OCEAN PARK — Will Schaefer, 20, doesn’t have a swastika tattoo or a white hood. He doesn’t go to cross-burnings or goose-step at rallies. Instead, like a growing number of isolated young white men in the U.S., he cultivated his racist beliefs in the safety and anonymity of online forums.
Then he decided to test them in real life.
Seeking fellow racists
In late January, Schaefer, who has no affiliation with the Ku Klux Klan, made flyers with a hooded klansman pointing at the viewer like Uncle Sam. They read, “The KKK wants you!” There were little pull-off tabs with a link that went to an anonymous, private Discord forum run by Schaefer. The flyers went up around downtown Astoria, where a hopping KKK chapter terrorized Catholics and immigrants in the 1920s.
The flyers were quickly pulled down. Amidst a public uproar, Schaefer told the Astoria Police Department he was responsible, but Astoria Deputy Police Chief Eric Halverson, Chief Geoff Spalding and City Attorney Blair Henningsgaard each declined the Chinook Observer’s requests to confirm Schaefer’s identity, “due to concerns that identification would threaten his, and his family’s safety,” according to an APD press release. The Observer has filed a formal request for all documents related to the incident, as well as a preemptive appeal to Clatsop County District Attorney Ron Brown.
In tight with the alt-right
The slender, soft-spoken Ocean Park resident hardly looked dangerous when he opened his front door in pink pants and a green Kool-Aid T-shirt on Jan. 30. He wore a hangdog expression as he tried to explain himself.
Schaefer grew up on the internet. He appears to have made his first social media profiles around age 11. He posted a cartoon crocodile he drew, professed his love of Pokemon. As a young adult, he got interested in the alt-right — a counterculture of mostly young, almost exclusively white conservatives who espouse racist, nationalist and isolationist beliefs. He joined at least one group with explicitly racist beliefs. Participating in those groups became a central focus of his life.
“I got addicted,” he said.
‘I was radicalized’
The alt-right forums were a hall of mirrors that reflected and amplified Schaefer’s own racist and homophobic sentiments until it seemed like they were everywhere. What once seemed extreme began to feel normal.
“I was radicalized,” Schaefer said.
“Social media is now a critical infrastructure element for engaging even unaffiliated extremists into the fold,” said Brian Levin, an attorney, California State University San Bernardino professor and Director for the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism. Levin has testified before Congress on the phenomenon of internet radicalization.
“It not only ensnares bigots, it also ensnares unstable people who become bigots,” Levin explained.
“White supremacists are increasingly opting to operate mainly online, where the danger of public exposure and embarrassment is far lower, where younger people tend to gather, and where it requires virtually no effort or cost to join in the conversation,” a 2016 Southern Poverty Law Center report said. Many hate groups are easily accessible through social media platforms like Twitter, which ISIS has successfully used to recruit new members for years. In 2016, researchers at George Washington University found that, in terms of Twitter-recruiting efforts, white supremacist groups were leaving ISIS in the dust.
“American white nationalist movements have seen their followers grow by more than 600 percent since 2012,” the study said.
Levin said there is evidence that participation in radical online groups is contributing to the recent precipitous rise in racist, homophobic and antisemitic violence in the United States.
Researchers at his center found that preliminary 2018 crime statistics suggest the number of hate crimes in large U.S. cities rose for the fifth consecutive year. According to the Anti-Defamation League, extremists killed at least 50 people, up from 37 in 2017. And while there are extremists of all races and religions and at both ends of the political spectrum, far-right groups appear to be growing the fastest.
In 2018, “Every single extremist killing — from Pittsburgh to Parkland — had a link to right-wing extremism,” a recent ADL report said.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation is so concerned about internet radicalization that it launched the “Don’t Be a Puppet” campaign, which aims to teach young people how to spot and avoid extremist recruiting tactics, including flyers and private chat rooms.
Kinder, gentler hate group
Schaefer made eight rules for participants in his forum — which, he said, did draw some interest before he took it down. He told members it was a “Christian” group, where participants were to refrain from posting graphic images or cursing. He discouraged Hitler-worship, saying he thought neo-Nazism, like communism, was “gay.” Schaefer said he did not want to start a hate group.
Rule Number Eight was, “Racism is tolerated.”
“I told them it’s not OK to hate blacks for no reason,” Schaefer told the Observer. In his view, the group was a place where local right-wing radicals could go to “uplift” one another.
“We might be racist, but we are not violent in the least,” he wrote.
Regardless of Schaefer’s intentions, groups like the one he started have played a pivotal role in some of the most heinous hate-crimes of the last few years.
Dylann Roof frequented antisemitic and racist websites before he murdered nine black parishioners in South Carolina in 2015. James Fields was vocal about his admiration for Hitler in online groups before he fatally mowed down a counter-protester at a right-wing rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017. Jeremy Christian was fascinated with pseudo-viking white supremacist groups before he murdered two men and stabbed a third man when they tried to stop him from harassing Muslim girls in Portland in 2017. Robert Bowers obsessed about his hatred for Jews on Gab, a social media platform favored by extremists, before murdering 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018. Nikolas Cruz spent time spewing hatred in private Instagram chat-groups before he killed 17 people at a Parkland, Florida high school in 2018.
‘A good boy’
Schaefer told the Observer he now sees that he was wrong. He says he regrets the distress his actions caused. He says he has learned his lesson — and he lost all of his friends over the incident.
“The community doesn’t have to be scared of me,” he said.
The consequences continue to ripple, even in his own home. His mother — who had nothing to do with the project — fought back tears as she described the steps she and her husband took to limit the damage, including taking down the flyers and website, and going to the police.
“We’ve done everything we can to make it right,” she said. She defended her family, saying they’re hard-working, law-abiding church-goers. She described her son as “a good boy” who made “a stupid mistake.”
Asked if he had actually been threatened, Schaefer said he received one message that said, “Wanna hang?” Initially, Schaefer, the man who emulated the KKK — a group that has murdered, assaulted and raped an untold number of victims — was afraid. He thought the note meant someone wanted to lynch him. Later, he realized the person might have just been extending a friendly invitation.