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Hate-Filled Zone: The racist roots of a Northwest secession movement

Some never wanted to see Old Glory, left, flying over Washington. Some still don't. Credit: Rex Bennett/Flickr

For much of our history, the Pacific Northwest has been remote physically and psychologically. We’re a place people come to when they want to escape, improve their lot in life and build their idea of utopia. Joseph Smith, fleeing persecution, once considered establishing the Mormon homeland at Nootka on Vancouver Island. In the 1970s, discussion ramped up of Ecotopia, a green secession movement echoed in today’s talk of the sustainable nation of Cascadia.

In the 1990s, when Richard Butler and the Aryan Nations were making headlines, a joke went around that America consisted of the “49 states and the Reich of Idaho.” Their racist “dream” of a separate nation — a nightmare, more accurately — didn’t die with Butler.

In the wake of the Charleston, South Carolina church massacre in which a young white supremacist slaughtered African American churchgoers, a Northwest connection was made that highlights two aspects of our history: separatism and race. The accused shooter, Dylann Roof, left an online manifesto describing his journey to racist extremism, and in the course of that referred to the Northwest Front, a white supremacist organization seeking to create an all-white “homeland” in the Pacific Northwest.

Roof was critical of the Northwest Front for encouraging separatism instead of action. Wrote Roof, “To me the whole idea [of a Northwest white homeland] just parralells [sic] the concept of White people running to the suburbs. The whole idea is pathetic and just another way to run from the problem without facing it.”

The Roof reference sparked online interest in the Northwest Front, a Seattle-based group (at least, that’s where their P.O. Box is) that wants to create what they call a Northwest American Republic. The group has a website, a detailed draft constitution (whites-only, no gays, no Jews) and the prime mover behind it, Harold Covington, hosts a podcast, Radio Free Northwest.

He promotes white flight to the region to prepare for the new country. As the group’s draft constitution says plainly, “The Northwest American Republic shall be a Homeland solely for the use and habitation of White people of all nationalities, cultures and creeds worldwide, in order that Western civilization may be preserved and White children may be raised to responsible adulthood in safety, prosperity and tranquility.”

A how-to 101 on white migration by a Northwest Front Seattle supporter can be found here. Aryan migrants are urged to move to Seattle and Portland to engage in the cause.

Covington has a long association with white supremacist and Nationalist groups, from neo-Nazis to the Klan. Unlike Dylann Roof, he’s actually been to racist countries he admires, like the old South Africa and Rhodesia (today’s Zimbabwe). He embraces a frankly racist agenda.

A recent Covington podcast following up on the aftermath of the Charleston shooting is an eclectic mix of commentary, advice and music, including a warning to followers to keep their mouths shut and only express their real racist opinions to other white true-believers — he doesn’t encourage acts like Roof’s. He insists that whites be “on lockdown” like defeated slaves, biding time until they are free again — free to express their race rage and white angst without fear of being outed on Facebook by someone with a cell phone camera.

Yes, in Covington’s upside-down world, it is whites who are the slaves, quietly preparing for rebellion and secession.

Covington freely uses derogatory terms for minorities and women, speaks of “suck-ass white traitors,” and calls Hillary Clinton the “Hilldebeast” or the “Sea Hag.” His July 2 show includes a performance of a jazz-folk Holocaust denial song (“The holocaust is not what it appears to be … an impossibility,”), a review by “Gretchen” of a book on practical Odinism (a kind of neo-paganism), a Nazi SS marching song, and commentary on the recent Supreme Court decision on what he calls “sodomitic marriage.”

It’s an ugly, alternative universe; from a Seattle ideological standpoint, it’s anti-matter. It’s delivered in an avuncular style. Think of host Covington as white hate’s answer to Garrison Keillor. Covington writes novels, too, only his Lake Woebegon is a dystopian future that gives rise to white Northwest republic.

How much of a following Covington has is unclear, though it must be small since he represents a subset of a white supremacist subset — he says that a recent try at a call-in show produced only two calls. He complains of a lack of coverage by the mainstream press, which he believes is due to being on a government and media blacklist. (He was recently profiled by The Guardian.)

But he has been adept at getting his message out via the Internet and You Tube where the Dylann Roofs can find him. It also might help sell a few of his many self-published books on Amazon. He had been around long enough that he is tracked by organizations that keep tabs on hate groups, such as the Southern Poverty Law Center (check out their interview with Covington’s brother explaining the family background), and the Anti-Defamation League.

Covington refers to the destiny of an all-white Republic in the Northwest as the “Northwest Imperative.” Why the imperative isn’t more operative in parts of the nation that are “whiter,” like New England, isn’t entirely clear, but parts of Idaho and Eastern Oregon are somewhat comparable, and King County is the whitest “big” urban county in the country. We have a history of red-lining, racial covenants and segregation, and mistreatment of minorities, from the indigenous peoples to the Chinese exclusion riots to the Japanese internment.

The idea that the Northwest could be a “white homeland” for non-indigenous peoples (the DNA check on Kennewick Man didn’t turn out the way Odinists had hoped) is not unique, either to Harold Covington nor to this century or the last.

The most relevant example, especially given the Confederate flag controversy that the Charleston murders kicked off, is the so-called Pacific Republic movement of the 1850s and ’60s. The notion that the West Coast — California, Oregon and Washington — might one day be a separate country is an idea that goes back to Thomas Jefferson and a time before the transcontinental railroads and telegraph. Jefferson imagined the Pacific Northwest as the germ of a “great, free and independent empire.”

The idea bubbled up in a number of ways. The annexation of Texas from Mexico planted the seed, the short-lived Bear Flag Republic of California, as well as disenchantment on the part of the far Western settlers toward the faraway federal government that seemed to neglect them. Writing on the history of the Pacific Republic idea in Oregon Historical Quarterly, Joseph Ellison observed, “Remoteness and isolation have always fostered the spirit of self-reliance and independence.” In an era when America’s borders were in flux and Manifest Destiny strong, no lines on the map seemed to be written in dry ink. With the rise of sectional conflict in the run-up to the Civil War, however, the idea of the Pacific Republic began to morph into a pro-Southern secessionist scheme — an opportunity to enable the expansion of slavery and the subjugation of other races.

The region had never been friendly to blacks, and laws were passed to restrict their rights and even their presence in the region, most infamously Oregon’s voter-backed decision to exclude all blacks from the state, whether slave or free. Oregon is the only state to enter the Union (in 1859) with such a racial exclusion law embedded in a state constitution. One town in Oregon flew the Confederate flag during the war, and it still flies along I-5 in southwest Washington.

During the 1860s, the notion of a Pacific Republic movement became mostly a scheme to assist the South by turning the West Coast into a friendly foreign power as a way of furthering Southern causes, like the expansion of slavery into the West. One plan outlined in 1860 indicated “slaves were to be procured by inviting coolies, South Sea Islanders, and negroes to immigrate to California, and then reducing them to slavery.” The new Pacific Republic was to feature an aristocracy with inherited nobility and limited suffrage.

Another concept imagined the new country encompassing all or parts of what are now California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Utah, Nevada and New Mexico broken into 10 states, of which half would be permanent slave states. Many Pacific Republic advocates also wanted to extend slavery and white colonization into Mexico.

The West Coast secession movement was real, and serious, and backed by many of the West’s most prominent politicians, including California’s first senator, William Gwinn and Oregon’s first senator, Joseph Lane, who ran as vice president with John C. Breckinridge on the pro-slavery Democratic ticket in 1860. Southern sympathizers abounded in the region before and during the Civil War, and there were plots by secret societies — most notably the Knights of the Golden Circle, a group that played a key role in Southern secession and formed the model for the post-Civil War Ku Klux Klan. John Wilkes Booth was a member, by the way, as allegedly were Gwinn, Lane and other prominent figures.

The Knights were especially active in California and Oregon and there is some evidence they attempted to smuggle arms through Washington. The Pacific Republic movement, essentially hijacked by Southern interests, began to lose credibility as Southern states seceded after Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860, but persisted as a subversive “Copperhead” element throughout the war. The majority sentiment in the Pacific Coast states remained loyal to the Union. Washington Territory, Oregon and California all eventually formally repudiated the Republic idea.

On January 30th, 1860, the Washington Territorial legislature passed a resolution that said in part, “That we utterly discountenance — as fraught with incipient treason, and the insidious offspring of reckless aspirations and disappointed ambition, or culpable ignorance — all projects for a Pacific Confederacy.” Oregon lawmakers did the same, calling the “Pacific Confederacy” a “weak and wicked scheme.”

The use of the term “confederacy” instead of “republic” had new and purposeful political meaning as America faced a civil war that the Knights and Southerners largely welcomed. It also reflected how the issues of race and slavery had become central to the debate of Northwest identity during the 1850s and ‘60s.

A pro-slavery, white-dominated Pacific Republic was officially rejected 155 years ago, but for some haters, that vision somehow limps on.

 

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