The San Gabriel Valley's Fascist Connection: Old and New
Along a nondescript strip of Peck Road in North El Monte, across the street from an old pizza joint, used to stand the west coast headquarters for one of the largest fascist organizations in this country’s history: the American Nazi Party (ANP). It will come as a shock to many that this group was able to maintain its swastika emblazoned headquarters in the S.G.V. for nearly a decade between 1966 and 1976. But to understand how this vile group arrived in El Monte and, more importantly, how militant community resistance ultimately drove them out, we must trace their origins.
Founded in relative obscurity by former Naval Aviation commander George Lincoln Rockwell, the party made its debut in late 1959. Rockwell turned his Arlington, Virginia home into the de facto base for the ANP’s efforts. Initially only attracting a few dozen members, Rockwell staged a number of rallies across the east coast, in an attempt garner wider publicity and bring in followers. Appearing in full Nazi regalia; uniforms, swastika armbands and all, Rockwell would take the stage and rail against the ‘degeneracy’ of miscegenation, desegregation, and immigration in slur laced tirades. Oftentimes, these rallies were crashed by veterans of the second world war, members of the Jewish community, and others. These confrontations usually ended in Rockwell and his band of fascists beaten and covered in eggs.
Throughout the 60’s Rockwell made plans to expand the party around the U.S., using a cynical attempt to latch onto the burgeoning energy of the student, civil rights, and anti-war movements. While the American Nazis despised the appeals that these movements made for racial equity and a more democratic society, the Party nonetheless adopted some of the popular imagery and rhetoric as an attempt to bring in younger recruits. In the mid-1960’s the Party experienced some growth, enough to attract a following here on the west coast. Ralph Forbes, a Michigan born ex-marine living in the Los Angeles area, was selected by Rockwell to assume leadership in the newly founded western division of the Party.
Forbes began leasing a small house in Glendale, which he quickly converted into the west coast headquarters of the organization. From 1963 to 1965, at the behest of the east coast leadership, Forbes set about trying to rent out venues for planned rallies in the South Bay. Despite his efforts though, Forbes was unable to come up with the necessary funds to secure permits for locations in Redondo Beach and Torrance. This soon became the least of his worries, as residents in Glendale were growing agitated by the display of Nazi flags and uniforms at the Party's residential headquarters. Windows of the building were consistently broken, prompting Forbes to order an armed Party member be posted at the property, round the clock.
While anti-fascist citizens of Glendale were smashing out the windows of the headquarters, the city council was scrambling to evict the Party on any sort of technicality that would stick. Unfortunately, their efforts were stymied when the ACLU stepped in on Forbes’ behalf, providing the necessary legal support to prevent the Party's ouster. Mounting legal fights and little action, however, eventually caused members of the organization to grow uneasy with Forbes' leadership. Sensing this, Forbes wanted to prevent any further litigation from dragging down the group’s efforts. In January of 1966, Forbes and the Party members packed up their headquarters in Glendale and moved some 20 miles east to El Monte.
The Nazis Move to El Monte
Almost from the get go, the American Nazis encountered problems in the midst of their relocation. In 1967, Party commander George Lincoln Rockwell was assassinated by a disgruntled ex-member. This instantly threw the group into the disarray of a power struggle. Seizing on the chaos, Matt Koehl, an anti-revisionist follower of Hitler's doctrine, maneuvered his way to the top leadership position in the Party. The succession of Rockwell by Koehl angered a number of individuals in the organization, leading many to break away and form splinter groups.
Back in El Monte, Forbes and his local cohort established their presence on Peck Road by hanging large swastika banners from the front porch of the two story house. They also set about printing literature and inviting the local Ku Klux Klan chapter to use their headquarters as a meeting space. This activity quickly attracted the attention of El Monte city hall, not to mention the ire of local residents. City officials tried to use legal methods of eviction similar to those employed by Glendale, but also hit a dead end. Residents living near the house, however, took a more direct approach. Regular acts of sabotage were committed; from busting out the windows of the Nazi’s cars, to eggs and bricks being tossed at the house.
Local opposition was made clear, especially on the several occasions that public demonstrations were held outside of the swastika emblazoned home. The largest of these demonstrations took place in January of 1972, when a crowd of over 1,000 demonstrators massed at Lambert Park and marched on the Party’s headquarters. Upon their arrival, the crowd came face to face with about 20 uniformed Nazis, carrying rifles and clubs, standing guard in front of the building. Almost immediately the crowd of anti-fascists let fly with a salvo of rocks, bottles, eggs, fireworks, and other debris. Some of the Nazis were bloodied and forced to retreat inside. Others were able to hold their position, thanks to the arrival of a Sheriffs Department riot squad.
As the Sheriffs swept through the crowd of anti-fascists, arresting about 40, some fought back. According to an account published by the L.A. Times, at least two policemen suffered bloody noses and other injuries. After six hours, the crowd dispersed and the Nazis were able to withdraw inside the headquarters to lick their wounds. Over the next several years, residents continued to put pressure on the Nazis to leave their community. Acts of sabotage continued, as did other smaller demonstrations. In 1975 however, the Party's west coast division would be brought to its knees.
Internal Strife and Murder
A long time member of the Party, Joseph Tommasi had come to feel restricted under the leadership of Koehl and Forbes. Because he was significantly younger than those in the Party’s leadership, Tommasi believed that he was more in tune with the cultural trends of the 60’s and 70’s. Tommasi wore his hair long, smoked pot, and listened to rock music. He stood in stark contrast to those in the party who wanted to project an image of straight laced 1950’s purity. In 1969, while still a member of the ANP, Tommasi materialized his vision of a more fanatically militant fascist organization, in tune with the zeitgeist and capable of winning members away from the large left-wing student movement. With this strategy in mind, Tommasi formed the 'National Socialist Liberation Front' (NSLF) which advocated for assassination and terrorism.
In 1973, Tommasi was forced out of the ANP by Koehl, who accused the younger Party member of sexual promiscuity and drug use. Tommasi then publicly denounced the ANP, and recommitted himself to organizing through the NSLF. Tommasi, however, continued to hold a grudge against the ANP, frequently driving by the headquarters and giving the finger to the uniformed guard who kept watch from the porch.
On August 15, 1975 Tommasi made one such trip to the El Monte headquarters. What happened next is subject to debate. Some documents claim that Tommasi had parked and was attempting to start trouble with the posted guard, while other accounts hold that he remained in his car. In either case, provoked or otherwise, the guard drew his gun and fired on Tommasi, striking him dead. In the aftermath of the shooting, the young guard was charged with manslaughter but avoided conviction. The west coast division of the Party, however, would not recover. Only a year later, Forbes and his fellow Nazis boarded up the doors and windows of the El Monte Headquarters and disbanded.
While the party appears to have been broken by this conflagration, we must not discount the role that continuous and militant community pressure played. The anti-fascist residents of El Monte and the surrounding cities made clear that the politics of the reactionary right had no home in the San Gabriel Valley.
Unfortunately, this is story also has a post-script.
Tommasi's Blood Soaked Legacy
Before his death, Tommasi penned a pamphlet titled 'Political Terrorism' in which he advocated "leaderless resistance" through the formation of white nationalist terror cells — advising these cells to engage in lone wolf style attacks. While Tommasi was felled before he could see his strategic vision come to fruition, there were others who stepped in to take up his vile mantle. James Mason, a member of the ANP from age 14, followed Tommasi when he was purged from the Party, helping him to reconstitute the NSLF in the mid 70's. When Tommasi was killed soon after, the NSLF was left directionless — leaving Mason to conclude that a successor group should be formed. In the early 1980's, Mason founded the 'Universal Order', modeling it on the program of leaderless resistance advocated by NSLF.
In the pantheon of the Universal Order, Tommasi was (and continues to be) held up as a saint alongside the likes of Hitler, George Lincoln Rockwell, and Charles Manson — the latter of whom helped Mason craft the organization's name and symbolism. Mason's preoccupation with the Manson family and their occult trappings was off putting to some members of the Neo-Nazi movement, but nonetheless attracted a following. Throughout the 80's, Mason remained active mostly through his publication of the newsletter 'Siege', which put on offer the same strategic and tactical style promoted by Tommasi and the NSLF, a style that would come to define many of the white supremacist terror attacks that were carried out in the 80's and 90's.
Though Mason had accrued a degree of influence within the Neo-Nazi milieu, by the late 90's and early 2000's the federal government had stepped in to break up the white supremacist underground, mostly with the intention of preventing another Oklahoma City. This crackdown saw a geographic scattering of Neo-Nazis, the dissolution of their key networks, and an overall weakening of their movement. What little sway Mason had built for himself, seemed to disappear amidst the flurry of shootouts, arrests, and convictions.
Mason enjoyed some renewed interest when the collected volumes of Siege were edited and published by Michael Moynihan, first in 1992 and then again with a foreword by Mason in 2003. It wouldn't be for another decade, however, that his work would make its greatest impact.
With the emergence of web based social media and communications platforms, also came the inevitable digitization of Neo-Nazi activity. While sites like StormFront catered to long time members of the far right, other, more seemingly innocuous websites began to serve as breeding grounds for festering white nationalist undercurrents. Chief among these sites was 4chan, where casual 'ironic' racism was a staple, thanks to the anonymity and high turn over that the site guaranteed. While responsible in large part for its popularization of memes, some portions of 4chan (and other sites like it) dropped the irony and embraced full bore white nationalism.
This growth of online fascism was paralleled by the reemergence of 'patriot' militias, white nationalist, and Neo-Nazi organizations, which spawned largely as a reaction to the election and subsequent re-election of Barack Obama. Seizing on the economic anxiety of the 2008 recession, groups like the National Socialist Movement (NSM), which took cues from the old ANP by dressing in full Nazi regalia, marched or attempted to march in cities across the country — including Riverside, Pomona, Claremont, and Los Angeles.
These events were only precursors to the 2016 election. As campaigning revved up, so too did the rhetoric of then presidential candidate Donald Trump. The explicit xenophobia, in combination with his appeals to traditionalism, masculinity, and violence, signaled to the online hordes of virulent white nationalists that they were in the midst of a political and cultural opening for their ideas. So marked the ascendance of the alt-right.
Richard Spencer slithered to the forefront of the movement as an individual capable of cloaking fascism in pomp and vapid intellectualism, carrying on speaking tours and forging a new 'respectable' image for white supremacy. Arrayed behind Spencer was a menagerie of culturally savvy podcasts, websites, Facebook meme pages, twitter accounts, and irony laced jokes. But in the shadow of the public facing white nationalist movement, the rebirth of a much more explicitly violent and nihilistic sect had already begun.
In an obscure corner of the internet, a site describing itself as a "fascist social network" was founded in 2011. While it's unclear who created the website, Ironmarch quickly became a platform for some of the most committed and vicious members of the fascist movement to discuss their ideas. The site reached a global audience and included members of Greece's Golden Dawn and Scandinavia's Nordic Resistance Movement. Posted to the masthead of the forum was a slogan that mirrored the tenor of the conversation found inside: "Gas the Kikes. Race War Now. 1488 Boots on the Ground".
It was through Ironmarch that a cadre of young American fascists would meet each other, coming to form an organization that dubbed itself Atomwaffen (German for nuclear weapons). The organization, which envisioned itself as a fascist vanguard, had only one prerequisite for potential new members: read James Mason's Siege. Eventually linking up with Mason himself, who was now in his mid-60's, Atomwaffen was able to connect to the legacy of violent underground Neo-Nazi groups that had come before them. Under Mason's guidance, the group discovered the strategy of lone wolf terrorism that Tommasi had developed while living in El Monte — a strategy that they fully embraced.
Over the course of 2015 and '16, Atomwaffen took its first steps beyond internet hate mongering. Members plastered college campuses with swastika laden fliers calling for a 'race war', they produced slick propaganda videos, stockpiled high caliber weapons, and met for clandestine training events that they called 'hate camps'. With each action, members of Atomwaffen heightened their rhetoric, internally challenging each other to become more committed to carrying out acts of violence. It wouldn't be long before some members would answer this call.
In May of 2017, eighteen year old Atomwaffen member Devon Arthurs used a high powered rifle to murder two members of the organization that he had been living with in a rented Tampa Bay, FL condo. Arthurs' subsequent arrest led also to the arrest of a fourth member of the organization who had been living in the condo, Brandon Russel. Upon searching Russel's room, authorities discovered components for an IED, radioactive material, and a framed photo of Timothy McVeigh. While Arthurs was determined unfit to stand trial and remanded into the care of a mental facility, Russel was convicted of possessing an explosive device and sentenced to five years in federal prison.
In January of 2018, the body of Blaze Bernstein was found buried in a shallow grave in a Lake Forest, CA park. Blaze was a 19 year old Pre-Med student who was Jewish and openly gay. His body was discovered with 27 stab wounds. Two days after Blaze's body was found, Atomwaffen member Samuel Woodward — who had been seen with Blaze before he disappeared — was arrested on murder charges. In the few details that have been released by police, Woodward claims that Bernstein "tried to kiss him". A ProPublica report that published tens of thousands of leaked internal communications from the Atomwaffen chat server, shows members of the organization celebrating the murder and extolling Woodward's alleged actions.
Woodward is currently awaiting trial in an Orange County court, where he has pleaded not guilty.
While Atomwaffen is small, with estimates putting membership at around 80 individuals nationwide, it has shown a capacity for violence that far exceeds its size. Moreover, Atomwaffen is but one of the numerous white nationalist organizations that have metastasized over the last five years. Groups like the Rise Above Movement here in L.A. County employ rhetoric similar to that of Atomwaffen; they maintain a social media presence, and continue produce polished propaganda videos. The members of Rise Above Movement have a penchant for street fighting and have attacked leftist demonstrators in Orange County, Berkeley, and at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
How We Win
As much as the liberal intelligentsia might abhor the thought of confronting the militant fascist movement — claiming that those defending themselves from the murderous assurances made by groups like Atomwaffen, are somehow 'just as bad' as the fascists themselves — the power of a popular anti-fascist movement has clearly demonstrated both a moral authority and an ability to disrupt white nationalist gatherings.
The fascist movement has been dealt a series of material and PR blows thanks to the persistent, thoughtful, and tactically prescient efforts of anti-fascist organizers around the country. This should not, however, cloud the fact that fascist groups have maintained an active presence. As evidenced above, the San Gabriel Valley and greater L.A. area are not immune from the violence that these white supremacist groups visit on the innocent. Just as it has everywhere else, it will take a robust, determined, and popular anti-fascist mass movement to continue to deny white nationalists the space that they desire to realize their hideous vision.
This writing appeared in the Spring and Summer 2018 editions of Salvo. To make a print subscription to Salvo, please visit our Patreon page: www.patreon.com/salvopaper For questions, comments, or corrections please email us at: email@example.com