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Shawn Vestal: Racists using technological megaphone to share their small yet dangerous message

Scott Rhodes, left, speaks with Sandpoint police Officer Spencer Smith and Detective Mike Aerni, right, on Dec. 1, 2018. (Chad Sokol / The Spokesman-Review)
Scott Rhodes, left, speaks with Sandpoint police Officer Spencer Smith and Detective Mike Aerni, right, on Dec. 1, 2018. (Chad Sokol / The Spokesman-Review)

It was Christmas Day in New York City, early evening, when a few phones in the empty offices at Columbia University and Barnard College began to ring.

What university employees found when they listened to their messages was a nearly two-minute diatribe filled with racist propaganda and hatred linked to the murder of a Barnard student. It came courtesy of our old pal Scott Rhodes, working his racist robocalls once again. Columbia described the calls as “abhorrent and viciously racist.” A relatively mild example: “Remember to teach your children: Around blacks, never relax.”

Rhodes was based for several years in Sandpoint, though he was said to have moved to Montana last year. Nevertheless, in much of the reporting on the case in New York City media, he is referred to as an Idaho resident and Road to Power as an Idaho-based “organization.”

In truth, he’s just one guy – one very small guy – using a technological megaphone to appear big. But he’s established himself as an ugly echo of this region’s history with racist groups whether he lives here anymore or not.

The Christmas calls were an attempt to peddle hatred on the back of the recent murder of a Barnard College freshman, who was stabbed during an attempted robbery by three middle-school classmates in a Manhattan park on Dec. 11.

The case is shocking in many ways – the suspects are 13 and 14, for one. Police have said it was not racially motivated, though the victim was white and the accused are black, according to news reports on the case.

Of course, for Rhodes, the rabid robocaller, there is a racial – or, rather, a racist – aspect to everything. The messages, which reportedly included aspersions cast against the victims’ parents for allowing her to live among people of color, concluded by claiming to have been sent by Road to Power. That’s the name for Rhodes’ racist, anti-Semitic project, which pushes out robocalls across the nation and dwells in the sewers of the internet.

It’s an amalgam of old tech and new, and Rhodes uses it to try to fuel white supremacist passions in the wake of news events he can twist toward his purposes.

The Anti-Defamation League says: “The calls, which have targeted communities in California, Idaho, Iowa, Florida, Georgia and Pennsylvania, seek to exploit current events by disseminating vile, offensive commentary.”

A recent rise in this racist robocalling was the subject of reporting by former Spokesman-Review reporter Bill Morlin for the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2018. His story noted the calls are another tool relatively isolated racists have for amplifying their message – a “new, high-tech, computer-delivered brand of hate” that allows isolated individuals to amplify their message and appear to be a much larger movement than they actually are.

Rhodes came to public attention when he was found to have distributed white supremacist propaganda at Sandpoint High School in 2017. In online forums, according to the ADL, Road to Power has posted videos and commentary filled with hateful, racist speech and ideas; Rhodes has also seemingly watched the news with an eagle eye for chances to leap in with robocalls.

His calls have supported a neo-Nazi candidate in California, who he promised would rid America of “traitorous Jews.” Those calls were targeted to 50 Jewish institutions in California, the ADL said.

Later, Road to Power sent out calls supporting a Holocaust denier running for office in California, as well. When Andrew Gillum, who is black, was running for governor of Florida, Road to Power targeted him with robocalls to Florida employing a minstrel voice and hooting monkeys while a speaker talks in an offensive dialect.

Rhodes targeted Stacey Abrams, an African American candidate for governor of Georgia, and Oprah Winfrey, who supported Abrams. He called for ethnic cleansing in calls to Charlottesville, Virginia, a year after the infamous Unite the Right rally. He praised police officers killing black men in calls to Pittsburgh, and raged against Latino Americans following a murder in Iowa, and on and on.

The New York murder is right up Rhodes’ dark, filthy alley. Eighteen-year-old Tess Majors was stabbed several times by one young boy who was allegedly attempting to rob her with two others in a park near the Barnard College campus.

The robocalls went to faculty and staff offices – on many landlines at Barnard and a small number at Columbia. The two colleges share a campus and many connections, but are separate institutions. Officials said they did not believe students had received calls.

The New York Times reported on the message Dec. 27, including the claim of responsibility from Road to Power. Reporters there heard the message and confirmed its accuracy with sources, including law enforcement; I have not heard the message. College officials referred the matter to New York police, who have been circumspect.

A department spokesman responded to my request for an interview with a brief statement: “There is no place for hate or intolerance in New York City, or anywhere. The NYPD’s Racial and Ethnically Motivated Extremism unit is aware of this incident and looking into the matter.”

That unit – a newly formed team targeting threats and attacks from far-right and white supremacist organizations – might offer a new tool in the fight against extremist violence, and in finding the links between speech such as these robocalls, which are not illegal, and those who might act on them.

What’s more likely is Rhodes will keep doing what he’s doing, using the phone and the computer to amplify his sad, ignorant, small voice.

Raising voices of decency against him is a job that doesn’t go away, no matter where he holes up next.