Armed resistance, lone wolves, and media messaging: meet the godfather of the ‘alt-right’
There would be no Richard Spencer without Louis Beam
Louis Beam is escorted away from a 1993 Branch Davidian news briefing with the FBI and ATF in Waco, Texas. Officials said Beam was disruptive in a briefing the week before and was asked not to return. He was arrested when he refused to leave. (AP)
In 1983, the Grand Dragon of the Texas Ku Klux Klan, Louis Beam, began quietly circulating an essay among white supremacist groups in America. “Those who love liberty, and believe in freedom enough to fight for it are rare today,” he wrote. “We are a band of brothers, native to the soil gaining strength one from another as we have rushed headlong into a battle that all the weaker, timid men, say we can not win.” Beam wanted to restructure the white supremacist movement, and believed “it will become necessary to consider other methods of organization — or as the case may very well call for: non-organization.”
Beam was a new kind of white supremacist: media-savvy, militarized, and ambitious. Cross burnings and white robes were great, but given the climate of government scrutiny after the civil rights era, he argued for stealthier modes of violence. Building this new movement might take decades, but, he wrote, “Let the coming night be filled with a thousand points of resistance.”
His theory of “leaderless resistance” quickly became a central strategy for white supremacists nationwide, and one that defines the operating sensibility of the racist right even today. Once described as “one of the most dangerous men in the world,” Beam’s ideologies, tactics, and “career” would come to define the militant American fringe. Without him and his theories, there would be no “alt-right.”
Beam was born in 1946 in Lufkin, Texas, a small manufacturing town near the Louisiana border. As a child, he had been obsessed with Southern history, playing Civil War games with friends in which he was always the Rebel soldier announcing that the South would rise again. According to interviews with his childhood friends, he was a born Ku Klux Klan recruiter, claiming to be a KKK member in the fourth grade and attempting to wrangle likeminded classmates.
A young Beam (left) in Klan garb. Beam’s essays have been highly influential in the white supremacists movement since the 1980s.
He has told reporters that he earned a bachelor’s degree in history, and done some master’s work at the University of Houston. (Though the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has tracked Beam for 40 years, claims he never finished college). By 19, he was an average-looking white man, of below-average height, who spoke in a measured Texan drawl. He volunteered for the Army and ended up a helicopter gunner in Vietnam. There, he experienced “the joys of killing your enemy,” as he put it, and later bragged of gunning down as many as 51 people. He returned from the war in 1969, with a “Born to Lose” tattoo on his arm and the idea in his mind that the government had made a joke of the military by not allowing them to win the war — a sentiment shared by tens of thousands of aggrieved vets.
Not long after he came back, he watched as “pro-Viet Cong communist sympathizers” burned the flag at a demonstration in Washington D.C. and experienced a vivid flashback to the war. “As I sat there watching the flag disintegrate, rage and bitterness engulfed me,” he later wrote. “The cheers of the demonstrators became the screams of a nineteen year-old soldier over his radio as he burnt to death.” He could hear M-60 machine guns ringing in his ears. “Finally, at last, came the laughter of those demonstrators as they spit on the ashes at their feet, blending in my mind with the sobs of grown men as I remembered the armored personnel carrier disappearing in a ball of orange flame.” This was his enemy now. He decided that although “the battlefield had changed and the rules were different, THE WAR CONTINUES.”
After returning from the war, Beam shuttled among various white supremacist groups. What he actually did for a living, before becoming a full-time hate monger, is unclear. Some have described him as a former salesman, and he has referenced work as a computer consultant. In 1981, he was fired after four months as a safety engineer at a Houston construction company, but it’s unclear whether he’s held traditional employment since. At one point, his mother told him, “Junior, quit this and get a good job.”
The whole time, he was developing the theory of leaderless resistance, which would be his real legacy. The strategy—a version of which had long been practiced by communists, though Beam attributed it to a CIA intelligence officer—argued that groups should essentially organize into two levels. The first would be a network of militant, underground “phantom cells” that carry out violence individually or in small groups. The second would be the public-facing, political arm of the movement that claims not to be affiliated with the violence. “Most groups who ‘unify’ their disparate associates into a single structure have short political lives,” Beam wrote. Every white supremacist would make “a private decision in the quietness of his heart to resist: to resist by any means necessary.” The public groups would blend in “with mainstream ‘kosher’ associations that are generally seen as harmless.” And when one individual or cell got caught committing a crime, they would be disavowed as lone wolves, so as to not compromise the the movement and its public figures.
Most importantly, no one on the outside would be able to see or understand what they were doing because, as Beam pointed out, “Showing one’s hand before the bets are made, is a sure way to loose [sic].”
It was in many ways a perfect formulation, the ultimate seditious boogeyman. Every lone gunman would make the American public wonder if there was an army of white supremacists lurking behind him, while the leaders, when there were any, managed to avoid direct implication. By outlining the strategy, Beam had either created a veneer of unity where there was none, or the movement was becoming the hydra that he hoped. As his career in hate progressed, the latter looked to be the case.
Louis Beam (left), Grand Dragon of the Texas Realm of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, inspects his security forces in advance of a rally against Vietnamese fishermen in Texas on February 14, 1981. (AP/Ed Kolenovsky)
Beginning in the 1970s, Beam was implicated in a number of violent hate crimes. In 1971, he was charged with dynamiting a Pacifica radio station and pipe-bombing a Socialist Workers Party office, both in Houston—he was acquitted both times. He eventually found an organizational home in David Duke’s Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in 1976. His decision to join, he said, was not “an emotional reaction — rather a cognizant decision based on history, current political and social decisions, and a desire to taste the blood of my enemy.” This cool bloodlust and elevation of reason over feeling would define the rest of his career. By the end of the decade, Duke had promoted him to Grand Dragon of Texas.
Beam’s emergence in the KKK came during a shift in the white supremacy movement. For many years, Klan members had worked with police and politicians — in fact, they often were police and politicians. But after the successes of the civil rights era and the loss of the Vietnam War, many in the Klan ranks came to mistrust and resent the government as much as they did minorities. Their writing from the early 1980s is suffused with paranoia: Jews, the media, refugees, politicians, and the federal government were all colluding in an “anti-white conspiracy.” They were not just at war with the state, but with everyone who wasn’t them.
(Their darkest fears would be realized in 1992, when the wife, teenage son, and dog of a white nationalist were killed in an FBI standoff known as “Ruby Ridge.” The incident became an anti-government touchstone for the Christian white supremacist right.)
“Leaderless Resistance” was born out of these feelings of paranoia. In the essay, Beam warned that “the federal government is preparing the way for a major assault upon those persons opposed to their policies. Many anti-government groups dedicated to the preservation of the America of our forefathers can expect shortly to feel the brunt of a new federal assault upon liberty” — dual narratives of victimization and extreme self-sufficiency that still define the far right today.
“Our goal — a Racial Nation of and by ourselves — nothing less,” Beam wrote. “In one simple, masterful stroke, everything becomes clear again: right vs. wrong, good vs. evil, light vs. darkness, establishment of a Racial Nation or destruction, a future or no future.”
They needed to arm themselves.
During this period, white supremacists became highly militarized. As University of Chicago professor Kathleen Belew explained in a recent New York Times op-ed, a small group of Vietnam veterans with white supremacist ideas returned from the war, took their knowledge of weapons and military training, and applied it to their cause. They wore camouflage fatigues, packed heat, and ran boot camps.
Beam himself had begun opening paramilitary camps in southeastern Texas in the late 1970s, but he fairly quickly drew negative media attention when parents complained that he was training children as young as eight in guerrilla warfare tactics. Beam didn’t see a problem with this. “Instead of playing baseball or out kicking a football around, they are learning how to survive,” he said, adding that more camps were in the works.
In 1979, Beam made national news when he was arrested at a hotel in Houston for trying to attack the Chinese Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping, whose country had supported the North Vietnamese regime. He was stopped by security forces before he could do any damage. “Actually, Vice Premier Deng assaulted me,” Beam told reporters. “He came to America. That was his assault…. Unfortunately for the 100,000 dead GI’s, I was not able to get through the Secret Service or the police officers to him. I had every intention of avenging their deaths.”
But the incident that really made Beam infamous came in 1981, when he terrorized Vietnamese refugees who had resettled in Texas. In an ongoing dispute between local fisherman and refugees trying to establish fishing businesses, two Vietnamese men shot a white crabber during a fistfight. They were acquitted on the grounds of self-defense, and Beam swept in to lead rallies and offer trainings on “the right way to burn a shrimp boat.” Days later, two Vietnamese vessels went up in flames. The arsonists were never caught. Burning crosses also appeared on the lawns of Vietnamese families. Not long after, hooded Klansmen took a boat out into Galveston Bay with a cannon on board and a human effigy hanging from the rigging. They docked the boat near a Vietnamese fisherman’s house, much to the horror of his family.
In his rhetoric around the situation, Beam was trading on everything that would animate the conservative movement for years to come: a wounded sense of manhood, a disenfranchised working class, a country in decline because of job-stealing immigrants, and of course, armed vigilantism.
The story was carried in papers across the country, from Honolulu to Philadelphia. Four years later, Louis Malle made a movie about the incident starring Ed Harris as a sympathetic Vietnam vet despondent over the immigrant threat to his way of life.
(left) Louis Beam (far left) leads a funeral procession for a fellow Klansman in Dallas, 1980. (AP/Harold Waters) | (right) James Alex Fields (center left) holds a shield at a 2017 “alt-right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Fields was later charged with second-degree murder after driving his car into a crowd of protestors. Without Louis Beam and his theories there would be no “alt-right” today. (Go Nakamura via AP)
Messaging became incredibly important to white supremacists in the 1980s. Beam and his network believed they had suffered a public-relations blow during the civil rights era. The collusion of the government, media, and the Jews had created “a near unanimous public opinion,” Beam wrote, lamenting that “20th century technology allowed the culture-distorters the ability and means to alter people’s sense of right and wrong.” The only option was to launch their own campaign and beat the Left at their own game. Beam called it “camouflaging.” He was “a new generation Klansman,” as one article put it, “college educated, soft-spoken, and with an eye on public office as a means of changing the system…The evenness of his voice projects an appealing sincerity that can catch a listener off guard. The persuasive tones reflect a thoughtful candor.”
For his part, David Duke also appeared on numerous television and radio shows. He wasn’t a racist, he insisted, he was a “racialist,” which merely meant that he had pride in his own heritage and was for “majority rights.” He would go on to serve as a member of the Louisiana State House of Representatives, and run for governor and the Senate. Though he ultimately lost those bids, they weren’t exactly trouncings: Duke earned around 40 percent of the vote both times.
In 1985, Beam and White Aryan Resistance founder Tom Metzger both started producing their own public-access television shows. Reporters noted a shift in white supremacist tactics. White robes and hoods were replaced with military fatigues or business suits. “Even their topics, at first glance, are benign,” one Ohio newspaper reported. And Beam became one of the first white supremacists, let alone Americans, to organize online, creating a rudimentary social-networking site, Aryan Nations Liberty Net. It paved the way for the internet behemoth that the “alt-right” would become.
(Just as Duke and Beam would appear to be more highly educated and media-savvy than their predecessors, Richard Spencer, the well-coiffed poster boy of the “alt-right” movement, has advanced degrees. He is not racist, he is an “identitarian” who doesn’t openly want to annihilate other races, just have them live separately. Even the term “alt-right” is a rebranding effort, scrubbed of any reference to race or xenophobia.)
By 1987, however, it looked like Beam might be done for. He and 12 others — including members of the Order, a violent splinter group of the Aryan Nations — were charged with conspiring to overthrow the government. Intending to use millions of dollars of stolen and counterfeit money, the men allegedly planned to bomb a Jewish community center and a pipeline, poison the Chicago water supply, and kill a federal judge and an FBI agent, among other things.
What happened next seemed like fodder for a schlocky Western — with a dash of Jerry Springer thrown in. Beam had just married for a fourth time, and he fled to Mexico with his new bride, fearing that this time he might actually be convicted. The trip earned him a spot on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list. When Mexican police came for the happy couple in Guadalajara, his wife, Sheila Toohey, grabbed a gun and shot one of the officers, critically wounding him. The two were extradited, and Beam was tried on sedition charges in Arkansas. (Toohey was never charged in the shooting.) After four days of deliberations, he and the 12 others were acquitted.
When the verdict was announced, Beam headed directly to the Confederate statue across the street from the courthouse and declared victory over the government, which he referred to as ZOG, or Zionist Occupation Government. “I think everyone saw through the charade,” he railed, “and saw that I was simply being punished for being a vociferous and outspoken opponent of ZOG.’’ As he spoke, Toohey, who was standing nearby in a flowing white dress, fainted. Like some kind of Nazi John Wayne, Beam scooped up his barefoot wife and carried her off, to the delight of photographers.
As Mark Pitcavage, a Senior Fellow at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, explains, prosecutors lost the case because there wasn’t evidence to prove a grand scheme to overthrow the government. “The dots were not necessarily linkable,” Pitcavage says. “They were all hardcore white supremacists, but was there an actual conspiracy? That’s another question.”
In other words, leaderless resistance in action.
Beam would have a few more skirmishes with the law in the coming years, but largely emerge unscathed. He continued to work with the loose network of white supremacist groups across the country — including the Covenant, the Sword, and the Arm of the Lord — that he had been connected with since the early 1980s. He had left his KKK post in 1982, to become “an ambassador at large” of the Aryan Nations, a powerful white supremacist organization that hosted yearly congresses that drew nearly every leader in the white supremacist movement. That same year, he moved to the group’s compound in Hayden Lake, Idaho, the intended birthplace of their white ethnostate. Though he would claim that he did nothing but drink coffee and change his daughter’s diapers, his third wife, Kara, would later testify that diaper changing wasn’t really his thing, and he had done plenty of talking about bombings and assassinations.
Louis Beam carries his wife, Sheila ,away from the federal courthouse in Fort Smith, Arkansas, after he being acquitted on sedition charges, April 8, 1988. Mrs. Beam had fainted while her husband was speaking with reporters. (AP/Danny Johnston)
At the same time, a group most commonly referred to as the Order or Bruder Schweigen, formed based on Beam’s leaderless resistance theories. It would be the sub rosa arm of the public-facing Aryan Nations, carrying out its most violent acts. The Order had created a point system for executions — an idea straight from Beam’s writing — and in 1984, members murdered a prominent Jewish radio host in Denver. They also committed a string of bank robberies during this period, which netted roughly $4 million (only 10 percent of which was ever recovered). One of the recipients of that money was Tom Metzger, who had since founded the White Aryan Resistance, a hate group responsible for the baseball bat murder of a black student in 1988. Metzger would praise such murders as a “civic duty,” and Beam in return praised Metzger’s work as a “great success.” Beam was never implicated in any of these crimes, or formally affiliated with the Order, but he did dedicate the 1989 edition of his book to them.
According to Mark Pitcavage of the ADL, Metzger took Beam’s idea and honed it. There would be no more phantom cells — just lone wolves — and this became the predominant trend among white supremacists going forward.
The whole time, Beam and his cohort were in a perpetual game of cat-and-mouse with the authorities. The FBI wanted to root out domestic terrorism at its source and take down the entire movement, but at best, they could only nab a man or two at a time. Leaders remained unscathed, successfully distancing themselves from extremist actions. As Beam wrote, “Organs of information distribution such as newspapers, leaflets, computers, etc., which are widely available to all, keep each person informed of events, allowing for a planned response that will take many variations. No one need issue an order to anyone.”
There was a series of dots, but they couldn’t be connected in court. Either by intention or happenstance, Beam’s vision for a complicated network of phantom cells and public-facing organizations had been realized.
FBI agents sift through the debris of Robert J. Matthews’ home after it burned during an armed stand-off with authorities in December, 1984. Matthews, founder of neo-Nazi group the Order, fled after being implicated in the murder of Denver radio host Alan Berg and was killed in the subsequent 35-hour stand-off. (AP/Tim Klass)
Beam hasn’t given a speech since 1996. Complaining of the effects of Agent Orange exposure during the Vietnam War, he retreated from public life, emerging only occasionally to release a trickle of racist essays. Today, he reportedly lives near San Antonio, in New Braunfels, Texas, with his fifth wife. The Southern Poverty Law Center’s director of intelligence, Heidi Beirich, said that Beam still has a wide network, and may be interacting with it, but “if he’s doing something, it’s not something that we know of.” (Beam and his family members did not respond to interview requests for this article.)
A 2013 congressional report considers the leaderless resistance theory to be highly influential, with real-world implications. “This dynamic — the interplay between above-ground groups or movements proffering extremist dogma or ideology (protected speech) that is then consumed and acted upon by independent underground groups or cells who commit crimes — is a critical feature of domestic terrorism.”
But Pitcavage is skeptical. “Nobody actually engaged in leaderless resistance,” he said. While he credits Beam with encouraging white supremacists to imagine new ways to organize (or not organize), if they are following his example, they’re not doing it consciously. Pitcavage, who has spent years studying extremist violence said, “they are lone wolves not because they decided to be lone wolves, but because they have serious issues.”
But even if Pitcavage is right, leaderless resistance is still working in a way. That’s the dark genius of the idea: By nature it can’t be disproven. If a lone whack-job commits a violent act — say, shooting up a church in South Carolina, or opening fire on a Jewish Community Center in Kansas, or attempting to bomb a Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade in Washington — and established white supremacist groups disavow it, it appears to be Beam’s theory in action regardless. Self-organized “patriots” or psychologically troubled murderers? The public and the government may never really know.
In August of 2017, 20-year-old James Alex Fields, wearing a white polo shirt and khakis, drove his Dodge Charger through a group of counter-protesters at a the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. He killed Heather Heyer and wounded 19 others. Jeff Schoep, “commander” of the largest active neo-Nazi group, the National Socialist Movement — which made a dominant showing at the rally — disavowed such violence. “I want it made perfectly clear,” he wrote online, “to all of our members, supporters, prospective members, readers, etc., that the National Socialist Movement condemns illegal actions and in such we do not endorse any acts of violence or terrorism.”
For a thorough look at the history of American white supremacy visit Timeline’s White Terror U.S.A. story collection.
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