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Neo-Nazis thriving in Trump's America amid lack of hate speech laws

Daniel Burnside, a neo-Nazi leader, explains how to manage an internet radio program at his home in Potter County, Pennsylvania, in the eastern United States, on April 19, 2018. (Mainichi)

POTTER COUNTY, Pennsylvania -- Daniel Burnside is a neo-Nazi, and he is capitalizing on the freedom of speech enshrined in the first amendment to the U.S. constitution.

Burnside, 44, heads the National Socialist Movement (NSM), the largest neo-Nazi group in America with branches in more than 30 states. A flag emblazoned with a swastika, the symbol of the Nazi movement, flies high in the garden of his house, which doubles as the NSM headquarters in this farming area in the eastern U.S. The flag was bigger than the one this reporter saw on a previous visit shortly after the election of President Donald Trump in November 2016.

Burnside appeared cheerful, apparently in part because of a recent court victory. McKean County Deputy Colin Meeker was slapped with a court order to pay fines in April after he was found to have trespassed on Burnside's property and removed a flag displaying Nazi symbols while on duty on Jan. 21.

"I have the right to raise a flag with a swastika. If it is not allowed, the star spangled banner (the U.S. national flag) or the rainbow flag of LGBT people cannot be raised," said Burnside.

In Germany, it is illegal to publicly display Nazi symbols or praise the prewar movement responsible for the mass murder and oppression of Jews and other peoples as "inferior races" in Germany and the territories it occupied during Ward War II. However, in the U.S., all of this is allowed under the protection of the first amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."

Under the aegis of this constitutional protection, neo-Nazi groups are spreading white supremacy and anti-Semitism in the U.S. and beyond through the internet. And they are expanding their ranks under the presidency of Donald Trump. As many as 121 neo-Nazi groups were reported in 2017, 22 percent more than the previous year, according to the U.S. human rights organization Southern Poverty Law Center.

Burnside declared to this reporter that people are not equal, and as a white man, "I am happy to belong to a superior race, not an inferior one." When asked if he is not abusing the U.S. constitution, Burnside replied calmly, "What's wrong with that? You should use laws in your own country."

Burnside, under the nickname "North," hosts an internet radio program twice a week. In the program, he attacks Israel, promotes songs praising white supremacists, and seek donations for friends who need money to fight lawsuits filed by human rights organizations. Anything goes here.

"My voice reaches more than 40 countries worldwide. There are listeners in Russia and Japan, but many are in eastern European nations. That's a sanctuary for white men," said Burnside. He claimed that NSM membership has doubled since the January 2017 inauguration of President Trump, who continues to make discriminatory remarks -- remarks that fuel white supremacists' enthusiasm.

But how do his neighbors in Potter County, population 17,000, see him?

"Mr. Burnside is breaking no law. There's nothing we can do," an official at a village office said. The U.S. has no federal legislation barring hate speech. When a court finds a crime was motivated by racial or religious hatred, it is categorized a "hate crime" and the sentence becomes more severe.

A middle-aged woman who lives in the county said with a sigh. "Burnside's kid gave me a Nazi salute. The scariest thing is not him (Burnside), but the future of brainwashed children."

Daniel Burnside holds his favorite picture of his family, with his sons raising a banner inscribed with a traditional white supremacist message, at his home in Potter County, Pennsylvania, in the eastern United States, on April 19, 2018. (Mainichi)

The neo-Nazi leader has eight children aged 1 to 10. His wife Sabrina, 30, shows them videos of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler's speeches and Nazi marches. On days when pictures are taken at the local school, she makes sure that the kids go to classes wearing badges with Hitler's face.

Northern Potter School District superintendent Scott Graham, 50, was worried about the influence the Burnside family might have on other children. Many of their classmates are still small and don't care, but "I can foresee this being a bigger issue as they get older," said Graham. He is consulting a lawyer to carefully consider the option of introducing restrictions on children's outfit at school.

In a 1966 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court judged unconstitutional a decision by a school to suspend a student who came to classes with a black arm band to protest the Vietnam War, saying that students are entitled to express their political opinions unless they are disrupting classes.

"I get upset that they're using their children as billboards to promote their beliefs," said Superintendent Graham, but added, "We separate the kids from their parents and their beliefs. Kids are wonderful to have in school. They're not a discipline problem." Obviously there is no easy solution for the school.

Residents' views on freedom of expression were divided. Hans Nielsen, 44, who runs a local hotel, said that the first amendment should not protect hate speech encouraging violence. "We must not give Mr. Burnside an opportunity to spread his opinions," said Nielsen.

But Olga Snyder, a restaurant owner, told the Mainichi Shimbun, "You cannot shut people up because you don't like what they say. You pay small price for freedom." Her husband John, 47, agreed. He argued that major social changes in the U.S. such as the abolition of slavery or the establishment of civil rights, which once were considered "anti-social," could not be realized without freedom of speech. "There are only a few white supremacists. The best way to handle them is to ignore them," he added. Many residents took a similar view.

Potter country is "Trump country"; its residents are mainly white Christians, and about 80 percent of the voters here chose Trump in the 2016 election. But their opposition to limiting basic rights is shared by many Americans, regardless of their political stripe. A Pew Research Center survey published in 2016 found that 67 percent of Americans think people should be allowed to make public statements that are offensive to minority groups. And 83 percent of Trump supporters said too many people are easily offended.

Internet is the weapon.

Patrick Little, an anti-Semitic candidate running for a Senate seat in the state of California, sits for an interview in Alameda, California, on May 19, 2018. (Mainichi)

In the liberal suburbs of San Francisco, a Republican candidate for a Senate seat in the November midterm elections is campaigning under the slogan, "Liberate the U.S. from the Jewish Oligarchy." Patrick Little, 33, agreed to be interviewed aboard a yacht in a local harbor.

"Jews are discriminating against Whites and Asians," and "Jews were not killed in gas chambers" by Nazi Germany, the candidate insisted during a solid hour pouring out his ideas.

Little, who said he became anti-Semitic about two years ago, emphasized that the internet is his main election campaign weapon. He seemed to realize that his chance of electoral victory is slim, but running for public office can be used to spread his opinions online. He films media interviews and puts them online. Besides Little, at least four white supremacists are running for federal congressional seats in Republican primaries nationwide.

And some white supremacists seem determined to use all means available to spread their views. In the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Florida in February, major U.S. news outlets including the New York Times reported that the suspect, who killed 17 people, had ties to a white supremacist group. This reporter wrote about those reports, but the alleged ties were later found to be false. This piece of information was spread intentionally by a senior member of the white supremacist group in an apparent bid to attract public attention.

According to the U.S. human rights organization Anti-Defamation League (ADL), some 4.2 million tweets attacking Jewish people were recorded during a one-year period from January 2017, and the number of violent crimes and harassment against them shot up about 60 percent from the previous year.

The ADL has started working with major social networking platforms to remove discriminatory posts. "Private establishments have the right to enforce a set of rules," said Joanna Mendelson, senior investigative researcher at the ADL. "If you speak on the sidewalk you speak hate till you're blue in the face and however heinous and vile they have the right, but when it comes to platforms with terms of service they (the platforms) also have the right to restrict particular content."

But you cannot close Pandora's Box once it's open. The presence of President Trump, with his vocal promotion of anti-globalist and anti-immigration ideologies, is encouraging white supremacists, Mendelson said. "They saw him as the leader to promote their extremist agenda. Unless our leadership speaks out vociferously, directly and immediately against hate, it has the possibility of festering like a wound."

(Japanese original by Sumire Kunieda, New York Bureau)

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