Rabble Rousers

Who's that knocking on your door?

Jul 7, 2004 at 4:00 am
You may have noticed legions of leaflet-toting activists infiltrating your neighborhood. They come by day and by night, their uncompromising world cast in hues of black and white. They knock on the door, demanding your full attention, and if you're not at home, your mailbox brims with fiery propaganda. You may ask yourself, as they did in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: "Who are those guys?" The Riverfront Times tagged along last week with two extremely divergent groups -- the white-pride-or-bust National Alliance and the Constitution Defense League, a group opposed to messing with the state constitution to make marriage a strictly man-woman compact. We offer this dispatch from the front lines.

The White Album
The West Virginia-based white pride group the National Alliance says it is making small strides to win over a few St. Louis hearts and minds. White America, goes the Alliance's mantra, is an amalgamation of rootless drifters in a "cosmopolitan chaos," having lost its racial and cultural moorings.

The night begins at Seamus McDaniel's in Dogtown. It's a party atmosphere, with WGNU (920 AM) radio host and new National Alliance public-relations director Frank "Couch Potato" Weltner coordinating the event. Burgers are thrown down the hatch along with toasted ravioli, sodas and iced tea as two young Alliance crusaders talk about their passion for white people. Fliers will soon be flung from Weltner's car as it creeps under the cover of darkness along the streets of Maplewood and Richmond Heights.

For fear of retribution from those lacking in white pride, Alliance members -- who claim 50 active brethren in the St. Louis area -- asked that their real names not be used.

The crusaders: "Bob" is a 22-year-old, blond Jefferson County resident who is wearing a black T-shirt with white lettering that reads: "CLOSE the BORDERS." He runs a landscaping company and delivers pizza on the side. Bob is engaged and wants ten kids. "Well, we're going to try for at least five, because I want to save the white race." Bob's white pride developed while he was at Bayless High School, which is part of the desegregation program.

Twenty-five-year-old "Rob," also blond and well built, is a St. Charles County resident who owns a flooring business. The unit coordinator of the St. Louis branch of the National Alliance, Rob was turned on to the group after hearing one of its talks on a short-wave radio. He's not a Christian but rather an Odinist, one who worships Odin, the mythological Norse god of wisdom, war, art, culture and other things.

The plan of attack: The crusaders are winding through the streets of Maplewood and Richmond Heights, and tonight's goal is to toss 600 or so fliers onto the doorsteps and driveways of these middle-class houses. The flyers say "THE DAY OF NO RETURN, JULY 4TH, 2040: This is the day whites will become a minority in their own country." On the route are Gayola Place and other streets believed to be largely white. "We're not out to try to recruit Jews or non-whites. This is strictly our message that we're bringing to white people," Rob says.

The goal: "We want a giant fishing net over St. Louis, and anybody who feels remotely like we do, we're going to try to catch them in our net and bring them into our group," Rob says. "The larger goal is a white living space -- a place that we can call our own."

The technique: Driving at about ten miles an hour, Alliance members flick tightly wrapped fliers, each bound by a rubber band. The key is to use the wrist and avoid tennis elbow -- and to be careful. "If there's somebody walking down the street, we don't necessarily throw it at them. We don't want anybody to think we're trying to assault them with our literature," Rob says. He insists nocturnal distribution is not an act of cowardice. "It's not that we're hiding or anything like that, it's just that that's the only time available for most of us."

Three observations gained from the experience:

They are different from the Ku Klux Klan. "The Klan dwells on these negative things," says Rob. "We don't really feel that way; if we're going to change anything, it's got to be in our people's hearts. It's not out of hatred but of love of our own. The Alliance has a zero-tolerance policy for illegality or violence. If you just talk about it, even, you're out."

They think Michael Moore is cool. On this night, other Alliance members are passing out fliers at local showings of Fahrenheit 9/11. "People are walking out of these theaters distrusting the media and the government," explains Rob. "One of the fliers says: 'Hey George, where's the weapons of mass destruction?'" Says Bob: "I think we agree a lot with some of what the left has to say."

Lots of hate mail comes from suburban whites. "These white people that escaped to these suburbs, they live in Never-Never Land. They don't want to be bothered with the world's problems; they just want to be left alone. We get a lot of vulgar phone messages from whites, like soccer moms out in the county who say, 'Oh no, what if my kids would have seen this flier!' I mean, it says, 'Love your race.' It's not hateful."

What goes wrong: Tonight all is mostly clear, although there is a report that one Richmond Heights resident found a flier in her yard the next morning and summoned the cops. "Some of our people have been harassed by the police, mainly in the county areas," Rob says, "but usually people are waving, and I wave back. As long as you seem friendly, and you're not racing through their neighborhood, jeopardizing their children and things."

What goes right: The next day the Alliance hot line is flooded. "We have a 'five-time' rule," Rob says. "We learned that people in the advertising business will often target people five times with their advertising, so we'll try to do a different flier in the same neighborhood five times in five different weeks."

A sample conversation: "Boy, I'll tell ya what, that tea is going right through me," says Bob. But he doesn't need to stop at a gas station as long as his bladder doesn't give way. "I'll be all right, as long as I can still have kids." -- Ben Westhoff

Amend Your Own Business
On August 3, Missouri voters will be the first in the nation to tackle that political minefield known as gay marriage. Several months ago the Constitution Defense League was formed in St. Louis. Its mission: to spurn legislative efforts to amend the state constitution to strictly define marriage as a man-woman affair.

The humid evening begins at the Defense League's command center four floors above the bustling University City loop. Foot soldiers are briefed and taught a few handy tips on how to avoid a good butt-kicking. (Never, for example, under any circumstances, enter someone's home.) The group is paired up, given maps and let loose into the night. They will be knocking on doors from 7 p.m. until the sunlight vanishes -- or at least until the last pamphlet finds a sympathetic hand.

The soldiers: Trevor Slom is a native South African who moved to America in 1994 and became a citizen last year. He's a doctor and for months has been wearing off shoe leather for the cause. He wears shorts, a worn Brooks Brothers short-sleeve shirt and sandals. He's calm and thoughtful. "Changing the constitution is a dire solution and enshrines discrimination into the constitution," Slom says. "I was born and raised under South Africa's apartheid government, so I saw firsthand what enshrined discrimination does to a country."

Angie Postal is a community organizer who works on issues involving reproductive rights. "This is my first time canvassing [on this issue]," she says. "I thought this issue was pressing, since there's not much time."

The plan of attack: The game plan calls for your basic door-to-door Campaign 101 gig in Shrewsbury, down Nottingham Lane, armed with only voter-registration rolls and a couple of informational pamphlets. One of them, a full-color fold-out tract, offers this declarative sentence on its cover: "Discrimination isn't just wrong some of the time." Inside, it reads: "Your 'no' vote on Amendment 2 isn't a vote for gay marriage. Your 'no' vote simply says that Missouri's constitution must never be a vehicle for discrimination." The other pamphlet lists the rights that a heterosexual married couple receives (among many others, "the right to custody of children after divorce," "domestic violence intervention" and "automatic next-of-kin status for emergency medical decisions and hospital visitation status"). The next column, headed "A same-sex couple receives," is blank.

The goal: Nothing complicated about it; this is all about convincing registered voters to vote "no" on Amendment 2. Says Slom: "The goal isn't even necessarily to change people's minds when you talk to them. This is an issue of civil rights and not religion."

The technique: The key is to have direct engagement with voters. Slom takes one side of the street and Postal the other, and they commence to knocking on doors. They are always within eyesight of each other. If a person answers the door, Slom and Postal explain the amendment and ask if the resident has any questions or concerns.

Three observations gained from the experience:

Citizens are largely uninformed. A shocking number of people are so oblivious to the issue that they don't realize they're being asked to change their own constitution. Of the hundred-odd houses canvassed, Slom does come upon some informed residents, who are polite and open to Slom's conversation and greet him with a smile.

Watch out for the Christian symbol on the door. Enough said.

Democracy is kind of fun. Door-to-door canvassing on this quarter-mile stretch of residential St. Louis can be an uplifting endeavor, regardless of how futile it sometimes seems. In two hours of street pounding, only a few dozen people have been given a proper explanation of the amendment and its consequence -- and even fewer seem at all interested in the issue. But to engage in the democratic process at a grass-roots level is an exercise in hope.

What goes wrong: A large number of Shrewsbury residents, perhaps 50 percent, aren't home on weeknights, and a lot who are won't come to the door.

What goes right: An entire family answers the door. They have not heard of the effort to change the constitution but are registered voters. They listen, and after Slom is finished, the husband looks at him and says, "I believe in love, regardless of who's involved. Where do I sign?" When informed that no signature is needed, that just a "no" vote will suffice, the husband announces that he will definitely vote against the amendment.

A sample conversation: A worker for the Missouri Botanical Garden answers his door. He looks to be in his late 50s. He believes that homosexuality is unnatural, "but to each his own," he says. He then explains that he has some good friends at the garden who are gay, so while he does not approve, it doesn't bother him. One co-worker of his is gay, but that doesn't prevent him from admiring the worker. "I love him," says the man. "I mean, not that way, but he's a great guy." -- Randall Roberts