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Lawsuits Threaten to Drain the Life Out of Hate Groups

Racism: Neo-Nazis in Idaho are just one target of a drive to bankrupt violent advocates of white power.

August 22, 2000|KIM MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HAYDEN LAKE, Idaho — It was an ugly incident on a lonely country road.

Victoria Keenan and her teenage son, driving home through the summer twilight, were chased down and beaten outside the neo-Nazi Aryan Nations compound by a truckload of security guards.

Two men were sentenced to prison in the 1998 attack. But civil rights groups want more. In an Idaho courtroom next week, they will attempt by way of the legal system to do what they haven't been able to in more than two decades: Shut down the Aryan Nations compound--with its barbed wire, watchtower, chapel and "Whites Only" sign. It is one of the most important gathering places for the white supremacy movement in America.

A Kootenai County jury on Monday is scheduled to hear a civil suit filed on Keenan's behalf by the Southern Poverty Law Center--a case that if successful could award enough damages to bankrupt the Aryan Nations and seize control of the 20-acre compound from its leader, Richard Butler.

The case, to be tried under extraordinarily high security, is part of a growing movement to use the civil courts as an economic weapon to bankrupt the purveyors of organized racism.

Increasingly, human rights groups are filing lawsuits that seek to hold the ideologues and mouthpieces of the nation's most visible white supremacist organizations accountable for the crimes committed by their followers.

In Southern California, the Hammerskin Nation is being sued, accused of sanctioning the 1999 beating and stabbing of a black man by a group of skinheads in Riverside. And in Illinois, survivors of a racist shooting rampage by World Church of the Creator member Benjamin Smith are seeking to hold leader Matt Hale and the organization legally responsible.

"Nobody has found a shred of evidence that Matt Hale even knew about the crimes, let alone participated in them," said his lawyer, Glenn Greenwald. Civil rights groups "have said their intent . . . is to bankrupt these hate groups by forcing them to put their resources into litigation so they don't have any money for anything else, which I think . . . is an abuse of the court system."

"By suing us, they demonstrate the correctness of our cause," Hale added. "They're demonstrating how desperate they are to stop us."

'The White Race Is Under Attack'

Aryan Nations officials say it is inappropriate to hold them liable for an action that occurred more than two miles away from their compound. In general, defense lawyers say, the lawsuits are an attempt to use the court system to suppress unpopular political views.

Butler, 83, is accused of recklessness and negligence in supervising his security force--and the entire organization faces claims for assault, battery and false imprisonment. "The lawsuit we're now facing has one purpose and one purpose alone: to bankrupt the Church of Jesus Christ Christian and the Aryan Nations," Butler said. "This land is going to be here as long as we are. We bought it, we paid for it, we've worked for it, and they want to steal it. . . . It's proof positive that the white race is under attack."

Plaintiffs' lawyers, however, say it is important--in the widening circle of violence that has characterized racial conflict in recent years--to hold accountable not only the perpetrators but also the groups that inspired them.

"There are 1st Amendment issues that protect political speech, expressions of ideas and philosophy. But the goal is to make sure they don't protect organizations when they advocate . . . specific courses of violence, when they ratify acts of violence," said Andrew Roth, who is representing 24-year-old Randy Wordell Brown in two civil rights lawsuits filed against the shadowy skinhead group Hammerskin Nation and four of its California chapters.

The Southern Poverty Law Center already has a track record pursuing white supremacist organizations in the civil courts. In the best known case, the group won a $12.5-million jury verdict in Oregon against Tom Metzger's White Aryan Resistance, whose alleged encouragement of skinhead violence against minorities was said to have influenced the beating death of a black youth in 1990.

SPLC attorney Morris Dees Jr. declined to discuss the Aryan Nations case, set to go to trial in Kootenai County District Court Monday. "We don't want to do anything that would add to the public complaint. Any statements we have to make will be in court," Dees said.

But in an article he wrote for a legal publication, Dees said that the goal is to hold hate group leaders responsible for the violent actions of their members. "We as lawyers cannot literally stop hate violence before it occurs. But we can penalize both the leaders and the foot-soldiers who provoke racist confrontations," he wrote.

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