CHICAGO — There was a palpable sense of shock in the voice of the man when told his Illinois license plate contains a symbolic number used by white supremacists.
“I had no idea that … I had no idea,” the man said, tripping over his words during a telephone conversation with a Tribune reporter. “I am completely blown away, blown away and a little terrified. Because that is definitely not me by any stretch of the imagination. … Holy (expletive)!”
On Tuesday, Twitter user @petegaines posted a picture on Twitter of the license plate “1488” and questioned why the state issued it.
“Hey @ILSecOfState why do you allow Nazis to get Nazi slogans on their Tesla’s personalized license plates?” @petegaines tweeted.
That number is combination of two figures celebrated by white supremacists. The first two numbers stand for “14 Words” and references the slogan, “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.” The second two numbers, 88, represent the eighth letter in the English language — H — and when put together are meant to stand for “Heil Hitler.”
In an email to the Tribune, Pete Gaines defended his tweet.
“Regardless of whether or not someone espouses a white supremacist ideology, in an era where Nazis, fascists and racists have been emboldened to publicly and proudly display their hatred, driving around with a number that both the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center have singled out as white supremacist ‘hate speech’ on one’s license plate is going to invite scrutiny,” Gaines wrote.
Still, Gaines wrote that he was deleting the tweet “as I certainly don’t want any harm to come to anyone for something they were apparently unaware of.”
The owner of the Tesla said “1488” was just the number the state of Illinois assigned when a relative applied for license plates years ago.
“I had no idea this was associated with white supremacy,” the man said, declining to be named out of fear for his safety. “This is a license plate that’s been in my family for decades. It’s not even a vanity plate. This is just the number they gave to the family years and years and years ago…. I think it was my grandmother. I honestly don’t recall. It’s just been passed down.”
The man said he planned to file a police report out of fear that someone might try to harm him over the plate. While he said no one has threatened him personally, he saw the responses to the original tweet — some of which appeared to advocate a violent response if anyone saw his car on the street.
“Bust his windows and slash his tires,” one Twitter user wrote in response.
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“If you see this car in Illinois: burn it,” wrote another.
The plate holder said the assumptions made about him on Twitter are completely wrong.
“Absolutely, 143 million percent no, I am not a white supremacist. I am not a Nazi. I do not subscribe to any of those beliefs,” he said. “I feel like I’m a target for something I don’t believe in, and I’m a target for something I had no idea about. Quite frankly I just need to get home because I’m fearing for my safety.”
Experts said that the zeal some people have for outing and shaming white supremacists for their beliefs can sometimes lead them to assign blame where none is deserved.
“1488 is absolutely an extremely common number for white supremacists, but people could use that number for other purposes too,” said Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow with the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism. “You couldn’t really assume it’s white supremacy.”
He recalled that years ago, he frequently got calls from people concerned about stickers they saw on cars in southern states showing the number 88. But, he said, that was also the number for Dale Jarrett, a popular NASCAR driver.
“So there were tons of people in the south who had 88 stickers, but that wasn’t because they were white supremacists,” Pitcavage said.
He noted that the symbolic use of the number 1488 most likely rose to popularity among white supremacists in the 1980s and early 1990s. That would make it unlikely that the Chicago man’s license plate would reference some sort of Nazi or white power ideology.
“If this was a plate that had basically been in the family’s hands for a couple of generations, there’s virtually no probability it could have been associated with that,” Pitcavage said.
Officials with the Illinois Secretary of State’s office said state records only go back to 2002, but show the plate was associated with another person who shares the same last name as the current plate holder, who took over the number earlier this year.
Family heirloom or not, the plate’s days are numbered.
“We are going to pull the plate,” said Dave Druker, secretary of state spokesman. “We checked with the Anti-Defamation League and they confirmed those numbers are associated with white supremacy. So our plan is to reach out to (the plate holder) and offer him another license plate.”
The plate holder said that can’t happen soon enough.
“I’m going to be storing the car until I can get the plates changed,” he said.