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Anti-Defamation League: Neo-Nazi Presence In Arizona Is 'Troublesome'

Published: Tuesday, September 15, 2020 - 3:46pm
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STEVE GOLDSTEIN: Reports of hate-related incidents began to rise not long after President [Donald] Trump took office in January of 2017, and concerns over how widespread they are have grown. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reported that 2019 saw a 12% increase nationally in the number of anti-Semitic incidents. Arizona's ADL says there was a 41% decrease in such incidents here in 2019. But a recent case involving Arizona has caught the attention of the ADL and others. The offender's name is Johnny Garza. He's from Queen Creek but faced cyberstalking and other charges in U.S. District Court in Seattle. He's a member of the neo-Nazi group Atomwaffen Division. To learn more, I'm joined by Keisha McKinnor. She's the assistant regional director for Arizona's ADL. Keisha, what makes this case involving Johnny Garza even more troublesome than any other hate crime might be?

KEISHA MCKINNOR: Yeah. So the case of Johnny Garza, what makes it, his case more troublesome — and we, we actually see that he actually pleaded guilty in the Seattle court just a couple of days ago. But what makes his more troublesome is the fact that he addressed individuals at their homes. So getting a person's home information and posting flyers, as he did with one journalist here, and sending propaganda to another journalist — when you begin to, again, to target someone within their own home, which is supposed to be their safe space, that's troublesome. Because that one, tells us they are watching them, they're tracking them, they know where they live. And that just predicates something that could turn out to be dangerous or tragic. And we want to prevent that. Normally, we will see people post things generally around the neighborhood or publicly. But here you're going to a private residence. And that's very, very troublesome.

GOLDSTEIN: Can you tell us about Atomwaffen's presence in this region? Is there something that makes it unique in this region as far as their impact and then even more generally, what their, is their mission statement — whatever it may be, a scary as it may be — is it similar to other sort of neo-Nazi groups, or is it unique in some way?

MCKINNOR: So for them, they, they do have a presence here in Arizona, but they do also in other spaces. So it's not a large group because Atomwaffen is not very big. They've been around since about 2016. But the fact that they have presence is an issue for us here or anywhere else that they would be. They feel like the white race is being displaced racially and culturally here. For them, and what they're doing in their belief systems, it is bothersome. And it's something that we need to continue to monitor and watch them because they are known for extreme content and calls for violence, though we've not seen much violence happen here in Arizona. That does not mean that they're promoting would not lead to something like that, since they do regularly promote for the use of violence.

GOLDSTEIN: When President Trump took office, there was an increase, I guess certainly in terms of people feeling uncomfortable. Have you seen more of a shift in terms of these people with these hateful beliefs are more aggressive in terms of what they say, but not necessarily what they do? Or are we seeing some of both?

MCKINNOR: Well, you actually see a little bit of both. You know, we know that they have been emboldened lately to spew their racist and extreme beliefs out there. We had some reports that came out earlier this year wherefore anti-Semitic incidents are on the rise. Nationally, we saw the highest number of incidents reported that we've ever seen in our history. So we do know that the rhetoric is turning into actual incidents. Now, here in Arizona, when we speak to it, we actually had a decrease of incidents here in Arizona. But that does not mean that that action or the info and the propaganda is not out there. What that would tell us specifically for Arizona is that we may not know about it and we don't always get — it's not always reported to us, and it's not always reported out when these incidents happen. But definitely want to be on the lookout. Definitely we're seeing a rise right now, an uptick in Arizona of propaganda across our neighborhoods and college campuses as well. So it's definitely giving us kind of a rise to say to really be watching this action so that we can prevent it — work with law enforcement and prevent it from becoming physical or actual incidents that are harassing or violent in nature.

GOLDSTEIN: It will be hard to quantify this at this point, but I'm just wondering, are you and the ADL looking into whether the pandemic has affected anything, as many people for at least several months were either out of work or working from home and less human interaction, and whether that might turn to a more to online sources and might make them more open to certain messages?

MCKINNOR: Yes. Yes, absolutely. So we have our entire department, our Center for Technology, that actually tracks the online activity that we see. And I can tell you also based on the incidents that I've seen come in through our Arizona office that the online incidents are on the rise as well. And they can. So, yes, you're right that it may be premature that we can do the relation of the pandemic to online incidents, but we do see having presence online. I mean, that's something that we are monitoring as well and doing what we can to not only assist those that are being targets of online hate, but also with those companies working with the platforms themselves to try to remove some of the things that are on there that crosses over into criminal activity. Because it's a fine line where we're talking about postings, criminal — criminal activity —  online activity and the First Amendment free speech.

GOLDSTEIN: Keisha McKinnor is assistant regional director for the Anti-Defamation League's Arizona branch.

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