It was about 10 a.m. on Aug. 12 when the melee erupted just north of Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, Virginia.
About two dozen white supremacists — many equipped with helmets and wooden shields — were battling with a handful of counter-protesters, most of them African American. One white man dove into the violence with particular zeal. Using his fists and feet, the man attacked one person after another. 
The street fighter was in Virginia on that August morning for the “Unite the Right” rally, the largest public gathering of white supremacists in a generation, a chaotic and bloody event that would culminate, a few hours later, in the killing of 32-year-old Heather Heyer, who was there to protest the racist rally.
The violence in Charlottesville became national news. President Donald Trump’s response to it — he asserted there were “some very fine people on both sides” of the events that day — set off a wave of condemnations, from his allies as well as his critics.
But for many Americans, conservatives as well as liberals, there was shock and confusion at the sight of bands of white men bearing torches, chanting racist slogans and embracing the heroes of the Confederacy: Who were they? What are their numbers and aims?
There is, of course, no single answer. Some who were there that weekend in Charlottesville are hardened racists involved with long-running organizations like the League of the South. Many are fresh converts to white supremacist organizing, young people attracted to nativist and anti-Muslim ideas circulated on social media by leaders of the so-called alt-right, the newest branch of the white power movement. Some are paranoid characters thrilled to traffic in the symbols and coded language of vast global conspiracy theories. Others are sophisticated provocateurs who see the current political moment as a chance to push a “white agenda,” with angry positions on immigration, diversity and economic isolationism.
ProPublica spent weeks examining one distinctive group at the center of the violence in Charlottesville: an organization called the Rise Above Movement, one of whose members was the white man dispensing beatings near Emancipation Park Aug. 12.
The group, based in Southern California, claims more than 50 members and a singular purpose: physically attacking its ideological foes. RAM’s members spend weekends training in boxing and other martial arts, and they have boasted publicly of their violence during protests in Huntington Beach, San Bernardino and Berkeley. Many of the altercations have been captured on video, and its members are not hard to spot.
Indeed, ProPublica has identified the group’s core members and interviewed one of its leaders at length. The man in the Charlottesville attacks — filmed by a documentary crew working with ProPublica — is 24-year-old Ben Daley, who runs a Southern California tree-trimming business.
Many of the organization’s core members, including Daley, have serious criminal histories, according to interviews and a review of court records. Before joining RAM, several members spent time in jail or state prison on serious felony charges including assault, robbery, and gun and knife offenses. Daley did seven days in jail for carrying a concealed snub-nosed revolver. Another RAM member served a prison term for stabbing a Latino man five times in a 2009 gang assault.
“Fundamentally, RAM operates like an alt-right street-fighting club,” said Oren Segal, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism.

RAM members Ben Daley (front, center) and Tom Gillen (front, right) in Charlottesville for the Unite the Right rally (Jason Andrew for Splinter)

Despite their prior records, and open boasting of current violence, RAM has seemingly drawn little notice from law enforcement. Four episodes of violence documented by ProPublica resulted in only a single arrest — and in that case prosecutors declined to go forward. Law enforcement officials in the four cities — Charlottesville, Huntington Beach, San Bernardino and Berkeley — either would not comment about RAM or said they had too little evidence or too few resources to seriously investigate the group’s members.
In Virginia, two months after the deadly events in Charlottesville, Corinne Geller, a spokeswoman for the Virginia State Police, would not say if the police had identified RAM as a dangerous group.
“We’re not going to be releasing the names of the groups that we believe were present that day in Charlottesville,” she said. Investigators, she added, are still “reviewing footage” from the event.
Law enforcement has a mixed record when it comes to anticipating and confronting the challenge of white supremacist violence.
Often working undercover at great personal risk, federal investigators have successfully disrupted dozens of racist terror attacks. In the last year, agents have captured three Kansas men planning to bomb a mosque and an apartment complex inhabited largely by Somali immigrants, arrested a white supremacist in South Carolina as he plotted a “big scale” attack, and investigated a neo-Nazi cell that allegedly intended to blow up a nuclear power plant.
But there have also been failures. During the past five years, white supremacists, some of them members of gangs or organized political groups, have murdered at least 22 people, according to the Global Terrorism Database and news reports. And some government insiders say the intelligence services and federal law enforcement agencies have largely shifted their attention away from far-right threats in the years since 9/11, choosing instead to focus heavily on Islamic radicals, who are seen by some to pose a more immediate danger.
State and local police have struggled to respond effectively to the recent resurgence in racist political organizing. Police in Sacramento were caught unprepared in June 2016 when neo-Nazis and anti-fascist counter-protesters, or “antifa,” armed with knives and improvised weapons, clashed outside the California State Capitol during a rally. Ten people were sent to the hospital with stab wounds.
Taking a different tack, Gov. Rick Scott of Florida took the aggressive step of declaring a state of emergency in the run-up to this week’s appearance by Richard Spencer, a white supremacist scheduled to speak in Gainesville.
Michael German is a former FBI agent who during his career infiltrated a Nazi skinhead gang and militia organizations. German, now a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, said he is worried that law enforcement doesn’t comprehend the threat posed by this latest iteration of the white supremacist movement.
Police and federal agents, in his view, are “looking at this whole thing so narrowly, as two groups clashing at a protest.”
In reality, German said, “it is organized criminal activity.”

One of the first people known to have been targeted by RAM was a journalist working for OC Weekly, an irreverent liberal publication based in Orange County, California.
The date was March 25, and writer Frank John Tristan was covering a Make America Great Again rally in Huntington Beach. The event, which had drawn more than 2,000 Trump supporters, marked what seems to have been RAM’s public debut. About a dozen RAM fighters showed up, with members carrying an anti-Semitic sign and a massive banner emblazoned with the words “Defend America.”
The march also drew a small contingent of anti-Trump protesters, including some militant antifa activists, and some people intent on physically blocking the procession as it moved along the Pacific Coast Highway. Before long, the scene turned violent and brawls between the political foes swept across the beach. 

RAM members Daley, nearest at right, Tyler Laube, holding an American flag, and Robert Rundo, far left, display a “Defend America” banner at a pro-Trump rally on March 25, 2017, in Huntington Beach, California. (Brian Feinzimer for OC Weekly)

Tristan and two OC Weekly colleagues, photographers Julie Leopo and Brian Feinzimer, wound up in the conflict.
“The Trump supporters felt empowered to ridicule and intimidate me,” Leopo recalled in an OC Weekly article. “I kept shooting despite the insults and just as I was about to click the shutter on my camera, I looked up and locked eyes with a white woman carrying a flag.”
The woman struck Leopo and Feinzimer with the flagpole. A man shoved Feinzimer, sending him reeling. Tristan intervened, trying to calm the situation.
That’s when two men attacked him. One was a RAM member who charged at Tristan and began punching him in the face. The other assailant, who wasn’t a RAM fighter, grabbed Tristan’s sweatshirt and hit him with a series of punches.
Tristan was staggered. Someone standing nearby fired off a thick stream of pepper spray, and Tristan’s beating ended. Then RAM members fanned out and began fighting with other people.
Another RAM member confronted a masked counter-protester, grabbed the man, and threw him into the sand. From there he pummeled the counter-protester with his fist and elbow. Captured on video and shared through social media, the spectacle became a meme of the so-called alt-right.
In the days after the mayhem, Tristan spent hours studying shaky smartphone videos and scrolling through social media posts trying to identify the men who attacked him. He concluded that a 21-year-old man named Tyler Laube was the RAM member who struck him. Laube appears with his face uncovered in several group photographs of RAM from their training sessions in an Orange County park and at the Huntington Beach rally.
ProPublica was unable to contact Laube, but court records show he has had many entanglements with the law in recent years.

Identifying the Members of RAM

He has been convicted of fighting with a paramedic at a supermarket, illegally possessing a switchblade, disturbing the peace, and DUI, according to Los Angeles County court files. In 2015, Laube pleaded no contest to felony robbery charges — prosecutors said he partnered with another man to rob a 7-Eleven and another convenience store at gunpoint. While in jail before trial, Laube told a detective that he’d gone to a Hollywood strip club and gotten high on Xanax — the potent, often-abused prescription benzodiazepine — before acting as the wheelman in the robberies, which occurred early in the morning in Redondo Beach, according to court transcripts.
Laube, court records indicate, was on probation on the day he allegedly assaulted Tristan.
In the six months since the violent rally, state parks police have opened no criminal case in connection with the assault on Tristan and made no arrests. It is unclear how much of the abundant photographic evidence and video footage the authorities have reviewed, if any.
Capt. Kevin Pearsall, a regional superintendent with the parks police, says his officers can’t act because they’ve received no complaint from Tristan. However, former OC Weekly editor Gustavo Arellano says he’s repeatedly contacted parks police via phone and email in hopes of getting them to investigate. Parks police documents and internal emails obtained by ProPublica show that Arellano has reached out to police brass and that detectives are aware of the assault on Tristan.
Arellano said since the assault not a single law enforcement agency or official had contacted him about the alleged perpetrators.
“We know their identities,” said Arellano, who supervised Tristan and the other journalists until recently, when he left the paper amid staff cuts. “But what good is the truth when the law doesn’t give a shit?”
No charges have been brought against the people who attacked Leopo and Feinzimer, either, though Pearsall says those incidents have been examined by police. According to Pearsall, his agency, which is tasked with maintaining order in California’s vast network of parks and recreational areas, doesn’t have the resources to carry out extensive investigations and must turn to outside police forces for assistance in such cases.

In an undated photo posted to their since-deleted Instagram account, RAM members pose in skull masks.

Most of the time, the young men of the Rise Above Movement, nearly all of them in their 20s, look perfectly innocuous: close-cropped hair, clean-shaven faces, T-shirts and jeans.
But for public events, RAM has developed its own menacing signature look, with members often wearing skull masks and goggles to ward off pepper spray. At times, RAM fighters have tied American flag bandannas around their faces to conceal their identities.
A RAM recruiting video posted to YouTube and Vimeo highlights the organization’s violent raison d’être, cutting between choppy footage of RAM members brawling at public events and carefully shot scenes of them sharpening their boxing skills and doing push-ups during group workout sessions.
There is an entire ecosystem of low-budget white supremacist media outlets — websites, blogs, forums, podcasts, YouTube channels and the like — and RAM members have been hailed as heroes on some of these platforms.
“They kicked the shit out of people in Berkeley. It was great,” said a host on a racist podcast called Locker Room Talk. “They like to go to rallies and beat up Communists.” YouTube talker James Allsup saluted RAM members as the embodiment of the ideal American man.
The group portrays itself as a defense force for a Western civilization under assault by Jews, Muslims and brown-skinned immigrants from south of the Rio Grande. The RAM logo features a medieval sword with a cross on the pommel — a symbol of the crusades — and an evergreen tree. On T-shirts they wear while training, the logo appears above three words, “courage, identity, virtue.” At rallies, members have waved red-and-white crusader flags and carried signs saying “Rapefugees Not Welcome” and “Da Goyim Know,” an anti-Semitic slogan meant to highlight a supposed conspiracy by Jews to control the globe and subjugate non-Jews. One RAM banner, which depicts knights on horseback chasing after Muslims, reads “Islamists Out!”
A ProPublica reporter recently met at a restaurant in Orange County with a man who says he’s a leader of the organization. This man, who appears frequently in the videos of RAM members fighting, would only agree to talk openly about the group’s origins and intentions if we didn’t reveal his name. No other RAM members or associates would speak to us.
RAM, the leader said, came together organically. It started when he encountered a few other guys with similar political beliefs, including two active duty U.S. Marines, while exercising at different gyms in Southern California. They all liked Trump but didn’t think his agenda went far enough.
The men began hanging out. Their numbers grew. Many came from rough backgrounds — they’d been strung out on drugs or spent time behind bars — and currently labored at tough blue-collar jobs. Soon they had a name and a mission: They would physically take on the foes of the far-right.

Read more, here.