James Stern knew he would need proof of this conversation later, so while his phone rang in late February he opened his Tape A Call app and hit record.
Stern, 55, billed himself as a community activist and minister, though his do-gooder credentials were accompanied by a history of criminal opportunism. He had spent much of his life in South Central L.A. trying to build connections between warring groups: the Bloods and the Crips, Korean grocers and their black neighbors, and now between himself — the son of an Ethiopian Jew — and the neo-Nazi on the other end of the phone.
For weeks, Stern had been courting Jeff Schoep, the longtime leader of the National Socialist Movement, in recorded phone calls.
His mission: to persuade Schoep, 45, to turn over the country’s largest neo-Nazi group to a black man.
His promise: to get Schoep and his organization removed from a federal lawsuit alleging that he and two dozen other hate groups and their leaders had conspired to commit violence while organizing the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville.
But Schoep was still skeptical of the plan Stern had laid out for them, particularly signing a legal statement of facts that made them sound like adversaries instead of allies.
“Like, it’s basically like you’re trying to legally wrangle the organization from me,” said Schoep, who consented to being recorded on one call but not others.
Stern repeatedly assured him they were a team.
“You have to go with me. Go with my instincts,” Stern said. “We started this for a reason.”
A year into fighting the Charlottesville lawsuit, Schoep was broke and scared. The march had left one woman dead, dozens injured and the entire nation stunned, fueling an orchestrated campaign by anti-hate groups against organizations like the National Socialist Movement.
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Photo by Elvert Barnes