Eyewitness News investigation: Are extremists sparking violence at protests in Southern California?

Many claim extremists are sparking violence at protests against police brutality, but the evidence in Southern California is unclear.
Did Antifa or any other extremists instigate violence or vandalism at the protests here in Southern California? The answer is far from clear.

Cameras captured two women dressed in all black spraying Black Lives Matter graffiti at The Grove in the Fairfax District on May 30, the first Saturday of the protests.

"I see these two ladies who were not Black and they were spraying Black Lives Matter on the building," Nia Miranda Duckett said.

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Duckett and her friend yelled at the women to stop.

"Please don't do that, please don't do that," the women were heard saying in the video. "Don't spray stuff on here when they're going to blame Black people for this and Black people didn't do it."

No one except those unidentified women know for sure if they are part of Antifa, anarchists or just protesters who vandalized a building. But Duckett says the women were out of place and not welcome at what had been a peaceful protest.

"It was very intentional what they wore," she said. "They had on all black, all to their hands, their face was completely covered up where you can only see their eyes."

One of the unidentified women can be heard telling Duckett and her friend, "They don't care about you, they don't care about us."

Duckett added that the women ran off after the confrontation.

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So, what is Antifa? It's short for anti-fascist.

"Antifa is a movement, it's not an actual group," said Joanna Mendelson of the Anti-Defamation League. "There's a continuum within Antifa. The name is anti-fascist. So, it's against fascism, speaking out against racism and bigotry."

While a small subset of Antifa may be violent, Mendelson said, "To label Antifa in such a broad stroke for perpetuating all of the violence is a misstep."

Eyewitness News spoke with the leaders of two local groups that are avowed anti-fascists but don't embrace the term Antifa.

"We are anti-fascists and they use the slogan Antifa to umbrella everyone and to criminalize and demonize people," said Chantelle Hersherger of Refuse Fascism L.A.

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"We're organizing for an actual revolution to get to the point where we can overthrow the system," said Michelle Xai of the Revolution Club L.A.

"We do not support the looting, it's not OK," Hershberger said. "But also, rebellion is messy."

As for President Donald Trump's much-discussed pledge to declare Antifa a terrorist organization?

"Yeah, let's talk about who are the real terrorists," Xai said. "These people that are out on the streets are protesting for what? To be considered human beings, to be treated like human beings, to demand justice for a man who shouted over and over again that he couldn't breathe and was screaming for his life."

On the other side of the political spectrum are counter-protesters who may be part of the far-right and may support anti-government militia groups or white supremacist ideologies.

In Pasadena last week, 28-year old Benjamin Hung was arrested on suspicion of assault with a deadly weapon after he steered a pick-up truck into a crowd of protesters. Hung's truck was adorned with various flags, including the Gadsden/Don't Tread On Me flag, which is often used to symbolize resistance to tyranny.

RELATED: Caught on camera: Driver takes off with protester on hood of car in Pasadena

No one was injured, but Pasadena police told Eyewitness News that the FBI is "assisting and attempting to determine if Mr. Hung as any ties to such groups."

In Glendora last week, a man named James Head was videotaped giving a Nazi salute at a Black Lives Matter protest.

"White lives matter, White lives matter," Head can be heard repeating when he's confronted by protesters.

Head agreed to speak about the incident with Eyewitness News.

"I really don't see what made me racist," Head said. "I didn't yell anything racist, I didn't do anything really racist. I'm definitely not a Neo-Nazi, absolutely not."

Head apologized and said he regrets his actions that day but does not deny throwing the Nazi salute.

"No, I'm not going to lie, it's on video," he said. "I did that because they kept calling me a Neo-Nazi and I just did it to piss them off... I don't know what I was thinking."

"I hope they just, you know, forgive me," Head added.

Two of the other men captured on video at the Glendora protest told Eyewitness News that they are not racists and only came to the protest to protect against any potential looting.

"The clips going viral that include myself labeled as 'KKK, White supremacy and Nazi' is completely false," Joe Lulo said in an emailed statement. "I am Lebanese. I am not a racist."

Lulo did confirm to Eyewitness News that he was fired from his job as a realtor after the incident.

Chad Mahood was also singled out online by protesters.

"I'm getting 20 to 30 calls a day saying, 'You and your family are going to die,'" Mahood told Eyewitness News.

Sgt. Shawna Celello with the Glendora Police Department said detectives are actively investigating the alleged "terrorist threats" against the men.

The actions of many counter-protesters may simply be classified as bad behavior, with no ties to extremism.

Jacob Bracken, of Rancho Cucamonga, has been charged with two counts of assault with a deadly weapon after he was seen brandishing an apparent assault rifle on protesters in Upland.

Stephen Giblin was arrested on weapons charges after cell phone video showed him appearing to aim a semi-automatic rifle at a Black man in Sherman Oaks.

Despite the disturbing incidents, there is renewed hope among some that this may be a turning point in the fight against racism in America.

"I think that 2020 is going to be a year we will never forget," Duckett said. "I think, ultimately, at the end of this, we will all be more together than we've ever been before. I think it may just hurt a little bit before we get there, but I believe we're going to get there. I'm more hopeful than I've ever been."

Got a tip? Email ABC7 Investigative Producer Lisa.Bartley@abc.com
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