A gifted journalist talks about his work on the trail of American extremism.
In his more than three decades with the Spokane Chronicle and Spokesman-Review, Bill Morlin was a paragon of penetrating, shoe-leather reporting. He still is.
In this interview with Tim Connor, Bill talks about his current work and themes that connect to an upcoming panel discussion—“Pulling at the Threads: An Examination of our Culture of Violence”—that both he and Connor will appear at on Thursday, February 7th, at the Community Building beginning at 5:30 p.m.
Although the award winning investigative reporter retired from the S-R in 2009, Bill’s persistent and ground-breaking journalism on violent racists and political extremists brought him to the attention of the staff at the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The SPLC is a crusading law firm, based in Montgomery, Alabama, that has been at the forefront of fighting racism for 42 years. In recent years, and with help from top-flight reporters like Morlin, the SPLC has emerged as a leading light in American journalism. Both in its print magazine Intelligence Report and its influential on-line Hate Watch blog, the SPLC is simply the go-to source for information on the activities of hate-based organizations around the country. Bill is now a prolific contributor to Hate Watch, Intelligence Report, and the on-line magazine Salon.
His most recent article for Intelligence Report is a piece entitled “Aryan Nations Redux.” In the piece, which appears in the Winter issue, Morlin looks at the adventures of Shaun Patrick Winkler in Bonner County, Idaho. Winkler is a protégé of the late Richard Butler, who put Hayden Lake, Idaho, on the map when he moved there in the early 1970s. Butler founded the Aryan Nations, the white supremacist “church” that Morlin refers to as “the United Nations of the extremist movement” and “an ecumenical melting pot of hate.”
In 1998, Aryan Nations security guards shot at woman driving by the compound and assaulted her and her son. She sued with help from lawyers at SPLC and was awarded more than $6 million—a ruling that forced Butler to sell off his compound. He died in Hayden in 2004.
Winkler, who ran unsuccessfully for Bonner County sheriff last year, was moving toward building an Aryan Nations-like compound in Bonner County when Morlin did his story. He has since been evicted from the property for, among other things, logging the property without permission.
“He (Winkler) had a pretty good foothold up there,” Morlin says. “He was starting to build buildings. They had actually been burning crosses up there. They were running around in Ku Klux Klan uniforms. As you’ll see in the photographs, some of the individuals were carrying assault rifles. They have every right to do that. The freedom of religion is still guaranteed by our constitution. But it’s also my right as a journalist to report about that. Despite the fact that many people would like to think, and like to hope, that the Aryan Nations vanished with the verdict in 2000 that basically bankrupted Butler’s group, rag-tag remnants of that organization, such as Shawn Winkler are still around and are trying to re-connect.”
Among the questions I put to Bill in our interview is whether the election of a black President, Barack Obama, energized right-wing extremists in their outreach and organizing efforts.
“It did,” Bill replied. “And if you peel away the leaves, at the core of it is racism. There are still, unfortunately, way too many people in this country who can’t recognize the fact that we have a black man as President, and they hate that. And they will use all sorts of catch phrases and excuses to try to dance around it. They don’t want to come out and sound like straight-out racists, but many of them quite frankly are. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that.”
Although he has seen better law enforcement coordination to combat hate groups and hate crimes in recent years, Morlin remains concerned about the possibility of horrific events, like the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building in April of 1995.
“It just takes one of these individuals, or a small group of them, to do something as horrible as we saw on April 19, 1995. And some of these people are very committed,” Morlin says. “You just never know when another Timothy McVeigh (the former soldier who detonated the moving van filled with explosives that he’d parked in front of the building) is going to pop up. And that’s the frightening thing.”
–Tim Connor for the Center for Justice