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By Shereen Siewert

This story also appeared in Wausau Pilot and review

WISCONSIN – As racially-charged protests and speeches continue to sweep across Wisconsin and the country, there is increasing evidence that hate groups are on the rise.

Government and advocacy organizations say hate groups are nothing new, but white nationalism has seen particular resonance in recent weeks and months. Earlier this month in Wausau, a white man allegedly physically attacked a man at a local gas station while hurling racial epithets. The suspect, a 51-year-old Wausau man, is now facing hate crime charges.

In Stevens Point, a 57-year-old man is accused of harassing Asian American customers at a grocery store for wearing masks. He, too, is facing hate crime charges.

In Conover, a man walking his dog while wearing a Ku Klux Klan costume prompted outrage after Rachel Byington, of Madison, posted a photo to social media. The man in the photo, Charles M. Booth, was questioned by police, but hadn’t broken any laws. Vilas County Sheriff Joseph Fath confirmed the photo as authentic.

A photo of a Vilas County man walking his dog while wearing a Ku Klux Klan costume made waves after being shared to social media on June 14, 2020. Photo: Facebook screengrab

And in March, the University of Wisconsin-Madison hosted a virtual town hall in after officials there discovered racist graffiti on campus

Experts say these types of incidents are all part of a disturbing nationwide trend, ratcheting up tension in schools, workplaces, communities and on social media.

A spike in the number of hate groups nationwide began in 2008, prompted by the country’s economic collapse and the election of Barack Obama In 2015, 11 of the nation’s 784 active hate groups were operating in Wisconsin in communities that included Mercer, Green Bay, Shawano, and Milwaukee, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a national organization that tracks such groups.

Hate groups in Wisconsin

By 2019, the number of active hate groups nationwide rose to 920. In Wisconsin, the number stands at 15. The SPLC does not track the number of members in each group.

A handful of Ku Klux Klan chapters were active in the state as recently as recently as 2013, including one in Mercer, according to the SPLC. Those chapters eventually fell off the group’s list of active groups. But photos and social media posts in recent weeks show far-right sentiments never really left the region, and experts say such groups are increasingly operating in secret.

Stanislav Vysotsky, an associate professor of sociology, criminology and anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, said the white supremacist movement itself is increasingly pushing for a less centralized model, pushing followers toward a “leaderless resistance mode.” That means most people who identify with such hate groups operate deeply underground.

“It’s almost impossible to know who has views that align with these groups,” Vysotsky said, adding that much activity is online, a “mishmash of bigots and people piling it on for the sake of being offensive.”

And there is a much broader call to be associated with an idea rather than an organization.

Oddly, there is little polling done to gauge American sentiment, Vysotsky said, pointing to a 2017 ABC News/Washington Post poll as the only recent one to assess public opinion on alt-right views.

That poll gave results that shocked many, revealing that 9 percent of people say holding neo-Nazi or white supremacist views is acceptable. If applied to the entire country, that would equate to about 22 million people.

“It’s interesting from a sociologist’s perspective that we don’t poll these people, that we don’t do more to understand how people feel,” Vysotsky said.

Who are they?

The SPLC hasnt identified an active Ku Klux Klan group in the Iron County town of Mercer since 2013. But a 56-year-old Wausau man, who asked to keep his identity secret amid fears of retaliation, told Wausau Pilot and Review that he was approached last year while living in Mercer by Klan members who wanted to recruit him.

Facebook photo from Michael McQueeney’s public Facebook page captured June 15, 2020

After declining the offer, the man said he was ostracized, called names and harassed to the point that he eventually moved away.

Michael McQueeney, who owns Antler’s Pub in Mercer and lives on Spider Lake, frequently posts photos on social media of himself in Nazi gear, at rallies, and with Klan leaders, and openly admits to having been a grand dragon with the American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. He organized several rallies throughout Wisconsin and neighboring states over a span of several years..

The American Knights has built a reputation of aggressive action that continues to draw in those susceptible to the message. Their members include scammers, drug informants and would-be wife-killers, McQueeney among them.

In their literature, they have described black people as “primitive, ugly, foul-smelling, jungle savages [who] have polluted America with their ape-like odor and disgusting habits.” The group is widely accepted as the most vicious Klan in the nation.

Court records show McQueeney has a dangerous past. The Chicago native spent six years in prison in 1988 after being convicted of conspiring to murder his ex-wife. He is accused of paying off co-conspirators who attempted to break the victim’s legs with baseball bats before shooting her in the face. She survived.

McQueeney is still going strong.