Raised in Spokane, Washington, not far from the Aryan Nation’s headquarters, Devin Burghart has long understood the threat posed by white supremacists. As a teenager, he saw white power skinheads try to recruit or harm his friends at punk rock concerts. When he was a student at Western Washington University, white supremacists burned a cross at a nearby migrant labor camp.
He became convinced that groups of bigoted and potentially violent white supremacists needed to be opposed. As a college student in 1992, he became an intern with the Coalition for Human Dignity, researching hate groups and organizing to defeat anti-gay ordinances and ballot initiatives in the Northwest.
Even when the Coalition for Human Dignity could not afford to pay him, Devin continued his work, attending skinhead gatherings, survivalist expos and militia meetings during the day, and sleeping on the floor of a friend’s small apartment at night.
Devin also closely monitored vigilante groups that consider federal and state governments to be illegitimate, appointing “common law” courts that issue threats against judges and other public officials and forming militias to carry out court orders. In 1995, he co-authored Guns and Gavels, a seminal report on the common law court movement, documenting its close alliances with the militia movement.
In 1997, he found a new base for his work in Chicago, when an organization called the Center for New Community hired him as Director of the Building Democracy Initiative. Ten years later, Devin’s staff is small, but his accomplishments are big.
Devin’s mission at the Building Democracy Initiative is to track and unmask the growing white supremacist movement in all its disguises. When white supremacists stage an event—often under purposely misleading banners, Devin is able to identify the hate networks behind the scenes and quickly inform local groups who the players are and what their real agenda is, providing the information they need to respond.
In the late 1990s, Devin responded to white supremacists’ use of rock music to popularize their message of racism, intimidation and violence with a multifaceted campaign he called Turn It Down. He wrote and distributed 20,000 copies of a book, Soundtracks to White Revolution: White Supremacist Assaults on Youth Music Subcultures. He produced a CD, organized concert events, developed a web site (www.turnitdown.com) and created a resource kit to show educators, young people and bands about how to counter white power music. In Germany, where white power bands enjoy great popularity, anti-racist activists adapted this model to create their own Turn It Down initiative.
After the September 11 attacks, white supremacist groups ramped up their anti-immigrant activities. Studying the success of anti-immigrant groups’ cleverly targeted campaigns, Devin designed a preemptive strategy. Anticipating that hate groups would target Iowa in 2004 to capitalize on national media attention to the state caucuses, Devin headed off the attack with an initiative called Welcoming Iowa. He worked with local organizations to persuade 2,000 caucus participants to pass “Welcoming Iowa” resolutions in their precincts. Welcoming Tennessee initiative is now in place, featuring pro-immigrant messages on radio, television, and billboards, and similar efforts are underway in five other states.
Devin is currently finishing a book on the anti-immigrant movement. While the survivalist militias of the 1990s have declined, vigilante border-patrol groups like the Minutemen are on the rise. As white supremacy continues to grow and gain legitimacy under new disguises, Devin Burghart will be there to expose and oppose it.