GLOVERSVILLE – Late last month, Gloversville’s mayor, members of the Gloversville Common Council, county business leaders and others celebrated a ribbon cutting at a downtown plant store. In the weeks since, The Leader-Herald has learned that the business owner of Freya’s Forest is part of a known hate group and is displaying and selling flags depicting an identified hate symbol.
The owner, Raven Winchester-Kenna, claims the Black Sun – or Sonnenrad – is an innocent symbol affiliated with her religion, the Asatru Folk Assembly. But experts at the Southern Poverty Law Center and Anti-Defamation League identify that organization as a hate group and say the Black Sun is synonymous with far-right groups who traffic in neo-Nazi and other hateful ideologies.
“They are a white supremacist group, no doubt about it,” said Chris Magyarics, a research fellow in the Anti-Defamation League’s Center On Extremism. “Anybody in the AFA is going to say they are just proud of their white European heritage. That’s an old trope. But if it quacks like a duck and walks like a duck, it’s a duck.”
When asked about the Black Sun, which a community member-submitted photo later showed was displayed behind the store’s cash register and was also for sale during the ribbon cutting, Winchester-Kenna claimed ignorance while self-identifying as a member of the known hate group.
“They say it’s a hate symbol? Are you serious?” Winchester-Kenna said. “Well, what I say is they can take any symbol that they want, whether it’s a cross, a pentacle, a star – anything – and they can procreate any symbol that they want to say whatever they want. It is part of my heritage, it’s part of my religion. I’m a part of the Asatru Folk Assembly.”
The Black Sun symbol is based on the ancient sun wheel artifacts that were made and used by Norse and Germanic tribes as a symbol of their pagan beliefs, according to the SPLC. Heinrich Himmler inlaid a Black Sun into the marble floor of the Castle Wewelsburg, the castle that Himmler made the spiritual and literal home of the SS – the elite corps and self-described “political soldiers” of the Nazi Party – during the reign of the Third Reich, according to the SPLC.
Winchester-Kenna’s response was predictable, said Megan Squire, a senior fellow at the SPLC.
“She’ll probably give an answer like ‘it’s my religion’ or something like that,” Squire said. “It’s fairly predictable the way they will answer. That doesn’t make it less offensive or hateful.”
All of it leaves Gloversville Mayor Vincent DeSantis scratching his head as to how to best proceed as local leaders look to rebuild the historic but long-struggling downtown with the help of a $10 million New York State Downtown Revitalization Initiative grant. Freya’s Forest, located at the Four Corners in Gloversville, has not received any public funding, according to DeSantis.
“Free speech is one thing, but this really flies in the face of trying to revitalize Gloversville as a 21st century community,” said DeSantis, who said he was not aware of the hateful displays ahead of a reporter’s phone call on Monday. “As a city, we are open and welcoming. We are a tolerant community, and we celebrate diversity. The strength of our country has always been welcoming people from abroad, welcoming immigrants. That has been our strength. It has created this open, inclusive democracy.”
Members of the Asatru Folk Assembly believe that pre-Christian Norse and Germanic religions can only be practiced by people with ancestral roots in those Northern European regions – or more specifically, white people, according to the SPLC. The store’s name, Freya’s Forest, comes from the Norse goddess of fertility.
“While AFA leadership has often couched the group’s bigoted views in ‘cultural preservation’ rhetoric, the Declaration of Purpose on the group’s website belies those curated claims in stating: ‘If the Ethnic European Folk cease to exist Asatru would likewise no longer exist. Let us be clear: by Ethnic European Folk we mean white people.’ Such beliefs in white genocide undergird the AFA’s adherence to ethnocentrism and rigid gender roles, two through lines connecting AFA’s ideology to that of the broader far right,” reads the SPLC’s website on the Asatru Folk Assembly, which is an SPLC Designated Hate Group.
Winchester-Kenna said she and her husband, Luke Winchester-Kenna, are not hateful or racist – she pointed to having stepchildren who are persons of color – and that their ties to the Asatru Folk Assembly are about self-healing and recovery. Both have dealt with past drug addictions.
However, Luke Winchester-Kenna’s own writings point to a desire for pure lineage.
In a blog post that describes drug addiction and the discovery of Operation Werewolf – a subsidiary of a known hate group, the Wolves of Vinland – Luke Winchester-Kenna writes he:
“Found a perfect mate of excellent European decent (sic) and decided to have a daughter and do it all again, but use what I’ve learned to do it even better this time, and keep climbing that never ending mountain of life and kill it or thrill it.”
The Leader-Herald learned about the hateful symbolism on display at the plant store from a concerned citizen after publishing a profile celebrating Raven Winchester-Kenna’s recovery following multiple drug convictions. A Leader-Herald reporter did not notice or recognize the Black Sun during the ribbon cutting. Mayor DeSantis also said he did not notice the symbol, which was on the wall in a shop crowded with plants.
Operation Werewolf, which dissolved last year, purposefully tempered the hateful language as a way to draw people in, according to an expert at the SPLC who specializes in neo-Völkisch ideology but who did not want to be identified for fear of being targeted by the groups she tracks.
“That’s very purposeful. [The founder] is pretty precise and controlling of the language and the imagery of those groups,” she said. “So much of the neo-Völkisch landscape is aimed at making this bigotry, this ideology, more palatable.”
She said Operation Werewolf in particular used a calculated message of self-help and physical strength to attract adherents, particularly individuals in recovery.
“It preys on people who have vulnerabilities like that,” she said. “I think that there are a lot of different forms of addiction and trauma as a precursor to adherence to such ideologies. But all that to say it doesn’t dismiss someone’s involvement in a group like this and all the bigotry and harm that they’ve done.”
Fulton-Montgomery Regional Chamber of Commerce President Mark Kilmer said Tuesday he hadn’t heard of the hate group allegations at Freya’s Forest but that the business group doesn’t support hate.
“The Chamber of Commerce certainly doesn’t endorse any type of hate group,” Kilmer said.
While displaying hate symbols and subscribing to hateful ideologies isn’t strictly against the law, such actions are dangerous, said Squire of the SPLC.
“That’s one of the things that makes it so challenging to try to talk about these issues because people will go back to ‘it’s my free speech.’ The consequences, though, of this kind of behavior for a town can be very damaging, even if it’s not strictly illegal,” Squire said. “As much as you want the town revitalization, it’s probably not a great idea to be financially supporting this business.”
Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.