It was about 10 a.m. on Aug. 12 when the melee erupted just north of Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, Virginia.
About two dozen white supremacists — many equipped with helmets and wooden shields — were battling with a handful of counter-protesters, most of them African American. One white man dove into the violence with particular zeal, using his fists and feet to attack one person after another.
Rise Above members have boasted publicly of their violence during protests in Huntington Beach, San Bernardino and Berkeley. Many of the altercations have been captured on video, and its members are not hard to spot. Above, a Trump supporter attacks a counter protestor in Huntington Beach on Saturday, March 25, 2017. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)RAM members and Trump supporters face off with protesters at a “Patriots Day” free speech rally on April 15, 2017 in Berkeley, California. More than a dozen people were arrested after fistfights broke out at a park where supporters and opponents of President Trump had gathered. (Photo by Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images)For public events, RAM has developed its own menacing signature look, with members often wearing skull masks and goggles to ward off pepper spray. At times, Rise Above fighters have tied American flag bandannas around their faces to conceal their identities. Above, “March Against Sharia Law” protestors and counter protesters face off in San Bernardino, CA., Saturday, June 10, 2017. (Staff photo by Jennifer Cappuccio Maher/The Sun/SCNG)Ben Daley, wearing a skull mask, exults after chasing anti-fascist demonstrators down Center Street in Berkeley, California, on April 15, 2017. (Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images)A makeshift memorial of flowers and a photo of victim, Heather Heyer, sits in Charlottesville, Va., Sunday, Aug. 13, 2017. Heyer died when a car rammed into a group of people who were protesting the presence of white supremacists who had gathered in the city for a rally. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)RAM members and Trump supporters wrestle a banner away from anti-Trump protesters on April 15, 2017, in Berkeley, California. (Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images)During a rally rally against Islamic law, RAM members clash with protestors in San Bernardino on Saturday, June 10, 2017. (Photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)Show Caption of Expand
The street fighter was in Virginia for the “Unite the Right” rally, the largest public gathering of white supremacists in a generation, a chaotic and bloody event that would culminate, a few hours later, in the killing of 32-year-old Heather Heyer, who was there to protest the racist rally.
The violence in Charlottesville became national news. President Donald Trump’s response to it — he asserted there were “some very fine people on both sides” of the events that day — set off a wave of condemnations, from his allies as well as his critics.
But for many Americans, conservatives as well as liberals, there was shock and confusion at the sight of bands of white men bearing torches, chanting racist slogans and embracing the heroes of the Confederacy: Who were they? What are their numbers and aims?
Many reasons, one race
There is, of course, no single answer.
Some who turned out in Charlottesville are hardened racists involved with long-running organizations like the League of the South. Many are fresh converts to white supremacist organizing, young people attracted to nativist and anti-Muslim ideas circulated on social media by leaders of the so-called alt-right, the newest branch of the white power movement. Some are paranoid characters thrilled to traffic in the symbols and coded language of vast global conspiracy theories. Others are sophisticated provocateurs who see the current political moment as a chance to push a “white agenda,” with angry positions on immigration, diversity and economic isolationism.
ProPublica spent weeks examining one distinctive group at the center of the violence in Charlottesville: an organization called the Rise Above Movement, one of whose members was the white man dispensing beatings last August near Emancipation Park.
The group, based in Southern California, claims more than 50 members and a singular purpose: physically attacking its ideological foes. Rise Above members spend weekends training in boxing and other martial arts, and they have boasted publicly of their violence during protests in Huntington Beach, San Bernardino and Berkeley. Many of the altercations have been captured on video, and its members are not hard to spot.
Indeed, ProPublica has identified the group’s core members and interviewed one of its leaders at length. The man in the Charlottesville attacks — filmed by a documentary crew working with ProPublica — is 24-year-old Ben Daley, who runs a Southern California tree-trimming business.
Many of the organization’s core members, including Daley, have serious criminal histories, according to interviews and a review of court records. Before joining Rise Above, several members spent time in jail or state prison on serious felony charges including assault, robbery, and gun and knife offenses. Daley did seven days in jail for carrying a concealed snub-nosed revolver. Another Rise Above member served a prison term for stabbing a Latino man five times in a 2009 gang assault.
“Fundamentally, (Rise Above) operates like an alt-right street-fighting club,” said Oren Segal, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism.
Despite their prior records, and open boasting of current violence, Rise Above has seemingly drawn little notice from law enforcement. Four episodes of violence documented by ProPublica resulted in only a single arrest — and in that case prosecutors declined to go forward. Law enforcement officials in the four cities — Charlottesville, Huntington Beach, San Bernardino and Berkeley — either would not comment about Rise Above or said they had too little evidence or too few resources to seriously investigate the group’s members.
In Virginia, months after the deadly events in Charlottesville, Corinne Geller, a spokeswoman for the Virginia State Police, would not say if the police had identified Rise Above as a dangerous group.
“We’re not going to be releasing the names of the groups that we believe were present that day in Charlottesville,” she said. Investigators, she added, are still “reviewing footage” from the event.
Law enforcement has a mixed record when it comes to anticipating and confronting the challenge of white supremacist violence.
Often working undercover at great personal risk, federal investigators have successfully disrupted dozens of racist terror attacks. In the last year, agents have captured three Kansas men planning to bomb a mosque and an apartment complex inhabited largely by Somali immigrants, arrested a white supremacist in South Carolina as he plotted a “big scale” attack, and investigated a neo-Nazi cell that allegedly intended to blow up a nuclear power plant.
But there have also been failures. During the past five years, white supremacists, some of them members of gangs or organized political groups, have murdered at least 22 people, according to the Global Terrorism Database and news reports. And some government insiders say the intelligence services and federal law enforcement agencies have largely shifted their attention away from far-right threats in the years since 9/11, choosing instead to focus heavily on Islamic radicals, who are seen by some to pose a more immediate danger.
State and local police have struggled to respond effectively to the recent resurgence in racist political organizing. Police in Sacramento were caught unprepared in June 2016 when neo-Nazis and anti-fascist counter-protesters, or “antifa,” armed with knives and improvised weapons, clashed outside the California State Capitol during a rally. Ten people were sent to the hospital with stab wounds.
Michael German, a former FBI agent who during his career infiltrated a Nazi skinhead gang and militia organizations, said he is worried that law enforcement doesn’t comprehend the threat posed by this latest iteration of the white supremacist movement.
Police and federal agents, in his view, are “looking at this whole thing so narrowly, as two groups clashing at a protest.”
In reality, German said, “it is organized criminal activity.”
Haters next door
Most of the time, the young men of the Rise Above Movement, nearly all of them in their 20s, look perfectly innocuous: close-cropped hair, clean-shaven faces, T-shirts and jeans.
But for public events, RAM has developed its own menacing signature look, with members often wearing skull masks and goggles to ward off pepper spray. At times, Rise Above fighters have tied American flag bandannas around their faces to conceal their identities.
A Rise Above recruiting video posted to YouTube and Vimeo highlights the organization’s violent raison d’être, cutting between choppy footage of Rise Above members brawling at public events and carefully shot scenes of them sharpening their boxing skills and doing push-ups during group workout sessions.
There is an entire ecosystem of low-budget white supremacist media outlets — websites, blogs, forums, podcasts, YouTube channels and the like — and on some of those platforms Rise Above members have been hailed as heroes.
“They (beat up) people in Berkeley. It was great,” said a host on a racist podcast called Locker Room Talk. “They like to go to rallies and beat up Communists.” YouTube talker James Allsup saluted Rise Above members as the embodiment of the ideal American man.
The group portrays itself as a defense force for a Western civilization under assault by Jews, Muslims and brown-skinned immigrants from south of the Rio Grande. The Rise Above logo features a medieval sword with a cross on the pommel — a symbol of the crusades — and an evergreen tree. On T-shirts they wear while training, the logo appears above three words, “courage, identity, virtue.” At rallies, members have waved red-and-white crusader flags and carried signs saying “Rapefugees Not Welcome” and “Da Goyim Know,” an anti-Semitic slogan meant to highlight a supposed conspiracy by Jews to control the globe and subjugate non-Jews. One RAM banner, which depicts knights on horseback chasing after Muslims, reads “Islamists Out!”
A ProPublica reporter recently met at a restaurant in Orange County with a man who says he’s a leader of the organization. This man, who appears frequently in the videos of Rise Above members fighting, would only agree to talk openly about the group’s origins and intentions if we didn’t reveal his name. No other Rise Above members or associates would speak to us.
Rise Above, the leader said, came together organically. It started when he encountered a few other guys with similar political beliefs, including two active duty U.S. Marines, while exercising at different gyms in Southern California. They all liked Trump but didn’t think his agenda went far enough.
The men began hanging out. Their numbers grew. Many came from rough backgrounds — they’d been strung out on drugs or spent time behind bars — and currently labored at blue-collar jobs. Soon they had a name and a mission: They would physically take on the foes of the far-right.
The Rise Above leader claims his organization isn’t racist and complains he doesn’t even know what the word “racism” means.
“We’re proud of our identity,” he said. Whites, he argues, are ignored by politicians, taught to be ashamed by leftist academics, and marginalized and driven from the workforce by economic globalization. Young white men, he said, are drawn to the extreme right “because there is no other option for them. They’re disenfranchised.”
This sense of victimization is widespread among figures involved in the so-called alt-right.
“I wouldn’t say I’m a fascist,” the Rise Above leader continued, though he acknowledged that his worldview is close. He said he’s trying to create a “conservative counter-culture” as an antidote to the “complete degeneracy” of contemporary American life and “the left-wing ideology that’s poisoning the youth.”
In the leader’s eyes, “your life should be dedicated to God and country and your people.”
While the Rise Above leader insists the group isn’t racist, its members regularly use social media channels to espouse blatantly anti-Semitic and racist views.
Ben Daley, the Charlottesville attacker and Rise Above member, has used his Facebook page to bash “Mark Zuckerberg and his Facebook Jew police” for taking down his “anti Muslim posts”; to suggest that African Americans are “excrement” and that former President Obama is a leech; and to cheer the fatal shooting of a black man. “Good riddance,” he wrote. The Facebook page of another Rise Above member, Robert Boman, is laden with anti-Semitic graphics, including an illustration glorifying the Nazi SS and a cartoon depicting African Americans and Muslims as rabid dogs controlled by Jews. (Court and prison records show Boman served 18 months in prison for a 2013 robbery in Torrance.)
The group has drawn recruits from the ranks of the Hammerskin Nation, the country’s largest Nazi skinhead gang, which has been tied to at least nine murders in four states, including a 2012 massacre at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin.
At the ADL, Segal said law enforcement agencies are struggling to keep up with Rise Above and the scores of other extremist outfits that have emerged in recent years. Skillful use of social media and the broader internet has allowed some of these organizations to metastasize quickly into formidable operations. And whatever connection, if any, Trump has to their rise, the groups don’t hesitate to invoke his presidency as validation for their belief systems.
“There are so many new faces,” Segal said. “It creates a challenge for law enforcement.”
Two veteran Southern California detectives who spoke to ProPublica were not familiar with Rise Above before our reporters brought the organization to their attention. The detectives, who spoke anonymously in order to discuss intelligence on white extremists and street gangs, said they were concerned by what they saw in photos and videos of Rise Above in action, as well the social media pages of its members. The group, they said, seems to have ties to white supremacist gangsters known to law enforcement, a propensity for violence, and a desire to grow their numbers.
At the Berkeley rally, Rise Above wasn’t the only violent element on the scene — Antifa cadres hurled bottles and other projectiles and instigated a number of melees. But throughout the day, interviews and video show, Rise Above was perhaps the most effective and disciplined group as the fighting dragged on. At least 11 people were injured in the violence, with seven going to local hospitals for treatment, including a stabbing victim, according to local officials.
“From the second we got there it was just chaos,” said the Rise Above leader. “People like to say we’re Nazis and stuff, but all the people we’ve beaten up are white college kids.”
Former FBI agent German, who now works with the Brennan Center, a New York group that focuses on the intersection of hate groups and law enforcement, says he was shocked by the news reports he was seeing online about Berkeley. He thought: This isn’t a riot. It’s basically low-level political warfare in the streets of an American city.
German, who studies national security and civil liberties at the Brennan Center, said he couldn’t believe law enforcement was allowing the two sides to battle it out with each other for hours with minimal intervention.
“The protests in Berkeley really caught my attention,” he said. “This should not be happening.”
In his view, police and federal agents should be focusing on Rise Above and similar organizations.
“This is black and white,” German said. “There are certainly people exercising First Amendment rights at these demonstrations. However, these people are in the middle of brawls and open about it — they’re posting images of violence and communicating their intent to commit violence. It’s very different than someone exercising their right to stand on a stage and preach their ideology.”
Last June, Rise Above made its way to San Bernardino for a protest by Act for America, a controversial group that urges legislators to pass bills banning Islamic sharia law in the U.S. Act for America. The group says its goal is to “protect and preserve American culture and to keep this nation safe.” It has been labeled a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has highlighted Act for America’s ties to Billy Roper, a veteran white supremacist organizer.
“California has the largest racist skinhead population in the U.S., predominantly based in Southern California,” Joanna Mendelson, a researcher at the ADL, testified at a recent California state Senate hearing. “Adherents have their own unique subculture and are dedicated to furthering Hitlerian ideology.”
The gangs, she noted, range from a few members to a few hundred members, and have been responsible for some of the country’s “most violent hate crimes.”
This story was written by A.C.Thompson, Ali Winston and Darwin Bond Graham for the independent news organization Pro Publica
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