Summer of Smith

How Ben Blew Into (and Out Of) Bloomington

 Bloomington, Indiana— While this was the penultimate stop on Benjamin "August" Smith's suicidal circuit ride of racist murder from Chicago to Salem, Illinois, two weeks ago that left two dead and nine wounded, it was also a place where he had been somebody— somebody scary. When he showed up here last year, it seemed as if a night rider with new age hate trappings had walked through a time warp from 1920s Indiana, when the KKK ran the state and nearby Martinsville was the center of Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson's national "invisible empire." All by himself, the slight, quiet 20-year-old riled up the city and the university with flyers, letters to the editor, and local media interviews proclaiming the vision of a white world united by an anti-Christian theology.

He was obsessed. According to Cara Schaefer, who taught a class in criminal justice that Smith took, his exams and papers were almost impossible to grade because instead of answering the assigned questions, he used his blue books to expound his racist beliefs. "He responded to one question on settling differences between two hypothetical Chicago gangs by saying how his group, the World Church of the Creator, would handle it if a member dated someone from the Christian Identity movement," she says. (He said the person would be "excluded and disowned.") Another time, she recalls, he was late turning in his take-home midterm exam (assignment: an essay on a book about how people are mentally and physically controlled at Disneyworld) because he actually went to Florida to get firsthand information to buttress the racist point of his essay. "He somehow turned Disneyworld into a racial thing," Schaefer recalls. "He called it a 'miscegenation festival,' and talked about how disgusted he was with the interracial couples there and the 'Jewish people' who run Disneyworld."

In Bloomington, Smith's interaction with people seemed to be basically limited to interviews he occasionally gave to reporters and some of those he leafleted. One of the few people who visited his apartment was Damon Thompson, a member of the local Anti-Racist Action Network chapter. He posed as a Kentucky KKK sympathizer to gain entry. Thompson remembers being struck by the peculiar juxtaposition of white supremacist banners and a poster of the dog from Old Yeller on Smith's walls. "He told me that Christianity was interchangeable with Communism, and that, as Communism needed to be eliminated, so, too, will Christianity, if white people are really to be free." Intriguingly, in another venue his behavior was more conventional: volunteering to help in the construction of an antiabortion group's maternity house, where he plastered side by side with other volunteers— including minorities— without incident. "If I was going to put any label on him, it would have been 'conservative Christian,' " a staffer says. "We had no clue he was involved with this group [WCOC]. I so wish we could have thrown him a line, but we never had any indication about his beliefs. In retrospect, he was alone and lonesome."

He apparently maintained regular communications with his "Pontifex Maximus," WCOC supreme leader Matt Hale (still living with Dad a couple of hours away in East Peoria, Illinois) and also corresponded with Australian Patrick O'Sullivan, the Church's man in Melbourne. "I started writing him earlier this year, when I saw him mentioned in The Struggle [the WCOC newsletter]. I was impressed by the way he was presenting himself, and wanted to send him a letter of encouragement. He was very happy to get my letters— I received three from him earlier this year," says O'Sullivan. "He was always very articulate, and never spoke of violence."

Yet when Charles Brown, a retired Bloomington police captain (and the city's first black officer) approached Smith as he was leafleting a downtown neighborhood last fall, Smith had no hesitation about reaching for a can of Mace in his back pocket. "The Lord orders my steps and orders my stops, so I wasn't scared," says Brown, who still carries a gun. "But I told him, 'If you have a weapon, you better leave it right there. You bring a gun around, and I'll shoot you full of holes.' I asked him if he really expected he'd be able to come into a black man's neighborhood and not get his ass kicked."

But in the bucolic college town of Bloomington, a good ass-kicking was the last thing Smith was likely to get. A haven for myriad cultures, thanks to Indiana University, Bloomington— or part of it, anyway— prides itself on being unlike the average Indiana burg. As the sign on the police station says: "It's a Safe and Civil City."

In keeping with the notion of Bloomington as a civil and tolerant community, when Smith started coming to public attention last year, the predominantly white, mostly liberal city decided to deal with him as thoughtfully as possible. He had his free-speech rights; they had theirs. Rather than arrest him on trumped-up charges of littering and trespassing, the city mailed him a copy of its leafleting ordinance. As his racial propagandizing continued, the city countered with its own efforts, following the example of towns like Billings, Montana, where hate groups have sprung up. Bloomington United, an interfaith, multiracial nonprofit, was formed, and it bought newspaper ads and put up yard signs all emphasizing the same message: "No Hate Speech, No Hate Crime, Not in Our Yards, Not in Our Town, Not Anywhere." (At a rally in support of that message, concerns about an opposing racist demonstration materialized in a counterprotest of one: Benjamin Smith.) In short, the community did everything it was supposed to do to assert its shared vision of a hate-free environment.

Next Page »