AJC Watchdog: Ricin suspect a disturbing sign of the times

William Christopher Gibbs of Morganton, Ga., was arrested Feb. 2 after he sought help in a local hospital for exposure to ricin. He was frequent poster to an online forum for white supremacy group known as the Creativity Alliance.

William Christopher Gibbs of Morganton, Ga., was arrested Feb. 2 after he sought help in a local hospital for exposure to ricin. He was frequent poster to an online forum for white supremacy group known as the Creativity Alliance.

One example of a rising tide of white nationalism shambled into a federal district courtroom in Gainesville Wednesday.

William Christopher Gibbs wore shackles, orange Crocs and a dirty, mustard-yellow jumpsuit with the word “INMATE” stenciled on back. He had an unruly shock of curly blond hair and an unshaven look that gave cover to an attempted mustache.

The 27-year-old Fannin County resident is a specimen of a latent strain of racist belief that many Georgians were convinced was part of the state’s past rather than a newly loud aspect of its present.

Gibbs was arrested last month when police say he turned up in a hospital emergency room for ricin exposure. He is charged with possession of an illegal biological agent and faces years in federal prison, if convicted.

It’s not clear what Gibbs wanted to do with the anthrax-like toxin, where he got it, or indeed, if he even possessed it. He entered a not guilty plea before U.S. Magistrate Judge J. Clay Fuller in the brief appearance.

But his social media footprints on white extremist forums show a man on the edge of society. According to posts on a racist website, Gibbs was an adherent of the Creativity Movement, a pseudo-religious movement that posits whites as superior to other races.

Writing last August on a forum thread about the Black Lives Matter protest movement, Gibbs wrote, “They expect the whole world out of playing the pity card. … Their race is nothing but a problem.”

Gibbs was less haughty Wednesday sitting quietly next to Natasha Perdew Silas, a federal public defender, and coincidentally, a black woman. Instead of backing up his online swagger, Gibbs listened intently as Silas walked him through financial forms demonstrating his lack of wherewithal that entitles him to her services. Then she went to work for him.

“You have some discovery for me?” Silas said, asking the federal prosecutor for the evidence against Gibbs. “I don’t see a lab report.”

“I don’t want your help,” Gibbs failed to say, nor did he repeat the slur he tossed about online.

Silas, who received her undergraduate degree from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and her law degree from the University of Virginia, is regarded among her colleagues as an excellent attorney. In court she was pleasant and efficient. She offered no comment about her client’s case except that she was working on his defense.

“He seems like a mannerable young man,” she said of Gibbs a few moments after he shuffled off, flanked by U.S. Marshals.

A troubling trend

At the time of his arrest, Gibbs was staying with his grandparents in Morganton, a town of about 300 near Blue Ridge. Morganton is so small that the local pastor and the mayor are found in the same person, Mike England.

Sleepy downtown Morganton, Ga., was thrown into chaos in February 2017 when state and federal law enforcement descended on the city of 300 in Fannin County after local man William Christopher Gibbs showed up at a hospital ER for ricin exposure. CHRIS JOYNER / CJOYNER@AJC.COM

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England said he was unaware of Gibb’s association with white supremacy, but he wasn’t shocked. He said he encounters a lot of racism in his community.

When he wrote an editorial in the local newspaper criticizing “all these church deacons in this area that use the n-word like it’s common language,” England said he received a membership card in the mail from a white supremacist compound in nearby Epworth. He promptly burned the card.

“I have to give them credit for their wit,” he said. “Every year now I get an invite to their annual fund-raising picnic to say the blessing.”

Gibbs is so marginal that it’s tempting to write him off as a loner and not representative of anything. But Georgia has seen too much of this type of behavior lately to simply ignore it.

In January, a group of white extremists gathered in a metro Atlanta hotel for what they dubbed the Atlanta Forum, a name perhaps derived from a 2015 gathering of neo-Nazis in the United Kingdom dubbed the London Forum. The event cross-pollinated alt-right activists with neo-Confederates for a kind of bull session of hatred.

The organizers charged $20 to attend and $14.88 for students. The last figure is a numerical signifier among white supremacists for a 14-word slogan on preserving the white race coined by David Lane, a supremacist leader who died in prison, and an 88-word statement along the same lines by Adolph Hitler.

Those involved cheered the event as a “rousing success,” in part because it happened at all.

According to a recap of the forum on a podcast aimed at white nationalist activists, one organizer said the group kept a low profile, blending in with other groups, such as a chiropractic convention happening at the same time.

They were giddy in the afterglow of the event.

“We should’ve encouraged everyone to lie and say we were with the chiropractor meeting so that if we got caught saying something like, ‘a n****g belongs in chains’ they would think all the chiropractors are racists,” one of the organizers giggled. “That would’ve been great.”

The podcast is filled with this kind of racist “Bevis and Butthead” routine. Despite the clowning, they are serious and believe they are engaged in racial warfare that will transform America.

Supremacists see turning tide

There is more.

In February, a business owner in Dahlonega ramped up her spat with the city over a development issue by unfurling a Ku Klux Klan flag and banner over one of her buildings. The sight drew immediate protest from downtown denizens eager to counter the racist message, but it also drew appreciation from some who apparently had been waiting for just this moment.

One was Chester Doles, a former leader in the racist National Alliance who became a cause célèbre in white nationalist circles when he pleaded guilty to an illegal weapons charge in 2004 and sentenced to several years in federal prison. Speaking to a Washington Post reporter, Doles said he sees the tide turning, in part because of the election of Donald Trump.

“In the last 50 years, I didn’t think we had the votes to elect a governor, much less a president,” Doles said. “And yet here we are today.”

While white nationalists have been buoyed by the charged tone of Trump’s campaign and the early days of his administration, this resurgence predates the president. The organizers of the Atlanta Forum seem to date their own renaissance to the days and weeks following the 2015 shooting of black congregants in a Charleston church by white supremacist Dylann Roof and the backlash it created against Confederate symbolism.

And just this week, the Augusta-based Community Foundation for the Central Savannah River Area acknowledged its role in donations funneled to white nationalist Richard Spencer's National Policy Institute. The foundation was Spencer's largest single contributor between 2013 and 2015.

The foundation is a donor-directed fund, meaning donors give the fund money and direct where it goes. The Augusta foundation gave Spencer’s group at least $25,000. Fund officials said they have severed ties to Spencer; they would not reveal the original source of the donations.

As for Gibbs, he remains behind bars pending trial or a plea deal. Fortunately for him, he has able representation paid for by you and me.