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, the man attacked one person after another.
The street fighter was in Virginia on that August morning 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?
There is, of course, no single answer. Some who were there that weekend 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 near Emancipation Park Aug. 12.
The group, based in Southern California, claims more than 50 members and a singular purpose: physically attacking its ideological foes. RAM’s 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 RAM, 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 RAM member served a prison term for stabbing a Latino man five times in a 2009 gang assault.
“Fundamentally, RAM 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, RAM 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 RAM or said they had too little evidence or too few resources to seriously investigate the group’s members.
In Virginia, two months after the deadly events in Charlottesville, Corinne Geller, a spokeswoman for the Virginia State Police, would not say if the police had identified RAM 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.
Taking a different tack, Gov. Rick Scott of Florida took the aggressive step of declaring a state of emergency in the run-up to this week’s appearance by Richard Spencer, a white supremacist scheduled to speak in Gainesville.
Michael German is a former FBI agent who during his career infiltrated a Nazi skinhead gang and militia organizations. German, now a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, 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.”
One of the first people known to have been targeted by RAM was a journalist working for OC Weekly, an irreverent liberal publication based in Orange County, California.
The date was March 25, and writer Frank John Tristan was covering a Make America Great Again rally in Huntington Beach. The event, which had drawn more than 2,000 Trump supporters, marked what seems to have been RAM’s public debut. About a dozen RAM fighters showed up, with members carrying an anti-Semitic sign and a massive banner emblazoned with the words “Defend America.”
The march also drew a small contingent of anti-Trump protesters, including some militant antifa activists, and some people intent on physically blocking the procession as it moved along the Pacific Coast Highway. Before long, the scene turned violent and brawls between the political foes swept across the beach.
Tristan and two OC Weekly colleagues, photographers Julie Leopo and Brian Feinzimer, wound up in the conflict.
“The Trump supporters felt empowered to ridicule and intimidate me,” Leopo recalled in an OC Weekly article. “I kept shooting despite the insults and just as I was about to click the shutter on my camera, I looked up and locked eyes with a white woman carrying a flag.”
The woman struck Leopo and Feinzimer with the flagpole. A man shoved Feinzimer, sending him reeling. Tristan intervened, trying to calm the situation.
That’s when two men attacked him. One was a RAM member who charged at Tristan and began punching him in the face. The other assailant, who wasn’t a RAM fighter, grabbed Tristan’s sweatshirt and hit him with a series of punches.
Tristan was staggered. Someone standing nearby fired off a thick stream of pepper spray, and Tristan’s beating ended. Then RAM members fanned out and began fighting with other people.
Another RAM member confronted a masked counter-protester, grabbed the man, and threw him into the sand. From there he pummeled the counter-protester with his fist and elbow. Captured on video and shared through social media, the spectacle became a meme of the so-called alt-right.
In the days after the mayhem, Tristan spent hours studying shaky smartphone videos and scrolling through social media posts trying to identify the men who attacked him. He concluded that a 21-year-old man named Tyler Laube was the RAM member who struck him. Laube appears with his face uncovered in several group photographs of RAM from their training sessions in an Orange County park and at the Huntington Beach rally.
ProPublica was unable to contact Laube, but court records show he has had many entanglements with the law in recent years.
He has been convicted of fighting with a paramedic at a supermarket, illegally possessing a switchblade, disturbing the peace, and DUI, according to Los Angeles County court files. In 2015, Laube pleaded no contest to felony robbery charges — prosecutors said he partnered with another man to rob a 7-Eleven and another convenience store at gunpoint. While in jail before trial, Laube told a detective that he’d gone to a Hollywood strip club and gotten high on Xanax — the potent, often-abused prescription benzodiazepine — before acting as the wheelman in the robberies, which occurred early in the morning in Redondo Beach, according to court transcripts.
Laube, court records indicate, was on probation on the day he allegedly assaulted Tristan.
In the six months since the violent rally, state parks police have opened no criminal case in connection with the assault on Tristan and made no arrests. It is unclear how much of the abundant photographic evidence and video footage the authorities have reviewed, if any.
Capt. Kevin Pearsall, a regional superintendent with the parks police, says his officers can’t act because they’ve received no complaint from Tristan. However, former OC Weekly editor Gustavo Arellano says he’s repeatedly contacted parks police via phone and email in hopes of getting them to investigate. Parks police documents and internal emails obtained by ProPublica show that Arellano has reached out to police brass and that detectives are aware of the assault on Tristan.
Arellano said since the assault not a single law enforcement agency or official had contacted him about the alleged perpetrators.
“We know their identities,” said Arellano, who supervised Tristan and the other journalists until recently, when he left the paper amid staff cuts. “But what good is the truth when the law doesn’t give a shit?”
No charges have been brought against the people who attacked Leopo and Feinzimer, either, though Pearsall says those incidents have been examined by police. According to Pearsall, his agency, which is tasked with maintaining order in California’s vast network of parks and recreational areas, doesn’t have the resources to carry out extensive investigations and must turn to outside police forces for assistance in such cases.
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, RAM fighters have tied American flag bandannas around their faces to conceal their identities.
A RAM recruiting video posted to YouTube and Vimeo highlights the organization’s violent raison d’être, cutting between choppy footage of RAM 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 RAM members have been hailed as heroes on some of these platforms.
“They kicked the shit out of 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 RAM 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 RAM 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 RAM members fighting, would only agree to talk openly about the group’s origins and intentions if we didn’t reveal his name. No other RAM members or associates would speak to us.
RAM, 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 tough blue-collar jobs. Soon they had a name and a mission: They would physically take on the foes of the far-right.
The RAM 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 before launching into a long list of grievances. Whites, he said, 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 intense sense of victimization is widespread among figures involved in the so-called alt-right.
“I wouldn’t say I’m a fascist,” the RAM 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 RAM leader insists the group isn’t racist, on social media channels, its members regularly espouse blatantly anti-Semitic and racist views.
Ben Daley 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 “shit” 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 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 RAM 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 RAM before our reporters brought the organization to their attention. After reviewing photos and videos of RAM in action, as well the social media pages of its members, the investigators said they were concerned by what they saw. 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.
The detectives spoke to ProPublica anonymously in order to freely discuss intelligence on white extremists and street gangs.
Earlier this year, on April 15, about a dozen RAM members traveled from Southern California to Berkeley. The group was met there by a fan: Vincent James Foxx, a 31-year-old video blogger and livestreamer with a fondness for white supremacists and radical right-wing politics.
Foxx, a father of three who runs a growing media operation called The Red Elephants, had become RAM’s unofficial propagandist. After the Huntington Beach brawls, which he attended and filmed, Foxx put together a nearly 10-minute video glorifying the group’s fighting abilities and uploaded it to YouTube, where it has garnered 174,000 views to date.
Foxx and RAM were sure another Trump rally in one of the most liberal cities in America would provide an opportunity for violence.
Two earlier political events in Berkeley had turned ugly, with crowds of left- and right-wing activists engaging in running street battles. Police seized knives, baseball bats, axe handles, nail-studded boards and other weapons during the previous clashes. Few were predicting that the April event, scheduled for Berkeley’s Civic Center Park, would be peaceful. This is what RAM had been training for.
For Foxx’s part, he would be shadowing the group. He knew where the action would be.
When leftist counter-protesters showed up to express their contempt for the president and his supporters, RAM, fighting as a pack, chased them down and attacked them — stomping, punching, kicking. Video shows Ben Daley pounding on a man who is trapped on the ground and kicking other opponents. In one incident, Daley and RAM member Robert Rundo manhandled a journalist, Shane Bauer of Mother Jones, shoving him and yelling at him “Get the fuck out of here! … Fake news!”
At times RAM fought alongside an ally, Nathan Damigo, a former Marine and founder of Identity Evropa, a prominent white supremacist organization; Damigo wound up punching a female antifa member in the face, an act that would become one of the enduring images of the day’s havoc.
Foxx wasn’t just documenting the violence at the rally — he was inciting it. On video Foxx posted to YouTube, he can be heard repeatedly encouraging RAM members and others to assault people. “Get that fucking cuck!” he screamed when a RAM member and four or five other men grabbed a counter-protester and began beating him. “Charge!” Foxx yelled as a mob of right-wingers went on the offensive.
Reached via email, Foxx declined to be interviewed for this story.
At 11:45 a.m. that morning in Berkeley, police arrested Rundo, a 27-year-old boxer who lives in the beach town of San Clemente, for assaulting an officer and resisting arrest. “Oh shit … that’s one of our guys,” Foxx said as officers handcuffed Rundo, who was wearing a tight gray-and-black athletic shirt and a skull mask. Prosecutors would later decide not to bring charges.
“We reviewed it over the summer in July and declined to file charges,” said Teresa Drenick, an Alameda County deputy district attorney. “We determined we didn’t have enough evidence to prove the charges beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Another violent incident in Rundo’s past was far more clear-cut. In 2009, in Queens, New York, where Rundo had grown up, he confronted two Latino men in a store. Flanked by several other men, Rundo chased his victims into the street where one of them tripped and fell to the pavement. Prosecutors charged Rundo with pouncing on the man and stabbing him in the right hand, right elbow, left arm, chest and neck, according to court records. In a sworn statement the investigating New York Police Department detective noted that the entire episode was documented by surveillance video and that Rundo’s comrades used “some sort of club” to bludgeon the stabbing victim and his friend.
Rundo, who was 19 at the time, struck a plea deal, admitting his guilt in exchange for a sentence of two years in state prison on gang assault charges. He served about 20 months of his term, prison data shows.
As a detective in the 109th Precinct, Francis Johnston helped to build the case against Rundo in 2009. Johnston, who is now retired, remembers Rundo as a hard character — “a bit of an asshole” — with a strong dislike for law enforcement. While police were eager to question Rundo’s accomplices, they were never able to identify them — and Rundo never gave up their names.
At the Berkeley rally, RAM certainly 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, RAM was perhaps the most effective and disciplined group as the fighting dragged on for hours. 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 RAM leader. “People like to say we’re Nazis and stuff, but all the people we’ve beaten up are white college kids.”
German, the former FBI agent now with the Brennan Center in New York, 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 RAM 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.”
In June, RAM 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, which says its goal is to “protect and preserve American culture and to keep this nation safe,” has been labeled a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has highlighted its ties to Billy Roper, a veteran white supremacist organizer.
In San Bernardino, the RAM forces included at least two members of the Hammerskin Nation, a loosely structured but highly aggressive Nazi skinhead gang with chapters across the U.S. and in Europe.
ProPublica identified the men as Hammerskin members by reviewing video footage, photos, social media channels and court files.
“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.”
One of the Hammerskins who has trained with RAM and appeared with them at rallies is Matthew Branstetter, a 25-year-old Huntington Beach resident. In April 2011, Branstetter and an accomplice beat a Jewish man unconscious and robbed him in an Orange County park. Branstetter was convicted of aggravated assault with a hate crime enhancement, and sent to prison for 20 months.
While the San Bernardino march, which attracted about 300 people, was nominally a protest against sharia law, it quickly devolved into an opportunity for protesters to mock Muslims and deride their faith. One man carried a sign that said “Islam is not an American religion.” Another wore a shirt that said “Muhammed was a Homo.”
A smaller crowd of counter-protesters also turned out to condemn what they saw as racism and Islamophobia. Police tried to keep the two groups separated, corralling them on opposite sides of a street. But that didn’t stop RAM, which brought about 15 members to the event. The group’s members crossed the street and began beating counter-protesters, eventually running many of them off.
In a video from the scene, RAM members boast about their actions. “We physically removed ‘em,” said Daley. “We chased ‘em down the block, smashed up their car,” added Rundo, describing an incident in which RAM forces shattered the rear window of a car driven by counter-protesters.
San Bernardino police did not respond to requests seeking comment.
Rundo also said, on video, that RAM members are “fans” of a white supremacist slogan called the “14 Words.” The slogan was authored by David Lane while he was serving a 190-year sentence in federal prison for his role in the murder of Jewish talk show host Alan Berg and a series of armored car robberies that netted more than $4 million, money that Lane and his co-conspirators planned to use to fund a race war.
Lane wrote: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.”
Lane’s message has been enthusiastically adopted as a call-to-arms by the current generation of right-wing radicals, many of whom believe that America’s ongoing demographic transformation is rapidly pushing whites towards extinction. The only answer, they believe, is an uprising.
What happened in Charlottesville last August looked a lot like an uprising, and RAM was right in the middle of it.
“You will not replace us! Jews will not replace us!” yelled Daley and another RAM member, Tom Gillen, as they stood before a statue of Thomas Jefferson on the campus of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. It was the night of Aug. 11. The men held torches. They were surrounded by hundreds of young white men, all of them shouting the same words.
Both of the Californians were known to law enforcement in Los Angeles County. Gillen, a surfer and 23-year-old native of Torrance, had been jailed in 2014 for possessing an illegal handgun — someone had grinded off the serial number on the gun, making it untraceable. Police seized the weapon, destroyed it and barred Gillen from owning any other guns.
Gillen, like other RAM members, would not speak to ProPublica.
Daley had been arrested on a gun charge that same year. He was convicted of illegally carrying a concealed snub-nose .357 Magnum revolver and sentenced to seven days in jail. Police also discovered an array of bullets in his pickup truck, including .38-caliber ammunition and .223 rifle rounds, the latter used in bolt-action hunting rifles and military-style assault weapons.
In a brief text message, Daley declined to comment on his arrest or his activities with RAM. He did, however, say that he had signed up for the U.S. military and would be going through basic training shortly.
That night in Charlottesville, Daley and Gillen clashed violently with a handful of college students who’d gathered at the Jefferson statue holding a banner denouncing racism. RAM and the white supremacists quickly prevailed, and drove the students off the campus and into the night. Charlottesville police did little to intervene as the conflict unfolded.
Whooping and giving straight-arm Nazi salutes, white supremacists began to celebrate their victory. Some chanted the words “blood and soil,” an old Third Reich slogan.
The violence would continue — and escalate dramatically — the next morning as racists from around the country gathered around a monument to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee for the “Unite the Right” rally. And once again RAM members were at the heart of the fighting.
Charlottesville police declined to comment about RAM.
Today, according to the anonymous RAM leader interviewed by ProPublica, his organization is “trying to stay away from rallies.” RAM’s next moves, he explained, are confidential.
Oren Segal of the ADL said RAM could prove durable or fizzle out in a matter of months. It’s too soon to tell. But in both their short-term menace and their uncertain long-term future, Segal said RAM is quite representative of what he called the “new alt-right youth brigades.”
The self-described alt-right “really wants to strike while the iron is hot,” he said. “They believe that now is the time to go from online to the real world. And frankly, the street fighting element very much fits this narrative.”
–by A.C. Thompson, ProPublica, Ali Winston and Darwin BondGraham for ProPublica
Ali Winston is a reporting fellow with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute and covers criminal justice and surveillance. Follow him on Twitter at @awinston. Darwin BondGraham is an investigative reporter for the East Bay Express in Oakland, California. Follow him on Twitter at @darwinbondgraham.