Authors: John Safran
Tags: #True Crime, #Murder, #General, #Social Science, #Popular Culture, #Biography & Autobiography, #Literary
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Copyright © 2014 by John Safran
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Originally published under the name
Murder in Mississippi
by Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Books Australia, 2013.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
God’ll cut you down : the tangled tale of a white supremacist, a black hustler, a murder, and how I lost a year in Mississippi / John Safran.
1. Murders—Mississippi—History—21st century. 2. White supremacy movements—Mississippi—21st century. 3. Racism—Mississippi—21st century. I. Title.
HV6533.M7S34 2014 2014017207
For my family, especially Lachlan Stewart
You can run on for a long time,
but sooner or later God’ll cut you down.
(although in this case, Johnny Cash)
On Thurs, Dec 09, at 2:10 a.m., Lally wrote:
Seriously, J. Safran, I really do want to know what you thought of
The Tell-Tale Heart
On Sun, Dec 12, at 10:27 p.m., John Safran wrote:
I forgot to concentrate at the start of the play, so later on when the actor started talking about a murder it was too late and I couldn’t follow! It was basically one guy climbing up and down a ladder for 50 minutes. Are you still in USA? When will you be back? Should I go to Mississippi and write a true crime book? I know of a murder there. I’ve been reading true crime books in the last month—
In Cold Blood
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
, and a couple of less famous ones. I’ve never read true crime before, so I’m buzzing with how good they can be. X
On Sun, Dec 12, at 11:59 p.m., Lally wrote:
I get back to Melbourne on the 5th of January. I was very happy being in New York, but then I got sick, and now I’ve turned slightly against it. You know what, I absolutely think you should go to Mississippi and write a true crime book. Without a doubt. What an exciting thing to do. You’d have such a great and sometimes dangerous adventure. Your part in writing it would become part of the story perhaps. Yes—I’m all for you doing that! When would you go? X
On Mon, Dec 13, at 12:23 a.m., John Safran wrote:
Not sure when I’d go to Mississippi. I just sent a Facebook friend request to the accused killer. He’s got a photo labeled “first day out.” I assume he’s just out pending a trial. It’s a bit fuzzy where things stand, just going by Google.
On Mon, Dec 13, at 12:36 a.m., Lally wrote:
How great that you requested to be his friend on Facebook! What’s the case? What did he do?
On Tues, Dec 14, at 9:54 p.m., John Safran wrote:
Did I tell you anything about meeting this white supremacist? Because it’s tied in with that, and I want to know how much background I need to give you.
On Tues, Dec 14, at 10:01 p.m., Lally wrote:
No—you haven’t told me any of that. Please tell me the whole thing. From beginning to end.
his story begins when I’m ten years old. I’m at a bar mitzvah with my family. And my dad taps me on the shoulder and points to a guy by the buffet, scooping food onto his plate.
“See that man?” my dad whispers.
“Yes,” I say.
“See the tie he’s wearing?”
“See that little symbol on his tie?”
“Yes,” I reply, squinting my eyes.
“That’s the Freemason symbol,” he says. “They’re a secret society. They don’t like it when you ask them about it.”
“Go up and ask him about it,” he tells me.
So I shuffle over to the guy and ask if he’s a Freemason.
“Yes, um,” he splutters, his eyes darting about. “But, listen, we don’t do anything unusual.” He then backs away from the buffet and creeps out of the room.
In that moment I learned there are secret worlds out there. We can glance over a landscape and think we’re seeing everything, but there are realms operating just out of our lines of sight.
I became hooked on secret worlds. And the clunky encounter with
the Freemason taught me you can ask questions even when you’re not supposed to. That’s why I became what I became, a documentary filmmaker of sorts. I say “of sorts” because mine are not the straightest of documentaries. I often ask dangerous people indelicate questions and try not to get thumped. And I often ask them about race. I’m a bit of a Race Trekkie—like a sci-fi Trekkie, but with race, not space.
So the murder at hand? That part of the story begins—although I didn’t know it at the time—about ten years ago. I was filming a segment for a television series called
John Safran vs God
, in which I tried to join the secret world of the Ku Klux Klan even though I’m a Jew.
I’m boxed in at the Ku Klux Klan compound in Orange County, California. Swastika flags run along the wall. I sit across the desk from the Grand Dragon, a man called Chris. Jesus Christ eyeballs me from the painting hanging behind the Grand Dragon. Four Klansmen stand at attention along the edge of the room.
“I’m a little confused about who can and can’t join the Klan,” I tell the Grand Dragon. “Are you allowed to join the Klan if you’re not American?”
“Yes, absolutely!” he assures me.
“And what about if you’re Catholic?”
“You know, Catholics are every bit as Christian as anyone else,” he says. “Sure.”
“And what happens,” I ask, trying hard not to squirm in my seat, “if you were brought up Jewish but you don’t do anything Jewish anymore? Because that’s where I’m at.”
The Grand Dragon shoots his eyes to his fellow Klansmen.
“Was your mother Jewish?” he asks.
“Yes,” I say.
His face sours.
“Jewish life flows through Jewish women,” he says, pointing to a Biblical Racial Identity chart pinned up next to his desk. “Jews are from their father, the devil. They’re from the Synagogue of Satan.”
“So I can’t join the Klan?” I ask.
“The answer is no.”
I lean forward.
“I understand if someone came in here wearing a skullcap and said, ‘Hey, can I join the Klan?’ that would be ridiculous. But I don’t do anything Jewish anymore. I haven’t stepped in a synagogue since my bar mitzvah.”
The Grand Dragon looks like he’s about to breathe fire.
“I drive on the Sabbath,” I say. “I eat pork.”
“Yes,” he says, “but we believe that Judaism is both a race and religion.”
I point to my face.
“I’m whiter than Hitler. I’ve got blond hair and blue eyes. He had brown hair and brown eyes. If I went to school with Hitler, I’d be the one beating him up for being a wog.”
The Grand Dragon asks me to leave.
God and/or Fate blows a ripple into the ocean.
Several years later, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation airs another series I pull together called
John Safran’s Race Relations
. This series pokes its nose into cross-cultural, interracial, and interfaith love.
The ABC forbids one story I film from airing. This is the story in which the ripple from years before drifted me into the arms of a man named Richard Barrett.
I have to give away a magician’s trick to explain this, but so be it.
Rabbis would wag their fingers in front of the class at my all-boys school. They would tell us that if we married a non-Jew, our children would not be Jewish. “If you marry a non-Jew, you’re finishing Hitler’s work for him!” is how one of them put it.
To be a Jew, according to the rabbis (like the Klan), your mother must be Jewish. And for her to be Jewish,
mother had to be Jewish. And for
to be Jewish,
mother had to be, too, rolling all the way back to the Hebrews plodding through the desert with Abraham.
DNA testing has made things awkward for the Jewish community. Now it’s quite simple to check whether your mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother was Jewish. Some folk who have lived their lives as Jews have popped off to take a DNA test and found out they are not.
story opens with me stomping out of my bedroom.
“Jews make up 0.25 percent of the world’s population,” I lisp aggressively to the camera. “If I’m going to rule out 99.75 percent of women on the pretext that Jews should only marry Jews, I’m going to make damn sure I’m actually one.”
Cut to my bathroom.
I’m staring in the mirror, poking a little plastic rod in and out of my mouth. The rod is for scraping saliva from one’s cheek.
“I’m going to the USA,” I say, “to Family Tree DNA, the world’s largest genetic testing firm. They send you out this kit.”
I snap the head of the rod into a vial and twist on the lid.
Cut to my living room. My laptop is throwing blue light on my face.
“Now,” I say to the camera, “here’s an interesting little sidebar . . .”
I swivel my laptop around to the camera. The web page reads
WHITE PRIDE WORLDWIDE
“Someone sent me a link to the American white pride website Stormfront,” I say, “where they have an alert.”
I read it out: “Alert: John Safran Coming to the USA. I have it on
very good authority that the Australian Jewish documentary maker/comedian John Safran will be coming to the United States sometime between now and the middle of the year to film his new show for the ABC,
“John Safran was the blond, blue-eyed Jew from Australia who tried to enlist in the Ku Klux Klan in his series
John Safran vs God
“I personally felt this episode was in particular poor taste, and would warn white nationalists across the States to keep a watchful, close eye out for John Safran attempting to set up other white separatist groups in a similar way.”
I stare down the camera, addressing the white supremacists.
“Hey, guys,” I say. “I wasn’t even thinking about you. But now that you’ve brought it up . . . Seeing as I’m going to America for a DNA test, why don’t I go get a DNA test done on one of you?”
I whip out of my pocket another Family Tree DNA kit.
“Oh, I don’t know,” I say, “how about the founder of the Nationalist Movement, Richard Barrett?”
I make out I know who this guy is, but I don’t. I’m familiar with the lowercase “white nationalist movement,” which just includes any group that’s proud to be white. As to this specific uppercase “Nationalist Movement”—no idea. The reason I’m off to see Richard Barrett specifically? My researcher shot off e-mails to a dozen Klan types, and he’s the one who got back to us. On his web page, Richard says he’s also the founder of the American skinhead movement. He’s sixty-seven years old.
• • •
plane flies on a map from my flat to Mississippi.
The Mississippi State Legislature is bright white and gorgeous, a bit Greek temple, a bit
Gone with the Wind
mansion. I trot up the steps and between the white pillars. A black member of the House of Representatives, Robert Johnson, meets me on one of the marble walkways.
“Can you tell us who Richard Barrett is?” I ask.
“Richard Barrett is an avowed racist, white supremacist, who believes
the only true Americans are white Americans,” he says, his mustache bouncing up and down. “And he’s one of the most outspoken white supremacists here in the state.”
Coincidentally, my visit collides with a ceremony run by Richard Barrett.
“And what is the Spirit of America Day banquet?” I ask.
“It is an award ceremony,” he answers, “that Richard Barrett alleges recognizes athletes, male athletes, football players, who represent the best of what is America. But he’s never recognized an African American or a black student at all. And in the past he’s acknowledged that it’s only for white students.”
Fade down. Fade up.
It’s night. A black pickup truck speeds down a road in rural Mississippi. The moon must be somewhere, but I can’t find it and there are no streetlights, either. An old man with liver spots controls the wheel: Richard Barrett. I sit beside him. The damaged road rattles my teeth. For the “founder of the American skinheads,” he’s sure trying hard to hide that he’s going bald. He has thin gray hair he’s styled into a comb-over. Perhaps to make up for that, Richard is driving so fast, the wind gusting in the windows is drying out my eyeballs.
Richard wears glasses, but refuses to be filmed wearing glasses. He slides them off whenever the camera points his way. I also wear glasses but decide not to wear them, convinced they make me look Jewish.
Two blind phonies drive into the night.
Tomorrow I plan to secure a saliva sample from Richard for the DNA test. Tonight I want to find out more about the man.
“There was a colored woman on television not long ago,” Richard Barrett tells me, “and they asked her what she thought of me.” Richard had been running for office. “And she said, ‘When we had segregation, I didn’t have the bullet holes you see in my house.’ She said, ‘I didn’t have the syringes from the drug users on my front lawn.’ And the reporter said, ‘Do you think we would be better off with segregation?’ And she said,
‘I do.’ Now, that colored woman may be the sort of person that voted for me.”
Richard lost his election.
“So, you are for segregation?” I ask.
“Yes,” he says, not even making it to the
before sounding like he regretted committing that to camera.
Richard steers off the road and heads deep into a field. A redbrick wall rolls into the glow of the headlights. This is the Nationalist Movement headquarters.
Inside, bookshelves tighten up an already tight hallway. We head down into a tiny study. The black night hides the fact that the Nationalist Movement headquarters is in fact just a small house in rural Mississippi.
In the study, green-spined law books color up one whole wall. Red-spined law books color up another. A large red flag flops on a brass pole in the corner. I pull it up, hoping, for the sake of my show, that it’s a swastika.
It isn’t. Rather, it recalls a swastika with the elements moved around a bit, as if to avoid infringing Hitler’s copyright.
“What does it mean?” I ask.
“That’s the Nationalist Movement flag,” Richard replies. “It’s called the Cross Star. It means victory, North, South, East, and West, victory over communism. It was used in Vietnam.”
Richard points to a photo on the wall behind the photocopier.
“This is where an anarchist attacked me, shouting, ‘Kill, kill!’” The photo in fact seems to show Richard grabbing a protester’s T-shirt. “He was nineteen years old, and I’m quite a bit older. But I got him in a headlock. I used my skills from Vietnam. I stomped him on the ground and held him for the police.”
In another photo he grins next to Miss America.
sign is taped to the back of the study door.
“So what’s this ‘Whites Only’ thing?” I ask.
“Oh that,” Richard says, a little coy. “Someone put that up there and I’m not sure why, but it’s just kind of interesting.”
“Okay, so I understand nationalism,” I say. “So, it’s not racism?”
Richard looks offended by the vulgar term.
“Well, it’s not so much a matter of what it’s not. Let’s talk about what it is. Nationalism is blood-based. Where you have a feeling for your own self, your own people, your own children, your own family, your own countrymen. It’s really what makes the world tick.”
“But so many young people today are a mixture of things,” I say. “Like, they’ll have one Lebanese grandparent. So if you’re an American with one Lebanese grandparent—”
“You don’t have that,” Richard interrupts.
“Yes, you do.”
I find it odd I have to argue the point that mixed-race people exist.
“Go to New York,” I say.
“Sure, New York.” Richard chuckles. “You know what Senator Goldwater from Arizona said? He’d like to cut it off and let it float into the Atlantic.” Richard chuckles again. “I was born in New York.”
Next to the
sign is a flag that looks incredibly like a swastika. “That’s from South Africa,” Richard says. “Eugène Terre’Blanche’s party.” And next to the flag is a plaque:
“So you’re not allowed to be gay in the Nationalist Movement?”
“Well, of course not,” Richard replies.
Leaving the study, I ask, “Why all the law books?”
Richard tells me he’s a lawyer. (Of course. Some of the hairsplitting begins to make sense.) Richard says the law is his weapon. He says he grinds his enemies to dust with legal action. When a county in Georgia tried to charge Richard for the extra police it put on to cover a protest he planned, he dragged the county through court after court, all the way to the US Supreme Court, until he won. He lawyered a black family out of a home in Jackson, Mississippi. Something about “blockbusting” maybe? I don’t really follow.
We’re in the Nationalist Movement’s lounge area. The first thing I notice is a rifle, propped up in the corner like a mop.