Part two in our series on the far-right looks at the American Guard, an SPLC-designated hate group with key members who live in Gainesville’s backyard.

From left to right: Ryan Ramsey, unknown, Brendan McCarthy and Ryan Hansen. Photos taken from the Florida chapter’s Facebook page, 17 Florida, and members’ social media.

It was June 12, 2017, and thousands in Orlando were commemorating the first anniversary of the Pulse Nightclub shooting on a hot and overcast day.

Among the familiar, middling milieu of run-of-the-mill Trump supporters, Tea Partiers and white supremacists, a new group was picketing on a street corner in the margins of the city. Members repped black shirts with a red, white and blue patch in the center and the words “come and take it” printed in white letters underneath. They were not there to mourn, but to warn each other and passersby about the “dangers of Islam.”

A tall, heavily tattooed white man who was wearing dark sunglasses and a black shirt that shouted “Tribe Matters” in bold white letters gets ready for his speech. He had come from Starke, Florida, just 30 minutes north of Gainesville. As a man in front of him held up a megaphone, he brought the receiver to his mouth.

“Well, uh, made it by the skin of my teeth,” he says, rocking on his heels and checking his notes. “Thanks everybody for showing up. My name is Ryan Ramsey, I’m the Florida vice president for the American Guard.”

Just a few months prior, Ramsey and two other men, Brien James and Joshua Long, left the white nationalist movement to start the American Guard, a fraternal organization that advocates for “constitutional nationalism,” an “America First” ideology they claim is inclusive of race, sex and class. Despite their pasts, Ramsey and other members vehemently insist online and in conversations that they no longer believe in white nationalism. Their remaining ties to the hate groups are purely strategic, Ramsey insisted, a way to help their friends leave the “toxic” movement. “We’re definitely not the alt-right, just for the record,” he said.

But not everyone was convinced. In 2017, the Southern Poverty Law Center, which documents extremist groups, included the Guard on its list of general hate groups, citing the histories of its founding members, particularly James, who was deeply involved with the skinhead movement in Indiana and has bragged about being charged for attempted murder and hate crimes. In Gainesville, during the race for the local soil and water conservation district last year, Mayor Lauren Poe endorsed Kaithleen Hernandez over Libertarian Chris Rose II, citing his ties to the Guard in North Florida.

And researchers of the far-right are watching. They say the Guard is best thought of as an “alt-light” organization, an umbrella term for a patchwork of commentators and activists spanning the Proud Boys, InfoWars and Milo Yiannopoulos that lacks the ideological consistency and the extremist positions of the alt-right.

But what makes the Guard unique from other alt-light organizations is that it’s the only group that came out of the skinhead movement to end up in the alt-light. Its members tend to be older and therefore retain little semblance of Millennial culture. The Guard isn’t active on Twitter. They have accumulated tattoos of valknuts — an old Norse symbol associated with the god Odin — swastikas and Iron Crosses on their necks, shoulders and shaved heads. In the dead heat of Florida summer, they will still don thick blue jeans, heavy boots and leather jackets.

“Yes, some of them are former Nazis, and they may still be white nationalists,” said Spencer Sunshine, an anti-fascist researcher who tracks the far-right. “But it’s a special kind of white nationalism that will work in a group with people of color. But why is this really any better?”

“It’s a watered-down Nazi skinhead gang,” Sunshine added. “You can smell it off them.”

The American Guard traces its roots to one of the most vicious and well-organized Nazi groups that emerged from the ‘80s skinhead scene: the Hammerskins.

When they formed in 1988, the Hammerskins immediately gained a reputation for violence. That year, its members chased and beat blacks and Hispanics to keep them out of Robert E. Lee Park in Dallas, and vandalized a synagogue and Jewish community center by breaking its windows, smashing the doors and spray-painting swastikas, according to the Anti-Defamation League. In Tulsa, Oklahoma, the group fire-bombed a minority-owned nightclub and assaulted its patrons. By the late 1990s, the Hammerskin Nation, as its members were collectively known, had racked up dozens of charges for attempted murder.

Brien James, one of the founding members of the Guard, boasts about his part in the violence. In 2000, he allegedly punched and nearly stomped a man to death at a party for refusing to Sieg Heil. “I have been tried for attempted murder and multiple batteries and hate crimes,” he said. “My JTTF [Joint Terrorism Task Force] file is a mile long.”

The Hammerskins soon buckled under bankruptcy, and in 2003, James and a number of members and associates of the dwindling Nation started their own skinhead gang, the Vinlanders Social Club, a reference to the 11th century Viking colonists. In a 2007 post on the Vindlanders website, James wrote that the organization was created “because we were disappointed with the movement that we had dedicated our young lives to,” and that it aimed to “separate itself from the racist movement.”

Yet the members of the organization continued to participate in racial violence. In 2010, two Vinlanders in Arizona were indicted for the drive-by slaying of a white woman who was walking at night with her African-American boyfriend, according to the SPLC.

“It’s a watered-down Nazi skinhead gang,” Sunshine said. “You can smell it off them.”

Like the Vinlanders, the American Guard does not bill itself as a racist organization. But perhaps unlike the Vinlanders, the founding members are adamant that the Guard — itself an offshoot of another group that James founded, a branch of a Finnish anti-immigration group called the Soldiers of Odin — is inclusive. Ramsey said he and James were in the process of becoming disillusioned with the skinhead movement when they met around 2013, and realized they no longer thought “white unity” was the solution.

Ramsey and other members view the Guard as, “giving people a way to like, leave that shit and do something positive and productive,” he said.

The crossed-cleavers on the patch are a reference to Bill the Butcher.

Instead of ethno-nationalism, the Guard advocates for “constitutional nationalism.” Anyone can join the Guard, so long as they are an American citizen, and pledge their allegiance and life to the “four pillars.” These include regarding the Constitution as “the highest authority in the land”; identifying as a “nationalist”; believing that any American citizen should be free to do whatever they like, except be a Marxist; and promising to spread these beliefs to every U.S. citizen as the “path to restoring America to a strong, functional and free society.”

“The idea is to valorize this national identity and have it open to all the people in this country,” Ramsey said. “There are so many people I’ve met that believe in those four principals, even if they might have a different faith or a different kind of spinoff, like maybe you’re a car guy or I’m a motorcycle guy.”

Furthermore, the Guard views itself as waging a war against “cultural Marxism,” a term that can refer to anything from anti-racism and “P.C. culture” to globalization or that guy you just don’t like very much.

Ramsey says this struck a chord with people. By the end of the first year, the Guard had chapters in 25 states. Today, it’s grown to 30 states with a couple hundred members.

Members of the Guard long to return what they imagine was a simpler time in American history, when everybody left each other alone. Even the organization’s structure, inspired by the Anti-Federalist papers, is steeped in an obsession with a country long gone. Each state has a cabinet, which is comprised of a president, vice president and sergeant-at-arms. Each state gets one vote in the Congress, but they are primarily autonomous.

Potential members must last a six-month probationary period. Ramsey said this weeds out anyone who isn’t motivated to make a change in their community, which the Guard views as the main vehicle to deliver its beliefs to the masses.

“A guardsman is basically a person who — I hate to use the word ‘community organizer’ because it invokes Obama or something — but that’s pretty much what the template would be,” Ramsey said.

During the swearing-in ceremony, which takes place at night with torches, members take an oath of service on their patch and on steel. The patch itself is a red, white and blue shield with the slogan “Come and take it” emblazoned over two-crossed cleavers, a reference to William Poole, also known as “Bill the Butcher,” the founder of a violent 19th century street gang who led the nativist “Know Nothing” movement.

A meme on 17 Florida makes explicit reference to Bill the Butcher, including an image of Daniel Day-Lewis’s portrayal of the nativist gang leader in the 2002 “Gangs of New York.”

In fact, the Guard even takes its name from Martin Scorseses’s “Gangs of New York,” a fictional retelling of Bill the Butcher’s life. Toward the end of the movie, when the warring factions of the Five Points are gathered, one of the gangs announces themselves as the “American Guard.”

But Ramsey insists that people read into the reference too much. The Guard wasn’t trying to do anything but pull from pop culture. “It lends itself to good memes,” he said.

Back in Orlando, a storm cloud moves in behind Ramsey as he launches into his speech. He begins to rant about “a subhuman Muslim who committed mass murder at the Pulse nightclub.” He accuses “social justice warriors,” who he says are the “worshippers of the false gods of political correctness and cultural Marxism,” of being accomplices to Omar Mateen, the Pulse Nightclub shooter.

Ryan Ramsey lives in Starke with his wife and children. An Odin’s Cross is tattooed on his head, a valknut on his throat.

“The militant followers of that pedophile Mohammed yell ‘death to America’ in public,’” he said. “We know they hate us – at least they’re honest. But the left-wing P.C. crowd will do anything to apologize for the enemy.” (Someone in the crowd says, “boo.”)

“They call us ignorant, but they haven’t bothered to read the Quran,” Ramsey added a few seconds later. “I happen to own one, and I haven’t even lit it on fire yet.” (“Burn it!” another man shouted.)

The driving force behind the Guard’s Florida chapter, Ramsey is charismatic and surprisingly friendly for someone who is associated with alleged murderers. When he talks, the 41-year-old is often so eager, he interrupts his own sentences.

Though his Facebook says he’s from the Faroe Islands, Ramsey grew up in Los Angeles in the 1990s. He graduated high school in 1995. A year later, radicalized by his impression of the L.A. riots, Waco and the arrest of Randy Weaver, he decided to join the Navy, which stationed him in Jacksonville.

Over the next decade, Ramsey would become involved in Jacksonville open-carry organizations. This led him to the Libertarian Party of Florida (LPF), which he joined in 2015 when he moved to Starke, in Bradford County, with his wife, Brandi Hicks. A year later, Ramsey said, he was unanimously elected to the party’s executive committee. (Another Guardsman, Ryan Hansen, who lives in Palm Coast, chairs the Veterans Caucus.)

Ramsey’s spare time goes to organizing the Guard and running his blog and Facebook page, the Libertarian Heathen, which he uses to recruit people to the Guard and spread right-wing conspiracy theories. He frequently writes of his Nordic roots and rails against Marxism.

In June 2017, Ramsey conducted an interview with Dan Roodt, the author of a book called “The Scourge of the ANC” who has advocated for white separatism in South Africa. Roodt claimed on the Daily Show in 2010 that “black men have 20 percent more testosterone than white men” and “that 99 percent of all crime is committed by young, black men.” Then, a year later, Ramsey wrote a post that began: “Happy Birthday Nelson Mandela, you acheived [sic] your life’s goal of Communism and Genocide.”

But Ramsey is hardly the most notable member of the Florida Guard. That honor is reserved for one of the founding members of the chapter, Austin Gillespie, also known as Augustus Sol Invictus, who ran in the LPF primary for U.S. Senate in 2016 and once made national headlines for having dismembered a goat.

It all started after a post on Invictus’ Senate campaign website, titled “A Declaration of the Failings of the US Government,” accused the federal government of abandoning “its eugenics program & elitist mindset in favor of a decadent ideology that rejects the beauty of strength and demands the exponential growth of the weakest, the least intelligent, and the most diseased.” Then, the SPLC uncovered a letter Invictus wrote in 2013 that some recipients allegedly found so disturbing, they contacted the FBI. In the letter, Invictus renounced his law degree, U.S. citizenship and all earthly possessions, and vowed to “disappear into the Wilderness.”

Ramsey, pictured with Invictus, right. Photo from the SPLC.

“I will return bearing revolution, or I will not return at all,” he wrote.

When he did return from a hitchhike across the country to Orlando, his hometown, Invictus filmed a video of himself drinking the blood of a dismembered goat. He claimed it was ritual sacrifice common of his religion, paganism, but the Ordo Templi Orientis in Orlando didn’t seem to agree, and he was kicked out.

Once Invictus’s past was unearthed, the primary race imploded. Rank-and-file members of the party were horrified and outraged. The chairman, Adrian Wyllie, resigned in protest after the executive committee, including Ramsey, refused to remove Invictus from the party.

Determined not to let a white supremacist represent him, Paul Stanton, a computer programmer and Iraq War veteran from DeLand, decided to run against Invictus. “That’s when I started to gain the instant ire of him and Ryan Ramsey and several other people who would be associated with the far-right of the Libertarian Party,” he said.

Though Stanton ended up winning the primary by 50 points, he said it was hard to campaign without the support of the state party apparatus, which wouldn’t give him money. And it was difficult to create excitement around the campaign when Invictus’ supporters would go on “crazy rants, conspiracy theories, cursing, all sorts of things,” like calling him “Kim Jong Un” because he is Asian. He said he started to receive threats like, “you’re gonna need a good dental plan.”

“Then they’d say, ‘oh, I was just talking about how his teeth were messed up,’” Stanton said. “There was always a backpedal involved.”

“If this was your normal keyboard jockey, it wouldn’t be concerning,” Stanton said. “But this is the lieutenant of Brien James. This is a real hate group. … The Vinlanders have dozens of murders attributed to them. That’s not within the realm of acceptable.”

In an August 2016 blog post, Ramsey claimed that Stanton’s father had been sent to federal prison in 2012 for racketeering. He also published addresses for Stanton’s sister and mother.

“If this was your normal keyboard jockey, it wouldn’t be concerning,” Stanton said. “But this is the lieutenant of Brien James. This is a real hate group. … The Vinlanders have dozens of murders attributed to them. That’s not within the realm of acceptable.”

Invictus would help Ramsey start the Florida Guard in early 2017, but he was kicked out less than a year later after the deadly Unite the Right rally, where he was a headline speaker. Two months after Charlottesville, Stanton resigned from the party after a motion to suspend Ramsey for advocating violence failed to reach a two-thirds majority.

Nearly two years later, Ramsey insists still that Stanton was sent by “left-wing weirdos” to infiltrate the party. “That’s just common knowledge,” he said when asked for evidence. “He was an antifa person, and he was sent there.”

Though the Guard may purport to be inclusive, Stanton pointed out that in practice their positions aren’t that different from their white nationalist associates.

“Instead of overtly drawing the lines around certain ethnic groups that they don’t like, they more institutionally draw those lines,” he said. “They don’t hate Mexicans because they’re not white. They hate Mexicans because they were born in a different country.”

Guardsmen swear in on their patch and steel.

It’s late at night in mid-2016 in North Florida. Ramsey and another man stand face to face, holding hands, their profiles illuminated by a torch in between them. Cicadas can be heard in the background as the man on the right, a Thor’s hammer around his neck gleaming in the fire, begins solemnly:

“I, Brendan McCarthy, enter into a voluntary period of probation and service to the American Guard,” he says. “I swear to do all that it asks of me and to support this brotherhood with my life if necessary in the hopes of becoming a made member. I take this oath on steel. May it never be broken.”

He looks at the camera. The two men embrace.

Ramsey says the past year and a half has been slow for the Florida Guard and rocky for him. Though the organization was active in attending rallies across the state, like the “March Against Sharia” and a rally for the Confederate statues in St. Augustine, between the Libertarian infighting, his newborn son dying in late 2017 and a motorcycle wreck, it wasn’t really able to grow.

Now, Ramsey says he’s making up for lost time. He anticipates that the Guard will see a significant amount of growth in the next six months, particularly in the largest cities in central and north Florida. In Gainesville, he expects to patch McCarthy, who has bragged on Facebook that he had “an FBI file on me well before I turned 20,” and two or three more members in the coming months.

“In my experience, once you get a couple guys in a city, then you’ll have 10 or 12 the next year,” Ramsey said. 

An Iron Cross is tattooed on Brendan McCarthy’s head (left). In the Facebook comments on this picture, McCarthy wrote, ” I had a FBI file on me well before I turned 20. … Labeled domestic terrorist before I had even heard the term domestic terrorist.”

In the coming year, the Florida Guard plans to protest in support of open-carry laws and to start working on community service projects, like repairing a boat ramp in Starke. They’re looking forward to the 2020 elections (Ramsey ran for state house last year) and beyond: Despite whatever baggage has dogged the organization the past few years, Ramsey sees the Guard existing 10 years into the future.

But it frustrates him that outlets like the Southern Poverty Law Center continue to label the Guard as a hate group. “I’m being attacked for like, doing stuff that’s not racist — now,” he said. “They never wrote nothing about me when I was a skinhead.”

“The idea that they would attack us for openly denouncing racial politics, that tells you that they’re fucking…,” he said, trailing off, in another interview with The Fine Print.

“Yes, some of them are former Nazis, and they may still be white nationalists,” Sunshine said. “But it’s a special kind of white nationalism that will work in a group with people of color. But why is this really any better?”

Even if the American Guard does not have explicitly racist beliefs, researchers of the far-right say it’s not hard to see that hate lies beneath the surface. To Ramsey, Native Americans were “self-centered” for not uniting against European colonizers, Confederate monument removal is “cultural genocide,” Abraham Lincoln was the “real” racist, and the NAACP is bad because it’s Marxist.

By waging an internet culture war against government programs like affirmative action and organizations like the NAACP, the American Guard implicitly works to increase white economic, social and political power. “Even if they have Latino or black members, they are still implicit white nationalists,” Sunshine said. “Their actions will result in continued white domination.

“It looks colorblind,” he added. “In truth, it’s racially loaded.”

Furthermore, Sunshine said it’s important to remember that the far-right can be multiracial.

“When you stop thinking of ‘white nationalist’ and you start thinking of ‘far-right,’ you’ll find lots of multiracial far-right groups in the U.S.,” Sunshine said. “You can be a Nazi as a person of color. … It is a contradiction. It’s also a living reality.” •

Who is the American Guard?


Todd Gomez, the Florida sergeant-at-arms, is pictured two from the right in the American Guard shirt. This photo, which was posted to the 17 Florida Facebook page in November year, is captioned "#AG17767."


Zack Billy, right, was sworn into the Florida Guard last year. He lives in Jacksonville.


Ryan Ramsey, Ryan Hansen and Brendan McCarthy, pictured right to left in their American Guard shirts.


A photo posted to 17 Florida, the Florida Guard's Facebook page, from a recent gathering with members of the Georgia Guard. The man on the right, Michael Sheppard, manages the 17 Georgia Facebook page.