A number of swastikas, appearing either alone or with the letters “NLR” have been observed in Grand Rapids’ Belknap Lookout neighborhood. The “NLR” letters stand for “Nazi Low Riders” and are a reference to a prison and street gang that has its origins in California’s youth penal system. While it is impossible to say if the graffiti indicates the presence of an actual group affiliated with the Nazi Low Riders, it is the second time in the past several months that a wave of Nazi graffiti has been documented in Grand Rapids. In October of 2006, graffiti associated with the white supremacist White Aryan Resistance movement was documented in downtown’s Heartside neighborhood.
As is the case with all neo-Nazi and white supremacist activity, the graffiti should be taken seriously, especially in light of the Nazi Low Riders historical involvement in violent attacks against people of color. In March of 1999, two members of the Nazi Low Riders in Lancaster, California murdered an African-American Wal-Mart employee with a screwdriver. In 1996, another Nazi Low Riders member beat an African-American teenager as part of a “mission” to “rid the streets of Lancaster of African Americans.” A similar attack took place in 1996, when five members of the gang attacked a 12-year old Hispanic male in a video arcade. Multiple attacks took place in 1995, with members attacking two African-American teenagers with machetes, bludgeoning an African-American homeless man to death, and firing a gun at car occupied by African-Americans.
The group was formed in the late 1970s by white supremacist John Stinson, himself affiliated with the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang, at the California Youth Authority at the Preston Youth Correctional Facility in Ione and at the Youth Training School in Chino, California. Until the 1990s, the Nazi Low Riders functioned as middlemen for the Aryan Brotherhood and engaged in criminal operations affiliated with that gang, but took a more prominent role in prison violence and the drug trade following aggressive law enforcement targeting of the Aryan Brotherhood. In addition to violent attacks towards people of color within prison, members of the Nazi Low Riders have been active in the drug trade and have been especially active in the production and distribution of methamphetamine. The group has spread eastward throughout the United States as members have been paroled, although its stronghold remains in California. Estimates of membership exceeded 1,500 before a crackdown on several of its leaders in 2003. It has also formed alliances the Public Enemy Number 1 white supremacist gang and other racist gangs.
Despite occasional violent attacks, the Nazi Low Riders are not an overtly political gang according to research done by various law enforcement agencies, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the Anti-Defamation League. These entities have found that while white supremacy is a component of the Nazi Low Riders’ activities, they are more of a criminal enterprise than an ideological one. NLR members rarely have ties to the political racist movement, exemplified by groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazi groups such as the National Socialist Movement, nor do they have ties to the more political skinhead gangs such as the Hammerskin Nation. However, members are required to demonstrate “loyalty” to the white race, occasionally through violence against people of color. Interestingly, the group has allowed Latinos to affiliate and has made alliances with Latino gangs, although Latino members allegedly must be “half Caucasian.” The white supremacist movement has also been skeptical of the Nazi Low Riders and has frequently rejected them for being reckless and lacking a coherent ideology, while others have said that there is “nothing Nazi about them” and bemoaning the fact that Nazi Low Riders simply “hate black people” rather than articulating a developed ideological framework.
In addition to previous incidents of Nazi graffiti in Grand Rapids, it is important to place the Nazi Low Riders graffiti within the overall context of activity by the racist right in West Michigan. In recent years, local groups affiliated with the National Socialist Movement, the National Alliance, and the Council of Conservative Citizens have distributed racist literature and organized demonstrations.