How Hate Spreads: Part 1

Monday Magazine, Victoria, B.C. Canada
February 25 – March 3, 1993
Vol. 19 No. 9

How Hate Spreads
And how a growing army of anti-racists in B.C.
is marshalling to stop it.

By Bruce Grierson

A brick is thrown through a window in Rostock, Germany, a cross is burned on a Mississippi lawn, and somehow, the sound of the glass and the light of the flames are heard, and felt, in British Columbia, Canada. What is the physics of hate, that it can transmit itself, through any medium, from one head to another, across time and space?

This is the story of the spread of the far right, the ideas and images everyone thought died with Hitler in that bunker in Berlin. In the last year in Victoria, the last outpost of the Empire, neo-Nazi activity has been the unsettling focus of attention from school yards to the inner circles of government. A mixed-race Fernwood couple has its car stickered with racist slogans. Swastikas are sprayed on brick walls. A group of white supremecists holds a secret gathering in Sooke. A high profile Holocaust denier, barred from entering the country, shows up anyway and speaks to a gathering at a downtown restaurant. The shock waves from a racist meeting in Vancouver — and the anti-racist force that rose up to smother it — carry across the strait.

Poverty and strife cannot create hate, common wisdom holds, but they can set up the conditions to give it expression. While a deep recession persists, and the gulf between rich and poor widens, the net of social services grows thinner. Everyone looks for scapegoats. Meech Lake fails and then Charlottetown fails, following a referendum campaign punctuated by bigotry. “Canada’s problems would be solved if we shot all the Native people and all the Frenchmen,” pronounced a guy who stood up to speak at a No campaign rally in the Interior, and all around folks nodded their assent. In Vancouver, three Asians driving upscale cars had their windows shot out, in separate incidents. Racist pamphlets are generated somewhere and sent out like chain letters everywhere — photocopies and faxes having turned every basement into a potential publishing house — and anti-racist pamphlets are dispatched in response. The output of literature is huge, yet the size of the racist ranks cannot be precisely determined. Some probable overestimates are reported, and — like the overestimates of the size of the Iraqi Republican Guard — crank up the level of resolve. Allan Dutton, a Simon Fraser sociology prof and head of the B.C. Organization to Fight Racism, reports a significant increase in the number of calls to his own office. He regularly receives death threats, and messages from wingy anonymous callers warning of large-scale genocide, whole sections of the city doomed to be wiped out.

A potent engine drives both sides of this war. It is wrath — a force powerful enough to prevent the spread of fascism or, if handled improperly, fuel it. It was wrath that brought racist skinheads to the Century Plaza Hotel last month, at the bidding of Tom Metzger, to show support for the former Ku Klux Klan grand dragon and his white supremecist cause. ( Metzger was billed as a speaker at a rally in Vancouver, but most observers doubt he ever left his home in California.) And wrath that prompted a countervailing force of 3,000 — the largest anti-racism demonstration in the history of the province — to show up downtown in protest. The peaceful demonstration turned scary when a splinter group a few hundred strong marched down the street to the hotel afterward, some carrying clubs and crowbars, demanding that the neo-Nazis be turned over to them.

“Racism is a cancer,” says Dutton, using a now familiar, but somehow still apt metaphor. “A few abnormal cells you can ignore. But when they become malignant, you’ve got a problem.”

What do malignant cells look like? Those who want an easy image will find it in the close-cropped, jack-booted skinheads, the poster boys of the far right. Their look is fairly standard: the spring collection of ’93 will feature the same shaved heads, tattoos, nylon bomber jackets with swastikas or confederate flags or Celtic crosses, Doc Martens with coloured laces (white for white supremacists, red for neo-Nazis, yellow for cop-haters) that have made such a statement in Hamburg and Milan. (The shoelace code is no longer as reliable as it once was: some Docs wearers unaligned with white supremacy will sometimes wear white laces on a whim.) Indeed, false labelling has been a problem for a lot of the shaved-head crowd, who would no sooner wear a swastika than a mood ring. (It must be remembered that the skinhead subculture is not, at its root, racist. The neo-Nazi movement co-opted it in the late 1970’s.) Members of the anti-hate group SkinHeads Against Racial Prejudice (SHARP) look to the average senior citizen about as threatening as their antagonists. For that matter, so do punks, who ought to be soul brothers of the racist skins (the punk and skinhead movements sprouted from the same lower-class British roots) but instead are preyed upon no less than hippies, or skaters, or gays. Neo-Nazi skinheads have no trouble defining the enemy: anyone who is different from them. In Victoria, the racist skinheads have two magnetic norths — one near the corner of Bay and Fernwood streets, the other in Esquimalt, near the Tim Horton’s on Esquimalt Road (a curious choice, given the great likelihood of a police presence at a donut shop).

The local skins have for years drawn inpiration from bellwethers like Ted Jones, a Fernwood skinhead who has led by example, distributing pamphlets and tacking up Aryan Resistance Movement posters and recruiting high school kids to carry the torch. (Most Victoria high schools have a token skinhead contingent, even if it’s only a few kids).

The skin’s brand of civil disobedience tends to be of the fun-with-next-to-nothing variety: graffiti, broken windows, the odd punchup or flashed knife in a nightclub.

[Continued ]