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Neo-Nazi rallies provoke 'anger, fear'

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The National Socialist Movement, a neo-Nazi group, is holding two rallies in Arizona and Minnesota on Saturday to demonstrate against illegal immigration. Similar rallies in Riverside, Calif., near Los Angeles, have led to violent clashes with counter-protesters.

Late last month, a rally near a day-laborer site in Riverside attracted about two dozen members of the National Socialist Movement (NSM), who wore World War II-era Nazi garb. They were outmatched by about 700 counter-protesters.

The two sides were separated by dozens of police officers in riot gear. NSM members taunted counter-protesters with racist epithets. Fights broke out and several counter-protesters hurled rocks and bottles. The neo-Nazis left 3 hours later, under police escort.

Counter-demonstration organizer Kevin Akin helped mobilize over 50 community and religious organizations against the NSM.

"The broader the resistance is to the Nazis, the more difficult it is for them to find specific targets. We're hearing only irritation, anger and fear from the community," Akin says. "The fact is, when the come to Riverside, their enemy is the whole community."

The National Socialist Movement is known for provocative confrontations.

The group's Web site called counter-protesters an unruly mob of "Mexicans, Jews and homosexuals."

NSM members, meanwhile, are depicted in strictly heroic terms.

"They're proud of who they are, tired of white guilt being shoved on their kids and multiculturalism. They can't see any reason for it," Jeff Hall, the National Socialist Movement's state president, tells NPR.

Hall is a burly skinhead with a German military Iron Cross tattooed on the back of his skull. He set up the group's California headquarters in Riverside last year. He led the recent street rallies in a predominantly Latino neighborhood already battling gang violence, home foreclosures and high unemployment.

"I think Riverside was waiting for something like this. I'd like to see it cleaned up. And I see on so many street corners groups of Hispanics, most of whom you can easily assume came here illegally," Hall says. "In times when we've been hit so hard with the recession and job losses, we're standing up for the American workers."

It's white American workers he's talking about. The National Socialist Movement's guiding principles — which are posted on its Web site and are founded on the Nazi Party's "25 Points" — are clear: only those of "pure White blood may be members of the nation."

Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, says illegal immigration is simply a Trojan horse the NSM can use to deliver its broader message of white supremacy.

"The immigration issue allows racist white nationalists a plank to reach out into the mainstream. And you can attract everyone from people of good will, who would never hurt a fly, all the way to Nazis!"

The National Socialist Movement claims to be the nation's largest neo-Nazi group. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups, says the group probably has fewer than 100 members in California.

But Mark Potok, spokesman for the center, says membership in the NSM and other white supremacist groups is growing — fueled by the recession, illegal immigration and the election of the country's first black president.

"We really are seeing a lot of rage out there connected very directly to the changing demographics of the country," Potok says. "There was a real attempt to exploit the economy and hang it around the necks of people of color. "

The Southern Poverty Law Center has documented a rise in what it calls "domestic terror plots" linked to white supremacist groups. None of those plots have direct ties to the NSM. But Potok says the NSM does its best to provoke violence and outrage, as evidenced by its raucous street rallies.

In Riverside, it has also antagonized the Jewish community.

Members of Temple Beth El, the city's largest synagogue, helped organize recent counter-demonstrations against NSM. The NSM responded by marching on the synagogue during Friday services waving swastika flags.

Rabbi Suzanne Singer says she's "torn" between the desire to "not make a huge deal out of this" and the realization that the local economy's woes could breed real danger.

"Not that it's like Nazi Germany, but in this community where unemployment is — what, 14 percent? — people are hurting and they're vulnerable to trying to find a scapegoat," Singer says.

Riverside city leaders condemned the NSM's recent actions, while at the same time promising to protect the neo-Nazis' right to stage street demonstrations in the future. The group promises to do just that, here in Riverside and in other cities across the country.