Arizona’s past with neo-Nazis is colliding with its political present

By: - April 19, 2021 4:26 pm

Photo by Jerod MacDonald-Evoy | Arizona Mirror

In February 2012, the nation’s eyes were on Mesa as the four remaining Republican candidates for president debated. Among those eyes were those of FBI agents who were keeping tabs on a local Neo-Nazi by the name of JT Ready who was amongst the attendees at the Mesa Arts Center. 

Three months later, Ready would kill his girlfriend and her family — including an infant — in a murder-suicide. 

“JT Ready was seen speaking with several unidentified subjects at the end of the Republican GOP party debate hosted in Mesa, Arizona,” FBI agents wrote in their report, which was made public under the Freedom of Information Act. “No criminal activity was observed.” 

Ready was on the FBI’s radar for being a prominent neo-Nazi in Arizona and for having military-style gear that he shouldn’t have had access to, even as a former member of the military. 

Ready was a member of the Nationalist Socialist Movement, the largest Neo-Nazi hate group in the United States and one that doesn’t couch its views in coded language. The group carried Nazi symbols and was involved in the violence at the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va. Last year, one of its members was killed in a shootout with authorities in Missouri and was planning to set off bombs in a hospital. 

Ready also was incredibly politically active, starting off as a Republican precinct committeeman, but with aspirations for higher office. Precinct committeemen are voting members of a political party’s legislative district organization, and function as the foot soldiers of political parties, doing things like registering voters and canvassing neighborhoods for their party’s candidates. 

More and more extremists are becoming politically active, and Republican politicians are increasingly taking up the talking points of white nationalist groups. Some, like Congressman Paul Gosar, R-Prescott, speak at white nationalist conferences

Now, just 3 weeks before the ninth anniversary of Ready’s murders, the NSM held its national convention in Phoenix over the weekend. The meeting marks the first time the group has had a large-scale meeting in the Grand Canyon state in over a decade

“It’s about nationalism,” Harry Hughes, NSM’s regional director in Arizona said to Pinal Central in 2017 about the organization, adding, “America first.”

In that same interview, Hughes said that interest in the group was growing, fueled by Donald Trump’s adoption of an “America first” platform. 

The slogan may have been the centerpiece of Trump’s appeal to an overwhelmingly base of white voters, but it has its roots in America’s racist past.  

The phrase was used as far back as 1896 by President William McKinley, but it became prominent in isolationist and xenophobic circles in the 1920s when the Ku Kluk Klan adopted the phrase “America First” in the 1920s. David Duke, the former Grand Wizard of the KKK, would go on to use the term when describing his foreign policy platform as a U.S. Senate candidate.

“America First” has now become the rallying cry for white nationalists, like Nick Fuentes, a young podcast host and the leader of the white nationalist group that Gosar spoke to earlier this year. 

And Gosar is trying to form an America First Caucus in Congress, though he is trying to distance himself from a seven-page platform paper for the caucus that declared its mission was to preserve “Anglo-Saxon” traditions. 

The NSM rally in Arizona came and went without much violence, unlike in the past when counter-protesters and members of the neo-Nazi organization clashed

A rally that had been planned to take place at the Capitol was moved to Eastlake Park near downtown Phoenix, where roughly 20 people showed up. One man showed up with a skull mask, reminiscent of the masks worn by Atomwaffen Division, a violent Neo-Nazi group that believes in accelerationism — the idea that violent acts are required to drive radical changes that lead to a white ethnostate. The New Zealand Christchurch shooter was a firm believer in these ideals

The night before the planned rally, the Capitol was locked down with fences and the NSM was denied a permit. 

At Eastlake Park, no counter-protest materialized, and the group’s leader spoke briefly before they tried to antagonize a group of black men in the park into fighting them before they left. The the event lasted roughly 40 minutes. 

The event was also widely condemned by groups across the Valley, some of whom did not mince words on Arizona’s history and present state of hate. 

“There is a real climate of hate that exists here,” Azza Abuseif, executive director for the Arizona chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations, said in a statement to the Mirror. “Now, more than ever, we urge our allies and friends to speak up and take steps to curb this rising tide of xenophobic hate that our community and allies are facing.” 

Mosques in Arizona have been a frequent target of hate, including from white supremacists

“We have to use our collective voices to work together in order to marginalize the voices of hate and tell the world that diversity is what truly makes us better,” Abuseif said. 

Others echoed Abuseif’s sentiments. 

“The Jewish Community Relations Council refuses to be provoked by the tiny group of extremists that gathered near the Arizona capitol,” said Paul Rockower, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Phoenix. “We will continue to work with a diverse coalition of faith and ethnic community partners to make Arizona welcoming for all.” 

East Valley NAACP President Kiana Sears said that, as we look forward, it is still important to look back at Arizona’s history, including its reluctance to remove Confederate monuments that stood on the same Capitol grounds NSM had planned to rally on. 

“America is a beacon of opportunity and starts with the integration of all on native land,” Sears said. “Our organization strives to have a better life existence for all people.”

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Jerod MacDonald-Evoy
Jerod MacDonald-Evoy

Reporter Jerod MacDonald-Evoy joined the Arizona Mirror from the Arizona Republic, where he spent 4 years covering everything from dark money in politics to Catholic priest sexual abuse scandals. He brings strong watchdog sensibilities and creative storytelling skills to the Arizona Mirror.