White nationalists and anti-racist protesters set to clash in Philly next weekend
When AJ Olsen gets to Fairmount Park next Saturday afternoon, he expects to be outnumbered by a gathering of protesters attempting to drown him out.
Olsen, 25, is a member of Keystone United, a white-nationalist group originally founded under the name Keystone State Skinheads. For the past seven years, he and other KU members (the group has at least eight chapters throughout Pennsylvania) have come to Fairmount Park in Philadelphia and marched to the Thorfinn Karlsefni statue along Kelly Drive to commemorate Leif Erikson Day.
Here’s how Olsen describes his group’s beliefs: “We feel that the European population has done so much more than any other culture for this country to make it as great as it is, and I think people tend to have forgotten that, [due to] schooling and social programs that made something negative out of the positive that came about it…Slavery, obviously, was terrible and horrible and it was wrong; it’s a stain on American history, it’s a stain on a lot of countries’ history—but should that be constantly thrown in our faces? No. I didn’t own any slaves, I wasn’t around.”
If posters pasted up all over Philadelphia in advance of the event are any indication, there will be a well-orchestrated group of anti-KU protesters around on the 19th; they plan to be on the scene at 11 a.m. bearing “signs, banners, noise makers or drums.” According to an email put out by Philadelphia Residents Against Racism and the One People’s Project, they’ll be there “to block/drown out the hate-speech of the Nazis.”
Olsen says—as KU members have said in the past—that their celebration of the Norse explorer who’s said to have journeyed to North America in 1003 A.D. is a family-themed cultural event. “I honestly don’t understand why we have any kind of opposition to this” event, he says. “It seems to be strictly because it’s us doing it, which seems kind of preposterous, really, to me.”
He insists that the group’s name change five years ago reflected a more moderate direction. Yet a website for the Keystone State Skinheads, under its original name, remains online and up to date.
Pennsylvania has a long history of white-power groups coming out of rural parts of the state and causing trouble, and members of Keystone State Skinheads have rap sheets dating back to its founding in 2001, with arrests relating to ethnic intimidation, assault and other charges. Olsen disputes none of that during a phone interview with PW this week, even at the same time he professes to be bewildered that the anti-racism groups have “a fascination with trying to make us look bad for whatever reason.”
“Things are very much toned down from what they used to be,” he says, and “you also have to take into account the years of maturity that people have undergone.” Critics see “hate as a motivation for what was done in past times,” he suggests, “as opposed to now, which is just love for our own kind, for our cities, our neighborhoods, our people, as opposed to hatred for another. A lot of times in years past, things were done because guys didn’t like people of a certain color for whatever reason. It was motivated out of hatred, whereas now it is not.”
Daryle Lamont Jenkins, head of the One People’s Project, doesn’t find that a terribly convincing argument. “They will try to downplay the Nazism of years past,” he says. “They’ve kept the swastika flags at home; they come with European flags and try to play dumb.”
Anti-racism protesters, Jenkins says, want to make sure that when Keystone United and other white-nationalist groups—like the Council of Concerned Citizens, the Vinlanders Social Club and the Hated Skins—come to Philadelphia, they understand they’re not welcome. “We definitely do not want them to feel comfortable,” he says. “If we don’t start getting a hold of it, we’re going to see things get worse and worse, like they always do. And we don’t want that happening in 2013.”
According to reports and videos from past Leif Erikson Day events, a couple dozen white nationalists and a couple dozen protesters have often faced off across a line of Philadelphia bicycle police. The nationalists use a megaphone to read a speech from a placard; meanwhile, protesters chant slogans like: “No Nazis, no KKK, no fascist USA!”
Years ago, Olsen grants, the white nationalists involved included “dudes stepping down the streets and using violence and trying to overthrow the government to do things we want.” Today, he says they realize that’s “not realistic and it’s not going to happen for anybody, so, obviously, being a white nationalist, the way to change things for the better is to get the community as a whole to want to change and want to go about doing certain things,” he says. “We’re not superheroes.”
Indeed. “These are neo-Nazi skinheads,” says Barry Morrison, the regional director of the Anti-Defamation League. (The ADL is a 100-year-old international organization dedicated to fighting anti-Semitism and bigotry in general.) ”They are invoking the memory of someone who they extol and see as an icon and embodiment of white heritage that they identify with: Viking and western European stock, if you will.”
Morrison says the ADL isn’t happy about Olsen’s group’s actions—”but it’s certainly a reminder that there are people who practice hatred, bigotry and prejudice. Fortunately, they have not been very successful at attracting attention. They don’t have much of a following.”