By Shereen Siewert

As racially charged protests and speeches continue to sweep across Wisconsin and the country, there is increasing evidence that activity by hate groups is on the rise in nearby communities.

Government and advocacy organizations say hate groups are nothing new, but white nationalism has seen particular resonance in recent weeks and months. Earlier this month in Wausau, a white man allegedly physically attacked a man at a local gas station while hurling racial epithets. The suspect, a 51-year-old Wausau man, is now facing hate crime charges.

In Stevens Point, a 57-year-old man is accused of harassing Asian American customers at a grocery store for wearing masks. He, too, is facing hate crime charges.

In Conover, a man walking his dog while wearing a Ku Klux Klan costume prompted outrage after Rachel Byington, of Madison, posted a photo to social media. The man in the photo, Charles M. Booth, was questioned by police, but hadn’t broken any laws. Vilas County Sheriff Joseph Fath confirmed the photo as authentic.

A photo of a Vilas County man walking his dog while wearing a Ku Klux Klan costume made waves after being shared to social media on June 14, 2020. Photo: Facebook screengrab

And in March, the University of Wisconsin-Madison hosted a virtual town hall in after officials there discovered racist graffiti on campus

Experts say these types of incidents are all part of a disturbing nationwide trend, ratcheting up tension in schools, workplaces, communities and on social media.

A spike in the number of hate groups nationwide began in 2008, prompted by the country’s economic collapse and the election of Barack Obama.

In 2015, 11 of the nation’s 784 active hate groups were operating in Wisconsin in communities that included Mercer, Green Bay, Shawano and Milwaukee, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a national organization that tracks such groups.

By 2019, the number of active hate groups nationwide rose to 920. In Wisconsin, the number stands at 15. The SPLC does not track the number of members in each group.

A handful of Ku Klux Klan chapters were active in the state as recently as recently as 2013, including one in Mercer, according to the SPLC. Those chapters eventually fell off the group’s list of active groups. But photos and social media posts in recent weeks show far-right sentiments never really left the region, and experts say such groups are increasingly operating in secret.

Stanislav Vysotsky, an associate professor of sociology, criminology and anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, said the white supremacist movement itself is increasingly pushing for a less centralized model, pushing followers toward a “leaderless resistance mode.” That means most people who identify with such hate groups operate deeply underground.

“It’s almost impossible to know who has views that align with these groups,” Vysotsky said, adding that much activity is online, a “mishmash of bigots and people piling it on for the sake of being offensive.”

And there is a much broader call to be associated with an idea rather than an organization.

Oddly, there is little polling done to gauge American sentiment, Vysotsky said, pointing to a 2017 ABC News/Washington Post poll as the only recent one to assess public opinion on alt-right views.

That poll gave results that shocked many, revealing that 9 percent of people say holding neo-Nazi or white supremacist views is acceptable. If applied to the entire country, that would equate to about 22 million people.

“It’s interesting from a sociologist’s perspective that we don’t poll these people, that we don’t do more to understand how people feel,” Vysotsky said.

Who are they?

The SPLC hasnt identified an active Ku Klux Klan group in the Iron County town of Mercer since 2013. But a 56-year-old Wausau man, who asked to keep his identity secret amid fears of retaliation, told Wausau Pilot and Review that he was approached last year while living in Mercer by Klan members who wanted to recruit him.

After declining the offer, the man said he was ostracized, called names and harassed to the point that he eventually moved away.

Michael McQueeney, who owns Antler’s Pub in Mercer and lives on Spider Lake, frequently posts photos on social media of himself in Nazi gear, at rallies, and with Klan leaders, and openly admits to having been a grand dragon with the American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. He organized several rallies throughout Wisconsin and neighboring states over a span of several years..

The American Knights has built a reputation of aggressive action that continues to draw in those susceptible to the message. Their members include scammers, drug informants and would-be wife-killers, McQueeney among them.

In their literature, they have described black people as “primitive, ugly, foul-smelling, jungle savages [who] have polluted America with their ape-like odor and disgusting habits.” The group is widely accepted as the most vicious Klan in the nation.

Facebook photo from Michael McQueeney’s public Facebook page captured June 15, 2020

Court records show McQueeney has a dangerous past. The Chicago native spent six years in prison in 1988 after being convicted of conspiring to murder his ex-wife. He is accused of paying off co-conspirators who attempted to break the victim’s legs with baseball bats before shooting her in the face. She survived.

McQueeney is still going strong.

Michael McQueeney’s public Facebook post, captured June 15, 2020

“How do you like me now?” McQueeney’s public Facebook post reads, which shows an image of him saluting to a crowd during an Aryan Nation event. Other photos show McQueeney and others in his bar or in the outdoors wearing Nazi regalia.

Since moving to Wisconsin in 1995, McQueeney has been convicted of speeding, disorderly conduct, fishing without a license, overloading a boat, non-registration of a vehicle, failure to have proper flotation devices in a boat, improper location of directional signals, open intoxicants in a vehicle, receiving stolen property, spilling waste load along a highway, and operating a game bird farm without a license.

McQueeney has also been associated with a Ku Klux Klan faction called the National Knights, has been a major in the Aryan Nations neo-Nazi group and a member of the National Socialist Movement, also neo-Nazis. He is a self-described racist who used negative labels and racial epithets to smear homosexuals, Jews, and all non-whites.

In an email to Wausau Pilot & Review McQueeney said “recruiting is going well and with the combination of KKK and Aryan Nations we are strong.”

McQueeney said Monday that his group has organized several rallies in and on private property. Some are in Wisconsin, while others are at out of state compounds, he said.

“We are truly white pride people willing to protect our country and heritage,” McQueeney said.

State home to neo-Nazis, anti-gay groups

Among the 11 identified hate groups in Wisconsin are New Order, a group with a hatred for Jews and a love for Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany; Pilgrims Covenant Church, which preaches against gays, lesbians and transgender people; ACT for America, an anti-Muslim hate group that pushes wild anti-Muslim conspiracy theories, denigrates American Muslims and deliberately conflates mainstream and radical Islam; The Right Stuff, whose members spread racial hatred, advocate racial discrimination, and promote conspiracy theories about Jews and their supposed plots to manipulate and harm white Europeans; and The Base, a a small militant neo-Nazi organization that sees non-white people as enemies of the white race and envisions a coming race war.

Also on the list are three black separatist groups. Black separatists believe the answer to white racism is to form separate institutions—or even a separate nation—for black people. Most forms of black separatism are strongly anti-white, antisemitic and anti LGBTQ. Some religious versions assert that black people are the biblical “chosen people” of God.

Most hate groups deal solely in violent rhetoric, not actual violence, wrote Andrew Gumbel, in his December 2015 analysis on the threat of domestic terrorism. “However, it is clear these groups provide the background chatter that can provoke individuals to commit violent acts—much as they did in the 1990s at the height of the militia movement.”

Professor Vysotsky said the national conversation on race that is happening now seems to be shifting toward a historical and social reckoning with racism, moving people away from their biases.

But still, he said, some people gravitate toward groups that look at attempts by historically marginalized groups of people trying to assert their place and basic humanity as an erosion of their rights and status.

“They use that as a way to recruit,” Vysotsky said. “It’s the ‘See, you’re the victim here in these social justice movements.’ There’s a perceived threat and they capitalize on that, the sense of victimization.”

The FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program serves as the national repository for crime data voluntarily collected and submitted by police agency. Its primary objective is to generate “reliable information for use in law enforcement administration, operation, and management,” according to the U.S. Dept. of Justice.

The 2018 hate crimes data, submitted by 16,039 law enforcement agencies, provide information about the offenses, victims, offenders, and locations of hate crimes. Of these agencies who submitted incident reports, there were 7,120 hate crime incidents involving 8,496 offenses nationwide. The 2018 data is the most recent available, and is up slightly from 2017 figures.

Statewide, five of the 15 hate groups identified by the SPLC identify as white nationalist. White nationalism is a term that originated among white supremacists as a euphemism for white supremacy. Many in the movement seek to promote the interests of whites exclusively, typically at the expense of people of other backgrounds.

Some groups, like The Base, are more terrorist oriented, Vysotsky said. But local groups, those that represent groups of friends within communities, aren’t likely to appear on the SPLC’s Hate Map anytime soon. And there are no official indicators of how many people join such groups.

“It’s hard to parse that out,” Vysotsky said. “You just never really know who sympathizes with these views and who does not.”