White supremacists exploit ‘false narrative’ of racial motivation in Waukesha parade tragedy

How the Christmas Parade deaths have been weaponized for political gain

By: and - September 14, 2022 7:00 am
The banner which was hung from the Waukesha Transit Center. It has been edited to remove a website for the neo-nazi group. (Photo | Obtained through open records requests to Waukesha PD)

The banner which was hung from the Waukesha Transit Center. It has been edited to remove a website for the neo-nazi group. (Photo | Obtained through open records requests to Waukesha PD)

In the 10 months since six people were killed and more than 60 injured when an SUV slammed into the Waukesha Christmas Parade, white supremacist and neo-fascist groups have cultivated a belief that the incident was a racially motivated attack on white people. That belief, which was indulged by one high-ranking Republican Party official in the area, is considered a “false narrative” by law enforcement in the community, emails obtained by the Wisconsin Examiner show.

Experts say that when people who hold real political power nod at the beliefs of extremists they legitimize them, and that mainstream political support further entrenches these groups. Waukesha, and other communities in southeastern Wisconsin, have seen a rise in white supremacist activity over the last year.

WAUKESHA, WISCONSIN – NOVEMBER 21: Darrell Brooks (C) appears at Waukesha County Court on Nov. 23, 2021. Brooks is charged with killing five people and injuring nearly 50 after driving through a Christmas parade with his sport utility vehicle on November 21. (Photo by Mark Hoffman-Pool/Getty Images)

In the days after police arrested 39-year-old Darrell Brooks, a Black man from Milwaukee, for the crime, much of the focus was on the judicial system. About two weeks before the parade, Brooks had been released from the Milwaukee County Jail on a $1,000 bail for two domestic violence charges.

District Attorney John Chisholm later admitted the bail was “inappropriately low.” Chisholm explained to the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors that a combination of court delays during the pandemic and worsening staffing shortages and case backlogs in Milwaukee contributed to Brooks’ release.

State Republicans have responded with calls for stricter bail laws, the firing of Milwaukee District Attorney John Chisholm, and for tougher on crime policies.

But others, including Waukesha County Republican Party chairman Terry Dittrich, saw the tragedy through the lens of race.

“This guy hates white people, and he wanted to kill them,” Dittrich said of Brooks, who is Black, in an interview he gave for a documentary by a white supremacist group, “Terror in Waukesha.” The Southern Poverty Law Center calls the film a propaganda piece.

Mainstream support for neo-facism

Dittrich also qualified his own remarks in the film: “We’re still in a point of grieving in this country. To have a Republican leader come out and start talking about whether this guy was a racist … I mean, I am of the firm belief that we will have time to talk about that. We are going to. We are not going to shy away from it. But I want to let the criminal justice system and law enforcement do their job. I support what you’re doing, but I think it would be inflammatory for me to come out.”

The film was promoted by the National Justice Party (NJP), a group that formed in August 2020. Classified by the Anti-Defamation League as a neo-Nazi organization, the group fixated on Waukesha after the parade tragedy. Along with the neo-facist group Patriot Front, the group held rallies in Waukesha. The film featuring Dittrich frames what some media outlets have called an attack or massacre as an act of anti-white racial terror.

One of the protests linked to Patriot Front, and the National Justice Party, held in the wake of the Waukesha Christmas Parade tragedy. (Photo | Patriot Front leaks, Unicorn Riot)
Patriot Front and the National Justice Party protesters Waukesha. (Photo | Patriot Front leaks, Unicorn Riot)

Brooks remains incarcerated on $5 million bail. Police have said there was no clear motive for the crime, although Brooks may have been fleeing the scene of another domestic violence episode at the time of the parade.

The months that followed the Christmas parade tragedy saw a surge of white supremacist activity in the area, including rallies held by NJP and Patriot Front and  masked men who hung a banner reading “resist Black terror” on the Waukesha Transit Center.

Cassie Miller, a senior research analyst at the Southern Poverty Law Center, says Dittrich’s appearance in the documentary film and agreement with the groups’ beliefs is a big victory for them. In the documentary, one of the filmmakers can be seen pumping his fist when the crew gets Dittrich on the phone.

“It ends up legitimizing these positions at the simplest level,” she says. “For white nationalist organizations this is a huge win. For someone who has mainstream support and holds mainstream power — this really legitimizes them, to get people with political power adopting these positions.”

I support what you’re doing, but I think it would be inflammatory for me to come out.

– Terry Dittrich - Waukesha County GOP Chair

In an email to the Wisconsin Examiner, Dittrich says his comments in the documentary interview were misconstrued.

“What a crock. No, he fully misquoted me and then spun all of this,” he says. “[I] don’t know this person. End of story.”

Dittrich did not respond to phone calls seeking more information about how he was misquoted in the documentary.

A valuable, but false narrative 

As recently as July of this year, officers of the Waukesha Police Department (WPD) were still monitoring white supremacist activity, including stickers with racist symbols that appeared in public places, emails show.

“Last weekend we had someone come thru [sic.] our downtown placing stickers on all our street lighting posts causing a public nuisance,” Jefferson Chief of Police Alan Richter said in an email to Waukesha PD. “We have had similar stickers put on signs in our area,” read a July 7 response from Waukesha PD Lt. Chad Pergande. There’s about 40 miles between the cities of Waukesha and Jefferson.

Email to Al Richter 7-7-22 with two attachments_Redacted

 

“Overall, we have seen an increase in White Nationalist/ Hate Group activity and have communicated with the Fusion Center on it. If you develop suspects, [REDACTED].” Pergande said in the email, part of a trove the Examiner received through a public records request. The email named several individuals associated with the NJP, including one who “is either a former or active soldier,” Pergande emailed. “The individuals/associates involved in NJP also helped to organize the ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville, Virgina, in 2017.”

Unite the Right was organized after residents of Charlottesville decided to  remove a confederate statue from city grounds. White supremacist groups marched through the streets with torches chanting “you will not replace us,” “Jews will not replace us,” “white lives matter” and “blood and soil.” After beating and clashing with counter protesters for days, one of the white supremacists drove his car into a crowd. Heather Heyer, 32 years old, was killed in the collision and 19 others were injured.

A button associated with the National Justice Party. The images were taken at a Waukesha protest linked to the group, Patriot Front, and others. (Photo | Patriot Front leaks, Unicorn Riot)
A button associated with the National Justice Party. The images were taken at a Waukesha protest linked to the group, Patriot Front, and others. (Photo | Patriot Front leaks, Unicorn Riot)

“They have connections to ‘The Daily Stormer’ and the neo-Nazi group the Traditionalist Worker Party,” Pergande wrote. “Prior NJP rallies have drawn up to 100 people, however it is believed that the group could mobilize local extremist groups — Patriot Front/The Base/New World Order (Milwaukee).”

In the email chain, Pergande shared a string of messages within the Waukesha PD with another law enforcement official. “The recent activity in Waukesha by the National Justice Party and Patriot Front lead us to believe the false narrative of the Waukesha Parade incident being racially motivated is drawing the attention of groups in an attempt to recruit and promote their agenda in Waukesha.”

White supremacist activity spreads in Wisconsin 

Documents obtained by the Wisconsin Examiner show police were tracking the Waukesha-based recruitment efforts of several white supremacist groups.

On Dec. 8 2021, a recruitment video for The Base was posted on the group’s Telegram channel. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), The Base consists of “small, terroristic cells,” often motivated to mobilize more covertly than groups like the NJP. “It is not a group that seeks to build popular appeal,” the SPLC page on the group reads. “Instead, groups like The Base seek to inspire a small number of actors to commit themselves wholly to their revolutionary mindset and act on it — either by forming small, clandestine terror cells or inspiring individuals to carry out ‘lone actor’ attacks.”

The Base was founded in July 2018, about a year after Unite the Right in Charlottesville. “The group appears to have done a rebrand in 2021 from Folks Resistance,” one of Pergande’s emails read.

One of the protests linked to Patriot Front, and the National Justice Party, held in the wake of the Waukesha Christmas Parade tragedy. (Photo | Patriot Front leaks, Unicorn Riot)
One of the protests linked to Patriot Front, and the National Justice Party, held in the wake of the Waukesha Christmas Parade tragedy. (Photo | Patriot Front leaks, Unicorn Riot)

In the group’s 41-second recruitment video, masked members can be seen putting stickers on street signs, presumably in Waukesha. The stickers say,  “Save your race, join The Base,” and feature three lightning bolt-like hashes. A scene from the video shows them being placed on the sign outside the Waukesha Democratic Party’s office. Words superimposed on that scene say, “White revolution is the only solution.”

“It’s absolutely terrifying to see that in your own backyard, and especially with your own organization featured in it is terrifying to say the least,” Matthew Lowe, chairman of the Waukesha Democratic Party, told the Wisconsin Examiner after privately viewing the video. “When we got the stickers we just kind of assumed it was some dumb kids, nothing big. And then to see it part of a larger, well-known white supremacist organization, it’s absolutely terrifying.”

Around the time the stickers were distributed, the local Democratic party office also began receiving threats. One day, every car in the office lot had white supremacist fliers placed on them. The lot is also used by many city employees. “All of that kind of coincided with multiple threats of violence we got,” said Lowe. “We got bomb threats. We got threats of coming and shooting up the office.” Even during the county fair this year, someone threatened to shoot up the Democratic party’s booth. “They actually got arrested and charged and banned from the fair,” said Lowe. The office has installed a new security system because of the activity, and is in regular contact with police. “It’s definitely unsettling.”

One of the protests linked to Patriot Front, and the National Justice Party, held in the wake of the Waukesha Christmas Parade tragedy. (Photo | Patriot Front leaks, Unicorn Riot)
A protest in Waukesha linked to Patriot Front and the National Justice Party. (Photo | Patriot Front leaks, Unicorn Riot)

Miller says the the tragedy has a lot of value for white supremacist groups. By leveraging the tragedy, they’re able to exploit it for recruitment and spread their beliefs.

“What we saw was that some people with a lot of influence in the white power movement immediately picked up on the tragedy to exploit it for their own ends,” Miller says. “The most predominant was the National Justice Party, which grew out of a podcast network. One of their main positions is that there is a wave of anti-white crime happening around the country; there’s anti-white policies and generally an anti-white culture. What they often do is to seize onto tragedies and claim there’s a racial component, that this is part of a much broader epidemic of Black-on-white crime. That’s a false narrative we’ve seen crop up over and over again through the course of U.S. history.”

The web of white nationalist groups interested in Waukesha goes beyond the NJP, Patriot Front and the Base. Emails show that Waukesha police were aware of calls “by American Guard to come here,” a group with connections in Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin. The Proud Boys also bragged about coming to Waukesha on Dec. 18 “to demand that the parade ‘accident’ be described as a racially motivated domestic terror attack, and that Darrell Brooks be charged with hate crimes,” according to social media material obtained and shared by law enforcement.

The Proud Boys announced on Twitter plans to march the parade route and through what had been the crime scene area. Law enforcement monitored the discussion, though it’s unclear if any mobilization occurred. After the tragedy, Proud Boys did organize in other parts of the country, including Long Island. Threats by the Oath Keepers to bring 40,000 armed members to Waukesha and patrol the streets were also made, but never materialized.

One of the protests linked to Patriot Front, and the National Justice Party, held in the wake of the Waukesha Christmas Parade tragedy. (Photo | Patriot Front leaks, Unicorn Riot)
Protesters linked to Patriot Front and the National Justice Party converge on Waukesha. (Photo | Patriot Front leaks, Unicorn Riot)

“Since the parade incident, the department has seen an increase in the level of race related communications,” Pergande emailed law enforcement colleagues on Nov. 29. “Notably, there has been groups that are linked with White Supremacist Extremist Organizations (WSEO) that are taking advantage of this event to promote racial discord. There has been one protest thus far and at least two other groups have threatened protests.” In December members of the National Freedom Party, a white nationalist political party, requested to speak with Waukesha’s police chief, but he declined.

As local police investigated the incidents, the law enforcement Fusion Center in Milwaukee took notice. The intelligence hub has a particular component, the Southeastern Threat Analysis Center (STAC), which hosts a partnership with the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI’s Joint Terrorim Task Force. Intelligence was both provided to, and shared from the STAC, helping identify key players behind Waukesha’s white nationalist activity, even as they returned to their home states, or dispersed throughout the Badger State.

Other southeastern Wisconsin communities experienced similar activity. A week before Waukesha’s racist banner drop, Black families in the city of West Allis reported that someone was damaging property and leaving behind threatening racist notes warning them to leave the neighborhood. In April, William McDonald, 54, was arrested and charged federally with using force and threatening to use force to injure, intimidate and interfere with the housing rights of multiple people because of their race.

One of the protests linked to Patriot Front, and the National Justice Party, held in the wake of the Waukesha Christmas Parade tragedy. (Photo | Patriot Front leaks, Unicorn Riot)
A protester in Waukesha. (Photo | Patriot Front leaks, Unicorn Riot)

West Allis Deputy Chief Robert “Bob” Fletcher told Wisconsin Examiner, “I am unaware of any evidence linking the individual in West Allis to the incidents in Waukesha.” The Kenosha Police Department also identified and cited 56-year-old Jeffrey Kidden, who was leaving anti-Semitic fliers in yards around the city. Kidden was cited and fined $4,301 by police for violating Kenosha’s littering ordinance. In a separate incident, racist letters distributed in Wauwatosa during 2020 by another group were not investigated by police.

Last week, a leak of the Oath Keepers membership database showed that half a dozen elected officials in Wisconsin, including a Madison Common Council member and the Village President of North Hudson, had previously been members of the right-wing organization.

Lowe, the local Democratic party chair, said that both the Waukesha PD and the Waukesha County Sheriff’s Department have been responsive and helpful after the threatening propaganda appeared at the office. “They’ve been great,” said Lowe. “They follow up on anything we reach out on. The sheriff’s department handled the incident at the fair. And they were really great with follow-up and kind of giving some reassurances to our volunteers who received the threats.”

But Lowe also says he is disappointed at how the parade tragedy has been politically leveraged. Volunteers from both the Democratic and Republican parties of Waukesha marched in the parade during the tragedy. “We immediately reached out to them to check on them, make sure their people were OK,” said Lowe. Since then Lowe has met some of the families who were affected by the tragedy. “Some of our volunteers were with people as they passed on,” said Lowe.

Weaponizing the tragedy for politics

The parade tragedy occured a day after then-18-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse, who killed two Black Lives Matter protesters and injured a third using an AR-15 style rifle during the Kenosha unrest of 2020, was acquitted. Shock and confusion fueled speculation about the two events happening so close together.

STAC members focused on a Facebook video made by Vaun Mayes, a community organizer in Milwaukee, who traveled to the parade scene. His comments on a livestream that the event “could be the start of the revolution” went viral online.

STAC personnel speculated that some of the white supremacist mobilization after the parade tragedy was “also motivated by the Vaun Mayes video.”

As the public processed the trauma of both the Rittenhouse trial and the tragedy in Waukesha, “It was Waukesha against the world at that point,” Lowe recalled.

 

Extracted pages from RE_ Potential Protest Activity_Redacted

 

But later the pain of the community seemed to Lowe to be transformed into political fodder.

“For them to have kind of moved past it and made it this jaded political thing that it’s really not, is really disappointing,” says Lowe. “But it’s also really scary. But as you can see, these white supremacists who are coming out of the woodwork are doing so because they are kind of geared up by what’s being said.”

Lowe wonders why the Waukesha Republican party hasn’t taken the stance they appeared to take the night of the tragedy, where politics were put aside for community. Instead, the party appears to be “fanning the flames for political will,” said Lowe. One recent ad by the Senate Leadership Fund shows footage of Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Mandela Barnes beside video of police tape and emergency lights at the Waukesha Christmas Parade, and accuses Barnes of being soft on crime. “The fact that Republicans continue to use this as a political weapon is so disingenuous and disgusting,” says Lowe.

GET THE MORNING HEADLINES DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Isiah Holmes
Isiah Holmes

Isiah Holmes is a journalist and videographer, and a lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Holmes' video work dates back to his high school days at Wauwatosa East High, when he made a documentary about the local police department. Since then, his writing has been featured in Urban Milwaukee, Isthmus, Milwaukee Stories, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Services, Pontiac Tribune, the Progressive Magazine, Al Jazeera, and other outlets. He was also featured in the 2018 documentary The Chase Key, and was the recipient of the Sierra Club Great Waters Group 2021 Environmental Hero of the Year award. The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council also awarded Holmes its 2021-2022 Media Openness Award for using the open records laws for investigative journalism. Holmes was also a finalist in the 2021 Milwaukee Press Club Excellence in Journalism Awards alongside the rest of the Wisconsin Examiner's staff. The Silver, or second place, award for Best Online Coverage of News was awarded to Holmes and his colleague Henry Redman for an investigative series into how police responded to the civil unrest and protests in Kenosha during 2020. Holmes was also awarded the Press Club's Silver (second-place) award for Public Service Journalism for articles focusing on police surveillance in Wisconsin.

MORE FROM AUTHOR
Henry Redman
Henry Redman

Henry Redman is a staff reporter for the Wisconsin Examiner who focuses on covering Wisconsin's towns and rural areas. He previously covered crime and courts at the Daily Jefferson County Union. A lifelong Midwesterner, he was born in Cleveland, Ohio and graduated from Loyola University Chicago with a degree in journalism in May 2019.

MORE FROM AUTHOR