The Rise Above Movement is less like the Klan and more like a fight club

The Rise Above Movement is less like the Klan and more like a fight club

(CNN) – Bigotry today isn’t necessarily personified in hood-clad night riders with flaming crosses; it can also look like a roving street-fighting club with taped fists and half-skull bandanas.

Where large Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazi groups used to dominate the landscape of hate in the United States, many groups now are smaller, splinter operations that organize via social media and dubiously present themselves as civic organizations working toward the betterment of America.

Exhibit A: the alt-right, militant Rise Above Movement, four of whose members were arrested last week and accused of driving from California to incite a riot and assault counterprotesters at last year’s deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Benjamin Daley, Michael Miselis, Thomas Gillen and Cole White, “while on their way to the Unite the Right rally in Emancipation Park and with their hands taped ready to do street battle, committed multiple acts of violence, including punching, kicking, head-butting and pushing numerous people,” US Attorney Thomas Cullen said.

The defendants have pleaded not guilty to the charges, Assistant US Attorney Chris Kavanaugh told CNN. Miselis and Gillen are detained pending trial, while Daley and White have detention hearings this week.

Miselis’ court-appointed attorney, Angel Navarro, declined to comment. A lawyer believed to represent two of the men did not return an email seeking comment. It is not clear if White has secured legal representation.

Cullen described the men as “serial rioters,” but perhaps that doesn’t thoroughly explain the ideas R.A.M. espouses and what the group’s members are willing to do to defend and promote their hateful ideas.

According to an October 2017 article by ProPublica, which Cullen repeatedly cited last week in announcing the arrests, R.A.M. portrays itself as a defender of Western civilization under attack by Muslims, immigrants and Jews. The group’s logo features an evergreen tree behind a sword with a cross on its pommel — a symbol of the Crusades, a theme in R.A.M.’s banners and insignia, the nonprofit investigative news outlet says.

The Southern California-based R.A.M. is made up of about 50 members who operate with a single purpose: “physically attacking its ideological foes,” according to ProPublica.

To this end, members practice boxing and mixed martial arts, ProPublica reported. Before R.A.M.’s Twitter account was suspended, you could find images of the group doing situps in the sand, practicing kickboxing techniques and posing shirtless, muscles flexed, with skull masks over their lower faces. They also deftly employ social media videos in their recruitment efforts, splicing clips of their training with footage of members fighting in public.

“There is an entire ecosystem of low-budget white supremacist media outlets — websites, blogs, forums, podcasts, YouTube channels and the like — and R.A.M. members have been hailed as heroes on some of these platforms,” ProPublica says.

Its ideology, according to the Northern California Anti-Racist Action, whose profile of R.A.M. was also cited by Cullen, is an amalgam of “identitarian” notions and the “fetishization of masculinity, physical fitness and violence.” Its propaganda includes “the usual fascistic themes of emasculated young white men needing to reclaim their identities through learning to fight,” the group says.

When not doing battle with taped hands and goggles to fend off pepper spray, R.A.M. members appear to be harmless 20-somethings with their close-cropped hairdos, clean-shaven faces, T-shirts and jeans, ProPublica says.

A February post from the now-defunct Twitter account, included in the federal complaint, shows about a dozen members sitting on steps with their noses in books. The caption: “When the squads not out smashing commies.”

A recruitment flyer for the group, also included in the federal complaint, describes the group as “dedicated to the promotion of an active lifestyle and common values among young people for our future.”

The flyer further says R.A.M. frowns on “weak men, addicts and apathy” and encourages members to revive their “warrior spirit.”

“In a time when you can be harmed for your political beliefs or shamed for your heritage, we are here to defend our identity and shared goals,” the flyer says.

At rallies, members have carried signs with messages such as “Islam is not an American religion” and “GNLS” meaning “Good Night Left Side” — a retort to the anti-fascist slogan, “Good Night White Pride.”

Daley, one of the men arrested, has used social media to rail against Jews and applaud the killing of a black man, ProPublica says.

The Anti-Defamation League and Northern California Anti-Racist Action profiles say R.A.M. is a loose collective of neo-Nazis and fascists formerly known as the DIY Movement. They “rebranded” as R.A.M. in early 2017, the profiles say.

“While they consider themselves part of the alt right, R.A.M.’s membership has deep roots in California’s racist skinhead movement, and includes individuals who have faced serious criminal charges, including assault, robbery and weapon offenses,” the ADL reported.

While Cullen noted that the four men arrested were also allegedly involved in violence at political protests last year in the California cities of Berkeley, San Bernardino and Huntington Beach — hence, the “serial rioters” allegation — the charges stem solely from their alleged actions in Charlottesville. More arrests and charges are possible, Cullen said, as the investigation is ongoing.

The ADL report says R.A.M. members also attempted to disrupt a Committee for Racial Justice meeting in Santa Monica, California, and hung a “Secure Borders, Secure Future” banner over a Torrance, California, freeway last summer.

R.A.M.’s debut appears to have come at the March 2017 Huntington Beach rally, where a dozen or so members showed up with a “Defend America” banner, ProPublica reported. R.A.M. and its cohorts scuffled with a group of anti-Trump protesters and anti-fascists, or antifa, the nonprofit says.

Three journalists from the OC Weekly newspaper were attacked, and a R.A.M. member hit an OC Weekly photographer with a series of punches, according to ProPublica.

A man claiming to be a R.A.M. leader, who has been documented in the group’s fight videos, spoke to ProPublica on the condition of anonymity and said the group was born when a few guys working out at Southern California gyms realized they had similar political beliefs.

“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 ProPublica article says.

The self-professed leader — who said young, white men have been disenfranchised by politicians, leftist academics and globalization — claimed not to know what the word racism means, according to the report. R.A.M. seeks to foster a “conservative counterculture” as an alternative to “the left-wing ideology that’s poisoning the youth” in America, he said.

“I wouldn’t say I’m a fascist,” he told ProPublica. “People like to say we’re Nazis and stuff, but all the people we’ve beaten up are white college kids.”

The charges against the four California men stem from attacks on an African-American man, two women and a minister wearing a clerical collar in Charlottesville, Cullen said. White is accused of head-butting the clergyman and one of the women, the prosecutor said.

Despite R.A.M.’s specious claims that it isn’t racist, ProPublica reports it has drawn recruits from overtly hateful groups, including Hammerskin Nation, widely regarded as the largest, most violent and best-organized neo-Nazi skinhead group in the country, according to ProPublica. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the group has ties to the shooter who killed six people at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, in 2012.

Screenshots published by the Northern California Anti-Racist Action show members of R.A.M., including Daley, making the Hammerskin salute last year in Berkeley.

R.A.M. has also fought alongside other white supremacist groups and partnered with far-right and alt-right organizations, Northern California Anti-Racist Action and ProPublica say.

Often, R.A.M.’s activities are cast under the guise of protecting free speech, the Northern California Anti-Racist Action reports.

“Most of these factions … continually deny their apparent racist and white nationalist politics by hiding behind nationalistic, American chauvinist, and pro-Trump rhetoric and deploying worn out manipulations around ‘free speech’ and token people of color,” it says.

In its profile last year, the Northern California Anti-Racist Action worried that R.A.M. was working to bring together the more passive keyboard warriors spewing hate online and those willing to exact violence to advance its cause.

“It’s clear that DIY Division as a political collective is working hard to bridge the gap between the more internet-based alt-right brand of white nationalism which is targeted to appeal to younger, generally more educated and upper-class white men, and the more traditional boots on the ground and street violence which has characterized neo-Nazi skinhead politics,” the group said.