Recently, we discovered an extensive interview on the Internet Archive with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s public relations chief, Mark Potok, in which he discusses the origins of the SPLC, its mission and its tactics. You can find the audio files to the interview here.
We’d like to highlight some of Mr. Potok’s more interesting comments, but, as always, we remind the reader to not simply take our word for it. Any time you select excerpts from a larger work you run the risk of cherry-picking, or taking things out of context, and we’re certainly not professional transcriptionists here at Watching the Watchdogs. Listen to the interview and come to your own conclusions.
As to the origins of the interview, it was recorded and posted on the Internet Archive by Bill Holiday, a high school teacher from Vermont. A number of students, and at least one other teacher, are asking Mr. Potok questions about his work. The interview apparently takes place at the SPLC’s Montgomery headquarters, and several references in the conversation seem to date it to the first half of 2008.
In Track One, Mr. Potok explains the origins of the name of the organization:
“In the 70’s… “poverty law” was actually the phrase… it was a phrase used that just applied to… essentially… civil rights law… to kind of human rights legal actions.”
“I know a couple years ago there was a big discussion internally [at the SPLC], ‘Should we change our name to something else?’ People think, you know, that it’s all about, sort of, defending poor people, and that’s not really, exactly what our mission is. By that time, people knew the name so well that, you know, we made, I think, the obviously right decision not to change the name.”
“People think, you know, that it’s all about, sort of, defending poor people, and that’s not really, exactly what our mission is.” Interesting. One wonders how many donors are under the impression that a “poverty law center” might actually be in the business of defending poor people, no? Why change the name just because the mission changed? You don’t just toss out a multimillion dollar brand name for the sake of accuracy. More on this to follow.
Track Two includes an astonishingly candid assessment of how some critics view the SPLC:
“I think a lot of people feel, ‘Oh, groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center, they find, you know, the two hundred Nazis running around the country, they build them up into great big groups, they make a big deal about it and then ask for your money,’ right? In other words, it’s kind of a scam. You hype up this little tiny threat into something scary, uh, and then go and try to make money off of it.”
Well, Mr. Potok, you took the words right out of our mouth. Since 2009, Watching the Watchdogs has been documenting exactly this kind of behavior by the SPLC, and you have summed things up nicely. We have reported numerous times on the fact that there is no legal definition of “hate group,” and that you pretty much make them up as you go along.
Your “Hate Map” fundraising tool includes hundreds of alleged “hate groups,” (again, per your own definition), but you provide no information on these groups that researchers could use to verify their existence. In fact, you couldn’t even bother to make up locations for more than 200 of them. In 2012, you added 20 chapters of something called the “Georgia Militia” to that state’s “hate map,” but you couldn’t locate 18 of them!
And the “Hate Map” is the keystone to all SPLC fundraising, Mr. Potok. You promote it widely in the Media as being factual and accurate, even after admitting directly to Watching the Watchdogs that your numbers are “anecdotal,” “a very rough measure” and the result of “an imperfect process.”
The donors believe your numbers, Mr. Potok, and that’s why they sent you nearly $37 million donor-dollars last year, and that figure does not include the nearly $36 million dollars in tax-free interest generated by the $281 MILLION in cash in the SPLC’s bloated “Morris Dees Legacy Fund.”
And so, Mr. Potok, you really do hype up these minor threats, provide absolutely no documentation for your claims and then very successfully make a lot of money from it. I believe the term you used was “scam.” What would you call it?
In Track Five, Mark Potok relates the details of an event where a Klansman named Jeff Berry gives an interview to a news crew, then, thinking better of it, demands the tape of the interview from the crew at shotgun-point. Potok says the police did nothing in response to the reporter’s complaint and then makes an insensitive joke about gang rape.
“About a year later… well, we sued very quickly… well, it was shortly after that, and we easily won a judgment against Berry. You know, this was absolutely false imprisonment, right? I mean, it was a felony crime.”
A felony crime, Mr. Potok? Just for holding someone at shotgun-point? Oddly enough, On page 101 of his 1991 autobiography, A Season for Justice, your boss, SPLC founder Morris Dees, writes with great relish about holding a man at shotgun-point. He even makes a little joke about it at the end.
Was this not a felony crime too, Mr. Potok? Was this not also false imprisonment? Or are you willing to overlook the crime because the felonious perp signs your $3,000 dollar-a-week paychecks? Just a modicum of consistency would be SOOOO welcome here, Mr. Potok.
In Track Eight, Potok discusses what he labels “Nativist Extremist” groups and their failure to resort to traditional political means to achieve their objectives.
“These are groups that don’t merely say… that don’t target the policy… In other words, they don’t simply say ‘Immigration should be lower… because of whatever reason,’ right? ‘It’s bad for the economy or the environment or, you know, whatever… depresses wages in this country, therefore we’re going to write our congressmen or hold a rally or a parade or whatever.’ In other words, you know, engage in some kind of democratic action, right? Some kind of effort, you know, to have laws changed or whatever it is.”
The irony here, as we’ve pointed out time after time, is that while Mr. Potok denigrates these groups for allegedly not engaging in “some kind of democratic action,” the legend on his “Hate Map” fundraising tool clearly states that:
“Hate group activities can include criminal acts, marches, rallies, speeches, meetings, leafleting or publishing.”
While we continue to be amazed that a so-called “civil rights group” would deliberately conflate six of the most fundamental democratic civil rights with “criminal acts” and “hate group activities,” here we find Mr. Potok damning people both for participating and allegedly not participating in these activities. No contradictions there, Mr. Potok.
Track Nine covers the SPLC’s criteria for designating its “hate group” brand name:
“Our criteria for a “hate group,” first of all, have nothing to do with criminality, or violence, or any kind of guess we’re making about ‘this group could be dangerous.’ It’s strictly ideological. So we look at a group and we say, ‘Does this group, in its platform statements, or the speeches of its leader or leaders… Does this group say that a whole group of people, by virtue of their group characteristics, is somehow less?’”
“It’s strictly ideological.” No crime, no violence, just “wrong thinking.” Even the most rudimentary reading of SPLC fundraising materials and press releases, (redundant, we know..), finds repeated examples of you lumping conservatives and Christians as part of a diabolical “radical right” and anyone who believes that this nation’s existing immigration laws should be enforced and respected is immediately smeared as a “nativist.”
Labeling and name-calling are one of the eight central pillars of the propagandists’ stock and trade, Mr. Potok, and you have mastered them all.
And the suckers sent him over $100,000 dollars a day last year, every day. No wonder he doesn’t want to change the name of the company. “Civil rights” doesn’t get any better than this.
A slightly longer quote from Track Ten, but it really is telling:
“Let me just say one other thing while I’m thinking about things to say. A lot of our criticism… let me think about how to say this… If there were just… if these groups just operated on the margins of the margins of society and ran around saying, you know, ‘We should kill all the Jews, we should kill all the gay people,’ and that was sort of all there was to it, yes, they would be scary in the sense that, every so often one of them goes off and kills somebody, but, you know, but would it really be a huge or serious threat to the society? I think obviously not, right?
I mean, first of all, it’s not a message that flies very far…’Let’s kill all the Jews. Let’s, you know, build new gas chambers,’ or whatever. But the reality is, and especially since the immigration debate has become sort of the centerpiece of their world, is that their propaganda is getting out way beyond their little fringe world.”
“[W]ould it really be a huge or serious threat to the society? I think obviously not, right?” On this point, Mr. Potok, we can agree. We may find many of the messages produced by some of these groups to be patently offensive and despicable. The problem arises when self-appointed vigilantes like you and the SPLC come along and decide who gets to speak, based on your own extremely nebulous criteria.
Once you start abrogating the civil rights of one group simply because you don’t like what they have to say, it’s only a matter of time before all groups are threatened by this same lynch-mob mentality.
As for the nature of the threats these alleged groups pose, Mr. Potok, please remember that not very long after you gave this interview in your office you made the following statements:
“And I would say as a general matter, it is extremely unusual these days for an organization to plan and carry out a criminal act where mainly for the reason that they are so likely to get caught.
So what we really see out there in terms of violence from the radical right is by and large what we would call lone wolves, people operating on their own or with just one or two partners. As opposed to, you know, being some kind of organizational plan.” (October 30, 2008, NPR.org, Assessing White Supremacist Groups in the US)
“Still, [Potok] said the public should remain vigilant about the activities of hate groups, even though individuals are responsible for the majority of hate crimes in America.” (www.courier-journal.com, July 21, 2009)
And speaking of ideology, Mr. Potok, if your goal in life was simply to debate those people with whom you disagree, it would be one thing. But to rake in tens of millions of dollars a year in the process of stifling any discussion whatsoever is dubious, at best.
“I think our more major concern has been, especially recently, is how this propaganda has been put into the mainstream and is now treated like fact.”
And this, Mr. Potok, is precisely how your “Hate Map” and other fundraising propaganda work. You broadcast these spurious claims to the donors and the media, and everyone takes you at your word. Few, if any, will perform even the most rudimentary fact checks, not that you provide much for them to actually check.
Track Twelve deals with the origins of the SPLC and its mission; at least in the good old days:
“It started with two lawyers, Morris Dees and Joe Levin, and they came from here [Montgomery] and that’s why we’re here, and they are still… here. So, you know, it was a very, very small non-profit law firm and it did some of that… yes… defending people who were accused… black people who were accused of things they hadn’t done, and so on.
But, you know, the cases tended to be… I mean, they were classic civil rights cases. In one of our early cases, had as a tactic, we sued the Alabama Highway Patrol, right, the State Police here because it was a 100% lily-white police force. You can imagine what the thinking on that is, right, I mean it’s a bad thing in a society that is not all-white to have the people with guns be all white, right? I mean, I think it just makes it obvious to society who’s running the show and, you know, what’s behind it.”
“I mean it’s a bad thing in a society that is not all-white to have the people with guns be all white, right? I mean, I think it just makes it obvious to society who’s running the show and, you know, what’s behind it.”
And we agree with you wholeheartedly once again, Mr. Potok. It a bad thing when an organization that purports to serve a diverse population is run by all whites, especially in Montgomery, Alabama, the birthplace of the American Civil Rights Movement. It really does send a message.
That being said, this year, once again, Watching the Watchdogs pointed out that for the 43rd consecutive year, the top leadership of your organization is as “lily-white,” to use your phrase, as it was on the day that Dees and Levin opened for business in 1971.
“So, it was very important to the lawyers here to desegregate the Alabama Highway Patrol, and in fact they won, like, a very important judgment that… they’re… I don’t know if this is still true, but at least a couple of years ago they were the most integrated police force in America. Right here in Alabama… twenty-five percent… which is, you know, something.”
Wouldn’t it be “something” if the SPLC’s Executive Suite was integrated and twenty-five percent of its highly paid top executives were from diverse backgrounds? Mr. Potok, just how thinly do you think we can spread the term “ironic” before it rightly morphs into “hypocritical”?
“I don’t know if that answered your question. We did a lot of different kind of cases that were all over the, kind of, civil rights map. There was a lot of death penalty defense work done here in the early years. We don’t do that, really, any more, because, basically, a lot of other lawyers got good at it and now do that work.”
“We don’t do that, really, any more, because, basically, a lot of other lawyers got good at it and now do that work.” That’s a rather dubious explanation, Mr. Potok. If anything, genuine civil rights groups like the Innocence Project, which actually do work with the poor, and on a fraction of your bloated budget, have demonstrated that the need for this kind of legal work has never been greater.
If you are no longer in the poverty law business, you really need to change the name of your company and just be honest with your donors.
And finally, from Track 13, Mr. Potok cuts to the chase and lays out what his company’s agenda really is:
“We see this political struggle, right? And it’s very different from what Teaching Tolerance does, right? I mean, we’re not trying to change anybody’s mind. We’re trying to wreck the groups, and we are very clear in our head, this is… we are trying to destroy them. Not to send them to prison unfairly or not take their free speech rights away… but as a political matter, to destroy them. And the way we learned to do it, I think personally is cool, is we use facts, and when we use their own facts… So, often, the battle is to make it stick, right?”
“We see this as a political struggle, right?” If that’s the case, Mr. Potok, and the SPLC is little more than another PAC, then stop hiding behind the sham that your company is somehow a civil rights organization. It’s doubtful your donations will decline, and they may even increase.
“I mean, we’re not trying to change anybody’s mind. We’re trying to wreck the groups, and we are very clear in our head, this is… we are trying to destroy them.”
So, Mr. Potok, you’ve already stated that the SPLC isn’t interested in criminality or potential for violence, it is, as you say, “all about ideology,” and yet you have the gall to claim that you’re not trying to take their free speech rights away?
If it’s all about ideology, Mr. Potok, and these groups aren’t advocating crime or violence, then isn’t what they’re saying, regardless of how offensive many people may find it, protected free speech? And yet, you’re dying to “destroy” them?
These groups aren’t breaking any laws, but you want to silence them because you don’t like what they say. Isn’t that textbook vigilantism, Mr. Potok? Taking the law into your own hands because you don’t like the way the democratic system works?
You said the exact same thing in 2007 at a luncheon in Michigan, in this grainy video. The crowd laughed and cheered. They’re all psychopaths, you said, and you can’t wait to “destroy” them.
“And the way we learned to do it, I think personally is cool, is we use facts, and when we use their own facts… So, often, the battle is to make it stick, right?”
Well, Mr. Potok, we cannot agree more about the efficacy of that technique. Watching the Watchdogs will continue to “track” your company, making meticulous notes of your comments, press releases and financial statements and report them to the public at large.
Unlike your office, though, we will continue to cite all of our sources and we will not take a dime for our efforts… as opposed to the nearly $2,000,000 donor-dollars you’ve earned for your efforts since 2001.
And rather than lead our readers to preconceived conclusions, which is, after all, the textbook definition of propaganda and the basis of your position at the SPLC, Mr. Potok, we will continue to urge people to look at the documentation for themselves and come to their own conclusions.
We’ll keep putting the evidence out there in the hope that someday we can make it “stick.”