Calif. White Supremacists Vowed to ‘Reimagine’ Racist Movements With New Look, Tactics

A screenshot from video reportedly shows Robert Rondo, leader of the so-called Rise Above Movement, attacking a counter-protestor at an event in Huntington Beach, Calif., in March 2017. The photo was included in a criminal complaint released by the Department of Justice. (Department of Justice/TNS)

By Alene Tchekmedyian and Brittny Mejia

LOS ANGELES — From the beginning, the founders of the so-called Rise Above Movement had a goal: to reinvent what it meant to be a white nationalist.

Members of the Southern California group were instructed to blend in at political rallies with polo shirts, khakis and military-style haircuts. They were told to avoid violent or extremist language on social media, to keep a low profile.

“Its time to reimagine the nationalist look and playbook, we have become predictable that needs to change,” Benjamin Daley told an associate in a Facebook message in August 2017.

At rallies across California and last year in Charlottesville, Va., they showed up trained and ready to fight their political enemies. Their notorious leader, Robert Rundo of Huntington Beach, then posted clips of the racism-fueled violence on Twitter to recruit — the attackers’ faces covered by their distinctive skeleton or U.S. flag masks.

Federal authorities have been working to dismantle the organization, early this month arresting Daley and three others — Thomas Walter Gillen, 34, of Redondo Beach; Michael Paul Miselis, 30, of Lawndale; and Cole Evan White, 24, from the Northern California city of Clayton — for their role in the violence.

That crackdown continued this week when Rundo was picked up in Central America and arrested Sunday at Los Angeles International Airport.

Rundo, 28, and three others were charged with using the internet and traveling to incite or participate in riots, according to a criminal complaint unsealed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles. Tyler Laube, 22, of Redondo Beach and Robert Boman, 25, of Torrance were arrested Wednesday morning, while Aaron Eason, 38, of Anza in Riverside County, remains at large. If convicted, they each face up to 10 years in federal prison.

In a federal courtroom Wednesday, Rundo sat quietly in a white jumpsuit, staring down with his hands clasped together in his lap. A federal judge denied him bail, calling him a flight risk, despite his roommate, another alleged RAM member, offering to post bond.

The roommate declined to speak to a reporter outside the courtroom. “I got nothing to say,” he said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney David Ryan said Rundo had taken several trips abroad, including one to Mexico and another to Germany, Italy and Ukraine to celebrate Adolf Hitler’s birthday and meet with other white supremacists. And when other RAM members were arrested recently, Rundo launched an online fundraising campaign for their defense, Ryan said.

The prosecutor also pointed out Rundo’s criminal history, which includes a conviction in a stabbing case, and said that when authorities searched his home, they found a large framed portrait of Hitler.

At a hearing Wednesday afternoon, Ryan said Boman was located in the morning after spending the night in a treehouse at someone else’s residence. Boman — who has prior convictions for grand theft, robbery and assaulting a police officer — fled authorities on a bicycle then on foot before officers tackled him and arrested him.

Boman’s attorney said his client has a problem with methamphetamine and argued that he was not a flight risk because he has nowhere to go.

Judge Maria A. Audero ordered that he, along with Laube, be held without bail. “He’s a member of a horribly violent group,” she said of Boman.

Laube’s attorney called him the “least culpable” of those charged in the complaint, saying his client wasn’t on social media and didn’t attend an April 2017 protest in Berkeley at which violence broke out, because by then, he had withdrawn from the organization.

For 18 months, Laube has been residing in a sober-living home in Gardena.

Joanna Mendelson, senior investigative researcher for the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism in Los Angeles, called Rundo a key RAM leader who “had a significant role in producing the propaganda that helped to recruit others into their cause.”

“Law enforcement are taking this group seriously, and it is our hope that these types of criminal justice actions will help to curtail the effectiveness and future of this white supremacist organization,” Mendelson said. “It would be great if these arrests signified a considerable dent in this white supremacist group operating in our backyard.”

A 25-page affidavit by FBI Special Agent Scott Bierwirth offers the most detailed look yet at the group’s strategy to keep their violent intentions under wraps, laying out a series of private Facebook messages and texts between leaders, members and associates.

In the August 2017 exchange with someone considering joining the organization, Daley suggested a style change.

“We go for the implicit look,” Daley said, to which the associate responded that he could grow out his hair and drop the “boots and braces look,” the affidavit said.

Daley replied: “Trust I did it for a long time too but ultimately the 80s in that style of nationalism proved to be ineffective.”

In January, Daley told another associate in private Facebook messages to keep his head down on social media.

“I would be mindful of saying anything that could be misconstrued as a call to violence. I know people who literally have had feds show up at there door over posts,” Daley wrote. “Trust I’m not speaking in terms of morality rather practicality.”

Members have been guarded with the media and remain relatively under the radar in their communities. Former neighbors of some said they didn’t know who the group members were, while local law enforcement agencies said they were unaware of the organization causing major problems in L.A.’s South Bay area. Family members of some group members have declined to speak with the Los Angeles Times.

Even so, Rundo used the group’s Twitter account — @RiseAboveMvmt, which has since been suspended — to espouse their white supremacist ideology.

In one February post, the group posted a photo of members covering their faces with books, along with the text: “When the squads not out smashing commies … #nationalist #lifestyle.”

In a video recorded by an associate and later posted online, the person asked Rundo to say the “14 words,” referring to the neo-Nazi slogan, “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children,” according to the affidavit.

Rundo responded: “I’m a big supporter of the 14, I’ll say that.”

In January, authorities found graffiti in an Agua Chinon Wash tunnel in Irvine, where RAM members have met to train. The words “RAM” and “RISE ABOVE” were sprayed inside the tunnel in yellow paint, and a Celtic cross with the number “14” over the top was sprayed in black.

One of the highest-profile local attacks occurred in March 2017 at a “Make America Great Again” rally at Bolsa Chica State Beach in Huntington Beach, where RAM members — including the three arrested Wednesday — confronted counterprotesters and attacked two journalists covering the event, the affidavit said.

As one reporter stumbled backward, Laube grabbed his shoulder and punched him three times in the face. Videos also show that Rundo approached a counterprotester from behind and punched him in the back of the head, the affidavit said.

The Daily Stormer, a forum popular among neo-Nazis, posted an article headlined, “Trumpenkriegers Physically Remove Antifa Homos in Huntington Beach.”

Later that day, Daley sent a text to another RAM member saying, “Front page of the stormer we did it fam.”

The next month, RAM members rented a van to attend the rally in Berkeley, where local police saw Rundo punch a defenseless person in the head, the affidavit said. Berkeley police ordered Rundo to stop, but he didn’t respond. When the officer knocked Rundo to the ground, he punched the officer twice in the head before he was subdued and arrested.


©2018 Los Angeles Times

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