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Obama election spurs wave of hate group violence

Study cites anger of white supremacists

ON THE FRINGE Joshua Cartwright (left), 28, a white supremacist, died in a gun battle after killing two sheriff's deputies in Pensacola, Fla. ON THE FRINGE
Joshua Cartwright (left), 28, a white supremacist, died in a gun battle after killing two sheriff's deputies in Pensacola, Fla.
By Joseph Williams
Globe Staff / May 11, 2009
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WASHINGTON - While the inauguration of the first black president has lessened racial tensions for most Americans, it has set off a wave of violence on the white supremacist fringe, with anti-hate groups attributing six recent killings - including the ambush last month of three Pittsburgh police officers and the fatal shootings last month of two Florida sheriff's deputies - in part to anger over President Obama's election.

According to a study by two leading anti-bias organizations, paranoia over Obama, spread largely through Internet forums and chat rooms, apparently spurred a Maine man to gather components for a "dirty bomb," including substantial quantities of radioactive compounds, in a plot to kill the president. Police found the stockpile in the home of James G. Cummings, a frequent visitor to neo-Nazi websites, after his wife shot and killed him.

Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan and the National Socialist Movement, said the number of white extremist groups in the United States has increased by about 50 percent since 2000, and activity has sharply increased in recent months. The day after Obama won the presidency, he said, activity on the two most popular white supremacist websites overwhelmed computer servers.

The rash of threats and attacks, specialists fear, could lead to a renewal of the militia groups that spread around the nation in the 1990s and could prompt acts like the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 that killed 168 people. Such groups, they said, tend to feed on racial resentment, economic deprivation, and anger toward government, but they have focused their wrath on Obama.

"It's sad and unfortunate, but it has been a consistent pattern in our country," said Hilary Shelton, the NAACP's vice president for advocacy and director of its Washington chapter. The paranoid rage, however, "has never been as finely tuned as this," he said. "They have a lightning rod in this case. We've never had a black president before."

Neither the Secret Service, charged with protecting Obama and his family, nor the FBI would comment on specific investigations related to threats against the president. All threats are taken seriously "no matter where the threat comes from," said Secret Service spokesman Malcolm Wiley. "We've gotten threats on every president who has been in office."

The Secret Service started its protection of then-Senator Obama in May 2007 - the earliest extension of air-tight security to a presidential candidate in the nation's history. During the Democratic National Convention in Denver last year, local police arrested and charged three men with white-supremacist ties for allegedly plotting to kill Obama, and a similar plot was foiled in Tennessee just weeks before the presidential election.

And in December, police called to the Cummings home in Belfast, Maine, found him shot dead during a dispute with his wife Amber, who has not been charged. But they also found James Cummings had accumulated gallon-sized containers of radioactive materials, directions on how to build a bomb, and had completed applications to the National Socialist Movement, a neo-Nazi party.

"Amber Cummings indicated that James was very upset with the election of Barack Obama," according to an FBI affidavit. She also indicated that her husband "had mixed the chemicals in the kitchen sink and had mentioned 'dirty bombs.' "

White extremists seem particularly upset at the belief Obama will curb their access to assault weapons; gun shops nationwide have reported a huge increase in sales of handguns and rapid-fire, large-capacity rifles, and the FBI reports that applications for required background checks for gun owners have soared compared with last year. Eric Holder, the nation's first black attorney general, has said that the administration will try to reinstitute the ban on military-style assault rifles that expired in 2004 during the Bush presidency.

Fears about the ban, and paranoia about Obama, allegedly led a Pittsburgh man to don body armor and lie in wait for police headed to his house on a domestic disturbance call early last month. After shooting three officers at point-blank range with a high-powered rifle, authorities say, Richard Poplawski, 22 - a Marine Corps washout with Nazi-style tattoos - traded more than 100 rounds of gunfire with police before they wounded and captured him.

"With Obama's election, Poplawski became convinced that there would be 'federal gun bans on the way' and that the people would be rendered defenseless in the face of a police state in which the military would be used against American citizens," according to an Anti-Defamation League report on the shooting.

In one posting on Stormfront, a popular international neo-Nazi site, Poplawski called himself "BracedForFate" and vowed he would "continue to instill racial awareness among our brothers and sisters," and promote the need to prepare for armed conflict.

The ADL report says that Poplawski "was posting on white supremacist sites and had elaborate fears about Zionists running the world, and, "he also saw Obama very much as a threat," Potok said.

Academics and anti-bias groups agree that people like Poplawski, Cummings, and Joshua Cartwright - a 28-year-old National Guardsman, nascent white supremacist, and militia enthusiast who died in a gun battle after killing two sheriff's deputies in Pensacola, Fla. - are on the fringes of American society and hold little political influence. A New York Times-CBS News poll last week found that two-thirds of Americans now say race relations are generally good.

At the same time, the number of white supremacist hate groups rose to 926 by last year, and the trend shows little sign of abating.

"These groups have an outsized effect based on the way they have been able to mainstream their propaganda and conspiracy theories," Potok said, noting racially tinged, anti-Obama demonstrations during the election. He also blamed conservative politicians and pundits for employing talking points that supremacists rally around, including reports of government-sponsored "reeducation camps" and claims that Obama is a socialist.

"The reality is there is an underworld of people who really believe that armed revolution is absolutely and vitally necessary. To the extent that that sector grows and is energized, they will be more dangerous," Potok said.

Judged by a 16-page string of postings on Stormfront titled "I hate Obama," the anger isn't going to subside soon. "I've never had a fire burning inside me like I do for that mongrel thug," said one posting April 29.

Joshua Cartwright (left), 28, a white supremacist, died in a gun battle after killing two sheriff's deputies in Pensacola, Fla.

ON THE FRINGE