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What a white terror spree in '80s Seattle says about anti-Semitism today

The front page of the Seattle Times - Seattle Post-Intelligencer Sunday edition on Dec. 9, 1984.
Seattle Public Library archives
The front page of the Seattle Times - Seattle Post-Intelligencer Sunday edition on Dec. 9, 1984.

Behold the bloody story of The Order, which ended in fire and death on Whidbey Island.

It began in the 1980s, when a man named Robert J. Mathews started the white nationalist group. The Order's goal: create a white homeland in the Pacific Northwest. Their methods were crime and terror.

“They started out by robbing local banks, and then they went on to rob bank cars,” said Leonard Zeskind, author of Blood and Politics: The History of the White Nationalist Movement from the Margins to the Mainstream.

Most of the big robberies came in the Seattle area and were used to fund their other activities. Those included the assassination of Jewish talk-show host Alan Berg in Denver. "They also set off a bomb in a synagogue down in Boise,” Zeskind said.  

Racism and hate groups were nothing new, but Zeskind said the 1980s white supremacist movement was differed from the Ku Klux Klan of the 1950s and 1960s in a key way.

"Rather than trying to defend mainstream society, which is what the white Southern Klan did in the '50s and '60s," he said, "they were pulling away from society. And that's when Mathews entered the picture."

For The Order, things soon went south.  At one point the group turned on one of their own members, Walter West, fearing he would inform on the group. “They dragged him out into the woods and shot him," Zeskind said.

When a member of The Order named Tom Martinez tried to pass counterfeit money in Philadelphia, he was arrested -- a big break for the FBI.

“The feds turned him [Martinez] pretty quick," Zeskind said. "And Martinez led them directly to Mathews.” 

The FBI began catching up with other members of The Order. The end for Mathews came on Whidbey Island.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Two FBI agents sift through debris after a home burned to the ground on Whidbey Island, north of Seattle in December 1984.", "fid": "134343", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201703/AP_841201077.jpg", "attribution": "Credit Tim Klass/AP"}]]After some close calls with law enforcement, Mathews took refuge on Whidbey. But a tip led the FBI there, and during a shootout, fire destroyed the house where Mathews was hiding. His body was found in the ashes.

The Order's other members wound up in prison.

Zeskind reflected on that history this week, after the Mercer Island Jewish community center was evacuated due to a bomb threat - one more incident in a long list of hate crimes around the country.

He believes the latest wave of hate is occurring now because, "people with those views have figured that the tide of history is on their side." 

What are the lessons from the 1980s for 2017? Zeskind believes the main one "is not to wait for the police to set the moral tone in our own communities."

He says people have to say "loud and in an organized fashion" that racism and bigotry are wrong, and "that there's no doubt as to which direction is the right direction."

Year started with KUOW: 2004