What this picture means to me: The photograph that captured the beginning of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia.
I first met Jeff Hall in a supermarket car park 11 miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles. I had driven there in a beat-up Dodge pick-up I’d borrowed in the hope of blending in, and immediately noticed the tall, dark-eyed man pacing back and forth as he spoke on his mobile phone. A large Iron Cross tattoo adorned the back of his clean-shaven head.
I braced myself as I approached. “Hi, I’m the photographer,” I said. He looked towards me without making eye contact and mumbled something about needing to wait for the other media. Then, with a faint smirk, he said: “Nice truck. I’m driving around in my wife’s crappy little piece of shit.”
I spent the next year documenting the Detroit-based National Socialist Movement (NSM) of which Hall was a member. I wanted to get a first-hand glimpse of a group organising around the ideals and rhetoric of white nationalism in a US nowhere near entering the “post-racial” epoch many hoped would be ushered in by Barack Obama’s election.
Hall was the NSM’s West Coast Unit leader. An unemployed plumber and father of five who bought his family’s groceries with food stamps, he was charismatic and politically active in his community; once running for office with Riverside California’s Western Municipal Water District and securing 33 percent of the vote.
From the supermarket car park, Jeff led me, a two-person crew from HBO and members of a local television station, to a motel just down the road where 25 or so NSM members had gathered. These were the members who had travelled from out of state. Some sat in their rooms with the doors open; others hung over the railing of the second floor walkway running along the back of the building. There were a few women and a handful of teenagers.
The other media professionals took a few pointed interviews and left. Then the atmosphere grew progressively more relaxed. A large guy covered in tattoos made a run for beer, Fox News played in the background and members drifted into different rooms. I tried to make myself as invisible as possible and spent the afternoon and early evening photographing them.
‘Start nothing, finish everything’
The next morning, the NSM congregated in the motel foyer in preparation for a march to the steps of the Los Angeles City Hall to protest against illegal immigration. The mood was militaristic, intense and starkly different from that of the previous afternoon.
The leader of the group spoke, encouraging everyone to put their best foot forward. Dressed in German Nazi uniforms, they all seemed to stand a little taller, their backs a little straighter. Hall urged them to “start nothing and finish everything” as though preparing for conflict.
Escorted by dozens of police officers, the group marched to the steps of the hall. Streets were blocked off and a 100-foot deep security perimeter set up.
As the NSM approached they were greeted by hundreds of angry counter-protesters who outnumbered them by at least 40 to one. Members of the group stood on the steps and took turns at the microphone, yelling their messages about the “illegals that were coming over the border living on welfare and taking our jobs”.
I overheard a few passers-by quietly approving of their efforts, including a 45-year-old white man who encouraged them to “keep up the good work”.
‘Everything seemed normal, apart from the swastika’
Later that year, I called Hall from my home base in New York. Eager to be invited into his home in Riverside, beyond the Los Angeles suburbs, I asked about the monthly meetings he held there. He told me that they were planning to hold a baby shower for his wife Krista, a 20-something-year-old elementary school teacher, after the following month’s meeting.
When I asked if I could come, he chuckled and said: “You want to?”
As I walked into the Hall family home – a standard American tract house, owned by Jeff’s mother – my first impression was how very normal it seemed. The layout reminded me of the condo I’d shared with my mother and younger sister many years before.
Pink stickers bearing the words “I love you” adorned the sliding glass door leading to the garden. It wasn’t long after Christmas and decorations still littered the house. There were baby shower presents on the floor of the formal living room.
Everything seemed normal; everything apart from the large swastika flag hanging from the ceiling of the family room.
Through the pink heart-decorated glass slider I could see Krista hopping around like a bunny rabbit in the backyard. Three little girls hopped behind her, smiling.
‘King of his castle’
During lunch, the oldest of Hall’s children, 10-year-old Joseph, took three or four chocolate chip cookies from a packet on the counter. Hall ran after him, grabbing the cookies from his son’s hand. There was a momentary struggle, from which Joseph quickly receded. A look of terror briefly flashed across his face. The interaction seemed like something you might expect between siblings.
When it was time for the meeting to begin, Hall opened it by slamming the then US Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano and her recent commentary on how the country’s borders were secure. He spoke about the importance of the NSM border patrols, attendance and recruitment.
He mentioned that even his son had begun to join him on armed border operations in California and Arizona – operations designed, as Jeff put it, “to defend our nation from the invasion from Mexico”. Most importantly, he felt, they would keep immigrants from taking any more American jobs.
Leadership in the NSM offered Hall an escape from the reality of his life and its disappointments. It gave him an opportunity to blame his woes, not on an elusive broken system but on a tangible enemy: the brown and black people ‘taking’ from the whites.
Recently, I had the opportunity to speak on the phone with Michael Kimmel, the author of Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era . He described the thought pattern of Hall and others who share his views: “Since I’ve lost my sense of entitlement in the workplace, I will become a mini-tyrant at home; I will become king of my castle. This effectively gives him something to be proud of, something that demands respect.”
Kimmel continued: “They are angry, and rightfully so, that something they were promised no longer exists. They have been blindsided; brought into a system that doesn’t work any more.”
Someone to blame
According to US News and World Report, “there are roughly 5.1 million fewer American manufacturing jobs now than at the start of 2001”.
A lack of jobs in the US is creating a desperate situation for the middle and working classes. And, the populace watching corporate right-leaning media is being delivered a specific message about who is to blame.
All one has to do to witness this is to tune into the highest rated syndicated radio show in the country, to hear Rush Limbaugh saying things such as: “The days of them not having any power are over …. And, they want to use their power as a means of retribution. That’s what Obama’s about, gang. He’s angry, he’s gonna cut this country down to size, he’s gonna make it pay for all the multicultural mistakes that it has made, its mistreatment of minorities.”
This type of mainstream media pundit rhetoric leads many Americans to frame their economic woes as displacement by minorities and immigrants. But, there is a far greater, more universal predicament: a vicious class divide squeezing all levels of society other than the very wealthy.
My next trip to the Hall family home on April 30, 2011, was also my last. Hall’s children played in the garden and ate sub sandwiches as I took photographs of them.
The very last image I took in the house, that Saturday afternoon, was of blond, blue-eyed Joseph sitting on the stairs, his shoes so small for his growing feet that his toes poked through. Next to him stood an NSM member in his black, steel-toed combat boots.
After we all left that evening, Hall and his friend Butch drove another NSM member home to San Diego. Hall returned a few hours later, drank whiskey and fell asleep on the worn, beige sofa.
Some time after that, Joseph, who was supposed to be sleeping beside his four younger sisters, aged from three months to nine years old, made his way downstairs. He approached his father with a raised Rossi .357 magnum handgun, and pulled the trigger.
The bullet entered a few inches behind Hall’s ear, killing him instantly.
‘To start all over’
At around 11 the following morning, I received a call from Butch: “I’d just like to let you know, since you were just at the house with us, yesterday … that Jeff is dead.”
He continued: “I just drove to his house to bring a box of doughnuts. That’s what I do on Sundays. There was police tape blocking off the cul-de-sac. I asked the neighbour who was standing outside. She told me that Jeff had been shot. I don’t know anything else. I left … I don’t want to talk to the police.”
Joseph was taken into custody that morning. He said that his father had threatened to kill the family. “He said he was gonna turn off the smoke alarms and burn the whole house down when we were asleep … That really scared me.”
He said that he was afraid that “dad was going to do something that would make mum go away. I didn’t want my mum to leave … dad was kinda mean. So I thought maybe it would be him to leave.”
When the detective pressed Joseph to see if he understood what he had done, the 10-year-old answered: “I wasn’t really thinking about if he was gonna die or get unconscious … I was trying to get him to know how I feel when I get hurt … Then maybe we could go back to being friends and start all over.”
Ironically, the harm that befell members of the NSM came mainly from within. Jeff Hall’s life was not the only one that ended violently that year.
A few months after Hall died, a friend of his and fellow NSM member, Norm, took his own life. Then, almost exactly a year later, another member, JT. Ready, killed his 47-year-old girlfriend, her daughter and infant granddaughter, the daughter’s fiancé and himself.