Islamophobia across the US has been escalating in the wake of the November 13 attacks in Paris, and as protests against the Obama Administration’s plan to bring Syran refugees to the United States began taking place across the country, white supremacists are inserting themselves into the public discourse. This was especially evident in Pennsylvania, where the Keystone State “Skinheads” (KSS) have made public appearances at two anti-refugee rallies over the weekend, joined by their regular allies from the patriot militia circles.
KSS, which in 2009 had also been using the name “Keystone United is one of the more prominent of the hate groups in Pennsylvania, although their activity has waned in recent years, mostly due to the opposition they have faced in the state. The Southern Poverty Law Center cites them as one of the largest and most active single-state racist skinhead crews in the US. The SPLC classifies KSS as a “racist skinhead extremist group.” Last week, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf made the decision to continue working with the federal government in facilitating Syrian refugee resettlement in Pennsylvania citing that “states do not have the authority to refuse to accept refugees.” Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey has also spoken out publicly in favor of accepting Syrian refugees in Pennsylvania, saying in a tweet, “Of the 12 million Syrians displaced from their homes half are children. We cannot turn our back on them.”
Governor Wolf’s and Senator Casey’s defense of the Syrian refugees prompted rallies promoted by a militia-oriented Facebook group NEPA (Northeast Pennsylvania) Patriots. About 40 people protested at the State Capitol in Harrisburg on Friday, sporting banners saying, “Terrorist Invasion, No Refugees” and “Aiding a Foreign Invasion is Treason” while a “heavily armed man” stood guard outside the capital.
The organizer for the Harrisburg rally, Christian activist Barbara Metzler, spoke at the event and claimed without citing sources that “Ninety-one percent of Muslims are on welfare or food stamps.” Dan Gray, who is a speaker and a writer within Patriot Militia Movement circles in Pennsylvania, spoke in even harsher terms, taking the issue away from the concerns of crime and terrorism and towards Muslims and their faith overall. “Islam is based on Mohammad, and he was a murderer,” he said. “Call me a bigot or racist, I don’t care.”
John Rentschler, a Republican committeeman from Berks County, PA and a Civil War reenactor echoed Dan Gray’s sentiments saying he “imagined the chorus of voices who would denounce him as a racist, as xenophobic, Islamophobic, as a bigot.” He followed up by stating, “What matters to me is MY family, MY home, MY people, MY state, MY country” each declaration followed by amens from the protesters standing on the steps behind him. Rentschler, continued stating that” our nation is being crushed by multiculturalism, political correctness and race-guilting.”
The charges of racism that Gray and Rentschler were concerned about are well-founded. During each inflammatory speech, KSS member Ian Mccorts (Johnny Mccorts on Facebook) stood on the steps behind the speakers holding a NumbersUSA sign and wearing a hoodie with the KSS logo. At the end of the rally, members of KSS stood on the steps and unfurled a Keystone United banner while posing for photos. News video shows the banner in the background as Metzler gave an interview. The video also showed KSS associate Bob Gaus and other members among the attendees.
The anti-refugee protesters, who were themselves protested at the Statehouse by a local pastor who simply sat with a placard of a Bible verse about welcoming strangers as they spoke, also staged a rally on Saturday at the Governor’s mansion, and was met with even more opposition there.
Also on Saturday, about eleven persons, mostly members of KSS, protested on the Davis St overpass overlooking I-81 in Scranton, PA. The protest event page on Facebook for this rally was created by NEPA Patriots and listed a disclaimer that the event was “NOT about hate, racism, etc!” with added concern trolling that their “hearts go out to any people that are under persecution” and some additional comments about beheaded Christians and military age men.
As was the case with the Harrisburg rally this sentiment was in question because this time, it seemed as if KSS were the primary organizers. Among the participants were Steven Smith of nearby Pittston, PA, a KSS founding member, current director of the European American Action Coalition (EAAC) and committee member for the Luzerne County (PA) Republican Party since 2012. Other KSS associates that attended were Ryan Wojtowicz, Joey and Stacy Phy and Patrick Rogers, and they were joined by militia members such as Mary Ann Benitez, at the time a Lackawanna County Republican Chairwoman, who was interviewed by local blogger Justin Vacula in 2014 and claimed she did not know about Smith’s racist associations although evidence showed otherwise. They were reportedly supposed to remain there for four hours, and it is not known at the time of this posting if they were joined by others. A similar rally was held the same day on an overpass in Independence, MO and former Pennsylvania resident Charles John Juba, who was a member of Aryan Nations along with his friend Smith, posted a picture of that rally on the Facebook event page for the Scranton event. NEPA Patriots also are planning a rally is scheduled for Senator Casey’s office on Wednesday.
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Pro- and Anti-Refugee rallies were also held in Boston, Massachusetts, Phoenix, Arizona, and Olympia, Washington.