White supremacy in Berkshires: Rare, or flying under radar?

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PITTSFIELD — In 1998, a photo shop employee gave an envelope to Pittsfield Police. Inside were pictures of a Ku Klux Klan initiation the worker saw while developing the film.

Police looked closely. They saw cars and they ran plates. And some of those plates were registered to Berkshire County residents, though the event happened over the county line.

This story comes from Pittsfield's chief of police, Michael Wynn. Wynn said that while his department's intelligence and gang units keep a close eye on any known local white supremacy groups, there hasn't been much organized activity from these groups in recent years.

"There's not a whole lot of chatter or intelligence locally, even after Charlottesville," he said.

It was the deadly violence after a neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Va., during the summer that left three people dead and made people wonder if white supremacists were in their midst.

Part of the carnage was that President Donald Trump appeared to blame the victims and counter-rallying groups like Antifa, after stoking white nationalism during a hotheaded presidential campaign.

The Berkshires wasn't spared from fear that hate groups were operating in a place where high culture and a farm-to-table ethic mixes with the concerns of those struggling in a shifting economy that has lost its manufacturing jobs.

There are some Confederate flags displayed at homes or on vehicles in Berkshire County, and occasionally a swastika turns up.

But organized groups either have a small presence here, or they lie low.

Local and state corrections officials say they rarely come across people who belong to white power groups.

And local court officials, not wanting to be identified, say they haven't seen signs that defendants, for instance, might be affiliated with such groups.

Unless they stay under the radar, as some have suggested, including Wynn and Thomas Robb, the national director of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.

These are cloudy waters. So cloudy that the director of a local organization devoted to preventing hate crimes and all forms of bigotry declined to elaborate.

Gwendolyn Hampton VanSant, CEO and founding director of Multicultural BRIDGE, said in an email that her organization has had "no clear reports or interactions with a white nationalist or KKK movement to date."

The Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights group that tracks groups like the Klan and neo-Nazis, says the state has 12 hate groups, including Daily Stormer, a Cambridge and Lowell-based group that made fun of a woman killed in the Charlottesville protests.

Then came the Boston Free Speech rally, stirring tensions once again. The rally was said to appeal to some of the same groups that were drawn to Charlottesville.

These raw conditions were inflamed by something else. Before the rally, Robb told The Boston Herald some of its members from Springfield and Boston were expected to attend, along with anti-rally protesters and Antifa, a radical left group.

"I know some of our members from the Springfield area are going," Robb told The Herald. "I'm assuming members in the Boston area are going."

This set off alarm bells. Springfield is not far away.

The 'hate map'

There are two active hate groups operating in Springfield, according to the SPLC's interactive "hate map," which identified 917 groups in the U.S. They are Abiding Truth Ministries, an anti-LGBT group, and Nation of Islam, a black separatist group.

But two statewide groups identified by the SPLC are the neo-Nazi group, Gallows Tree Wotansvolk Alliance and Aryan Strikeforce, racist skinheads.

The SPLC declined an interview for this article. But its website says the hate map pulls information from sources that include a group's publications and websites, news and law enforcement reports.

Robb's Harrison, Ark., Klan headquarters is on the map. In a phone interview with The Eagle, Robb said the group's members keep a low profile, and that people are misguided in thinking that Klan members look like skinheads "with lots of tattoos."

"People have the idea that they can spot Klan members," he said. "They could be moms and dads and children or people who work at the bank."

And Robb, a convivial fellow, said he deplores hatred.

"We don't hate racially," he said. No, he added, it's all about white people feeling like they're "a stranger in their own country."

Robb, who said he has been in the Klan movement for 50 years, said he didn't know how many Klansmen were in Western Massachusetts.

"There aren't thousands," he said.

'We know they're here'

Wynn said anti-Semitic messages were left on a car last spring, just after Pittsfield's parking kiosks were installed.

"In recent memory, that's the only biased-based hate crime investigation we've been involved in," he said. "And the defendant had a mental illness issue."

But Wynn said the area isn't absent of such thinking.

"We are aware that there are local hate groups and white supremacy groups, and we do try to pay attention," he said. "Generally, they try to keep below the radar, so we don't see a lot of organized activity and intelligence chatter. But we know they're here."

Wynn, who was a gang intelligence officer in the 1990s when those Klan initiation photos arrived, said the department had identified the local white supremacists back then and keeps track even now.

"We know who they are," he added.

Wynn said that in 2000, rising tensions at the high school ended in a big fight. Police found that some students were being groomed and recruited by an adult who was a "full-blown white supremacist."

He said the department worked with school officials and teachers.

"We stopped it," he said. "Those are the issues we look out for. The hope is to keep on top of things before there are problems."

Eric Munson III, Sheffield chief of police, said the school does a good job squashing that occasional rebel flag flying from a teenager's pickup.

But Munson, who has been chief for 10 years, said that maybe once or twice a year, the department will arrest someone for drunken driving and later find they have a hate group affiliation. But he said they haven't been locals.

"It's usually someone traveling through town, and something comes up on their criminal background that gives us the impression that they're involved in something like that," he said.

Munson, who previously worked for the Egremont and Great Barrington police, said he is not seeing it locally.

"It's hidden, and if it does exist here in Sheffield, it hasn't reared its ugly head — not in a direct way."

Stopping growth where it can fester

Jails and prisons have always been considered hotbeds for recruitment.

The Aryan Brotherhood, for instance, was founded in a state prison and still has a deadly reach throughout the nation's prison system. While the group now behaves more like a typical crime syndicate, thousands of members continuously cycle in and out of prisons.

In Massachusetts, corrections officials at the local and state levels say they don't see many inmates who are affiliated with white supremacy groups. But they've got rules to deal with it.

Cara Savelli, a spokesperson for the state Department of Corrections said such groups are called "Security Threat Groups" and include gang members and other group affiliations.

Savelli said there aren't many. Out of 9,000 inmates in the state's 16 prisons, 89 are suspected or confirmed as white supremacists.

The department gathers intelligence and tracks them. And there are sanctions for doing or possessing anything that smacks of such an affiliation.

"It all depends on the severity of the infraction," she said.

Hate-leaning periodicals, photos and newsletters are off-limits. Wearing or displaying symbolism will also get you a loss of accrued "good time," time that would otherwise be taken off a sentence.

Savelli said it's all about running a safe, secure prison, and to thwart the growth of such groups.

Berkshire County Sheriff Thomas Bowler said he takes it one step further. At the Berkshire County Jail and House of Correction, Bowler says the mission is to correct behavior, provide help and reintegrate inmates into the community. Inmates come here for short jail stays or sentences of less than 2 years.

It begins by finding out whether inmates belong to a gang or other group. There's a security assessment that Bowler said reveals it.

He said there are Bloods, Crips, Latin King and a few others in the population of about 250.

But not many white supremacists.

"If I have one or two here, that's a lot," he said. "We may have one."

Either way, he says he is prepared with two housing units where he can separate inmates.

But he said so far, white and African-American inmates share cells together and do fine.

"We very rarely have any racial disputes in this jail."

Bowler, who used to be a Pittsfield Police detective, said area law enforcement continuously shares information. That is the key, he added, to keeping tabs on organized white supremacy or other groups.

"If anything is percolating, everyone hears about it," he said.

You can reach Heather Bellow at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com @BEheatherbellow on Twitter and 413-329-6871.


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