Sugarcoating white supremacy: What’s behind fliers found in Washington
Last month, clusters of fliers were spread throughout Western Washington, simply stating an anti-Communist slogan and providing a website for a patriot group. At first glance, they might seem generic and patriotic. A closer look reveals they were spread by a white supremacist organization.
Other, similar, fliers have also been distributed in recent months, hitting on hot button issues like illegal immigration — all sourced to the same group. Each time they pop up they prompt a common question: “What does being against Communism have to do with white supremacy?” Or, “How does a belief that illegal immigration is bad make this racist?”
After all, nothing about the fliers screamed “white power” and they did not feature any swastikas. They just promoted a group called “Patriot Front” — an organization appearing to be very pro-America. So how does a simple, patriotic flier equate to white supremacy?
Short answer: not supporting Communism does not equate to being a neo-Nazi.
But that’s the point. The people who make these fliers hide the message in nuance. The longer answer requires a much deeper look and can’t fit on a single handbill.
Perhaps we should start in Wyoming.
Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich
It was a casual day at a Wyoming barber shop back in the early 1990s when then officer Ozzie Knezovich was approached by a couple men, looking to recruit him into their organization.
“These elements actually try to recruit law enforcement officers into their groups,” he said.
“It just amazed me,” Knezovich recalled. “….I was waiting to get my haircut and an individual I knew started talking about a white homeland, which consisted of Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington.”
He was then handed a flier, which detailed a few other points sympathetic to neo-Nazi rhetoric.
“I just kind of looked at it and went, ‘Ya know fellas, I’m not really interested in that. In fact, you’re talking to somebody who is just about as anti neo-Nazi as you can get,’” he said.
White supremacists haven’t stopped their activity in the decades since then, though their approach may have changed. Knezovich has observed it throughout the Northwest, serving as a police officer and eventually as sheriff of Spokane County since 2006. He has proven to be a politically controversial figure at times, expressing support for presidential candidate Donald Trump, chiding certain Republicans for aligning with white supremacists, or his stances on gun control.
“You can see it in the suburbs and the rural areas of Olympia,” he recalled of his time on the Olympia force in the 1990s. “Especially south of Olympia. If you paid attention to some of the billboards of the time, it was an interesting sight to see some of those billboards – if you actually understood what they were saying. Unless you actually understood the terminology, you wouldn’t have caught it. You would have just thought it was a Christian sign.”
A more recent blip on Knezovich’s radar was in 2011, when a man placed a bomb in the middle of Spokane’s Martin Luther King Day parade – a parade he was in, along with 500 children. Luckily, it was discovered and did not explode.
FBI agents cross the bridge on 12 Mile Road during their investigation of Kevin Harpham on Wednesday, March 9, 2011, near Addy, Wash. Harpham was charged in the case of a bomb that had been placed at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade in Spokane. The bomb was found on Jan. 17 inside a backpack by workers before the start of the parade. The bomb was defused without incident. (AP Photo/The Spokesman-Review, Dan Pelle)
Patriot Front: Rebranding white supremacy
White supremacists have become “smarter and more savvy” than in the past, according to Miri Cypers, regional director for Anti-Defamation League Pacific Northwest Office. The fliers spread in Western Washington by Patriot Front are a good example.
“If people look a little deeper, they’ll realize that these groups are sugarcoating white supremacy and have pretty similar beliefs to groups that most of the public would revile,” Cypers said.
Whereas Sheriff Knezovich was handed a flier that was easily identified as neo-Nazi propaganda, the fliers spread by Patriot Front, and groups like them, are not as obvious. Sort of like those billboards around Olympia that Knezovich described.
Last month wasn’t the first time Patriot Front tried to market themselves in Western Washington. In June 2018, they left fliers throughout Bellevue and Clyde Hill (near schools in bags with candy). Those fliers encouraged people to report instances of illegal immigration, and referred people to a website for “Blood and Soil” — a mantra for Nazi Germany during World War II. The German translation is “Blut und Boden” and basically promotes a nation defined by race.
Fliers with candy were distributed around Bellevue and Clyde Hill over the June 9-10, 2018 weekend. The fliers have been linked to a neo-Nazi group Patriot front. (Courtesy of MaviSeattle, Twitter)
Patriot Front also plastered posters throughout Tacoma in July 2018, prompting a local response. A billboard ad was produced, telling people that there are “nazis in our neighborhood.” Patriot Front defaced that ad, replacing “nazis” with “illegal aliens.”
“Patriot Front is a white supremacist organization that we would classify as being on the alt-right, that espouses an ideology of creating an America that honors Europeans identity,” Cypers said. “They try to paint themselves as an American Nationalist group, but in reality they are an organization that is intolerant, that is racist, and anti-Semitic that envisions an America that is only for white people.”
Cypers explains that Patriot Front was started after the rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. It’s based in Texas, but has branches all over the country, including the Pacific Northwest.
ADL has a national center with investigators who track extremism and hate groups. Patriot Front is known to them. Cypers says its main activity is dispersing propaganda materials. Though if you glance at the group’s website, you would be challenged to find terms like “nazi” or “white.” The website encourages people to “reclaim America.” If you look close enough, you will find mentions about “the Jews” or “foreign invaders” mixed in with quotes from Alexander Hamilton, George Patton, and Robert E. Lee.
There are Instagram accounts and hashtags associated with just this one group. Who would expect neo-Nazis to be so social media savvy? There’s even a YouTube page where they post promotional videos with metal music fit for an ’80s hair band. Aside from the fact they all wear masks, the organization doesn’t present itself as anything but patriotic and modern.
“I think their overarching goal is to sometimes test how fertile a community can be to accepting their way of thinking,” Cypers said. “I think they are also interested in spreading their propaganda to see how they can disguise their true ideology and couch it in messaging that might be more palatable to the everyday person who is not knowledgeable about them …. I think they are trying to create this disconnect where people have a perception of them spreading anti-left message is fine, and I think they are trying to create that ambiguity.”
Another group that has operated in a similar fashion is Identity Evropa which targets its fliers at college campuses. It spread fliers at the University of Washington in February 2018. Similar posters were spotted near West Seattle High School. Identity Evropa doesn’t say it is a neo-Nazi organization, rather, they are “identitarians” who support western culture.
Sheriff Knezovich is not familiar with Patriot Front, (though he did say he has had contact with a group with a similar name, but has not found them to be white supremacists). But he says white supremacist organizations have a long history in Washington and the Northwest. Many might not have noticed as “they are kind of chameleons,” Knezovich says.
This article is the first in a two-part series on white supremacist activity in Washington state.