• Kevin Elliott

A catalog of hate groups operating in Michigan

Across the country and throughout the state, hate is on the rise. Nationally, there were 917 hate groups identified in 2016 by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), up from 892 the previous year. Those figures include an additional nine such groups operating in Michigan, bringing the state’s number of hate groups to 28 in 2016.

Those figures are part of the SPLC’s most recent Hate Map, which lists Ku Klux Klan, Neo-Nazi, white supremacist, black separatist and other hate groups by name and location in each state.

The SPLC defines hate groups as any group that has beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics. The list was compiled using hate group publications and websites, citizen and law enforcement reports, field sources and news reports. Hate group activities can include criminal acts, marches, rallies, speeches, meetings, leafleting or publishing.

To be included in the list, each hate group must have participated in at least one hate group activity in 2016. That means some of the additional groups added to the list – which includes four KKK groups, three anti-Muslim and one black separatist group – may have been in existence prior to 2016 but inactive in terms of monitoring.

Between 2000 and 2016, the overall number of hate groups in Michigan rose from 14 to 28, with there being the most active groups in 2010 with 35 groups. That increase followed a national trend in the rise of hate groups since the turn of the century, driven in part by anger over Latino immigration and demographic projections showing that whites will no longer hold majority status in the country by about 2040.

“That rise accelerated in 2009, the year President (Barack) Obama took office, but declined after that, in part because large numbers of extremists were moving to the web and away from on-the-ground activities,” the SPLC said. “In the last two years, in part due to a presidential campaign that flirted heavily with extremist ideas, the hate group count has risen again.”

Included in the most recent rise are new numbers of “anti-Muslim,” black separatist and some other groups while others have declined. For instance, the number of Neo-Nazi groups in Michigan dropped from 11 in 2007 to four in 2016, due in part to larger groups essentially absorbing some smaller ones. The numbers reflect the actual number of groups in the state, not necessarily the number of members of any one group or category.

Also, not all “groups” are actual groups, but may include a single individual, or a blog, website or business. For instance, NS Publications, based in Wyandotte, is listed by the SPLC as a Neo-Nazi hate group. The group is a website and online source of National Socialism materials available to purchase.

The SPLC also has expanded the number of categories included in its hate map, bringing in additional groups that may have already been active.

Deir Yassin Remembered was listed by the SPLC for the first time in 2016 as a Holocaust denial hate group active in Ann Arbor. However, Henry Herskovitz, an advisor on the group’s board, said he has been picketing outside of Ann Arbor’s Beth Israel Congregation for more than a dozen years, with another small local group he formed.

Formerly an attendee of the congregation, Herskovitz said he began weekly protests in front of the synagogue after its leaders refused to let him share his photos and views of Palestine with the community after a visit to the region. The group’s name, Deir Yassin, is a reference to the former Palestinian Arab village where more than 100 people were massacred during the 1947-48 civil war.

Herskovitz rejects the label of Holocaust denier, instead calling himself and the group “revisionists” who question specifics of the Jewish Holocaust.

“None of the revisionists deny that there was widespread suffering in many communities. What they question is the so-called Final Solution that was meant to be ethnic cleansing and extermination,” he said. “They (revisionists) claim there was no homicidal gas chambers used by the Third Reich, and there were far fewer than six million deaths.”

Herskovitz said while he’s never been a very religious person, he was raised in a very conservative Jewish home. He said he attended the Beth Israel Congregation for high holiday services from 1970 to 1985 because it brought back memories of his father.

“There’s been so many claims about the Holocaust that have been proven false. ... But if these claims that I and many others were raised on are false, then it leads you to ask what else is false, and that leads you to almost question religion.”

Earlier this year, Deir Yassin Remembered paid for a billboard near Whitmore Lake that stated, “America First Not Israel.” Outfront Media later called the billboard an “attack ad” and declined to run additional spots, Herskovitz said. Still, he said he doesn’t understand why the SPLC listed the group on the same map as the KKK and Neo-Nazis.

“The only thing we hate is mendacity; that’s the whole thing that drives me,” Herskovitz said. “I’ve been lied to my whole life. ‘A land without a people (for a people without a land)’ – what a crock.”

Radical Right expert Mark Potok, a former senior fellow at the SPLC for 20 years prior to departing the center in March 2017 to work on independent projects, said violence or outright slurs alone aren’t qualifiers for a group to land on the SPLC’s Hate Map.

“There is no official arbiter, at the end of the day; it’s a matter of opinion,” Potok said. “For the SPLC’s list, it’s a group that espouses doctrines that attack whole groups of people based on a class of characteristics that are unchangeable. The bottom line is that it’s strictly about ideology. Does a group in its writings and speeches of its leaders somehow say someone is less by virtue of their class characteristics? The basis is to understand that it’s not about violence or criminality, and that may be controversial in some minds.”

With several of the groups rejecting the “hate group” label and disavowing violent ideologies, those on the list share a common bond, with each claiming to be victims of political correctness whose freedom of speech has been oppressed. Defending that right has become a rallying call for many landing on the SPLC’s map, with the latest battleground in Michigan.

A recent lawsuit filed by Clinton Township attorney Kyle Bristow against Michigan State University (MSU) claims the school violated the constitutional rights of a Georgia State University student trying to plan a speech by a prominent white nationalist. Michigan State University denied renting the student accomodations to allow Richard Spencer, head of the National Policy Institute, to speak. The university said the decision wasn’t an attempt at censorship, but out of concern for the safety of its students.

Spencer is credited with coining the term “alt right” as a mainstream description of white nationalist ideology being spread throughout college campuses across the country. While not the organizer, he has been considered key to the Unite the Right rally in August that left one person dead and several injured in Charlottesville, Virginia at University of Virginia. The rally is considered by white supremacists and the groups that monitor them to be the largest gathering of Neo-Nazis, KKK members, skinheads and other white nationalist groups in recent history. Michigan State University cited violence at the rally as cause for denying Spencer accommodations in East Lansing.

“With the efforts on campuses, there’s a huge hubbub about free speech, and five universities have refused Richard Spencer, and now one is being sued,” Potok said. “These groups are quite cleverly using the battle as if it were some sophisticated discussion of free speech. I’m not arguing they shouldn’t have free speech, but it’s a cynical effort to make their voices louder than they already are.”

Foundation for the Marketplace of Ideas is listed by the SPLC as a white nationalist website based in Clinton Township. Founded in March 2016, its self-described mission is to “educate the public about the freedoms guaranteed by the United States Constitution and people who and organizations which strive to usurp said freedoms.” Executive Director Kyle Bristow is the attorney who recently filed suit against MSU for denying a speaking engagement for white nationalist Richard Spencer, who is listed as one of the group’s board members.

Bristow, who failed to return multiple requests for comment to Downtown newsmagazine, caught the attention of the SPLC while still an undergraduate student at MSU. He is also president of the Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) group and served on the student government council. The SPLC said Bristow was recalled after pushing an agenda to capture undocumented immigrants in the area and cut school funding for non-heterosexual groups. As head of the YAF, he planned a “Catch an Illegal Immigrant Day,” a “Koran desecration contest” and led a “straight power” rally in front of Lansing City Hall where protesters held signs saying “End Faggotry” and “Go Back in the Closet.”

In 2010, Bristow released “White Apocalypse,” his self-published “semi-fictional” novel based on a claim that North America was settled by European whites 17,000 years ago, but systematically murdered 5,000 years later by dark-skinned “Amerindians.” To expose the truth, the hero of the book – “a fiery lawyer” – battles in the courtroom and in the streets to squash the “Center for Diversity and Multiculturalism,” which, like the SPLC, maintains an active legal staff and hate group list.

Potok said one of the book’s characters, David Greenberg, is based on a version of himself. In the book, Greenberg is described as an “oily, curly haired troll” who works for the Center for Diversity and Multiculturalism before his assassination by the novel’s hero. Laid out in graphic and bloody detail in the novel, the SPLC said Bristow denied the assassination description or that the victim are meant to represent Potok.

American Freedom Law Center is an Ann Arbor-based law office that bills itself as “the national’s first truly authentic Judeo-Christian, public-interest law firm.” It was listed by the SPLC as a hate group for the first time in 2016 under the “anti-Muslim” category.

“I’m a conservative Catholic and my colleague is an Orthodox Jew from New York. The very suggestion that we are a hate group is an absurdity,” said Robert Muise, the firm’s co-founder. “The Southern Poverty Law Center has a history of going after the KKK, but it has since taken a hard leftist view. They now go after anyone on the conservative right. They don’t like our viewpoint. They don’t like our politics, so they marginalize us and push us off to the fringe. All the SPLC does with their hard left, secular agenda is peddle lies about organizations such as mine, and many others on the list. It’s an absolute absurdity what they are doing.”

Muise, a 13-year veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps who served in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm in the Persian Gulf War, started a second career as an attorney in 2000. He joined New York attorney David Yerushalmi in 2012 to form the American Freedom Law Center. The SPLC specifically lists Yerushalmi as an anti-Muslim activist “who is a leading proponent of the idea that the United States is threatened by the imposition of Muslic religious law, known as “Shariah.”

“For good or ill, the battle of America’s soul is being waged in courtrooms across America, pressed forward by secular progressives and sharia-advocating Muslim Brotherhood interests,” the firm states on its website.

In its legal work, the firm is involved in free speech cases involving pro-life advocates and freedom of religion issues, including those pushing for extreme vetting for Islamist Sharia ideology. In March, the firm filed a civil rights suit against the city of Sterling Heights on behalf of residents opposing the construction of a mosque in the city. The firm, according to the SPLC, has also pushed for anti-Shariah laws in legislatures across the country, arguing that America has unique values of liberty and freedom that don’t exist in foreign legal systems.

Muise, frustrated by the hate group designation, said it’s the SPLC who is the real hate group, a claim made by dozens of groups who have found themselves on the Hate Map.

“They are the ultimate of hate groups. They hate our message and they hate our Christian view and hate our Orthodox Jewish message,” he asserted. “They are enemies of the First Amendment, and they are trying to shut us down by employing tactics like this.

“Why not add Al Queda, ISIS and all the other terrorist groups to their list... Guess what, it’s the Muslims who are doing the global terrorism. Go on the FBI most wanted list right now. I’ll tell you what, none of them are conservative Christians. One is a Black Liberation Party person, and one is an environmentalist. I don’t see one conservative Christian on there.”

Nationwide, the SPLC said there has been a 197-percent increase in anti-Muslim hate groups in the country from 2015 to 2016, and it has increased from just five in 2010 to 101 in 2016.

ACT For America is one of the largest organizations listed by the SPLC as an anti-Muslim hate group, with more than a quarter-million members and 1,000 chapters, including those in Detroit and Grand Rapids.