Understanding and Investigating White Nationalists: An Interview with Brent Smith

Aryan Brotherhood of Texas.

League of the South.

National Alliance.


The Klan.

Regardless of where you might live in the US, odds are there is a version of a white supremacist group in your area.

It’s just a matter of knowing what to be looking for.


Join Detective Brent Smith of the Mesa (AZ) Police Department, for this recorded webinar as he shares:

  • A summary of the history and ideology of white nationalism,
  • An overview of white power / white nationalist ideology,
  • A review of the key players in the white nationalist movement: past and present,
  • and details about significant symbols law enforcement and justice professionals need to be aware of as they interact with the public, suspects, probationers, and the incarcerated.


Justice Clearinghouse Editors (JCH): For some people, white nationalism and the spotlight on it in Charlottesville may seem to have come out of nowhere. Obviously, it isn’t a new topic: Share with us some of the history behind how white nationalism seems to be prominent for a while, but then fades into the background… Especially, depending on what part of the US you’re in. 

Brent Smith:  It’s definitely one of those things that has never faded entirely. It’s been around since the 60s when essentially, white supremacists lost the Civil Rights war and thought that their country was in dire straits. Depending on where you live in the country, it may ebb and flow. But if you know where to look, you’ll see that it has never gone away.

We live on the border here in Arizona. Our issues aren’t necessarily the more traditional white supremacists … such as with African-Americans. The white supremacists here have issues with Hispanics. So you’ll see that our groups and the groups in the border states target Hispanic people and illegal aliens.

The Midwest, places of back East, target African-Americans … Especially, the Southern states, where all of these groups started. You’ll see that they may be different groups, but they’re all still the same, just targeting different people.



JCH: That’s a good point.  It really is, it’s the same beast. It just takes a slightly different shape depending on where you’re at.

Brent: Exactly. So, you won’t see a cross burning in Arizona or California. You may see some swastikas on a Jewish church or synagogue. The targets are just different. But if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck… the duck is the same. The duck is still your racist jerk. It’s just where they focus their hate on. Is it Hispanics? Is it Blacks? Is it Asians?

You could take some racist skinhead from Arizona, transplant them to Chicago, and his ideology would still be the same. He would just say, “Oh African-Americans are more prominent here… That’s who we hate here? Okay.” Nothing’s changed, reference, ideology, or his beliefs or violence level – it’s just the target has changed.



JCH: Most law enforcement officers have heard about the KKK, at least from history class. Who are some of these white nationalist groups that they might not necessarily know about and what’s important to know about them? 

Brent: Everybody knows about the KKK and Birth of a Nation, which is shown in every film class the historical significance of the movie itself. You’re talking about one of the very first motion pictures has the KKK represented. That’s early propaganda for them. So the KKK is the most prominent of the groups.

But you’ve got your groups like the Skinheads. Every state in the nation has a group of skinheads. They all fall under a large umbrella of skinheads, but each faction has their ideals, and different leadership, with a lot of infighting between these groups.

Then there are the Neo-Nazis, which are like your “shirt and tie Nazis.” Completely different actions and aggressiveness towards groups. But we label them as your “shirt and tie Nazis.” They’re not like your skinheads with shaved heads and combat boots. These are guys who are predominantly white-collar guys. You may see them at a rally but they’re not violent as they are skinheads. That’s not how they get their message across. These are the guys that are going to be doing pamphlet droppings or lettering in parking lots, things like that.

And then there’s your Christian identity guys who have taken the Bible warped it to fit their needs for a white power ideology.

So you have this mass umbrella, and all these groups fall under the white nationalism umbrella. White nationalism is just kind of the new term, the hip term for what has been going on since the 60s and that’s just white supremacy, racism, or white pride.



JCH:  All of us have that image in our head of the skinhead, or that image in our head of those guys who wear the white robes. Do you think because of stereotypes are so easily identifiable that we miss those suit-wearing white nationalists? Those nicely-dressed, well-spoken, very mild-mannered … but still white nationalists? 

Brent: Absolutely, we do. Those are the guys who fly under the radar. When you’re walking down the street, and you’ve got a guy that has a shirt and tie, standing there looking at you. And on the other side of the street, you have a skinhead with a bomber jacket and combat boots on who’s staring at you. Who are you going to focus on? These guys fly under the radar, and unless you know where to look, you’re never going to see them. But these guys are the guys making decisions, pushing those skinheads to go out and do that violent act.



JCH: So what should law enforcement know about these groups? What are some things that they should pay attention to about these groups? 

Brent: A couple of the things that when we teach the new recruits are the symbols. When you see a swastika, everybody knows what a swastika is. But there are certain symbols and numbers that represent things in this ideology and unless you know what you’re looking at you’ll just think… “Oh, 88 is very popular is these groups.”

The number 88 has two meanings. First, H is the eighth letter of the alphabet so it stands for ‘Heil Hitler.’ There are also 88 precepts, which are like the 10 commandments for a white nationalist to follow and to live their life by.

So if you see somebody walking down the street and he’s got an 88 on his shirt, you know, is he a Nascar fan? Or is he a blatant racist advertising his beliefs?

There’s imagery, symbols, letters, words, that you have to look at the totality of the circumstances of what you’re looking at, but these things will offer you clues, answers, or insights into what you’re dealing with. And that’s one of the things we teach the recruits of the Academy. You come upon a traffic stop, and it’s a car full of people, and you start seeing these tattoos, or symbols, you need to immediately know these people obviously subscribe to this ideology.

A guy will have a certain rune tattoo- which is an ancient Viking symbol. And there’s a few select things in the world that that thing means. I don’t want to be redundant but if it walks like a duck, talks like a duck, it’s a duck and you need to be aware of what that duck looks like.


JCH: One of the things that you’re obviously relying on is your experience having been a detective and having been undercover with some of these groups for years in the Mesa area. Can you touch a little bit about your experience and what surprised you most about these groups and these individuals? 

Brent:  At this point, dealing with these groups for as long as I have, and being immersed with them, and studying them, and learning, and conversations with them, at this point, there’s really nothing that surprises me. There’s really nothing that one of these guys could say to me or an idea that would come up that they have in their mind that they want to try that would be too far-fetched and be like, “Holy cow, we need to pump the brakes on this a little bit, I can’t believe you just said that.”

Unlike African-American gangsters, who primarily deal in drugs and money and the concept of the gang is to make money and make illicit proceeds, right? You have that with Hispanic gangs, Asian gangs, African-American gangs… the goal of it is you sell drugs to make money. You pimp out prostitutes to make money. You do home invasions to make money.

Unlike all the other gangs that are around, white nationalism is solely based on hate. It’s not based on gaining money – they don’t care about money, everybody likes money but that is not their goal. Their goal is to eradicate anything that is not white. And so, their whole sense of why they’re doing it is completely different mindset than your average, what I coin as a gangster.

Just the whole way they attack the world… the way they look at the world is skewed by their ideology and what they believe. So, when I say nothing will surprise me, these guys have these just insane ideas of how they want to commit these crimes, the things they want do… they all want to be a martyr for the cause.



JCH: What do you think would shock or surprise maybe your counterparts in law enforcement who haven’t been living in this space for the last five or ten years?

Brent: The length of violence that these guys would go to. Their imagery is African-Americans hanging from trees, or, I’ve got one picture that came out of a prison of an Aryan Brotherhood guy. It’s a Viking that has cut off an African-American’s head and it’s dripping blood and he’s holding it up like a trophy. Just the pictures, the violence, the grotesque propaganda posters that they put out that just spell out hate and how they truly feel about the world. It will turn your stomach just looking at some of the stuff. Piles of dead African babies and a guy like stomping on them. There’s nothing that’s too far for these guys when it comes to that kind of stuff.



JCH: It never ceases to amaze me the level and degree of hate people can have in their hearts.

Brent: And the thing is, no one, nobody in this planet is born with it. It’s all learned behavior.  None of us are born with a mean bone in our spirit. We’re taught to hate. I’ve got pictures of three, four-year-old kids Seig Heiling at rallies… it is just pumped into them. It’s all they know.



JCH: What do you think is the biggest misconception law enforcement has about the white nationalist movement and white nationalist groups? 

Brent: They are everywhere. They’re in the police department, they’re in politics, they’re in big business. The misconception is, how could any of these people ever be standing next to me or sitting next to me in a boardroom meeting and having these beliefs in their heart.

This imagery you see of the skinhead, you’re like, “Yup, that’s how they all look. That’s a Nazi right there. That’s what they look like.”  And yet they’re everywhere.



Timothy McVeigh is starting to turn into a national hero.

There was a small subgroup that always saw him as a hero,

but now, the more people you talk to, the more people think, “Man, that guy did right.

He took it to the government,

and he showed them that something was wrong and tried to get them to change their ways.”



JCH: So the misconception is that they’re not the underbelly of society. They’re not this funny little group over there in Northern Idaho. They really are in every walk of life: they are the person sitting next to you in the church pew, they’re the person sitting next to you on the bus, and they’re the person sitting next to you at work.
I think as human beings, we want to believe that white nationalists are “those people who live over there.” They were separate from the rest of “normal society.” It seems like white nationalism is everywhere, or maybe it was always there…

Brent: I think, that’s a majority of people’s perceptions, that “Hey, it’s those guys up in Idaho. It’s those guys down in Texas. It’s those guys that have that compound in Arkansas. It’s that guy in Michigan. Just leave them alone. There’s only like 30 of them. Let them go and have their campfires and talk about whatever they’re going to talk about … Who cares, they don’t bother us.”

Unfortunately, it is not that way anymore.

Timothy McVeigh is starting to turn into a national hero. There was a small subgroup that always saw him as a hero, but now, the more people you talk to, the more people think, “Man, that guy did right. He took it to the government, and he showed them that something was wrong and tried to get them to change their ways.”

It’s almost as if, as a nation, our concept of him being a traitor, mass murderer, and a terrorist – They’re now seeing him as a revolutionary. He tried to get the ball rolling and change the way the people are thinking. People are actually starting to accept, and I’m talking people like outside of these hardcore white nationalist circles. People are starting to think “Maybe he was like revolutionary. Maybe he was, you know, the next George Washington, that tried to get the country straight.” And that scares me tremendously.


JCH: What can the justice community do to better combat the rise of these groups and protect our communities? If they really are blending or passing for just your neighborhood guy. How does the justice community respond?

Brent: I think the best thing, and maybe the only thing to do is get educated. Learn what to look for. You’ll have a conversation with somebody and they’ll say something … these people are itching to kind of tell you… everybody wants to talk about themselves, you know? So if you’re educated, you’ll start to pick up on these conversations you’re having with people “I think that guy is kinda leaning towards this, and this where he’s getting at.”

Now, again, as with law enforcement, you have to look at the totality of the circumstances. Just because a guy says one thing doesn’t mean you should think, “Oh, I listened to Detective Smith, and this guy must be a racist now.” It’s up to you as the listener, the witness, to pick up on these clues and think, “I know that this tattoo, along with this symbol only means one thing in the world. That’s what I’m dealing with.” There are some symbols that I’ll talk about during the webinar that only mean one thing in the world, and there’s no way that they could be misconstrued as something else.

As with anything, you have to learn, you have to be more knowledgeable than your enemy. All these things that these guys read: Psychology of Winning, the Art of War… that’s what these guys read and learn. During the presentation, I’ll put out a list of books that basically are required readings for these guys when they start to get into this lifestyle and they need to learn more knowledge.

They’re learning, they’re educating themselves, and we need to do that too.

So they’re taking the exact same leadership principles, the exact same management principles, the exact same communications principles, whatever element you’re talking about, they’re just applying it in a very warped way.


This is the stuff that makes white nationalism different …

you’re never going to get a box full of propaganda from an African American gangster.

There isn’t a book on how to sell dope.

There isn’t a book on making money for your ‘hood. Right?

But there are books on what I need to do to be a skinhead.




JCH: What drew you to this line of work? What drew you to this particular space of law enforcement.

Brent: It’s kind of a funny story. Coming up as a patrol officer, I always wanted to go to gangs. That was my goal. I want to be in the gang unit. I wanted to be a gang detective. I always focused my career and drive towards being on the gang unit. And then I got to the gang unit, and they said, “Here you are, white boy, you want to work with gangs?”

“Yeah, I wanna work with gangs.”

“Well, you can’t go work the Black gangs.”

“No, I can’t really work with Black gangs effectively.”

“You can’t work Hispanic gangs.”

“No, I can’t go work Hispanic gangs.”

“You can’t work Asian gangs.”

“No, I can’t work Asian gangs.”

“So, guess where you’re gonna go work? You’re gonna go work White boys.”

And I was like, “Alright.” And as with everything, I have to bring myself into it wholeheartedly.

And I began to learn, and talk to, and interview, until it just became living, breathing everything about white nationalists. I learned and I know a lot about their ideology from interviews, having informants who have sat down and told me things, basically schooled me. They’ve given me boxes and boxes of propaganda, books, t-shirts. People that I’d like to say I’ve helped turn around their mindset and come out of the lifestyle … they’ve just handed me all of their stuff.

And there again, this is the stuff that makes white nationalism different … you’re never going to get a box full of propaganda from an African American gangster. There isn’t a book on how to sell dope. There isn’t a book on making money for your ‘hood. Right?

But there are books on what I need to do to be a skinhead. There is what they deem as a college course that you can take and sign up for. You have to do all this studying, and then you take a test. And when you’re done, they certify you,  “Yup, you’re a certified racist.” It is mind-blowing

That’s kind of how I got into it.  I abhor racism anyways. So that was already part of me.  But then I started learning these things and I’m like, and it became a personal mission for me … I became very passionate about it.


Click Here to Watch “What Law Enforcement and Justice Professionals Need to Know about White Nationalist Groups.”




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