I’m at a deli talking to my sources. There’s a bunch of church ladies at the big table across from us in the outdoor dining area. One’s reading from some book, maybe the Bible. “Lemon,” the admin of the Conejo Valley Antifascists’ Twitter account, looks at them, looks back at me and says something to the effect of ‘Yeah, we get those types a lot out here.’ The church ladies break out into song. He hands me some stickers and a treat to take home for my dog. Most news organizations’ ethics guidelines say small gifts are fine, but I figure I should disclose it here. I don’t think LCRW readers will find me unduly prejudiced towards my sources, however—we’re here to talk about neo-Nazis hanging banners off the 101.
Lemon tells me when he first moved to Conejo Valley, a neighbor quietly mentioned the area’s history with redlining and white flight. We talked about Godspeak Calvary Chapel’s pastor, Rob McCoy, who gained national attention for flouting early COVID precautions and telling his congregants the pandemic is a hoax. McCoy’s now running for Thousand Oaks City Council. Lemon said there’s also a lot of people with III% window decals.
“I became more aware after Charlottesville,” David tells me after he sits down at our table. He says he started following more antifascist groups.
“Living here, it’s like oh my god, there’s a lot of hatred going on here. It’s disguised as the ‘back the blue’ flags, the ‘all lives matter’ stuff,” David says.
“It makes the suburban housewives feel like they’re not racist,” Lemon says with a chuckle.
Like many more places in California than people want to admit, there’s a history of racism in Conejo Valley—and ongoing bigotry. The most problem came from the California White Lives Matter Telegram group.
EXPLAINING THE NETWORK
It started in mid-February when neo-Nazis with “Crew 562” dropped banners over the Borchard Road overpass. One read “white lives matter” and on another was a recitation of the 14 words. The group posted drone footage of their drop and videos of themselves working out in a park a short walk from the overpass. They posted the video in the California White Lives Matter channel on Telegram, a Russian social media network that’s lax about banning neo-Nazis and other right-wing extremists.
“The first banner drop here—that’s pretty much what kicked it up a notch—that they were bold enough to do that out in the open in broad daylight with a 14 words banner,” Lemon said.
“That’s not some kid angry at mommy and daddy and waving a swastika to offend a bunch of people. That’s them recruiting in our neighborhood.”
There’s an overlapping tangle of different neo-Nazi groups to explain here. “Crew 562” (who now call themselves “Clockwork Crew”) is an “active club”—a group of neo-Nazis who copy Patriot Front’s model of doing low-risk Nazi activism by working out together in public parks and going on fun-runs to slap their hate stickers and drop banners. They sometimes overlap with another Southern California “active club” called “Legion XIV.”
The idea of “active clubs” came from Rob Rundo of the Rise Above Movement (RAM) and his media network. RAM was essentially a neo-Nazi fight club where a lot of fascists got clean from drugs and hooked on beating people in the streets instead. RAM members went around to different rallies in 2017 assaulting people in packs. Eventually, some were arrested and later sentenced after the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. Rundo and RAM pivoted after the arrests, pioneering a kind of ‘lifestyle’ Nazism brand where young fascists buy from his apparel store, watch his videos, listen to his podcasts and take in a kind of white power self-help while doing low-risk but high-visibility stunts like the stickers and banner drops.
Crew 562 is tied to the Goyim Defense League (GDL), a group of neo-Nazi livestreamers that do antisemitic stunts around the country, mostly renting U-Hauls and driving them around with inflammatory banners draped over the sides. Crew 562 and GDL members drove around with a rented truck followed closely by Crew 562 member Michael Halahan III’s BMW in San Diego in March, shouting at bystanders about Jews and pedophilia.
While the GDL is open about their antisemitic and other genocidal beliefs, the other major organizational hub for this kind of neo-Nazi activism tries to reframe their hate as advocacy for white people, morally equivalent to what a group like the NAACP do. White Lives Matter (WLM) occasionally rallies but mostly does the Patriot Front stickers-and-banners thing. They try to frame their activism as “pro-White,” meaning they mostly whine about the ‘Great Replacement,’ a white supremacist conspiracy theory that black and brown people are colonizing majority-white countries, “replacing” white people by immigrating and having children at higher rates. WLM propaganda includes missives like “White children are 2% of the world population” and “make white babies.”
“Their primary rhetoric is the “great replacement” and white supremacy. We know the rhetoric has already inspired multiple individuals to commit acts of targeted mass violence,” Lemon said. “Great Replacement” conspiracy theories motivated mass shooters like Anders Breivik and the El Paso Walmart and Christchurch shooters.
The ‘great replacement’ rhetoric isn’t unique to WLM. In fact, it’s so widely accepted on the far-right that Tucker Carlson is comfortable pitching it to his audience. The difference is WLM is made up of hardcore neo-Nazis who use this kind of conspiracy theory to draw people with racist beliefs further into their sphere. Someone who listens to Tucker Carlson or even someone who joined a group like the Proud Boys might balk at waving swastika flags around, but maybe they’d feel good pushing the envelope of what’s acceptably racist to say in public by going to a White Lives Matter event. And here we come back to “active clubs.” As the Pacific Antifascist Research Collective put it on Twitter:
“These regional “active clubs” are all following a similar blueprint: start with existing, somewhat dormant White Nationalist groups like RAM, Patriot Front, and NSC-131, then partner up and use regional “White Lives Matter” telegram channels to recruit new members.”
Perhaps the best example of how WLM interlocks with other hate groups is Robert Wheldon. Wheldon is a member of the Proud Boys, a fascist street gang that superficially claims it shuns racism because of its token nonwhite membership. Wheldon, in addition to being a Proud Boy, leads the California White Lives Matter group on Telegram as well as the “Legion XIV” active club. He also did a banner drop with GDL in November last year in Irvine.
WLM events are essentially dual purpose: serving as a recruiting hub and keeping momentum going in the overall white supremacist movement by making monthly events that Nazis can rally around. When WLM started last year, it mostly flopped everywhere it tried to demonstrate. Poor attendance and vigorous counter-protests chased most would-be attendees out, but the neo-Nazis have been better at keeping up the momentum than the anti-fascists in the long term. Despite antifascist infiltrations of their planning groups, the model has some staying power. While they usually involve less than ten people per event, WLM actions have happened nearly every month for the last year.
“The 16th of April will mark this initiative’s one year of existence – and it has never been a better time for you to make a difference this very second,” the WLM national telegram channel posted on April 4th. I spoke to Lemon and David a week before the event as they planned to counter it.
CONFRONTING THE NAZIS
Lemon and David tell me about some other hate incidents in the area. In 2017 someone broke into Newbury Park High School and blasted a Hitler speech over the football field’s loudspeakers. They tell me about how park rangers and city graffiti cleanup crews have to remove swastikas all the time. Last year Nazis scattered fake dollar bills on the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza lawn. The fake money had Trump’s face on it and the phrase “It’s okay to be white”—a 4chan troll campaign and kind of direct spiritual ancestor of White Lives Matter telegram groups.
Lemon tells me how earlier this month, deputies in nearby Camarillo arrested a man named Kyle Davis, 35, after he accosted a 70-year-old black man for having a Black Lives Matter sticker on his car. Davis threw something at the man’s car and screamed racial epithets at him. He was charged with elder abuse, violating a person’s civil rights, and assault—all felonies. Detectives also received a gun violence restraining order, though it’s unclear if they recovered any firearms or ammunition from his house. White Lives Matter chats mention Davis, saying that local “sympathetic whites” are keeping him in business under the table while he’s in trouble.
February’s banner drop caused an uproar locally. Ventura County Sheriffs said the Nazis refused to give their names when approached by officers and left shortly after. Thousand Oaks Police Department’s response to the incident was to urge locals to just ignore them.
“We don’t want to give these guys any oxygen,” Chief Jeremy Paris told the Thousand Oaks Acorn.
Community outrage pushed Thousand Oaks City Council to adopt a resolution against hate. The resolution, passed February 22nd, states that the while the city “supports the First Amendment rights of all people, and will protect the rights of all to peaceably speak and assemble, the city will also vigorously protect the rights, equality, and safety of all.” The resolution authorizes the city to take “an official position against bigotry, white supremacy, anti-Semitism and hate speech in the city.” It’s unclear what legal powers that “official position” entails. The resolution passed 4-0. The only abstention was from councilmember Kevin MacNamee.
“The challenge here is that it’s under freedom of speech and as much as I deplore it, they have the freedom of speech to say so,” MacNamee said.
The resolution didn’t stop the Nazis from coming back the next month, however.
David was driving back from the hardware store on March 12th when he saw the banners drop from the Borchard overpass bridge. His wife looked up at the overpass and exclaimed “Oh shit!” There were some men with ladders standing on the bridge. The banners weren’t unfurled yet.
“It’s those fucking Nazis!” David said.
His wife frantically dialed the police on his suggestion. The dispatcher told her to calm down and asked what she wanted them to do. She asked them to come to the overpass.
“Well, it’s their first amendment right,” the dispatcher said. Essentially, there was nothing they could do.
“Well, fuck, just hang up on her if they’re not gonna do anything!” David said.
David got off the freeway to go up and confront them. His wife wasn’t happy about it. He tried to assure her he was “just going to go observe.”
“Lox on a bagel,” our waitress said, interrupting the story.
David parked at a gas station and walked up the sidewalk along Borchard towards the Nazis. He started to film halfway up the side of the bridge.
In the video, a group of men stands around close together on the overpass huddled around a ladder. One is fixing the banner to the chain link fence on the side of the bridge. They’re all wearing assorted gaiters and face masks, t-shirts and gloves. As David gets closer, a few get out their phones to film.
“Show your faces,” David says.
“How’s it going, sir?” one of the Nazis says, probably the one in the eyeglasses wearing New Balance jacket a baseball cap that says “Legion 14” on it. The Nazis block the sidewalk in front of him,
“I want to go past,” David says as they crowd around him. Their line breaks.
“Well, I’m not dead yet,” David said he thought to himself. He decided to engage them more.
“I realized these were like, kids, you know? Like they were 20, 30 years old. I got the sense that they were just kind of these scared kids—not scared of me, but just that they needed to hammer home how tough they are,” he reflected.
“Why don’t you show your faces?” David asks again.
“Hey, have you ever heard of COVID?” one of them says.
“Fuck you,” David retorts.
“Why are you so violent?” the Nazi filming with his phone asks. “Why are you so aggressive?”
“Why are you shaking?” another one asks.
“I just ran up a hill,” David replies.
“I thought you had to go through,” one of them says.
“I’m here to photograph you guys,” David says.
“Oh really? Do I look that pretty?” one Nazis quips.
“I was just like, fuck, I can’t let this escalate. They did their first banner drop and somebody’s got to see who these guys are,” David told me.
David walks right through them and turns around slowly, filming their faces and their gear. One’s wearing a face mask with a Celtic Cross on it that says “SoCal Active Club.” He gives a thumb’s up with a gloved hand.
“Take off your masks!” David says, raising his voice.
“Why? What are you gonna do about it?” one of the Nazis taunts.
“We exist in an anti-white system where all of our lives are destroyed,” Juan Cadavid says.
Cadavid, aka “Johnny Benitez,” is a long-time far-right activist who’s had ties to RAM as well as the Proud Boys and their failed paramilitary arm, the Alt Knights. Cadavid was wearing a black cowl and gaiter and a red shirt from ‘White Rex,’ a Russian MMA brand that Nazis love.
“You can come out here and you can preach all the anti-white hatred you want and the system will support you,” Cadavid continued.
“Why are you videotaping me?” David asks as he turns the camera towards Robert Wheldon, whose right arm holding up his phone betrayed a Proud Boys tattoo. Cadavid and Wheldon are about a foot away from his face.
“Because we don’t know who you are!” Cadavid responds, gesticulating with his hands.
“Oh, okay. So that’s why I’m here—because you guys are here,” David replies.
“That’s fine, it’s a free country,” one of the Nazis says.
David tells them to take their masks off again. Cadavid says they won’t because they “live in an anti-white system and they’ll destroy us.” A Nazi in a yellow shirt with Norse runes on it and a boonie hat waves at passing cars behind them. The Nazis talk over each other trying to get David to take their bait. Wheldon says he thinks David is a communist while Cadavid asks him why he opposes white lives matter. David ignores the taunts and taunts them back.
“I just thought back to my childhood. There was this bully on my street. He would just fuck with me every day for some reason. He’d call me ‘wetback’ and my family was ‘beaners’ and he was the quintessential big truck with lots of flags guy now. I just sensed that these kids were the same thing,” David told me.
“As soon as I got that sense, I just felt like I wanted to tell them what I wanted to tell them when I was a kid. Like ‘fuck you, you bunch of pussies!’ It’s just bluster. I didn’t really want to fight them. They’re just losers.”
A car stops on the side of the road by them and Wheldon walks quickly past David to try to film it.
“Get that license plate!” one of the Nazis says.
The car drives away when the driver sees Wheldon approach. They all pause, watching it drive off. Cadavid breaks the silence.
“Look man, the reason we have these masks on is because the system supports your anti-white narrative—"
“Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit.” David repeats as Cadavid tries to launch into his spiel. Far-right groups usually have a bunch of talking points memorized to have canned arguments with strangers. In the White Lives Matter activist manual, they’re called “hate facts.”
“I didn’t know any of these things like ‘don’t engage them,’” David reflected.
Antifascists generally recommend not to engage Nazis in debate, first because they’re looking for validation for their talking points either for propaganda videos or just in general and second because keeping you focused on talking to one Nazi is a good way to distract you while another Nazi sneaks up on you.
📢 Public Service Announcement 🚨 Robert Wheldon from San Diego, CA is a WLM nazi Proud Boy. He’s trying to hide. Don’t let him. 🔍— circa1977 🌹 (@canyonmod) March 26, 2022
He’d also like you to know:“I’m not a pussy, you are”
@PacAntifa @CAntifascists @SVAnarchistCol @LCRWnews pic.twitter.com/7eQuPz8D8y
David turns around and slowly walks past Wheldon, who had crept up close behind him while Cadavid was ranting. Cadavid trailed off.
“Don’t fucking touch me,” Wheldon says circling close to David.
“I’m not touching you. I’m trying to get around, you fucking Proud Boy. ” David says.
“Proud bullshitter,” Wheldon responds.
“Bullshit little pussies,” David says.
“How many are there of you? Seven of you, right?” David says as he walks past their ladders.
“There’s millions of us!” one of them responds.
“There’s more than you think!” Cadavid says with a smirk that seems forced.
“Oh yeah, you crawled out from under your fucking rocks, right?” David says.
Wheldon asks him if he’s from Mexico and says “Get out of my country, beaner!”
“Get out of your country? What the fuck are talking about?” David says.
“You don’t belong here. You’re an invader,” Wheldon replies.
“You guys are fucking insane! No—listen—what did he just say? ‘Get out of my country?’,” David says.
“No, let him talk,” Cadavid says and Wheldon, barely composed, lowered his phone camera and sulks away.
“He (Cadavid) was almost protective of me. There was this power dynamic,” David told me.
“That Rob (Wheldon) guy, he wanted to film me but he also wanted to do some damage. But this guy (Cadavid) wanted to give me his propaganda. He was telling everyone to back off and let me speak, then start telling me his spiel.”
“The only thing that we believe and that brings us together here is we believe white lives matter and are under attack. Why are you against that message?” Cadavid asks.
“Because you’re full of shit and it’s not true!” David shouts. “You know, you guys just post this shit around and believe this shit—hey back off from me!”
The Nazi in the eyeglasses and NewBalance shirt leans in closer to David, wide-eyed. Cadavid continues to babble on with his talking points.
“Oh my god, you’ve totally convinced me! You’re right!” David says mockingly. Cadavid asks him about crime statistics and David replies, “You know what? Just fuck off.” Cadavid and the man in the NewBalance shirt step closer and keep peppering him with talking points. David tells them to back off.
“I thought you wanted to go this way,” the NewBalance Nazi says mockingly.
“I’m gonna go back and I’m gonna go fucking forth and I can walk on this ‘cause it’s my fucking country!” David says.
“You’re shaking,” one of them says.
“Yeah, I’m shaking! There’s seven of you fuckers!”
“I was just being honest with them. Fuck yeah I’m intimidated—but I’m here,” David later reflected.
They follow him and taunt him for a bit, Wheldon getting in his face, but some quickly turn around and look around. Throughout the video some of them seem on edge and are constantly looking around—for what, it’s unclear.
“Your video is gonna show you shaking like crazy!” the NewBalance Nazi says. The video is eerily stable—moreso than when I film with my phone.
Cadavid keeps shouting leading questions from the White Lives Matter talking points at a more frantic rate as David paces back and forth across the bridge, getting closer and closer to him. David tells him to back off. The Nazis once again make a path for him. The shadow of a drone flying overhead hisses on the sidewalk in front of David as he walks away from Cadavid, who’s still shouting his talking points. As the NewBalance Nazi points his finger and shouts “You promote violence towards us!” David points his camera at the drone. It flies up straight, disappearing into the light of the sun. Cadavid asks the NewBalance Nazi to back off so he can try to keep arguing with David alone. He shouts about George Floyd being an “African” who “died of a fentanyl overdose.” David tries to ask the Nazis if the drone is theirs. Cadavid continues to shout his talking points.
David decides he’s had enough and he needs to get back to his wife, who’s likely very worried.
“Alright, bullshit little pussies. Bullshit little pussies,” he says as he turns to leave. The video ends.
“I had this sense like I could get thrown over onto the freeway, I guess, but looking back I think the fact that I was, like, this close to them and I don’t think they expected that,” David said.
“The telling thing is they had three or four cameras on him at all times and not one of those fucking videos appeared on their channel later. They’re embarrassed by it,” Lemon added, continuing, “Every other white supremacist piece of shit would’ve been like ‘Fuck you guys, you should’ve fucked up that ANTIFA.’ And none of them did shit.”
Cadavid, perhaps trying to save face, kept following David down the hill and shouting at him.
“He really wanted to have a private conference with me,” David reflected. “[It seemed like] he really felt like he could reach me. And I just thought ‘After all this time of me saying you guys are fucking pussies and bullshit and you still wanted to talk to me?’ It was just really weird.”
Cadavid gave up following David partway down the hill. When he and his wife left, he had her drive so he could get a picture of the banner. He then got to work alerting the community.
David put the photo on Twitter. A friend recommended he call Thousand Oaks City Council member Claudia Bill de la Peña, who’d sponsored the anti-hate resolution. She told him to watermark the video and tag local law enforcement and a local reporter. Not being media-savvy, he had his daughter help him do that. Wheldon and Cadavid were quickly identified by local antifascists.
Some might write off the Nazis on the bridge as sad, goofy and ineffectual. And in a way, that’s true. But local antifascists let LCRW know about another local Nazi that’s been trying to push the group in a dangerous direction. While a lot of neo-Nazi and other hard right groups try to keep their open activities legal, relatively safe, and viable, Jeffrey Sporman wants to push things to the limits.
Sporman, 48, is a dedicated neo-Nazi who sometimes organizes with the WLM milieu. Sporman has a long rap sheet including breaking and entering, public intoxication and drug crimes. He has links to the KKK and goes by online aliases like ‘Scarecrow’ and ‘Tomato Joe’—the latter a nod to assassinated neo-Nazi leader Joseph Tommasi. One of Sporman’s projects is to revive Tommasi’s group, the National Socialist Liberation Front.
Sporman’s also taken to accelerationism—the idea stemming in part from The Turner Diaries that committed neo-Nazis should use irregular warfare tactics like bombing and shooting civilians en masse in order to overload the state and bring about the collapse of society—usually so that said committed neo-Nazis can take up arms and carve out little chunks of territory for themselves from the ashes. On his social media, Sporman celebrates mass shooters, posts accelerationist and neo-Nazi memes and shares videos of improvised explosive devices and 3D-printed guns.
In addition to fantasizing about bomb and shooting plots, LCRW reviewed messages where Sporman stalks activists and talks about monitoring local organizers, nonprofit groups and even churches—and encouraging others in WLM chats to do the same. One meme he posted depicts Black Lives Matter lawn signs with the caption “What they see” on top. On the bottom, there’s the same signs, except instead of the pro-BLM text, they say “enemy” and “target.”
While it never materialized, he planned to “openly fly swastikas in front of synagogues” and a Black Lives Matter march last month on the 16th, though that obviously never materialized. He was likely not in attendance at the February banner drop and it’s unknown if he attended the March one.
AND DON’T COME BACK
WLM Nazis intended to come back to town and do the same thing again on April 16th. They didn’t show. Instead, a small group of local activists dropped a big banner with a crossed-out swastika on one side, a heart on the other and the words ‘ONE LOVE’ in the middle. Lemon called it ONW—‘Operation Nazi Watch.’
“I always said if I ever got the chance to fight Nazis, I would. If you come to my hometown, you’re going to have a problem. Hate doesn’t have a home here,” Joyce Alessandrino told the Thousand Oaks Acorn.
Bet you anything this dude was more offended by our one crossed out swastika on the bridge today than the seven actual Nazis who’ve been on the bridge for the past two months. pic.twitter.com/2kdx5AX7zZ— circa1977 🌹 (@canyonmod) April 17, 2022
While most people supported them, one man, Scott Benveniste, in a pickup truck with a ‘Fryhoff for Sheriff’ bumper sticker drove up and started shouting at the activists to take down “the swastika.”
“Take that down, it’s offensive dude!” Benveniste shouted.
“It’s crossed out, fuck you!” David said as Benveniste continued to shout over him.
“We live here, you libtards!” Benveniste said over a tiny bullhorn he had sitting in his lap before driving off. He apparently came back a few times to shout at them.
“We do not know for sure if we interrupted the nazis plans to demonstrate on the bridge again, but we know there was no reports of their activities in the Conejo Valley that day,” Lemon told LCRW. “And we all went out for tacos after!”
They seem to be having troubles unfurling the banner, which appeared to say “white lives matter” pic.twitter.com/LAAC2grJYZ— Sean Beckner-Carmitchel (@ACatWithNews) April 23, 2022
Perhaps to save face, the Nazis did their banner drop for the month a week later and a couple counties over in Costa Mesa on the 23rd. David recognized Wheldon among them because he used the same ladder as he had in March. The banner was up for less time than it took to drape over the overpass because reporters and antifascists immediately found them and cops soon stopped by and had Wheldon take the banner down and leave.
“On Sunday I got a photograph of the banner and our police chief had a patrol officer remove it. That’s the only thing I really know about it. I don’t know who put it up or how long it was there or anything,” Costa Mesa Mayor John Stephens told LCRW. He promised to follow up on the matter, but so far hasn’t.
White Lives Matter tries to hold demos generally in the middle of every month. The next time these Nazis are slated to make an appearance is May 14th. Lemon said that “after the successful April Operation Nazi Watch, many more residents have offered to assist.” Whatever happens, he and David say they’ll be ready.
“A community deserves safety and inclusion for everyone,” Lemon said, continuing, “The entire purpose of the Conejo Valley Antifascists is to find and coordinate with local residents who understand the risks of ignoring this threat in our community.”
“We’ve got an amazing group of brave volunteers who live to oppose fascism and eat tacos.”