How groups tied to white nationalists are targeting Chicago and Kim Foxx

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Thomas Christensen (left) and Brien James (with beard) attended a rally April 1 in the Loop calling on Kim Foxx to resign. | Facebook

When several members of groups with ties to white nationalists showed up at a rally criticizing Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, it represented the latest attempt by the groups to raise their profile in Chicago.

What happened at the rally outside the Daley Center earlier this month, experts say, is part of an intensifying movement by the groups to recruit new members in recent years. While the organizations still do not have a large following in the Chicago area, their actions — which include flyering city streets and college campuses — are part of a disturbing trend that can’t be ignored, Foxx and other public officials say.

Members of three groups — the Proud Boys, the American Guard and the American Identity Movement — attended the April 1 rally organized by the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police, according to witnesses and photos the men posed for that were posted on social media.

The Proud Boys has been labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center — a designation the right-wing group denies. The Anti-Defamation League calls the group “overtly Islamophobic and misogynistic,” noting that some members are “anti-Semitic and racist.”

The American Identity Movement, known as AIM, is considered by some experts to be a rebranded version of Identity Evropa, which the SPLC dubs a white nationalist group and the ADL considers white supremacist. Current leaders of AIM deny that and have distanced themselves from Identity Evropa.

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The SPLC has also designated the American Guard as a hate group, while the ADL calls the group “hard-core white supremacists.”

While the police union denied any knowledge the groups would be at the rally, Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, said the event offered group members a chance to be seen at a more “mainstream” event.

The rally came after Foxx’s office’s controversial decision to drop charges against actor Jussie Smollett for allegedly faking a hate crime.

“It represents a significant recruiting opportunity,” said Levin, who two decades ago helped write the hate crime manual used by Cook County prosecutors. “They can ensconce themselves into rallies that are already highly charged and actually get coverage as opposed to doing it themselves.”

Brien James in front of Trump Tower on April 1, the day of the rally against Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx. | Facebook

Brien James in front of Trump Tower on April 1, the day of the rally against Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx. | Facebook

White nationalist leader

Some of the men at the rally have been implicated in violence while others involved in recruiting efforts in the city have pushed nationalist tropes.

One man who attended the rally — identified as Brien James — is “a longtime Indiana white supremacist” who previously helped found “a hardcore racist skinhead gang” whose members have been responsible for at least nine murders, the ADL said.

James now leads the American Guard, which the ADL says has “connections to anti-immigrant extremism, hatred, and violence.” James, who joined the Ku Klux Klan in his teens, has bragged about being tried for attempted murder, multiple batteries and hate crimes, the SPLC said.

In a video posted to Facebook, James said he was marching alongside members of the Chicago chapter of Proud Boys. A former member of that group, Jason Kessler, was an organizer of the “Unite the Right” rally in 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia. In addition, four Proud Boys members have pleaded guilty to charges stemming from a fight with anti-fascist protesters in New York.

Nevertheless, the FBI has not designated the Proud Boys as an extremist group. The group’s founder has sued SPLC for defamation, and the group’s website says members are men who are “western chauvinists.”

In a YouTube video, James admits he “spent over 20 years in the white nationalist movement, most of the time in some sort of leadership position or another. I founded and ran some of the most extreme white nationalist gangs in America.” But James — who previously described himself as an “Indiana state representative for the Proud Boys” — says his views have changed, and he is now a “civic nationalist” who supports President Trump and wants to put American constitutional principles first. A spokesperson for the Indiana Proud Boys says James is not currently affiliated with the group.

James did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Thomas Christensen protests at the April 1 rally against Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx. | Tom Rainey

Thomas Christensen protests at the April 1 rally against Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx. | Tom Rainey

Northerly Island fight

Another man seen at the rally in Proud Boys clothing, Thomas Christensen, is facing aggravated battery charges in connection with a 2017 stabbing that wounded two people at a Dropkick Murphys concert at Northerly Island. Christensen has pleaded not guilty.

Tom Rainey, a self-described anti-fascist activist, said he confronted Christensen at the rally. Rainey claims Christensen swatted him with a picket sign, but Rainey wasn’t hurt.

Christensen declined to comment saying via Facebook, “I do not wish to be featured in your story. Please respect my wishes [and] leave me alone.”

Thomas Christensen after he was arrested in a stabbing at a concert on Northerly Island. | Chicago Police Department

Thomas Christensen after he was arrested in a stabbing at a concert on Northerly Island. | Chicago Police Department

Identity Evropa rebranded

The anti-Foxx protest also served as the latest venue for the American Identity Movement’s propaganda efforts. Posters advertising the group were put up near downtown landmarks that day, and pictures of them were tweeted by AIM.

The group previously hung posters from city-owned traffic control boxes and light poles during last month’s South Side Irish Parade. Posters for the organization and Identity Evropa have also popped up in the West Loop and at college campuses across the city.

An American Identity Movement poster put up in downtown Chicago on April 1, the day of the FOP’s rally against State’s Attorney Kim Foxx. | American Identity Movement  / Twitter

An American Identity Movement poster put up in downtown Chicago on April 1, the day of the FOP’s rally against State’s Attorney Kim Foxx. | American Identity Movement / Twitter

Members of Identity Evropa, including founder Nathan Damigo, also took part in the Charlottesville rally, according to SPLC, and along with other participants, have been targeted in state and federal lawsuits by victims of a car attack that left a counter-protester dead and 28 others injured.

Ald. Matt O’Shea (19th) said he was outraged by the flyers posted along the South Side Irish Parade route and said he would push police to investigate. No charges have been announced.

An Indiana paramedic and Navy veteran, identified as Peter Diezel, has been involved in flyering efforts in the past — including at the Urbana-Champaign campus of the University of Illinois last fall, according to witnesses and pictures posted to a Twitter account associated with Identity Evropa. Diezel’s personal Twitter account featured tweets denying there were gas chambers at Auschwitz and others defending Adolf Hitler. In another tweet, however, he claimed to hate neo-Nazis.

Some of those tweets have been removed from Twitter, but they were archived by Panic! in the Discord, a group whose members have researched leaked chat logs from a server associated with Identity Evropa and which seeks to out members of nationalist groups. The chat logs were originally released by Unicorn Riot, an alternative media collective covering social and environmental issues.

Members of Identity Evropa distributed flyers at the University of Illinois last fall, according to a tweet from the group. The person on the the right has been identified as an Indiana paramedic. | Panic! in the Discord

Members of Identity Evropa distributed flyers at the University of Illinois last fall, according to a tweet from the group. The person on the the right has been identified as an Indiana paramedic. | Panic! in the Discord

Last August, Diezel was seen handing out information about Identity Evropa at a farmer’s market in Logan Square, said an anti-fascist activist who lives in Chicago who asked not to be identified. In an interview, the activist told the Sun-Times that he saw Diezel posting flyers that said, “IT’S OKAY TO BE WHITE.”

The same day, the activist said a friend snapped a photo of Diezel that was later used for posters activists hung around Logan Square “to warn the community.” Diezel later posed for pictures taken in front of the anti-fascist posters bearing his face — and those photos were tweeted by another Twitter account, @chidentitarian.

Diezel did not respond to multiple phone calls and messages, and the ambulance company he works for declined to forward messages or make him available for an interview.

The @chidentitarian also tweeted pictures of the posters found along the route of the South Side Irish Parade. Earlier this month, the account tweeted a poll asking where AIM members should flyer next, listing Logan Square, Englewood and Austin, among other options.

The account, in response to questions from the Sun-Times, sent a message saying its members came out to the FOP rally because they “were outraged to learn that Jussie Smollett would face no consequences for smearing American nationalists as vicious hate criminals.”

A spokesman for AIM said in an email the group “does not permit the advocacy of extremism, hatred, supremacy or violence.”

Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx. | Tom Schuba / Sun-Times

Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx. | Tom Schuba / Sun-Times

Tom Schuba / Sun-Times

Foxx ‘afraid,’ FOP denies ties to the groups

Foxx said it was disheartening that groups were at the rally and even taking part in discussions about criminal justice.

“The injection of white nationalists in this conversation, for me, I will tell you personally, I was afraid,” she said.

FOP President Kevin Graham said the groups attended the rally on their own and said he did not know whom they represented.

“I had never heard of ‘Proud Boys’ before, and I have no idea who they are,” Graham wrote in an email.

Studies have found that groups linked to white nationalism and racist extremism have become increasingly emboldened in recent years, although how active they are in the Chicago area is subject to debate.

Data compiled by the ADL pointed to a rise in public events and propaganda efforts by groups that espouse nationalist beliefs. Identity Evropa was responsible for the bulk of the propaganda efforts on college campuses last year, as well as over 300 incidents elsewhere, the ADL said.

Despite these groups having a limited footprint locally, they can have outsized influence, the ADL’s Jessica Gall said.

“This is by and large a small group of people, but I don’t think we can disregard the impact their ideas can have,” she said. “With social media … these ideologies have been perpetuated.”

Levin said he tallied 22 hate killings in the United States in 2018 that were “ideologically motivated.”

Locally, Levin said there were 77 hate crimes reported in Chicago in 2018, marking a 26 percent increase from the previous year and a single-year high for the past decade, citing data collected from police. Levin believes authorities aren’t doing enough to track and monitor groups aligned with white nationalism.

FBI, CPD: We track violence, not speech

Despite the figures, federal and local officials said they can’t investigate individuals based on their membership in a certain group or any exercise of free speech.

“Our focus is not on membership in particular groups, but on individuals who commit violence and other criminal acts,” FBI Special Agent Siobhan Johnson said.

Police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said his department doesn’t monitor white supremacist or nationalist groups “unless there is an allegation of criminal wrongdoing.”

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