A black activist has seized control of a neo-Nazi group – and is now seeking to dismantle the organisation from within.
Legal documents filed in Michigan listed James Stern as the new “director and president” of the National Socialist Movement (NSM).
The NSM is one of several extremist groups being sued over violence at the notorious “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017, which resulted in the death of one protester.
A set of court papers published on Thursday suggests Stern intends to use his new position to undermine the group’s defence against the lawsuit.
Documents state the activist replaced Jeff Schoep as the NSM’s leader in January. The records give no indication of how or why he has been able to wrest control of the group.
The feat has however drawn comparisons to the work of Ron Stallworth, an African American police officer whose work infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan was depicted in the Oscar-winning Spike Lee movie BlacKkKlansman.
Neither Mr Stern, who lives in California, nor Mr Schoep responded to emails and calls seeking comment.
Matthew Heimbach, a leading white nationalist figure who briefly served as the NSM’s community outreach director last year, said group leaders had been at odds with rank-and-file members over its direction.
Mr Heimbach said some members “essentially want it to remain a politically impotent white supremacist gang” and resisted ideological changes advocated by Mr Schoep.
He predicted Stern’s installation as its leader probably spells the end of the group in its current form, which had been active since 1994.
“I think it's kind of a sad obit for one of the longest-running white nationalist organisations,” Mr Heimbach added.
NSM members have in the past attended rallies and protests in full Nazi uniforms, including at a march in Toledo, Ohio, which sparked a riot in 2005.
More recently, Mr Schoep tried to rebrand the group and appeal to a new generation of racists and antisemites by toning down its more overt use of Nazi symbols.
Stern has apparently been trying for at least two years to disrupt NSM activities, with references to the group on his website dating back as far as February 2017.
On Wednesday, lawyers for the plaintiffs suing white supremacist groups and movement leaders over the Charlottesville violence asked the court to sanction Mr Schoep.
They say he has ignored refused to turn over documents and give them access to his electronic devices and social media accounts, also claiming he has fired his attorney as a stalling tactic.
A federal magistrate judge in Charlottesville ruled last Friday that Stern cannot represent the NSM in the case because he does not appear to be a licensed attorney.
That ruling did not deter Stern from filing a request for summary judgment against his own group.
“It is the decision of the National Socialist Movement to plead liable to all causes of actions listed in the complaint against it,” he wrote.
While serving a five-year prison sentence for mail fraud, Stern struck up an unlikely friendship with one-time Ku Klux Klan leader Edgar Ray Killen.
Following his release, he set up Racial Reconciliation Outreach Ministries, an organisation which aims to promote people from all racial backgrounds “working together to achieve freedom for all.”
Additional reporting by AP
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