The site of four violent clashes this year, Berkeley has become a symbolic battleground for white supremacists hoping to advance their ideology by fighting antifascists in the streets. But it’s unclear what the city’s police force is doing to identify and prosecute white supremacist gang members instigating the violence.
In fact, some law enforcement agencies won’t even say whether they’re identifying hate groups as gangs or terrorists, even though many fit law enforcement definitions of gangs and terrorist networks — including those spelled out in California’s 30-year-old gang law, the Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act of 1988.
That’s partly because some law enforcement officials are wary of being perceived as investigating any person or group for political views. For example, when asked about white supremacists involved in Berkeley’s recent violence, the FBI’s San Francisco field office stated that it “respects and observes an individual’s constitutionally protected First Amendment rights and does not initiate or conduct investigations based solely on an individual’s First Amendment rights or other constitutionally protected activities.”
Berkeley police officials said they’re continuing to review video evidence from previous demonstrations to possibly bring more charges. But they declined to say whether they’re focusing on white supremacist gangs because investigations are ongoing.
In California, police normally deal with gangs by documenting the ways in which they fit specific criteria — by claiming territory, wearing colors, or using handsigns to identify. The police gather intelligence for use either in racketeering cases, gang injunctions, or charging enhancements to other crimes. In a vast majority of cases, California law enforcement uses these statutes against Blacks and Latinos. White supremacists are also occasionally charged with gang statutes, typically in Southern California where they are more prevalent.
Some law enforcement agencies have long devoted personnel to researching white supremacist gangs. Two California sheriff’s deputies specializing in intelligence on white power gangs spoke to the Express on the condition of anonymity because they’re currently investigating neo-Nazi gangs. One deputy, who has investigated these groups for more than a decade, said his agency keeps tabs on both traditional neo-Nazi skinheads and newer “alt-right” groups.
“They’re not what society expects them to be in terms of our traditional images of gangs,” the sheriff’s deputy said. He added that his agency considers Heather Heyer’s killing in Charlottesville, Va., to be an act of domestic terrorism. “Everybody is on high alert now — every city is capable of having a Charlottesville,” he said.
Social media, police records, and other documents reveal that members of violent white racist gangs were present in Berkeley earlier this year and some have posted on social media that they plan to return.
One of these individuals, Robert Rundo, was arrested by Berkeley police on April 15 for battery of an officer. He’s yet to be charged with a crime, but Rundo, a 26-year-old resident of San Clemente in Orange County, is affiliated with a newly established white supremacist gang known as the “Rise Above Movement,” or RAM.
RAM’s members wear gray shirts, flash hand signs, mark territory with graffiti, and use violent tactics against their enemies, according to a propaganda video posted by the group on YouTube, as well as hundreds of social media comments and pictures. In several videos of the Berkeley April 15 protests, RAM members can be seen fighting counterprotesters.
Another RAM member, identified as “Robert Boman” on Facebook, attended the April 15 Berkeley rally, according to pictures he posted later on social media. His Facebook account is filled with anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim comments, as well as propaganda images labeled “Fash Pride Worldwide.”
Boman appears in several news media photos from the Berkeley April 15 violence fighting alongside Nathan Damigo, a Marine Corps veteran who became a white supremacist while incarcerated on an armed robbery conviction in San Diego. In the past year, Damigo has emerged as a force in California’s white supremacist movement after founding Identity Evropa, which seeks to recruit on college campuses. Damigo played a key role in organizing the deadly neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville.
Several other individuals associated with RAM link the group directly to one of America’s largest neo-Nazi gangs.
A man known on social media as “Spencer” or “Putin Junior” appears in news media photos and videos training with RAM and fighting in Berkeley, although he is not identified specifically by name. Spencer sings in a band called Hate Your Neighbor. He and the band’s drummer, who uses the pseudonym Spader Wilhammer on social media, are affiliated with the white supremacist group Hammerskin Nation. Wilhammer has posted photographs of himself making a crossed-arm gesture associated with the Hammerskins and wearing a jacket with a “Hammerskin 38” logo. Their band played a Hammerskins gathering in Georgia last October.
Other RAM members, including a man named “Ben Daley” on Facebook, were also photographed by news media making the Hammerskin’s cross-arm sign during the Berkeley clashes. Daley also was recently photographed protecting Damigo in Charlottesville.
Since their founding in 1988, the Hammerskins have espoused violence to advance white power. In 1989, a federal grand jury indicted 16 members of Hammerskins for randomly ambushing and assaulting Blacks and Latinos and defacing a synagogue. More recently, in 2012, Hammerskin member Wade Michael Page killed six people in a hate crime at a Wisconsin Sikh temple. Page’s crime is often referred to as an incident of domestic terrorism, and his associations with the Hammerskins are one of the reasons why some law enforcement officials consider the Hammerskins to straddle the line between a gang and a domestic terror organization.
Another sheriff’s deputy working an intelligence assignment said groups like RAM and the Hammerskins have to travel extensively to congregate in numbers, due to California’s overwhelmingly liberal demographics. “Now, because of social media and other stuff, it’s easier for them to hook up, and they will travel to join other like-minded people,” one of the sheriff’s gang-unit deputies said.
Members of RAM, a group that proudly identifies as fascist, also openly associate with The Proud Boys, another far-right group involved in recent Berkeley violence. Created by Vice Media co-founder Gavin McInnes, the Proud Boys are self-proclaimed “Western Chauvinists” who wear black and yellow polo shirts and are “jumped in” to membership through a beating administered by their comrades. Jason Kessler, the white supremacist organizer of the Charlottesville rally, was “jumped in” by the Proud Boys as an honorary member.
Proud Boys fought alongside RAM, several Hammerskins, and Identity Evropa leader Damigo in Berkeley in spring.
Moreover, Proud Boys leader and Santa Ana resident Juan “Johnny Benitez” Cadavid, has appeared in multiple photos with members of the RAM at far-right rallies. Cadavid appears in numerous news media photos fighting in Berkeley’s streets last spring. But Proud Boys members who have attended Berkeley rallies this year are mostly Bay Area locals.
Proud Boys member Ramsey Lemaich, a Navy lieutenant who works as a supply officer, resides in Danville and was photographed with McInnes this spring. Rey Thomas Guillen, one of the administrators on the Proud Boys “vetting” Facebook group, resides in San Jose. Guillen, who was at both April Berkeley protests, has posted images of a pistol and modified semi-automatic rifle on his public Facebook page. Two other administrators on the Proud Boys vetting website, Chad Lanyon and Cody Rutland, are Santa Clara County residents with criminal records.
While law enforcement sources are on high alert after Charlottesville, they cautioned that there is a fine line between First Amendment protected speech, including hate-rhetoric, and criminal incitements to violence. “It’s difficult to go after these guys, so what ends up happening is you try to develop sources of information and end up having sources into the group so that you know if something is going to jump off that involves violence,” one of the gang-unit sheriff’s deputies said.
At the same time, the newer “alt-right” groups fit many of the definitions used to identify other criminal street gangs. “As far as we’re concerned, these alt-right groups you’re talking about are gangs just like the Skinheads,” the other gang-unit sheriff’s deputy told the Express.