Summer of Smith
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.
In the days after Smith shot Won-Joon Yoon, an exceptionally talented Korean doctoral student, as Yoon was walking into church, Bloomingtonians reacted with rage at the local Herald-Times for running Smith's photograph as part of the logo for its "Hate Hits Home" series. The Anti-Racist Action chapter put out a release saying that people "should not ask what could have been done to stop" Smith from killing, but should focus instead on "what we can do to confront, expose, and disempower the existing white supremacist movement." Yet according to those who study both hate crime and mass murder, to neglect a closer examination of Smith, and how Bloomington and IU handled him, is ill-advised.
"Organized hate groups provide the inspiration for hate crimes, but I think it's a mistake to focus too much on the group and not enough on the individual who committed the act," says Jack Levin, director of the Brudnick Center on Violence at Northeastern University in Boston. "And in this case, Smith was not the standard hate group member," Levin adds.
Levin's research over the past two decades has shown that youths who join hate groups are often not those who intrinsically hate, but those desperate for a sense of belonging. "It's really a question of who gets to a kid like this first a religious cult, the Klan, but some group effectively preys on kids with these vulnerabilities," says Levin. In Smith's case, though he identified with other hate groups before the World Church of the Creator, he was a loner who found solace in racist theology.
Unlike other racist right groups, which use novel interpretations of Christianity to justify their racism, the World Church of the Creator holds Christianity in contempt on the grounds that it promotes weakness. Yet while the WCOC casts itself as a bastion of unflinching power, its literature is laced with self-pitying whining. It legitimizes the notion that an individual is not responsible for any ill that has befallen him (since it's all the fault of the Jews, who are "mongrelizing" the white race by promoting race mixing), hence might makes right.
As Levin and others have found, although the roots of mass murder generally lie in feelings of marginalization, mass murderers quickly externalize all responsibility and begin to retreat into their own private fantasy worlds where they wield power. (Indeed, many mass murderers flaunt Nazi symbols, not necessarily because they subscribe to the ideology, but because Nazi totems represent absolute power.) "You have to factor in the individual psychopathology here," says Levin. "This group validated something that was there before. This was a hate crime. But I also think Smith was a potential mass killer whether he joined this group or not. All the characteristics were there."
According to Gregg McCrary, a former FBI investigator who has studied multiple-victim murderers, it was probably just a question of when he would go off. It's really difficult to prevent something like this or know when it's going to happen the best analogy I can draw is something like a tornado watch, where you have the right conditions for elements to commingle and mix, and even though you might not get a tornado, you need to watch," he says. "One of the issues here is not just hate groups, but how hate groups attract and reinforce unstable people like this who are already on the edge [and how] the people who run these organizations typically try to create an aura of plausible deniability." Though he had the characteristics of a mass murderer, the fact that Smith was a spree killer the ultimate suicidal maniac whose rage boils over but who embraces a more directed, calculating approach to slaying reflective of a serial killer says a lot about how extremist groups foment violence in people already predisposed to it, especially when their ideology makes dehumanizing others more acceptable.
Like many schools, Indiana University has a bureaucracy to deal with racism. Records from its Racial Incidents Team show instances of university officials counseling students reported to have made racist comments. However, the only counseling Smith ever got was from Dean of Students Richard McKaig, who simply told him in no uncertain terms what the university rules were on the posting and distribution of literature. "A lot of people were of the opinion that he was set in his ways and not interested in constructive dialogue, so I don't think there was ever any incentive to build bridges," McKaig reflects.
Because Smith's classroom racist invective was exempt from the university's anti-racist guidelines, no one from the Racial Incidents Team intervened although their records are littered with instances of his on-campus leafleting. According to Jeffrey Willsey, Bloomington United's coordinator, a member of the group invited him to study sessions, but he never responded.
In Levin's estimation, by the time Smith arrived in Bloomington, he was probably beyond help. That said, Levin believes that among the lessons to be learned from Smith's rampage is the need for intervention with such people as early as possible. "The only thing you could have done is to have tried to reach out to him in a meaningful way and let's face it, there aren't many members of the community who are going to reach out to this guy but what he really needed was support systems."
In the minds of some here both white and minority Smith wasn't the only one who needed a better outreach effort. "Sure, it's a great multiracial, multicultural community, but I've lived here 18 years, and I've known, what, two black people?" one white resident says. Commenting on the city's Fourth of July parade held just hours after Yoon was shot several white citizens ruefully and bemusedly remarked on the fact that a float devoted to racial unity (in reaction to Smith) was adorned almost totally with middle-aged white liberals. "When this one asshole showed up in town, it was like Bloomington United reacted as if the whole Klan was descending on us, and I felt like there was more than a whiff of delusion and self-righteousness and not a lot of focus on the larger issues of minority concerns," says another longtime white resident.
Pashelle Johnson knows the feeling. A black Bahamian who married a local white man, she initially chalked up whatever rudeness she encountered to boorishness, not racial animus. Now she's more inclined to believe the latter. "I have a white friend who has an African American child, and she says the experience has opened her eyes to racism," Johnson says. "She thought Bloomington would be better, but it's not. I've experienced incidents that show racism here is alive and well I asked a woman I had a fight with at work if she would have reacted differently if I was white, and she said 'yes,' adding that she just doesn't like blacks." Charles Brown, the retired police captain, echoes the sentiment. "They got a group of people together who weren't bigoted and talked over what to do about a bigot, but that doesn't deal with the prejudice here that's still prevalent and undercover. But I've seen this before something happens every couple years, everyone gets together, but nothing substantial comes out of it in the long term."
Willsey also the city's safety and civility coordinator says that since Bloomington United began, he's developed an increased awareness of the need for more focused, grassroots institutional action, and to his credit, he's been working to facilitate it. And it's not as though his boss Mayor John Fernandez, who keenly remembers being called a "tomato picker" as a kid growing up two hours north of here in Kokomo is unsympathetic or unaware; as a city councilman, he endured reams of hate mail when he championed a local human rights ordinance that, among other things, made Bloomington the only city in Indiana that protects homosexuals against discrimination in employment and housing. "I couldn't agree more about the importance of sustaining these efforts, especially as I appreciate more how complex race and class discussions areas are," Willsey says. "Moving to a new level" is, as he puts it, "yet to be seen." But then, as a local government official trenchantly noted upon encountering this reporter, "I'm sure we have so much to learn from Rudy Giuliani and Al Sharpton."
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in New York, delivered to your inbox.