White terrorism in the US — through the lens of Dayton, Ohio

August 16, 2019
Memorial to the victims of the Dayton, Ohio mass shooting.

I was born and raised in Dayton, Ohio. I spent many days in the historic Oregon district in my formative years, being entertained by the culture of the inner city — as have generations of residents.

What took place on August 4 in my hometown was horrific. I am among many who stand in support and solidarity with those who lost loved ones and friends, those whose lives changed that day and who were left with deeply scarring lifetime impacts.

Dayton has historically been a place of racial unrest and shootings. What is needed now is an examination of what occurred and the factors that have affected the city in a number of ways since its post-industrial downturn.

The shootings in Dayton are a jaw-dropping illustration of what happens when the United States turns its back on its problems, and they continue to mount — when white supremacy is seen as foundational to the formation of the US.

Connor Betts murdered 10 people and injured 27 others on his rampage. Hundreds of people enjoying the nightlife, entertainment and dining were forced to flee for their lives, as he opened fire with a legally purchased AR-15 style semi-automatic rifle.

Betts then headed to Ned Peppers bar, a venue reportedly frequented by Black people. Six out of the nine people killed at the bar were African-American.

Betts was killed by authorities, who have not yet confirmed a motive for the mass shooting. But many social media users immediately began to speculate that Betts was angry that his sister (22-year-old Megan Betts, who was also killed) was dating a Black man and he had specifically targeted Black people during the massacre.

This motive is unfortunately not far-fetched, considering the racist and white supremacist views of the gunmen in other mass shootings in the weeks before Dayton.

Just two months prior to the shooting, a chapter of the white supremacist hate group, the Honorable Sacred Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, held a rally on Dayton’s courthouse stairs.

The Dayton shooting occurred less than 24 hours after El Paso shooter Patrick Crusius posted his “manifesto” online — which said he was resisting “the Hispanic invasion of Texas” — and massacred 22 people.

Betts’ exgirlfriend claimed he had heard "menacing voices" in his head since he was young. She suspected something was off about her boyfriend — and had heard stories at Bellbrook High School about a "hit list" that Betts had allegedly compiled. Several of Betts’ former high school classmates had a “rape list” he created — some blame authorities for not holding him accountable upon discovering it.

Regardless of Betts’ views on politics and his horrific actions — which will reshape the city for generations to come — he is just a fragment of several interwoven obstacles facing the region, including right-wing apologists’ influence on gun control, deep-seated racism and economic turmoil.

The many hardships of this rust belt city in the industrial heartland of the US have been repeatedly investigated since the election of US President Donald Trump.

Even as large parts of the country thrive, unemployment, poverty and opiate addiction continue to ravage parts of the country, including Dayton.

The city was once home to car manufacturing giant General Motors (GM) and the city was known as "Little Detroit". That was before the auto plants began closing.

3000 members of the United Auto Workers Local 696 in Dayton went on strike back in 1996 over job security and safety, when GM threatened to outsource their jobs. A 17-day strike took place in two Dayton brake plants, which halted production at more than half of GM’s auto assembly factories.

By 2008, GM had permanently ceased production in Dayton. One of the plants home to the strike has now become a luxury casino.

The city of Dayton is also home to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, which had its own "active shooter scare" last year.

The base is the nerve center of US Air Force innovation and has a payroll approaching US$2.3 billion. It is an engine for economic growth in the surrounding area, and directly and indirectly accounts for about 14% of the region’s economy.

It is also home to the Air Force Materiel Command, a sprawling organisation that purchases aircraft, missiles and other military equipment. In a typical year, the command consumes nearly a third of the Air Force's entire budget, worth US$184 billion this year.

The base's presence impacts economic activity in many nearby cities such as Cincinnati, where the General Electric jet-engine plant is located.

The base is considered one of the most important economic drivers in western Ohio. In March, Trump requested $120.9 million for a new building at the National Air and Space Intelligence Center, which is located there.

KKK and neo-Nazi presence

Back in 1994, members of the Ku Klux Klan staged a recruitment rally in downtown Dayton. The region has been home to KKK activity for some time and the KKK’s presence throughout Ohio dates back more than 100 years.

Tony Hovater, who helped start the Traditionalist Worker Party, a neo-Nazi, white nationalist group that promotes white separatism and a white supremacist view of Christianity, also calls the area home. Hovater was recently profiled by the New York Times.

In the 1920s, 15–20% of Dayton’s population were believed to be KKK members and the city was ranked in the top six US cities based on Klan membership. Ohio once had the largest KKK membership of any state.

KKK rallies at the former Montgomery County Fairgrounds regularly drew more than 10,000 people in the 1920s. The racist processions took 45 minutes to pass by onlookers. One Dayton member of the Night Riders, the Klan’s then activist arm, described its purpose as “horse-whipping, tar and feathering, barn burning, bombing — a regular reign of terror”.

By comparison, the KKK rally held in Dayton in May, which cost the city $650,000 in security and other personnel, only drew a dismal nine people to face a counter-protest of 600.

Mayor Nan Whaley tweeted after the protest that this "Ugly chapter is over". However, in the context of Dayton's history, to make that statement, one must think the book on racism and white supremacy in mid-Western cities like Dayton has closed. But this is not the case.


The Urban Institute ranks Dayton as the 14th most segregated city among the largest 100 US commuting zones. Research by US sociologist Douglas Massey in 1988 found “housing patterns in Dayton and its suburbs to be the third most racially segregated among the fifty largest metropolitan areas in the US”. Higher levels of segregation were only found in Cleveland, Ohio and Chicago, Illinois.

Historically, most of Dayton’s affluent white residents have lived east of the river, in suburbs such as Bellbrook, where the Dayton shooter was from. The city’s west side was and still is largely delegated to Black residents.

Historical racial tensions in Dayton led to a riot following the racist lynching in Mississippi of 14 year-old Emmett Till in 1955. This and other issues turned Dayton into the forefront of tactical crisis intervention, riots and policing.

Following the drive-by shooting of a Black man, Lester Mitchell, on September 1, 1966, H Rap Brown from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee — formerly chaired by socialist and civil rights organiser, Stokley Carmichael (Kwame Ture) — came to the city and advocated for "criminal syndicalism".

The shooting incited rage among the city’s already alienated Black residents. The city was in the grips of an uprising and the National Guard was sent in. One person died, 30 were injured and 130 arrested.

The riot obtained nationwide attention and for that reason, then president Lyndon Johnson spoke the following weekend in Dayton at a Labor Day ceremony.

Residents cited as causes for the riot — in addition to Mitchell’s murder — frustration with poor housing, high unemployment and a lack of communication with city leaders, which are still prominent issues plaguing the city today.

West Dayton never was the same after the riots and much of that part of the city is still blighted to this day. The schools in the region are among the state’s worst-performing, and crime is high.

Dayton was also where, in 2012, two security guards shot and killed Dante Price at an apartment complex. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference — stalwart pioneers of social activism and nonviolent direct action — called on the authorities to examine the shooting as a hate crime.

Two years later in 2014, another African-American, John Crawford, was murdered for holding a BB gun in a Dayton Walmart.

By contrast, white nationalist shooter Crusius was taken in alive, without police firing a shot or putting him in a chokehold. Nor did the killer turn his gun on police.

The history of Dayton reveals the politics of a ruling class that is, in one form or another, continually dividing workers against each other — whether they are minimum-wage workers at Walmart in El Paso, Cielo Vista Mall, or in Beavercreek where John Crawford was slain, or disenfranchised workers in one of the forgotten cities in the US’ manufacturing heartland.

The fight against fascism and racism is the fight to connect all members of the working class against capitalism and the barbaric and exploitative forms it can envelop.

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