As far as the overseers of a publicly owned events center in Pasco, Washington, could tell, the men who approached them about hosting a mixed-martial arts tournament last month were just ordinary boxing promoters looking for a facility. So the event got the green light.
But when the participants all showed up at the HAPO Center on Dec. 3, it quickly became apparent that the event was in fact a gathering of neo-Nazi skinheads commemorating the death of a notorious white-supremacist terrorist. Sponsored by neofascist “Active Clubs,” the “Martyrs Day” event was billed both as an MMA tournament featuring fighters sporting a variety of Nazi-themed tattoos, as well as a “white-power” metal band concert.
“After finding out about this event taking place, HAPO Center management has discussed ways to make sure no event of that nature will ever take place again on HAPO Center grounds regardless of any lease agreements with other organizations,” officials from the facility told Daily Kos by email.
Fliers the organizers made for the event told the story: Dubbed the “Martyrs Day Rumble” (“Defeat Never/Victory Forever”), the gathering would feature two white-power bands and “fights, food, booze, tattoos.” Its official sponsors were two chapters of the neofascist “Active Club” movement, one based in Washington state and the other in southern California, as well as a skinhead organization called West Coast Firm.
The ”martyr” whose death was being honored by the gathering was Robert Mathews, a neo-Nazi terrorist killed in 1984 during an armed standoff with the FBI on Whidbey Island, Washington. Mathews was the founder and leader of The Order, a lethal gang who carried out dozens of armed robberies and assassinations, including the murder of a Denver radio talk-show host named Alan Berg.
One of the primary organizers of the event was Daniel Brett Rowe, 37, a heavily tattooed neo-Nazi who lives in Richland. Rowe is a leader in the Washington-based Hakenkreuz Skinheads, who have a long history of criminal activity in the state. In 2016, Rowe was arrested and charged with stabbing an interracial couple in Olympia after seeing them kiss. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to four years in prison.
On the Evergreen Active Club channel Rowe runs on Telegram, he boasted about the gathering: “Had a great turnout, many organizations attended. People came from Tennessee, New York, SoCal, was pretty badass. And the bands that played killed it.”
Rowe continued to hawk T-shirts from the event, including several with Hakenkreuz and Active Club Celtic cross designs. One of them features a portrait of Mathews.
“Active Clubs” are the brainchild of fugitive neo-Nazi Robert Rundo, who began organizing the movement while on the lam in Europe for federal charges arising from his participation in the deadly Aug. 12, 2017, “Unite the Right” march in Charlottesville, Virginia. Rundo, the erstwhile leader of the California-based street-brawling gang Rise Above Movement, conceived of the clubs as small local groups that would recruit young white men eager for violence, promising them an outlet where they can fight and train with weapons. But these are not just fight clubs: They are also fascist gangs who indoctrinate members into neo-Nazi ideology.
In addition to engaging in fitness activities such as weight training and combat sports training, the clubs also promote the “thrill and excitement” of spreading fascist propaganda in the form of flyers, stickers, and graffiti. “Create displays of defiance. Show your community our culture will not be erased,” a recruitment flyer reads.
On his Active Club Telegram channel, Rundo advocated spreading their message through propaganda posters and stickers, which he said would act as a “critical revelation,” letting “our own know the fight is not over.”
“The active club is not so much a structural organization as it is a lifestyle for those willing to work, risk and sweat to embody our ideals for themselves and to promote them to others,” Rundo theorized. “The active lifestyle is the counter to the left’s culture of apathy, addiction, and vice. Get active today in your area and be the change you want to see.”
This style of neofascist organizing is gaining ground not just in the U.S. but also abroad, especially in Europe. The U.K. anti-hate organization Hope Not Hate compiled a report on the phenomenon.
“Fascist fitness groups, which have been growing across Europe for several years, have helped turn what was once an individual project of self-improvement into something ideological,” the organization’s annual report says. “Some of those involved in the fascist fitness scene seem to have positive experiences that focus their energy on doing something that is not directly harmful to others.
“However, these groups also mix extreme fascist ideology with self-improvement and camaraderie which can bring people into the movement, to radicalize and associate positive change in their lives with fascism. Worryingly, others view it as preparation for violence towards minorities, antifascists and race war.”
This was the model on display when skinheads active in Southern California organized an MMA tournament in San Diego last August, one that the Pasco event appears to have been modeled upon. Left Coast Right Watch reported how the tournament—first dubbed “Rebirth of a New Frontier” then oddly renamed “Birth of a New Frontier” nearly a week after the event, was itself modeled on a Ukrainian fascist lifestyle brand, White Rex, that organized a seminal 2013 MMA tournament called “Birth of a Nation.”
The San Diego gathering billed itself as “the first of its kind for the nationalsit [sic] scene in the US. This was a show of unity and strength between nationalsit [sic] from all over the US.” The videos featured on SoCal Active Club’s Telegram channel afterwards were produced by Rundo’s Media2Rise propaganda operation.
Rundo was credited as the director of a 26-minute video posted to Telegram promoting the gathering. The videographer credited at the end of the video, Graham Whitson, also was present in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, in June as a member of the neofascist Patriot Front phalanx that turned up to attempt to create a riot at the city’s annual Pride in the Park gathering.
The organizers also used deceptive tactics to obtain access to their event space, which was a private gym in the San Diego area. The editor of Left Coast Right Watch, Abner Häuge, contacted the owner of the gym—who has no known extremist connections—and was told he had no idea who they were, and never would have rented the space out to them if he had known.
“It’s obviously a pattern for these guys to dupe unsuspecting people into renting their spaces out to a group of skinheads and neo-Nazis,” the anonymous LCRW reporter told Daily Kos.
Distraught officials at Pasco’s HAPO Center described the deception in greater detail. “Last month, we were contacted by an MMA Promoter who we had no prior affiliation with about hosting what we were told would be a private MMA match at our facility,” the official in charge of leasing the center’s arena told Daily Kos via email. “We were not informed of the event having any connection to a political group or club. Following the event, we were contacted by law enforcement about the individuals who attended and organized the event and have been fully cooperating with their investigation. Were informed that this group lied to at least two other event centers in prior months. Needless to say, we will not be working with those individuals again, or any other MMA association.”
He described how the unwitting association with neo-Nazis skinheads was negatively affecting anyone who dealt with them, including the catering service, the business that provided their fighting ring, and the business from which they rented the stage.
“They approach event centers posing as MMA fight promoters looking to do multiple events,” he wrote. “They rent the ring, stage, place like they did in San Diego [and] other places. Then put on multiple fights. They dress normal. They are halfway through [the] event before anyone can start to question what the hell is going on.”
He said that when arena officials realized what was happening, “we asked them to wrap it up. They left without any incident. Law enforcement came by couple days later. We gave them every piece of information we had.”
He added: “We have not heard anything since. We will never host an MMA fight ever again and call law enforcement if we are ever approached again.”
HAPO’s general managers also told Daily Kos: “HAPO Center Management would never condone any hateful or discriminatory event or behavior in the HAPO Center. We pride ourselves on sporting diversity and inclusion in our venue and the community.”
The law-enforcement agency that visited them was the FBI. When Daily Kos contacted the eastern Washington U.S. Attorney’s office to inquire about this, officials gave the standard response that they could not comment on any investigations, including whether or not one is being conducted.
Officials with the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) in Seattle said they were aware of the event and monitoring its aftermath.
“This reminds me of a situation a few years ago where tattoo shop owners started realizing, ‘Hey, we have a pretty big problem, which is white supremacists or other extremist groups are coming in and getting these tattoos, which are inadvertently leading to the spread of extremism because we don’t recognize the symbols’,” said Stephen Paolini, the ADL’s associate regional director for the Pacific Northwest. “Obviously they could recognize the swastika, but you may not recognize the numbers 1488 [a neo-Nazi symbol] or other symbols like the black sun.
“So what ended up happening is a number of tattoo shop owners reached out to us, and that became a big part of the marketing around the ADL’s Glossary on Hate, which has a database on hate symbols. So a number of tattoo shops ended up posting that and requiring that their artists check any kind of tattoos against that symbol database, so they could prevent that from happening.”
Paolini said that the overseers of public-events spaces would be wise to take a similar approach. “That could be something that businesses in this arena—these public spaces and gyms and convention centers—look at. We have the ADL database on symbols, but there’s a database on organizations as well, and instructing your events staff to take a look at that, and if they notice something is off, it can help prevent that from happening,” he said.
He noted that the “Martyrs Day” event in Pasco was connected to traditional neo-Nazi commemorations of Mathews’ death in the Pacific Northwest in early December, and advised event-space owners in the region to be especially alert around those times.
“You know, we can’t expect people to know every single extremist organization, especially these smaller kind of networks and groups that have names that sound like—‘Oh, it’s just an Active Club, what’s that?’ That doesn’t sound extremist, it sounds like they care about fitness,” Paolini observed.
He advised public-space overseers to just take a minute to look into the background of the groups looking to hold MMA events: “If you’re a gym and you’re offering event space to groups, I’d certainly say, take a second to familiarize yourself with these Active Clubs, and know what it is,” he said.