INDIANAPOLIS -- The Indiana chapter of the “constitutional nationalist” group the American Guard sent members to the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the weekend that resulted in violence and the death of a counter-protestor.
A video posted to Twitter by Charlottesville Weekly shows members of the American Guard, including Indiana chapter vice president Brien James, marching alongside other protestors yelling “Hitler did nothing wrong.”
Editor's Note: The video contains language that may be disturbing to some viewers.
The rally was, ostensibly, a protest against plans to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from the campus of the University of Virginia. But the organizers, speakers and promoters of the event drew from the ranks of openly racist, Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazi groups, including white nationalist leader Richard Spencer and Indiana resident Matthew Heimbach, a self-described “pro-white” activist who helped promote and was a featured speaker for the event.
One of the rally’s attendees, 20-year-old James Alex Fields, drove a car through a crowd of counter-protestors, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others.
Images from the rally of right-wing protestors carrying tiki torches and Nazi and KKK flags drew swift and decisive condemnation from across the country. President Donald Trump took a more muted approach, however, condemning violence “on many sides” in a brief statement over the weekend – and then doubling down on that statement in an unprompted, and apparently unscripted, moment during a Tuesday press conference intended to be about infrastructure.
The Indiana American Guard’s attendance at the rally seems to contradict assertions by James about the organization during an interview with RTV6 in May.
James, by his own admission, was a “well-known and respected” member of the white nationalist movement for decades. He was a founder of the Vinlanders Social Club – an offshoot of a skinhead group called the Outlaw Hammerskins.
But in May, James said he had left the white nationalist movement for what he called “American constitutional nationalism.” He said race “just doesn’t cut it at a dividing line.”
He had this to say about Nazis: “We are pro-American. We don’t support or tolerate National Socialism [Nazism] any more than any other type of socialism. We support constitutional law enforcement and government. These differences in philosophy may mean very little to anyone on the left who is reading everything I say and looking between the lines for only what they want to see, but they mean a world of difference for those people who are still in the white nationalist mindset."
Nevertheless, James and other members of the Indiana American Guard marched over the weekend in the same rally as people carrying the Nazi flag and yelling “blood and soil” – a German ideology adopted by the Nazis focused on ethnicity as defined by heritage and territory.
Images and videos from Charlottesville show other participants performing the Nazi salute and yelling “Sieg Heil” and “Jews will not replace us.”
In an emailed response to questions from RTV6, James said he wasn't sure whether he should attend the rally at all.
"It was a difficult decision for me on whether or not to attend," James said. "Most of my organization and some of my most trusted friends were very against it due to the to the involvement of some of the white nationalist groups going that we don't agree with, and don't get along with very well anymore. In the end i decided to go out of curiosity and to look out for my fellow American Guard member, Augustus Invictus, who was giving a speech. He is a civic nationalist libertarian who has mixed children. I also went to because the alt-knights, proud boys, and several civic nationalist militias had decided to go at the last minute and it was becoming more of a joint rally."
James also criticized what he described as the media's focus on the most extreme elements of the rally.
"How many nationalists do you think we're in that crowd?" James said. "Several hundred. At least half of them were civic nationalists and not white nationalists. (just like our president pointed out today) There were a few dozen non-white nationalists in that crowd as well. I've seen zero mention of them. Zero mention of the other half of that crowd entirely. Only the 'white nationalists' and the handful of ignorant [expletive] who showed up with swazis. That's all the media is interested in."
In May, James said he has been pulling people out of the white nationalist movement for years by offering them “a more practical and productive alternative than the ethnic nationalist they were previously engaged in.”
James said he won't be going back to Charlottesville if the white nationalists return, but he also said he didn't think they were responsible for the violence.
"Do I support the white nationalists? No. When they go back to Charlottesville (and they will) I won't be supporting them, despite their right to do so, because their goals are not my goals," James said. "I wish they would put all of that nonsense aside and use the constitution to fight Marxism."
Carla Hill, an investigative researcher at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, said in May she thought the American Guard's rhetorical move away from more extreme elements of the nationalist movement was just an effort to “make the gray areas smaller.”
"What we're seeing is part of a conscious effort of white supremacists to tone down their rhetoric to edge closer to the alt-right," Hill said. "They're trying to tone down their rhetoric to normalize hatred, bigotry and violence. They bank on classic fears like Islamophobia, misogyny and these kinds of topics – even immigration – to normalize this kind of fear and make it OK to agree with them."