The leader of California neo-Nazi gang the “Rise Above Movement” was arrested Tuesday in Los Angeles. Robert Rundo faces charges of plotting riots and inciting violence for his role in a range of attacks in 2017, including the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville last August. Three other members of the group were charged alongside Rundo. Robert Boman and Tyler Laube were apprehended at their homes in Torrance and Redondo Beach. A fourth suspect, Aaron Eason, is still at large. The men are accused of participating in violent attacks, as well as using the internet to incite violence ahead of various events. The group publicly documented their attacks as a recruitment tool. We speak to former FBI agent Mike German and Chapman University professor Pete Simi, who has studied political violence for decades.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn now to a very big story here in Southern California. The leader of the California neo-Nazi gang the Rise Above Movement was arrested Tuesday in Los Angeles at the airport. Robert Rundo faces charges of plotting riots, inciting violence, for his role in a range of attacks in 2017, including the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville last August. Three other members of the group were charged alongside Rundo. Robert Boman and Tyler Laube were apprehended at their homes in Torrance, Redondo Beach, as well. A fourth suspect, Aaron Eason, is still at large. The men are accused of participating in violent attacks, as well as using the internet to incite violence ahead of various events. The group publicly documented their attacks as a recruitment tool. Earlier this month, four other members of the Rise Above Movement were indicted on riot charges. So, at the same time we’re seeing one after another suspected pipe bomb being sent off to leading Trump critics, we are hearing about this arrest here in California. Talk about who Robert Rundo is.
PETE SIMI: Well, Rundo is not from California originally. He is from New York, actually, grew up in the city. And his history does involve a history of violence. He spent several years in prison out in New York for a stabbing incident that he alleges was his form of self-defense. It was targeting alleged members of the MS-13 gang. But it did involve him and at least one other person attacking this individual, and Rundo actually stabbing the person several times. He made his way, after getting out of prison, out to the West Coast and ultimately settled down in San Clemente in South Orange County.
And he and several other folks from this area formed Rise Above a couple years ago, in part as a result of their presence at rallies, where they kind of formed this identity of being kind of these street fighter-type folks that were going to defend people’s right to free speech. They’re a group that really has focused on the idea of training, physical training. They do a lot of MMA training. They actually just completed a European tour, where they met with far-right extremists across Europe, including in Russia with a leading MMA neo-Nazi group called White Rex. They do a lot of CrossFit training. So they really promote this idea of healthy lifestyle and that they’re kind of opposed to this kind of contemporary decadent culture and lifestyle that’s being promoted by kind of multiculturalism. So they’re very xenophobic and anti-immigration. They have links to much older white supremacist groups, like the Hammerskin Nation, which has been one of the largest neo-Nazi skinhead groups across the globe since the late ’80s. So, they’re definitely part of this longer tradition of white supremacist groups, that has a long history here in Orange County.
AMY GOODMAN: Speaking at the White House on Wednesday, President Trump — oh, I wanted to turn to a video that comes from Frontline, a video that describes what — really, what we’re talking about.
A.C. THOMPSON: A new generation of white supremacists are pushing their politics into the mainstream. Rob Rundo seems to be part of that trend. His group’s first public appearance wasn’t at a torch march. It was in Huntington Beach at a pro-Trump rally behind a banner that read “Defend America.” When anti-fascists showed up, Rundo and his crew attacked them. He pinned one of them on the ground and pummeled him. One member of his crew also attacked Frank Tristan, a journalist with Orange County’s alternative weekly paper.
At the time, did you know that this was a group, or who did this or what was going on?
FRANK TRISTAN: No. I definitely saw they were organized. I stuck as a group. You know, also the banner. When we got back to the office and I started talking to Gustavo about everything, he started having me go out and look for everybody there who was attacking people. I started going through hashtags, so like #magamarch, looking for —
A.C. THOMPSON: That’s you!
FRANK TRISTAN: Yeah, right there. So, I started finding pictures like this.
A.C. THOMPSON: So, is this him hitting you? Is that — or is that later?
FRANK TRISTAN: So, this is right after he had just hit me. When I clicked on his name, it took me to his profile.
A.C. THOMPSON: And you look, and his picture is there.
FRANK TRISTAN: Mm-hmm.
A.C. THOMPSON: And you say, “Oh, that’s the dude who attacked me.”
FRANK TRISTAN: There you go.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s an excerpt of the recent PBS Frontline documentary titled Documenting Hate: Charlottesville. The clip began with AC Thompson of ProPublica, who helped expose the Rise Above Movement. And we were just listening to Frank Tristan, a reporter with the Orange County alternative weekly paper. Talk more about this.
PETE SIMI: Yeah. So, you know, this is — the investigative work that ProPublica has done exposing Rise Above and others, as well, has been extremely important in terms of trying to shed a light that otherwise seems to have been kind of ignored, to a large extent, which is, you know, a big part of the problem that Mike German was discussing earlier, just a few moments ago.
And I also want to mention something. If you look at Rise Above and their propaganda, they have been pretty adept at creating kind of glossy videos that show them training and doing graffiti, and then also having clips of some of their physical violence at some of these rallies. They are very clear about identifying themselves as a nationalist. And so, it’s an interesting point that President Trump, just a couple days ago at a rally in Texas, made a point of identifying himself as a nationalist. And so, I think this is important to underscore that a lot of these groups like Rise Above, they don’t call themselves neo-Nazis or white supremacists. They call themselves nationalists oftentimes.
AMY GOODMAN: They call themselves nationalists.
PETE SIMI: Absolutely.
AMY GOODMAN: Very interesting that you should say that, considering just this week at the Houston rally — President Trump is holding these campaign rallies across the country — he called himself a nationalist.
PETE SIMI: Yeah, yeah. I mean, it’s — for folks like Rise Above, that’s music to their ears, because that word means a lot to them, and they really see that as an important way of defining themselves that can be potentially more palpable to a larger percentage of the population, especially white Americans who won’t be as likely to be turned off by, for instance, a term like “neo-Nazi,” where you have folks that might be a little bit kind of intimidated by that term. So, groups like Rise Above are very, very adept at using a term like “nationalist,” because it is very meaningful within their culture.
AMY GOODMAN: Mike German, would you care to expand on that? Also, in New York, we’ve been showing this video of the Proud Boys. The Proud Boys, a number of them were arrested by New York police after they basically rioted and assaulted people outside the Metropolitan Republican Club, where their leader was inside speaking, five of the nine members of this far-right group Proud Boys arrested on rioting and assault charges. The arrests followed the October 12th street attack in which dozens of members of the group were caught on camera physically assaulting anti-fascist protesters after attending a talk by their leader, Gavin McInnes. I mean, it’s quite amazing, Gavin McInnes speaking at the Metropolitan Republican Club. Can you comment on this?
MIKE GERMAN: It is troubling. And, you know, one of the things to understand is how authoritarian governments gain power. And one of the things that they have done in history is sanction street thugs to go out and commit political violence. And when people get upset at that, what you see is then legislation designed to prevent protests. And, of course, we’ve already seen that in a number of state legislatures and regulations being promulgated in Washington, DC, that would shut down some of the protests in front of the White House and elsewhere and in national parks. So, you know, this is a very troubling trend. And the fact that you have the president of the United States identifying with these groups, much like we saw right after Charlottesville, where the comment about very fine people on both sides of this conflict, again, gives these groups sanctions.
And I give credit to the FBI for finally arresting these people, but it was a year after ProPublica published an article that basically laid out who these people were. I tend to be a free speech purist. And this isn’t about free speech. These are people who had long criminal records, who forecast that they were going to these protests to commit violence, committed violence, often filmed the violence, and used that to recruit people for the next protest, where again they forecast they were going to go commit violence. And the fact that they were traveling interstate should have been something that it was tracked by the FBI in real time, not here a year-plus later, after Frontline basically put the whole thing on national television.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, amazing. ThinkProgress writes, “McInnes’ lecture [at the Metropolitan Republican Club] was about Otoya Yamaguchi, who himself was a member of an extremist right-wing group in Japan. In 1960, Yamaguchi stabbed Japan Socialist Party leader Inejiro Asanuma to death, and he has been celebrated as a hero of extreme nationalist groups.” After leaving the event, McInnes was seen waving a katana blade like the one used to kill Asanuma. Mike German?
MIKE GERMAN: Right, exactly. And again, when you have people in authority promoting this kind of political violence, I think that is more than just a wink to these groups. That is an actual sanctioning that allows them to think, “OK, the government is on my side.” And when you don’t see a rapid, real-time police response, that then confirms it for them. And the trouble is, this has been going on for roughly two years now, so these groups have spent plenty of time recruiting. And now that there are enforcement measures being taken, it’s easier for them to go back underground and be very strong in their ability to organize much more serious violence.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us. Of course, we’re going to continue to cover this. We’re heading back to New York today. Mike German is a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law — not named for John Brennan, the former CIA director, who had a pipe bomb addressed to him at CNN, causing the CNN studios to be released, but named for Justice Brennan. From ’88 and 2004, Mike German served as an FBI agent specializing in domestic counterterrorism. He’s author of Thinking Like a Terrorist: Insights of a Former FBI Undercover Agent. And Peter Simi, with us here in Orange County, in Santa Ana, he is a professor of sociology at Chapman University, co-author, with Robert Futrell, of the book American Swastika: Inside the White Power Movement’s Hidden Spaces of Hate.
This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. When we come back, well, Southern California, where we are now, could determine the balance of Congress. We’ll talk about some of the midterm elections, then look at a particular proposition that’s on the ballot here around rent control. Stay with us.