Exclusive interview: Frontline reporter A.C. Thompson of Documenting Hate: Charlottesville

 A.C. Thompson
Thompson embeds into the violent fray of Charlottesville that happened last summer and gives a startling look at hate groups on the rise

For the past year, PBS Frontline and ProPublica have jointly investigated the white supremacists who united during last August’s rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. The documentary Documenting Hate: Charlottesville airs tonight with reporter A.C. Thompson.

Their collective efforts have identified and removed from active duty one Marine, Vasillios Pistolis, as well as Northrop Grumman employee Michael Miselis, who also held a U.S. government security clearance.

Most troubling is the fact that many of the violent perpetrators of racist violence have not been held accountable by law enforcement.

Journalist A.C. Thompson is warning us that white power groups in the U.S.A. are on the rise, and increasingly view themselves as paramilitary organizations. More chilling is the seemingly complicit lack of policing on these groups.

There are hundreds of them, and groups like Atomwaffen, which is dividing other Neo-Nazis because of their embracing of Satanism, have Thompson on edge.

His reporting in the new documentary for Frontline and ProPublica was presented at the Television Critics Association summer press tour.

The shock of eruptive and planned violent behaviors that occurred during the Unite The Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia a year ago was a wake-up call for many Americans as to the sharp rise and organizational strategy of militant white power organizations.

These groups, many born out of the prison system and many of them based in Texas and California, are using social media and Deep/Dark web communication tactics to connect, join forces and recruit. A new generation of Nazis are pushing their politics into the mainstream.

Many media, political observers, and experts believe this coalescence of white hate groups has been nurtured and emboldened by a Donald J. Trump presidency in America.

Thompson placed himself in harm’s way to embed in the Charlottesville Unite the Right rally last year and still continues to track key players in this worldwide Neo-Nazi fascism trend.   Most recently he went to the rally in Portland to follow up on the parties that are marching in the streets.

But these events have real human costs. One woman, paralegal Heather Heyer, died when a car driven by James Alex Fields rammed into a group protesting the rally. Many were injured that day.

 Documenting Hate: Charlottesville
Documenting Hate: Charlottesville shows how the Alt-Right demonstrators and counter-protesters clashed and the long arm of white hate groups

Thompson continues to follow up from that day last summer in Charlottesville on the white power groups and key instigators who were there and has successfully identified individual members who engaged in the violence.

Documenting Hate: Charlottesville is a snapshot of that moment and an unraveling of the players. We spoke with A.C. about this chilling documentary airing tonight.

Monsters and Critics: One of the most profound things in your report was from the late Heather Heyer’s mother Susan Bro. She said: “Life is very different.” It summed up the whole gist of your report. It seems like the marginalization of the press, jobs being lost, had never been at a worse time. And since you are in the press, I thought I’d let you give me your thoughts.

A.C. Thompson: It’s I think incredibly worrisome to me to hear the rhetoric that comes out of the White House that demonizes journalists and portrays us as the quote enemy of the people and so forth. And I think that the demagogic rhetoric, in general, is so concerning and worrisome and that based on the statements that leaders make in the lead up to the point where they encourage open violence against different groups and journalists being only one of those groups that have been demonized and demagogued.

It’s incredibly concerning to me and I see this part of a broader picture as a broader pattern of these politics coming out of the White House.

When I talked to Susan and she said that, I was thinking to myself, oh, yeah, that’s what it feels like when you lose someone. It’s not just the pain and the sorrow that you have, it’s the sense that life is still here but it is so distinctly different. And yes, it’s that sense of change that she’d never asked for and you didn’t want that has been set upon you.

M&C: You did a lot of research on Robert Rundo – the Queens, New Yorker who relocated to Orange County, California and is now an apparent leader figure in the Charlottesville Neo-Nazi mob. What I thought was interesting was just how many of these Nazi groups and violent face-offs happen in California, whereas you would think it would be Idaho or Utah but no, it’s really California.

Rundo is considered a leader in alt-right groups and networks in Europe
Rundo is considered a leader in alt-right groups and networks in Europe

A.C.: Yes, I actually didn’t know all of that Orange County history, I knew some of it but I didn’t know all of it. And it was a revelation to me to really understand, Orange County, Southern California has had this really active white power movement from the prison gangs to Aryan Nations, to other organizations like Skinhead groups for decades now, and what we’re seeing now at this moment is an extension of a long history in Southern California. And no, it’s not exactly the thing that you’d expect.

M&C: It seems Texas and California are much more the epicenters of this power base than anything else. Another thing that was alarming was how Rundo was in Europe networking with European Neo-Nazis who were on the rise. Have you discovered anything about that?

A.C: That’s a particular fixation of my colleague, Ali Winston, and he’s very interested in the way these movements, like the Rise Above Movement (R.A.M.), are essentially emulating the better organized, better funded far-right groups in Europe. And the people that they’re networking with there in Europe, some of them are incredibly dangerous and worrisome.

They are the leading edge of extremist politics there. So I think that’s a big concern for us and it’s a thing that we’re worried about them adopting tactics that have been really effective in Europe and bringing them back here.

M&C: You followed this Marine, Vasillios Pistolis thing through to the point where he was court marshaled. That had to feel good. How chilling was it to see him actually name Emily Gorcenski in those Discord logs?

Vasillios Pistolis had bragged online about his affiliations and his role in the violence in Charlottesville last year
Former Marine Vasillios Pistolis had bragged online about his affiliations and his role in the violence in Charlottesville last year

A.C.: I had such a surprise because Emily and I had traded messages after Charlottesville, and she thought that the people who came on to her that night might have been RAM members. And that was the theory that we had, and we looked at the video, we looked at the photos and I eventually came to the conclusion that… nah… I don’t think it is and she did as well.

And then when we get the logs from Discord her name shows up in there and I realized, because she was on social media tweeting and live streaming what was happening, and the fascists said ‘oh, look at this person,’ and picked up on her as their opponent and then they were able to name her and say ‘hey, this is somebody that I’m gonna take responsibility for assaulting’ and basically brag about it.

So it was pretty chilling to see that happening. You can imagine a Neo-Nazi saying ‘oh, I’m coming after April Neale, I assaulted so and so, I assaulted so and so’ and chatting about it and bragging about it.

Vasillios also … I mean, he posted a ton of insane stuff in there.

M&C: Don’t you fear for your life with these ways that they’re going so dark with their communications and you’re lifting the rock…you’re a public person. How do you protect yourself?

A.C.: You know, I’m not particularly worried but all journalism I’ve done basically for the last twenty years has involved difficult subjects and volatile people, so I’m not super concerned. But I think we’ve been smart about taking security precautions at Frontline and ProPublica.

And I will say that more broadly what’s concerning is I think that all journalists that are working in this space right now have been the targets of abuse, harassment, threats and at times physical violence. And a lot of this behavior has been frankly enabled by the world’s largest social media platforms.

I think broadly in that context where the White House is making demagogic statements about journalists, we definitely feel like we’re somewhat besieged. And I know some of my colleagues have dealt with really remarkably unpleasant stuff.

M&C: When people watch this, they’re going to feel some emotions. What do you hope people will do after they watch your report on Frontline?

A.C: Wow. Specific question. You know, I actually hadn’t considered that.

I think the story is somewhat specific, right? It’s about particular people and about a particular moment but I’d also like them to really think about this. These people represent the extreme edge of bigger movements, of deeper currents, stronger currents in American life.

And I think I’d really encourage them to think about how we got to this place where white supremacists and Neo-Nazis feel comfortable marching in the streets again and feel comfortable coming out of the woodwork and proclaiming their Nazidom and their white supremacist values. And sort of think about how that we’ve gone in this direction and what might come next.

M&C: The midterm elections have never been so important.

A.C.: Yes. Definitely. And I would say there are some definitely interesting characters running for office around the country at all different levels. More overt racists than I think we’ve seen in a very long time.

M&C: Were you in Portland, by the way, this past weekend.

A.C.:  Yes, I was there.

M&C: Are you doing another report for Frontline, following this up a year later?

A.C.: You know, we wanted to go to see to understand that a year later and perhaps use that to lead off our next film. And it’s so interesting because the groups that were there, which are groups I’ve followed for a long time, they’re sort of multiethnic, multicultural fascists.

So these are organizations, the Proud Boys, and Patriot Prayers that are not explicitly racist, they are not white supremacist groups, they don’t get into Nazi stuff.

But what they do is they show up at the rally and people are wearing t-shirts that say, ‘Pinochet did nothing wrong,’ [and] ‘right-wing death squad.’ And it’s a thing where you see folks who embrace authoritarianism, who embrace essentially fascist ideology and behavior.

But just saying ‘yeah, I can be into that and I can think it’s okay to slaughter my enemies who I perceive to be illegal immigrants and Muslims and communists and maybe the media, but I’m not a racist, that would be bad.’

M&C: I spoke with a reporter who follows this in the media and he said that he sees a lot of Hispanic fascists mixing with whites easily. That’s an interesting thing.

DIY Division in San Bernardino with Juan Benitez Cadavid from the Proud Boys in middle with arm raised
DIY Division in San Bernardino with Juan Benitez Cadavid from the Proud Boys in middle with arm raised

A.C.: Yeah. I would say there’s a multicultural variation on this national turn towards the extreme right.

M&C: It seems like nothing could be worse than R.A.M. and then the group, the Atomwaffen Division is brought up and they seem even worse.  Which are the ones that give you the most cause for concern?

Atomwaffen Division is a growing Neo-Nazi group whose members are preparing for a race war to combat the cultural and racial displacement of the whites
Atomwaffen Division is a growing Neo-Nazi group whose members are preparing for a race war to combat the cultural and racial displacement of the whites

A.C.: Right, so I mean there are hundreds of these groups and most of them are really small and really marginal, right?
But for me, the groups that I’m watching right now are either the ones that are very active or the ones that are incredibly extreme.

So Atomwaffen a group that I continue to monitor because their explicit goal is the violent overthrow of the United States government and the establishment of a fascist state which will follow after a horrible and bloody race war.

And they believe one hundred percent in political violence, political terrorism, a fascist nation and so forth.

Identity Evropa is an American neo-Nazi and white supremacist organization
Identity Evropa is an American neo-Nazi and white supremacist organization

On the other end of the spectrum, I see a couple groups that are really active right now and one is called Identity Evropa and the other one is called Patriot Front and they are both out constantly spreading propaganda doing banner drops, at times attacking people and doing flash mob protests. So those are three groups that I’m paying a lot of attention to right now.

M&C: Bill Maher, I don’t know if you watch him or not, said something very interesting last Friday night. He said that the only reason that he could think that, other than if Putin had something on Trump, was that Russia is an all-white nation for all intents and purposes, it’s very white. And he thinks that that’s the connection with Trump. How do you feel about that?

A.C.: The thing I’ll say that’s really interesting is that for a lot of the characters on the far right in America, Russia has really become this beacon and this perceived homeland. And they’re excited about the strongman, they’re excited about authoritarianism. And it is this evolving sense of oh, what is fascist?

Well, the Soviet Union is not a fascist regime, but it acts a lot like one, and so maybe that’s what we should be into. Maybe that’s what fascism looks like today. It doesn’t call itself that, it doesn’t wear armbands and fly the swastika but it behaves in a very harsh and authoritarian manner.

Documenting Hate: Charlottesville airs Tuesday, August 7, 2018, at 10/9c on PBS & online

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