By the curb outside Avenue U station in Brooklyn, John threw a small, plastic bag into the back of a rented Kia station wagon. The bag was all he was bringing. He was already wearing his brown shirt, black trousers and black boots and he wasn’t planning on changing. “Lot of Jews here,” he said, squinting and looking down the street.
“Yep,” Duke Schneider answered as he checked his phone again. “Passover.”
“That’ll give them something to crow over,” John chortled. “Fucking pieces of shit.”
Schneider put the flip phone back in the holster on his belt and frowned towards the station exit. “There’s just no excuse,” he muttered to himself. “If they were in the SS they’d be right out on their keisters. We’re leaving at exactly 11:05!” The last sentence was aimed at us; John, Schneider’s daughter Kate and me. “If they’re not here they can take the Jersey Transit.”
Six minutes later we were headed for New Jersey. We were on our way to the annual convention for the National Socialist Movement, the largest Neo-Nazi organization in the US. It was to be held somewhere in the Garden State and there would be a march in Trenton on the Saturday. This was all I had been told, and to the best of my knowledge, this was about as much as most people in the NSM knew. The location of the hotel and the venue for tonight’s banquet were closely guarded secrets to which only the members of the leadership were privy.
John and Kate were in the back seat. John had only been a member of the NSM for a short time, and this was his first convention. Kate, who works as a claims adjuster, was telling him about a black woman who had tried to claim children she wasn’t caring for on her insurance. Her round face became distorted and her voice became broad and exaggerated. “What you mean I can’t claim fo’ them children jus’ ’cause they livin’ wi’ they baby-daddy?!”
John laughed. “Baby-daddy!”
In the front, Schneider was telling me about the Holocaust. “None of us were there, so how can we know?” he reasoned as the Kia crossed the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge from Brooklyn to Staten Island. “I’ve heard accounts for and against, and I can’t know. I met a woman who survived the Holocaust, and she never saw any atrocities. She was a cleaner and she once saw Hitler, Goring, Adolf Eichmann and Joseph Mengele board a plane. Eichmann and Mengele both escaped to South America. I think Hitler did, too.” Elton John’s Tiny Dancer came on the radio. Schneider stopped talking and turned the volume up.
“Did you hear there’s a cover of Elton John on Michael Jackson’s new album of unreleased material?” Kate shouted from the back seat. “Don’t Let Your Son Go Down on Me.” John and Kate both laughed. Schneider frowned. He pulled out a CD and slid it into the stereo, handing me the cover. Panzer Marches. From Original Third Reich Recordings. The car filled at once with the crackling of an old gramophone that was quickly replaced by the tinny sound of old marches recorded during the war. Schneider winked and hummed along.
“When before us an enemy
we go full-throttle against them,
and rush at the foe!
What difference does it make if we give our lives
For the army of our Reich?
Yes, the army of our Reich?
To die for Germany
is for us the highest honor.”
“Where are we going?” I asked. We had just crossed from Staten Island and into New Jersey. Schneider winked again. He winked a lot.
“Confidential,” he said, repeating what he had told me for the last two months about our destination for the weekend.
I had gotten used to the clandestine disposition of Schneider and the NSM. Every meeting with Duke for the past five months had been cloaked in secrecy. I was always told to meet at Avenue U station in Brooklyn where he would be waiting in his car. From there Schneider’s Hyundai would crisscross around blocks, making U-turns, doubling back before always ending up outside the same diner in Sheepshead Bay, roughly half a mile from where we had started. Schneider said it was because he was under constant surveillance by any number of organizations “CIA, FBI, DHS, JDL, ADL, ARA,” he listed. “I don’t mind. If the CIA is watching us then they must be watching the Jews and the terrorists, too. I’m not doing anything wrong.” He would often and haphazardly change times and locations for meetings, citing various security threats, sometimes based on little more than that there was a car he didn’t recognize parked outside his house.
When I was first invited to the NSM’s annual convention, I was told that there was to be no photography or recording and that I had to relinquish my phone before leaving New York. The rules seemed paranoid in the extreme, especially since Schneider kept insisting that the NSM was a regular political party and should be treated as such. The limitations had been eased since, and my camera, phone and recorder were in a bag in the trunk of the Kia as it made its way into New Jersey.
I still had no idea where we were going.
The NSM claims it has 65 chapters in 35 states, and its leaders say the organization is growing rapidly. No one outside the movement really knows exactly how many members the organization has, because no one inside the movement will say. It has its roots in the American Nazi Party, founded in 1959 by George Lincoln Rockwell, known as the father of American National Socialism. Seven years after Rockwell’s murder in 1967, two of his lieutenants, Robert Brannen and Cliff Herrington formed the National Socialist American Workers Freedom Movement. The group was active mainly near the Twin Cities and largely unknown to the rest of the country. In 1994, Herrington handed over control of the group to the much younger Jeff Schoep, who runs it still. Schoep was 21 at the time and claimed he had been a Nazi since the fourth grade, when he first read Mein Kampf.
Schoep changed the name to the National Socialist Movement and set out to revamp the organization to attract a younger generation of Neo-Nazis. He established the Viking Youth Corps, a group that focused on recruiting angry teens, and launched a special Women’s Division of the NSM. He also established NSM88 Records, a label releasing only White Power music, and bought the Neo-Nazi social networking site New Saxon.
NSM soon gained national notoriety because of the replica Nazi uniforms its members wore during marches, and the provocative nature of their events. In 2005, the members of the NSM insisted on marching through Toledo’s North End, a poor and predominantly black neighborhood. In the riots that followed, several people were hurt and the members of NSM indignantly claimed that they had been attacked while exercising their constitutional rights.
Two hours after we had set off, Schneider turned the Kia into the parking lot of the Comfort Inn in Bordentown, New Jersey. Bordentown is the kind of small town that seems to be made up entirely of diners, bars and burger joints lining a six-lane highway for which it is hard to imagine there is any need. A motley group of people stood in the parking lot outside the squat, yellow building, waving as our car pulled up. Some were tattooed skinheads in combat pants and bomber jackets. Others looked like tourists with sun visors and tee-shirts from the Grand Canyon. Kate jumped out to hug a matronly woman in a trucker hat, whom she hadn’t seen since they marched together in Phoenix during last year’s convention. Schneider clambered out of the car slowly and shook hands with a short, older man with slicked back grey hair and a swastika armband on his brown shirt. John hung back by the car and kicked a rock against the curb until Schneider introduced him jovially as “a new potential storm trooper.” Everyone waved. John, who looked unsure of whether to wave back or give the Nazi salute, settled for grinning sheepishly. The older woman who had hugged Kate introduced herself as Sandy. “Welcome to Jersey, kid,” she said.
A young, smiling skinhead in a bomber jacket and with “SS” tattooed on his neck in bold, red letters came over to me and introduced himself as Juan, quickly adding that his dad was Spanish, not Mexican, a vital distinction. He said welcome and that he was happy to talk to me. He was from Albany and had been a member of the NSM for two years.
“The banquet will be good,” he said. “These are nice people.”
Everyone met two hours later in the lobby. The Pakistani receptionist looked terrified at the scene unfolding in his hotel. The Nazis had been told to wear their dress uniform and the lobby and bar resembled a scene from a WWII movie. “Who are these people?” he whispered to me pleadingly, hoping against hope that I wasn’t one of them.
In one of the chairs next to the reception, a heavy-set SS soldier with angry red skin and a black cap that seemed to belong on a much smaller head was educating a young girl on race theory while a South Asian cleaning woman stared at him in poorly disguised disbelief.
“What you see in the black communities are that something like 70 percent of mothers are unmarried,” he pontificated, while the thick, blood-filled folds of his skin pressed begrudgingly against the collar of his shirt. “Now their kids are all half sisters and half brothers and they don’t know who their fathers and uncles are. So they start doing it and soon you have a lot of inbreeding and a recessive gene pool. We need to put some chlorine in that gene pool. The kids grow up angry and with learning disabilities. And if they get upset they go straight to the gun. They want to kill you. They’re going down and they’re taking us with them.” When he finished he looked around the room. Everyone around him, with the exception of the cleaning woman and me, were solemnly nodding their heads at this incontrovertible truth.
Schneider came up to me and said, “Ready to go, champ?” Another wink. He was wearing a heavy, black woolen uniform with riding trousers and black boots. Around his left shoulders were thick, silver tassels and a leather strap across his chest. His right arm was wrapped in a bright red band. The band had a white circle with a black, bold swastika sewn on. A long ceremonial dagger dangled menacingly from his belt. His chest was covered with medals and commendations that made the uniform seem almost believable. A giant black hat, complete with the eagle of the Third Reich and the skull and bones of the SS, was perched on his head. Commander Schoep came out of the elevator and Schneider jumped and ran to him. He had told me earlier that one of his main duties at events like this was to serve as the personal bodyguard to the commander. Once, while driving me in his Hyundai, he had told me that it would be his honor to die for the Commander.
Commander Schoep was the only one not wearing a uniform. He wore an ill-fitting, wrinkled pinstriped suit and he looked tired. His wife was on his arm, endlessly fussing over him and dismissing everyone who approached her husband as if he were a tender starlet surrounded by paparazzi. Walking briskly through the sliding doors of the hotel, he completely ignored his bodyguard. Schneider’s large, round body in the heavy uniform followed as fast as he could, struggling to keep up with his charge. It was hard to imagine him diving in front of a bullet.
The carpool convoy pulled up outside an AA-hall in Pemberton. I’d caught a ride with SS Sergeant Wilson from Oklahoma whose son had just been expelled from school for wearing a White Power tee-shirt. “I bet you anything that wouldn’t happen to someone wearing a Brown Power tee-shirt,” he said indignantly. “There are no rights left for whites in this country.”
The interior walls of the hall were covered in large, blood red banners with black swastikas and the flag of the NSM. “It’s a mix of the American flag and a Nazi banner,” an old woman with a swastika armband said helpfully. Tables filled the room in a horseshoe shape and every place setting had a white paper plate and a red plastic cup, both adorned with little swastikas. In a corner someone had set up a couple of tables filled with merchandise for sale. There were badges, medals, books, epaulets, paintings toy tanks, tee-shirts and CDs – all adorned in some form or another with swastikas. An older Nazi was browsing the table, trying to decide whether he should buy a large, painted portrait of Adolf Hitler or a copy of “The Eternal Jew,” or maybe an action figure of a panzer tank operator. Sergeant Wilson came over and said, “You want to get a picture of this.” He gave a straight-armed salute to one of the action figures on the table, giggled and left.
We had meatballs, lasagna and salad for dinner. A girl of around ten and her mother, both in black skirts, white tops and swastika armbands, fussed around the kitchen, making sure everyone had enough to eat and drink while NSM members milled around the room making small talk and laughing. The NSM is spread all over the US and so most members only see each other during conventions. Schneider paraded around the room patting backs and laughing while the Commander sat at the end of the table not talking to anyone, surveying his troops while his wife doted on him. He’d been the Commander of the SS for seven years but if it wasn’t for his suit, he could easily have been mistaken for a young recruit.
At 7 pm, as the Nazis were having coffee, the doors to the hall burst open and Jeff, a young, portly SS soldier crashed inside, falling to the floor. His face was bright red and tears were streaming from his swollen eyes. “Attack!” he shouted. “Reds!” The room erupted in roars and screams as everyone got to their feet and stormed towards the exit. Grabbing my camera I pushed my way through the front door and into the parking lot where I was faced with roughly 20 masked men, dressed in black and carrying bats, bricks and knives. Nazis pushed past me carrying metal folding chairs over their heads while the masked group across the street stormed to meet them, weapons raised. They crashed violently, their mutual disgust and hatred for each other outweighing any concern for personal safety. There was a loud crack as Wilson slammed his metal chair into the face of one of the attackers, who collapsed on the ground. His body was welcomed by kicks from heavy steel tipped boots. Behind me someone screamed “Nazi scum!” and I turned just in time to dive out of the path of a flying brick aimed at my head. I ran for cover and saw Juan, the sweet kid from Albany, landing a blow with a heavy stick to the head of a skinny kid in a mask. Blood poured from an open gash on Juan’s head, soaking his face in thick black and red. The masked kid slumped to the ground and some of his friends grabbed him and pulled him away. Juan’s feet faltered and he stumbled with blood dripping into his eyes. Someone took him by the shoulder and pulled him inside. Commander Schoep was running for cover, yellow spots of pepper spray covering his face and tears streaming from his sore, red eyes. Schneider ran behind him, unscathed but out of breath. A flying brick shattered the windshield of the car behind me, and it seemed like every car alarm within fifty miles had been set off. Neighbors stared in disbelief from their windows as their street was turned into a pandemonium of crashing chairs, swinging bats, stomping boots and falling bodies. There was blood on the ground in puddles, smears and red boot prints. The battle was primal and hateful. There was no grappling or confused wrestling, only fists, boots, weapons and the desire to damage skulls, jaws, teeth and bone. Eventually it became clear that the Nazis were winning. They had hit harder and cared less that they were bleeding. The masked attackers, disarmed and beaten, ran off down the street as wailing sirens drowned out the shouts. Some of the Nazis gave chase, but turned back after only a few short yards. They had won the battle and they knew it.
The police arrived in force. Then the state police came, and finally SWAT, armed with MP-5 submachine guns, running down the street, setting up perimeters and shouting orders. Inside the hall was as chaotic as outside. “They got my husband! Those motherfuckers! Those motherfuckers got my husband!” the Commander’s wife was screaming as she dabbed a wet towel on her husband’s swollen face, ignoring the blood soaked soldiers around her.
Next to her, a giant SS officer called Mark sat calmly, enjoying his meatballs as thick blood poured from a gash in his head that left a part of his skull exposed. He seemed unconcerned and ate with gusto as the blood soaked his collar. “Fucking cowards!” a tall, skinny Nazi named Tony shouted. “We sent them packing! Cowards! Goddamn that was fun!”
“I took a chair and smacked that motherfucker!” A young skinhead shook his head in happy disbelief. “Right in the face. Commie motherfucker!”
Outside in the parking lot the police were taking statements.
“We were just having dinner and they attacked us, officer.”
“I have no idea who they were, officer. Probably Jewish Defense League.”
“All we did was defend ourselves, officer.”
Juan was in the back of an ambulance being examined by paramedics. His blood soaked face broke out in a smile and he gave a thumbs up. A few of his friends had already been driven off to the hospital.
Commander Schoep was inside whispering with his lieutenants in the kitchen. “Someone told them where we were. Someone fucking told them.” They stopped talking as I walked past, eying me suspiciously. Schneider looked at me. He was the guy who had brought a journalist into the room, and he was hoping he hadn’t brought a snitch in, too.
A guy called Greg came over to me. “I just can’t understand why some people just don’t like Nazis,” he said, his voice filled with genuine wonder as he shook his head in confusion.
“Are you kidding?” I said. “You’re Nazis.”
“I know,” he said, shaking his head again. “I just can’t understand it.”
“Who were those guys?” I asked Tony.
“Jewish Defense League,” he said. “Or Anti Racist Association. Perhaps Black Panthers, although I doubt it. They don’t usually wear masks. We just call them Commies.”
The ambulances and most of the police left, leaving a handful of cars and about a dozen officers standing guard outside on the now quiet street. The Nazis were jubilant. Commander Schoep was pumping his fists in the air. “What we experienced today with the Commie scum was just a test of what we’ll see tomorrow. I was honored to stand with each and every one of you today. Today and forever we and our revolutionary forefathers stand against the onslaught of the masses.”
“Sieg Heil! Sieg Heil! Sieg Heil!” erupted from the room.
“We fought the Commie scum in the street and we sent them to Hell! We’re fighting for the future of our children!”
The next morning was wet and grey. I woke to the sound of radio static. The parking lot outside the hotel was crowded with SWAT teams and National Guard. They had been there all night to make sure the Nazis weren’t attacked in their beds. The lobby was crowded again and the Pakistani owner looked exasperated. “I’ve asked them to not hang around the lobby,” he complained. “They’re scaring the hell out of all my customers.”
Sandy, the older woman I had been introduced to the day before, came over. “Come here,” she whispered conspiratorially. “I want you to know something the government doesn’t want you to know.”
She introduced me to Heath and Deborah Campbell, a couple from New Jersey who had lost custody of their children over allegations of abuse. “They can’t talk to you,” Sandy said. “The court says they can’t talk to anyone. But the court didn’t say anything about their godmother talking.” Deborah was a small, demure woman, who seemed disinterested. Heath was a thin, scrappy man with long hair, a bushy Hitler moustache and a large red swastika tattooed on his neck.
Three years earlier the state of New Jersey had take their three children because of the names they had given them: Adolf Hitler Campbell, JoceLynn Aryan Nation Campbell and Hozlynn Hinler Campbell.
“I named my kids the best names I knew,” Heath said, momentarily forgetting his gag order.
Sandy interrupted him. “It all started with a birthday cake,” she said. “You can start you story like that. Write ‘It all started with a birthday cake.’” She pointed at my note pad, then at Heath. “Tell him,” she too apparently forgetting that the Campbells weren’t allowed to speak.
“I went to the bakery,” Heath continued. “I wanted to get a birthday cake for my son and I wanted it to say ‘Happy Third Birthday, Adolf!’” Apparently the bakery owner, who Heath said was Jewish, had been alarmed by the name and called the authorities.
“They call it abuse,” Sandy spat in disgust. “Abuse! They’re good names.”
“Isn’t it possible it can lead to them being teased?” I offered.
“Nonsense!” Sandy almost shouted, incredulous at the ridiculous question. “I was teased for my name in school all the time. People called me Sandy Koufax. I had a hell of a time. Kids are going to tease no matter what.”
“Besides,” Heath shot in, “who uses a middle name anyway? The schools don’t even know the kids’ middle names. Who cares if it’s Hitler? It’s a good name.” I tried again to suggest that with names like that, teasing, bullying and misery was downright guaranteed, but they didn’t understand me, so I left them in the lobby with a promise to write something.
The Nazis piled into cars and drove with a police escort to a rendezvous spot outside Trenton, from where we would be ferried into town in prison buses. After the battle last night, the authorities were taking no chances, and security was extensive. The plan was to march a few hundred yards to the capitol building where Commander Schoep and others would speak on the steps about what was wrong with America. Before we got on the buses everyone was searched and told to leave brass knuckles, sticks and clubs behind. Sergeant Wilson had to take off his flack jacket because he didn’t have a permit for it. He took off his bracelet in the bus and wrapped it around his hand as a makeshift brass knuckle. “I got five bucks for every fist to the face!” he shouted to the back of the bus. “Last night was nothing!”
The entire route of the march was lined with National Guard and riot police. They had closed off every access point and no one was around to watch the Nazis trudge along the wet streets, while the rain soaked their black uniforms. They arrived at a wide square in front of the capitol. A few modest steps led up the entrance and a small podium stood at the top. Police had cordoned off the entire square. In the distance the protestors had gathered. The police, fearing another showdown, kept them two blocks away from the Nazis, just barely within shouting distance. So the big rally was reduced to Nazis screaming obscenities at protestors down the street, and the protestors screaming them right back. “We kicked your asses last night!” Wilson roared. “We’ll do it again today!”
Juan, who had been released from the hospital the night before, stood in the pouring rain in front of the podium holding a NSM banner. His head was adorned with 12 bloody staples and he had red laces in his boots, meaning he had shed blood or drawn blood for the cause. “Hey,” he said. “Great night last night.”
At one point the NSM tried turning their speakers towards the protestors in the distance. “This is my town,” Lieutenant Hiecke, the leader of the New Jersey chapter shouted into the microphone. “I’m here because I care about Trenton and what’s happening here. I’m here for you.” The protestors shouted and the Nazis shouted back and so it went for about two hours before the Nazis called it quits and marched back to the waiting prison buses.
“We’re going to go shopping for our wives later,” Wilson told me excitedly on the bus. “Shopping” is when the NSM go into a town in their uniforms to stir up trouble and get into fights. “We’re going to go right back here after the police leave and we’re going to find something nice for our wives. I don’t care if we have to go into every shop in Trenton.”
“Fuck yeah!” someone shouted. “White Power!”
They never went.
Later that night everyone gathered in Lieutenant Hiecke’s back yard for a final night of celebration. The weekend had gone better than expected and the Nazis were jubilant. They had faced off against the Commies and won and it had been a victory won with blood. Lieutenant Hiecke had erected a large gazebo tent and filled it with tables and chairs and draped swastikas along the plastic walls. In one corner was the guy with the merchandise from the night before and in another was a drum kit and amps.
“Have a beer,” an older guy who had once been a Grand Dragon in the KKK told me. “We did something this weekend.” Other than being attacked and shouting abuse for two hours I wondered what they had achieved. “We got out and did something, that’s what,” he went on. “We used to do something in the Klan. Then everything changed and now all the Klan does is sit around in the woods and barbecue. That’s why I joined the NSM. We get out there and give the kids something to look up to.”
A skinny guy with a manic look came over to me. “Check it out,” he giggled and pulled his tee-shirt off. On his chest was a large tattoo of two plungers in a cross with a swastika in the center. “70th. Precinct” was written in bold, gothic letter. It was his homage to the officers of the 70th precinct in Brooklyn who sodomized a Haitian immigrant with a broken plunger in 1997. He grinned and turned around. “Kill Niggers” was emblazoned on his back. On his forehead was a pale, blue shadow of what had once been the word “Racist.” “I have to have it removed because I’m standing trial for trying to blow up a school,” he laughed. “I’ll have it done again when probation is over.”
Some young skinheads were talking at a nearby table. “In ten to fifteen years, not even that,” one of them said seriously, “the Muslims will have enough people here to elect the next President of the United States.”
“Yeah, there’s a state, Oklahoma or Kansas or something, where they’ve actually voted to institute Sharia law! In the Heartland. I mean, come on!”
“You know Muslim men are allowed to marry from when they are one, right? They can get married when they’re only one year old! A woman on the Internet said it. One year old, swear to God.”
One of them was playing with his mobile phone distractedly. “I can’t download any White Power music on my phone,” he said. “Sprint is letting me down.”
The rain was getting worse outside the tent. The rain and heavy boots had turned the lawn into deep mud and every so often forks of lightning illuminated the swastikas on the walls. Commander Schoep sat alone in the corner. He was wearing his combat uniform. Black boots, black cargo pants, black shirt with a red armband.
“How has your weekend been?” he asked when I sat down. I told him that it had been good. Illuminating.
“People don’t get that we’re just regular people and a regular party,” he said. I looked over at Josh with the plunger tattoo. He was talking excitedly to a man dressed completely in white with the words “It’s not illegal to be white…yet” written on his tee-shirt.
“The reds attack us and want to get us, and we’re a peaceful, non-violent group. But we’ll defend ourselves and we always win. But we don’t like violence. We are who we are, and if what we do provokes them, tough. But it’s not about provoking. That’s not why we do this.” Last year, Lieutenant Hall, a large, looming skinhead with a skull on an iron cross tattooed on his head received 30 percent of the vote for city council in a small town in California. The week after my trip to Trenton, he would be shot dead at home by his ten-year-old son.
Schoep believed that his movement would only gain electoral popularity. “We’re a white civil rights organization,” he said. “Like us or hate us, we’re involved in a lot of good things and I think many Americans are starting to agree with us. The Democrats and Republicans are basically the same group. There are no strong differences between them and that’s where we come in. National Socialism is neither left wing nor right wing. It takes the best of both wings and combines them.”
He said he didn’t see his party as racist or hateful. He said he was concerned with establishing a white, secure homeland, and really didn’t care what other races thought about that. Ideally the other races would go when his party came to power.
“They could go back to their own homelands,” he suggested. “It’s not like we’d rip them out and send them off. They’d be repatriated.” He explained that if a black person owned a house here, he would of course be given a house in his new homeland. “We can do it if we stop immigration, bring the troops home and stop giving out all this foreign aid,” he said, repeating the NSM solution to pretty much everything.
I had been told several times that weekend that the US could easily be fixed if we brought the troops home and placed them on the border to Mexico, the origin of most of the problems in the US. A sergeant I’d spoken with earlier had seen a Mexican man in Connecticut, and presented it as undisputable proof of a mass exodus of criminals, degenerates and rapists from Mexico. “It’s an America First policy, and it’ll bring in tons of money,” Schoep said confidently. “Immigration and the economy are the biggest problems facing the nation. And they’re two sides of the same coin.”
He didn’t think his group was a hate group, and if they were then Martin Luther King was a hater too. “There’s a real double standard when it comes to whites,” he said. “If you’re white and proud then you’re called a racist, but if you’re black and proud or any other race then that’s ok. If you look out for white people, then all of a sudden you’re a racist. I’m not a racist. I don’t hate anyone because of his or her color, creed or religion. That’s ignorant. I prefer to be with my own people, but I don’t hate anyone.”
Schoep said that whites would be the minority in the US by 2020, that big business was run by Jews whom he didn’t consider white, and the white politicians in Congress were traitors who didn’t care about their constituents. “Most people don’t want immigrants here. Most people don’t want the war. But the politicians don’t listen. We’re here to change that.”
Lieutenant Hiecke came in from the rain, soaking wet. “We’re about to light her. She needs about ten gallons of fuel, but she’ll light.” Everyone got up and went outside in the rain. It was coming down harder than ever. Hiecke’s backyard was an ocean, lit up by forks of lightning. In the middle of the yard was a giant swastika, six feet across and nailed to a wooden beam that had been driven into the soaking earth. Hiecke was crouched next to it. Tiny flickers of his lighter illuminated his face and hands as he struggled to set fire to the dripping wet structure. Eventually small flames appeared on the bottom right angle of the swastika, slowly making their way to where there four arms intersected.
“White Power!” someone screamed.
The rain seemed to get worse but no one went back inside the tent. Everyone stood around watching as the flames engulfing the swastika and grew stronger and brighter. “Sieg Heil!” people shouted, giving straight-armed salutes while water poured from their outstretched hands and arms.
“Sieg Heil! Sieg Heil! Sieg Heil!” The neighbors were in their windows watching the group of Nazis, soaking uniforms clinging to their bodies, illuminated by the flickering light of the burning swastika. Schneider stood next to me. He had his hat in his hand and the heavy rain was pounding his bald, round head. His right arm was outstretched and flames flickered in his eyes. His lips were pursed and his back was straight. Water was dripping from his eyebrows into his eyes but I never saw him blink.
I wondered what he had achieved that weekend. The Nazis had faced off their attackers and marched in their uniforms. They had cuts to boast about and they had given each other medals and commendations for it. There had been much backslapping and agreement about what was wrong with America, but I had a feeling that that was pretty much it. The next day everyone would go back home. They would listen to White Power music, talk on Internet forums and shake their heads at the number of Mexicans in their country. Then they would say that something needed to be done and that they should be in power, safely knowing that it will never happen and that their theories and ideas will never be tested.
I said bye to Schneider who didn’t hear me, and walked to my car. From the parking lot I could still see Hiecke’s house illuminated by the burning swastika, and as I got into the car I could still hear their Sieg Heils.
It had been more than a year since I had last seen Duke. We had met a couple of times after New Jersey, but after a while we had lost touch.
I emailed him a couple of times, but never heard back, and the people I spoke to in the NSM didn’t seem to know where he was.
It had been almost six months since my last email when I tried him again, this time getting a reply straight away, only it wasn’t from his NSM email, and he was no longer calling himself Duke, but Keith.
He said that since he last saw me he had been promoted to SS captain within the NSM and was in line to be made major, and, as he put it in the email, “had been put in charge of everything including rebuilding the NSM into a full scale empire.”
Then he was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, left the NSM and married a black woman.
A couple of days after I got the email I was once again standing under the overpass at the Avenue U station. He was waiting in the same old Hyundai, but rather than driving us to the El Greco diner, via a series of loops and double-backs, as he had in the past, he drove to a small house on a quiet, tree lined street.
On the surface at least, not much had changed. He was still the same short, muscled man, with the same cargo pants, boots and t-shirt with a wolf’s head. He said I could still call him Duke, but other than that, he was a completely different person.
“When you get cancer, you tend to start reflecting on things,” he said as we drove.
“I had always been prepared to die, but I always though it would happen in some glorious way, like protecting the Commander, for instance. Dying from cancer has no honor.”
It was last fall when the doctors discovered a tumor in Duke’s neck with a diameter of 8 cm. He was pumped full of chemo and blasted with radiation, but the tumor wouldn’t budge, so it would have to come out.
During his treatment, Catherine visited him in the hospital. Catherine Boone and Duke had known each other for almost twenty years, ever since she had hired him as a body guard when she worked as a presenter for a local cable show and received threats. Since then they had spent time together on and off. They had been friendly, but nothing more. Duke had never made a secret of his affiliation with the Nazis, but Catherine had never seemed to care. After Duke had been diagnosed with cancer, he had started going to church, and he and Catherine had reconnected. She had rarely left his side in the hospital.
“The day I was going in for my surgery, she leaned over and told me that she had loved me for twenty years,” Duke said. “Clear out of the blue.”
When he woke up after the successful removal of his tumor, she was there, and he said that as soon as he got out he would marry her. Less than a month later they married, and Duke resigned from the NSM.
Duke and Catherine live in Duke’s old house, a small, two-story brick building in Brooklyn. Catherine is a short, slightly plump woman, in the tail end of her fifties. She has a gentle face, framed by long braids that she sometimes decorates with a flower.
Their living room is sparsely decorated and opens up to a small dining room, which is filled with hundreds of video cassettes and DVDs. Catherine has done some acting, and she and Duke have both had small parts in a few low-budget horrors. In one of them, “The Ghost of Angela Webb,” a straight to video from 2005, a very puzzled looking woman (we’ve been told she’s a medium cum private detective) enters a barn and immediately declares that “the room has an overwhelming feeling of sadness.” Duke’s corpse can be seen in the background, dangling from the rafters.
“I didn’t use a harness for that,” Duke says approvingly of his own performance.
“All neck muscle.”
A narrow staircase leads from the dining room up to the second floor where Duke keeps a special room for his turtles.
Catherine came out carrying cups of coffee and a photo album that contained pictures from the wedding. In one of them, Duke has his arm around his new wife and is smiling. He looks slightly out of place in a tuxedo, but happy.
“It wasn’t a big wedding, but it was a happy one,” he said. Out of all his friends in the NSM, only his daughter attended. “After I left I got some pretty nasty texts from some of the members.”
A former member of the NSM sent him a message on his wedding day calling him “a nigger, not a Nazi.”
“I guess that in their eyes I am a race mixer and a traitor, but when I came out of that surgery, I didn’t see things like I used to. I didn’t see my wife’s color any more than she saw mine.”
During our past meetings I had asked Duke several times if he believed that the NSM was a hate group, and he had always said no, or deflected the question with a diatribe about defending ones race. Now, on the other side of cancer and his wedding, he still seemed uncomfortable with labeling his former comrades as hateful.
“I see them NSM as an exercise in futility,” he said diplomatically. “No matter what we did, we never got a political candidate on the ballot and the press would always write bad things about us. Being in the NSM is like shoveling water against the tide”
“Still, knowing what he believed used to make me sad,” Catherine interjected. “He never hid anything from me, but I still remember the first time a saw him in his uniform. It made me sad that anyone could believe such things about people of other races and the Holocaust. But I never gave up on him.”
“I thought I was professing my love for my race and my country,” Duke said. “But the NSM preaches the separation of the races. It may not be hate, but it certainly is animosity.”
He said that he wasn’t conflicted over the years and work he had put into the NSM, and that in a way he was glad he had gone through it. He tried to look at it logically and pragmatically, and said his only regret was that he hadn’t spent his time doing something more enterprising and worthwhile. He talked about his time in the NSM not as something shameful, but like a business venture that had failed.
“Now I don’t have an ounce of National Socialism left in my body anymore,” he continued. “I can’t serve Jesus Christ and Adolf Hitler at the same time. I served Adolf Hitler for a long time. And for what? Why? Back then, I used to end every email with ‘The SS will take care of everything.’ Throat cancer was one thing the SS couldn’t take care of for me.”
Duke’s daughter Kate is still a member of the NSM, but Duke seemed to think that she was getting out of the movement. At an NSM-rally in Atlanta in April she told me that she was sad that her father had left, but that she was staying with the movement. She had also recently gotten engaged to the head of the NSM’s chapter in England, a man called John.
No one at the rally mentioned Duke. The SS had a new leader and Duke had seemingly disappeared from their consciousness as apostates often do.
Duke had said that he was still friendly with Jeff Schoep, but Jeff just frowned at the mention of him.
“I don’t know what that guy is doing. We don’t talk,” he said.
“Are you talking about Schneider?” another member leaned over and asked.
“Fuck that guy. That guy’s a traitor.”
This story was originally published at The Big Roundtable.