As the nation observes Black History Month 2010, it;s possible to note the dovetail of history and current events in the recent past. One of those happened at a ritual observance of the Martin Luther King Jr. national holiday — one of the parades to which we’ve become accustomed, the tributes that are almost par for the course. It pretty much fell off the immediate radar of major media. It didn’t bleed, so it didn’t lead.
The story began on Jan. 17, at the northeast corner of Washington Street and Main Avenue, on the route of the MLK Unity March in Spokane, Wash., 270 miles east of Seattle. Well before the march began, city public utilities workers found a Swiss Army brand backpack containing a remote-controlled explosive device under a bench on the route where thousands of people would soon walk past.
The backpack was sent to the FBI lab in Quantico, Va. The Spokane Spokesman-Review reported that the sophisticated bomb included a mix of shrapnel — bolts, nails and random small metal — and a remote detonator. Other reports that it included a chemical commonly found in rat poison have been disputed.
“It definitely was, by all early analysis, a viable device that was very lethal and had the potential to inflict multiple casualties,” said Frank Harrill, the special agent in charge of the Spokane FBI office. Since then, authorities have been very tight-lipped about what they’ve found; Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire was briefed by those officials on Jan. 28, but nothing from that briefing’s been made public.
“This was an attempt to murder scores of people at a Martin Luther King Day march,” Mark Potok, director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, told theGrio. “This was a sophisticated antipersonnel device built to hurt as many people as possible. This was an attempted domestic terroristic attack based on race.”
For Potok, it was also something else. “It was an IED. That’s exactly, technically, what it was.”
The terroristic resonance of the acronym for an Improvised Explosive Device isn’t lost on Potok, whose organization tracks the penetration of supremacist and radical-right groups in the United States. The Spokane MLK near-miss was only part of the story.
* Three days before Spokane, on Jan. 14, Jeffrey Harbin, a man with ties to the neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement, was arrested in Arizona after found in his truck with 12 grenade-like explosive devices put together with PVC pipe, filled with black powder and ball bearings, and connected to a homemade fuse. Harbin, son of Jerry Harbin, a known white nationalist sympathizer, was indicted Jan. 26 by a federal grand jury for possession of explosive devices.
* Roger Stockham, who flew helicopter missions in Vietnam, drove from his home in Imperial Beach., Calif. last week and parked a car with a trunk full of Class C explosives (including M-80s) outside the Islamic Center of America in Dearborn, Mich., one of the largest U.S. mosques. The Detroit News reported that, at the time Stockham left his car, some 500 worshippers were attending the mosque. His identity was tipped off when he announced his scheme at a Detroit bar. He was arrested on Jan. 24.
Stockham, a decorated Army veteran of Vietnam diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health problems, briefly went to federal prison for threatening to kill President George W. Bush and to bomb a Vermont veterans’ clinic.
He was arraigned on Wednesday, and returns to court on Friday.
A bomb scare shut down part of Government Way in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho on Jan. 29, after an inmate on a work crew found a device in a drain pipe. A bomb squad later determined that the device — a cell phone strapped to a road flare with a battery inside — wasn’t dangerous.
It was found on the property of the Kootenai County Sheriff’s Department.
These in-your-face attempts at racial and ethnic threats run counter to other, unsettling attempts to mainstream the separatist experience. Last March 22, white supremacists in Kalispell, Mont., made a bid for everyday acceptance when they started a white nationalist film festival in the basement of the public library. On the first night of Passover, they sponsored their first film, Holocaust Debate. Admission was free.
April Gaede, a woman who self-identified as a white nationalist, defended her sentiments to a reporter from The Missoulian. “The term racist has kind of got a bad rap,” she said. “A racist is just a person who acknowledges the differences between the races.”
She told The Missoulian she decided to live in Kalispell because the town is predominantly white. “There’s a lot less crime where there’s a lot less non-white people,” she said. “That’s just a fact.”
“Over 20 years ago, some of the first white nationalist pioneers started moving to this area,” she said. “The numbers are not clear, but we are slowly but surely gaining ground.”
Last February, Paul Mullet, self-identified as a national director of the Aryan Nations group visited John Day, Ore., a rural town south of Spokane, and announced a desire to open a compound there, and host a national conference of his organization in September 2011.
Aryan Nations, founded near Hayden Lake, Idaho in 1973, was implicated in various crimes included several bombings in the mid-1980s, including those at the home of a Catholic priest, the federal courthouse in nearby Coeur d’Alene and other locations. The group was bankrupted by a lawsuit in 2000, and forced to move.
Spokane, site of the Jan. 17 rally, has had racist encounters before. Another pipe bomb similarly jammed with shrapnel blew up (without injuries) outside Spokane City Hall in April 1996. Federal prosecutors later indicted two white supremacists in the case. Both also were later convicted for three murders in Arkansas. Two other bombings tied to the white supremacist movement damaged a Planned Parenthood building, and an office of The Spokesman-Review.
Other MLK Day-related incidents took place, things that amounted to merely veiled threats, bad manners by comparison. On the campus of Montana State University in Billings, for example, somebody threw white nationalist fliers into the lobby of the Petro Theater, hosting this year’s MLK Day event.
“It’s remarkable how little national attention this has gotten,” Potok said. “In the space of about 10 days we’ve seen a remarkable rash of domestic terrorism. As a nation, we’re very quick to talk about foreign terrorism threats, but there has been very little notice taken of a real rash of domestic terrorism incidents in the past few weeks.”
“We’ve seen hate group numbers rise steadily for at least 10 years now,” Potok said. “In the year 2000, there were 602 hate groups. By 2009, there were 932, about a 55 percent rise.”
“We’ve haven’t published the 2010 numbers yet, but they’re up again,” Potok said. “There’s a been a long steady rise of hate groups and we’ve noticed a rise in the radical right’s activity in the last two years. The vast majority of this growth has been driven by the changing demographics in the United States.”
The most recent catalyst, Potok said, were the Pew Research Center and Census Bureau projections of the U.S. population between 2042 and 2050, which determined that whites will be in the minority by that year, with an estimated percentage of the population well under 50 percent.
“This has set off a frenzy and a frustration in many quarters,” Potok said. “Many whites feel this is not the country that their Christian white forefathers built it.”
As the nation observes Black History Month 2010, it’s possible to note the dovetail of history and current events.
The Spokane incident, and the bombing attempts in Arizona and Michigan almost joined a chain of events in black American history. Between March 1956 and November 1957, three bombings occurred at homes in Atlanta, Ga., at homes owned by black families in formerly all-white neighborhoods.
In that same time frame terrorists bombed synagogues in Alabama, Florida, North Carolina and Tennessee. In the fall of 1958, a recently integrated high school was bombed in Clinton, Tenn.
And in 1963, four schoolgirls were killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist church in Birmingham, Ala., in the incident that seared racial terrorism in the American mind.
There’s a difference between then and now. “The vast majority of these kinds of attacks aren’t carried out by groups or cells, but typically by lone wolves,” SPLC’s Potok said of the recent incidents. “It’s vastly more likely that this was carried out by one person, or maybe a small number. Those things aren’t planned anymore in large groups.”
Recent data bear that out. The National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), reported that the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing was a dividing line in the source of domestic terrorism. ”[T]he attack by an individual unaffiliated with a terrorist organization in Oklahoma City reflected a shift in the nature of U.S. terrorist perpetrators in the mid-1990s,” says the organization at its website. ”… Since 1995, a much higher percentage of terrorist attacks in the United States have been conducted by unaffiliated individuals, rather than by organized groups.”
But whether terrorists come as lone nuts or in packs, everyday people don’t want them around. In John Day, the city community of 2,000 protested against Aryan Nations’ relocation. In Kalispell, the film festival in the library was similarly met with opponents.
One Kalispell local, a rabbi, told a reporter he chose to live in the area because of its profound natural; beauty. “But even if you’re living in paradise,” he said, “paradise has some snakes.”
Their protests are a pushback against the thread, the fuse of intolerance running through our history: from the bombing of a freshly-integrated high school to the bombing of synagogues in four states; from the bombing of a Birmingham church two generations past to the attempted Spokane bombing of a rally to honor a peacemaker, less than a month ago.
Racial hatred is our nation’s intermittent explosive device.
This report contains information distilled from the book “Beneath the Image of the Civil Rights Movement: Race Relations 1946-1981” by David Andrew Harmon; and from the journalism of Jonathan Brunt, Thomas Clouse and Dave Oliveria of the Spokane Spokesman-Review; Gwen Florio and Michael Jamison of The Missoulian; and Lauren Dake of the Bend (Ore.) Bulletin.