Increased Alt-Right Killings, Continues to Access Young Recruitsby Keegan Hankes and Alex Amend, The Southern Poverty Law Center February 6, 2018
Alt-right killings continues to grow – On December 7, 2017, a 21-year-old white male posing as a student entered Aztec High School in rural New Mexico and began firing a handgun, killing two students before taking his own life.
The news of the shooting went largely ignored, but the online activity of the alleged killer, William Edward Atchison, bore all the hallmarks of the “alt-right”—the now infamous subculture and political movement consisting of vicious trolls, racist activists, and bitter misogynists.
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) counted over 100 people killed or injured by alleged perpetrators influenced by the so-called “alt-right” — a movement that continues to access the mainstream and reach young recruits.
But Atchison wasn’t the first to fit the profile of alt-right killings —that morbid milestone belongs to Elliot Rodger, the 22-year-old who in 2014 killed six in Isla Vista, California, after uploading a sprawling manifesto filled with hatred of young women and interracial couples (Atchison went by “Elliot Rodger” in one of his many online personas and lauded the “supreme gentleman,” a title Rodger gave himself and has since become a meme on the alt-right).
Including Rodger’s murderous rampage there have been at least 13 alt-right related fatal episodes, leaving 43 dead. And more than 60 injured in these incidents (see list). Nine of the 12 incidents counted here occurred in 2017 alone, making last year the most violent year for the movement.
Like Atchison and Rodger, these perpetrators were all male and, with the exception of three men, all under the age of 30 at the time they are alleged to have killed. The average age of the alt-right killers is 26. The youngest was 17. One, Alexandre Bissonnette, is Canadian, but the rest are American. While some certainly displayed signs of mental illness, all share a history of consuming and/or participating in the type of far-right ecosystem that defines the alt-right.
The “alternative right” was coined in part by white nationalist leader Richard Bertrand Spencer in 2008, but the movement as it’s known today can largely be traced back to 2012 and 2013 when two major events occurred: the killing of the black teenager Trayvon Martin and the so-called Gamergate controversy where female game developers and journalists were systematically threatened with rape and death. Both were formative moments for a young generation of far-right activists raised on the internet and who found community on chaotic forums like 4chan and Reddit where the classic tenets of white nationalism — most notably the belief that white identity is under attack by multiculturalism and political correctness — flourish under dizzying layers of toxic irony.
Significantly, Gamergate also launched the career of Milo Yiannopolous who later used his perch at Breitbart News to whitewash the movement and push it further into the mainstream (former senior adviser to President Donald Trump and Breitbart executive editor Stephen Bannon infamously called the site “the platform for the alt-right.”).
Today, the audience available to alt-right propaganda remains “phenomenally larger” than that available to ISIS-type recruiters, according to MoonshotCVE, a London-based group that counters online radicalization. This accessibility makes it easy for gradual indoctrination, particularly on social media platforms where tech companies long ignored the warning signs that their platforms were contributing to the radicalization of far-right extremists. That so much violence has taken on the shades of a specific subculture like the alt-right quickly shows just how critical these wide-open platforms have been to the growth of the movement.
But the dark engine of the movement is reactionary white male resentment. Alt-right propaganda is designed to nourish the precise grievances recited by the disillusioned and indignant young men that dominate its ranks. It provides a coherent—but malicious—worldview. For a recruit, the alt-right helps explain why they don’t have the jobs or the sexual partners or the overall societal and cultural respect that they believe (and are told) to be rightfully theirs. This appeal is resonating at a moment in the United States when economic inequality is worsening and a majority-minority United States is forecasted for 2044—developments exploited by racist propagandists. As a writer on Spencer’s AltRight.com wrote this past December:
And all of modern society seems to offer literally nothing to young White men. It’s as if society doesn’t want them to tune in, show up and have a stake in the future of that institution.
As a result, new institutions step up to pick up the slack.
PUA [Pick Up Artists] meet-ups help them learn the skills to get girls. In the place of a gentleman’s club, or underground boxing ring, or boy scouts-type activity, the Alt-Right has stepped up to give camaraderie and a sense of purpose. The internet gives them their entertainment and a place to intellectually grow.
As all the old institutions die, new ones rise to meet the demand and fill the vacuum. Till the perks come back, young White men are going to keep tuning out of society, cast adrift by previous generations that just don’t give a damn.
The lucky ones will wash up on our shores. The unlucky ones…well.
The alt-right killings that left one dead at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, last summer should not be understood as the high-water mark for the movement as some analysts have argued. The alt-right killings relate to a worldview, a rebranding of old hatreds, will remain compelling to disaffected white males and those who claim to speak for them for the foreseeable future. Worse, as this study suggests, punctuated violence will continue. For the same vision of society that the alt-right promulgates—its externalization of blame that lands on a host of enemies seen to be in the ascendancy—also aligns with the indicators of mass violence.
Meanwhile, the alt-right is redoubling its efforts at youth recruitment, intensifying its rhetoric and calling for radical, individual action.
Young, White, Angry, Male
Alt-right propaganda is intentionally designed to foster feelings of grievance, injustice, and animosity, particularly against those considered threats to “western civilization” — otherwise known as people of color, immigrants, and other marginalized communities.
The alt-right is giving a growing population of aggrieved young, white men a worldview that experts find is ripe for violence. The externalization of blame for one’s own disappointing circumstances in life — and particularly its offloading onto minority communities — is one of several indicators of mass violence.
According to Dr. Eric Madfis, author of a 2014 paper on the intersectional identities of American mass murderers, young, white, middle class, heterosexual males commit mass murder at a disproportionately high rate relative to their population size in the United States.
The rate of mass murders spiked in the 1970s and 1990s. Between 1966 and 1999, there were 95 cases of mass public shootings. Between 1976 and 2008, mass murders occurred roughly twice per month, claiming an average of 125 deaths each month. A more recent study published by Mother Jones identifies 95 mass shootings in the United States since 1982. Of those, 55 (59%) were committed by white men.
FBI crime data suggests that ages 16 to 24 are peak time for violent crime. According to Dr. Pete Simi, Director of the Earl Babbie Research Center at Chapman University, “This is a period of substantial transition in an individual’s life, when they’re less likely to have significant attachments in their life that deter them from criminal violence.”
Madfis’s 2014 paper from the University of Washington investigates the role of intersectional identities in mass murder incidents and argues that young, white males’ unique downward social mobility, relative to his expectations, accounts for their overrepresentation as perpetrators of mass murder.
Today’s typical mass murderer is not simply a white man with all the trappings of pride and privilege granted within the context of gender and race relations in the United States. His privileged white racial identity does not necessarily save him from the diminished socioeconomic status of downward mobility, nor does his privileged male gender guarantee the dominance of hegemonic masculinity over others. In fact, it is the very entitlements of his race and gender which make any subsequent life-course struggles and failures all the more unexpected, and thus all the more painful and humiliating.
Madfis also points out that privileged white males are often the least equipped to deal with unexpected setbacks in life. A lack of experience with failure due to relative privilege leaves young, white, middle class males uniquely unprepared to cope with difficulty or loss in life.
Only one in five mass murderers are “likely psychotic or delusional,” however, according to Dr. Michael Stone, a forensic psychiatrist at Columbia University.
Many are “wound collectors,” a term coined by former FBI agent Joe Navarro to describe, “individuals who go out of their way to collect social slights, historical grievances, injustices, unfair or disparate treatment or wrongs— whether real or imagined.”
“They wallow in the actual or often perceived transgressions of others and they allow sentiments of animosity and vengeance to percolate and froth at the surface by their constant and attentive nurturing of those perceived wounds,” Navarro explains. “As you can imagine, in an imperfect world where there are real injustices, where people make mistakes, and stupid things are said and done, the wound collector never has to go far to feel victimized.”
J. Reid Meloy, a forensic psychologist who has worked with the FBI, uses a similar term: “injustice collectors” — noting that these cumulative grievances are often blamed on one person or a group. “If you have this paranoid streak, this vigilance, this sense that other have been persecuting you for years, there’s an accumulation of maltreatment and an intense urge to stop that persecution” Meloy told the New York Times.
A 2001 study conducted by Meloy examining 34 adolescent perpetrators of mass murder found that 59% were the direct result of a triggering event. That rate jumped to 90% among adult mass murders.
Dr. Elliott Leyton, an expert on serial homicide, argues that contemporary mass murderers often target the perceived source of lost financial stability or class prestige. The alt-right, which couches its mission in terms of surviving literal extinction, routinely laments so-called reverse racism and affirmative action as well as immigration in all its forms.
The grievances collected by those motivated by the white nationalist ideology at the heart of the alt-right often do not begin with racist propaganda, but rather in the toxic communities of the men’s rights movement. While driven by distinct ideologies, the style of grievances nursed by the men’s rights and white nationalist communities are similarly constructed around a privileged group threatened by the visible social mobility of those that were formerly oppressed (women and minorities, respectively). The continued rise of social media has only inflamed this tension.
“Neofascists treat these [men’s rights] websites as recruitment grounds. They find angry, frustrated young men and groom then in their own image,” Abi Wilkinson observed in The Guardian soon after the 2016 presidential election. “The community seems to be largely white. And that’s evident because race comes up, a lot. Sometimes, in the form of a kind of racial pseudo-science that advocates use to explain the dynamics of heterosexual relations. The age-old racist argument – that black men are ‘taking our women’ — is made regularly. Racist slurs are chucked around casually. There seems to be a significant overlap with organised white supremacy.”
The perception of lost status, stolen inheritance and similar resentments, proliferates in an age where social media can be fine-tuned by a newly aggrieved individual to accelerate wound collection. Members of the far-right, prolific content creators with a semi-sophisticated propaganda dissemination strategy — most accurately described as managed chaos — recognized social media’s potential early and are reaping the rewards.
The UW study also posits that, “The performance of a violent massacre provides an illegitimate opportunity for entitled white men to regain lost status and forge a powerful, successful, masculine identity through infamy.” Social media may exacerbate this historical motivation behind mass murders, according to forensic scientist Dr. Reid Meloy: “Now we have a setting, a cultural and social setting, where your act of multiple homicides will be known about internationally within moments.”
The alt-right makes no attempt to conceal its aspirations in recruitment: young, white men.
“Our target audience is white males between the ages of 10 and 30,” Anglin wrote in his “PSA: When the Alt-Right Hits the Street, You Wanna be Ready.” “I include children as young a ten, because an element of this is that we want to look like superheroes. We want to be something that boys fantasize about being a part of. That is a core element to this. I don’t include men over the age of 30, because after that point, you are largely fixed in your thinking. We will certainly reach some older men, but they should not be a focus.”
From the most vitriolic propagandists, such as Anglin, who rely on racist messaging so abhorrent and violent that it was once mistaken for hyperbole, to the more polished messengers like Richard Spencer who are still fighting to legitimize their pseudo-intellectual and race fiction, the target is the same: youth.
“People in college are at this point in their lives where they are actually open to alternative perspectives, for better and for worse,” Spencer told Mother Jones in December of 2016 before a contentious speaking engagement at Texas A&M University. “I think you do need to get them while they are young. I think rewiring the neurons of someone over 50 is effectively impossible.”
Undeniably, their efforts have had success. Mainstay racist conferences, like the annual gatherings of American Renaissance and the National Policy Institute, are attracting larger audiences, no longer dominated by their once singular demographic of middle-aged white men.
On a panel at Harvard University in October, Derek Black, son of longtime white supremacist Don Black, who once represented the future of the movement until he renounced racism during college, described his surprise at seeing so many young participants in Charlottesville:
I can say for sure my entire life in white nationalism I went to conferences many times a year. I spoke at them. I tried to organize them. I organized online through my dad’s site [Stormfront] through organizations whether Jared [Taylor]’s AmRen or David [Duke]’s EURO or Council of Conservative Citizens … Everybody at these things is gray-haired. Me and two other people would be under 40. That was it. Which is partly why I took this impression that this is not gonna last. And a lot of that is because young people have a lot to lose … Young people who show up to a rally like that are going to get their identities exposed online and then it’s gonna be hard for them to get jobs … I cannot actually explain what changed. The one striking thing about Charlottesville…was there’s a ton of young kids like college-age or actual college students who got on buses and went to this who I don’t think had been to an event like that before.
Alt-right groups such as Identity Evropa and Vanguard America are marketing themselves exclusively to college and high school-aged individuals.
In addition to Texas A&M University, Spencer spoke at Auburn University in April 2017, after successfully filing a motion in federal court to overturn the university’s decision to cancel the event. Three were arrested for disorderly conduct as anti-fascist protestors clashed with Spencer supporters outside of the event.
Then, on October 19, barely two months after the chaos of Charlottesville, the University of Florida was forced to host a Spencer speaking engagement under threat of a lawsuit. The University estimated that it spent $600,000 on security for the event, which featured a visibly frustrated Spencer attempting to speak over an auditorium dominated by protestors.
During the Q&A portion of the event, a UF alumnus asked Spencer to take responsibility for the violence that his words have inspired from supporters. Spencer adamantly denied any connection, went on to cast doubt on the circumstances of Heather Heyer’s death at the Unite the Right event and instead called for justice for her accused killer.
Hours later, three of his supporters were arrested for attempted murder after an alleged confrontation with protestors in which Spencer’s supporters threw stiff-armed salutes and one fired a shot at the urging of his accomplices.
All three were present in the run-up to the event earlier that day.
With help from his proxy, Cameron Padgett, a graduate student at Georgia State University, and white nationalist attorney, Kyle Bristow, of the Foundation for the Marketplace of Ideas, Spencer is planning future events at Michigan State University, the University of Michigan, Louisiana State University, Ohio State University, Penn State University and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.
These events allow Spencer a platform to directly speak to young, potential recruits and tend to be contentious and easy opportunities for widespread press coverage.
In addition to speaking events, college campuses have become the preferred targets of alt-right fliering campaigns. These typically anonymous campaigns are a low risk opportunity for new adherents to garner easy media attention and bond with their fellow racists offline — a perennial struggle faced by white nationalists who are timid when it comes to airing their beliefs publicly.
In 2016, there were at least 125 fliering incidents on US college campuses. In 2017, there were over 300.