Marine veteran head of white nationalist group pictured in Charlottesville
By ANDREW OXFORD | The Santa Fe New Mexican | Published: August 16, 2017
SANTA FE, N.M. (Tribune News Service) — In the search for answers after a white supremacist rally in Virginia devolved into deadly violence Saturday, attention turned to a New Mexican.
Dillon Hopper, a native of Roswell, heads the far-right organization Vanguard America that seemed in the chaos of the moment to have some sort of link to the man police say drove a car into a group of anti-racist demonstrators, leaving one woman dead.
Photos showing the suspected driver marching alongside the group’s members earlier in the day placed the organization, once described as insignificant, as well as the leader credited with helping build it, at the center of national outrage.
Vanguard America has denied the man charged with murder in Saturday’s attack was a member of the group before he showed up at the rally and says it does not condone criminal activity.
But the episode nonetheless shines a light on a white supremacist leader homegrown in New Mexico.
Only a few years ago, Hopper, 29, seemed like a local boy who had made good.
A 2013 column in the Amarillo Globe-News recounted how an elderly Big Brothers Big Sisters volunteer inspired Hopper to join the Marine Corps. Hopper enlisted in Albuquerque and served in Iraq and Afghanistan. When he won a promotion to staff sergeant, he invited his former “big brother,” living at the time in the Texas Panhandle, to do the pinning — the feel-good occasion for the newspaper story.
Hopper later became a Marine Corps recruiter. But while in that role, it appears he also helped build a white supremacist group.
In April of this year, Hopper stood before a gathering of white supremacists in Kentucky and touted his work as head of Vanguard America, an organization that had become part of an effort to recast the racist far-right as mainstream.
Hopper’s service with the Marines ended in January, according to federal records. But that’s several months after the Anti-Defamation League says he took charge of Vanguard America.
The group had grown out of online message boards and a split with the members of another similarly named white supremacist group, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
By early 2016, Hopper was leading the organization, and under him, it has espoused an ideology increasingly aligned with neo-Nazis, said Carla Hill, an investigative researcher at the Anti-Defamation League.
A spokesperson for the Marine Corps declined to specify what kind of discharge Hopper had received, indicating he had not been court martialed. But in an email, the Marine Corps said that involvement in extremist groups is grounds for separation.
“Association or participation with hate or extremist groups of any kind is directly contradictory to the core values of honor, courage and commitment that we stand for as Marines and isn’t tolerated by the Marine Corps,” Capt. Philip Kulczewski said when asked about Hopper’s service records.
Vanguard America’s manifesto depicts America as a country built in the image of the Roman Republic and now on the verge of collapse. Its manifesto blames multiculturalism, arguing that America should be an exclusively white nation.
Using the right-wing slogan “blood and soil,” Vanguard America romanticizes a notion that people with “white blood” hold a special bond with “American soil.” The Anti-Defamation League links that philosophy to the German slogan blut und boden popularized under the regime of Adolf Hitler.
Hill said the group was formerly regarded as insignificant in white supremacist circles. But it has grown in recent years, she added, with a particular focus on recruiting young men.
“They are flowering on college campuses,” Hill said, pointing to numerous reports of the group’s stickers and fliers appearing at universities as well as members participating in white supremacist events.
In a video of his speech to a gathering of the Nationalist Front in Kentucky this year, Hopper declared that the “future is about the youth.” The group has taken to social media, calling on white people — particularly white men — to be “proud” of their race while also attacking minorities ranging from LGBT people to immigrants. It has targeted Jewish communities, its members known for having once hung an anti-Semitic banner from a Holocaust memorial in New Jersey.
Vanguard America’s promotional videos show young men marching in military formation wearing the white polo shirts and khaki pants that have become their uniform.
Members must be “presentable,” the group’s website has said, and white Europeans. They cannot be felons or identify as gay or transgender, which the group describes as “sexual degeneracy.”
The Anti-Defamation League describes the group as having some paramilitary qualities, with small, active chapters in 13 states. Earlier this year, Hopper claimed the organization boasts about 200 members in 20 different states.
Hopper, who changed his last name from Irizarry in 2006 but uses that name in connection with Vanguard America, has said the group grew out of California about two years ago. Military records show he was last stationed at Camp Pendleton.
Vanguard America’s members were among the organizers of the rally by white supremacists in Virginia last weekend, billed as a protest against plans to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from a park in Charlottesville.
In a march the night before the event, a crowd carrying lit tiki torches chanted the group’s slogan “blood and soil.”
And on Saturday, the so-called Unite the Right rally erupted into violence between white supremacists and anti-racist demonstrators, reaching a horrifying low when a man plowed his car into a crowd.
The crash killed a local woman and injured several other people.
Police identified the driver as James Alex Fields, 20, and photos from earlier in the day show him marching with members of Vanguard America. He was dressed in the trademark white polo shirt and khaki pants and carried a shield depicting a symbol associated with the group.
A spokesperson for Vanguard America said Tuesday that Fields did not have any prior links to the group but said that Hopper was not available for an interview.
“Unfortunately due to safety concerns our leader and president Dillon Hopper will not be conducting any interviews in relation to his connection to New Mexico the state he currently resides in,” the organization said in an email, declining to answer further questions about how Hopper became involved with Vanguard America.
Hopper told the news website Splinter that he had not attended the event in Charlottesville.
Unclear is whether Hopper indeed lives in New Mexico.
While Roswell is known as a conservative bastion, the Anti-Defamation League has not received any reports of activity by the group inside the state. And New Mexico, a state where about half the population is Hispanic, is not known as a center for white supremacist groups.
Filings in a probate case in Roswell earlier this year listed Hopper with an address in Indiana. Court records indicate his mother died earlier this year but he has a brother living in the state.
Unclear, too, is whether Vanguard America will weather the fallout from a killing that riled the country.
Contact Andrew Oxford at firstname.lastname@example.org.