The Columbus Dispatch's Holly Zachariah takes a look at the status of hate and extremist groups in Ohio

Amanda Lee says she is building an army, and Ohio plays a key role in her plans.

As the national imperial commander for the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, Lee predicted last week that 2017 will bring a resurgence of her group's activity — public rallies, widespread pamphlet distribution, greater recruitment efforts — and a push in several targeted states, including Ohio.

“We have people all over Ohio already. There is a large membership of Loyal White Knights there,” she said in a phone interview during a dinner break from her job in North Carolina. “When things start going wrong, it's time for us to start retaliating. It's time for us to get active.”

Though Lee said she couldn't provide membership numbers, despite the fact that KKK members pay monthly dues ($10 a person or $15 a couple), the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) has long acknowledged the Loyal White Knights as a significant Ohio presence. The group calls itself the largest faction of the KKK in the country.

The Alabama-based SPLC, which monitors hate and extremist groups, said in its most-recent report that 34 such groups operate in Ohio, dividing them into categories including KKK, black separatist, white nationalist, racist/skinhead, neo-Nazi and anti-LGBT. The center maps where the groups are based, and in Ohio, they include organizations such as the neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement in Cleveland, the Nation of Islam in Columbus and the Supreme White Alliance in Cincinnati.

Rick Zwayer, the director of Ohio Homeland Security, said it falls to every federal, state and local law enforcement officer to collectively monitor extremist groups and to keep an eye out for those who may want to do harm to others. There is an increasing amount of organizing that happens online, however, and that includes for the world's most-visited white supremacist website, the Daily Stormer, which is run by central Ohio native Andrew Anglin. Anglin's specific whereabouts are unknown these days but, at least until recently, donations to his site were directed to a Worthington business address.

Where these groups originate or are based matters less as the power of their online activity expands, said Michael S. Waltman, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Waltman teaches a class on hate speech and has written books on the subject.

“The internet offers a great degree of anonymity and it has made organizing and recruiting a lot easier for groups,” Waltman said. “It fosters an even greater apocalyptic rhetoric.”

The SPLC has long tracked what it labels as hate groups, and it also tracks what it calls anti-government or "patriot" groups, such as organized militias or sovereign-citizen organizations; in 2015, there were 52 of the latter in Ohio, with the bulk of them being county chapters of Ohio Minutemen Militia. But the center also recently used social media, news stories and self-reporting to track incidents of actual violence or intimidation.

In the report that looked at “bias-related incidents” in roughly a month following the November election of President Donald Trump, the center found 1,094 such incidents across the country, with the majority being anti-immigrant. They ranged from threatening voicemails left at churches to racial slurs tossed at children. Some of the reports eventually proved false, and the center cautions on its website that many remain only anecdotal. The center reported 29 incidents in that time in Ohio, which ranked 15th in the country.

Also last week, Ohio's Office of Criminal Justice Services released its 2015 hate-crime statistics, which are compiled annually as part of an FBI report.

Nationwide, 1,742 law enforcement agencies reported 5,850 hate-crime incidents, with most single-bias incidents (57 percent) involving race/ethnicity/ancestry. In Ohio, 109 law-enforcement agencies reported a total of 416 hate-crime incidents, which puts the state's rate of 4.3 incidents per 100,000 population higher than the national average. Reflecting the national trend, the majority of Ohio's instances were related to race/ethnicity/ancestry, with another 14 percent related to sexual orientation, 9 percent related to religion and 2 percent related to disabilities.

Central Ohio pastor David Daubenmire has found his Pass the Salt Ministries on the SPLC hate-group list several times. He said the label is unfair. America, he said, is experiencing a moral reawakening and that his ministry — based in Hebron in Licking County — landed on the list largely because it actively demonstrates and preaches against gay rights.

“Who gets to determine labels?” asked Daubenmire, who became a central figure in the right-vs.-left moral religious debate of the 1990s when, as coach of London High School's football team in Madison County, he led his players in prayer at games, practices and meetings. The American Civil Liberties Union went to court to get him to stop. Eventually, Daubenmire resigned under pressure, but the debate boosted his reputation within the Christ-centered schools movement.

“Somebody in Montgomery, Alabama, who I've never met, made the determination that they didn't like what I was saying," Daubenmire said of the center. "Hate is in the eye of the beholder. They label it hate and then it becomes censorship. We should be allowed to preach the gospel.”

But the labels do matter, said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in California. The center, a Jewish human-rights organization that confronts anti-Semitism and bigotry and online terrorism, puts out a regular report that specifically looks at how websites such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and others police hate speech. It tracked such online activity long before most anyone else did.

“We have to try and debase the online marketing ability of the bigots,” Cooper said.

How much online activity translates to real acts of violence is unclear, he said, but the internet certainly has allowed haters to cocoon themselves in anonymity and more easily find validation for their beliefs.

“The people who used to be consigned to the gutters of the night to sneak out and put flyers on your car, now they have access to the mainstream online,” Cooper said. “When you go online and see people there who think like you, that's empowerment. You don't have to ask for permission anymore.”

And the internet has also allowed rhetoric that once seemed extreme to appear less offensive, Cooper said.“You incubate a message that once looked insane, but now they can class it up and make it look legitimate,” he said.

Professor Waltman, Cooper and others say that the “lone wolf” who is fed by online communication and maybe fostered in individual or community gatherings is who should be feared the most. And whether through online posts or a back-room meeting of some organization on a Saturday night, hate follows a pattern, Waltman said. First, those interested identify an “in group.”

“They will be told they are descended of kings,” Waltman said. Then, an “out group” is created. “They are like animals, equated to monsters,” he said.

Next, the out group is painted as a threat, and in the final step of indoctrination, a hate group relishes destroying the out group and taking away its power.

Lee, of the Loyal White Knights of the KKK, said her group has an active telephone hotline. Its voicemail message finishes with: “If it ain't white, it ain't right.”

Lee said the organization feels as if 2017 is critical, particularly for countering the Black Lives Matter movement. She claimed the KKK is misunderstood.

“We don't hate anybody,” she said. “God says you can't get into heaven with hate in your heart."

So how does society end this, or at least combat it? Waltman said there is no easy answer. But he thinks there is hope. “We need to rehumanize it and make people feel like they do belong,” he said.

He points to an incident where a Jewish family moved into a new neighborhood, only to find that someone soon painted a swastika on their garage door. The neighbors reacted swiftly: They all bought menorahs and displayed them.

“It is important for us, in our own communities, to monitor hate,” Waltman said. “If you can make the soil of our communities clean, and a place where hate cannot grow, we will win.”