The weekend before Charlottesville, white nationalists targeted a racial justice workshop in Santa Monica

By Joe Piasecki

A rightwing propagandist distributed this inflammatory fake event flyer on Twitter to rouse support for disrupting the meeting

The violent white nationalist protests that erupted on Saturday in Charlottesville, Va., are not as far from home as Westside residents might think.

Just six days earlier, more than two dozen young men and women espousing white nationalist views swarmed outside a workshop of the grassroots Committee for Racial Justice at Virginia Avenue Park in Santa Monica. Outside the meeting room, they engaged in verbal confrontations with committee supporters while as many as 20 Santa Monica police officers monitored the grounds.

“At one point they started banging on the big glass windows, and that became so loud it was a little hard to hear the discussion,” said Joanne Berlin, a member of the group’s steering committee. “They were chanting things like ‘All Lives Matter,’ trying to start arguments.”

The committee formed in 2011 after some white students at Santa Monica High School chained a black student to a locker, declared him a “slave for sale” and put a noose around the neck of a brown wrestling dummy. Its membership is ethnically diverse, and many are senior citizens.

The group’s monthly meetings did not attract the ire of white nationalists until July, when several men — some of them masked — disrupted a discussion of white privilege.

“These men whisked right past the registration table with bandanas across their faces, and other people came in with selfie sticks and cameras. They were constantly disrupting the speakers, shouting things about Jews … just trying to create chaos,” said steering committee member Robbie Jones, a Santa Monica native in her late 50s.

Prior to the August workshop, a rightwing propagandist who affiliates herself with Latinos for Trump circulated an inflammatory fake flyer on Twitter that depicted the event as an “anti-white conference” and featured the image of a white man cowering and gagged.

“It’s mindboggling the lies they are willing to tell to rev up the minds of white supremacists. They are the worst example of a fascist kind of movement that believes ends justify the means,” said Berlin, a retired physician assistant and ordained minister.

The workshop was actually about how members should respond to overt racism. Guest speakers included Simon Wiesenthal Center Senior Researcher Rick Eaton, who has been tracking hate groups for decades.

“In many ways, these were on a smaller scale much like the participants in Charlottesville,” Eaton said. “The majority were alt-right people who don’t consider themselves Nazis or Klansmen — young people who probably never attended anything like this before.”

A group photo of the demonstrators posted on Facebook and videos uploaded to YouTube appear to bear that out: Most appear to be in their 20s or 30s and not all appear to be Caucasian. One video shows a man identified as the alt-right commentator known as Baked Alaska, who was also in Charlottesville.

“There’s no overt group affiliation or anything like that, which is what a lot of the alt-right is, though much of its rhetoric is white nationalist in the long run,” Eaton said of the group photo.

Speaking before Trump defended Charlottesville protesters on Tuesday, Eaton noticed that Trump’s earlier remarks targeted Nazis and Klan members but steered clear of implicating the so-called alt-right.

“They never paid attention to us before, but all of a sudden the current administration is really empowering, emboldening people to come out of the shadows. There were always people who had these beliefs, but now they’re feeling support,” Jones said. “This is scary, unnerving. It makes me feel on guard.”

Berlin and Jones said that about halfway through last Sunday’s workshop, Santa Monica police officers asked committee organizers whether they wanted to disband due to the demonstrations outside.

Organizers asked for a show of hands.

“The overwhelming response was to stay so that they would not succeed in preventing us from having our workshop,” Berlin said. “We’re not going to let some racist, anti-Semitic people destroy an organization that’s been working against racism for six years.”