05.12.11

My Lost Interview With Murdered NSM Leader

The white-supremacist leader killed Sunday by his 10-year-old son had visions of a broader movement. Eve Conant recalls a talk with Jeff Hall just as his National Socialist Movement was taking off.

White supremacist Jeff Hall, a regional director for the National Socialist Movement, was killed early Sunday by a shot to the head. It was his 10-year-old son who pulled the trigger. Hall reportedly raised his children to share in his beliefs, and so far a motive for the killing is unknown.

Hall and the National Socialist Movement had also recently been branching out into politics, according to recent coverage in The New York Times. While covering the white-supremacist movement in 2009 for Newsweek, I spoke with Hall about his surprise at the rise in popularity of his movement (which the Anti-Defamation League describes as the largest Neo-Nazi organization in the country), an extensive interview that—due to space—was not published in the final version of my story.

“We’re not hunters, and we’re not killers. We’re observers.”

As white supremacists go, Hall was immensely personable. After time spent with the Ku Klux Klan in Arkansas and with NSM members in Missouri, it was strangely refreshing, and not a little bit disturbing, to speak with such an affable “hater”—a term many white supremacists say they abhor. The general idea presented to me was that hate was not their aim—it was love. Love of white people. Children ( you can see several here) were a big part of the Klan gathering I attended, with many of them studying “white” history in a separate little schoolhouse—and even singing about it—during a revival-like session that at times felt more like a picnic than a strategy session designed to ostracize minorities. Many, if not most, were home-schooled.

Hall, like the Klan people I interviewed, wanted to present himself as reasonable and mainstream. The NSM group I spent time with in Missouri, for example, had an adopt-a-highway sign they were quite proud of, something the Klan probably wouldn’t get away with. “The Klan is too far right,” Hall told me. “People have a hard time getting past that.” His branch of the rapidly growing NSM, based in Riverside, California, had a strong focus on controlling immigration, and in patrolling the border themselves—angry that the authorities seemed to be failing at their jobs.

“We use guys from past and current wars to train us,” Hall said. “We have one guy who was in Iraq, another was a sniper. We take our training very seriously. When we patrol, there is no barrier between us and them, just natural terrain.” Back then, he told me they were starting a new unit in San Diego, and another in the Bay Area. “Last month we started our new unit in the Bay Area. You couldn’t believe how many people were into it—it’s so liberal up there, but even them. It was wild, a whole different atmosphere, but they were like-minded people.” People who wanted to celebrate their own European heritage, people who were frustrated with immigration and losing jobs—some also were worried over the recent election of an African American as president. But Hall’s most significant following, he said, was in the Inland Empire—Riverside. “And patrolling the border is our main thing.” (A Times reporter, Julie Platner, extensively covered Hall and photographed some of those border patrols.

Hall insisted that no one was out there to harm illegal crossers. “Many of our guys choose to arm themselves with legal firearms. We do obey the law. We’re not hunters, and we’re not killers. We’re observers.” NSM members, he said, might bring side arms and rifles, “and pepper spray for wild animals. I personally work with a sniper to improve my marksmanship. Not to hunt or hurt, but for self-protection. Those drug smugglers would just shoot us and move on if we weren’t prepared.”

What really seemed to distress Hall, a father of several small children, was that American kids couldn’t play on American soil. “Children don’t play at the border. There are streams and hills, but you’ll never see kids playing. People out there are sick of having their cars stolen or broken into, their water tanks drained or their livestock killed.” He displayed no fear. “We don’t do anything illegal, we just make our presence known. We have no fear of them. If we see someone we make the call—an anonymous call—and let the authorities know. They usually just run back south when they see us.”

Hall’s aim was to have groups on border 24/7—something a suffering economy was making more possible: “Some of our upper-middle-class members won't go to the border, but they are great donors.” Hall—like many white supremacist leaders and spokespeople—wouldn’t divulge how many members he had, or his budget, but insisted both were growing. “Last month we got huge deposits into our treasury, lots of $100 checks. The police have tried to close us down so many times. We couldn’t be doing what we’re doing without donors.”

The real action, he said, came from the unemployed. “If we have a guy that’s laid off he’ll say, 'Hey, let’s go to the border for a few days.’ But most of us in the group work full time, and have to take vacation time to do this. I’ll tell you there—the worse the economy gets, the more people are available, and the more they want to see alternatives.”

Eve Conant is a Newsweek staff reporter covering immigration, politics, social and culture issues.