The men grab ahold of a spear and one by one they push their hands into the blade to cut themselves and squeeze out a few drops of blood.
Sometimes the men stand beside flags bearing a swastika and other times they perform the ritual outside, under the cloak of darkness. Videos of the ritual published to alternative social media platforms like Telegram are often accompanied with ominous sayings such as "the spear has drank another blood sacrifice, who's next?"
It's unclear when or how often, but the initiation ritual required to join the neo-Nazi Blood Tribe has likely been performed right here in Ohio.
The rural Maine-based hate group claims to have established a "Blood Tribe Ohio" chapter in March, according to posts followed and shared by thousands on the social networking websites Telegram and Gab. A map posted to Telegram shows seven U.S. chapters of the neo-Nazi group including the Ohio one that reportedly also leads members in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia and Maryland.
But the neo-Nazi group isn't just online. They've staged protests at various LGBTQ+ events in Columbus, Toledo and parts of northeast Ohio, and experts told The Dispatch that its just a matter of time before the hate group returns to the capital city.
"They get a lot of attention from their events in Ohio," said Jeff Tischauser, senior research analyst at the nonprofit Southern Poverty Law Center. "They're able to get 20 to 30 people out regularly to Ohio, which is a good number for them, and my concern is that they're going to keep using Ohio."
The 2024 presidential election, which is already underway, is likely to attract more public demonstrations from the Blood Tribe in Columbus and Ohio, which often finds itself at the center of politics as the perennial bellwether state, Tischauser said.
The last time the group showed up in Columbus was outside an April drag brunch at Land Grant Brewing Co. They wore bright red shirts, black ski masks, reflective sunglasses and some carried firearms while others had flags with a swastika and a banner that read "there will be blood."
They chanted anti-LGBTQ slurs, referring to transgender Ohioans as pedophiles. If the Blood Tribe shows up again, Mayor Andrew J. Ginther told The Dispatch that Columbus police are ready to ensure no one from the hate group "crosses the line from speech to threats of violence."
“This out-of-state hate group has no place in Columbus," Ginther said last week. "They do not represent our values and our community."
Gaining a foothold in Ohio
It's difficult to pinpoint just how long the Ohio chapter of the Blood Tribe has been operating in the state.
Members of the group protested at a park in Wadsworth, Ohio, on March 11 at a drag queen story hour. But even before then, the hate group was trying to make inroads in Ohio.
Blood Tribe leader Christopher Pohlhaus in February began posting on his Telegram channel called "Hammer" about the train derailment in East Palestine.
The derailment, which received national attention, occurred Feb. 3 when an eastbound Norfolk Southern freight train came off the tracks in East Palestine. At least five different chemicals were carried in train cars that derailed including vinyl chloride, which is a chemical used to make PVC pipe and is considered a carcinogen, according to a letter from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to Norfolk Southern.
On Feb. 26, Pohlhaus posted on Telegram that he and the "BT boys" planned to host a party in the "toxic wasteland of Ohio" where those interested could meet members of the hate group. It's unclear whether such a gathering ever took place, but the Wadsworth protest occurred just a few weeks later in March.
It's standard practice for extremist groups such as the Blood Tribe to take advantage of disasters like the East Palestine derailment, said Jon Lewis, a research fellow with George Washington University's program on extremism.
"That is a common trend in the white supremacist space to take advantage of civil unrest or disasters to try and present themselves as this kind of like ad-hoc emergency force," Lewis said. "What they are trying to show individuals — even if they aren't overt, like-minded neo-Nazis — is that when shit hits the fan, you can't rely on the government."
A few weeks after Pohlhaus' announcement that the Blood Tribe was planning an Ohio gathering, he posted on Telegram on March 13 that he was returning to Maine after spending two weeks in Ohio. On Telegram, Pohlhaus posted a photo of himself and claimed he was suffering from a headache related to the chemicals released after the derailment.
Pohlhaus asked his online followers to let him know if they were interested in protesting against Norfolk Southern in East Palestine. Typically, the group doesn't publicly announce the dates or plans for their demonstrations.
"We are going to give them absolute hell on a random day of a random week in a random month," Pohlhaus said on Telegram. "(Expletive) them for poisoning the white people of Ohio."
Ohio is one of just a few states where the Blood Tribe has focused its efforts, Lewis said. The group has hosted a few protests in Ohio, Wisconsin and most recently in Florida over Labor Day weekend, he added.
Aside from the East Palestine derailment that the Blood Tribe viewed as a recruitment opportunity, Tischauser said the group may also see Ohio as a convenient meetup point. Ohio is a large state with several major cities and it's location likely makes it less than a day's drive for most members of the hate group.
While Ohio's state politics are conservative, Columbus itself may be a target due to the fact that it is more diverse and because it leans left politically, Tischauser said
"(They believe) the white working class is being forgotten, people of color and migrants are being coddled, and they see Columbus like this," Tischauser said. "They see Columbus as part of the frontlines of white genocide."
Just how many Ohioans belong to the Blood Tribe?
Online, the Blood Tribe claims to have thousands of followers.
The Ohio chapter's Telegram channel has more than 5,600 subscribers and Pohlhaus' channel has more than 2,700. But it's unlikely those numbers represent active members of the hate group, said Carla Hill, director of investigative research for the Anti-Defamation League's Center on Extremism.
Extremist groups want to project strength and size, when in actuality their membership is usually far lower than it appears, Hill said.
"They want to look big, they want to appear bigger than they are, and they like to claim so-called chapters," Hill said. "I imagine that's part of what's happening in Ohio. So they're close enough to travel there, but they're not all in Ohio."
PSA COLUMBUS: Nazis currently agitating Drag Brunch at a Land Grant brewing pic.twitter.com/PjWsAlRFTa
— Liz Andromeda 🏴♿ (@Liz_Andromeda) April 29, 2023
The April Blood Tribe protest In Columbus included a few dozen participants. Likewise, photos and reporting from the Blood Tribe's Labor Day weekend march in Orlando showed a few dozen people gathered.
The difference between the online and in-person following, Hill said, is due to the fact that most people who subscribe to see the Blood Tribe's posts on Telegram are not actual neo-Nazis. Most online followers simply follow the group for entertainment or have some interest in it but don't actually plan on participating, Hill said.
Regardless of how big its following actually is, Lewis said the Blood Tribe and other neo-Nazis should be called out for their actions.
"It's important to (point out) neo-Nazis who are showing up to scream obscenities and homophobic slurs at individuals merely for their beliefs or sexual orientation, who are willing to bring loaded semi-automatic rifles and stand feet away from children, who openly call for a race war and the death of all Jews," Lewis said. "It doesn't matter if it's five, 10, 15 or 20 of them. It should be concerning."
Pohlhaus' following is big enough that he bought land in rural Maine to build a training camp and compound for Blood Tribe members, according to the ADL. And while Maine may be more than 700 miles from Ohio, the Blood Tribe's foothold here reflects a larger problem — that hate groups have their eye on the Buckeye State.
As of the end of 2022, Ohio was home to 55 hate and antigovernment groups, according to the SPLC. Those numbers make Ohio fifth in the nation for such groups, behind only California with 103, Florida with 89, and Texas and Pennsylvania with 72 groups each.
On top of that, Ohio is also a top state for "flyering"" by hate groups, which is another metric the SPLC uses to track activity.
A total of 549 flyers and banners for a variety of hate groups have been found in Ohio since 2018, according to the SPLC. In 2023, the propaganda reached its second highest point in Ohio since the SPLC began tracking it nearly five years ago.
It remains to be seen whether the Blood Tribe will fizzle as other hate groups have in the past, Tischauser said. And while its Ohio chapter could disappear as quickly as it popped up, Tischauser said it's clear hate groups like the Blood Tribe see Ohio as fertile ground for recruitment and extremist activism.
"I think it's very unfortunate for you all," Tischauser said. "Ohio has never been this popular before."
Get more political analysis by listening to the Ohio Politics Explained podcast
This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Neo-Nazi Blood Tribe claims it has launched an Ohio chapter