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Sen. Sherrod Brown asks FBI, DOJ for info on Ohio hate groups

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U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D., Ohio) is seeking information from federal law enforcement and justice officials about domestic terror and hate organizations in Ohio and how they are tracked, according to letters sent to the Department of Justice and Federal Bureau of Investigation on Tuesday.

The requests follow the Aug. 12 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., where 20-year-old Toledoan James A. Fields, Jr. is accused of ramming his car into a crowd of people, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring several others. At the rally white nationalist, KKK, and white supremacist groups clashed with counter protesters.

“All Ohioans have a right to feel safe where they live, worship, or go to school – but right now too many of our communities are scared by the hate and bigotry gripping our country,” Mr. Brown said in a statement Tuesday. “I want to make sure Ohio’s communities have the resources and support from our federal law enforcement agencies to protect people and help people feel safe.”

Mr. Brown seeks a list of domestic terror organizations and hate groups operating in Ohio known to the FBI or DOJ; information on closed domestic terrorism or hate crime investigations, and a list of all individuals charged with federal crimes in Ohio who were connected to such groups.

Citing the Southern Poverty Law Center, Mr. Brown noted 35 hate groups operate in Ohio. They include white supremacist, neo-Nazi, black separatist, and anti-Muslim groups, according to the center’s tally. 

Mr. Brown also inquired about federal policies to alert state and local law enforcement when an investigation or prosecution reveals that such a group is operating in a city or state, and if there is a list or database of active domestic terror or hate groups.

The letters are addressed to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and FBI Director Christopher Wray.

The FBI previously confirmed it had opened a civil rights investigation in the car attack. The agency’s office in Richmond, Va., is heading the inquiry.

Special Agent Vicki Anderson, spokesman from the FBI's office in Cleveland, said Tuesday the bureau does not monitor groups but rather investigates acts that may be a federal crime or pose a threat to national security.

“We protect First Amendment rights,” she said. “You have the right to speak and think what you want to.....but you can't engage in criminal behavior.”

The FBI often offers assistance to local law enforcement in cases of potential hate crimes or domestic terror, she said, and determines whether state or federal charges are appropriate.

“Are we aware of hate groups, sure, but not because we are monitoring them on their activities,” she said. “It's when the line is crossed and criminal behavior is involved or the threat of criminal behavior.”

A justice department spokesman  confirmed the letter was received and was under review reviewed and  declined further comment.

Following Mr. Fields’ arrest, several groups present at the rally were quick to deny he was a member. 

Mr. Fields was just an individual who attended the rally, said National Socialist Movement Chief of Staff Butch Urban.

Mr. Urban said he called unit leaders in Ohio to see if anyone knew Mr. Fields. The Nationalist Socialist Movement has units in Cincinnati, Toledo, and Cleveland, along with across the country, he said. 

“Nobody’s heard of the kid,” Mr. Urban said.

The group, whose website describes as “open to non-Semitic heterosexuals of European Descent,” held a rally in Toledo in 2015. 

In photographs taken at the rally before the car attack, Mr. Fields was seen dressed in a white polo shirt and holding a black shield with a symbol of the fascist group Vanguard America. The National Socialist Movement and American Vanguard, from which Vanguard America splintered off, are both included in the 35 hate groups in Ohio identified by the law center.

Vanguard America, which says it is “the face of American fascism,” previously denied by Twitter that Mr. Fields was a member.

“I can tell you, that’s normal,” said Mr. Urban, of Mr. Fields picking up a shield. Mr. Urban was at the Charlottesville rally and said he was at a parking garage when Mr. Fields allegedly drove his vehicle into the crowd.

Mr. Urban said individuals who have no affiliation casually join in with groups during such rallies.

“They’re trying to affiliate with different groups. [Fields] wasn’t part of Nationalist Socialist Movement, Traditionalist Worker Party, Vanguard America. He wasn’t even part of the alt-right,” Mr. Urban said. “He was just an individual who believed in what the alt-right and what these groups supported. He just came down to show his support.”

Staff writer Allison Reamer contributed to this report. 

Contact Lauren Lindstrom at: llindstrom@theblade.com, 419-724-6154 or on Twitter @lelindstrom. 

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