It is the afternoon of March 25, 2017, and I’m surrounded by pissed-off Donald Trump supporters accusing Weekly photographer Brian Feinzimer of hitting a woman. I’m thinking, ‘Fuck, we’re about to get jumped.’ One such supporter suddenly charges into Feinzimer, so I stretch out my arm to defend him, only for the attacker to turn his attention on me and start throwing punches at my face. While the organizer of this Huntington Beach pro-Trump rally and march, Jennifer Sterling, attempts to stop my first attacker, Rise Above Movement member Tyler Laube runs in to lob some cheap shots at me. Sterling tries to protect me from the blows. An antifa protester named Jessica Aguilar comes to my rescue. She jabs at Laube’s face while another antifa member pepper-sprays the crowd.
The tactic buys enough time to save me and Feinzimer from the mob, although the spray unfortunately hits Sterling. Feinzimer and fellow photographer Julie Leopo pull me away during the scuffle. The mob turns to chase the antifa members who saved us. Nobody knows it yet, but this is the precise moment when the neo-Nazi fight club we now know as Rise Above Movement (RAM) made its ignominious public debut.
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Last month, the FBI made headlines when it arrested eight members or associates of the Huntington Beach-based hate group for allegedly violating federal rioting laws. The charges came after a year-long series of investigative stories into two violent neo-Nazi groups (RAM and Atomwaffen) by ProPublica reporters A.C. Thompson, Ali Winston and Darwin BondGraham. Both the FBI affidavit and the ProPublica investigations cited the violence perpetrated by the group at the Huntington Beach march at which I was assaulted.
While the Weekly’s original reporting earned online harassment and accusations of being fake news, these investigations confirm what we’ve said since the beginning: Neo-Nazis came to Huntington Beach with the specific goal of beating up any counterprotesters who happened to show up. These angry young men who first appeared in Surf City would later take their hate-filled act to Charlottesville, where a pro-Trump “Unite the Right” rally attracted hundreds of Klansmen and tiki-torch-carrying alt-right protesters and resulted in the death of an anti-racism counterprotester.
Despite RAM’s violent actions in Orange County, no one other than Aguilar, the antifa counterprotester who tried to defend me, has been charged with a crime by Orange County law enforcement. Thanks to some determined reporting, however, the FBI finally did what OC cops failed to do. Of the eight people arrested by the feds so far in connection to the violence in Charlottesville and elsewhere, we can now confirm that at least five (Laube, Robert Boman, Robert Rundo, Benjamin Daley and Thomas Gillen) were present on the day of the Surf City march and that four RAM members committed acts of violence.
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Back on the beach, as the alt-right mob chases down the anti-fascists, Boman kicks one of the antifa protesters, then Daley begins using the “DEFEND AMERICA” sign the group is carrying to hide his strikes at Aguilar. She attempts to fight back, only to get tackled and punched to the ground by a Trump supporter. She hops back up, as RAM moves in to attack the other two antifa members. RAM leader Rundo punches one of then, then knocks the other to the sand, at which point he begins pummeling the pepper-spraying antifa member on the ground. While Aguilar tries to help her comrades, members of RAM grab her and Daley drags her to where police officers are standing. She is arrested.
The pepper-spraying antifa guy escapes from Rundo. I help him up, and he attempts to flee. Immediately, a Trump supporter hits him with a flag. Then another RAM member throws a rock at his chest. Finally, the California Highway Patrol takes the antifa protester into custody.
Now, Laube and the rock-thrower are in my face, angrily taunting me. Protester Naui Huitzilopochtli joins me, holding a phone that records the action. Spooked, Daley attempts to reel in his boys.
“We see you, dawg,” he says.
“Fuck la raza,” says another RAM member.
I realize I’m dealing with a racist gang of white men. So I begin to memorize all of their facial features, their South Bay tattoos and other distinctive marks.
I’m going to find out who these men are.
Laube and the rock-thrower make one more attempt to intimidate me on the beach before finally fleeing. OC Weekly’s then editor-in-chief Gustavo Arellano holds off on publishing anything the same day, directing us to first attempt to discover the identity of the attackers. Thus begins an investigation into the membership of RAM, also known as the “DIY Division,” this new brand of alt-right fight club that has seized on Trump’s election to make their presence felt on the front lines of an ongoing culture war.
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Everybody on staff began digging. I found several members of the group within a few days simply by searching through social media and checking all the hashtags, geotags and comments on posts about the event, even friend lists. A RAM associate had commented on a Facebook post about someone dubbed “Based Elbow Man,” identifying the man as his friend “Rob” Rundo; from there, I was able to track down several members of the group in his friend list. Then, on an Instagram post showing Laube being punched in the face by Aguilar, Laube commented, “lol I know that guy,” adding an emoji of a winking face with its tongue sticking out.
Arellano used his identity-database resources to verify that Laube, a then-21-year-old Redondo Beach man, was actually on probation the day of the march, thanks to a 2015 robbery conviction.
Scrolling through members’ Facebook profiles revealed anti-Semitic and racist posts, as well as well-known alt-right tropes such as Boman’s “Da Goyim Know” sign from the rally, all of which confirmed we were dealing with a neo-Nazi group.
Social-media searches turned up images of the group posing with members of the violent skinhead gang Hammerskins. We couldn’t identify everyone in the group, so we gave everything we had to Southern Poverty Law Center’s blog Hatewatch for its April 7, 2017, story. The violence at the April 15, 2017, “Battle of Berkeley” gained the group more fame, yet word online said their leader “Based Elbow Man” had been arrested. I checked the list of the arrestees and narrowed things down to the only possible suspect: Robert Rundo of San Clemente. I couldn’t clarify with 100 percent accuracy that this was his real name, so I drove to San Clemente High School to look at yearbooks in hopes of finding a picture that matched the name. No luck. We knew he had priors, yet police departments were unwilling to share his mugshot.
Without a leader of the group to name, the story went cold.
For the next couple of months, I turned my attention away from RAM to aid Gabriel San Román in his investigation into OC’s alt-right movement. But I continued to keep an eye on RAM as it grew stronger. The Northern California Anti-Racist Action (NoCARA)’s July 2017 piece on RAM became critical in identifying the Hammerskin members and establishing an official connection between the two groups. RAM crossed paths with our reporting on Johnny Benitez’s vigils for the victims of illegal immigrants, and the Weekly caught Hammerskins attending the Aug. 20, 2017, America First! Electric Vigil in Laguna Beach.
After the Charlottesville event, I pored over pictures online from the notorious march. I easily spotted Daley’s mustard-yellow haircut in the crowd and Gillen’s giant forehead. The timing matched up perfectly when our now editor-in-chief Nick Schou arranged a meeting with ProPublica’s Thompson and Winston on Sept. 12, 2017. “The foundational reporting [on RAM] was done by [the Weekly],” Thompson says. “If you hadn’t identified the group from the jump after the Huntington Beach rally, I don’t know that any of this stuff would’ve happened, or it would’ve taken a lot longer for people to figure out who they were.”
On Oct. 19, 2017, ProPublica published “Racist, Violent, Unpunished: A White Hate Group’s Campaign of Menace,” exposing RAM in a much deeper way by digging up members’ prior criminal histories and naming key members of the group. The reporters even snagged an interview with one of the RAM’s mysterious founders in Orange County. When the Weekly first looked into the group, its numbers appeared to be no more than 10, but, as ProPublica revealed, its ranks had grown to include at least 50 people. The piece also shined light on the inaction of police departments in pursuing charges or investigating RAM, calling out the California State Parks Police’s failure to investigate the group’s violent actions at the HB MAGA March despite being aware of the assault against me.
While the piece didn’t stop RAM, it put them under a national microscope, with thousands of shares of the article across social media. “What we wanted to do was look at the people who didn’t want to be in the spotlight, but wanted to engage in violent criminal activity,” Thompson says. “Expose those people, name those people and identify what they had done—that was sort of a driving impetus for us.”
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One of the difficulties we reporters faced in chasing this story was identifying members who hid behind masks and goggles. It wasn’t until July 2018 that RAM member Michael Miselis was revealed by ProPublica and Frontline to be a Ph.D. candidate at UCLA and a security-clearance-possessing systems engineer at defense contractor Northrop Grumman. He lost his job the day after that report was published, according to ProPublica’s follow-up story, which also uncovered RAM’s trip to Europe in which it linked up with various Euro white-supremacist groups. The 2018 version of the organization had expanded with a clothing brand dubbed “The Right Brand.” Profits from the Huntington Beach-based venture helped to pay for the group’s “activism” and any legal expenses that might arise.
The final blow to the group came with the Aug. 7, 2018, Thompson-narrated PBS Frontline documentary Documenting Hate: Charlottesville, which focused on RAM and Atomwaffen. Less than two months later, the FBI arrested Daley, Gillen, Miselis and Cole White for violating federal rioting laws. Within four weeks, four more members or associates were taken into custody, including Rundo, Boman, Laube and Aaron Eason.
While RAM members currently face charges, it’s yet to be seen if they will stick. The affidavits included private communications between members, and Thompson believes more will be revealed about the mysterious group during the court proceedings. “The question that I’m wondering about is what are the other members going to do now,” he says, “and are they going to keep up the fight, or are they going to kind
“Particularly the guys who haven’t been arrested,” Thompson adds. “I think it’s a question of whether they’re going to be nervous because they’ve seen all their colleagues get wrapped up and they’re going to lay low or they’re going to fight back in some kind of way that’s going to be scary and ugly.”
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Though the FBI finally nabbed the person who attacked me and my fellow Weeklings, as San Román pointed out in his Oct. 29 blog post, it took the feds to come in and do the job local law enforcement wouldn’t. The day of the MAGA March, the California State Parks Police did little to stop the violence and arrested mostly individuals who were actually victims of attacks from the alt-right. It didn’t investigate the assault against me, with regional superintendent Captain Kevin Pearsall citing a lack of resources despite being given evidence by Arellano. Even Alameda County prosecutors dropped charges against Rundo for assaulting an officer and resisting arrest.
At the Oct. 29 screening of Documenting Hate at Chapman University, some of the questions by audience members focused on who the hell we turn to in the face of violent white supremacists if the police won’t act. “Part of why the group was able to grow and sustain itself,” Thompson says, “is because it was basically able to operate with impunity for quite some time. So they were able to go to these events, get into these violent altercations, celebrate them and build their rep in the underground scene.”
The only person from the march the Orange County district attorney’s office (OCDA) continues to pursue a charge against is Aguilar, who allegedly slapped Laube twice after he called her a “bitch.” The case has seen two prosecutors come and go; a battery charge was dropped from the complaint after I worked with her lawyer, James Segall-Gutierrez, to provide video evidence proving she had been misidentified.
Despite a story by Arellano last year for the Weekly and again last month in Capital & Main, the OCDA won’t drop the charge against Aguilar. Her arguably brave actions on the beach in defense of not only myself, but also her fellow protesters should be celebrated. While I owe all of those who helped me on the beach a debt of gratitude, she paid the highest price for the most courage. I hope she gets the justice she deserves.
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The MAGA March remains relevant. The attack on us Weeklings made the national database documenting crimes against journalists. During June’s failed attempt to prevent Josh Newman’s recall, friends sent me a commercial that used video of me getting attacked to urge people to vote No and take a stand against Trump’s America. It was also cited in a proposed Journalist Protection Act by Bay Area congressman Eric Swalwell, who also mentioned the attack in his press release. When the second set of charges against RAM hit the news, Democracy Now invited me to be on the show with Amy Goodman, but I replied two hours too late.
Thompson notes a tilt toward political terrorism, underground activity and lone acts of violence, including the recent Pittsburgh synagogue shooting. He shared on Twitter that he’d interviewed a prominent white supremacist who told him to expect more massacres.
The next Documenting Hate episode is subtitled New American Nazis and will tackle white supremacists’ connection to the military. It’s set to premiere on Nov. 20 on PBS.
At the previous episode’s Oct. 29 screening, audience members were left with concerned expressions and shocked reactions during the panel discussion. In response to moderator Dr. Lisa Leitz’s question regarding what to do about the growing threat of violence from white supremacists, Arellano said, “The most important thing is to shed light.
“Back when I was at the OC Weekly, we’d always get criticized: ‘Why are you reporting on these fringe groups? They don’t matter; they don’t do anything at all. They’re losers,’” he explained. “And our response was ‘Yeah, they’re losers, but somebody needs to keep an eye on them, and more important, somebody needs to expose them.’ As a reporter, you have to be able to expose these people, and you can’t stop.”