Levin: Hate rock music fuels racism under the radar
Activist or terrorist depends which side you're on
Defend against the invader, this war will greet your son
Hey you gotta go, not your home anymore
If you don't move quietly you'll be forced to war
-- Youngland, Wade Page's first band
One person that music transformed for the worse was hate rock musician Wade Michael Page, who murdered six Sikh worshippers before shooting himself in the head in Oak Creek, Wis., last Sunday. Before undertaking one of the nation's deadliest hate-killing sprees in recent history, Page was a background fixture in the violent and secretive world of hate rock in Southern California.
Though not well known outside a small group of listeners and researchers, hate rock has been a key force in the radicalization of young recruits -- and one of the few legal sources of revenue to hard-core haters.
These ensembles and the dangerous young Nazis who follow them have concerned authorities for decades. As Rick Eaton, of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says, "Music has been one of the most effective recruiting tools to reach potential white supremacists since the mid-1980s." Perhaps not coincidently, in that period a wave of skinhead-related violence first emerged, and by 1989, the Department of Justice had created a dedicated task force.
Like the innocents in Wisconsin, the dozens murdered as the violence continued in the 1990s included a cross section of American souls branded enemies by the subculture of skinheads: an Ethiopian immigrant attending college in Portland, Ore., a Denver police officer, a gay man in Reno, Nev., a homeless man in Birmingham, Ala., a Vietnamese teenager in Houston, a black couple out for a stroll in Fayetteville, N.C. The active-duty Army soldiers who killed the couple amped themselves up for murder with pitchers of beer as the stereo blared "Coon Shootin' Boogie" as well as tunes from the seminal hate rock band Skrewdriver.
The skinheads began as a 1970s British working-class movement and splintered into a racist subculture with its own folklore, symbols and, of course, music. By the 1980s, this offshoot and its violent beat crossed the Atlantic, where influential American musical groups like RAHOWA (Racial Holy War), Final Solution and Bound for Glory emerged. As the movement grew, hate rock produced its own record labels, with names like Resistance Records, Micetrap and Panzerfaust.
The first hate website launched in 1995, as the emergence of the Internet changed the way young people networked and consumed music. Labels switched from catalog and magazine sales to online MP3 sales. At its peak a little over a decade ago, Resistance Records was generating more than $1 million in annual revenue, and using it in part to stage concerts that served as a movement recruitment tool.
The nation's first Internet hate rock radio station, Radiowhite, launched in 2000 in Orange County, Calif. The ability of young people to listen to the songs in the privacy of their bedrooms also enabled hate rock recruitment, adding a venue beyond intimidating music clubs or gatherings.
One musician drawn to the Orange County hate rock scene a decade ago was Page, a shy, socially isolated bassist. According to extremism researcher Pete Simi of the University of Nebraska at Omaha, who studied the movement and knew Page then, the young man was more interested in joining bands than joining actual groups.
The shadowy world of hate rock music "lures the disenfranchised and marginalized and can transform some of them into truly dangerous people," according to Portland State University researcher Randy Blazak. Now repentant, Todd Blodgett once ran Resistance Records. He contends: "Anyone who thinks that hate rock and other racist music doesn't lead to violence hasn't seen what I have. Losers leading dead-end lives are already inclined enough to blame minorities without being emboldened by anything that reinforces their hatred, and glorifies snuffing out innocent people."
What happened to Page -- with his history of binge drinking, failed relationships and turbulent employment -- is a perfect case study. He found acceptance and validity putting his inner hatred into music. Over the years, he loaded up on tattoos and bullets. By 2011, he joined one of the most notorious skinhead groups, the Hammerskins, and within the year opted out of jobs and a relationship before going on his suicidal killing spree. "When talk fails," Page once told Simi, "violence prevails."
Today's raucous youthful neo-Nazi rockers stand in stark contrast to the more quiet -- though equally violent -- Klan of years' past. The mostly church-anchored Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s had more than 4 million button-down members who belonged to chapters of a well-organized national organization. The KKK held Sunday parades and endorsed candidates.
Today's skinheads and hate rockers number only in the thousands and exist mostly in informal associations, brought together by the Internet and social and musical events. While larger groups exist, today's young hatemongers are more about belonging to a scene with friends and a subculture rather than a hierarchal large group run by businessmen dressed in robes.
Unlike the Klan, which invoked violence to counter what it deemed "transgressions" like voting or organizing by African-Americans, neo-Nazi and White Power Youth are about violence for violence's sake. They engage in musically glorified "boot parties" with drunken random street attacks against any minority person who walks by -- or even other bigots, if the mood is right.
In 2011 the number of hate groups nationwide hit an all-time high: 1,018, after 11 years of increases according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. But, while the number of groups is surging, their average size appears to be shrinking; groups are becoming more splintered and decentralized. New York, with 37 hate groups statewide -- including a Long Island chapter of the neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement -- had more than several traditional Klan-oriented states.
Yet even with this growth in organizations, membership is a fraction of what it was decades ago. And hate crimes, according to the FBI, are near 14 year lows -- though hate homicides are holding steady.
The worry is that the haters who remain, though few in number, appear much more incensed -- not only about changes in society, but their own personal failures and setbacks. which they seek to violently blame on others. As Page's band Definite Hate sang in "Take Action":
All the talking is done and now, it's time to walk the walk
Revolution's in the air
9-mm in my hand
You can run but you can't hide from this master plan.
Brian Levin is director of the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, and a former associate director of Legal Affairs for the Southern Poverty Law Center's Klanwatch/Militia Task Force.