Four members of a white supremacist group from California have been arrested on charges they travelled to Virginia last year to incite a riot and attack counter-protesters at a white nationalist rally that turned deadly, federal authorities said Tuesday.
The defendants — Benjamin Drake Daley, Michael Paul Miselis, Thomas Walter Gillen and Cole Evan White — are part of the Rise Above Movement, which espouses anti-Semitic views and meets regularly in public parks to train in boxing and other fighting techniques, according to an affidavit written by an FBI agent.
The affidavit alleges the four men were “among the most violent individuals present in Charlottesville” in August of last year during a torch-lit march on the University of Virginia campus and a larger rally downtown the following day. It says photos and video footage shows they attacked counter-protesters, “which in some cases resulted in serious injuries.”
The men have also taken part in “acts of violence” at political rallies in Huntington Beach and Berkeley, Calif., and other places, the affidavit alleges.
“This is a group that essentially subscribes to an anti-Semitic, racist ideology, and then organizes, trains, and deploys to various political rallies, not only to espouse this particular ideology but also to engage in acts of violence against folks who are taking a contrary point of view,” U.S. Attorney Thomas Cullen said at a news conference in Charlottesville held to announce the charges.
All four men were arrested early Tuesday morning, Cullen said. Daley, Miselis and Gillen were expected to make initial court appearances later Tuesday, while White was expected in court Wednesday, he said.
It wasn’t immediately clear if they have lawyers who could comment on their behalf.
Cullen said each defendant faces a maximum of 10 years in prison if convicted on the two counts they each face: travelling to incite riots and conspiracy to riot. However, defendants often get less than the maximum under federal sentencing guidelines.
The arrests come more than a year after hundreds of white nationalists descended on Charlottesville in part to protest the planned removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.
Clashes first erupted on Aug. 11, 2017, as a crowd of white nationalists marching through the University of Virginia campus carrying torches and chanting racist slogans encountered a small group of counter-protesters.
The following day, more violence broke out between counter-protesters and attendees of the “Unite the Right” rally, which was believed to be the largest gathering of white nationalists in at least a decade. Street fighting exploded before the event could begin as scheduled and went on for nearly an hour in view of police until authorities forced the crowd to disperse.
Cullen said investigators sifted through “an incredible volume” of video and still photographs to review the movements of the four men and determine whether they could claim they were only defending themselves after being attacked by others at the rally. He said prosecutors believe there was “no provocation” for them to engage in violence that day.
‘Ready to do street battle’
The four men, he said, made their way to the rally with their hands taped, “ready to do street battle.”
Then they engaged in punching, kicking, head-butting and pushing, assaulting an African-American man, two women and a minister who was wearing a clerical collar, Cullen said.
“In our view, these four committed particularly violent acts in Charlottesville. Secondly, they committed violent acts in California at other rallies. Therefore, in our view, they were essentially serial rioters,” Cullen said.
According to the Anti-Defamation League, Rise Above Movement members believe they are fighting against a “modern world” corrupted by the “destructive cultural influences” of liberals, Jews, Muslims and non-white immigrants. Members refer to themselves as the mixed martial arts club of the “alt-right” fringe movement, a loose mix of neo-Nazis, white nationalists and other far-right extremists.
Operating like street-fighting club
“They very much operate like a street-fighting club,” said Oren Segal, director of the ADL’s Center on Extremism.
Segal said the group has roots in the racist skinhead movement in southern California.
Daley, of Redondo Beach, figures “prominently” in the organization, according to the affidavit.
About two hours after authorities forced the rally to disband, a woman was killed when a car prosecutors say was driven by a man fascinated by Adolf Hitler plowed into a crowd of peaceful counter-protesters. The death toll rose to three when a state police helicopter that had been monitoring the event crashed, killing two troopers.
The suspected driver, 21-year-old James Fields Jr., of Maumee, Ohio, has been charged with federal hate crimes in the death of Heather Heyer, 32. Fields also faces state murder charges; his trial is scheduled to begin Nov. 26.
U.S. President Donald Trump sparked a public outcry after he blamed both sides for the violence.
An independent report released three months later found serious police and government failures in responding to the mayhem.