OCEAN PARK, Wash. — Will Schaefer doesn’t wear a white hood. He doesn’t go to cross burnings. Instead, like a growing number of isolated young white men, he cultivated his racist beliefs in the safety and anonymity of online forums.
Then he decided to test them in real life.
In late January, Schaefer, 20, who has no affiliation with the Ku Klux Klan, made flyers with a hooded klansman pointing at the viewer like Uncle Sam. They read, “The KKK wants you!” There were little pull tabs with a link that went to an anonymous, private Discord forum run by Schaefer.
The flyers went up around downtown Astoria, where a KKK chapter terrorized Catholics and immigrants in the 1920s. They quickly were pulled down.
Amid a public uproar, Schaefer told the Astoria Police Department he was responsible. But Deputy Police Chief Eric Halverson, Police Chief Geoff Spalding and City Attorney Blair Henningsgaard declined the Chinook Observer’s requests to confirm Schaefer’s identity, citing concerns that identification would threaten his and his family’s safety.
The slender, soft-spoken Ocean Park resident hardly looked dangerous when he opened his front door in pink pants and a green Kool-Aid T-shirt for an interview last week. He wore a hangdog expression as he tried to explain himself.
Schaefer grew up on the internet. He appears to have made his first social media profiles around age 11. He posted a cartoon crocodile he drew, professed his love of Pokemon. As a young adult, he got interested in the alt-right — a counterculture of mostly young, almost exclusively white conservatives who espouse racist, nationalist and isolationist beliefs. He joined at least one group with explicitly racist beliefs. Participating in those groups became a central focus of his life.
“I got addicted,” he said.
‘I was radicalized’
The alt-right forums were a hall of mirrors that reflected and amplified Schaefer’s own racist and homophobic sentiments until it seemed like they were everywhere. What once seemed extreme began to feel normal.
“I was radicalized,” Schaefer said.
Schaefer made eight rules for participants in his online forum — which, he said, did draw some interest before he took it down. He told members it was a Christian group, where participants were to refrain from posting graphic images or cursing. He discouraged Adolf Hitler-worship, saying neo-Nazism was as offensive to him as communism. “They’re both gay,” he wrote. Schaefer said he did not want to start a hate group.
Rule No. 8 was, “Racism is tolerated.”
“I told them it’s not OK to hate blacks for no reason,” Schaefer told the Observer. In his view, the forum was a place where local right-wing radicals could go to “uplift” one another.
“We might be racist, but we are not violent in the least,” he wrote.
“Social media is now a critical infrastructure element for engaging even unaffiliated extremists into the fold,” said Brian Levin, an attorney, professor at California State University, San Bernardino and director for the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism.
“It not only ensnares bigots, it also ensnares unstable people who become bigots,” Levin explained.
Many hate groups are easily accessible through social media platforms like Twitter.
“White supremacists are increasingly opting to operate mainly online, where the danger of public exposure and embarrassment is far lower, where younger people tend to gather, and where it requires virtually no effort or cost to join in the conversation,” a 2016 Southern Poverty Law Center report said.
In 2016, researchers at George Washington University found that, in terms of Twitter-recruiting efforts, white supremacist groups were growing at a spectacular rate.
“American white nationalist movements have seen their followers grow by more than 600 percent since 2012,” the study said.
Levin said there is evidence that participation in radical online groups is contributing to the recent precipitous rise in racist, homophobic and anti-Semitic violence in the United States.
Researchers at his center found that preliminary 2018 crime statistics suggest the number of hate crimes in large cities rose for the fifth consecutive year.
According to the Anti-Defamation League, extremists killed at least 50 people, up from 37 in 2017. And while there are extremists of all races and religions and at both ends of the political spectrum, far-right groups appear to be growing the fastest.
In 2018, “Every single extremist killing — from Pittsburgh to Parkland — had a link to right-wing extremism,” a recent Anti-Defamation League report said.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation is so concerned about internet radicalization that it launched the “Don’t Be a Puppet” campaign, which aims to teach young people how to spot and avoid extremist recruiting tactics, including flyers and private chat rooms.
‘A good boy’
Schaefer told the Observer he now sees that he was wrong. He says he regrets the distress his actions caused. He says he has learned his lesson — and he lost all of his friends over the incident.
“The community doesn’t have to be scared of me,” he said.
The consequences continue to ripple, even in his own home. His mother — who had nothing to do with the project — fought back tears as she described the steps she and her husband took to limit the damage, including taking down the flyers and website, and going to the police.
“We’ve done everything we can to make it right,” she said.
She defended her family, saying they are hardworking, law-abiding churchgoers. She described her son as “a good boy” who made “a stupid mistake.”
Asked if he had actually been threatened over the flyers, Schaefer said he received one message that said, “Wanna hang?”
Initially, he was afraid. He thought the note meant someone wanted to lynch him. Later, he realized the person might have just been extending a friendly invitation.