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'Active club' hate groups are growing in the U.S. — and making themselves seen

In this Aug. 12, 2017 file photo, white nationalist demonstrators clash with counter demonstrators at the entrance to Lee Park in Charlottesville, Va.
Steve Helber
/
AP
In this Aug. 12, 2017 file photo, white nationalist demonstrators clash with counter demonstrators at the entrance to Lee Park in Charlottesville, Va.

In late May, a group of young, male neo-Nazis convergedoutside a bookstore in Bozeman, Mont., to protest a drag queen story hour. Later that day, they hit another similar event in Livingston, Mont. The second weekend in June, the groups targetedthe Lewis County Pride Festival in Centralia, Wash. A week after that, it was the Wind River Pride event inLander, Wyo. And the following weekend, they were at Oregon City Pride, not far from Portland, Ore.

These men, dressed in tactical gear and masks, were members of so-called "active clubs" — a term that may be relatively new to American audiences. They are a strand of the white nationalist movement that has grown quickly during the last three years and that has recently taken their message of hate into more public view. These decentralized cells emphasize mixed martial arts training to ready their members for violence against their perceived enemies.

Stephen Piggott, a researcher with the Western States Center, a national civil rights organization, has closely tracked their evolution in the Pacific Northwest.

"They are really focused on a couple of things," said Piggott. "One is centering, organizing and trying to recruit people through combat sports ... but also, preparing for political and racially motivated violence."

Those that protested those LGBTQ gatherings in the Pacific Northwest states call themselves the Northwest Nationalist Network; they have been among the most emboldened to bring their activities into the streets. But groups in Arizona, California, Pennsylvania and Tennessee have also been notably active. And recently, two new networks have been announced: The Dixie Alliance, for groups in Southern states, and the Midwest Network.

"These clubs are decentralized and they're forming on their own," said Morgan Moon, an investigative researcher at the Anti-Defamation League, which estimates that there are active clubs now in at least 30 states. "We're starting to see [the active club model] pop up in Europe as well as Canada now."

European 'hooliganism' for American neo-Nazis

Those who have closely tracked the active club scene in the U.S. largely attribute its establishment and growth to a single individual: Robert Rundo. Rundo, a self-professed fascist and white nationalist who frequently traffics in anti-Semitic tropes, has spent much of the last five years on the run from law enforcement. In the spring, he was arrested in Romania, and a court recently orderedthat he be extradited to face charges in California for rioting and conspiring to riot at political rallies.

"What Rundo did was take a model of European far-right extremism: decentralized, [and] quite honestly, borrowing — if not stealing from — far-right football hooligan subcultures, right down to aesthetics and plopping that down into an American context as something new and innovative," said Michael Colborne, a researcher, investigator and journalist at the investigative journalism website Bellingcat. Colborne's investigations helped to uncover Rundo's whereabouts in Serbia in 2020and 2021, and then in Bulgaria in 2022.

Rundo's alleged criminal activity in the U.S. dates back chiefly to 2017 and 2018, when he ran an active club in Southern California called the Rise Above Movement. Despite that crew's dissolution and his absence from the U.S. during the last several years, Colborne said Rundo has retained a central role in the growth of the active club scene. Rundo sells merchandising online and uses podcasts to instruct others on starting their own crews. Colborne said Rundo's advice to adherents centers on what he calls the "three F's" — fashion, fitness and fighting.

"He really saw the power of that aesthetic, that power of bringing young men together into these hyper masculine subcultures where they could train up for physical combat against their their perceived ideological foes," said Colborne.

Rundo has also spent his time deepening trans-Atlantic tieswith similar-minded hate groups. Colborne said he spotted Rundo at events hosted by ultranationalists in Budapest, Hungary, and Sofia, Bulgaria, in early 2020. These gatherings and connections have reinforced a common goal, said Colborne.

"It's not explicitly politically focused," he said. "It's about building ... what they perceive as a far-right countercultural movement to try to mainstream their ideas, their ideologies, their symbols, to make them more ... acceptable in society over time."

The neo-Nazi question

Active clubs are not the first instance where a decentralized model of crews for young men committed to becoming "white warriors" has been exported from Europe to the U.S. Almost four decades ago, the same happened with the neo-Nazi skinhead scene. In fact, Colborne said in some places, like Canada, active clubs have been established by former members of the white supremacist group Hammerskins.

"They are trying to cloak the very same neo-Nazi ideas that their [neo-Nazi skinhead] forbearers had with their jackboots and swastika T-shirts, you know, 10, 20, 30 years ago."

Colborne said Rundo's obsession with the aesthetics of active clubs has steered away from that imagery because ultimately, it didn't play well with American audiences. Plus, it could immediately attract law enforcement scrutiny — particularly in Europe.

"In countries where there are some pretty open far-right scenes, like Serbia, you cannot display swastikas. You cannot be that obvious. You literally cannot do it in Germany or Austria because it's a crime," said Colborne.

"[Rundo] was very familiar with how far-right extremists across Europe had to be more clever and coy with the way that they were trying to communicate their ideas, and the way that they would try to spread their ideology."

Despite that, groups that have formed in the U.S. have taken their own approach on whether or not to openly embrace neo-Nazism.

"Their praise of National Socialist tenets and of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime is very apparent," said Piggott. "If you look at their social media, it's full of pro-Nazi, pro-Hitler rhetoric and and iconography."

Law enforcement detains and arrest 31 members of the white nationalist group Patriot Front on suspicion of conspiracy to riot after they were removed from a U-Haul truck near the LGBTQ community's Pride in the Park event in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, last June.
/ Jim Urquhart for NPR
/
Jim Urquhart for NPR
Law enforcement detains and arrest 31 members of the white nationalist group Patriot Front on suspicion of conspiracy to riot after they were removed from a U-Haul truck near the LGBTQ community's Pride in the Park event in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, last June.

At anti-LGBTQ gatherings during the last two months, active clubs in the U.S. have allied with other white nationalist organizations. Among those are Patriot Front, which saw 31 members arrested and charged with conspiring to riot at a Pride event in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, last summer. Also, White Lives Matter groups have reportedly attended "fight nights" hosted by active clubs in San Diego and in Washington state.

But not all far-right groups have welcomed the increased public activity of these crews. A viral video taken near the Oregon City Pride event last month showed Proud Boys, a violent neo-fascist group, beating members of an active club on a sidewalk. In the video, Proud Boys are heard calling the active club members "racists" and Nazis. The fight, which has been attributed to an interpersonal conflict between the groups, has opened up hostilities between the two extremist factions, mostly online.

Extremism experts caution that there is little comfort to take from seeing two far-right groups in conflict with each other. In this case, both had shown up in furtherance of the same cause: to intimidate members of the LGBTQ community at a Pride event. And the fact that both were there may signal a common perception that this moment in America, when anti-LGBTQ hostility is heightened, may be an opportunity to spread their extreme ideologies.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Odette Yousef
Odette Yousef is a National Security correspondent focusing on extremism.