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In The Wake Of Charlottesville, Journalist Begins 'Documenting Hate' In America


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. The rage and violence that marked the Unite The Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., a year ago was to many an alarming sign of the growth of militant white power organizations in America. There were violent street clashes. And one woman was killed when a young man drove a car into a crowd of anti-racist protesters.

Our guest journalist, A.C. Thompson, was in Charlottesville that day and has been reporting on hate groups for more than a year. He's followed up on white power groups that were in Charlottesville and has identified individual members who engaged in the violence, including one active duty marine. A.C. Thompson is a correspondent for "Frontline" PBS and a staff reporter for ProPublica. His stories, which often focus on the criminal justice system, helped lead to the exoneration of two San Francisco men sentenced to life in prison and the prosecution of seven New Orleans police officers after Hurricane Katrina. Thompson's reporting is featured in a "Frontline" and ProPublica joint investigation "Documenting Hate: Charlottesville," which premieres Tuesday night on PBS stations.

Well, A.C. Thompson, welcome to FRESH AIR. You covered the Unite The Right rally in Charlottesville last year and the violence that accompanied it. And you'd been reporting on hate groups and their crimes before, so I'm not quite sure what you were expecting. But I'm wondering, what surprised you about what you saw?

A C THOMPSON: You know, I think the thing that surprised me the most was the lack of effective response by the police department. So up to the Charlottesville rally, we had seen one bloody, violent street fight after another in major American cities. So the extreme right wing and the fascists and neo-Nazis would come out. They would be met by their political opponents. There would be brawls. There would be stabbings. There would be mayhem. And I thought, by the time we get to Charlottesville, the police are going to be prepared for this. They're going to know to keep these two groups separate. They're going to know to tell people, hey, don't bring clubs. Don't bring knives. Don't bring helmets and pepper spray. And they're going to take that stuff away from people. And it's not going to be chaos. And I was completely wrong, completely wrong.

DAVIES: Right. And as I recall, the authorities said, well, they were prevented from taking some measures that they had planned on implementing, like separating the groups. Do they have any defense here?

THOMPSON: So after Charlottesville, the city commissioned a 200-page report to look into what went wrong. And I've been reporting on police for about 20 years. And I, honestly, have never seen anything like it. The report is absolutely damning. And it basically says the local Charlottesville Police let people fight it out and just stood around. And they basically decided it would be easier to declare an unlawful assembly and clear them out after there had been a bunch of bloodshed. And that is exactly what we witnessed. But to realize that this seems to have been the police department's plan or something that they intended, rather than a breakdown in communication or some kind of major foul-up, is pretty stunning to me.

DAVIES: Jason Kessler, I guess, was the guy who called for this Unite The Right rally. And the idea was we're really going to bring all of these white power groups together in one place and have a demonstration of strength. I'm wondering if you were surprised by the number that showed up? And do we know how many showed up?

THOMPSON: I don't think anybody has a good number on how many showed up, but definitely hundreds and possibly approaching a thousand on the white power side. You know, one thing that I think that many observers don't really get is that these groups were very well organized in many ways. They operated in a sort of paramilitary fashion. They had leaders and commanders who were directing the members of the groups where to go and what to do. And those members followed those orders. And, for example, on August 11, the night of the infamous torch march, all those groups showed up - hundreds of people in a little field next to the UVA grounds in a matter of moments. They just materialized out of nowhere, formed up, formed a line and started marching. And it was a really remarkable display of tactical efficiency.

DAVIES: When you saw this hand-to-hand violence in Charlottesville, I'm wondering, could you just describe the two sides? Were they evenly skilled, organized, prepared, matched?

THOMPSON: So the first thing to know is the violence starts on August 11. And that's the night of the torch march on the University of Virginia. And during that march, the white supremacists were really aggressive, really menacing. I mean, they told me, we're going to put you in a camp. They said that to myself and my camera person. They were incredibly hostile. And they just basically went crazy and attacked this very small group of anti-racist counterprotesters and students. When you come to the next day, the 12, the first thing of the day that I remember was a guy in a swastika T-shirt pushing around an African-American photographer and basically getting physical with this photographer.

And throughout the day, you just saw one escalating incident after another. There was a contingent of militant anti-fascists who were throwing stuff at the Nazis and the white supremacists. And by stuff, I mean tear gas canisters, urine, bottles, all kinds of things like that. And then there were all kinds of white supremacists who had guns in some cases, who had clubs, who had flagpoles that they were using to beat people with. And these two groups came together in a whole different series of clashes.

I would say to my eyes, the militant anti-fascist group looked much smaller than the white supremacist group, and frankly, less skilled at physical altercations. And I should also say, you know, there was a large contingent, probably the overwhelming contingent on the anti-racist side that day in Charlottesville who didn't want to have anything to do with any violence and had no plans to engage in violence and didn't engage in violence.

DAVIES: There was the tragic death of Heather Heyer in that attack by James Alex Fields, who allegedly drove his car in. There was obviously a lot of violence and a lot of coverage that followed. And I'm wondering, in the weeks and months afterward, what were the unanswered questions that you wanted to pursue?

THOMPSON: For me, one thing I wanted to know is, who were these people? You know, where did they come from? How did they become adherent to these various white supremacist ideologies? What had they come there to do? And who had committed crimes, essentially, and gotten away with it? I wanted to know who was responsible for the violence that day and what had happened to them in the weeks and months after the event.

DAVIES: Right. And we know that James Alex Fields was charged with driving the car into the crowd. Were others prosecuted?

THOMPSON: You know, there was a small handful of prosecutions that came out of August 11 and August 12 - so some of the men responsible for attacking DeAndre Harris in the parking garage. He was an African-American man who was really, really severely beaten by a group of white supremacists. Some of those men have been prosecuted. He was, in fact, prosecuted for assault and acquitted, with the police theorizing that it was a mutual combat situation. There were a handful of prosecutions, but not very many.

DAVIES: You know, after the Charlottesville violence, Donald Trump said things, like, you know, there were bad things done by people on all sides, and there were good people on both sides. I'm wondering what the reaction was among the white power movement to those comments?

THOMPSON: I think from the people I've spoken to that they took heart in the president's comments, that they were inspired by the president's comments, that they felt like he was giving them a nod and giving them a pat on the back and saying, you know, I can't fully embrace your cause, but I'm going to give you this sort of tacit approval here - or low-key approval, I would say - not tacit, explicit. And they were heartened by that. I mean, in our film, you can see David Duke and Matthew Heimbach, who, at the time, was the leader of a large neo-Nazi group praising the president and saying, you know, look; he opened a door for us. He's giving us credit and explicitly saying, like, hey, you know, this guy's on our side.

DAVIES: Well, let's talk about some of the follow-up that you did on participants. You write about a group called the Rise Above Movement. Where are they based? What are they doing?

THOMPSON: So the Rise Above Movement is based in Southern California. And they have members sort of from San Diego to Los Angeles. And they're a new white supremacist group that formed in 2017. And they're sort of like a post-skinhead group. They have incorporated many members of the nation's largest and most violent Nazi skinhead gang, the Hammerskins, but they don't wear shaved heads. They don't do the skinhead costume with the bomber jackets and the Doc Marten boots. They look like jocks. They look like guys you might see rooting for a football team or at a mixed martial arts event. And their sort of thing is, they clearly are white supremacists, and they definitely identify with fascist ideology, but they want to be a little more subtle, and not put the swastika on everything, and not put overt Nazi symbolism on everything and try to pull in members by saying, hey, look; we're nationalists; we're patriots; we're healthy young men; we want a traditional, white American way of life - and sort of downplay the fascist and white supremacist stuff.

DAVIES: Right. On the other hand, when there are opportunities for mixing it up in the street, like, for example, at a Trump rally, I guess, in March 2017, they come ready to rumble, right?

THOMPSON: In my view, the Rise Above Movement are the most effective street fighters that we've seen emerge out of the white supremacist movement in the last couple years. These are the guys who show up to these events, show up to these rallies and actually know how to fight and actually do it very effectively and do it, essentially, in formation. And I really haven't seen that out of most of the other groups. These guys are fairly fearsome when you see them on the streets.

DAVIES: You and others at ProPublica, I gather, looked at a lot of video from Charlottesville and earlier confrontations at which people from the Rise Above Movement were there and active. And you've identified one guy that we see in the documentary. I think Michael Miselis is his name, right? Tell us about him.

THOMPSON: So Michael Miselis is a guy who came on our radar first when we were looking through footage of confrontations in Charlottesville, and we saw this young man who looked like he was an associate of the Rise Above Movement. He was dressed like they were. He was engaged in throwing full cans of soda and rocks at people. He was engaged in fisticuffs in Charlottesville. But we didn't have a name for him, and we didn't know who he was. We just thought he was a Rise Above Movement associate. And as we did more and more reporting, it became clear - hey, he's definitely a member of that group, and he's definitely been active in altercations, not just in Charlottesville, but also in Berkeley, Calif., in 2017. But the surprising thing to us was not that he was involved in these violent conflicts. We knew that. The surprising thing was that he was an aerospace engineer, and was pursuing his Ph.D. at UCLA in aerospace engineering and that he was working for Northrop Grumman with a security clearance, apparently working on next-generation military technology.

DAVIES: And so when you figured out who he was, you obviously made an effort to contact him. What happened?

THOMPSON: So we went to see him at his house. It took us a while to find him. And we wanted to be sure that he was the right guy, that he was the person that we thought he was. And Miselis denied being in Charlottesville. He denied being a member of the Rise Above Movement, and he said that to us on the camera in a very sort of unshocked tone, I would say. But what was interesting after that is, the group claimed him, and they said, hey, Mike Miselis did nothing wrong; yeah, he's a member of RAM; yeah, you should support him; we're going to do a legal fundraiser for him. So the guy who's telling us one minute, he's not a member of the group, after he gets named in our story, loses his job at Northrop Grumman, suddenly acknowledges that, yes, he's a member of the group, and could you help me out with my current situation?

DAVIES: A.C. Thompson is a correspondent for "Frontline" PBS and a reporter for ProPublica. We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with A.C. Thompson. He's a correspondent for "Frontline" PBS and a reporter for ProPublica. The "Frontline" and ProPublica joint investigation "Documenting Hate: Charlottesville" premieres this Tuesday, August 7, on PBS stations.

When you looked at those engaging in violence at Charlottesville, you discovered that one of them appeared to be a lance corporal in the Marine Corps. Tell us about this fellow, how you figured this out.

THOMPSON: The person in question is a young man named Vasillios Pistolis. And what happened was we got access to 250,000 messages that were sent by members of what is definitely a neo-Nazi group, a group that identifies as Nazis, called the Atomwaffen Division. And in those messages, there was a young man saying, hey, I was in Charlottesville; I split people's skulls; I assaulted people, and in particular, I assaulted a person named Emily Gorcenski. And that set us off on reporting to figure out, hey, who is this person saying they engaged in these attacks? And let's figure it out.

DAVIES: Yeah, and who is Emily Gorcenski?

THOMPSON: Emily Gorcenski is an activist who lived in Charlottesville at the time, and she was with a group of anti-racist students on the night of the torch march, August 11. As that march turned into a melee and pure mayhem, she was one of the many people who were attacked by the white supremacists. And in these logs, you have a Nazi saying, hey, I'm the one who attacked Emily Gorcenski, and in fact, I attacked other people.

DAVIES: And did - you interviewed Emily Gorcenski. Did she recognize him?

THOMPSON: That was the thing. You know, I had been in contact with her, and when I came across these messages, and I got photos of Vasillios Pistolis and I got video, we went through it together, and she said, absolutely, that is the man who ran into the crowd and launched a flying kick at me. She said, I don't think it hit me; I think it hit someone next to me; he may have punched me, but he definitely was one of the people that instigated the violence that night.

DAVIES: What's interesting is that Vasillios Pistolis could have been jeopardizing his military career by outing himself. Did he identify himself as a Marine in these postings?

THOMPSON: In the postings that he made - and these were in a closed, private chat by members of the group Atomwaffen - he gave enough hints that you would know that he was in the military. And there were several other people that did the same, who gave hints that they were. active-duty soldiers, sailors, Marines. So that was a thing that we thought was important. Like, hey, this is a guy who has access to weapons. He has access to the best military training in the world. And he is involved in a neo-Nazi group and attacking people. And the group that he was a member of at the time is not just a neo-Nazi group. They are an avowedly terrorist organization whose goal is to overthrow the government of the United States of America and launch a race war.

DAVIES: So you figured out that Lance Corporal Pistolis was stationed, I guess, in North Carolina. And you reached him, right? What did he say?

THOMPSON: At first, he said, I wasn't there. And then I said, but hey, I have photos of you there. I have video of you there. And then he said, hey, it was all just joking. You know, I was joking about attacking Emily Gorcenski. And then I said, but it just doesn't seem like a joke. And his pitch to me at that point was basically like, hey, I'll inform on other members of the movement and help you with your career if you just drop this because, you know, you probably don't want to keep working at ProPublica. That's not a very reputable establishment.

DAVIES: What is the Marine Corps' policy on political activity among Marines?

THOMPSON: So throughout all branches of the military, being involved in a racial extremist group is banned. You're not allowed to be a member of a white supremacist group. You're not allowed to participate in white supremacist demonstrations. You cannot do that. And this is policy that comes from the DOD at the top. And each branch interprets it slightly differently, but they all have their own regulations. So he was forbidden not only under criminal law from engaging in assaults, he was barred under military policy from being a member of one of these groups and going to these events.

DAVIES: I believe you also spoke to a former Marine who had served in the same unit that Lance Corporal Pistolis did and had observed and was troubled by his activities and reported them to the Marines, right?

THOMPSON: Yeah, so that was the - one of the crazy things, right? We do the first story Pistolis. And we say, hey, this guy is an active duty Marine. He appears to have been involved in these assaults and appears to be deeply involved in the white supremacist and neo-Nazi movements. What's going on here? After we did that story, a former Marine named Ed Beck reached us. And he said, hey, I've been looking at Pistolis for a long time. And he said, in fact, I contacted the Marine Corps back in October. When I was talking to Beck, this was months later - months later, about six months later. And he says, look, they've been sitting on this for six months. And we went back to the Marine Corps. And we said, did you know about this guy six months ago? And we got a bunch of different answers. But the one that I think is the most accurate is that there had been an investigation and that, essentially, the military investigators had dropped it. And that was pretty surprising to me.

DAVIES: But they eventually did take some action?

THOMPSON: After our story ran, they eventually court martialed Pistolis. They locked him up - or they sentenced him to a term of 30 days of confinement in the brig and are in the process of ousting him from the service.

DAVIES: A.C. Thompson is a correspondent for "Frontline" PBS and a staff reporter for ProPublica. The "Frontline" and ProPublica joint investigation "Documenting Hate: Charlottesville" premieres Tuesday on PBS stations. And after a break, Thompson will talk about one hate group associated with five murders. And David Edelstein reviews a new documentary about Scott Bowers, known in the 1950s as pimp to the stars. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. We're speaking with A.C. Thompson, a correspondent for "Frontline" PBS and a staff reporter for ProPublica. The "Frontline" and Pro Publica joint investigation "Documenting Hate: Charlottesville" premieres Tuesday on PBS stations. Thompson has reported on hate groups who came to Charlottesville and identified some individual members involved in the violence, including one active duty marine.

Is there any reason to believe that white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups are more active in the military than elsewhere, that military personnel are more likely to be involved in them?

THOMPSON: So here's the thing. My father served in the U.S. Army. Many of my relatives served in the Navy and the Army, other branches of the military. And I think that this is a small, small group. Overwhelmingly, obviously, most people that serve in the armed forces are not white supremacists or Nazis. However, there is a small, persistent and dangerous contingent that have been active in the armed forces for many years. So if you go back to the founder of the American Nazi Party, George Lincoln Rockwell, about 50 years ago, he had served in the Army. If you go to the leader of the League of the South - one of the leaders, Michael Tubbs, who was in Charlottesville, he had been in the Army and had been basically busted for a crazy terror plot where he was accumulating weapons from the military with what looks to have been a plan to go on a white supremacist killing spree. There have been many, many members of this movement, including Tim McVeigh, who had military training or were in the military at the time they committed very serious crimes.

DAVIES: So even if it's not common, the stakes may be higher.

THOMPSON: Exactly. Exactly. And, you know, part of that is because a lot of these groups in the white power movement view themselves as paramilitary organizations. They view themselves as being, essentially, at war with the U.S. government and with the U.S. system. And so you're going to attract people and you're going to need people who are skilled in combat if that is your goal, to make war with the U.S. government.

DAVIES: You mentioned that this lance corporal who was involved in the violence in Charlottesville belonged to a group called the Atomwaffen Division. Tell us about that. What does the name come from? What are they like?

THOMPSON: So the Atomwaffen Division is a group that basically formed online around a fascist online forum and turned into a real life, real world guerrilla force - you can call it a guerrilla force, you could call it a terrorist organization - that has chapters spread all over the country, somewhere between 60 and 90 members at any given time. And their whole ideology is based on not participating in politics at all and not participating in the daily life of America at all. They view themselves as being people who are plotting the overthrow of the government. And so they - their whole plan is to drop out of society, form these sort of terror cells and either engage in attacks on the government that are run by small cells or engage in lone wolf attacks, terror attacks against the government.

DAVIES: Their leader is a guy named John Cameron Denton, right? What do we know about him and where his ideology come from?

THOMPSON: So I just saw John in Houston. I don't think he really enjoyed visiting with me. But John Cameron Denton is a young man. He is super into the sort of satanic black metal scene. That's his deal, his subculture. And he's a guy who's basically pushing this group to be as extreme as possible. The group is undoubtedly extreme. It's been linked to five different murders and a bomb plot. So they're absolutely extreme. But Denton's sort of vision is apocalyptic, it's millenarian.

And if we say groups like RAM sort of hide their fascist ideology, they sort of hide or camouflage their white supremacist ideology a little bit, Atomwaffen is the exact opposite. Their thing is like hey, we're Nazis, we're proud of it, and we are coming for you. Everything is about violence, mayhem and basically the destruction of the United States.

DAVIES: I think you said he goes by the tag Rape in online conversations?

THOMPSON: Yeah. He goes by the handle Rape. And so when I met him, I just walked up and I said, hey, Rape, A.C. Thompson from ProPublica and "Frontline." And like I said, he didn't look very happy to see me.

DAVIES: He recognized your name?

THOMPSON: He recognized me.

DAVIES: You had interacted before?

THOMPSON: He had seen my - he'd seen my picture online on my bio. And he said, oh, you don't really look like your headshot online.

DAVIES: So did he talk to you?

THOMPSON: He did a little bit, you know, not too much. You know, most of these - most of the members of these groups have been reluctant to talk at any length. The thing about Atomwaffen is from being inside their chats and from reading their propaganda and reading sort of their foundational texts you get a really good idea of what they're about. And what they're about is really sort of, you know, in a world of extremists, I would say they're the most extreme.

DAVIES: And this is fascinating. You say he embraces an obscure book called "Siege," right? Tell us about this.

THOMPSON: Yeah. Wow. It's interesting and creepy. So "Siege" is the collected newsletters of a guy named James Mason. And James Mason was a member and an activist within the original American Nazi Party back in the '60s. And eventually, Mason got to this point where he said, hey, you know, Nazism, fascism is not really going over in America. People are not down for it. What I see is that this whole idea of being out and sort of engaging in politics and thinking that we'll have a party and we'll recruit people to our cause and our beliefs, that's not working. And he was inspired in many ways by the new left and by what he saw in leftist organizing and leftist movements in the '60s and '70s and even into the early '80s.

So he was thinking, hey, why don't we emulate the Viet Cong in Vietnam? Why don't we emulate the communist guerrillas in Vietnam? Like, they were able, with a relatively small number of people and relatively simple technology, to fend off the great American war-fighting machine. And he saw, like, our future as Nazis is not about having a political party. It's about forming small groups, using guerrilla tactics, using political terror, using assassination, using bombings, murders and destabilizing acts to overthrow the government and then eventually install a fascist regime after a race war. So that is the ideology that the Atomwaffen Division is based on.

DAVIES: A.C. Thompson is a correspondent for "Frontline" PBS and a reporter for ProPublica. We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with A.C. Thompson. He's a correspondent for "Frontline" PBS and a reporter for ProPublica. The "Frontline" and ProPublica joint investigation "Documenting Hate: Charlottesville" premieres next Tuesday, August 7, on PBS stations.

You know, you mentioned that the Atomwaffen had been associated with five murders. And when you look at the details, in every case, the person who committed the murder knew the victims. In two of them, that was a guy who killed two of his Atomwaffen roommates - right? - and another case, a guy who killed his ex-girlfriend's parents. And then a third - one guy who stabbed a college student to death who was a Jewish gay man, and that may be prosecuted as a hate crime, but they knew each other in high school. I guess what I'm noting is that it doesn't seem like these are planned, targeted assassinations by a group that was intent on doing them.

THOMPSON: No, but that's actually very reflective of the white power movement over time. What we've seen with the white power movement over time is that the members of those groups tend to be incredibly volatile and tend to engage in fratricidal violence against their fellow members. So if you look back at George Lincoln Rockwell, the American Nazi Party founder, he was murdered by one of his followers. If you look at his successor, that guy was murdered by another Nazi, as well. If you look in recent years, there have been several different instances in which neo-Nazis murdered their fellow Nazis. You know, that has sort of been the classic thing that you've seen with these extremist groups is volatile personalities who may lash out at people of color, may lash out at Jews, may lash out at the media, but also might lash out at the people who are closest to them.

DAVIES: And I guess what - as I read about the Atomwaffen - is that it seems like their intentions are deadly - I mean, overthrowing the government with acts of terror. But have they actually executed any?

THOMPSON: Here's a remarkable thing about the Atomwaffen Division. The Atomwaffen Division got on the radar of people covering these groups in the spring of 2017, and they got there because of two separate crimes. And the first crime was that one member murdered two other members. And when police showed up to investigate, they went to the townhouse where the crimes occurred - the murders occurred - And they found a whole bunch of bomb-making material. They found ammonium nitrate, which was the explosive used to destroy the Oklahoma City Federal Building. They found other high explosives. They found fuses and detonators. They found explosives manuals. They found radiological material.

And the member who had done the murders said, hey, that stuff belongs to the leader of the group. His name is Brandon Russell. He's a member of - by the way - of the Florida Army National Guard, and his plan was to blow up a nuclear power plant outside of Miami, Fla. Now, we still don't know if that was true, if he really was planning to do something as on the nose as create, basically, a nuclear weapon by blowing up a nuclear power plant. But I think it's entirely possible.

DAVIES: Did that result in a criminal prosecution of Brandon Russell?

THOMPSON: So Brandon Russell is currently serving five years on an explosive charge in federal prison in Atlanta. And he is continuing to make propaganda videos that he sends out to his foot soldiers, telling them to keep up the struggle, keep the faith, and keep the dream of a Nazi state alive.

DAVIES: You can make propaganda videos in prison?

THOMPSON: Pretty remarkable, right?

DAVIES: Yeah, I thought they controlled everything. They listen on your phone calls.

THOMPSON: It's interesting. With Brandon, he was caught by federal prosecutors when he was still in county jail, trying to smuggle a bomb-making diagram out of the county jail. So he doesn't seem like a particularly repentant character from what we've seen.

DAVIES: The event last year in Charlottesville, I think, is regarded as a national tragedy by most people. How does the white power movement regard it?

THOMPSON: You know, it's interest (inaudible) because the things that many on the extreme right say about that event sound like the things that you hear from some people on the left. And the extreme-right people will say, hey, the police let us down; they didn't protect us; they didn't support us; they allowed this to turn into chaos and mayhem.

And I think you hear that from people on the other side, as well. And that is, in fact, what happened. For many in the white supremacist movement, they view Charlottesville as a colossal mistake and a colossal error. And for many people, that means withdrawing from politics and getting deeper into things like leaderless resistance and sort of lone-wolf terror ideology, guerrilla ideology. And for others, it has made them leave the movement. They felt like the consequences, the costs were too high.

DAVIES: Have there been efforts to organize another Charlottesville rally this summer?

THOMPSON: You know, there's plans for another rally. I don't think they're going to be in Charlottesville. I think they're likely to be in D.C. And I think it's going to be a bust. I don't think there's going to be a lot of people there. However, I think what we're likely to see is another really terrifying eruption of violence coming up in Portland, Ore., where there have been similar clashes between far-right groups and far-left groups for months and months and months. And I think the next Charlottesville will actually be Portland, and I think there's a good chance that we will see pretty extreme violence there.

DAVIES: And why is this violence concentrated in Portland?

THOMPSON: You know, what we've seen over the last couple of years is that the far-right groups and the white supremacist groups and fascist groups, they want to go to the places where they have the most opposition. So Portland is an insanely liberal city. Berkeley, Calif., is a remarkably liberal city. Charlottesville, Va., you can say the same thing in many regards. And so they're going to places where they will provoke and where there will be heavy resistance from the locals. And I think that's part of what's going on. And I think in the minds of the fascists, the white supremacists, the far-right activists - they say, like, you know, shouldn't we have the right to assemble wherever we want? You know, like, why should the mob keep us from assembling in Berkeley, Calif., just because we're far rightists and not far leftists?

DAVIES: You know, as I watched the documentary and I read a lot of your reporting, I was struck by two things. I mean, one is that while the people who are in these groups are advocating despicable ideologies, these are not mass movements. They're relatively small numbers of people. They're not winning elections, they're not getting a big following. And then the other thing is that most of the violence that we see in the film was inflicted upon protesters who showed up for counterdemonstrations. And I wonder if those who seek to undercut this movement think about just leaving them alone, isolating them by not organizing counterdemonstrations, at least on the same day, is a more effective way to do it. Let them march. Let people see how few and isolated they are. Come back a week later or a day later with more people. Is that kind of conversation going on?

THOMPSON: I think you're seeing some of that. I was at one of these rallies in San Francisco not that long ago, and there were definitely fascists there. There were white supremacists there and other extreme rightists. And by and large, San Francisco didn't show up. You know, people said, we're done with these people; we don't want to engage with the fascists; we don't want to give them a spectacle. And I think that's already happening in a lot of places, that people are tired of those conflicts, and they're kind of stepping away.

DAVIES: It certainly increases the media attention if there's a possibility for a conflict. It elevates their profile, in a sense.

THOMPSON: Right. Right. Once you have crazy violence in the streets, you know that you are going to have a lot of cameras there. You're going to have a lot of media coverage. And I think there are definitely people who are deeply, deeply opposed to fascism but think that, you know, we need to be smarter in how we confront these groups and how we deal with these groups than giving them the altercation that they want.

DAVIES: I'm wondering what it's been like for you spending a year or more reporting on hate. Has it effected your mood, your outlook?

THOMPSON: Yeah. Yeah. My phone is full of pictures that I've collected at these various events and various interviews, interspersed with pictures of my family. And it's that kind of juxtaposition that's hard to live with in life, you know, because I spend my days looking at really awful human behavior and really bad, bad ideas and ideologies. And then I have to go home, and try to be a human, and be loving, and thoughtful and positive towards folks. And that can be hard because it's hard not to look at all this and get depressed and get down and feel like, oh, what is happening here?'

DAVIES: Well, A.C. Thompson, thanks so much for speaking with us.

THOMPSON: Thank you very much.

DAVIES: A.C. Thompson is a correspondent for "Frontline" PBS and a staff reporter for ProPublica. The "Frontline" and ProPublica joint investigation, "Documenting Hate: Charlottesville," premieres Tuesday on PBS stations. Coming up, David Edelstein reviews the documentary "Scotty And The Secret History Of Hollywood" about the so-called pimp to the stars, Scott Bowers. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.