This formerly incarcerated writer avoided white supremacists in prison. It’s clear to him now they feel emboldened with Trump as president.
The tattooed portrait of Hitler was not quite life-size, but it still stared obnoxiously from the right-hand side of my dormmate, just above his waistline. He had a typical prison build, all upper body, and was doing curls with a water bag—weights had been banned in the early 1990s—causing Hitler to wink in and out between reps.
We were housed together at the Arizona State Prison Complex in Yuma. Dorms are the preferred model in low-security incarceration. Much easier (and cheaper) to keep an eye on charges whose living areas are lined up as compact as parking spaces.
It was the summer of 1997, and the guy with the Hitler tattoo lived in the parking space directly opposite mine. I think his name was Kenny, but it doesn’t matter because white supremacists are similar creatures fixated on a single, collective goal: the instigation of a second civil war.
Kenny also had “White” tatted vertically down his back left arm, “Pride” down the right, along with a number of swastikas and even SS bolts. Inmates needed permission to obtain “white pride” and Nazi ink. If granted, it then had to be earned, usually involving assaults on persons whom, for whatever reason, had gotten on the gang leaders’ bad side.
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For all his hate, however, Kenny wasn’t a bad neighbor, as prison neighbors go. He was quiet, considerate, and, moreover, had access to the best heroin. He also respected the fact that I had no interest in their politics. That I was willfully unaffiliated.
Others, however, were less tolerant. While in the Maricopa County Jail in 1995, a gang of white supremacists made me hold a jailhouse mattress over my chest while they took turns pummeling it. Recently brought up from intake, I was sick from heroin withdrawals and frankly in no mood to be bullied. But after 10 minutes or so, they deemed me too weak to be of any use in the upcoming race war, which apparently was kicking off in that very pod within days.
“We need fit soldiers down for the cause,” one of them told me.
He was tall, thin, and proud of the Third Reich regalia glistening on his shaved torso. Surrounded by eager recruits, they took great delight in forcing me out of the pod. It occurred to me then, as I dragged my mattress down the hall and into another housing unit, how easy it is for a few twisted men to program hate into so many others. One doesn’t even need a good story, but rather a vague reference to a group or groups posing an even vaguer existential threat. Nor does it hurt when their hate is bolstered by Trump and his cadre of wealthy propagandists at Fox News spewing similar conspiracies.
The belief that white people are somehow a far more superior race was founded in genocide and slavery and further nurtured in Jim Crow. Known initially for their hatred of African Americans, white supremacists recalibrated slightly to include Nazi anti-Semitism. But in truth, there is nobody they despise more than cops. Think Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City Bombing. His goal was to kill federal officers, and that’s pretty much been the norm since the Collapse of Reconstruction. McVeigh’s accomplice, Terry McNichols, was a product of Michigan militias, and Trump’s law and order message jibes nicely with them because it’s anti-Black Lives Matters and pro-gun. Seven of the 13 arrested in Michigan were allegedly gathering the home addresses of police officers and making threats geared toward launching a civil war.
For Kenny and his ilk, the pinnacle of tyranny was desegregation. “The races aren’t meant to mix,” they’d intone angrily. “Cows don’t mate with horses.”
But for today’s white supremacists, tyranny is surgical masks and closed gyms, which smacks of eugenics, herd immunity being a blatant euphemism for survival of the fittest. Imagine how different things would be, for instance, if the majority of COVID-related deaths were affluent white men.
The white supremacists recently arrested in Michigan claim that the mask mandate is a violation of their constitutional rights, which, in their eyes, somehow gives them the constitutional authority to not only kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, but to also try and execute her.
Let’s face it, they’re not the keenest blades in the knife block. An actual remedy would involve one of them sitting maskless on a bus, Rosa-Parks like, until arrested, and then challenging the law as unconstitutional. With luck, it might make it to the Supreme Court in three years.
What’s key is that both the prison and Michigan white supremacists have similar apocalyptic fantasies dictating that the only way to save the country is to violate every tenet it was founded upon.
Nor are these fantasies the exclusive ken of white supremacists and fringe militias. I work construction, and my six Trump-supporting coworkers believe the United States of America as they know it will cease to exist if Joe Biden wins the election.
Fear of Armageddon moving into the mainstream Republican electorate is alarming enough, but POTUS echoing their sentiments, like telling the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by,” is unprecedented.
But if the Trump-sanctioned violence injected into white supremacy doesn’t scare you enough, think of the violence involved in him and his ilk willfully spreading a potentially deadly virus out of sheer vindictiveness. In this, the conclusion is inescapable: Trump may not have joined the Klan, but he’s given them permission to take off their hoods.