Nazis and white supremacists traveling to rural Montana on Labor Day weekend might like to think they're bound for their racial homeland, but Jeremy Rossland is eager to disabuse them of that notion.
Rossland, a 23-year-old social worker in Kalispell, plans to lead a cadre of in-your-face punkers, students and everyday Montanans in direct confrontation with the racist World Church of the Creator, which is gathering Sept. 3-5 in Superior.
It's becoming a well-practiced routine for Rossland and other activists with Anti-Racist Action chapters in Kalispell and Missoula. In July, Rossland was one of 20 protesters in Coeur d'Alene who broke through a police line to blockade a small number of neo-Nazi marchers, forcing them to take a side route.
"It's easy to say you're an anti-racist, but it's another thing altogether to get in their face," said Rossland, a punk rocker with a ring in his nose and chains on his neck. Last year, he organized the ARA Kalispell chapter, which includes 15 activists, most of them punkers. He describes ARA as a loose, anti-authoritarian network of mostly young people with close to 200 chapters in the U.S. and Canada.
"We're the folks who do the dirty work and take the chance of getting arrested," said Rossland, a 1994 Flathead High School graduate. "The Nazis have the right to march, and we have the right to confront them. Our goal is to make life as uncomfortable as possible for the fascists."
In Missoula, Brian Mullan has helped organize Missoula ARA, which has a demonstrated ability to mobilize a big turnout. For example, 100 people attended an April rally in Missoula to protest the pending execution and murder conviction of Philadelphia journalist and Black Panther, Mumia Abu-Jamal, who denies killing a policeman.
Mullan says Missoula Anti-Racist Action is more diverse than many ARA chapters. It includes punk rockers and non-punkers, college students and quite a few high school students, primarily from Hellgate High School. Still, at 29, Mullan is the group's elder statesman.
ARA pushes hard-line confrontation with racists, which Mullan acknowledges can make the average citizen uncomfortable. Nationally, ARA members aren't crazy about cops, either, a feeling that Mullan says is probably mutual. ARA's relations with Missoula police is more positive than most ARA chapters, Mullan adds, and he says that Police Chief Pete Lawrenson's strong anti-racist stance is "pretty cool."
Although ARA is more confrontational than more mainstream groups like the Montana Human Rights Network, MHRN executive director Ken Toole has "nothing but positive things to say about ARA. ARA is more loosely structured than us, but they play a critical role in that they're reaching out to youth that are likely to be the target of Nazi skinheads," Toole says.
But Toole draws a distinction with other anti-Nazi groups, such as the militant Jewish Defense League, which he says is downright violent. "We try not to get mixed up with anything where JDL is involved."
Mullan also draws a distinction between ARA and JDL, which he says takes a reactionary stand on other social issues. "JDL can be confrontational in a way I don't really enjoy," Mullan says. "ARA has a very different vision for society. We're pro-feminist and pro-queer. We're trying to build a multicultural, diverse and liberated lifestyle."
Because of JDL's likely presence in Superior on Labor Day weekend, the Montana Human Rights Network won't be joining Montana ARA activists, who are planning an as-yet-unspecified "action" against the World Church of the Creator and its leader, Matthew Hale of Peoria, Ill. Instead, Toole is working with church leaders in Superior to organize a more positive celebration on Aug. 28 (See "Etc.," page 7).
But Hale's meeting in Superior turns out to be good timing for the two Montana ARA chapters, Mullan says. They were already organizing to confront a second neo-Nazi parade in Coeur d'Alene on Labor Day weekend, until Aryan Nations leader Richard Butler canceled it.
Toole speculated that Butler canceled the parade on the advice of lawyers concerned about Los Angeles murder charges leveled at an Aryan Nations security officer, Bufford Furrow, Jr. After the shooting, Butler reportedly called his lieutenant, Bufford, a "good soldier." The Southern Poverty Law Center has filed a civil suit against the Aryan Nations for elevating hate speech to specific acts of violence. Toole believes that Butler's lawyers asked him to cancel the parade for fear that his embrace of Bufford would be used against him in the lawsuit.
A casual observer might question why anti-racist groups expend so much energy on marginal hate groups. After all, only 20 neo-Nazis showed up for Butler's Coeur d'Alene march in July, despite his promise that it would be "the most monumental witness to the world for Aryan Unity." Rossland points to the growing spate of hate-based violence by seemingly autonomous cells or individuals, like Bufford, who are nourished by the bigger hate group movement.
But Rossland also notes that a stronger current of underground racism swirls around the region, mostly unchallenged. "A lot of people are in denial about the extent of racism in western Montana: 'If it's not affecting us directly, then it's not that big a deal.' Well, racism thrives in an atmosphere of ignorance and apathy," Rossland says. "We might not be able to do much about public apathy, but we're doing our best to make sure people aren't ignorant."