Category Archives: Racism

How White Supremacists Split a Quiet Rust Belt Town in PA


Outside the home of Daniel Burnside in Ulysses, Pa. Burnside is director of the National Socialist Movement. (Brett Carlsen/For The Washington Post)

 — The traffic sign that greets visitors on the south side of Ulysses, a tiny town in rural far north-central Pennsylvania, is suitably quaint — a silhouette of a horse-drawn cart reminding drivers that the Amish use the roads, too. But on the north side of town, along the main thoroughfare, is a far different display: a home dedicated to Adolf Hitler, where star-spangled banners and Nazi flags flutter side by side and wooden swastikas stand on poles.

White supremacy has had a continuous presence in Ulysses and surrounding Potter County since the Ku Klux Klan arrived a century ago, giving the town — with a population today of about 650 — improbable national significance. In the mid-2000s, it hosted the World Aryan Congress, a gathering of neo-Nazis, skinheads and Klan members.

This year, after a sting operation, federal prosecutors charged six members of an Aryan Strike Force cell with weapons and drug offenses, contending that they had plotted a suicide attack at an anti-racism protest. A terminally ill member was willing to hide a bomb in his oxygen tank and blow himself up, prosecutors said. The group had met and conducted weapons training in Ulysses.

Neo-Nazis and their opponents here say that white extremists have grown more confident — and confrontational — since the rise of Donald Trump. Two months before the 2016 presidential election, the KKK established a “24 hour Klan Line” and sent goody bags containing lollipops and fliers to hundreds of homes. “You can sleep tonight knowing the Klan is awake,” the message read. A regional newspaper ran Klan advertisements saying, “God bless the KKK.”

Local police said the group had not openly recruited in years.

Two weeks later, the area’s two neo-Nazi groups, the National Socialist Movement (NSM) and Aryan Strike Force, held a “white unity meeting” in Ulysses to discuss their response to Trump and plan joint action. One organizer would not say when the groups had last met, simply commenting: “It’s just a good time.”

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Potter County is staunchly Republican and has voted Democratic once since 1888; Trump received 80 percent of the vote, tying with Herbert Hoover for the highest percentage won.

“I can tell you with certainty that since November 2016, activity has doubled, whether it’s feet on the street or money orders or people helping out,” said Daniel Burnside, 43, a woodcarver who owns the Nazi-themed home and directs the state chapter of the National Socialist Movement, a far-right group that was founded in Detroit in the mid-1970s. It has a presence in many states, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks extremist groups, and the NSM was among the groups taking part in the violent August 2017 rally in defense of Confederate statues in Charlottesville.

“We have meetings every 30 days,” he said. “ There’s more collaboration.”


Daniel Burnside poses for a portrait on July 7, 2018, in Galeton, Pa. (Brett Carlsen/For The Washington Post)

Burnside, who declined to say how many local residents were involved in his group, was born in Ulysses and raised there by a grandfather who he said was a Nazi sympathizer who fought in the U.S. Army in Europe during World War II. Burnside said his beloved grandfather drank himself to death because of the war’s impact on him.

The younger Burnside said he joined the NSM four years ago but has long harbored anti-Semitic views and is a practicing Odinist — the pagan religion Odinism is popular among some neo-Nazis. Burnside does not see Trump as a leader of the NSM cause but as a politician who amplified long-standing white-nationalist views at the right time.

“Personally, I don’t know about Trump,” he said. “You won’t necessarily see MAGA hats at an NSM meeting. We’re anti-Semitic. Something’s off about Trump with the Jews. That said, we’re strategically aligned. When Trump says something that aligns with us — close the borders, build the wall, look after your own — that’s good: We’ve been saying this for 25 years, but he has made it mainstream.”

“We’re still a white nation, and I respect that he supports that,” Burnside added. “He’s also highlighted social problems. The kids who go to bed hungry, people who can’t pay their bills, the damage being done to society.”

Joe Leschner, 38, a white restaurant manager, fled the county this year because of what he said was abuse aimed at him and his wife, Sashena, who is black, after Trump’s election.

After he discovered a KKK leaflet outside their home, Leschner organized an anti-racism gathering in Ulysses. “And these guys drove by us and gave the gun signal, like they’re going to shoot us,” he said.

One of those who Leschner said made a pistol gesture had previously been jailed for 10 years for an aggravated assault on a black man. This year he was convicted of possession of firearms he was not legally allowed to own and intent to sell drugs.

Photographs of the Leschners were circulated on VK, a Russian-run social media site, with users posting death threats, he said.

“A guy came up to us in a restaurant and said, ‘You have got to be kidding me.’ I wanted to say something, but just couldn’t. This was where I grew up, at the restaurant where I got my first job. My wife was almost in tears,” he recalled.

“We had to leave,” said Leschner, who now runs a restaurant in Frederick, Md. “Most people aren’t racist, but there are enough that are and enough who let it happen.”

Kathleen Blee, a University of Pittsburgh sociology professor and expert on white extremism, said Ulysses came to be a nexus of such thinking as like-minded residents gravitated to one another.


Sashena and Joe Leschner fled Potter County this year because of what they said was abuse. (Joe Leschner)

“Modern white extremism is different to the KKK in the 1920s or Nazi Germany in that it is exclusively produced through small networks. It is not a mass movement,” she said. “It’s just one person recruiting another. Somebody knowing somebody. . . . You get an extremist in an area, they attract other extremists.”

Ulysses’s most famous resident may have been August Kreis III, 63, a neo-Nazi from New Jersey who moved to town in the 1990s and left about 10 years ago. Kreis made Ulysses the national headquarters of the Aryan Nations group and organized events such as the Aryan World Congress. In 2015, he was sentenced to 50 years in prison on a child-molestation conviction.

Pennsylvania has 36 racial hate groups, more than Alabama, Arkansas or Kansas, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“This area is well known for white supremacy. It’s got a rich history and the right conditions to thrive,” said Heidi Beirich of the SPLC. “It’s as significant as many areas in the South usually associated with white supremacy.”

Rural Appalachia, which includes Ulysses’s Potter County, has a wary attitude to outside forces — especially the state — that is often cited as a reason that anti-government militia groups and white extremists have prospered here. “There is also an extreme mind-your-own business approach and a belief in individual rights,” Blee said.

Months before the Leschners fled the area, another controversy erupted after a sheriff’s deputy from a neighboring county entered Burnside’s front yard and confiscated a Nazi flag. Burnside called his local police force, demanding that the deputy return the flag and record a video apology. When that did not happen, he went to state police and pursued a theft case. The 23-year-old deputy was forced to return the flag and pay damages. Local police confirmed that he was suspended and left his position shortly after the trial’s conclusion.

A chain saw at Daniel Burnside’s home with its logo modified to resemble the World War II lightning bolt insignia of the Nazi SS force. (Brett Carlsen/For The Washington Post)
Daniel Burnside carves a swastika, the ancient Eurasian religious icon that was adopted by the Nazis, into the bottom of items he makes. (Brett Carlsen/For The Washington Post)
Many locals suggested that they were more upset by the deputy’s actions than by the neo-Nazism. One man, an Army veteran who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of being branded a racist, said there was no comparison between World War II Nazis and Ulysses residents.

“World War II was a totally different time period. It’s part of history,” he said. “He can do what he wants. . . . Everyone has their own thing.”

One day recently, Burnside, accompanied by a reporter, drove around town dressed in a shirt featuring Hitler’s face as the main design. None of the locals he chatted with objected to his attire.

City council president Roy Hunt insisted that this reflected the town’s generous spirit.

“We’re a laid-back town, and we’re going to be nice to everybody,” Hunt said. “I’ve known Danny for 20 years. If you were in town and you walked around with him, you’re right, he’ll be welcome in every store. . . . If you’re nice, people will be nice to you 98 percent of the time.”

“If he were to put something up that said kill all members of a race, in my opinion that would be crossing the line, but he doesn’t have that sign up,” Hunt said.

He added that the town’s Nazi presence had been exaggerated by the news media and opposing groups.

Burnside said he serves the community. “I do fundraisers for American Legion with my artwork. Boys and Girls Clubs, regardless of race or ethnicity, I do fundraisers. . . . The only way I can help white people is by helping everyone.”

Other residents disagree about the impact of the white supremacists’ presence. As he shopped among Burnside’s carved wooden bears and eagle sculptures, some of them signed with a swastika, Tom Lee, a road construction manager, said that he supports the First Amendment and that the Nazi presence “ain’t nothing to do with me. It’s a free country.”

“After a while, you’re not what you were anymore,” he added. “It is America out here, but not in the inner cities anymore.”

William Fish, a 72-year-old carpenter, recalled as a child accompanying his mother as she delivered blankets and shoes to the shacks where black field workers lived.

“We’re not a racist town, but there are people who will turn a blind eye when they see racism happening. That’s why we have this history,” he said. “I think it has got worse since Trump, I honestly do. I also think our young people do not today share the same rotten values as older people.”

Belinda Empson, 59, said it pained her that veterans in the Memorial Day parade had to march past Nazi signs.


Main Street in Ulysses, Pa. (Brett Carlsen/For The Washington Post)

“My grandson is 8 years old and he’s already asking about the Nazi flags,” said Empson, a retired waitress. “And I don’t want to explain to my grandson what it means, what they’re about. We should have settled this stuff years ago.”

Empson said Ulysses had been divided since Trump’s victory: “I think Trump has opened the gate and said, ‘It’s okay.’ It was not a license, but a subtle, ‘It’s okay.’ I think we are seeing that now.”

“It bothers me,” she added, “because we have good people in this town.”

Wanda Shirk, 68, an English teacher who worked at a Potter County school for 28 years, joked that the town had become LGBT — “Liberty, Guns, Bible, Trump.”

“I don’t think everyone here is racist, but I think a lot are racially insensitive,” she said, “and Trump has allowed that to grow.”

Continue reading How White Supremacists Split a Quiet Rust Belt Town in PA

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Anniversary March Commemorates Selma, Stresses the Importance of Voting

By Justin Criado

Beaver County Times

March 9, 2015 – BEAVER FALLS — Upwards of 100 people marched from New Brighton to Beaver Falls on Sunday afternoon to commemorate the 50th anniversary of "Bloody Sunday," which took place March 7, 1965, in Selma, Ala., as civil rights activists marched to the state capital of Montgomery for voting rights.

"Things like this sparks into the people to get out there and vote, and that we have a chance to get out there and make a difference," said Abe Askew, of Aliquippa.

Askew believed that Sunday’s march and similar acts of empowerment can have positive impacts on people and communities alike, saying he will spread the word regarding the importance of voting.

"(I’ll tell) all the people that I know from Aliquippa and it’ll go from here to there," Askew said. "It goes into a stream and a stream into a river."

The march began at New Brighton’s Townsend Park, across from the borough building at Third Avenue and Sixth Street, and crossed the bridge over the Beaver River to Beaver Falls, before concluding at Beaver Falls Memorial Park at Sixth Avenue and 11th Street, where several guest speakers addressed the crowd, including event organizer Olivia Ryan.

Ryan, a graduate of Beaver Falls High School and Kent State University, decided to organize the event after a panel discussion on law, race and the community last weekend at Geneva College. (Continued)

Continue reading Anniversary March Commemorates Selma, Stresses the Importance of Voting

Pittsburgh’s Mayor Supports Chief McLay’s Embrace of Anti-Racism Message

Pittsburgh Police Chief Cameron McLay on New Year’s Eve, holding a sign offered by the local activist group What’s Up?! Pittsburgh. The photo was widely circulated on social media. What’s Up?! Pittsburgh

City police union president objects to chief’s appearance in social media and effect on officer morale

By Michael A. Fuoco
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Jan 4, 2015 Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto was at home with his girlfriend on New Year’s Eve when he glanced at his smartphone and saw a Facebook posting of a photograph of Police Chief Cameron McLay holding a sign reading “I resolve to challenge racism @ work. # end white silence.”

“I thought, ‘What a great way to begin the new year,’ ” the mayor said, and he showed his girlfriend the photo. It had been taken by activists from What’s Up?! Pittsburgh, who approached the chief in a coffee shop during the city’s First Night festivities and asked him pose with their sign.

So pleased was Mayor Peduto with his new police chief’s action that he quickly posted the photograph on his own Facebook account, adding his support to restoring trust between the police bureau and the communities it serves, a stated goal of Chief McLay.

“I thought there was very little chance for someone to say this was the wrong message to send,” Mr. Peduto recounted Saturday.

He was wrong.

The photo, which continues to be shared on social media, has drawn cheers from numerous groups and individuals, but Fraternal Order of Police President Howard McQuillan isn’t among them.

KDKA-TV quoted him Friday as saying the photo amounted to the chief labeling the police force as racist. And in an email to the chief, obtained by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Officer McQuillan wrote that the chief’s actions raised “serious concerns. … By Mayor Peduto labeling us ‘corrupt and mediocre’ and now our current Chief insinuating that we are now racist, merely by the color of our skin and the nature of our profession, I say enough is enough!”

Moreover, Officer McQuillan accused the chief of violating the bureau’s social media policy and of being “hypocritical” for disciplining two officers who violated it.

In response, Chief McLay sent an email to the entire bureau Friday with the subject line “Race and Police” in which he apologized “if any of my PBP family was offended,” adding “I saw no indictment of police or anyone else in this sign.”

Continue reading Pittsburgh’s Mayor Supports Chief McLay’s Embrace of Anti-Racism Message

Young People Take to the Street in Solidarity with Ferguson, Garner and vs. other Killings

Pittsburgh police give Downtown protesters their space

By Liz Navratil

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Dec 4, 2014 – Julia Johnson let out a piercing scream on the steps of the City-County Building on Thursday afternoon.

“Stop killing us!” she yelled next. Then, she screamed loudly once more.

Below her, on the steps leading to the Downtown building, dozens of people lay on the ground, their limbs splayed outward as if they were dead. Later, some would be outlined in chalk, and Ms. Johnson would scatter flower petals over their bodies.

On the outskirts of the protest — which at times swelled to include about 100 people — were Pittsburgh police officers on bicycles and on foot, some in plainclothes. Most of them stood silently or chatted with one another while the crowd — over about two hours — chanted slogans such as “no justice, no peace” and “no racist police.”

Their message was being echoed at similar demonstrations across the country — they decried a New York City grand jury’s decision not to indict an officer who killed Eric Garner in a chokehold this year and lamented a Missouri grand jury’s decision not to charge an officer who killed unarmed teenager Michael Brown.

20141204MWHprotestLocal17-1 Protesters rally against police brutality and racism by marching with their hands up along Liberty Avenue, Downtown.

Protesters rally against police brutality and racism by marching with their hands up along Liberty Avenue, Downtown. Michael Henninger/Post-Gazette

But this demonstration, unlike some in other cities, ended peacefully and without arrests.

Pittsburgh police Cmdr. Eric Holmes stood on the fringes of the protest as groups blocked traffic at four intersections and as one of his officers coordinated with demonstrators to clear the path for a woman driving her child to Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC.

The issues discussed, he said, were important to many officers on the force. “I obviously recognize that I’m an African-American male, so I’m going to come to the discussion on both sides.”

Cmdr. Holmes said he took a “passive approach” to working with the demonstrators. “I allowed them to block the street, and I made that call, so that decision rests with me. We wanted to make sure that individuals are allowed to exercise their First Amendment rights and we do recognize that with that comes a cost, and today that cost was [the] disruption of traffic.”

Elizabeth Pittinger, executive director of the Citizen Police Review Board, watched as the group gathered outside the City-County Building. She praised the police and the protesters for the way they acted. The 2009 G-20 Summit aside, she said, Pittsburgh residents and police have a long history of peacefully interacting with each other at protests.

Still, tensions at times were high. Iyanna Bridges, who is black, yelled in the street at a white man who she said described their protest and stories as “funny.”

Continue reading Young People Take to the Street in Solidarity with Ferguson, Garner and vs. other Killings

Lesson from History: 150 Years Back, Elections Mattered, Too, Only Then the GOP Was Progressive

1864, Lincoln vs. McClellan: How Allegheny County voted

A pivotal presidential contest in the thick of the Civil War, the election was hotly contested in Pittsburgh. Note the role of the ‘Wide Awakes,’ the Insurgent Youth of the time.

20141102hoabelincoln001local Cartoon of Abe Lincoln and Gen. George McClellan prior to 1864 election. Illustration in Harper's Weekly, June 25, 1864.

Cartoon of Abe Lincoln and Gen. George McClellan prior to 1864 election. Illustration in Harper’s Weekly, June 25, 1864.

Voting rites in 1864: messy and unfair, but rough justice

By Len Barcousky

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Nov 2, 2014 – While the editors at Pittsburgh’s Gazette and Post disagreed on almost every issue, the rival newspapers were united on one topic: the importance of the presidential election of 1864.

“The hour has come,” The Pittsburgh Daily Gazette told voters on Nov. 8, election day. “The decisive blow must be struck today.”

“The main issue … is no less than the preservation of our country and with it the preservation of our liberties,” The Daily Pittsburgh Post opined.

Despite worrisome results in congressional elections a month earlier that showed Republican gains, Democrats in southwestern Pennsylvania were counting on a win in the presidential contest.

The Post was the city’s pre-eminent Democratic newspaper, and its editor, James P. Barr expressed confidence.

Six days before the election “the Democracy of Washington, Beaver and Allegheny counties, with their wives, children and sweethearts, turned out en masse to vindicate the Union and the Constitution,” the Post reported Nov. 4. The mass meeting was held in Clinton, Findlay Township.

The march of Democratic supporters, led by Allegheny County delegations from Moon, Crescent, North Fayette and Findlay, “took three-quarters of an hour to pass,” the newspaper said. “The States were represented by a wagon filled with young girls, appropriately clad and adorned, drawn by 35 horses ridden by lads uniformly clothed …”

Why 35 horses and riders? The Union, until the admission of Nevada on Oct. 31, 1864, had 35 states.

Continue reading Lesson from History: 150 Years Back, Elections Mattered, Too, Only Then the GOP Was Progressive

Economic Justice Battle in Pittsburgh

12 30 Civic Arena

The site of the former Civic Arena in the lower Hill District of Pittsburgh.

Hill District leaders urge affordable housing, funding in Penguins’ arena redevelopment

By Tim Schooley

Beaver County Blue via Pittsburgh Business Times

June 12, 2014 – It wasn’t written in as part of the agenda for the Pittsburgh Zoning Board of Adjustment meeting.

But a court-required status update by the Sports & Exhibition Authority on the progress of the former arena site redevelopment by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Lower Hill District came with a call by community groups for more affordable housing and for funding applications to include more of the neighborhood.

The leadership of the Hill Community Development Corp., the Hill Consensus Group and One Pittsburgh used what was otherwise a routine update on the process of applying for grants and building roads and sewer systems into a call for the Pittsburgh Penguins to meet more of their demands and concerns.

Carl Redwood, a community organizer for the Hill District Consensus Group, criticized an established variance approved by the ZBA for the Pittsburgh Penguins that allows the team to generate private revenue from the publicly owned arena site while the SEA applies for state and federal grants and loans to subsidize development plans for the 28 acre property.

In reiterating a call for a $1 per car fund from the parking revenue to invest in community improvements, Redwood expressed a concern in the city’s African American community that new development will result in displacing established residents who lack the income to be included in them.

Continue reading Economic Justice Battle in Pittsburgh

Meet the Preacher Behind Moral Mondays

Coming to Beaver County in June, The Reverend William Barber is charting a new path for protesting Republican overreach in the South—and maybe beyond.

By Lisa Rab

Beaver County Blue via Mother Jones

April 14, 2014 – The Reverend William Barber is charting a new path for protesting conservative overreach in the North Carolina—and beyond.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, the Reverend William Barber II [1] reclined uncomfortably in a chair in his office, sipping bottled water as he recovered from two hours of strenuous preaching. When he was in his early 20s, Barber was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis, a painful arthritic condition affecting the spine. Still wearing his long black robes, the 50-year-old minister recounted how, as he’d proclaimed in a rolling baritone from the pulpit that morning, "a crippled preacher has found his legs."

It began a few days before Easter 2013, recalled Barber, pastor at the Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, North Carolina, and president of the state chapter [2] of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). "On Maundy Thursday, they chose to crucify voting rights," he said.

"They" are North Carolina Republicans, who in November 2012 took control of the state Legislature and the governor’s mansion for the first time in more than a century. Among their top priorities—along with blocking Medicaid expansion and cutting unemployment benefits and higher-education spending—was pushing through a raft of changes to election laws, including reducing the number of early voting days, ending same-day voter registration, and requiring ID at the polls. "That’s when a group of us said, ‘Wait a minute, this has just gone too far,’" Barber said.

Barber "believed we needed to kind of burst this bubble of ‘There’s nothing we can do for two years until the next election.’"

On the last Monday of April 2013, Barber led a modest group of clergy and activists into the state legislative building in Raleigh. They sang "We Shall Overcome," quoted the Bible, and blocked the doors to the Senate chambers. Barber leaned on his cane as capitol police led him away in handcuffs.

That might have been the end of just another symbolic protest, but then something happened: The following Monday, more than 100 protesters showed up at the capitol. Over the next few months, the weekly crowds at the "Moral Mondays" protests grew to include hundreds, and then thousands, not just in Raleigh but also in towns around the state. The largest gathering, in February, drew tens of thousands of people [3]. More than 900 protesters have been arrested for civil disobedience over the past year. Copycat movements have started in Florida [4], Georgia [5], South Carolina [6], and Alabama [7] in response to GOP legislation regarding Medicaid and gun control.

Continue reading Meet the Preacher Behind Moral Mondays

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