Kate Chance, outreach manager for the Southern Poverty Law Center, speaks with Bill Webster, a founder of the Kessel Peace Institute and longtime supporter of the SPLC. Photo by Dan Greenwood

MANKATO — A spokesperson for the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) spoke in Mankato Thursday, a day after the organization announced a 30 percent increase in the past four years for the number of active hate groups in the United States, reaching 1,020 nationwide for 2018. Twelve of those groups are located in Minnesota.

Kate Chance, the organization's outreach manager, spoke to nearly 300 people at the Ostrander Auditorium on the campus of Minnesota State University about the Alabama-based organization, which began as law firm representing victims of racial injustice in 1971.

The SPLC now has a staff of 400 lawyers, researchers and investigators who track and monitor groups like the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis.

“All the hate groups that we track are groups that demonize individuals based off of their immutable characteristics, like race, religion, ethnicity, gender identity and so forth,” Chance said.

Chance said the networks the SPLC identifies as hate groups have gained a footing in Minnesota, using social media and canvassing on college campuses and other communities to recruit new members.

“Identity Europa is one of the newer hate groups that we track,” Chance said. “Identify Europa is a white nationalist group. Their goal is to recruit younger white males and so they do on-campus flyering. The group that's most active here in Minnesota is Act for America; they've been pushing out speakers promoting islamophobia. Act for America also has an influence on college campuses.”

She noted that these groups haven't targeted the MSU campus, but urged people to be vigilant and to know what to look for. She said the SPLC learns about such groups by monitoring online activity online or from community notification.

“It's primarily online looking for groups or based off of community intel,” she said. “We have an intelligence report team that looks into and investigates these groups, but it’s a very thorough process. People will reach out about groups but they’ll spend a lot of time looking into them.”

Two campus organizations, the Kessel Peace Institute and the Women's Center, co-sponsored the event. Women's Center Director Liz Steinborn-Gourley said she was shocked by the continued prevalence of anti-Semitism, especially considering the United States fought a war against the Nazis less than a century ago.

“We can't ignore it,” she said. “We can't pretend there are not issues. So the more attention that can be called to it, the better.”

One of the problems that investigators for the SPLC face is the general lack of solid information about some of these groups, because they may hide their membership or exaggerate it. An online presence isn't enough to be added to the list; a group has to meet at least once a year at a physical location.

Involuntary celibates, or “incels,” are an online community that express hatred towards women, although there is no physical meeting space for that group. Even so, lone-wolf attacks are responsible for some of the most horrific examples of mass murder. In 2018, a young man drove a truck into a crowd of pedestrians in Toronto, killing 10 of them. A 2015 mass-murder on a church in South Carolina was committed by a single person.

“Dylann Roof became radicalized online,” Chance said. “The internet is this incredible resource, but it can also be toxic.”

Chance pointed to similar toxicity in the national dialogue over immigration, which she said has spilled over into hateful rhetoric and violence.

“In 2002, 1 percent of hate-motivated assault victims were Latin-American,” Chance said. “In 2010 that jumped to 40 percent. There is a huge anti-immigrant sentiment and it's continuing to rise.”

As she fielded questions from the audience, Chance didn't mince words about the depressing nature of the topic. But she said the SPLC has been able to successfully sue some of these groups to the point of bankruptcy, with settlement money going to the victims or victims families. The SPLC wins court battles when they can prove that hate groups have directed their members to commit violent acts.

Chance has 15 speaking engagements this spring ranging from congregations to colleges across the country.

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