At a meeting last week, Centralia City Councilors Leah Daarud and Elizabeth Cameron, both in at-large positions, used their meeting reports to criticize a statement made by Mayor Kelly Smith Johnston on Facebook the week prior, where she spoke out about a business downtown with ties to a white supremacist religious group, Asatru Folk Assembly.
Also called the AFA, the group has a “whites-only” church in Missouri and states openly on its website its hope to “preserve” whiteness by encouraging children to have white children of their own. Asatru, closely related to Paganism or Heathenism, is a religious practice of its own, which has been co-opted by the AFA.
At 223 S. Tower Ave. in Centralia, a music store owned by Tanner Thayer, according to the Department of Licensing, is named “Kultur LLC.” Merriam-Webster defines “Kultur” as referring to “German culture held to be superior especially by militant Nazi(s).” In his shop window hangs a banner for a book he authored and sells through the AFA website, “Asatru Folk Hymns.” On Facebook, other community members have pointed out some of the imagery visible through the store’s window is tied with Nazism, and, when speaking with the mayor, Thayer reportedly “did not refute the idea that whites are superior” to other races.
Smith Johnston went on to say she spoke with Thayer about Centralia being founded by George Washington, a Black pioneer who was the son of a former slave, and shared Washington’s principles of inclusion and community.
During her meeting report, Daarud asked her fellow seatmates to refrain from such public statements, “when the position includes a violation of freedom.” Though not outright referring to Smith Johnston’s post, this was the second time in her statement where she hinted the mayor had “violated” Thayer’s rights.
Cameron spoke more directly to the mayor’s post, saying it lit a fire that caused “the media” to “jump on this for the sake of their publications.” She called the news an embarrassment and a disappointment, adding, “I’m not aware that we have a white supremacy problem. … I’ve gotten concerns about people saying, ‘Are we next because we’re different? Or because we have a different religion?’”
Cameron further said she hopes the community refrains from being “manipulated to further anyone’s political career. … I hope that we’re all out of high school and don’t have that mentality of being hateful and retaliatory against anyone with a difference of opinion.”
After her report closed, Mayor Pro-Tem Cameron McGee thanked Smith Johnston for being a strong leader and said he’s honored to serve on the council with her. Regarding the other statements, Smith Johnston said she would address the topics on a personal level with the other councilors.
On Wednesday, The Olympian reported state lawmakers of the 20th District, Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, and Reps. Peter Abbarno, R-Centralia, and Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, made statements calling the business’ open ties to the AFA “disappointing.”
“Racial segregation is harmful and wrong in every setting,” Braun told The Olympian.
Indeed, the AFA in Washington and elsewhere promotes segregation. According to Mason Johnson, a leader of the group in the state, in an email with The Chronicle, “Asatru is an ethnic religion,” further confirming non-white people are excluded, saying, “It is not that we are looking to exclude anyone out of hate or any feelings of superiority.”
Johnson called the mayor’s statements “disheartening.” His email signature read, “HAIL THE GODS! HAIL THE ANCESTORS! HAIL THE AFA!”
Alon Milwicki, who holds a doctorate in history related to Neo-Nazism and studies the AFA for the Southern Poverty Law Center, told The Chronicle in an interview he was not surprised to see local leaders of the group making a statement saying they’re “peaceful” and claiming the “government is attacking us needlessly.”
“That’s another common extremist thread,” Milwicki said. “They love to cast themselves as victims.”
Milwicki said the AFA is active in the Pacific Northwest, with many posts on social media, newsletters and in-person meetings happening regularly. However, he said, one common tactic used by such groups is to appear larger than they are, normalizing what he called “fringe” ideology.
The AFA also has an online school, he said, which saw surging popularity as more people homeschooled during the COVID-19 pandemic. Milwicki was unsure of the school’s true scale and reach, though.
The Chronicle has not received a response from Thayer after attempting to contact him at his shop in person three times, leaving business cards and a note in a mailbox and sending a message through the Centralia Downtown Association, which had his phone number. Reporters also tried to set up a 30-minute shop tour through the store’s website, but the request was denied.