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The El Paso Walmart Mass Shooting Reaffirmed that We Have a Hate Problem

On August 3, 2019, an estimated 3,000 people browsed the Walmart at Cielo Vista in El Paso, one of the busiest in the country. It was a Saturday, in the middle of the back-to-school rush.
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August 5, 2019 Memorial to Victims of the El Paso Attack | By Mike Hardiman | Shutterstock

On August 3, 2019, an estimated 3,000 people browsed the Walmart at Cielo Vista in El Paso, one of the busiest in the country. It was a Saturday, in the middle of the back-to-school rush. A young man walked through the parking lot wearing noise-cancelling earmuffs and carrying an AK-style rifle, and before he even stepped foot into the store, he opened fire. 

His first targets were members of a girl’s soccer team. They were fundraising outside with their coaches and parents. Then the shooter entered the store and people began to scream. The horror of the day, spliced together from hasty cell phone video shows the inside of the Walmart as people fled for their lives through aisles of clothes and potato chips, while in the background, shots exploded like popcorn. The shooter’s exact movements were impossible to know, and in the chaos and blood, people were separated from their loved ones. 

Within six minutes of being called, police officers were on the scene. Survivors filled the parking lots as they tried to locate the wounded. A man was forced to leave his 15-year-old nephew’s body in the store to be treated for a gunshot wound in his foot. Help came too late for a woman who had been loading groceries into her car, and a couple who died protecting their infant. 

In under 30 minutes, 22 people were killed and 24 were injured. It was the 21st mass killing in the United States in 2019, and the fifth public mass shooting, according to a mass murder database compiled by The Associated Press, Northeastern University and USA Today

Within the space of a few hours, the shooter’s name was common knowledge: Patrick Wood Crusius, alias Patrick Wood Brown, a 21-year-old man from Allen, Texas. Like other lone wolf mass shooters, he had been emboldened by the extremist hate groups, and particularly influenced by white supremacists literature. 

Crusius stopped at an intersection about a quarter of a mile away from the massacre. 

By the time Texas Rangers pulled up to him, he was already surrendering, stepping out of his car with his hands up. “I’m the shooter,” he said. 

He was taken into custody without a fight. 

The Manifesto

While the shooter, armed and ready to kill, carried out his rampage, I was 10 hours away in Dallas, attending the final showing of an original play, “Crossing the Line,” a co-production from Cry Havoc Theater Company and Kitchen Dog Theater. The teenagers performing in it spent over a year interviewing everyone from the former U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement director to other teenagers living in holding at the border in order to construct an evocative portrayal of the national conversation on immigration. Our review called it “a documentary in real time” that advocated for a return to humanity and compassion. During intermission, I followed the coverage of the ongoing shooting in El Paso. One of my friends sent me screenshots of a manifesto, rumored to have been posted by the shooter less than half an hour before the slaughter began. “They’re saying he’s from here,” she texted me. “I think he went to your school.” 

The manifesto was titled “The Inconvenient Truth.”

“My whole life I have been preparing for a future that currently doesn’t exist,” the writer claimed. “The job of my dreams will likely be automated. Hispanics will take control of the local and state government of my beloved Texas, changing policy to better suit their needs.” 

 It was the third time in 2019 that a young American man, along with committing a mass killing, posted a manifesto on an anonymous online message board called 8chan. The writer paid homage to the manifesto authored by Brenton Tarrant, the shooter killed 51 people at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand in March 2019, saying that “in general,” he agreed with Tarrant. Hispanics became his target after reading “The Great Replacement” by French writer Renaud Camus, an insidious conspiracy theory that portends that Europeans are slowly and systematically being replaced by non-Europeans, specifically Muslims. It is known as piece of white supremacist fear mongering. The writer of “The Inconvenient Truth” manifesto described an America rotting from the inside out and blamed Hispanics for the rot. He listed his political and economic reasons for the shooting, and announced his intention to die a soldier in his own personal war against the “Hispanic invasion.”  

In the manifesto, the writer described a month spent preparing. He had two semi-automatic military-style rifles purchased legally online. First, a civilian-style AK-47, which he noted had its limitations, mainly that it was not designed to shoot rounds particularly quickly and it would overheat after about 100 rounds are fired in quick succession. He worried 100 rounds were not enough for what he had planned. He would use 8m3 bullets that fragment like a hollow point, though “at the cost of penetration.” He was not sure the AK-47 will be effective, so he planned to acquire a second weapon, an AR-15, which did not heat up as quickly, and wasn’t designed to fragment. It will be a test, he wrote, of which gun is most lethal. 

European comrades don’t have the gun rights needed to repel the millions of invaders that plague their country,” he wrote. “They have no choice but to sit by and watch their countries burn.” 

Soon, law enforcement confirmed that alleged shooter Patrick Crusius had been purposely targeting the Hispanic population and chose El Paso because it was a border town with Mexico. According to a report from the Department of Public Safety report, Crusius told investigators that he completed the manifesto while sitting in his car in the Walmart parking lot before he entered the store and opened fire. 

“Our community will not be defined by this senseless, evil act of violence,” El Paso’s mayor, Donald “Dee” Margo said later that day at the press conference. “We will be defined by the unity and compassion we showed in the wake of this tragedy. United, our community will heal. El Paso is too strong to be broken by a cowardly act like this one.” 

The arraignment of Patrick Crusius, a week later, was very brief, just long enough for charges to be read and for Crusius to plead not guilty before the families of the victims. According to his attorneys, Joe Spencer and Mark Stevens, they are pleading not guilty in order to forestall the death penalty. 

After his arrest, he had waived his Miranda Rights and spoken to the El Paso police without protest. “He expected to die.” El Paso Chief Greg Allen told the Wall Street Journal

My death is likely inevitable,” the manifesto reads. “If I’m not killed by the police, then I’ll probably be gunned down by one of the invaders. Capture in this case is far worse than dying during the shooting because I’ll get the death penalty anyway. Worse still is that I would live knowing that my family despises me.” 

The Crusius family released a statement to the Wall Street Journal on August 6. John and Lori Crusius said their son’s actions “were apparently influenced and informed by people we do not know, and from ideas and beliefs we do not accept or condone.”

In the aftermath, neighbors, friends, reporters have pored over every available inch of Patrick Crusius’s life, looking for the red flags. A self-published memoir written by his father was found. The law enforcement class he took at Collin College has been noted. Perhaps the biggest flare: Crusius purchased an AK-style rifle several weeks before the shooting. In fact, his mother called Allen police to talk about her worries that he was not mature enough for such a purchase. 

“This was a mother who is learning that her kid is getting a gun and simply thinking, ‘What do I do?’” Family lawyer Chris Ayres told El Paso Times

No stone was left unturned. The Wall Street Journal dug up a 2016 college essay written by one of Crusius’s brothers, and isolated one pertinent quote about Patrick Crusius: “The anonymity and less intimate nature of the internet allow him to connect with others more comfortably and branch out to make new friends.” 

His personal Facebook page has, like most of his social media, been taken down. Heavy, which viewed it prior, reports that it included his profile picture and that he had three friends, including his twin sister. The identities of the others, a man and a woman, are not clear. His alleged Twitter handle, before it too was deleted, was @outsider609, and one of the many internet sleuths seeking answers took record of a tweet that called the border wall “the best way that @POTUS has worked to secure our country so far!” Very little about him suggested that he had spent most of July planning to drive hundreds of miles to El Paso in order to wage his own personal war. 

The mayor offered a statement that he had known the shooter was not from El Paso. “It’s not what we’re about,” he said. 

I don’t know alleged shooter Patrick Crusius, but I could have. We did, indeed, go to the same school.

Bad Seeds

Heidi Beirich never intended to make tracking hate groups her life’s work. But when we spoke on the phone in the aftermath, she said while she could do without the death threats they often received, she didn’t regret doing the work. Beirich is the director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s (SPLC) Intelligence Project. SPLC is a nonprofit legal advocacy organization that is largely known for their civil rights work. They also track hate groups across the country. However, when it comes to acts of domestic terror, hate groups largely serve as inspiration and encouragement; the perpetrators have tended to be followers with no actual affiliation at all. Before August 3, she had never heard the name Patrick Crusius.

“Most attacks are lone wolves that are influenced by these groups and radicalized,” Beirich explains. When they stop seeing others as humans of equal value, they begin to see themselves as heroes in a greater war. Then they act, and when they are done, in the echo chamber of the online hate community, they are praised. 

“We list organizations as hate groups on the basis of their ideology, not if they’re violent or not,” Beirich says. “Does the organization demand, denigrate or propagandize against another group? It’s also only listed as a hate group if it has membership, if you can subscribe, and if more than 15 people are actively engaged. Some have dozens. Others are small. We only track ones who engage in real world activity in the calendar year: flyers, seminars, meeting, rallies, sermons. They have to take physical action.” 

Their hate map tells the full story of the groups they track. The American Freedom Party are white nationalists based in Granbury. Atomwaffen Division, neo-nazis that are scattered like roaches statewide. The Right Stuff, white nationalists with homes in Dallas, San Antonio, Austin, and Houston.

White nationalists as Beirich explains, are sometimes anti-Semetic, but not always. Their primary dream is a white ethnostate. “Suit and tie racists,” she calls them, because they tend to be upper class and well educated. One example would be Richard Spencer, the founder of neo-nazi site the Daily Stormer. Spencer is widely known for dropping out of his PhD program at Duke in order to popularize his philosophy of “academic racism.”

Hate groups exist all across the country; in 2018, SPLC noted at least 73 hate groups active in Texas. The Great Replacement, the idea that white people being replaced is extremely prevalent, as is the mythical fear of white genocide.

Some, like neo-nazis and skinheads are by definition militant, some white nationalists openly advocate for genocide. Behavior varies from group to group, as do the terms that matter. Different movements have numbers and symbols, their own secret languages. For example, 1488 has a particular meaning. The number 14 represents the 14-word white supremacist slogan “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.” The “88” means “Heil Hitler.” 

Crusius maintained in his alleged manifesto that he is not a white supremacist, but known white supremacist ideas are threaded throughout it. Views of “invasion” are sourced directly from white supremacist dogma. He also suggested separating the United States into racially pure territories to prevent race mixing, which is not an original idea. The Northwest Imperative, the idea that the Northwest region of the United States should be turned into a miniature Aryan nation, has been bandied around white supremacist circles since at least the 1970s. 

“The Inconvenient Truth” manifesto professed resentment for immigrants who work “dirty jobs” to provide for their families, who pour their own hopes and dreams of a better future into their children. He seemed to resent their children who were nurtured by it, who dare to want the American Dream, who dare claim college degrees and take on skilled positions. Every advancement someone else makes, in his mind, seems to be an encroachment on his territory. By the end of the manifesto, he concludes that their pursuit of the American Dream has robbed him of his own.

In the United States under the Constitution free speech is protected. Furthermore, when most of the discussion is anonymous and could be coming from anyone, anywhere, it’s difficult to track. Even when it is tracked, there’s little that can be done when it’s all just talk.

“At present, contrary to widely held misimpressions, there is not a category of speech known as ‘hate speech’ that may uniformly be prohibited or punished. Hateful speech that threatens or incites lawlessness or that contributes to motive for a criminal act may, in some instances, be punished as part of a hate crime, but not simply as offensive speech. Offensive speech that creates a hostile work environment or that disrupts school classrooms may be prohibited,” Stephen J. Wermiel, a professor at American University Washington College of Law wrote recently for Human Rights Magazine.

“The Inconvenient Truth” revealed no personal information about its author and no concrete idea of when and where he would act. Even if it had been posted earlier, it would have been impossible for law enforcement to take preventative action. So at SPLC, Beirich and her coworkers keep watch. Sometimes that’s all they can do.

white supremacy, patrick crusius, el paso shooting plano
CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA – August 12, 2017: Members of a white supremacist group at a white nationalist rally that turned violent resulting in one death and multiple injuries.| By Kim Kelley-Wagner | shutterstock

An Epidemic

“The new guys deserves some praise, he reached almost a third of the high score,” one person wrote on a notorious social media site named 8chan soon after the El Paso shooting. As if it’s a videogame, on 8chan users call the death count in mass shootings the “score.” Shooters are referred to with honor; the Christchurch shooter has been referred to as “St. Tarrant.” In their bloody history, Crusius, too, would now be canonized. It’s no secret that 8chan, an anonymous platform, is a place where people express their darkest thoughts, safely unknown and ensconced, away from their real lives. It is indeed a breeding ground for hate groups. It’s most popular with young men. When internet trolls are banned for using racial slurs and advocating genocide, they come to roost at sites like 8chan. 

Crusius has reportedly told investigators that his views weren’t forged at home, but online. He was particularly inspired by the manifesto by the perpetrator of the Christchurch massacre, “St. Tarrant” himself. However, SPLC has not found evidence that Crusius was actively involved with one of the groups they monitor; similarly, Dylann Roof, perpetrator of the 2015 Charleston church shooting, was also not a card-carrying member of one of the hate groups on their list. Robert Bowers, who murdered 11 people at a synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018, was on Gab, a social media site that has become known, like 8chan, to attract alt-right users and other varieties of extremist culture.

The owner of 8chan, Jim Watkins, bristled under suspicion that Crusius and others like him are radicalized on 8chan. Soon after the shooting, he released a video on Youtube, where he sat in front of a bust of Benjamin Franklin and defended the site as a haven of free speech. Since there is no evidence that Crusius ever identified himself in any posts—few users do—Watkins added that the manifesto may not even be his doing. On 8chan alone, he argued on August 5, two days after the shooting, there were more than 2,300 posts made in a single hour. “8chan is an empty piece of paper for writing on,” he concludes.

However, 8chan isn’t special. It’s one of many similar sites, a single strand that connects to the dark web, and it gets much, much darker. Whether it’s Gab, 8chan, ZeroNet, Voat or another doesn’t matter. Sites like these crop up all the time and become homebase for toxic kinds of communities. They unify their members by isolating them from their perceived enemy, and offer fraternity built on the edict that there is an “us” and a “them,” and that the “them” requires extermination. 

In the wake of the El Paso tragedy, 8chan was shut down because its service provider, Cloudflare, in light of the manifesto, decided to stop working with it. 

No evidence has been found that Crusius ever identified himself on 8chan or any other site in any of his postings. If posters are like ghosts, untethered and unidentified, then readers, who don’t post and simply absorb information, are uncountable shadows. 

The Solution

A month after Crusius walked into a Walmart and opened fire, El Paso and Plano met again. El Paso students came to Plano for a football game that almost never was, playing against Crusius’s alma mater, Plano Senior High School. But when, two weeks after the shooting, Plano Independent School District cancelled the game, citing unspecified safety concerns, there was an immediate uproar. It was widely interpreted as a coward’s move, and other cities, like Midland, quickly began offering their stadiums. Former Presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke suggested the game go on, only in El Paso instead of Plano; nationwide, the pressure became so intense that less than 24 hours later, PISD reversed its decision. The game was back on, and now it would be held at The Star, where the Dallas Cowboys have made their corporate home, and it would be broadcast statewide. 

If in Texas there is ever a place for unity, historically it is the football field. In 1964, when Plano schools were first integrated, Plano’s first integrated football team was largely credited with smoothing racial tensions in what was then a small farming community. The better the team did, the more accepting the Plano community became of their players; acceptance started on the field and spread in a ripple effect. In 1965, the team brought home Plano’s first State Championship. 

The responsibility for stopping acts of domestic terror lies with law enforcement, however, communities can fight back against domestic terror by taking a stance, Beirich says. “Community response has a powerful effect,” she says. 

In Montana, the state with the highest concentration of hate groups, SPLC sued neo-nazi site the Daily Stormer for goading trolls into harassing a Jewish family. In response, the community swelled with support for them. “Love Lives Here” stickers appeared in windows, and BuzzfeedNews reported that when one of the victims, a soap-maker was targeted by trolls, her supporters bought so much soap from her that in one month she sold more than she usually sells in a year. At a Love Not Hate rally, 100 people were expected to attend. Over 500 showed up in force. 

Beirich says these kinds of protests and acts of compassion are often our best recourse. “Our main fear is violence and hate crimes,” she explains. As for the lone wolves who commit acts of domestic terrorism, and the multitude of affiliates of hate groups, their main fear is change. “They believe they will be wiped out and must take up arms to protect themselves. Someone has to take a moral stand. We have to say that we are not okay with this.”

In early September 2019, when El Paso’s Eastwood High arrived in Plano, it felt like the reconciliation that everyone needed. It would be the most publicized and viewed football game either high school ever played. 

A Texas Monthly article soon after the game reverently described the scene as the players lined up for the National Anthem, “shoulder to shoulder across the field, Eastwood players interspersed with Plano’s.” When one Eastwood player was moved to tears, a Plano lineman reached over and took his hand. 

During my tenure at Plano Senior High School I was never much of a team player. I was more interested in writing fairy tales in the margins of my notebooks than climbing the ranks of a school club. But I found my community anyway. I found other wallflowers, girls who liked video games and kids who took Latin. But even I remember the flush of game-day fever and the sense of belonging that it can foster. It must be a deep loneliness or bitterness that drives someone to the darkest parts of the human experience instead, finding unity in promoting disunity, and seeking acceptance in learning to hate. Crusius could have been any one of us. He also could have killed any one of us. What, besides the specifics of who he hated, would have kept him from making a much shorter drive to a Walmart in his neighborhood? We are, none of us, immune to hate. 

We walked the same halls only a few years apart. I was 8 when 9/11 occurred, so I remember when we added terrorist and shooter drills to the fire and tornado drills. Students were instructed to crouch under their desks with the lights off. Meanwhile, staff members walked through the halls pretending they were strangers prowling our halls. They knocked on every classroom door to test our ability to practice absolute silence. 

Every blue moon, my classmates and I spent 20 minutes of class playing out an active shooter scenario. It was my introduction to the idea that for inscrutable reasons, a stranger out there might already hate me so much they want me dead. If they hate me enough, they may come into my school, and kill me themselves. It was always implied that this person was someone from far away, who hated me because of my nationality, my religion, or my gender. It was a person so evil and so different from me that they didn’t even need to know me to hate me. When I heard someone walking down the hallway and pause outside our classroom door, I imagined how I would try to hold my breath if instead of a knock, a bullet hit the window. All of us huddled like rabbits under our desks, waiting for the wolf to pass. 

Originally published in the 2020 February issue under the title “White Rage”