“Pop” Poplawski, the high-def hucksters, and the downward cycle of violence

This is not good news.

Richard “Pop” Poplawski has fans now.

You probably remember Poplawski, or if you don't it won't take much to refresh your memory. He's the aimless, unemployed 22-year-old man, living in a red-brick working class neighborhood of Pittsburgh, who went off on the morning of April 4, 2009, the 41st anniversary of the shooting of Martin Luther King Jr. When he was done firing his extensive arsenal including an AK-47 style semi-automatic, he'd fatally gunned down three Pittsburgh police officers who came to his house, initially, over a domestic dispute with his mom. There was a brief stir -- perhaps too brief, in hindsight -- when a friend told TV reporters that Poplawski feared that with Barack Obama in the White House the government would confiscate his guns.

Last week, I got an email alert that a man from just a few miles down the Allegheny River from where Poplawski carried out his murderous rampage was going to jail for violating his probabtion by stockpiling 10 firearms and a cache of ammunition. Federal authorities contacted local police after they learned online that 32-year-old Hardy Lloyd was a big fan of Poplawski:

In April 2009, the FBI started investigating Lloyd's website because he posted a message praising Richard Poplawski....

The investigation turned up a blog entry in which Lloyd talked about his shotgun. During a search of Lloyd's home, agents found 10 firearms as well as white supremacist literature and Nazi propaganda booklets.

This is how hate talk is increasingly viral in America in 2010. At the bottom of the chain, a cop-killer like Richard Poplawski becomes a hero to a clearly deranged man like Hardy Lloyd. But who were Richard “Pop” Poplawski's heroes?

Glenn Beck...to begin with. Also a host of foul-mouthed shock jocks including non-political ones like Opie and Anthony, and also the community on the white-supremacist websites like Stormfront.org, which is basically the Facebook of neo-Nazism and has remained popular in a time of despair. The role of Big Media and hate talk or whacked-out conspiracy theories is particularly disturbing. While individuals like Poplawski are ultimately responsible for their warped action, what is the responsibility of media millionaires, “high-def hucksters” who now jack up their ratings not just by being provocative but by speaking of violence or irrational conspiracies -- especially when the evidence mounts every day that these ill-conceived words broadcast from coast-to-coast are motivating America's most unglued?

This January, I spent several days in Pittsburgh investigating the Poplawski case and seeking to learn more about what really motivated him to kill three police officers. The research was for a chapter in my book, The Backlash: Right-Wing Radicals, High-Def Hucksters and Paranoid Politics in the Age of Obama, which comes out at the end of the month. I learned quite a bit -- including a couple of new details about the shooting and Poplawski's past that will be revealed when the book is published. But the main thing was that Poplawski's fears about the “Obama gun confiscation” was the proverbial tip of the iceberg when it came to his increasingly paranoid ideas that he seemed to glean largely from talk radio and from Beck.

“Rich, like myself, loved Glenn Beck,” Poplawski's best friend Eddie Perkovic told me during a long interview in his narrow rowhouse on the steep hill running down to the Allegheny. (Perkovic had a lot of time -- he was wearing an ankle bracelet for house arrest because of an unrelated case.) Perkovic and his mom -- who also had a close relationship with the accused cop-killer, still awaiting trial -- told me that for months Poplawski had been obsessed with an idea -- frequently discussed by Beck, including in ads for his sponsor Food Insurance -- of the need to stockpile food and even toilet paper for a societal breakdown. Poplawski was also convinced that paper money would become worthless -- another claim given credence by the Fox News Channel host, particularly in close connection with his frequent shilling for the now-under-investigation gold-coin peddler Goldline International.

And there was another idea that not only worried Poplawski but which Perkovic and his mom still swore by in January 2010 -- despite widespread debunkings in the mainstream media -- that the government had established a gulag of what Perkovic called “Guantanamo camps” here in the United States, for the purpose of arresting and detaining law-abiding Americans. This was the idea that Beck famously declared on FNC on March 3, 2009, or one month and one day before the shootings, that “I can't debunk.” Poplawski downloaded to the Web a video of Beck glibly discussing the possibility of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, abusing its powers with a U.S. Congressman, Ron Paul of Texas. Poplawski's mother later said in a swown statement that her son "liked police when they were not curtailing his constitutional rights." By then, Officers Eric Guy Kelly, Stephen Mayhle and Paul Sciullo II were already dead.

If would be easy to blow off the Poplawski case -- horrible as it is -- if it just a one-time thing. The evidence is mounting that this is far from the case, sadly. In recent days, we've learned about the incident involving an ex-convict named Byron Williams who loaded up a truck with weapons and -- saying he was on his way to an obscure outfit called The Tides Organization to launch a revolution -- wounded two officers near Oakland, Calif., before he was arrested. Research showed that no other media figure had discussed the Tides Foundation...except for Glenn Beck.

In fact, the notion that America is on the brink of a violent right-wing uprising is becoming such common currency that some outbreaks don't even leap to the national news, even when murder is involved. I would not even have learned of this alarming story had a friend not emailed it to me last week:

A Pennsylvania prison guard charged with murdering a man at a shooting range and stealing his semi-automatic rifle told police that he was stockpiling guns as part of a plan to overthrow the federal government, according to a police affidavit reviewed by Salon...

“Peake said he has been stealing guns for the purpose of aiding an organization that Peake refused to name. Peake said the organization is collecting guns for the purpose of overthrowing the federal government. Peake said he and Tuso together are members of this organization. Peake [said] that he would kill to defend his country and he was stealing weapons to defend his country.”

When these stories begin to become routine, this nation is in big, big trouble. Not long ago, Bill Clinton gave a moving speech to mark the 15th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, in which he spoke the connection between increasingly conspiratorial and angry talk on the radio and even TV networks like Fox and the incitement to violence. He said their words “fall on the connected and the unhinged alike.”

The unhinged will always be with us. But highly paid media stars -- and their allies in Congress and elsewhere -- with followings in the millions floating bizarre theories and obsessing on violent remedies, are a new and most alarming phenominon.

These high-def hucksters can tone down this madness, starting right now. So why don't they?