potential Obama administration as a rising tide that will lift their sagging boats. They hope to leverage white resentment against Obama’s presidency to generate unprecedented funding, bolster membership rolls, and influence the political mainstream.
According to the ATF, Cowart and Schlesselman planned to suit up in white tuxedoes and top hats and then massacre 88 black people, 14 by decapitation, including Obama among their targets. The numbers 88 and 14 are signifiant in neo-Nazi culture: “H” is the 8th letter of the alphabet; “HH” stands for “Heil Hitler.” Fourteen symbolizes the 14-word pledge of the neo-Nazi group, The Order.
Key leaders of the white supremacist movement see a potential Obama administration as a rising tide that will lift their sagging boats.
Initially portrayed in media accounts as “lone wolves” without institutional affiliations, new information about the would-be assassins suggests deeper connections into the subculture of neo-Nazi thugs united by an adulation of Adolf Hitler and desire for vigilante violence. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, one of the would-be assassins, Daniel Cowart, was a “probate member” of an incipient youth group of the neo-Nazi movement, Supreme White Alliance.
Cowart also maintained a friendship with the SWA’s founder, Steven Edwards. Steven Edwards is the son of Ron Edwards, the founder of the Imperial Klans of America, a neo-Nazi outfit best known for the “Nordic Fest” white power concerts it holds at its 15-acre compound in Kentucky.
After the Southern Poverty Law Center revealed Cowart’s connection to SWA, the group posted a defensive statement on its website denying his role in organizational activities. “Since [the SWA’s annual election] none of the SWA members have had any contact with accused,” the website declared. “So before you get your story wrong, [SPLC], get the facts.” At the same time, the Supreme White Alliance acknowledged that Cowart was indeed a “probate member.”
Even as it distances itself from the plot against Obama, the SWA openly advocates violence against minority groups. Its website currently posts a statement reading “Unless we have an unseen army of total Barbarians, devoid of pity, of compassion, of compunctions, of restraining moralisms, we are doomed. He who practices chivalry, when the enemy has none, fights with both hands tied behind his back. Our people must have commitment, courage, and honor fighting to free their land from the jewish scourge. Better one day as a lion, than years as a sheep.”
In April 2008, Cowart and several SWA members celebrated Adolf Hitler’s birthday at member’s house. While there, Cowart rubbed shoulders with Joshua Steever, a 28-year-old with the word, “Racist,” boldly tattooed on his forehead. In July 2006, Steever was arrested for threatening to kill two black high school students in Newark, California. A year earlier, Steever had been arrested for attacking a man with an axe handle. “He just roves around from state to state screwing with people,” Daryle Jenkins, founder of the anti-racist group, One Peoples Project, told me.
Cowart’s profile closely resembles that of his friend, Steever. A high school dropout who lived with his grandparents, Cowart described his mood as “bored” on a personal web page. This October, he struck out to fulfill his violent fantasies with Schlesselmann, a fellow Tennessee-based neo-Nazi he met online. Like Steever, who lashed out against students of a predominately black school, Cowart and Schlesselman planned to massacre students at an unspecified, mostly black high school. In the end, the destructive duo resorted to shooting out the front window of a black church in Brownsville, Arkansas in the dead of night before they were arrested.
The organized front of the white racist movement—self-described “white nationalists”—have reacted to Cowart and Schlesselman’s Obama assassination plot with concern about their own exposure. White nationalists operate in the light of day seeking opportunities for mainstream influence, particularly in anti-immigration campaigning. Hapless as they may have been, Cowart and Schlesselman elevated white nationalist fears about heightened scrutiny from federal law enforcement, and threatened to sully the movement’s image at a pivotal moment, when a potential African-American president offered them a chance to exploit unprecedented anti-black resentment.
On Stormfront, a white nationalist chat site with over 144,000 registered users, posters cast the plot against Obama as a mortal threat to their movement. “There are far worse things than having a black president--for instance, killing one is far worse!” “Virginia Gentlewoman.” “If anyone wants to see things get really bad for whites, then this is the way to go, folks! Might as well wrap up the whole movement and invite oppression.”
“Virginia Gentlewoman,” according to Daryle Jenkins, is a leading white nationalist activist named Wendy Murphy who participates in monthly discussions of white nationalist strategy at Sala Thai, a restaurant in Northern Virginia. Most activists who join her at these gatherings are members of the Council of Conservative Citizens, a racist group that evolved from the White Citizens Councils that opposed integration in the South -- known as the “Uptown Klan” because of the group’s pretensions to mainstream political influence. With over 10,000 members, the CofCC is currently the country’s most powerful white nationalist group.
Stormfront members who replied to Murphy’s thread agreed with her almost unanimously. The plot by Cowart and Schlessman represented such a dire threat to the white movement, they reasoned it must have been a Jewish plot. “ADL [Anti-Defamation League] has already endorsed the story. One of the would-be perpetrators has a Jewish sounding name. Something like this was so predictable,” a poster using the handle, Thunderhead, wrote. “It seems like a plot to defame [white nationalists] before the election,” wrote another Stormfront member called “tasteofsnowflakes.”
Many white nationalists who have longed for mainstream influence see unprecedented opportunity in an Obama presidency. In June, former Ku Klux Klan leader and Louisiana Republican gubernatorial candidate David Duke presented Obama’s ascendancy as an encouraging prospect for the white nationalist movement. “My bet is that whether Obama wins or loses in November, millions of European Americans will inevitably react with new awareness of their heritage and the need for them to defend and advance it,” Duke wrote in an manifesto called “ A Black Flag for White America”.
Duke, who was once the face of the white nationalist movement, sees Obama as a chance to recover some of his credibility. Duke badly damaged his reputation within white movement circles in 2000 when he entered into a business partnership with rap producer Suge Knight. In 2003 he was sentenced to fifteen months in a Texas prison for tax and mail fraud—bilking his supporters out of thousands of dollars.
Once out of prison, Duke sought a path back to influence through organizing an annual “International Euro Conference” of major white nationalist organizations. Duke has deliberately scheduled this year’s conference the day after Election Day—after an anticipated Obama victory. According to his website, the conference will provide an occasion for white nationalists to “chart our course and forge a plan for the survival and freedom of the heritage that built and sustains America, Europe, and the other nations around the world of European descent.”
Even before Obama’s possible election, the movement has begun implementing a strategy to cultivate mainstream appeal. Neo-Nazi groups like the Keystone State Skinheads have changed their name to Keystone United to attract disgruntled white youth; other groups have renounced violence for the same reason. Derek Black, the son of David Duke’s closest lieutenant, Don Black, recently won a seat on the Republican Committee of Palm Beach, Florida.
“This is the time when they really are going to make some move,” Jenkins of One Peoples Project said of the organized front of white supremacists. “They may not come out with guns blazing, but they are definitely going to try to bring their movement into the mainstream.”
After Election Day, white nationalist activists will likely find themselves in conflict with the criminal elements that lurk in their movement’s seamy underbelly. Groups like Supreme White Alliance may pose a greater threat to their ambitions than any black politician. In order to maintain a path to mainstream influence, most white nationalists have reasoned that Barack Obama must stay alive.