One of the main organizers of the white supremacist rally that turned deadly in Charlottesville this past weekend has roots in the South Bay.
Nathan Damigo—founder of white nationalist group Identity Evropa—is a former Marine, convicted felon and former San Jose resident whose father once worked for the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office.
KQED this week ran a profile on the 31-year-old extremist, who uses protests like the one in Charlottesville as a way to recruit new members for his group. Damigo made headlines earlier this year after punching a woman in the face at the April 15 “Battle of Berkeley,” where white supremacists clashed with anti-racists and anti-fascists.
Media reports, research by the Southern Poverty Law Center and myriad interviews on right-wing platforms paint a chilling portrait of a racist reactionary who’s galvanizing a national anti-diversity movement.
“This frenetic, violent, yet charismatic man with extreme racist views helped organize the Charlottesville rally,” according to KQED reporters John Supulvado and Bert Johnson. “And he’s helping to mobilize an entire generation of white supremacists.”
Damigo—who was born in Maine, grew up in San Jose and moved to Stanislaus County for college—did not respond to San Jose Inside’s request for comment. But in interviews with other publications, he says it was in the South Bay—home to one of the most ethnically diverse populations in the nation—that he began developing notions of his own racial superiority. Being around other cultures made him uneasy, he told KQED.
“You’d go over to a friend’s house, or something like that, and everybody’s speaking a different language,” Damigo told an interviewer, “and you’re just sitting there awkwardly. There’s no connection there.”
In a Q&A with white supremacist website Amerika, he said he felt that minorities he knew rejected his ideas of “national pride and identity.”
“[E]ven as a child I noticed double standards,” Damigo said in 2016. “I found my friends shaped their political ideologies based on what was best for their racial and ethnic communities. I attempted in vain to instill in them a civic national pride and identity, only to be met with rejection. They were not interested in what was best for America, but only that of themselves. While this was never explicitly vocalized, it was the hidden lesson I learn[ed].”
Damigo spent his teenage years at the private Liberty Baptist School. In 2004, at the age of 18, he enlisted in the Marine Corps, which deployed him to Iraq for two combat tours.
The violence of the Iraq War further cemented Damigo’s views on race, he told KQED. It also inflicted psychological trauma. KQED cites court records indicating that Damigo began suffering from of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder after he returned home. Symptoms ranged form paranoia to flashbacks, outbursts and drug and alcohol abuse.
When Damigo robbed a taxi driver at gunpoint in 2007, he and his family called it another symptom of trauma. The ordeal was chronicled in an HBO documentary called Wartorn, which explored the lingering effects of trauma on military veterans.
The troubled veteran spent the next four years in prison poring over the writings of white supremacists, including Ku Klux Klan ringleader David Duke. Damigo, who was taught creationism at his deeply religious high school, also became fascinated by discredited racist eugenics theories, which, according to past interviews, he took as “scientific” evidence of non-white inferiority.
Upon his release, the newly branded ethno-nationalist founded Identity Evropa, which built up a following on college campuses.
Activists on the left have been keeping tabs on Damigo long before he punched the 19-year-old counter-protester in Berkeley. In December 2016, a group called Northern California Anti-Racist Action (NoCARA) published a lengthy blog post that mapped out Damigo’s path toward radicalization.
NoCARA’s account suggests that Damigo’s extremism traces back to his hyper-conservative upbringing. Damigo’s stepfather, retired Santa Clara County sheriff’s deputy Michael Damigo, graduated from the conservative Bob Jones University and instilled in his family “the core values of the idyllic white American family,” the blog post reads.
“While Nathan Damigo’s white supremacist activism is seen by many as the emergency of a new and aberrant phenomenon, Damigo’s ideology is very much within a continuation and evolution of his and his family’s relationship to the structural white supremacy that underpins every facet of American society,” NoCARA wrote.
The blog references an article describing how Damigo’s stepdad was involved in a deadly confrontation in the line of duty. In 2010, the same year his son went to prison for armed robbery, the elder Damigo fatally shot an illegal cannabis farmer. The District Attorney’s Office ruled the shooting justified self-defense. Damigo’s adopted father retired from the county in 2015.
Damigo’s mother, Charilyn Damigo, spent years after her son’s armed robbery advocating for trauma-afflicted veterans and criticizing the government for failing him. She was interviewed extensively as part of the HBO doc Wartorn and wrote about her son’s incarceration on a blog, where she solicited donations to send him gifts, including art supplies and an Xbox 360. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, her tireless campaign to help her son convinced the Marine Corps to release him on an other-than-honorable—as opposed to dishonorable—discharge. That allowed him to maintain access to public benefits from the federal Veterans Administration.
While his mom did what she could to shield Damigo from the consequences of his violence, he was already well on his way toward radicalization.
Yet even after all the publicity about the ex-felon’s foray into neo-Nazi identity politics, neither Damigo’s mom nor stepdad have publicly denounced their son’s activism. San Jose Inside reached out to Damigo’s parents, but has yet to hear back from them.
Damigo’s biological father, a University of Maine adjunct history professor named Peter Lodge, on the other hand, has condemned his estranged son’s words and actions. In an interview published Monday in his hometown newspaper, the Lewiston-Auburn Sun Journal, Lodge stressed that he “had little to do with Nathan's upbringing—he grew up in California, I lived in Maine.”
“I’m the polar opposite of my brother,” he told San Jose Inside via email on Tuesday, “as I think you can see from my blog.”
He said he’s not sure how much his parents know about Damigo’s alt-right advocacy. But he suspects that Damigo tells them a sanitized version of his activism.
On the day of the clashes between self-described “Unite the Right“ marchers and the people protesting them, Josh Damigo lamented about the violence.
“I’m so disappointed in people,” he wrote along with a link to a Vice News story about the rally. “It’s a heartbreak that just keeps happening.”
Regarding Damigo, the NoCARA blog post concluded: “Ultimately, it’s clear that Nathan Damigo, as a felon would not be able to lead his organization were it not for the emotional and financial support provided by his family. While the media continues its seemingly compulsive need to give Nathan a platform and to create hype around his activism as something novel, as this writing has detailed, his white supremacist ideology is directly informed by that of his family, protestant religious values, social environment, and institutions he’s been involved with such as the military and law enforcement.”
The violence at the Charlottesville rally, which left 32-year-old progressive activist Heather Heyer dead after a professed neo-Nazi plowed his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, prompted a number of local vigils, including gatherings last weekend in San Jose and Mountain View. The South Bay events were among hundreds nationwide to denounce racism, which in Charlottesville was fueled by white supremacists protesting the removal of statues that celebrate figures of the pro-slavery Confederate states.
The Bay Area could be the next target for the so-called alt-right, with three major protests planned for San Francisco, Berkeley and Mountain View in the coming weeks. The one in Mountain View this coming Saturday comes in response to Google firing James Damore, who penned a controversial screed arguing against women’s biological fitness for some of the jobs men do. At least two counter protests are planned this weekend at the same location, Charleston Road in Mountain View.
In response to the events in Charlottesville and the nationwide uprising of hate groups and anti-diversity rhetoric, San Jose-based Islamic Networks Group (ING) has launched an initiative called Know Your Neighbor. The campaign, which is backed by a coalition of religious groups and grassroots activists, aims to promote pluralism.
“The name of the coalition is itself is a call to action,” ING spokesman Tim Brauhn wrote in an email Monday. “We must, simply, know our neighbors. When we refuse to reach out across lines of difference and isolate ourselves in our respective silos of race, class, ethnicity, religion, or political affiliation, we give our own tacit acceptance to the viewpoints that let tragedies like the rally in Charlottesville unfold. We must remember core American principles of cooperation despite division, of commitment to the greater good, and of concern for the other.”