AJC Watchdog: Alt-right spins tales of victimhood in Charlottesville

Even as Michael Ramos turned himself in to police this week on charges that he maliciously beat Charlottesville, Va., resident DeAndre Harris, white supremacists are busy developing a counter attack: Harris was the assailant.

Harris is the black man seen in online videos on the floor of a parking garage in the waning hours of the Aug. 12 “Unite The Right” rally in Charlottesville struggling to escape while a group of white men strike him with sticks, boards and fists. Ultimately, he scrambles to safety, but only after suffering a head wound and a broken wrist, among other injuries.

Among the group of men attacking Harris was 33-year-old Georgia resident Alex Michael Ramos , who surrendered to the Monroe County Sheriff's Office in middle Georgia Tuesday on charges of malicious wounding. Before turning himself in, Ramos admitted his role in the beating in a 20-minute interview to a reporter from CBS46.

“It was not a deliberate attack, it was a defensive attack. These men attacked us,” he said. “In my scenario, I thought I was going there on a defensive mode. You know, defending people from being attacked. I hit the man one time. Before I got there, men beat him with sticks and shields. I had nothing to do with that.”

Be glad you are not Ramos' defense attorney, because Ramos loves to talk. Shortly after Charlottesville, he recorded an hour-long Facebook live video where he talked at length about his role in the violence , at one point directing his frustration at the president.

"Hey, Trump, you called me a f***ing Nazi because I helped those guys beat some a**," he said in the expletive-filled video. "Listen, man, when you are defending your people from getting harmed by the enemy, now we have a common enemy so now, yeah, we might actually stand together."

Video shows Harris takes a swing

Since that video of the Harris beating emerged on the internet, white supremacists have worked overtime to find other footage. The racist blog Occidental Dissent believes they have the magic bullet in a five-second video taken from outside the parking garage just before the mob jumped Harris.

“Observe the shorter Negro with a dark shirt and shorts wielding and swinging what appears to be either a club or a (flashlight) — he made direct contact with one of our guys so badly that multiple stitches were needed,” according to the blog.

The footage has been slowed down and starts mid-conflict, so it’s tough to determine what’s going on. But it appears to show a white man and black man tussling over a flag on a six-foot pole and Harris, who is standing to the right, swinging something at the white man.

I’ve watched it like it was the Zapruder film and I cannot tell whether or not Harris made contact, but it’s clear he tried.

“You see him swipe at the pole and the man. He seems to miss both,” said Harris’ attorney, Lee Merritt, who has seen the video. “It’s defensive, at best.”

Merritt said his client was defending his friend, Corey Long, but retreated from the encounter immediately. Ramos and the other men who pursued Harris into the parking deck cannot claim self-defense under Virginia law, he said.

“You have to perceive yourself as being in some kind of danger,” he said, and a fleeing Harris was no danger to anyone.

Merritt said the video of the beating shows Harris struggling to get away. Once he manages to escape “people simply walked away.” That’s not believable as self-defense, he said.

Alt-right’s spin: from aggressors to victims

One of the people working to prove Harris was the attacker, rather than the victim, is Michael Weaver, a metro Atlanta white supremacist activist who spent a year in jail the 2010 pepper spraying of a black man in Columbus, Ga., while distributing anti-Semitic pamphlets. Weaver pleaded guilty to assault and was given a year in jail and the unusual punishment of banishment from the six-county Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit, which includes Columbus.

Since he entered the plea, Weaver has tried to get it overturned, claiming he had ineffective legal advice and acted in self-defense. Weaver was in Charlottesville as well and blamed police for creating “total anarchy” by herding white nationalist activists toward counter protesters.

“I think the police were trying to create a race riot,” he said. “I think they wanted something to happen so they would have an excuse to shut down the rally.”

Police had already declared the rally unlawful by the time Harris was beaten.

Ryan Lenz, editor of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Hatewatch blog, said the attempt by white nationalists to present themselves as victims is an emerging trend that gained steam in February after black-clad antifascist protesters stormed Berkeley, Calif., in response to a planned speech by Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos.

“That established a pattern or way forward for the alt-right,” Lenz said. “If they could paint themselves as the victims of a tyrannical left or law enforcement that wasn’t protective of their rights … it was a way to establish an upper hand.”

‘They went…prepared to fight’

Marilyn Mayo, a senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, said white supremacists are working hard to change the narrative that emerged from Charlottesville after a car rammed into anti-racist demonstrators, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others.

“For white supremacists, they feel like they are being misrepresented and that they are the victims here and were just defending themselves,” she said. It’s a tough sell, since large numbers of Unite The Right activists arrived in the city wearing body armor and helmets and carrying weapons, she said.

“They went to Charlottesville prepared to fight,” she said. “They didn’t go as nonviolent protesters.”

Mayo said a “small group” of black-clad, masked antifascist counter-protesters came similarly strapped for battle.

Merritt said Harris isn’t political and doesn’t belong to any group. He is an instructional assistant in an elementary school, although Merritt said he hasn’t been able to return to work because the attack has left him with a fear of being in crowded places.

Lenz said the SPLC condemns violence from counter-protesters from the left. It’s wrong and ineffective, he said. And it plays into the hands of extremists on the right who see the violence as strategic.

“What they want is to have a fight with you. They want to have the moral high ground on this issue,” he said. “If we cede the moral high ground to racists and bigots on violence, that’s a mistake.”

As AJC Watchdog, I’ll be writing about public officials, good governance and the way your tax dollars are spent. Help me out. What needs exposing in your community? Contact me at cjoyner@ajc.com.