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Posts Tagged ‘ past

Belgian king reiterates regrets for colonial past in Congo but does not apologize

Democratic Republic of Congo President Felix Tshisekedi (second left) and his wife Denise Nyakeru Tshisekedi (far left) look on as Belgium's King Philippe (far right) and Queen Mathilde (second right) sign a guest book on June 8.

Belgian king reiterates regrets for colonial past in Congo but does not apologize

Democratic Republic of Congo President Felix Tshisekedi (second left) and his wife Denise Nyakeru Tshisekedi (far left) look on as Belgium's King Philippe (far right) and Queen Mathilde (second right) sign a guest book on June 8.

Why Ellie Kemper is facing controversy over past involvement with the Veiled Prophet Ball

In this 2017 file photo, Ellie Kemper arrives on the red carpet at the 69th Emmy Awards

Old photos of actress Ellie Kemper, who rose to fame in roles in “The Office” and “Bridesmaids” before starring in the Netflix series “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” hey dude shoes resurfaced over Memorial Day weekend and ignited controversy for her involvement with a St. Louis organization that historically celebrated the wealthy white elite while excluding Black members.

The Veiled Prophet Organization, which originated in the late 1800s as a group of wealthy business owners in St. Louis, still holds an annual debutante event called the Veiled Prophet Ball, in which the daughter of one of the group’s members is crowned queen by a “Veiled Prophet,” a secret member who wears white robes and a white veil covering his face.

“Each year, approximately sixty to seventy young women are chosen for their outstanding community service efforts and walk down the magnificent 72-foot-long Veiled Prophet runway in fashionable couture gowns, and in front of family and friends, are presented and honored for their contributions,” reads an event description from the Veiled Prophet organization’s website.

A 1999 archived article from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch announced that “Elizabeth skechers outlet Claire ‘Ellie’ Kemper, 19, (was crowned) the 1999 Queen of Love and Beauty” at that year’s Veiled Prophet Ball while she was a freshman at Princeton University.

The article noted that Kemper is a member of a historically wealthy banking family in Missouri including her father, David Kemper, a high-profile bank executive.

USA TODAY has reached out to representatives for Kemper for comment.

In response to the controversy, The Veiled Prophet Organization described itself in a statement to USA TODAY Tuesday as “dedicated to civic progress, economic contributions and charitable causes in St. Louis.”

“Our organization believes in and promotes inclusion, diversity and equality for this region,” the statement read. “We absolutely reject racism and have never partnered or associated with any organization that harbors these beliefs.”

The Veiled Prophet, co-founded in the late 1800s by former Confederate officer Alonzo Slayback, originated as a response from St. Louis’ business elite to the 1877 general strike, historian Thomas Spencer wrote in his 2000 book, “The St. Louis Veiled Prophet Celebration: Power on Parade, 1877-1995.” He added that members golden goose sneakers
viewed it as a public celebration of their elite status as well as a way to assert power over those who attempted to interrupt the status quo.A 2014 article from The Atlantic highlighted the group’s existence as a “response to growing labor unrest in the city, much of it involving cooperation between white and (Black) workers.”

“Symbolically gaining control of the streets, the elites presented St. Louis history and American history by tracing the triumphs of great men – men who happened to be the Veiled Prophet members’ ancestors,” Spencer wrote. “The parade, therefore, was intended to awe the masses toward passivity with its symbolic show of power.”

Civil rights protests ignited changes to Veiled Prophet Organization

The organization only welcomed its first Black members in 1979, years after protests from civil rights group Action Committee to Improve Opportunities for Negroes (ACTION) and activists including Percy Green, according to St. Louis’ Cultural Resources Office. The event was also forced to move locations after an ACTION lawsuit alleged the city was condoning racism by allowing the ball to be held at a city-owned venue, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

An image of a Veiled Prophet dressed in what appears to be KKK robes has led many on social media to make connections between the two organizations, though historians say the image was produced in the 1870s, decades before KKK members began wearing white hoods and robes in the early 1900s.

The Veiled Prophet Parade has since ecco shoes unofficially rebranded itself as “America’s Birthday Parade,” though the ball and organization as a whole have kept the original names.

“Many things have changed since 1878, but the Veiled Prophet Organization will always continue its largest gift to the community: a spectacular parade that has become one of St. Louis’ most enduring family traditions,” reads a description on the organization’s website.

In Biden White House, the Celebrity Staff Is a Thing of the Past

President Joe Biden is surrounded by less of a cult of personality than his two immediate predecessors. (T.J. Kirkpatrick/The New York Times)
President Joe Biden is surrounded by less of a cult of personality than his two immediate predecessors.

WASHINGTON — Mike Donilon is one of the most trusted presidential advisers in the Biden White House,  hey dude shoes but he comes and goes from his West Wing office almost as a spectral presence.

Described by those who have worked with him as having the demeanor of a parish priest, he abhors speaking to the news media and is not particularly chatty with his own colleagues. On conference calls, they describe him as a low talker. “Hey, it’s Mike,” he will say, often in a barely audible voice.

Donilon’s low-key presence, despite his considerable influence over the leader of the free world, is emblematic of the overall culture of the Biden White House: It is the least personality-driven West Wing in decades.

Because of his longevity in politics and underdog personality, combined with the depth of the crises he is facing, President Joe Biden is undoing a long-standing Washington tradition in which staff members enjoy their own refracted fame.

Gone are the days when a counselor to the president like Kellyanne Conway was so well-known that she needed her own security detail; when a White House press secretary like Sean Spicer was a recurring character on “Saturday Night Live”; when a policy adviser like Stephen Miller was not only recognized but booed out of a restaurant; and when a glamorous, drama-prone communications director like Hope Hicks was photographed regularly by the paparazzi as she left her home in workout clothes.

Proximity to power has a way of attracting interest regardless of whether it is coveted, and Biden’s aides may still end up more well known than they set out to be. But Biden staff members appear to be trying to set themselves apart from the drama of the Trump administration, which the former president ran like a reality show.

The phenomenon of the celebrity staff might have been pronounced during those years, but President Donald Trump did not invent it.

“Every White House takes on the personality of the president,” said Paul Begala, a former adviser to President Bill Clinton, skechers outlet who became a well-known figure himself after appearing in “The War Room,” a documentary about the 1992 Clinton campaign.

“President Clinton didn’t mind having famous staffers,” Begala said. “He enjoyed it. There’s a blue-collar sensibility with Biden and his team. You carry your pail to work, you punch the clock. You just show up every day and do your job.”

Part of that is because of the health and economic crises Biden inherited: The administration’s once-in-a-generation policy pushes that will shape his time in office have further limited attention on the personalities staffing the president.

Biden is also surrounded by less of a cult of personality than his two immediate predecessors. Trump and President Barack Obama were charismatic politicians whose speedy rises in national politics were largely based on their personal magnetism. In the Biden White House, senior officials generally keep their heads down and live more like anonymous bureaucrats than the celebrity staff members who have preceded them.

Even though Obama also took office during an economic crisis, close advisers like Rahm Emanuel, Valerie Jarrett, Jon Favreau and David Axelrod became Washington-famous, if not well known enough to earn their own recurring comedy sketches. Obama’s reliance on those well-known West Wing aides often rankled Cabinet secretaries, who felt as if they were operating as outposts, far from the immediate sphere of influence.

During George W. Bush’s presidency, strategist Karl Rove was crowned with “genius” status and called “Bush’s brain.” Press secretary Tony Snow, already a well-known personality for Fox News, was mobbed for autographs at rallies and headlined his own events.

During the Clinton administration, operatives like James Carville and George Stephanopoulos entered government as bona fide movie stars after their turns in “The War Room.” At the time, Stephanopoulos was dating a Hollywood celebrity, actress Jennifer Grey.

Times have changed. Today, in part because of coronavirus restrictions, no one is going to embassy parties or book soirees.

During the presidential transition, officials also decided to rely more on Cabinet secretaries — many of whom are former mayors, governors and representatives — than staff to serve as the face of Biden’s policies and proposals, a notable departure from the Obama model.

Aides say Biden does not like profiles of his staff in the news media, but he is eager to see his Cabinet secretaries on television defending his policies.

“That is a very deliberate decision,” said Anita Dunn, a senior adviser to Biden. “This is a president who wanted to make sure he had a Cabinet that was a fully empowered.”

Some people close to Biden attributed his aversion to attention-loving staff to previous political failures. During his 1988 run for president, he relied on Patrick Caddell, a celebrity political consultant credited with electing Jimmy Carter to the White House, to help him find a message. Biden eventually severed relations with Caddell after a disastrous campaign that included accusations of plagiarism and exaggerations of his academic records. Biden blamed the staff he surrounded himself with.

“I got mired in personalities,” he told The Los Angeles Times in 1988, “not my opponents’ but my own political operatives. I never solved the guru problem.”

Biden’s current aides say that he eventually solved that problem by surrounding himself with low-key people who knew they were not gurus.

Some of the president’s closest advisers — like Bruce Reed, his adviser and former chief of staff, and Jennifer O’Malley Dillon, his former campaign manager and current deputy chief of staff — are almost never heard from. The White House press office did not respond to requests to make Donilon available for comment for this story.

Even officials who entered the administration with a profile of their own — like Symone D. Sanders, a onetime CNN commentator who is now an adviser to Vice President Kamala Harris — have become less visible.

Ron Klain, the White House chief of staff, said the lack of well-known personalities in the West Wing was attributable to a tone Biden had set. But it was also a product of an experienced team of people, Klain said, many of whom had already proven themselves and were on their second tours in government.

“The vast majority of people here are career staff people, not principals from other sectors placed into White House staff jobs, so that’s the culture,” he said. Many of the staff were “parents of young kids who put their off-hours energy into being parents, not into staff drama.”

From the Past, a Chilling Warning About the Extremists of the Present

Protesters on the National Mall wait for President Donald Trump to speak on the day that some stormed the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, Jan. 6, 2021. (Jason Andrew/The New York Times)
Protesters on the National Mall wait for President Donald Trump to speak on the day that some stormed the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, Jan. 6, 2021.

They robbed an armored car outside a sprawling Seattle shopping mall.

They bombed a synagogue in Boise, Idaho, and within weeks assassinated a Jewish talk radio host in Denver.

Then a month later, they plundered another armored car on a California highway in a spectacular daylight heist that netted more than $3.6 million.

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What initially seemed to FBI agents like distant, disparate crimes turned out to be the opening salvos in a war against the federal government by members of a violent extremist group called the Order, who sought to establish a whites-only homeland out West.

Their crime spree played out in 1984. Fast forward to 2021. Federal agents and prosecutors who dismantled the Order see troubling echoes of its threat to democracy in the Capitol riot and the growing extremist activity across the country.

“When you see the country as politically and philosophically divided as it is today, that makes it more likely that somebody could take advantage of these times to bring about another revolutionary concept like the Order,” said Wayne Manis, the main FBI agent on the case. “We stopped the Order. We did not stop the ideology.”

Those who tracked the group say the legacy of the Order can be seen in the prominent role that far-right organizations like the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers played in storming the Capitol on Jan. 6.

“Many of the participants of these groups today come from the same sources as the Order,” said Gene Wilson, the lead prosecutor, who went on to become a U.S. magistrate judge in Seattle before switching to private practice. “I think they might be just as committed to totally changing democracy as we know it.”

The men who played central roles in disbanding the Order still consider it the most important case of their lives. Given the Order’s “potential for violence and destruction,” said Manis, no other domestic group posed a similar threat to the United States.

The Order collapsed after its charismatic leader, Robert Jay Mathews, died in a fiery shootout with scores of FBI agents on Whidbey Island, Washington, in December 1984. His followers were rounded up in a nationwide manhunt, and 23 of them faced trial on racketeering charges involving two murders, robberies that netted more than $4 million, counterfeiting, weapons violations and arson. Sentenced to lengthy terms ranging up to 252 years, most of the core members died in jail.

Far-right groups often express anti-government ideology or espouse ideas about returning the United States to some imagined, idyllic form of constitutional rule. What made the Order so dangerous was that it set about achieving that goal, killing, robbing and planning spectacular terrorist acts in hopes of toppling the government.

Just before federal agents closed in, its members had been figuring out how to sabotage the power grid in Los Angeles, hoping to incite riots and looting. Men affiliated with the Order had also surveyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City as a target, which helped to inspire Timothy McVeigh to blow it up in April 1995, killing 168 people in the worst homegrown terrorist attack in U.S. history.

The First Amendment means that people cannot be prosecuted on the basis of ideology alone, so the hurdle is figuring out which secretive individual or group, whether far-right or far-left, might be turning to violence. The dangerous core bent on violence is usually only 5% to 10% of an extremist organization, agents said.

Mathews, raised among white supremacists, organized a heavily armed, clandestine guerrilla force designed to spark a civil war. Adherents sought to restore America to its imagined origins and considered preserving the “green graves” of their white forefathers a sacred duty. To join, members stepped into a wide candlelit circle formed around a white infant and pledged to fight, in secret and without fear of death, to make the United States an Aryan nation.

Far-right groups have evolved since the days of the Order. In some ways they are broader and more loosely affiliated, given the use of the internet, and mainstream politics has opened the door to some of their ideas. A key question today is whether adherents of extremist groups might seek elected office or whether the heavily disputed presidential vote soured them on politics.

“Do they want armed revolution and race war, or are they seeking to enter politics?” said Kathleen Belew, whose book, “Bring the War Home,” covered the history of the Order. “Do they want to burn it down, or do they want to take over?”

The Order sought to burn it down. A key takeaway was how much time it took federal authorities to recognize the significant threat, Manis and others said. Law enforcement agents, focused on more visible, outspoken groups, were initially blind to the level of organization behind the Order.

In northern Idaho in the 1980s, the public face of the far-right was the Aryan Nations compound near Hayden Lake, a gathering of white supremacists and neo-Nazis collected around the Church of Jesus Christ Christian, part of the Christian Identity movement. Its pastor, Richard Girnt Butler, preached that the United States must be restored as a white nation for the second coming of Christ to occur.

Then, as now, adherents of extremist groups were mainly white men. “They were undereducated or poorly educated, underemployed, unsuccessful in whatever they were trying to do workwise,” Wilson said. “They were seeking relevance and status, a meaning for their lives, and looking for somebody readily identifiable to blame. They blamed minority groups for their problems.”

They railed against immigrants coming to destroy the country and against the elites in what they called the “Zionist Occupied Government,” whom they accused of abetting such threatening changes for cheap labor, among other reasons.

Expressing those sentiments, protected by the First Amendment, was insufficient cause to begin an investigation. And many of the members did not particularly stand out in northern Idaho, given that residents pride themselves on rugged individualism.

Peter Robinson, who helped to prosecute the case as an assistant U.S. attorney, said the defendants struck him as completely ordinary — up to a point.

“I had the impression that these were normal guys who you could have a beer with in a bar and you would not notice anything unusual about them — unless you talked about race or about Jews,” said Robinson, now an international criminal defense lawyer.

At first agents were clueless that the Order even existed.

An undersheriff with his ear to the ground voiced his suspicions to Manis that a local gang was behind a spate of relatively small, unsolved robberies, prompting a standard investigation that mushroomed throughout 1984 into a major national operation.

One big break came when a man arrested in Pennsylvania for trying to pass counterfeit bills revealed that Mathews had founded the Order in the Pacific Northwest to undermine the U.S. government, including its currency. “That was like reading a mystery novel, and you turn the page, and it tells you who the killer is,” Manis said.

Then a search warrant unearthed a truly damning piece of evidence: the MAC-10 semi-automatic gun used to assassinate Alan Berg, the talk radio host who drew the ire of the group by repeatedly insulting far-right adherents on air. The killing introduced an element of mystical zeal because the gun jammed after the 13th round, interpreted by Order members as a sign that their plan to restore the United States to its origins when it was just 13 states would succeed, according to a history of the group called “The Silent Brotherhood.”

With the robberies that were the initial focus of the group’s efforts, Mathews worked toward a general uprising, dispensing the money to extremist groups nationwide to buy weapons and other matériel. He hoped his war chest would serve to bind them together, with a wave of violence forcing the U.S. government to cede Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and Colorado as an initial white homeland.

The men who disbanded the Order believe that any contemporary group with similarly dangerous aspirations would also likely be hidden. Members of the Order shunned publicity to concentrate on crime. “Everything that they did was covert,” said Tom McDaniel, a former FBI agent who moved to Montana in 1984 to pursue the case and never left.

It was only when the FBI agents were closing in on Mathews in November 1984 that he issued a declaration of war. Part of the declaration threatened to kill politicians in Congress: “When the day comes, we will not ask whether you swung to the right or swung to the left; we will simply swing you by your neck.”

The wording came from a tract published by the National Alliance, a far-right organization run by William Luther Pierce, author of “The Turner Diaries,” a dystopian novel that imagines a white supremacist underground that takes over the United States and eventually the world.

Although the motivations are related, there is plenty that separates groups active now from those that operated in the past. Far-right organizations once needed to engage with possible recruits in person; now much of that radicalization occurs online. They can connect, scheme and even act through the internet. It was also unthinkable that any high-profile politician would voice opinions that such groups considered encouragement. Now those words have come from a former president.

Former agents viewed the Capitol riot and last year’s protests over social justice issues as possible seeds for radicalization.

“I feel that if there is an organization today from the extreme right that is following in the footsteps of the Order,” Manis said, “you will not know anything about it until it is too late and they have already done something dastardly.”