White supremacy groups try to infiltrate recent protests and influence the narrative

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Broken storefronts in downtown Los Angeles after protests turned into looting May 29. Some of the White Supremacist groups involved in Charlottesville were also behind the violence in recent national protests. Brian Feinzimer for KCRW.

As protests continue across the country over the police killing of George Floyd, white nationalist groups have been using the unrest to their advantage. This isn’t a new tactic. The Charlottesville protests in 2017 included Neo-Nazis, Klansman, and protesters from other alt-right groups. 

But Trump blamed Antifa, a collection of people who protest fascism. And he’s blaming this disparate group of people again for today’s unrest.

It turns out that some of the groups involved in Charlottesville are also behind the violence in today’s protests. 

The nonprofit Integrity First for America is suing the organizers of the Charlottesville “Unite The Right” rally for conspiring to commit violence. KCRW hears from the nonprofit’s executive director Amy Spitalnick. 

KCRW: Where do you see some of the same white nationalist groups as with the Charlottesville Unite the Right rally in 2017 popping up now?

Amy Spitalnick: “It's really important to understand how these groups operate. Some are incredibly organized with military style hierarchies, and others are a little bit more amorphous. But the same trends we see throughout the board, whether it's in Charlottesville, or now, or the many other white supremacist attacks that have happened in between. 

Just last night, a number of news outlets reported that a white supremacist group called Identity Europa, which is one of the defendants in our Charlottesville suit — they're the group that coined that phrase, "you will not replace us" — were posing as Antifa on Twitter to urge violence and looting during the protests. Twitter suspended the account the other day, but that tweet had gone viral, and it set people off who were concerned about violence in their communities and allowed people — including the president — to then say that they were going to target Antifa, deploy the military and so on. 

The ways in which we see these extremist groups trying to co-opt a moment like this and use it to spread not just disinformation, but also hate and actual violence, is a sad trend that has been happening over and over again over the last few years.”

Can you tell us more about the role of Identity Europa and what this organization is?

“There are a number of neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups that are focused around this idea of identity. The idea of a white identity, and Identity Europa, believes that there should be a white homeland. They believe in the white identity being superior to all other white supremacist group in that sense. And their big claim to fame, if you will, was helping to organize the Charlottesville violence. 

What happened in Charlottesville was not an accident. It was not spontaneous this violence. Rather, the violence was planned for months in advance on social media by a number of neo-Nazis and white supremacists, including Identity Europa. They talked about everything in advance: from what to wear, what to bring for lunch, which weapons to carry, and whether they could hit protesters with cars and then claim self-defense, which is, of course, ultimately what they did. 

Identity Europa in fuller played a role in which they organized white supremacists from around the country to descend on Charlottesville and help spur this weekend of violence. As you might expect, since they were sued by my organization and since they started seeing additional fallout fuel bad PR from their role in Charlottesville, they've tried to rebrand. They now go by American Identity Movement. 

But at the end of the day, they are the same white supremacist organization that has been working to sow disinformation, fear, and violence. And of course, we are going to ensure that they remain liable for the violence that they caused in Charlottesville. Sadly, their role spreading disinformation and hate and violence right now during the George Floyd protests only underscores the importance of holding them accountable.”

Aside from posting fake tweets posing as Antifa, do you think that they are actually posing as demonstrators on the streets? Or that other alt-right groups are posing as demonstrators and causing havoc?

“We don't know for sure exactly who is posing as who at this point. But what we do know is that there were a number of extremists — including a number of far right extremists — who are trying to take advantage of this moment and exploit it for their own gain. 

We also know that there are armed extremists who are showing up at these protests and trying to start riots or urge what they call a "boogaloo," which is their code for a second civil war. You might know these guys by their automatic weapons and Hawaiian shirts, which are sort of the hallmarks of their boogaloo identity. And some might claim that they're there to protect the protesters. But I wouldn't let that fool you. 

They're part of this loose coalition of far right militia extremists who believe in urging a second civil war or some sort of revolution. They're generally supportive of anti-government, violent resistance. And they think that these protests can serve as a catalyst for the violent upheaval that they've long wanted. We've seen a number of incidents over the last few days in which these boogaloo extremists have been showing up at protests with their automatic weapons. 

In some cases, we've had folks arrested, including one who was arrested for firing shots at a Black Lives Matter rally the other day. We had the Department of Homeland Security warn law enforcement that white supremacists, including some of these boogaloo extremists, are encouraging their supporters to shoot protesters. One of these extremists said on Telegram (a social media site frequented by extremists), that they are encouraging them to, "frame the crowd around you for the violence." 

We've seen over and over again a number of these extremists go to these protests with their heavy weaponry, with their automatic weapons. And they either bring violence against the protesters themselves, or try to frame the protesters for violence. There's so many details that are still unknown. But these anecdotes definitely illustrate a concerning pattern.”

Where are they most active?

“These extremists have been everywhere. We saw a report of police seizing automatic weapons and other tactical gear from boogaloo extremists in Denver. I believe one of the arrests of a protester, a rather up and armed extremist who was firing shots on the rally was in North Carolina. They're all over the country. And typically these extremists are finding each other online, on social media platforms like the very one in which the Charlottesville violence was planned. 

They're inspiring each other with their memes, and with these other calls to violence. When an individual goes to one of these protests with their automatic weapons, wearing memes on their vests and shirt, wearing those Hawaiian shirts, it's part of this larger effort to co-opt these protests and spread their extremist ideology and use these protests; exploit them to further their really sick vision for a second civil war.”

By second civil war, do you mean a race war?

“Exactly. I would say a race war in certain cases within the boogaloo movement. There are various ideologies as well. Some are straight up white supremacists who believe that we need a race war to spur the rise of a truly white society. Others are more focused on taking down the government itself. They're worried about the government "stealing their guns," and their "individual liberty." Within the movement it's important to understand that there are factions. There are certainly white supremacists within the boogaloo movement and ones who are doing so are sort of trying to use these protests to spur race war and bring about this collapse of society that they so crave.

Are there other groups that are more under the radar?

“One hundred percent. I think over the next few weeks we're certainly going to learn a lot more about who might be coming to these protests. Or (who is) just coming in and looting, inciting violence, and trying to take advantage of a very legitimate protest and distract from it in order to spread their own hate and violence. I think that's really what this is all about at the end of the day. These are extremists who are trying to co-opt these protests in order to sow fear, to sow hate, and to distract from the actual issues at hand, which are racial justice and police brutality. As they continue to do this, it only serves to undermine the very legitimate protesters who are out on the streets rightfully sharing their grievances, and standing up for the justice that George Floyd and so many others deserve.”

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