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Border Patrol Conceals Findings Of Probe Into Its Officers’ Racist Facebook Group

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.

Brian Hastings, a top Border Patrol official, stared grimly at the television cameras.

It was July 1, 2019, and Hastings was facing down a scandal: News reports had revealed that Border Patrol agents were posting wildly offensive comments and memes in a secret Facebook group.

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Trump Weakened Key Civil Rights Agency When It Is Needed Most

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica

In recent weeks, as protests against police violence and systemic racism have swept across the nation, a key federal civil rights agency — an agency created to bridge racial divides — has been largely absent.

Dubbed “America's Peacemaker," the Community Relations Service was established in 1964 as civil rights protesters across the South came under attack. The service, which is part of the Justice Department, is credited with helping to avert bloodshed during some of the most contentious demonstrations of the 1960s.

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Border Patrol Condemns Secret Facebook Group, But Reveals Few Specifics

 

Long known for its insular culture and tendency toward secrecy, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency is saying little in the aftermath of news reports exposing a vulgar and hateful Facebook group for current and retired Border Patrol agents, including supervisors.

While CBP officials have publicly condemned the offensive social media posts, they’ve disclosed few details about the steps the agency has taken to identify employees who behaved inappropriately online and hold them accountable.

The agency, which is responsible for policing the nation’s borders and official ports of entry, declined to say how many employees CBP has disciplined or how many remain under investigation.

In response to questions from ProPublica, a CBP spokesperson would only say that “several” employees had been placed on restricted duty as a result of postings in the three-year-old Facebook group, and that so far no one had been suspended from the patrol, a more serious disciplinary action. The agency would not say whether the agents now on restricted duty are allowed to have contact with the public, and it refused to answer questions about specific agents who appear to have made posts celebrating sexual violence and demeaning migrants and women.

The “majority of employees who have been positively identified” as being active in the Facebook group have been issued letters instructing them stop posting objectionable material, said the spokesperson, who declined to specify how many people had received the letters, described as “cease and desist” notices.

“This secrecy is unacceptable,” said Joaquin Castro, chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and representative for San Antonio. “This secrecy is dangerous to human life. CBP is perhaps the least transparent law enforcement agency in the country.”

ProPublica last week revealed the existence of the secret 9,500-member Facebook group, called “I’m 10-15,” a reference to the Border Patrol code for “alien in custody.” In the private group, current and former Border Patrol agents, including supervisors, mocked dead migrants, called congresswomen “scum buckets,” and uploaded misogynistic images, including an illustration of New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a harsh critic of CBP, engaged in oral sex with a migrant in a detention facility. A later story by The Intercept published additional graphic posts from the group and information about its members.

CBP policies bar employees from making “abusive, derisive, profane, or harassing statements or gestures” about any person or group on private or public social media.

Among those who apparently made egregious posts is Thomas Hendricks, a 20-year veteran of the Border Patrol who serves as a supervisor of the Calexico station, a desert outpost in Southern California’s Imperial County. Hendricks — or someone using his Facebook account — uploaded a photo illustration of President Donald Trump forcing the head of Ocasio-Cortez toward his crotch. The image was accompanied by a cryptic message that appeared to refer to prior issues within the patrol: “That’s right bitches. The masses have spoken and today democracy won. I have returned.”

Hendricks did not respond to requests for comment from ProPublica.

An agent at the Alamogordo station in New Mexico, Mario Marcus Ponce, apparently described Ocasio-Cortez and Rep. Veronica Escobar of El Paso, Texas, both Democrats, as “hoes” in a discussion in the Facebook group. Ponce did not answer calls and text messages from ProPublica.

CBP would not discuss the current status of Hendricks and Ponce or two other agents identified by ProPublica. “We cannot comment on individual cases,” the CBP spokesperson said.

Unlike many big city police departments, the Border Patrol generally divulges little information about agents found to have engaged in misconduct or those involved in shooting incidents. At times, the agency has refused even to reveal the names of agents facing trial on criminal corruption charges.

“They are not used to being questioned. They are not used to be scrutinized,” said Josiah Heyman, an anthropologist at the University of Texas at El Paso who has been studying the border since 1982.

The Facebook group, he said, is “an indicator of broader problems” within the Border Patrol. “There is an attitude within CBP and Border Patrol that everybody crossing the border is invading the United States and coming to do bad things,” he said.

While Heyman noted that there is little solid statistical data on the views held by Border Patrol agents, he pointed to a survey of approximately 1,100 migrants who’d been deported to Mexico. Nearly a quarter of the respondents said they’d been verbally abused by U.S. government employees, primarily Border Patrol. “It is an enormous number,” said Heyman, director of the school’s Center for Inter-American and Border Studies.

In a statement issued last week, Border Patrol Chief Carla Provost said the Facebook images and comments aren’t representative of the patrol as a whole. “These posts are completely inappropriate and contrary to the honor and integrity I see—and expect—from our agents day in and day out,” she said. “Any employees found to have violated our standards of conduct will be held accountable.”

At least two oversight bodies are now looking into the conduct of Border Patrol agents on social media. One inquiry is being led by CBP’s Office of Professional Responsibility, essentially an internal affairs unit staffed with professional investigators.

In Congress, the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, led by Maryland Democrat Elijah Cummings has opened an investigation and committee staffers are currently gathering facts. Cummings has requested that Kevin McAleenan, the acting chief of the Department of Homeland Security — CBP’s parent organization — testify before the committee this week about “racist, sexist, and xenophobic posts by Border Patrol agents,” as well as reports of inhumane conditions and severe overcrowding at CBP detention facilities.

The congressman has also instructed Facebook to turn over digital evidence related to the group. “The Committee requests that you preserve all documents, communications, and other data related to the ‘I’m 10-15’ group. This includes log files and metadata,” Cummings wrote in a letter to Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg.

At the House Homeland Security Committee, chair Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat, has called on the inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security to mount an investigation into the Facebook group.

The inspector general’s office would not comment on whether it has opened an inquiry.

For his part, Castro said he intends to ask some questions of his own. “I am going to set up a call with Secretary McAleenan to have a conversation about the discipline and accountability process within DHS,” Castro, a Democrat, said. “I don’t know if there is any accountability. I don’t know if there is any discipline.”

 

 

Inside Secret Facebook Border Patrol Group: Cruelty, Bigotry, And Misogyny

 

Members of a secret Facebook group for current and former Border Patrol agents joked about the deaths of migrants, discussed throwing burritos at Latino members of Congress visiting a detention facility in Texas on Monday and posted a vulgar illustration depicting Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez engaged in oral sex with a detained migrant, according to screenshots of their postings.

In one exchange, group members responded with indifference and wisecracks to the post of a news story about a 16-year-old Guatemalan migrant who died in May while in custody at a Border Patrol station in Weslaco, Texas. One member posted a GIF of Elmo with the quote, “Oh well.” Another responded with an image and the words “If he dies, he dies.”

Created in August 2016, the Facebook group is called “I’m 10-15” and boasts roughly 9,500 members from across the country. (10-15 is Border Patrol code for “aliens in custody.”) The group described itself, in an online introduction, as a forum for “funny” and “serious” discussion about work with the patrol. “Remember you are never alone in this family,” the introduction said.

Responsible for policing the nation’s southern and northern boundaries, the Border Patrol has come under intense scrutiny as the Trump administration takes new, more aggressive measures to halt the influx of undocumented migrants across the United States-Mexico border. The patrol’s approximately 20,000 agents serve under the broader U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency, which has been faulted for allegedly mistreating children and adults in its custody. The agency’s leadership has been in turmoil, with its most recent acting chief, John Sanders, resigning last week.

ProPublica received images of several recent discussions in the 10-15 Facebook group and was able to link the participants in those online conversations to apparently legitimate Facebook profiles belonging to Border Patrol agents, including a supervisor based in El Paso, Texas, and an agent in Eagle Pass, Texas. ProPublica has so far been unable to reach the group members who made the postings.

ProPublica contacted three spokespeople for CBP in regard to the Facebook group and provided the names of three agents who appear to have participated in the online chats. CBP hasn’t yet responded.

“These comments and memes are extremely troubling,” said Daniel Martinez, a sociologist at the University of Arizona in Tucson who studies the border. “They’re clearly xenophobic and sexist.”

The postings, in his view, reflect what “seems to be a pervasive culture of cruelty aimed at immigrants within CBP. This isn’t just a few rogue agents or ‘bad apples.’”

The Border Patrol Facebook group is the most recent example of some law enforcement personnel behaving badly in public and private digital spaces. An investigation by Reveal uncovered hundreds of active-duty and retired law enforcement officers who moved in extremist Facebook circles, including white supremacist and anti-government groups. A team of researchers calling themselves the Plain View Project recently released a hefty database of offensive Facebook posts made by current and ex-law enforcement officers.

And in early 2018, federal investigators found a raft of disturbing and racist text messages sent by Border Patrol agents in southern Arizona after searching the phone of Matthew Bowen, an agent charged with running down a Guatemalan migrant with a Ford F-150 pickup truck. The texts, which were revealed in a court filing in federal court in Tucson, described migrants as “guats,” “wild ass shitbags,” “beaners” and “subhuman.” The messages included repeated discussions about burning the migrants up.

Several of the postings reviewed by ProPublica refer to the planned visit by members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, including Ocasio-Cortez and Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-TX), to a troubled Border Patrol facility outside of El Paso. Agents at the compound in Clint, Texas, have been accused of holding children in neglectful, inhumane conditions.

Members of the Border Patrol Facebook group were not enthused about the tour, noting that Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat from Queens, had compared Border Patrol facilities to Nazi concentration camps. Escobar is a freshman Democrat representing El Paso.

One member encouraged Border Patrol agents to hurl a “burrito at these bitches.” Another, apparently a patrol supervisor, wrote, “Fuck the hoes.” “There should be no photo ops for these scum buckets,” posted a third member.

Perhaps the most disturbing posts target Ocasio-Cortez. One includes a photo illustration of her engaged in oral sex at an immigrant detention center. Text accompanying the image reads, “Lucky Illegal Immigrant Glory Hole Special Starring AOC.”

Another is a photo illustration of a smiling President Donald Trump forcing Ocasio-Cortez’s head toward his crotch. The agent who posted the image commented: “That’s right bitches. The masses have spoken and today democracy won.”

The posts about Escobar and Ocasio-Cortez are “vile and sexist,” said a staffer for Escobar. “Furthermore, the comments made by Border Patrol agents towards immigrants, especially those that have lost their lives, are disgusting and show a complete disregard for human life and dignity.”

The head of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Joaquin Castro, reviewed the Facebook discussions and was incensed. “It confirms some of the worst criticisms of Customs and Border Protection,” said Castro, a Democrat who represents San Antonio. “These are clearly agents who are desensitized to the point of being dangerous to migrants and their co-workers.” He added that the agents who made the vulgar comments “don’t deserve to wear any uniform representing the United States of America.”

Vicki Gaubeca, director of the Southern Border Communities Coalition, said the postings are more evidence of the sexism and misogyny that has long plagued the Border Patrol. “That’s why they’re the worst at recruiting women,” said Gaubeca, whose group works to reform the agency. “They have the lowest percentage of female agents or officers of any federal law enforcement agency.”

In another thread, a group member posted a photo of father and his 23-month-old daughter lying face down in the Rio Grande. The pair drowned while trying to ford the river and cross into the U.S.; pictures of the two have circulated widely online in recent days, generating an outcry.

The member asked if the photo could have been faked because the bodies were so “clean.” (The picture was taken by an Associated Press photographer, and there is no indication that it was staged or manipulated.) “I HAVE NEVER SEEN FLOATERS LIKE THIS,” the person wrote, adding, “could this be another edited photo. We’ve all seen the dems and liberal parties do some pretty sick things…”

 

IMAGE: A U.S. Border Patrol agent (C) looks on as people separated by immigration wait to see their relatives at an open gate on the fence along the Mexico and U.S border, as photographed from Tijuana, Mexico February 11, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Duenes

Federal Judge Dismisses Charges Against RAM White Supremacists

A federal judge on Monday dismissed charges against three members of a white supremacist gang indicted for their roles in violent rallies across California in 2017, saying the federal statute used to prosecute them was unconstitutional.

The three men, members of the Rise Above Movement, a violent, racist organization based in Southern California, had been charged under a federal anti-riot statute with planning and then carrying out assaults at 2017 rallies in Huntington Beach, San Bernardino and Berkeley in the volatile months after President Donald Trump’s election.

“The defendants used the Internet to coordinate combat training in preparation for the events,” federal prosecutors alleged in a criminal complaint filed late last year, “to arrange travel to the events, to coordinate attendance at the events, and to celebrate their acts of violence in order to recruit members for future events.”

In dismissing the charges, the judge, Cormac Carney, did not say that assaults didn’t happen or that the men could not be potentially charged with criminal acts. Instead, he ruled that the anti-riot statute of 1968 was overly broad and criminalized not only incitement of acts of violence, but also the planning and organization a person might do months in advance of a potential riot, even if the riot never happened. In that, Carney held, the statute could be seen to infringe on First Amendment rights governing free speech, since the calls to action did not constitute an imminent threat.

“It is easy to champion free speech when it advocates a viewpoint with which we agree,” Carney wrote. “It is much harder when the speech promotes ideas that we find abhorrent. But an essential function of free speech is to invite dispute. Speech ‘may indeed best serve its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger.’”

The judge, near the end of his ruling, listed other charges a prosecutor could use to deal with violent public demonstrations.

“Make no mistake that it is reprehensible to throw punches in the name of teaching Antifa some lesson,” Carney wrote, referring to the far-left counter-protesters who have fought with white supremacists at various rallies in the last several years. “Nor does the Court condone RAM’s hateful and toxic ideology. But the government has sufficient means at its disposal to prevent and punish such behavior without sacrificing the First Amendment.”

Prosecutors said they were considering their next steps. “We are disappointed with the court’s ruling, and we are reviewing possible grounds for appeal,” said Ciaran McEvoy, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles.

Carney ordered the release of two of the men, Robert Rundo and Robert Boman; the third, Aaron Eason, was already free on bond. A fourth RAM member, Tyler Laube, pleaded guilty earlier, but his case will now most likely be revisited.

In a separate case brought in federal court in Virginia, three other RAM members and a RAM associate have pleaded guilty to similar riot charges for their actions during the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville in the summer of 2017. The California judge’s ruling is unlikely to have an immediate effect on those cases.

On its YouTube channel, RAM celebrated with a brief video featuring a photo of Rundo in a tank top and the words “all charges dropped.” In a post on Gab, a far-right social media platform, RAM added, “Just goes to show, never take a plea deal, always fight for the truth.”

The group’s supporters reacted to the news with enthusiasm. “Thank God,” wrote one commenter in response to the Gab post. Other commenters chimed in with “Sieg Heil!” and its English translation, “Hail victory,” an infamous slogan used by the Nazis.

RAM’s first public appearance was at a chaotic pro-Trump rally in Huntington Beach in March 2017. During the event, Laube assaulted a journalist with the OC Weekly, Frank Tristan, who was covering the scene for the newspaper. Two OC Weekly photojournalists were also roughed up during the melee.

Former OC Weekly editor Nick Schou helped to oversee the publication at the time, as well as its subsequent reporting on RAM, whose members reside primarily in Orange County and to the north in Los Angeles County’s beach cities. “It’s extremely disappointing to me,” Schou said of the judge’s ruling.

“What happened there with our employees was a warm-up for Charlottesville,” he said, adding that local and state police did little to investigate the violence at the rally, and noting that the federal charges came down more than 18 months after the Orange County event. “The lack of any official law enforcement response in the immediate aftermath of the Huntington Beach attack arguably enabled the much more extreme and fatal attack that happened in Charlottesville.”

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

IMAGE: A screenshot from a livestream shows Robert Rundo, right, at a march in San Bernardino, California, in 2017. (Via the Red Elephants YouTube page)

Over 200 Allegations Of Abuse Of Migrant Children — And One DHS Employee Disciplined

From 2009 to 2014, at least 214 complaints were filed against federal agents for abusing or mistreating migrant children. According to the Department of Homeland Security’s records, only one employee was disciplined as a result of a complaint.

The department’s records, which have alarmed advocates for migrants given the more aggressive approach to the treatment of minors at the border under the current administration, emerged as part of a federal lawsuit seeking the release of the names of the accused agents.

Last month, attorneys for DHS argued before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco that disclosing the names of the federal agents would infringe on their right to privacy. A district judge had earlier ordered the department to make the names public.

The fact that only a single case of discipline apparently resulted from more than 200 complaints of child abuse clearly worried the district judge, John Tuchi, of Arizona, who ruled on the matter in the spring of 2018. In his order demanding the release of the names, Tuchi faulted DHS for failing to vigorously investigate claims of misconduct, stating that “completed investigations were almost nonexistent.”

DHS declined to comment for this story.

The ongoing legal battle stretches back to 2014, when American Civil Liberties Union chapters in Arizona and Southern California began seeking details about the alleged mistreatment of minors apprehended and detained by Customs and Border Protection, an agency within Homeland Security. Using the Freedom of Information Act, attorneys with the ACLU approached DHS with a request for copies of all records regarding the verbal, physical and sexual abuse of minors by Customs or Border Patrol personnel.

The ACLU’s fact-finding initiative came as the federal government struggled to deal with a massive spike in the number of children — many from violence-plagued Central American countries, many unaccompanied by parents — crossing the southern border into the U.S.

Hoping to speed the release of the documents, the ACLU later filed suit. While the federal government eventually turned over some 30,000 pages of heavily redacted records, including 214 allegations of child abuse by agents, it has balked at disclosing the names of the Border Patrol and Customs personnel alleged to have harmed minors.

ACLU attorney Mitra Ebadolahi said that without the names of Customs and Border Protection employees — or some other way to identify them, such as tracking numbers — it’s impossible to divine basic facts about the agency’s handling of children. “We don’t know the total number of complaints submitted by a child or on behalf of a child,” Ebadolahi said in an interview, noting that there are likely far more than 214 complaints. “We don’t know the number of agents implicated. Is it a handful of agents? Are they clustered in a certain sector? Were any of those agents disciplined?”

The single disciplinary record released by DHS involved an employee with Immigration and Customs Enforcement who verbally abused a minor.

DHS maintains that the records it has already shared offer a detailed picture of the abuse allegations — including date, location and the substance of the complaint — as well as the government’s efforts to investigate them. For the public, there’s little value in “knowing the names of specific individual agents who have been subject to allegations of misconduct,” said DHS attorney Laura Myron during oral arguments before the 9th Circuit on May 16. Myron stressed that the privacy rights of Border Patrol and Customs employees would be violated by the release of their names in connection with the abuse complaints.

Myron disputed Tuchi’s view that DHS had failed to thoroughly investigate the allegations, saying his statement was not supported by the evidence presented in the case, or the documents turned over to the ACLU.

In court, Judge Sandra Ikuta expressed concern that the ACLU would “harass” the employees and endanger their lives by publishing their names.

“We would accept some alternative [to the release of the names] that would allow the public to look at the records that we’ve obtained and make sense of them,” Ebadolahi responded. “There are cases where agencies have done that.”

The complaints unearthed by Ebadolahi and her colleagues, though redacted, offer glimpses of troubling patterns of behavior within the ranks. One boy told investigators “that during his apprehension by Border Patrol agents he was hit on the head with a flashlight. … He sustained a laceration to his scalp that required three (3) staples.” The boy’s story was buttressed by the fact that he had three clearly visible staples closing a fresh wound on his head. Other children reported being punched, shocked with Tasers, and denied food and medicine. Many described being bludgeoned with flashlights.

In one memo, from June 2014, a DHS investigator suggested shutting down an investigation into a minor offense because the department was deluged with a “huge amount of more serious complaints.”

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

 

‘RAM’ White Supremacists Charged in Charlottesville Riot Plead Guilty

Last year, when federal authorities arrested and charged four members or associates of a white supremacist gang for their roles in the infamous 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, the men and their supporters struck a defiant tone.

The men proclaimed their innocence, and their backers described them in social media posts as “patriots” and “political prisoners.” The gang, known as the Rise Above Movement and based in Southern California, set up an anonymous tip line for people to share evidence that might exonerate the imprisoned members, and it established a legal defense fund, with donations taken via PayPal and bitcoin.

But in the following months, the men, one after the other, have pleaded guilty. Last Friday saw the final two guilty pleas, including one from Ben Daley, 26, one of the group’s leaders. He was joined by Michael Miselis, 30, a former Northrop Grumman aerospace engineer. The men pleaded guilty to conspiracy to riot.

“These avowed white supremacists traveled to Charlottesville to incite and commit acts of violence, not to engage in peaceful First Amendment expression,” U.S. Attorney Thomas T. Cullen said in announcing the guilty pleas. “Although the First Amendment protects an organization’s right to express abhorrent political views, it does not authorize senseless violence in furtherance of a political agenda.”

The Rise Above Movement and its role in the violence in Charlottesville in 2017 and at rallies in other cities was the subject of reporting by ProPublica and Frontline, work the authorities have credited in taking action against the men. Federal prosecutors in California are pursuing charges against four other RAM members, including its founder, Robert Rundo.

The plea documents filed during Friday’s court proceedings in Charlottesville lay out a detailed narrative of what the authorities say were RAM’s repeated acts of violence two years ago.

The narrative chronicles RAM’s combat training and the visual evidence capturing its members attacking protesters, including in Charlottesville, where, the authorities spell out, they “collectively pushed, punched, kicked, choked, head-butted, and otherwise assaulted several individuals, resulting in a riot.”

In pleading guilty, the authorities said, Daley and Miselis admitted their actions were not in self-defense.

In the contemporary white supremacist scene, RAM had positioned itself as the violent vanguard of the movement, a successor to the volatile and hyper-aggressive skinhead gangs that were prevalent during the 1980s and 1990s. Since its formation in 2016, the group has recruited several members of the Hammerskin Nation, the largest skinhead gang in the country, which has been tied to numerous killings, including the massacre of six Sikh worshippers at a temple outside Milwaukee.

Though RAM has eschewed the skinhead style — combat boots and bomber jackets — in favor of a more mainstream look, its members have embraced the bloody tactics of the Nazi skinhead gangs.

Miselis, a onetime engineering student at UCLA, was fired from his job at Northrop Grumman after ProPublica and Frontline exposed his membership in RAM. In a companywide email, then-CEO Wesley Bush said he was “deeply saddened yesterday to see news reports alleging that one of our employees engaged in violence as part of the Charlottesville protests.” Miselis held a government-issued security clearance while at Northrop, a major defense contractor, though the company has so far declined to say what projects Miselis was assigned to.

Rundo, who was living in Orange County at the time of his arrest, has also portrayed the federal prosecutions as a miscarriage of justice. “The rioting charges brought against us have not been used in 70 years,” Rundo said in a jailhouse interview posted on YouTube in February. “This has little to do with rioting and all to do with censorship and silencing anyone that they deem too radical by today’s standards.”

In the interview, Rundo blamed the media for demonizing RAM and described the group as a self-improvement club for white men.

Rundo has pleaded not guilty, and he could be headed to trial.

The RAM prosecutions have become something of a cause celebre for the racist right. Augustus Invictus, a fringe political figure and attorney, has set up a legal defense fund to solicit donations for the RAM members facing charges. “The federal government has taken an absolute political hard line against the right wing,” Invictus said in a 53-minute YouTube video discussing the case. The video has generated more than 22,000 views and nearly 700 comments, most of them sympathetic to RAM and many of them racist, anti-Semitic, and Islamophobic.

One of RAM’s most infamous supporters is Robert Bowers, the Pennsylvania man accused of murdering 11 congregants at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh last October. Shortly before the massacre, Bowers posted a message decrying the RAM prosecutions on Gab, a far-right social media platform. Bowers has pleaded not guilty in the unfolding case.

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

IMAGE: Neo Nazis, Alt-Right, and White Supremacists encircle and chant at counter protestors at the base of a statue of Thomas Jefferson after marching through the University of Virginia campus with torches in Charlottesville, Va., on August 11, 2017. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Daily Caller Fires White Supremacist

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.
by A.C. Thompson ProPublica

On May 14, The Daily Caller, a popular conservative website, published a news story about recent protests in Charlottesville, Virginia. Led by prominent white supremacists and anti-Semites, the protesters, some carrying the battle flag of the Confederacy, expressed their anger over the city’s plans to remove a large monument to Robert E. Lee.

The article noted that some 200 people had carried torches in a march to the monument, a procession it called “visually striking.” It also quoted a young black man speaking favorably about one of the protest’s organizers.

The story, it turned out, also carried some critical omissions: It didn’t disclose that its author, Jason Kessler, is supportive of white supremacist groups, and on the day of the march had himself made a speech to the protesters in which he praised fascist and racist organizations, thanked a prominent Holocaust denier, and declared the beginnings of a cultural “civil war.”

ProPublica contacted Kessler after the article’s publication. In the course of an extended interview, Kessler said he saw efforts to remove symbols of the Confederacy as part of a broader attack on white people who, in his view, face an “existential crisis.”

“White people are rapidly becoming a minority in the U.S. and Europe,” he said, adding that he resented the country having to take in immigrants and refugees. “If we’re not able to advocate for ourselves we may go extinct.”

ProPublica also contacted The Daily Caller. Widely read in right-wing circles — the site gets nearly 10 million unique visitors per month, according to Quantcast — The Daily Caller was co-founded in 2010 by Tucker Carlson, who served as editor-in-chief until late last year when he took a prime-time job at Fox News. Carlson, who hosts a nightly show in the time slot that once belonged to Bill O’Reilly, remains co-owner of the site. Like Breitbart News, The Daily Caller has found an audience by posting a constant stream of punchy news stories, some of them imbued with racial overtones.

Within hours of being contacted by a ProPublica reporter, The Daily Caller appended an editor’s note to the article and severed its ties with Kessler. The editor’s note states, “The author notified The Daily Caller after publication that he spoke at a luncheon May 14 on behalf of an effort to preserve the monument.”

“The story is factually accurate and plainly states what happened at the event,” said Paul Conner, executive editor of The Daily Caller. “But in light of his activism on the issue, we have mutually agreed to suspend our freelance relationship with him.”

Asked about the substance of Kessler’s speech in Charlottesville, Conner offered no comment on Kessler’s statements. In an email, he said only, “We pay writers for journalism, not their opinions.”

The debate around Civil War monuments has become one of the many flashpoints at a racially volatile moment in the country’s history. In recent years, public officials throughout the South have sought to vanquish symbols of the Confederacy: In 2015, South Carolina took down the confederate flag that had long flown over the state capitol; more recently, New Orleans removed three statues of rebel war leaders that had dotted the city’s landscape, as well as a tall stone obelisk commemorating a Reconstruction-era uprising led by the White League, a racist militia.

In a speech that gained national attention, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu argued that the statues had originally been erected in an effort to “rebrand” the Confederate cause. “These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for,” Landrieu said.

The Daily Caller has followed these developments closely, and its readers seem to appreciate the coverage. Kessler’s story generated 146 comments, many expressing support for the Confederate monuments, some openly hostile towards African Americans. A May 20 piece on an Alabama Senate bill that would preserve the monuments in that state spurred nearly 130,000 shares on Facebook, as well as a lengthy chain of comments, a large number of them lauding Alabama lawmakers for their stance.

The event in Charlottesville included an appearance by Richard Spencer, president of the National Policy Institute, a white nationalist organization. Kessler quoted Spencer in the article, which chiefly portrayed the protest as a pushback against “left-wing ideologues who want to tear down statues, change the names of buildings and rewrite history books to place white people in an unsympathetic and even hostile light.”

“We are here to say no; no more attacks on our heritage, on our identity; no more attacks on us as a people,” Kessler quoted Spencer as saying.

Kessler’s story made no mention of his own talk before the protesters. Speaking during an outdoor luncheon, Kessler praised groups such as the American Vanguard, an organization that espouses the eradication of the country’s democratic structure of governance. He hailed Matthew Heimbach, who views himself as a warrior against Jews and people of color, and Sam Dickson, a denier of the Nazi Holocaust who has been involved in racist activities since the 1970s.

In the interview, Kessler, accused ProPublica of trying to sabotage his journalism career. Kessler, 33, lives in Charlottesville, where he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor assault charge in April; in mid-May he was arrested again, this time for disorderly conduct stemming from a scuffle at an anti-racist rally in his hometown. Kessler is fighting the charges and is slated to go to trial later this year. Kessler has written stories for his own website, Jasonkessler.net — his tagline is “Real News” — VDare, and GotNews, the website run by Internet provocateur Charles C. Johnson. In addition to written journalism, he posts video logs to YouTube, composes fiction and poetry, and maintains a constant presence on Twitter. He heads a small activist group called Unity and Security for America that aims to drastically limit immigration to the U.S. from non-European countries so as to stave off the impending “white genocide” in America.

Kessler describes himself as an “activist-journalist” on the issue of saving monuments honoring the Confederacy. He said he views the white supremacists and fascists as allies but doesn’t subscribe to all of their views. He insists he’s not a racist or an anti-Semite.

“I just wanted to thank people for coming out and supporting the monuments. That doesn’t mean I support all their politics,” he said of his talk to the protesters. “I’m not going to sit and pass judgment on these people for the views they express. I don’t condemn or endorse what other people say.”

“The most extreme people are the bravest people,” Kessler told ProPublica. “There’s a paucity of people who are willing to take a stand for white civil rights.”

Kessler said whites may need to create their own homeland, an ethnic state for people of European descent. Still, he added in the interview, “As far as being hateful towards other people, I’m not on board.”

In a YouTube clip posted the same day as his interview with ProPublica, Kessler floated the theory that Jews are relying on “collusion and nepotism” to seize power and influence for themselves.

In Kessler’s view, his friends within the neo-Nazi and white supremacist milieu aren’t hurting anybody. In any case, he said, he’s more concerned about the “little white girls being blown up by” Islamist terrorists.

The Anti-Defamation League, which studies trends on the extreme right, has a different take, noting that white racists and anti-government militants have left a long trail of violence in their wake, killing some 255 people and injuring more than 600 in terror attacks over the past quarter century, according to a recent ADL report.

In a March attack, a white supremacist and former U.S. Army soldier impaled an African-American man with a 26-inch sword near New York’s Times Square, killing the victim. In Portland, Oregon, another white supremacist, Jeremy Christian, allegedly stabbed two men to death on a commuter train on May 26 while shouting anti-Muslim statements.  And earlier this month, law enforcement investigators found bomb materials at the Florida home of a 21-year-old member of the Atomwaffen Division, a neo-Nazi group, leading to federal charges.

“Kessler is representative of what hate looks like today, operating at the center of several movements that have arisen over the last few years,” said Oren Segal, Director of the ADL’s Center on Extremism. “He clearly sympathizes with white supremacists, but like many on the alt-right seeks to deflect such notions by presenting his words and activity as a mere response to multiculturalism and an assault from the left.”

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California Hate Crime Against Sikh Man Yields Prison Terms For Assailants

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.
by A.C. Thompson 

Wearing a slightly baggy suit, a maroon turban wrapped around his head, Maan Singh Khalsa looked across the courtroom at Judge Patricia Scanlon and wiggled his right hand.

The damage was obvious: Most of Khalsa’s pinky finger was missing.

“My attackers hit me with their fists, knocked off my turban, and yelled, ‘Cut his fucking hair.’ They yanked my hair through the window and used a knife to saw parts of it off. In the course of the attack, as I tried to protect my hair and my head, my right finger was stabbed, and eventually required amputation.”

Khalsa, an Indian immigrant and adherent of the Sikh faith, spoke softly and calmly during the hearing on Thursday. But with those words he was trying to close the book on a hate crime case that gained national attention last fall.

Khalsa was attacked last September on a roadway in Richmond, California, a tough oil refinery town perched on the edge of the San Francisco Bay. Now, on the left side of the courtroom, confined to a cage made of glass and black steel, stood Khalsa’s assailants, Colton Tye Leblanc, 25, and Chase Little, 31.

The episode started on the night of Sept. 25, 2016, when LeBlanc, Little and three other men working for an oil services company pulled up to a stoplight in a Ford F-150 pickup truck. Khalsa was driving a car in the next lane over. Somebody in the truck hurled a beer can at him. Soon the situation turned violent, with LeBlanc and Little, both white men, punching Khalsa, an IT specialist for the Social Security Administration, through his car window.

Then the knife came out.

“Observant Sikhs like me keep our hair unshorn in order to live in harmony with the will of God. Cutting a Sikh’s hair is one of the most humiliating things anyone can do a Sikh,” Khalsa told the court.

Before the assault, he said, “I was so carefree. I considered myself an American like everyone else. I had never worried about being the victim of prejudice. I enjoyed my life fully.”

The violence has been transformative. “When the traffic light turned green I was able to drive away from the attackers, but my life is forever changed,” said Khalsa. Now, he said, “It is difficult for me to go out in public.”

Khalsa said he has suffered short-term memory lapses, depression, bouts of anxiety. He said he has trouble typing and using his right hand in general.

After Khalsa shared his story with the court, LeBlanc and Little pleaded no contest to aggravated assault and hate crimes charges. Neither man offered an apology.

Scanlon handed each of them a three-year state prison term, with any restitution payments to be discussed at a later court hearing. It was a negotiated outcome, a deal struck by defense attorneys and County Prosecutor Simon O’Connell.

Back in November, LeBlanc’s attorney, Joseph Tully, dismissed the notion that his client targeted Khalsa due to Khalsa’s ethnicity or religion. “This was simply a fight over a beer can at a stoplight which can’t be elevated to a hate crime under any circumstance,” he said at the time.

Now, even as LeBlanc and Little prepared for an extended stay in the state penal system, Tully remained defiant, claiming to have amassed evidence essentially clearing his client and portraying Khalsa not as a victim but an aggressor, who had used his car as a weapon at some point in the altercation.

“I’ve laughed every time I’ve heard that,” responded O’Connell, the prosecutor. “The defense kept saying they were going to present all this exonerating evidence, but then they turned around and quite readily agreed to plead to the charges.”

Though Khalsa “might have panicked” while behind the wheel, he didn’t do anything malicious, said O’Connell.

For O’Connell, the conviction of LeBlanc and Little represented a significant victory.

Hate crime cases are especially challenging for prosecutors, who must prove not just that a defendant has committed a crime, but that he or she was motivated by animus towards the victim’s race, religion, nationality or other identity characteristic. In 2015, California prosecutors secured convictions on hate crimes charges in less than 50 percent of the cases they filed, according to figures compiled by the California Department of Justice. O’Connell’s colleagues in the Contra Costa district attorney’s office dropped hate crimes charges in another high-profile case, the murder of Will Sims, an African-American musician who was beaten and shot to death in November 2016 after a dispute in a bar.

For Khalsa, the morning in court was an opportunity to live out the principles of his faith.

At one point he looked directly at his assailants:

“As a Sikh, I believe that all of us are one human family, and that we must treat everyone as equals regardless of our many differences. Mr. Little and Mr. LeBlanc, I hope that one day you will come to share this view. I still consider you my brothers, and I hope that you will learn about me and my community, and one day consider me your brother, too.”

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The Government Really Did Fear A ‘Bowling Green Massacre’ — From A White Supremacist

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica. This story was co-published with The New York Times.

The year was 2012. The place was Bowling Green, Ohio. A federal raid had uncovered what the authorities feared were the makings of a massacre. There were 18 firearms, among them two AR–15 assault rifles, an AR–10 assault rifle, and a Remington Model 700 sniper rifle. There was body armor, too, and the authorities counted some 40,000 rounds of ammunition. An extremist had been arrested, and prosecutors suspected that he had been aiming to carry out a wide assortment of killings.

“This defendant, quite simply, was a well-funded, well-armed, and focused one-man army of racial and religious hate,” prosecutors said in a court filing.

The man arrested and charged was Richard Schmidt, a middle-aged owner of a sports-memorabilia business at a mall in town. Prosecutors would later call him a white supremacist. His planned targets, federal authorities said, had been African-Americans and Jews. They’d found a list with the names and addresses of those to be assassinated, including the leaders of NAACP chapters in Michigan and Ohio.

But Schmidt wound up being sentenced to less than six years in prison, after a federal judge said prosecutors had failed to adequately establish that he was a political terrorist, and he is scheduled for release in February 2018. The foiling of what the government worried was a credible plan for mass murder gained little national attention.

For some concerned about America’s vulnerability to terrorism, the very real, mostly forgotten case of Richard Schmidt in Bowling Green, Ohio, deserves an important place in any debate about what is real and what is fake, what gets reported on by the news media and what doesn’t. Those deeply worried about domestic far-right terrorism believe United States authorities, across many administrations, have regularly underplayed the threat, and that the media has repeatedly underreported it. Perhaps we have become trapped in one view of what constitutes the terrorist threat, and as the case of Schmidt shows, that’s a problem.

The notion of a “Bowling Green massacre,” of course, has been in the news recently. Kellyanne Conway, a senior adviser to President Donald Trump, referred to it in justifying the president’s travel ban on people from seven predominantly Muslim countries. Conway had Bowling Green, Kentucky, in mind, but she eventually conceded there had been no massacre there. She meant, she said, to refer to the 2011 case of two Iraqi refugees who had moved to Kentucky and been convicted of trying to aid attacks on American military personnel in Iraq. One was sentenced to 40 years, the other to life in prison.

Her gaffe, accidental or intentional, prompted a mock vigil in New York and a flood of internet memes. The imaginary massacre now even has its own Wikipedia page.

On Monday, Trump made the provocative, unsubstantiated claim that the American media intentionally failed to cover acts of terrorism around the globe. “It’s gotten to a point where it’s not even being reported,” he said in a speech to military commanders. “And in many cases the very, very dishonest press doesn’t want to report it. They have their reasons, and you understand that.”

At the Southern Poverty Law Center, Ryan Lenz tracks racist and extreme-right terrorists. So far, he said, he’s seen little from the Trump administration to suggest it will make a priority of combating political violence carried out by American racist groups.

“It doesn’t seem at all like they are interested in pursuing extremists inspired by radical right ideologies,” said Lenz, who edits the organization’s HateWatch publication.

Indeed, Reuters reported last week that the Department of Homeland Security is planning to retool its Countering Violent Extremism program to focus solely on Islamic radicals. Government sources told the news agency the program would be rebranded as “Countering Islamic Extremism” or “Countering Radical Islamic Extremism,” and “would no longer target groups such as white supremacists who have also carried out bombings and shootings in the United States.”

It wouldn’t be the first time the Department of Homeland Security chose to look away. In 2009, Daryl Johnson, then an analyst with the department, drafted a study of right-wing radicals in the United States. Johnson saw a confluence of factors that might energize the movement and its threat: the historic election of an African-American president; rising rates of immigration; proposed gun control legislation; and a wave of military veterans returning to civilian life at a time of painful economic recession.

The report predicted an uptick in extremist activity, particularly within “the white supremacist and militia movements.”

Response to the document was swift and punishing. Conservative news outlets and Republican leaders condemned Johnson’s report as a work of “anti-military bigotry” and an attack on conservative opinion. Janet Napolitano, the head of Homeland Security at the time, retracted the report and closed Johnson’s office, the Extremism and Radicalization Branch.

Three years later, Richard Schmidt came to the attention of the federal government almost by accident. Schmidt had been suspected of trading in counterfeit NFL jerseys. Searching his home and store for fake goods, FBI agents discovered something far more sinister: a vast arsenal. A secret room attached to Schmidt’s shop “contained nothing but his rifles, ammunition, body armor, his writings, and a cot,” wrote prosecutors in a court document.

Beefy, thick-necked, standing 6-foot-4, and weighing about 250 pounds, Schmidt had spent years in the Army as an active-duty soldier and a reservist. His military service ended in 1989 when he got into a fight and shot three people, killing one of them, a man named Anthony Torres. As a result, Schmidt spent 13 years in prison on a manslaughter conviction and was legally barred from owning firearms.

After searching his property, the government came to believe he was involved with the National Alliance, a virulent and long-running extremist group, which was once among the nation’s most powerful white supremacist organizations. They also suspected him of an affiliation with the Vinlanders, a neo-Nazi skinhead gang.

Founded by William Pierce, who died in 2002, the National Alliance has long been linked to terrorism. Pierce, who started the group in 1970 and ran it for many years from a compound in West Virginia, wrote The Turner Diaries, an apocalyptic novel that basically lays out a blueprint for unleashing a white supremacist insurgency against the government. The novel was described by Timothy J. McVeigh as the inspiration for his bombing in 1995 of a federal office building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people.

FBI agents came to believe Schmidt had been planning his own string of racially motivated attacks on African-American and Jewish community leaders. The agents spread out across Ohio and Michigan to alert his apparent targets. “They had a notebook of information from Schmidt’s home,” recalled Scott Kaufman, the chief executive of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit. “Some of the items related specifically to our organization and staff — people’s names, locations, maps. It was certainly disturbing.”

In court, the defense lawyer Edward G. Bryan disputed the government’s portrayal of Schmidt, who was 47 at the time of his arrest. Bryan painted his client as a slightly eccentric survivalist who didn’t intend to “harm anyone, including those listed in written materials found within his property.”

The government saw it differently. Schmidt, prosecutors wrote in a sentencing memo filed in court, planned to assassinate “members of religious and cultural groups based only on their race, religion, and ethnicity.” His cache of weapons, added prosecutors, had only one purpose: to start a “race war.” Other court documents suggest that he planned to videotape his killing spree and email the video clips to his fellow white supremacists.

After pleading guilty to weapons and counterfeiting charges, Schmidt was sentenced to 71 months in federal prison by Judge Jack Zouhary in December 2013.

These days, Kaufman of the Jewish Federation in Detroit doesn’t think much about Schmidt. He’s got plenty of other things to worry about. “In the last two weeks in our community we’ve had two bomb scares,” as well as an incident involving spray-painted swastikas, he said. He’s noted a spike in anti-Semitic incidents over the past year.

“This whole thing is trending in the wrong direction,” he said.

IMAGE: Richard Schmidt / Department of Justice