Members of a white supremacist fight club traveled oversees to train with neo-Nazi groups in Ukraine and Europe, and then used those skills to incite and perpetrate violence at several political protests in California, investigators said.
It seemed like they were headed to prison on rioting charges, until a federal judge in Los Angeles, citing free speech concerns, abruptly dropped all the charges Monday.
Robert Rundo, Robert Boman, Aaron Eason, and Tyler Laube — alleged members of the Rise Above Movement, also known as RAM — were arrested last October and charged under the Anti-Riot Act. Laube pleaded guilty to the charge in November. But Rundo, Boman, and Eason were all ordered released Monday. Prosecutors say Rundo was one of the founding members of RAM, which started in late 2016 in Southern California and has an estimated 50 members, according to SPLC.
The men’s lawyers used a strategy to get the charges dismissed by challenging the Anti-Riot statute itself. And it worked.
In his opinion, U.S. District Judge Cormac Carney called the Anti-Riot statute “unconstitutionally overbroad” because it “criminalizes protected speech.”
“It is easy to champion free speech when it advocates a viewpoint with which we agree,” Carney wrote. “It is much harder when the speech promotes ideas that we find abhorrent. But an essential function of free speech is to invite dispute.”
Carney argued that the entire point of the Anti-Riot Act, which was enacted in 1968 at the height of the anti-Vietnam War protests, was to have a chilling effect on First Amendment activity. He notes that the law, which prohibits “does not just criminalize the behavior of those in the heat of the riot. It also criminalizes acts taken long before any crowd gathers,” Carney wrote. “No violence even need to occur.” This troubles him because of the historically close relationship between riots and political expression or activity.
Rundo, Boman, Eason and Laube allegedly planned riots and incited violence across California at various 2017 rallies, in Berkeley, Huntington Beach, San Bernardino and other places.
The March 2017 Huntington Beach rally, to "Make America Great Again," became especially violent. Prosecutors presented pictures showing Laube repeatedly punching a journalist in the face. They also showed screenshots of other RAM members using hand-to-hand combat techniques as they brutalized counterprotesters.
For example, Rundo was accused of punching a protester in the back of the head, grabbing him by the back of his neck, and throwing him to the ground, before he continued to pummel him in the head, while other members cheered. Members allegedly pursued counterprotesters who were attempting to flee, hitting them with flagpoles and throwing large rocks.
Prosecutors described RAM as a “combat-ready, militant group of a new nationalist white supremacy/identity movement.” They included screenshots from their social media accounts showing members engaged in hand-to-hand combat above slogans like “WHITE UNITY,” or posing together wearing skeleton masks.
Other photographs showed members of the group doing physical training exercises under graffiti of neo-Nazi symbols, including the number “14” (which represents the 14-word slogan that’s commonly used by white supremacist groups).
Investigators also said that members — including Rundo — traveled to Germany, Ukraine and Italy in 2018 to celebrate Hitler’s birthday. While they were there, according to the complaint, they met with a white supremacist European group called White-Rex and a neo-Nazi aligned paramilitary group in Ukraine that’s been training American white supremacist groups, federal investigators say.
“Make no mistake that it is reprehensible to throw punches in the name of teaching antifa some lesson,” Carney concluded. “Nor does the Court condone RAM’s hateful and toxic ideology. But the government has sufficient means at its disposal to prevent and punish such behavior without sacrificing the First Amendment.”
Federal prosecutors in Virginia brought a similar rioting case against four other RAM members for their involvement in the violent Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in August 2017. One of the men has pleaded guilty; the three others will be tried by a jury later this month.
Cover: U.S. District Judge Cormac Carney