How We Identified White Supremacists After Charlottesville

August 7, 2018
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by Leila Miller Tow Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Columbia Journalism School Fellowships

The Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017 was the largest public gathering of white supremacists in a generation. Dozens were injured, and it ended in the death of 32-year-old Heather Heyer, a counter-protester who was killed after a car crashed into demonstrators.

The violence did not come out of nowhere. It followed a series of increasingly bloody rallies in California, New York City, and even Charlottesville. While city and state officials in Virginia had prepared by mobilizing 1,000 first responders, law enforcement largely stayed back while chaos unfolded.

In Documenting Hate: Charlottesville, FRONTLINE and ProPublica investigate how white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups have been moving from the fringes into mainstream culture. We have worked to identify white supremacists who engaged in violence at these rallies, and our reporting has revealed that one participant at Charlottesville, Vasillios Pistolis, was an active-duty Marine, and another, Michael Miselis, worked for a major defense contractor and held a U.S. government security clearance.

Producers A.C. Thompson and Karim Hajj spoke to FRONTLINE about the film, describing what it was like to cover the violence in Charlottesville, how they identified white supremacists, and their response to those who view their work as unfairly exposing people’s private identities — a practice called “doxxing.”

The Unite the Right rally began the morning of August 12. Many white supremacists wore helmets and carried shields and clubs, and they were confronted by counter-protesters. How did you plan for this rally and what was it like to be there?

Hajj: The word on the street was that it was going to be pretty unprecedented. It was organized months and months and months in advance. All sorts of neo-Nazi, fascist groups were going to be showing up, and that element of it made it pretty uncertain. When we were walking into it we really didn’t know exactly what to expect, because in recent memory there hadn’t really been a gathering like this of these particular groups of this size.

Traditionally, what you have in rallies like this is some sort of erected impromptu fencing with a line of police officers, and the officers are separating the protesters from the counter-protesters, and in an ideal world, preventing them from engaging in violence with one another. In Charlottesville, that wasn’t the case at all. What was happening was that the park itself was intended as the rally site, and the white supremacists were marching into the park in long lines and in groups. In order to get into the park, they were marching directly into crowds of counter-protesters. That meant that the whole scene was very chaotic.

The film describes how a group of white supremacists pushed into counter-protesters while police looked on. Later, white supremacists beat up a protester named DeAndre Harris in a parking garage next to a police station. Still, police did not intervene. Why did law enforcement stand back?

Thompson: I think for us at the time it was a little bit baffling. What we had seen up until that moment was a steady escalation of political violence at these events from coast to coast. Just massive melees and altercations as you had extreme right and fascist rally-goers clashing with anti-fascists and liberal and left counter-protesters. We had seen this over and over and over again. We were a little bit baffled that day why the police hadn’t learned from the lessons of other cities, and why they hadn’t actually even learned from the lessons of their own town where they had two previous white supremacist rallies in recent months.

The city commissioned an investigation after the rally.  The investigators heard from two witnesses close to Charlottesville police chief Al Thomas on August 12th: his personal assistant and a police captain. Both witnesses reported hearing Thomas saying that he wanted to “let them fight” because “it will make it easier to declare an unlawful assembly.” For his part, Thomas — who has since retired — offered a somewhat different story: he said he wanted to wait to “see how things played out” before dispersing the clashing crowds.

City and state officials had mobilized 1,000 first responders before the rally. They knew this was coming.

Thompson: I would say that’s one of the most stunning things to come out of the Charlottesville rally and violence. You had Virginia national guard there. You had all kinds of emergency medical personnel. You had Virginia state police. You had the Charlottesville police. They had been planning for months, and they had tons of personnel. The idea that there were not enough law enforcement and emergency personnel to deal with the situation effectively, I believe, is wrong. What is clear is that the planning was insufficient. They didn’t fully take into account how dangerous and how violent things might become.

You looked into a neo-Nazi group called Atomwaffen. How aggressively is law enforcement — at the federal or local level — investigating these groups?

Thompson: Our sense from the reporting that we’re doing is that law enforcement, at least at the federal level, is quite interested in many of these groups, and that they are investigating now.

Hajj: What the FBI will tell you is that they are severely limited, and correctly so, in their ability to police any kind of speech. They have to be very careful not to investigate groups purely for their political orientation. Their only law enforcement mandate is to step in when that speech crosses the line into credible threats of violence. One of the things we’ve heard from law enforcement is actually that these groups are becoming particularly adept at framing their communications both as political speech and also as self-defense.

In the film, a former Orange County probation officer who worked with white supremacists tells you that these groups are moving into the mainstream culture. Members of the Rise Above Movement, for example, have bragged publicly of their violence during protests in California. Why are they leaving the fringes?

Thompson: What we’ve seen over the last couple of years is that these groups have been emboldened and inspired by the Trump presidency, the Trump campaign. When we talk to them, they say that they view him, the president, as an inspiration, as a leader, as a fellow traveler, as someone that at least tacitly supports their movement. The president has said that he doesn’t like or support the neo-Nazis and white supremacists. But they are clearly energized by his leadership.

You identify members of neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups that participated in these violent protests. How did you decide who to focus on?

Thompson: We weren’t interested so much in people that just showed up and exercised their First Amendment right and left. We were interested in people who appeared to be engaged in criminal activity. I think what we wanted to do was understand who these people were, what they were doing, and what their connections were to more mainstream institutions.

There’s a lot of reporters covering this subject, and what they do is they go to the leaders of these groups and say “Hey, Richard Spencer [president of the alt-right National Policy Institute], what do you have to say today?” Or they say, “Hey, Matthew Heimbach [leader of the white nationalist Traditionalist Worker Party] what do you have to say today?” They talk to these figureheads of the movement and basically give them a platform to discuss their politics. We weren’t interested in that. We were interested in the people who were sort of staying out of the limelight and staying out of the media spotlight and really engaging in what seemed to be violent behaviors.

Some of the people who you have identified have suffered serious consequences. Michael Miselis, who worked for a major defense contractor, lost his job after you wrote about his involvement in Charlottesville, and the Marines court-martialed and ultimately dismissed Vasillios Pistolis from the Corps after you identified him as a white supremacist. What were you trying to achieve by revealing their backgrounds?

Hajj: Our interest really in identifying these individuals is a matter of spreading the information in the public interest. We’re not interested in doing the job of police officers. The police still need to complete their investigations and find the individuals that are responsible and bring them to justice, as is their mandate. Ours is really to collect as much information on these individuals as possible, who constitute a new front in this movement, which in it of itself is newsworthy, and to put that information out into the world.

There’s been a lot of debate about what it means to “doxx” members of white supremacist groups by revealing their identities. Some might say that you’re doxxing people unfairly and it equates to harassment. What do you say to that?

Hajj: When someone is doxxed, their information is posted online, oftentimes their family’s information is posted online. Personal identifying information that goes far beyond their name – their address, their phone number, their Social Security number, their credit card information – things like that are all posted on the internet with the intent to harass the individual.

What we do is really just public interest reporting. To the extent that we might name the individual or we might reach out to an employer for comment, that work is limited to the way that that individual intersects with the public interest. In the case of Michael Miselis, if you’re an individual working for a large defense contractor with a security clearance, or in the case of Vasillios Pistolis, if you’re an active-duty United States Marine, these are institutions, and the public has the right to ask questions of these institutions: “What are you doing about these individuals who have engaged in violent activity?”

We are very careful and very judicious about who we include in the stories, and the bar is very, very high. We need to have a level of certainty in order to move forward with any kind of published article, and that means multiple sources confirming, multiple sources of video and photo evidence, and so I would really describe what we do as totally distinct from doxxing.

You’ve identified current or former members of the U.S. military who have been in Atomwaffen. Is the Department of Defense screening members effectively for extremist activity?

Hajj: We have reached out to people at the Department of Defense and the Marine Corps specifically to ask what activities they are engaged in in terms of identifying active-duty members who might be members of white supremacist organizations. Their response broadly has been, “This is not a widespread issue. This is an issue we are concerned about at sort of a unit-to-unit or individual basis, but it is not something we view as systemic…” But we have another film coming out in October, and we’ll be looking at that issue substantially over the course of that film.  

We’re coming up on the anniversary of Charlottesville. Has that protest affected measures that law enforcement have taken to prevent violence, and how are cities preparing for protests around the anniversary?

Hajj: I would say that Charlottesville was a wake-up call for a lot of people, including law enforcement on the ground in Charlottesville and in the state of Virginia, and also nationally. In the aftermath of the rally, quite a few other rallies which had been planned and promoted by the white supremacist groups that attended were canceled, were modified. The numbers have generally speaking been small. That is not a trend that we expect to continue.

We know from reports that the city [Charlottesville] is actively preparing for any kind of anniversary activity. Jason Kessler, the organizer of the rally, has withdrawn his application for a permit to hold a rally in the city of Charlottesville itself and is instead planning on holding a rally in Washington D.C. on the day of the anniversary. Washington D.C. is a very large city with quite a bit more experience dealing with large protests, and so we expect that the law enforcement response will reflect that.

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