These days it can feel as though we're under siege from one bombshell story after another. What was last week's troubling development is gone. The threads are hard to pick up again and it is increasingly difficult to stitch it all together.
It's not that long since the "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Va., ended with one person dead and 19 injured, after a deliberate attack on counterprotesters by a man associated with Vanguard America, a white-supremacist organization. U.S. President Donald Trump's initial response, and then revised response, set off alarm bells about a newly empowered white-supremacist movement. Then the sound of alarm bells faded and now, in the midst of a wave of sexual-harassment allegations against powerful men, the issue seems dated.
Footage from Charlottesville opens Skinhead (Sunday, CBC, 9 p.m. on CBC Docs POV), an odd, eye-opening, although ultimately unsatisfying, documentary about Brad Galloway, who spent years in the Canadian white-supremacist movement and now toils against it.
Footage of those absurd men marching with their tiki torches bleating about "blood and soil" is meant to offer context for Galloway's personal story, but the doc wanders this way and that, reaching for real context and never quite finding it. Along the way, it does illuminate part of the mundane reality of being a far-right, racist loony in Canada. At the same time, when it deals with the situation in the United States, it feels like an ominous warning.
Brad was an angry, troubled teenager in Toronto. He got into trouble, started being violent and this group of angry white dudes welcomed him, so he joined them, feeling at home and wanted. A lot of it was about being a fan of racist punk bands. Eventually, he was leading a neo-Nazi gang and proud of himself. It all seems routine for anyone familiar with the gang rituals and activities that attract young men.
It is up to Warren Kinsella, who does the pundit role here, to explain that the far-right is always active in Canada and in every region – "It ebbs and flows but never goes away completely." It's about anti-Semitism, Holocaust denial and has an anti-immigration agenda that amounts to a hard-nosed white-power movement. It is a bit unnerving to be reminded of the profile and power once held by such people as Jim Keegstra. We see a skinhead gang in Calgary giving the Nazi salute and hear Terry Long, once the leader of the Aryan Nations in Canada, say, "We believe the Jews are Satan's seed."
Brad's struggle is the focus, though, and he says an injury in a fight with a Vietnamese gang was the turning point. The doctor who treated him was an Orthodox Jew and while Brad believed the man couldn't treat him the same as other patients, he did. Asked what his former friends among neo-Nazi gangs will think of his abandonment of the cause he says, "A few of them are dead."
The program takes a shift when it looks at Paul Fromm, of the Canadian Association for Free Expression. He is described as "The only guy left standing" in the far-right leadership in Canada. And we see Fromm declare, "Donald Trump has given a lot of people hope."
That's the crux, really. The documentary then shifts to Vancouver and the rise of neo-Nazi groups there and, in particular, the influence of radical racist groups based south of the border in Portland, Ore. The potted history of racism and violent attacks on people in Portland is breathtaking.
The decline of the Portland-based neo-Nazi skinhead group Volksfront has been predicted often, but it does seem to have a new and horrifying life in the Trump era.
We are taken to the place where one of Portland's most notorious hate crimes occurred – where Mulugeta Seraw, an Ethiopian student, was beaten to death in 1988, by three white supremacists. Then we are brought forward to May of this year, when a suspect who police identified as Jeremy Joseph Christian was seen yelling racist abuse at two Muslim women on a local train. When three men intervened, they were stabbed and two were killed. Christian is facing a variety of charges including murder and attempted murder.
Randy Blazak, a local criminologist and sociologist who has studied the white-supremacist movement in Oregon for decades, says the movement was fading and then became revitalized when Trump was elected. The gist of the frightening segment about Portland is this – "Trump has given the 'okay message' to do whatever you want."
As for Brad Galloway, he explains bluntly that "What's called alt-right is white supremacy." He says his own journey out of the neo-Nazi movement was, in part, simply fatigue. With so many criminal charges against him, it became impossible to hold down a job or travel. Also, he simply wanted to raise a family in peace.
The program is at times enormously illuminating about the neo-Nazi cause in Canada and the United States. Its format, which requires it to be about Galloway rather than the issue of what "alt-right" actually means, ultimately causes the program to suffer from diffuseness. Still, it stands as a strong and baleful warning that anti-Semitism and white supremacy have been revived and, yes, those gangs and shadowy organizations feel empowered by the election of Trump. This should not be yesterday's news.