AUSTIN (KXAN) — Mental illness has been at the forefront of violent tragedies around the U.S. over recent years, but there may have been another factor in a dangerous Austin shooting spree two months ago. The shooting started a KXAN News investigation into hate groups operating in Central Texas.
“A book titled Vigilantes of Christendom was located, as well as a hand-written note inside the book,” said Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo, referring to what was found in the van the shooter drove.
The book discusses ideas that are anti-semitic, anti-gay and against biracial relationships. It also discusses violence.
Central Texas, like other parts of the country, has had its own history with hate groups. In 1996, a Klan group rallied in New Braunfels. A headline in the local paper asked “Why Here?” The newspaper reported five Klan members showed up to the recruiting rally with 15 supporters, including a baby. The protesters numbered in the hundreds.
“It was relatively clear that the community wanted them to leave,” said Lt. Craig Christopherson, with the New Braunfels Police Department .
Christopherson was also with the department in 1996, when the Klan rallied in the city. He says officers had to make sure everyone stayed safe. There was no violence.
“This is a pretty tight knit community and we don’t need that kind of a reputation here, honestly, and I don’t think we had, even back in that time,” he said.
Still, the KKK name isn’t stuck in history. A modern map from the Southern Poverty Law Center shows where hate groups are now active in Central Texas. In Austin, the SPLC names the Nation of Islam, which it describes as a black separatist group and another group called the Power of Prophecy. In Kerrville, it lists a woman who denies the holocaust and runs a website sharing those views. Then there’s a KKK in Bryan, Texas and another KKK group listed in New Braunfels.
“This New Braunfels Klan group is an example of a new kind of Klan group that is choosing to essentially go silent, to operate in secret, to not have a public face,” said the SPLC’s Mark Potok.
Potok says some of these organizations decide to disappear because members fear losing their jobs or respect in their communities.
The SPLC will soon publish a new “Hate Map.” Potok tells KXAN News the new list will no longer include the two Klan groups in Central Texas. However, he says he is not sure if that is because they have dismantled or simply because they have gone silent.
“The Klan today is still absolutely white supremacist, still wears the robes and hoods, still burns crosses, but it is a very, very pale shadow of its former self,” he said.
The Klan once wielded political power, numbering up to four million and possibly more in the 1920s. Now, Potok says it’s only several thousand strong. It also does not have the political power that it once did.
“The truth is that many of these groups do little more than spout venomous propaganda, whether that be about black people, Jewish people, the government, or whatever it may be. But of course, these groups really do produce more than their share of criminal violence,” he said.
Potok says typically it’s individuals, not the groups themselves, who move from words to violence. It’s when people or groups cross that line that the FBI may also get involved.
“If part of being a group is to overthrow the U.S. government or create harm and use violence to advocate their goals and their objectives, then it’s a group we’re going to be looking at with our partner law enforcement agencies,” said Dan Powers, FBI assistant special agent in charge.
Powers oversees FBI operations in the Austin area. He says the FBI must follow the constitution and protect free speech rights. When the FBI gets a tip that someone may be moving toward violent action, agents work to prove or disprove the threat. They also work through local partnerships in the area’s Joint Terrorism Task Force.
“It’s not like there’s a presence here that anybody needs to worry about. It’s a matter of, it’s a quiet community,” said Lt. Christopherson in New Braunfels.
A KKK leader did respond to us, saying his group is a “White Christian Fraternity” and not a hate group. Still, even its website uses racist language, ethnic slurs and admits it is a white supremacist organization. The other groups in the story did not respond to our requests.