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Once Defiant, All Four White Supremacists Charged in Charlottesville Violence Plead Guilty

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White nationalist demonstrators walk through town Aug. 12, 2017, after their rally was declared illegal near Lee Park in Charlottesville, Va. Photo: Steve Helber/AP Photo, File

Guilty pleas last week by two prominent members of the Rise Above Movement came after pledges to fight federal charges and claims that those jailed were political prisoners punished for their controversial views.

Last year, when federal authorities arrested and charged four members or associates of a white supremacist gang for their roles in the infamous 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, the men and their supporters struck a defiant tone.

The men proclaimed their innocence, and their backers described them in social media posts as “patriots” and “political prisoners.” The gang, known as the Rise Above Movement and based in Southern California, set up an anonymous tip line for people to share evidence that might exonerate the imprisoned members, and it established a legal defense fund, with donations taken via PayPal and bitcoin.

But in the following months, the men, one after the other, have pleaded guilty. Last Friday saw the final two guilty pleas, including one from Ben Daley, 26, one of the group’s leaders. He was joined by Michael Miselis, 30, a former Northrop Grumman aerospace engineer. The men pleaded guilty to conspiracy to riot.

“These avowed white supremacists traveled to Charlottesville to incite and commit acts of violence, not to engage in peaceful First Amendment expression,” U.S. Attorney Thomas T. Cullen said in announcing the guilty pleas. “Although the First Amendment protects an organization’s right to express abhorrent political views, it does not authorize senseless violence in furtherance of a political agenda.”

The Rise Above Movement and its role in the violence in Charlottesville in 2017 and at rallies in other cities was the subject of reporting by ProPublica and Frontline, work the authorities have credited in taking action against the men. Federal prosecutors in California are pursuing charges against four other RAM members, including its founder, Robert Rundo.

The plea documents filed during Friday’s court proceedings in Charlottesville lay out a detailed narrative of what the authorities say were RAM’s repeated acts of violence two years ago.

The narrative chronicles RAM’s combat training and the visual evidence capturing its members attacking protesters, including in Charlottesville, where, the authorities spell out, they “collectively pushed, punched, kicked, choked, head-butted, and otherwise assaulted several individuals, resulting in a riot.”

In pleading guilty, the authorities said, Daley and Miselis admitted their actions were not in self-defense.

In the contemporary white supremacist scene, RAM had positioned itself as the violent vanguard of the movement, a successor to the volatile and hyper-aggressive skinhead gangs that were prevalent during the 1980s and 1990s. Since its formation in 2016, the group has recruited several members of the Hammerskin Nation, the largest skinhead gang in the country, which has been tied to numerous killings, including the massacre of six Sikh worshippers at a temple outside Milwaukee.

Though RAM has eschewed the skinhead style — combat boots and bomber jackets — in favor of a more mainstream look, its members have embraced the bloody tactics of the Nazi skinhead gangs.

Miselis, a onetime engineering student at UCLA, was fired from his job at Northrop Grumman after ProPublica and Frontline exposed his membership in RAM. In a companywide email, then-CEO Wesley Bush said he was “deeply saddened yesterday to see news reports alleging that one of our employees engaged in violence as part of the Charlottesville protests.” Miselis held a government-issued security clearance while at Northrop, a major defense contractor, though the company has so far declined to say what projects Miselis was assigned to.

Rundo, who was living in Orange County at the time of his arrest, has also portrayed the federal prosecutions as a miscarriage of justice. “The rioting charges brought against us have not been used in 70 years,” Rundo said in a jailhouse interview posted on YouTube in February. “This has little to do with rioting and all to do with censorship and silencing anyone that they deem too radical by today’s standards.”

In the interview, Rundo blamed the media for demonizing RAM and described the group as a self-improvement club for white men.

Rundo has pleaded not guilty, and he could be headed to trial.

The RAM prosecutions have become something of a cause celebre for the racist right. Augustus Invictus, a fringe political figure and attorney, has set up a legal defense fund to solicit donations for the RAM members facing charges. “The federal government has taken an absolute political hard line against the right wing,” Invictus said in a 53-minute YouTube video discussing the case. The video has generated more than 22,000 views and nearly 700 comments, most of them sympathetic to RAM and many of them racist, anti-Semitic and Islamophobic.

One of RAM’s most infamous supporters is Robert Bowers, the Pennsylvania man accused of murdering 11 congregants at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh last October. Shortly before the massacre, Bowers posted a message decrying the RAM prosecutions on Gab, a far-right social media platform. Bowers has pleaded not guilty in the unfolding case.

This story was originally published by ProPublica and was co-published with Frontline PBS.

ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom based in New York. Sign up for ProPublica’s Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox as soon as they are published.

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Safety Concerns Force Postponement of Rally Opposing White Nationalists

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UPDATED April 27, 2017:

Organizers say they have postponed a counter-rally organized by local youth due to “previously unforeseen credible threats to the safety of our attendees and our community,” according to organizer Ariana Velasquez.

The “Rally for Equality and American Values” had previously been moved from a centrally located city park to the local college campus, which is further from downtown and is a weapon-free zone.

Earlier this week, the city issued a ban on masks and hoods, which Pikeville City Manager Donovan Blackburn described as stemming from online rumors that counter-protest groups could be coming into town with the intention of inciting riots.

Velasquez announced that event had been postponed on the counter-rally’s Facebook event page. A new date has not yet been announced.

What do you do when neo-Nazis choose your town as the site for their rally? That’s the question currently facing Pikeville, Kentucky. Local organizers have chosen to focus on pulling attention away from the hate.

Last February, an organization of neo-Nazis and white nationalists announced plans to hold a rally in Pikeville — one of the biggest towns in the Appalachian coalfields, with a population just under 7,000.

ORIGINAL STORY FILED April, 26, 2017

Youth-led Counter Rally

Ariana Velasquez, a student a Pikeville High School, decided that if neo-Nazis were going to march in her hometown, she was going to organize a counter-rally. The morning after the event was announced, she launched a Facebook event for The Rally for Equality and American Values. Velazquez said it took off right away with thousands of responses and attention from national and international media.

Velasquez and other volunteers have lined up speakers and bands to perform on the campus of the University of Pikeville, away from where the neo-Nazis plan to march. Keeping crowds away from potential conflict is a key ingredient for how Velasquez envisions the event.

“It’s non-partisan, it’s non-violent, it’s a very peaceful event,” she said.

The Rally for Equality And American Values poster designed by J.J. Waters.

The Next County Over

Originally, the Nationalist Front planned to hold a retreat at Jenny Wiley State Park in neighboring Floyd County. After public outcry, the park told the group that they needed to remake their reservation, and would need to pay extra for security costs. The retreat has now been moved to private property. But that hasn’t stopped residents of Floyd County from continuing to organize in opposition.

Patrick Davis started a Facebook page for Floyd County events called  “Unity for a Diverse Appalachia”. Much like the rally in Pikeville, the plans for Floyd County are designed to draw people and attention away from the neo-Nazis.

“Groups like this, they gain momentum by getting themselves in the press,” Davis explained. “So what we’re trying to do is fill the news with positive messages that hopefully will eat up their news coverage.”

Davis and other volunteers are organizing a tree-planting the day before the neo-Nazi rally, which Davis hopes will “clear the air” in more than one sense.

In Floyd County April has also been declared Diversity Month by the Mayor of the county seat. Davis is working to tie that to a social media campaign, encouraging people to post stories of diversity in their family and community using the hashtag#diversityappalachia.

“We want to fill Facebook with family history, what groups came into the area. And we want to break this idea that Appalachia is just this homogeneous, one-ethnicity group,” he said. “We want to show that there’s a diverse culture here.”

Few Signs of New Recruits

The neo-Nazi event is backed by the Nationalist Front, which is a partnership of neo-nazi and white nationalist groups. Their organizers are based across the Midwest. In statements, the groups said they say they chose eastern Kentucky because it’s a high-poverty area that’s predominantly white and voted heavily for President Trump.

Davis said he hasn’t heard anyone openly support the groups coming into town. And Velasquez said what she’s read from the groups doesn’t line up what she’s heard from local Trump supporters.

Instead, she’s heard mainly from people who are disturbed that these groups think they could represent the area. Velasquez emphasized that Pikeville has a lot of veterans, and that means many people have family members who fought against the Nazis in World War II.

Velazquez said the groups have “fed into the stereotype that we’re a bunch of racist hicks around here, and clearly that’s not the case.”

Velasquez says she expects a diverse turnout for the counter rally on April 29, including veterans, Muslim and Jewish communities and other religious groups, the medical immigrant community, scouting troops, elected officials, and even a former Miss Kentucky.

As Velasquez described the event, it’s meant to be a place “for people to stand up for peace, diversity, and love, and to stand up against neo-Nazis and everything they represent.”

Interviews for this story were conducted by Elizabeth Sanders of WMMT. You can find the extended interviews here.

This story was originally produced by Ohio Valley ReSource.

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