Observers of hate speech in Portland argue that the watchdog organization is missing the obvious.
The McCoy Village community room on Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard is an earth-toned space that hosts community meetings and the affordable housing complex’s holiday parties.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, the nation’s leading watchdog of hate groups, however, claims this room is also a site of hate activity.
The room doesn’t host neo-Nazis or the Klan. It’s a place where black separatists come to gather, in a group called the Israelite Church of God in Jesus Christ.
In fact, the SPLC says three out of the four hate groups operating in Portland are black. The claim was first made last year in a “hate map” published by the center every February that lists the 917 most prominent hate groups in America.
“That’s ludicrous,” says Jo Ann Hardesty, head of Portland’s NAACP and a candidate for the City Council. “I challenge this premise, that 75 percent of the hate groups operating in Portland are black. Just do the math.”
The center’s assertion seems especially bizarre in a city that has seen high-profile acts of racial hate by white men—from an unhinged man stabbing three people on a MAX train to a man yelling racial slurs at a Muslim couple while trying to hit their vehicle with his car.
Has the SPLC lost its mind?
“We stand behind the listing,” says Heidi Beirich, director of the center’s Intelligence Project. “We call out hate where we see it, and we aren’t going to give a pass to anti-Semitism or anti-white thinking in these groups.”
As the SPLC prepares to publish a new hate map next month, observers of hate speech in Portland argue that the watchdog organization is missing the obvious: Black and white hate groups don’t operate on a level playing field.
“Organizations of color do not have the power to enact their vision on this society,” says Walidah Imarisha, an author and Oregon black history scholar. “White supremacist organizations do.”
The four groups the SPLC lists in Portland are the Israelite Church, the Black Riders Liberation Party, the Israelite School of Universal Practical Knowledge and a white-run record label called Soleilmoon Recordings, which this newspaper covered last year.
According to the center, the groups all allegedly preach hate against what the SPLC calls “immutable characteristics”—skin color, gender, sexual orientation and/or faith.
But the groups appear to have little leadership in Portland, and few or no programs on the ground.
WW reached out to the three black separatist groups. Only one, the Israelite School, agreed to an interview.
Natazar Ha Ahsh of the ISUPK came down from Seattle to talk to WW at the Multnomah County Central Library before Christmas.
He brought the group’s only Portlander: a new “soldier” named David. The school also has a soldier apiece in Salem and Eugene, Ha Ahsh says.
He says the ISUPK merely promotes self-defense and seeks a separate reality for black people, not hate.
“We’re a love group, so to speak; we love our nation,” Ha Ahsh says. “But the nation that opposes us loving each other will label us a hate group.”
Ha Ahsh could not name a single, operational ISUPK program in Portland.
“We’re not going to take up arms against anybody,” says Ha Ahsh, who works a full-time job, owns a home and has a family—under a different name. “We’re here to gather our people.”
But the core of his message is the idea that the United States should return to racially separate societies.
“The only way to make change is to actually separate,” Ha Ahsh says. “What do you think black people should do in America?”
The Black Riders Liberation Party, meanwhile, evolved from the New Black Panther Party, the SPLC says. The party’s YouTube videos include weaponry, calls to arms and anti-police rhetoric.
The Portland chapter of the Israelite Church hosts an online radio show featuring a “Bishop Yawasapga,” whose podcasts target white people, Jews, the gay community and women. The group did not respond to emails or phone calls.
Staff at McCoy Village was surprised to hear a listed hate group was using its community room.
“They’re not affiliated with us at all,” says Ashley Fuller, a Cascade Property Management staffer.
The SPLC’s list has real influence, and a track record of identifying and taking action against hate groups. Black separatists in Portland, however, constitute little or no threat, local experts say. (Portland is 6 percent black, and police numbers show four of 34 suspects in bias crimes since 2015 were black.)
“They don’t actually do anything about [their beliefs],” says Randy Blazak, director of the Hate Crimes Research Network. “They basically meet in a little room off of MLK and talk about the white devil and these conspiracy theories and then they go home.”
Imarisha looks at the hate map and sees a glaring absence.
“It’s not just Portland,” she says. “Even if you look at the rest of Oregon, it is not reflective of the number, the amount of white supremacist organizing that is happening. Why is that?”
WW asked the SPLC to explain its seemingly skewed list. Beirich responded that the center doesn’t list prison gangs that are primarily “criminal enterprises,” such as the European Kindred—which was linked to the killing of a black teenager in Gresham in 2016.
Rather, it tracks “propagandists” regardless of skin color, even when they have little impact.
“It’s important for the public to know about [black separatist] groups and what they believe,” she says. “These are terrible ideas that really should be thrown in the ash bin of history.”
A Black Separatist Leader Explains Why He Wants Out of America: “The Bullshit Has Become the Norm”
Natazar Ha Ahsh leads an organization labeled a hate group by the nation’s leading watchdog.
This week, WW examined three black separatist organizations that the Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled hate groups operating in Portland.
Natazar Ha Ahsh is a member of one of those groups, the Israelite School of Universal Practical Knowledge.
He is an “Officer of 5000″—a leadership title in the Israelite School—based out of Seattle. (Despite the SPLC’s listing, none of the three black separatist organizations have significant membership or programs on the ground in Portland.)
He met WW at the Multnomah County central library before Christmas — a holiday he views as a racist lie. He brought the group’s only Portlander: a new soldier named David, who videotaped.
The group’s street-corner proselytizing “camps” have included violence. But this interview was calm. Here is what he has to say about being deemed a purveyor of hate by the nation’s leading watchdog.
WW: Do you have any comment on the SPLC’s listing you as a hate group?
Natazar Ha Ahsh: The ISUPK has no comment about them, other than, they label us as a hate group because we love our people.
I think they would say it’s because of the anti-gay rhetoric, anti-white rhetoric, that when you talk about people based on immutable characteristics, it equals hate.
We don’t call white people the devil because they’re white. We’re basing this on a history, a well-documented history of the acts committed against us on this earth. That has to be understood: This isn’t a color thing with us. The word ‘devil’ simply means deceiver. That’s all it means. … This is why we refer to the white man as the devil, because of the lies. And again, because of the acts committed against us.
What’s the hardest thing about being a black separatist in Portland?
The fact of the matter is, our people don’t want to separate from this system. They’re comfortable here. They’ve learned how to accept, for lack of a better word, the bullshit. And the bullshit has become the norm. It’s normal to have a cousin that got killed by another black man … a little girl that is at the strip club, shaking her behind, for our people to be on crack cocaine.
Have you seen growing numbers under Trump?
Especially with Obama in office, what that did to our people was give them a false idea of inclusion in this society, or in this system. Then the smack in the face came, and here’s Trump. The exact opposite of what Obama was. For the record, Obama is not one of our people either.
Anything I haven’t asked about you would like to talk about?
Okay, this is one question: what do you think black people should do in America?
I don’t have the answer to that.
Well, what do you think that hasn’t already been tried?
I don’t have the answer, but I think that we all have a responsibility to engage in things that we believe in to try to do good, for the common good.
Should that idea, would it be better suited if black people exercised that school of thought with themselves and white people exercised that school of thought with themselves? … Everything else has been tried. With integration, every time you see a cop killing a kid, you’re seeing the result of integration, that’s all you’re seeing. So actually, integration has brought forth murder.
Do you see any irony to the fact that when you say things like this, you’re saying the same things that people like Steve Bannon are saying? Some of the white supremacists and Neo-Nazis say the same thing: They say integration’s been a big mistake, we need to all go back to our separate camps.
That’s the truth. Because let me hit you with this, just to bring in the Asian camp: They’re separate. They are. They have their own vicinity, they follow their own culture, they even have their own streets. Right now. Right down the street, they have their own streets and their own language. They cater to themselves.
Some [of your] videos feature weaponry. Have you ever taken arms up against the state?
Christ said to be wise as a serpent and harmless as a dove. We understand the necessity of defense. Of defending ourselves. We’re not going to take up arms against the state, we’re not going to take up arms against anybody. We’re not going to go attack anybody. We’re here to gather our people.