ALLENDALE TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — Civil rights advocates say Grand Rapids is home to a neo-Nazi group, but the leader of that group denies any Nazi involvement.
On its website, the Southern Poverty Law Center labels the Gallows Tree Wotansvolk Alliance as neo-Nazi, one of 28 hate groups it identifies in Michigan.
“The Southern Poverty Law Center gets a lot of profit from creating hate groups across the entire country,” said Mike Peterson, 38, of Allendale, an ex-con who is a leader of the local Gallows Tree group.
Peterson told 24 Hour News 8 that his group, which has about 10 members in West Michigan, has nothing to do with Nazis or with the clash between white nationalists and counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia that turned deadly Saturday.
“It’s a horrible tragedy and it was bad,” he said of the violence in Virginia.
He said he didn’t know about it until reading about it on Facebook.
“We consider ourselves a tribe, but basically we are a religious group that follows the religion of Wotanism,” he said.
It’s related to a pagan religion, he said, that predates Christianity.
“We are not a white supremacist” group, he said.
The tattoo on his neck is not a swastika spin-off, he said, but rather a shield from the side of a Viking ship.
And the pose he strikes on his group’s website, with his right arm raised, is not a salute to Hitler, but a work-out move, he said:
“It’s a work-out regime that I follow, and that is the symbol that they use.”
Then there’s the mission statement on the Gallows Tree website about race and Aryan values. “Our Race Is Our Nation,” it states. In a photograph on the webpage, Peterson poses next to a man with a giant swastika tattooed on his chest.
“It’s a lot of witch hunting,” Peterson said. “People like to finger-point and that’s what it’s all about.”
Peterson served nearly nine years in federal prison for arson after setting fire to a home on tribal land in Mount Pleasant in 1997. He said he discovered his religion in prison.
The feds extended his parole in 2009 for his alleged involvement with a “white supremacist threat group,” leading to an FBI investigation, court records show. At the time, he denied any involvement.
“White supremacy is trying to say that my people are better than your people for some known reason,” he told 24 Hour News 8. “I don’t think I’m better than anybody.”
Peterson said his group had nothing to do with the swastika-emblazoned American flag draped from a highway overpass in Grand Rapids earlier this week.