We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

The British National Party makes some new American friends.

Illustration by Jonathan Weiner

In the movies or in TV documentaries, when so-called extremist groups hold their gatherings, the camera usually takes you into a backwoods enclave, a basement, or some other shadowy hiding place. Yet this afternoon, the American Friends of the British National Party (AF-BNP), a fledgling white-nationalist group, is holding a meeting in a cozy corner of Arlington, on a street lined with coffee shops and neighborhood bars.

In just a few minutes, AF-BNP members and representatives of other “patriotic” groups will convene their year-end session. But they’re not gathering behind some boarded-up door. Here in multiethnic Arlington, they’re meeting at the Mayan Grill, which specializes in Mexican and Central American dishes. Given the AF-BNP’s opposition to immigration and multiculturalism, the group’s choice of venue is rather peculiar. But, as one AF-BNP guest explains downstairs, “We think the food and service here are excellent.”

Upstairs in a private room, the smoky tang of fajitas hangs in the air and the Confederate flag hangs from a podium. The Stars and Stripes and the Union Jack stand on either side of it. Because I am not on the guest list, I must get clearance from Mark Cotterill, the AF-BNP’s chair, before I can proceed past two bouncers who are collecting the $10 admission fees. If the presence of an uninvited reporter fazes Cotterill, he doesn’t let on. With a politician’s handshake, Cotterill welcomes me to stay so long as I buy a ticket and agree to interview only him and the handful of this afternoon’s guest speakers—nobody else.

“I say that for a reason,” says Cotterill, who spends most of his days working as an assistant in a doctor’s office. Pointing across the crowded room with his Budweiser bottle, Cotterill issues words of caution: “Less than half of the people here are members of the AF-BNP. There are people here that express views our organization doesn’t share.”

This is a big tip-off that Cotterill wants to have his cake and eat it too: Although he’s networking with white supremacists and other extremists, he wants his Northern Virginia-based organization to project a much milder image. Cotterill says the AF-BNP’s primary objective is to raise money for the BNP, a political party trying to gain momentum in Great Britain. By sponsoring get-togethers like this one, Cotterill hopes to educate Americans of British descent—English, Irish, Scottish, or Welsh—about the British nationalist movement.

The 2-year-old AF-BNP, says Cotterill, has no intention of fielding candidates on American soil or actively promoting white nationalism in the U.S. Still, because AF-BNP meetings provide a hub for many “sympathizers,” he hopes the group can plant the seeds for a Yankee nationalist party in the States.

“Over here, there’s really a vacuum for people who believe in white rights,” says Cotterill. “For now, we’re going to attract a lot of wackos who’re off the table to the right. But there’s a need in the U.S. for an American version of the BNP.”

Since its founding, in 1982, the BNP has become Great Britain’s largest right-wing party. Hate-group watchdogs and stories in major British newspapers associate the BNP’s philosophy with Holocaust denial and white supremacy. Though the group floundered during the Conservative Margaret Thatcher years, the BNP recently has crafted a more mainstream image. Like Jörg Haider’s Freedom Party in Austria, it has played down its neo-Nazi roots in hopes of attracting enough voters to become a true political contender.

Even so, the BNP is not nearly as powerful as its French counterpart, Jean-Marie Le Pen’s Front National. The party holds no seats in Parliament. The group fielded a full list of candidates for the June 1999 European Parliament election, according to the Independent, but won only 1.11 percent of the vote in the 10 regions it contested. Recent British elections have left the BNP with only one local seat, in the town of Bromyard in County Worcestershire.

Like its older brother across the ocean, the AF-BNP rejects the labels “hate group” and “white supremacist.” Many of today’s attendees, however, say they openly embrace those terms. Cotterill, who describes himself not as a racist, but as a “racialist” who “sees differences between races,” says he can’t be held responsible for the views of all of his guests.

That’s why Cotterill assures me that the colorful piles of merchandise atop two pool tables in the back of the room aren’t “official.” Nonetheless, the wares say plenty about the themes of today’s conference. A handful of guests are hawking Robert E. Lee T-shirts, pewter swastika pendants, and pamphlets on “Christian Duty Under Corrupt Government.” Other handouts defend the right to bear arms or condemn blacks for spreading HIV. A stack of bumper stickers proclaim: “The White Race: Help Preserve It.” More than one person opens up his wallet after handling one of the heavy replica S.S. daggers. But the most popular item by far is the $3 bottle of “Holocaust Hot Sauce: 6 Million Served.”

Although the attendees’ perspectives may range to the extreme, the audience at this meeting remains low-key. There are no archetypal skinheads in the house, though many in the room are balding. Most of today’s attendees are men in their mid-30s or older. There are no jackboots or men in black leather jackets, either—just a lot of Polo shirts and loafers. Several men discuss how run-ins with minorities shaped their politics. Others claim that they are erstwhile Democrats who, in the words of one man, veered to the far right after tiring of the “self-loathing that liberalism breeds.” Many fashion themselves as constitutional experts, quick to cite and recite specific passages of the document that they believe doesn’t serve them the way it should.

The confab officially kicks off with a singing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and a tepid rendition of “God Save the Queen,” both accompanied by prerecorded music. The first speaker is Steve Flora, the Virginia state chair of the League of the South, an organization that, according to Flora, is “fighting for white Southern culture” and “wears its hate-group label as a badge of honor.” Next up is Lee Church, who edits a newsletter for a group named NO FEAR (National Organization For European-American Rights). Then comes Victor Gerhard, member coordinator and attorney for the National Alliance, a white-supremacist group whose literature is laden with Aryan-race theories. He dispenses the kind of professional advice to his colleagues you’d expect to hear at a business-association meeting: about the importance of good legal contacts and the crucial art of writing press releases.

As the speakers address an array of societal ills, the room retains a classroom silence. For the most part, the orators’ fiery words are delivered in leaden, monotonous tones. In fact, it is a plaid-shirted man in the audience—not one of the official speakers—who stirs the most passionate applause of the afternoon. Deriding public schools for “teaching white kids to hate their own flesh,” the man notes proudly that he has nine children.

“If you don’t have numbers,” he says, “you don’t have a voice.”

Picking up on this strength-in-numbers theme is this afternoon’s guest of honor, Dr. Edward Fields, the editor of The Truth at Last, which touts itself as America’s longest-running “racialist” newspaper. With a studied cadence, Fields dissects the nation’s “immigration problem” and the nation’s “Jewish problem” for a good half-hour, promising to “unload on the Jews” (although not violently, he assures me later) should Vice President Al Gore and Sen. Joe Lieberman take office.

Near the end of the meeting, a man in a three-piece suit approaches me. Seconds after he tells one of the evening’s many anti-Semitic jokes, he urges me not to leave with the wrong impression.

“You’ve got to understand that there’s a difference between mean-spirited bigots and people who have principled arguments against multiculturalism,” says the man, who asks to remain anonymous in deference to his “influential” Capitol Hill father. “The people here who are bitching about Jew this and nigger that, they’re ruining it for people like Mark.”

With his brown mustache, short hair, and dapper yellow-and-green-patterned sport coat, Cotterill, 40, looks more like an accountant on a summer vacation than he does a racialist mover-and-shaker. A native of Worcester, a small town in Southeast England, Cotterill took an interest in nationalist politics at age 17. At that point, he was already concerned about Third World immigration, and he says the nationalist movement was the only political group interested in “standing up for the British nation.”

After more than a decade of supporting the BNP, Cotterill tried his hand at electoral politics in 1995. Running as an independent for a city council seat in the nearby town of Torquay, Cotterill received approximately 15 percent of the vote. Cotterill says he moved to the United States later that year to “escape politics.” According to Cotterill and British press accounts, hammer-wielding members of an unnamed “left-wing group” had attacked Cotterill outside his home in 1994. If that wasn’t enough to convince him to cross the Atlantic, Cotterill says, love was: An American woman (now his wife) whom he’d been dating in England wanted to move back to the States. The two settled in Northern Virginia before marrying.

Yet Cotterill (who also goes by the name Mark Cerr) did not abandon politics. Since coming to America, he has made some big-time contacts. Cotterill has composed numerous articles for The Spotlight, a prominent right-wing weekly based in the District. Cotterill also spent several years as the chair of the D.C. chapter of the Council of Conservative Citizens (CCC), a controversial group that until recently drew support from GOP luminaries such as Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and Georgia Congressman Bob Barr. According to a 1998 report published by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a liberal organization that monitors conservative and “patriotic” groups, the CCC has ties to the Ku Klux Klan and other “openly white supremacist organizations.”

In 1998, the BNP came calling on its expatriate. Well aware of the number of Britons residing in America—not to mention the financial support that groups such as Ireland’s Sinn Féin have received here—BNP party leaders decided to establish a fundraising arm in the States. Cotterill agreed to help found it. Since forming in January 1999, the group has, according to Cotterill, raised about $10,000 and attracted members in 40 states. It’s also caught the attention of organizations that monitor hate-group activities.

“Cotterill’s the slickest of the slick,” says Heidi Beirich, an SPLC specialist who’s followed Cotterill’s career for years. “He presents himself as an intellectual and somewhat moderate. Yet anybody’s who’s anybody in…hate groups knows him. He’s at the nexus of far-right politics and clearly leading what’s becoming a neo-Nazi group.”

Cotterill confirms that he is good friends with former-Klansman-cum-politician David Duke and that he’s acquainted with National Alliance founder William Pierce, whose novel The Turner Diaries tells of a future race war—and allegedly inspired Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. Despite those connections, Cotterill denies that either he or his group is in the hate business.

“Just because I like my culture and heritage doesn’t mean I dislike someone else’s,” says Cotterill. “I don’t want to dominate any other race. But we’re different, and treating all people the same just creates problems.”

As people begin to file out, Cotterill seems happy with the turnout of about 80. After all, the meeting has been a success; more than $800 has been raised. He’s also happy that someone allows him to hold meetings in a central location. Many local venues, he says, refuse to rent space to him.

“It’s great that the owner of this restaurant lets us come here,” says Cotterill. “He’s a good man and a believer in the First Amendment.”

The restaurant’s owner is Edgar Gomez. At the very moment that Cotterill is closing down the meeting by calling for a rendition of “Dixie,” Gomez is downstairs in the kitchen, wrist-deep in a bowl of shredded lettuce. He’s helping to prepare enchiladas for several AF-BNP types who’ve said they’ll stick around for dinner.

A native of El Salvador, Gomez has owned the Mayan Grill for about a year. Because Arlington is loaded with other inexpensive ethnic restaurants, his competition is fierce. To help make ends meet, Gomez regularly rents out the upstairs room for birthday parties and office banquets. Welcoming the AF-BNP, he says, makes sense to him “from a business standpoint.”

“Mark treats me with respect, and vice versa,” says Gomez. “I might not always agree with them, but what they’re doing is not secret or anything illegal.”

Noting that he’s never been upstairs during one of the meetings, however, Gomez asks whether the people there are racists. I read him several quotes from my notebook. He looks up at the ceiling for a second, then smiles.

“It’s kind of funny,” says Gomez. “They’ve been up there saying all those things, and right now they’re all eating chips and salsa.” CP