“I’m going by the name ‘Doug,’” my contact said, explaining his pseudonym. “The reason is that Nazis want to kill us.”
Doug is a member of Atlanta Antifascists, an activist group based in Georgia. We connected via a secured encrypted channel using the Signal app to obscure Doug’s exact location and personal details.
His hesitation was warranted.
Days before we spoke, Jacob Kaderli, Luke Austin Lane and Michael John Helterbrand — three members of the white nationalist extremist organization called “The Base” — were arrested in an FBI sting operation as they were allegedly planning to kill a couple they believed to be members of Atlanta Antifascists. The information The Base had was ultimately false: The two people they targeted were not members of Atlanta Antifascists. But the message and intent of the plot were clear.
“These Antifa types, all these people. There has to start being consequences for what they are and that’s race traitors and agents of the system,” said one unidentified member of The Base at an FBI-documented meeting in Silver Creek, Georgia, on October 5, 2019.
The Base operates on an “accelerationist” framework, wherein members intend to install a white ethnostate through racial terror and targeted killing. All of the men implicated in the murder plot were under 26 years old, and represent just three members of an international network that spans across multiple states and countries.
“LANE believed killing the couple would ultimately send the right message and show that the previous actions undertaken by antifascists … such as doxing white supremacists, would not go unpunished,” read an FBI affidavit, which details an undercover agent’s accounts of operations within The Base. The three men were inspired by what’s called the “Bowl Patrol,” the online fanbase of Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof, who had a bowl haircut.
The members of Atlanta Antifascists only found out they were being targeted by The Base when the three members of the group were arrested in January. “We found out like everyone else,” Doug said. “We had definitely stepped on some toes. There are probably some reasons why these people in The Base were like, ‘We want to target Atlanta Antifascists,’ even though the people they actually selected had never been in our group.”
For many anti-fascist activists, the threat of violence is a risk of doing the work. In the era of the increasing potential of accelerationist violence, threats hold lethal weight.
The New South
As the white nationalist “alt-right” evolved into a mass force in the U.S. by 2017, so too did anti-fascist groups, with new local organizations popping up on an almost weekly basis. Many of these groups had been doing this work for years, and the number of those involved only grew as the threat became more present.
The network of organizers that became Atlanta Antifascists began before the alt-right was a household name, when activists began documenting white supremacists who were starting to organize at Georgia State University in 2015. Leftists monitoring the threat cropping up on campus began organizing as local Ku Klux Klan and neo-Confederate groups promised to march on Stone Mountain — home to the Confederate Memorial Carving — in April of the following year.
Several Atlanta area activists got together, some of whom had done anti-fascist work in the past, and wanted to create an organization to confront what has only become a more persistent threat.
“I’ve been active in radical circles for quite a while and I’ve definitely seen the dangers these groups can present, and have presented time and time again,” Doug told Truthout.
After Atlanta Antifascists formed in 2016, members began confronting the large range of fascist formations that make up the New South. In rural Georgia, anti-fascists tried to confront long-standing paramilitary-style groups, such as the Klan or Aryan Nations offshoots. In cities, they went after the “suit-and-tie” crowd, who often obscured their white nationalism by using a presentable appearance to recruit younger kids into the alt-right.
Doug points to the Charles Martel Society as an example of the “suit-and-tie” crowd activists targeted. The society is a long-standing white nationalist institution based in Atlanta and funded largely by William Regnery II, an inheritor to some of the family fortune of the right-wing Regnery Publishing operation that releases books by Donald Trump and conservative commentator Ann Coulter. Atlanta Antifascists focused heavily on exposing the work of Sam Dickson, an attorney active in the Charles Martel Society.
Dickson had been an integral part of the white nationalist organization American Renaissance for decades, and had a history as an attorney for people like former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. The Southern Poverty Law Center has reported that much of his money was made buying up tax liens on properties, sometimes from poor people or communities of color, and then pushing them to sell at a cut rate. He has built a business to essentially help fund the white nationalist movement, and Atlanta Antifascists has reported that he has gotten other far right collaborators into the action.
Currently, activists are working to expose fascists in the community who “law enforcement can’t,” according to Shannon Martinez, a former white nationalist living in Georgia who now helps get people in the far right out of the movement and who is unaffiliated with Atlanta Antifascists. “If I had somebody living next door to me that was saying violently white supremacist things online, I would surely want to know that. I’m really grateful, in a lot of ways, for the work that [Atlanta Antifascists] do that is often misunderstood or maligned,” Martinez told Truthout.
The creativity behind Atlanta Antifascists’ tactics function in response to strict anti-masking laws in Georgia (which were recently suspended due to COVID-19), and they must navigate proximity to southern white nationalist groups, which often congregate in less populated areas. They center their organizing strategy along three points: research on the far right and educating the public about their findings, building an anti-fascist cultural presence where fascists are trying to recruit (such as punk rock venues), and direct opposition.
Doug describes Atlanta Antifascists as “tactically flexible.” “The guiding thought is figuring out what these groups want and doing our best to systematically deny them that,” he said.
The biggest focus is on revealing what the far right is trying to build, who they are and what threats they present. This requires a high standard for research so the public can depend on what the group is releasing, and their research has often been used by reporters covering their movement. Members use every tool they can, including property records and physical reconnaissance, to prove who is at the center of the white nationalist movement.
Atlanta Antifascists always support protest actions, particularly if a fascist rally or conference is taking place, but this can present challenges: Being seen can lead to threats on their lives.
The Risk of Violence
Atlanta Antifascists members’ hypervigilance of the far right first put The Base on the group’s radar in May 2019. The Base was putting up flyers in the blue-collar town of Rome, Georgia, a largely white area hit by tough economic times.
Atlanta Antifascists ran an exposé on The Base member Joshua Bates, which triggered him to publicly leave the movement, posting a video of himself burning his Nazi uniform and eventually supporting anti-fascist causes. This method is known as doxxing, a pressure tactic that organizers hope will create a halo of fear around those participating in white nationalist movements.
“He reached some sort of crisis point and the public shaming was the final push,” Doug said, pointing out that doxxing has been effective in pushing people like Bates into breaking their connection to the movement. If you believe that your “secret” behavior could become public, it will often dissuade other less committed people from joining the movement altogether.
Atlanta Antifascists then doxxed even more accelerationist white nationalists, including “Esoteric Hitlerite” Ryan Burchfield, who was later exposed by Vice for traveling to Ukraine in an effort to link up with fascist militias on the border. The activists were then trying to go after other members of The Base, until “feds beat us to that one” said Doug, pointing to the arrests of Kaderli, Lane and Helterbrand.
Atlanta Antifascists’ long-standing work against the alt-right and neo-Confederate movements has angered white nationalist activist Brad Griffin, whose Occidental Dissent blog has been a cantankerous part of the far right movement for years. In 2017, he ran a five-part series in which he attempted to identify “antifa” activists, naming people he believed were members of Atlanta Antifascists. The three recently arrested members of The Base, who came together after the Occidental Dissent articles were published, were planning to stage a retaliatory assassination against two people identified in Griffin’s article.
Atlanta Antifascists say that these web posts are likely where The Base found the people they believed to be members, which Griffin gleaned by behaviors such as Facebook activity rather than evidence of formal membership.
According to the FBI, the men discussed getting a room at a cheap hotel, showering to remove any dead skin, using long leather gloves tucked into shirt sleeves to avoid leaving behind skin cells, and applying Vaseline on their eyelashes and eyebrows to avoid leaving trace hairs. They would then dress in black and shoot their would-be victims while they were asleep.
Kaderli, Lane and Helterbrand staged reconnaissance at the property of the intended victims, where they intended to use a lock-picking gun to gain entry. If that took too long, they’d use a sledge hammer. According to the FBI affidavit, The Base members thought guerilla-style killing “would be a good preparation for killing any future targets,” contending these killings would spark a “race war” where such tactics would be strategically used.
“There’s a certain amount of risk inherent to doing this work,” Doug told Truthout. “Most of us go through our days not particularly afraid because we take precautions. We know that we can be targeted for violence.”
The Base had already been thoroughly doxxed by groups like Atlanta Antifascists and journalists who have been covering far right movements. But the FBI sting operations may have permanently destabilized The Base’s future. But there will be others, and without groups committed to undermining the growth of such movements, their potential for violence could be limitless.
An Ethical Imperative
Some anti-fascist organizers say there is an ethical imperative that emanates from their work — that someone has to do something about what white nationalists are capable of — but also an underlying political commitment. To see through a radical vision of equality and social liberation, anti-fascists remain vigilant about a racial radicalization that is also taking place amid the chaos.
“Gino,” who has been with Atlanta Antifascists since 2017, says he does anti-fascist work to keep “communities knowledgeable and safe.” The group works through focused planning and communication, holding one another accountable for completing tasks.
Unlike many forms of activism, where people will often see their faces on news reports or enjoy a certain amount of recognition for their work, Atlanta Antifascists’ goals require complete anonymity — often to the point of difficulty.
“We think if people want to be public and do things in their own name, that’s powerful, but that’s not how we specifically organize,” Doug says. “We have basic protocols about not putting our personal details all over the internet. We don’t speak to the media in our own names.”
Members also completely separate their real name and social media from any of the communication done for the organization’s functioning. Activists look at their “real life” public profile as a bit of a stage; they have to keep it relatively quiet and inactive on these issues so no one can casually draw a connection between the two. Something as seemingly innocuous as resharing an anti-fascist article on Facebook could be enough to bridge the two profiles in the minds of white nationalists who are, just like the anti-fascists, searching for members of a movement.
Some members of Atlanta Antifascists go so far as to have two different phones in an attempt to keep their activism as disconnected from their regular life as possible, a dual pathway they feel is necessary to keep their friends and family safe from the possibility of an attack by a group like The Base. Some members have familial confidants, while others have chosen to keep this work a secret entirely.
Continuing the use of these tactics, Atlanta Antifascists is already working on a new set of targets, researching far right organizations in the area so that they can reveal their inner workings. They recently exposed the group American Patriots USA, a group led by former Klansman and neo-Nazi Chester Doles that is now getting support from prominent Georgia Republican politicians.
With increased social turmoil as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the upcoming November election, chatter from white nationalist circles is suggesting that they could be prepped for a new period of recruitment and action. That poses a question to activists about what people can do to push back, and what kinds of organizations they are going to support.
Inside of these community defense movements, there will continue to be an ethical imperative for clandestine groups. You won’t know their members’ names, but they will be applying the pressure that so many have come to rely on for safety from fascist violence.