It was mid-August 2017, days after white supremacists had flocked to Charlottesville, when Aaron Lawlor learned that the same far-right hate that had boiled over in Virginia was supposedly lurking in his quiet corner of northern Illinois. The country seemed fixated on exposing where these tiki torch-toting bigots might be hiding, so the Chicago Tribune ran a piece citing a national list of hate groups. Illinois had 32 of them: an anti-gay group in Naperville, an anti-Muslim outfit in Des Plaines and something called the White Boy Society that seemed to be all over the state. And right there among them, was Gurnee, marked with its own white hood in recognition of the chapter of the Ku Klux Klan said to be based there.
Gurnee seemed like an unlikely location for this kind of activity. A well-to-do suburb of some 30,000 people, the town is bisected by Interstate 94, which brings traffic north 40 miles from Chicago and south 50 miles from Milwaukee. Lake County, in which Gurnee sits, has the highest median family income in the state. The town is the home of Six Flags Great America amusement park and the Gurnee Mills indoor shopping mall, anchored by its 133,000-square-foot Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World store. Key Lime Cove, a tacky Florida Keys-inspired indoor water resort recently closed and is due to reopen this summer as something called the Great Wolf Lodge. Because of its prime location on Lake Michigan, the area draws more than 26 million visitors who spend $1.3 billion annually.
In eight years on the Lake County board , Lawlor could not remember any signs of KKK activity in Gurnee—no crosses burned, no graffiti, and certainly no official Klan demonstrations, rallies, speeches or protests. Not so much as a nasty flier. In fact, in February, Lawlor had helped put together a county-wide summit promoting unity and tolerance. It was an attempt to tamp down the uptick of hate speech and intimidation against the local Latino and Muslim population in the wake of Donald Trump’s election. The health department had put up signs in English and Spanish welcoming people of all races, religions and sexual orientations. And Lawlor himself had given a speech in which he revealed that he is gay. “One of my primary focuses as a board chair and an openly gay county official, is that we are not only seen as an open place, but that we are an open place,” he says. “We’ve tried to build the narrative that when you are Latino, black, Muslim, whatever…you are welcome here.”
Now, however, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the self-styled national watchdog for hate groups, had bestowed upon Gurnee the kind of label that makes a small-town official like Lawlor wake up in a cold sweat. Towns typically earn their reputations as harbors for hate groups in very public ways. Perhaps they’re unlucky enough to be the place the Klan decides to march and someone dies (see: Charlottesville) or they’re Topeka, Kansas, a more or less normal city that happens to be the hometown of a media-trolling bigot like Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church. But for a handful of towns like Gurnee, designation as one of the 917 locales on SPLC’s Hate Map comes without warning, and almost without explanation.
Worried not only about the bad publicity but also that Gurnee might actually become a magnet for white supremacists, Lawlor got on the phone with the police chief, who had read the same story. He had his staff scour their records for evidence of Klan presence. “If it exists, it’s something we need to know about from a public safety standpoint,” says Gurnee police chief Kevin Woodside. “From a law enforcement perspective, we wanted to be sure there wasn’t somebody who posed some sort of risk.”
They found nothing, so Woodside and village mayor Kristina Kovarik contacted the SPLC directly. They figured that this was a mistake, something that could be easily remedied. The SPLC’s response was polite, but insistent. “I know it is disturbing to find hate groups in your community,” the email read, “but I don’t think that should be seen as a reflection of what I am sure is a wonderful community.” But the map was only updated once a year, they said, call back in January.
Gurnee was not content to sit and wait. Instead, city and county officials embarked on a months-long campaign to restore the town’s good name. And what they found is that it’s a lot easier to get on that map that it is to get off.
In many respects, the SPLC wrote the book on public shaming of hate groups. Before it was founded in 1971, there was no single entity that catalogued the hundreds of hatemongers across the country who seemed to be popping up in direct response to the gains of the civil rights movement. In the early 1980s, the SPLC created Klanwatch, an attempt to monitor the activity of the nation’s oldest and most notorious hate group. The effort was rebranded as the Intelligence Project in 1998, when the mission expanded to include other hate organizations—neo-Nazis, skinheads, white nationalists, neo-Confederates and even black separatists. The following year, the SPLC released its first annual directory of hate groups, classified by affiliation, and as technology evolved, these groups were plotted out on the interactive online Hate Map, which is easily sortable by affiliation and by state. (If you’re wondering, Indiana apparently has more hate groups than Mississippi, and Alabama isn’t the heartland of hate, it’s California.)
But being first poses its own challenges in terms of gathering data. There is no federal law enforcement database for hate crimes or official government registry for branding groups, people or locations as agents of discrimination. And there’s really only one other major private group that does similar work—the Anti-Defamation League, which focuses on anti-Semitic groups. So this means the SPLC is more or less on its own when it comes to research and that means its methods are necessarily somewhat scattershot. According to Heidi Beirich, director of the Intelligence Project, she and her team comb news clippings, blogs, and TV news; publications of the groups themselves; online bulletin boards and chat groups like white nationalist “Stormfront” and the neo-Nazi “Daily Stormer,” looking for the slightest mentions of a new chapter here or a leader or activist who may have moved there. They contact law enforcement and field inquiries and reports from cops in towns all across the country. And they send their own five or six reporters into the field to interview and research for the SPLC’s Hate Watch blog, their online profiles of prominent groups and leaders, and their magazine, Intelligence Report. “We get to know a lot of the leaders of these organizations,” says Beirich. “Sometimes, they’ll just tell us where their people are.” In fact, Beirich says that sometimes smaller groups seeking legitimacy literally beg to be included on the list—apparently, any publicity is good publicity.
Given the low threshold for inclusion on the list, perhaps it is not so surprising that it would on occasion pull in some towns with otherwise unblemished reputations. In 2004, for instance, Olathe, Colorado, a mountain town of 1,600, earned a dreaded white hood icon because a self-proclaimed “international imperial wizard” from Indiana told a Denver newspaper that a chapter in Olathe, “a little Klan klavern,” had asked him to come and speak. The group couldn’t afford to pay his expenses, he explained. Neither he nor any of the town officials interviewed for the newspaper story could name any of the members. Nevertheless, Olathe stayed on SPLC’s list for three years. Last year, Amana, Iowa, part of the Amana Colonies—founded in the 1850s by Pietists escaping persecution in their native Germany for their Reformist Lutheran beliefs, and which are now on the National Register of Historic Places—earned its place on the hate map. Someone at the SPLC spotted a chat thread on the Daily Stormer, in which someone with the screen name “Concerned Troll” had proposed a neo-Nazi “book club” meeting in an Amana café. No one in Amana was able to confirm to the SPLC whether or not the meeting actually took place, but that was enough to earn the corn-carpeted state its only swastika.