by Paul Abowd / Al-Jazeera – The States
Washington, DC – Just weeks before a white supremacist rally turned deadly last August after a neo-Nazi allegedly drove his car into a crowd in Charlottesville, Virginia, several of the rally’s organisers discussed ways to use cars as weapons in an online chatroom.
On July 17, one of those organisers, operating under the alias “Tyrone”, posted a picture of a farm machine known as a combine harvester, writing it “sure would be nice”. He then wrote: “Is it legal to run over protesters blocking roadways?” Tyrone’s statements garnered media attention last August, but it was not publicly known who was behind the alias. That changed recently, when a n anti-racist activist exposed Tyrone’s identity as Michael Joseph Chesny, a 36-year-old active duty Marine who was stationed at an airbase in Havelock, North Carolina with a speciality in explosives.
In more than 1,000 posts in an online chatroom called Discord, Tyrone gave detailed advice on how to fight in the streets of Charlottesville, and also posted a raft of racial slurs and statements pledging support for neo-Nazi causes and organisations.
Unicorn Riot, an activist-run media outlet, published an archive of the Discord messages used to organise the “Unite the Right” rally that brought white supremacists from across the country to Charlottesville to oppose the city’s decision to remove a Confederate monument. [Image was posted in the invite-only chat room, Discord, which was then published on Unicorn Riot] The violence in the small Virginia college town, which killed 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injured many others, caused a slew of civil rights lawsuits – including one that alleges a conspiracy by the rally’s organisers to carry out acts of violence in Charlottesville. It also touched off efforts by a coalition of “Antifa” (anti-fascist) activists to use a tactic known as doxxing to verify and publicise the identities of “Unite the Right” activists, including Chesny.
‘I am actually a US Marine who was born to kill’
On August 11, 2017, just hours before hundreds of white supremacists marched with torches through the University of Virginia campus, chanting racist slogans, Tyrone logged onto Discord, where he had been communicating with others for months.
“F*** islam,” Tyrone wrote. “They are like mudsharks. Race traitors either convert or get the sword.” These types of slurs were rampant on Discord, but Tyrone stood out for his more specific advice. In one instance, he advised others on how to build and use a flagpole as a weapon.
“[Are] you trying to impale people?” he asked other members on July 24, 2017. He advised to “Put a 6-8 inch double threaded screw into [two] 3 ft axe handles. If s*** gets real unscrew the bottom and go to town.” Weeks earlier, on July 2, he wrote: “An abundant variety of tactics are how we are going to achieve final victory.” On July 23, 2017, Tyrone posted an image of an armed man with the caption: “I am actually a US Marine who was born to kill …”
In the months leading up to the rally, Charlottesville-based activist Emily Gorcenski tried to convince the city council to revoke a permit granted to organisers of the Unite the Right rally, “not because we’re anti-free speech,” she said, “but because we knew they were coming to do violence to people and terrorise our local communities.” On August 12, Gorcenski was standing just a few feet away when 20-year-old James Alex Fields, Jr, allegedly rammed his Dodge Charger into a crowd of anti-racist activists.
Since the Discord chat logs went public last August, Gorcenski began searching its archive for details about the leaders of a nationwide network of white supremacists. There, she found threats against her own life.
Gorcenski doxxed several of those making threats, arguing that activists have to do some of the investigatory work that police aren’t doing.
“I think law enforcement doesn’t do a good enough job of informing the public about white supremacists in people’s neighbourhoods,” she told Al Jazeera.
In the archive, she found a user chatting under the alias “WV1987,” who threatened to run her over when he arrived in Charlottesville.
“I hope she stands in the street,” he wrote, posting a photo of his truck bumper, and adding “My ARB bull bar is hungry.” [Image was posted in the invite-only chat room, Discord, which was then published on Unicorn Riot] With this photo and two other clues, Gorcenski said it took her 45 minutes to identify the 30-year-old man who had made the threat.
“I am sharing this so that people can make safe decisions to avoid him,” she wrote on Twitter.
Soon after, Gorcenski also came across Tyrone. It took her 90 minutes to discover his true identity.
As Tyrone, Chesny made very specific posts about himself and his family.
Tyrone posted a photo of this banner that appeared at a May 2017, rally in support of a Confederate statue in Graham, North Carolina. On June 6, 2017, he told others on Discord that he’d been “caught” hanging it from the top of a building.
The banner featured a logo for Generation Identitaire, a far-right, nativist and anti-immigrant movement in Europe. The acronym alongside it, “YWNRL”, stands for “You Will Not Replace Us”, a popular chant used by Unite the Right marchers in Charlottesville to signal fears over so-called “white genocide”.
Responding to another user who asked if he received “trespassing charges”, Tyrone wrote on June 6, 2017: “I’m going to court 9am eastern. We shall see.” Gorcenski said she did a reverse image search of the picture of the banner and found that it was linked to a news story citing two US Marines who had been arrested for trespassing in connection with the banner drop.
The news story ran the mugshots of Michael J Chesny, and Joseph W Manning.
Gorcenski said she continued scrolling through Tyrone’s messages, and found another clue that narrowed her search. He had posted what appeared to be a birth announcement for his family, who were expecting twins – with their faces blocked out by white circles.
The caption read: “Reversing White Genocide, 2 at a time.” A check of Facebook revealed that Chesny was the father of newborn twins – five girls and a boy in total.
“The final piece of information is that his hairline matched [Chesny’s mugshot],” Gorcenski said.
Tyrone’s messages became the subject of a high-profile lawsuit filed in the Western District of Virginia last October. The suit, filed by New York-based lawyer Roberta Kaplan, alleges that a group of white supremacist activists, including several US military veterans, had “organised the ‘rally’ and coordinated logistics, along with co-conspirator ‘Tyrone,'” with the purpose of “engaging in unlawful acts of violence, intimidation, and denial of equal protection”.
While the lawsuit mentions Tyrone, it does not identify him as Chesny. Lawyers for the case declined to comment as to why.
Al Jazeera contacted Chesny, but he hung up the phone. When Al Jazeera sent Chesny questions by text message, asking him to respond in writing, Chesny instead attempted to call our reporter from a talk radio station in North Carolina in order to, he said, “record and reserve the right to distribute” the interview.
Al Jazeera did not agree to these terms, and gave Chesny several more days to respond to questions in writing – which he declined to do. Chesny has not admitted that Tyrone is his online alias.
The radio station from which Chesny called Al Jazeera had hosted him before. On July 27, 2017, Tyrone wrote that he’d be making his “triumphant return to live radio tonight” on 107.1 WTKF to discuss South African white supremacist Simon Roche.
‘Seig Heiling into the night’
While many in the alt-right – a loosely knit movement including neo-Nazis, white supremacists and white nationalists – often minimise the kind of posts made by Tyrone as acts of “trolling”, Chesny’s messages contain numerous examples where Tyrone’s words match Chesny’s actions. Tyrone wrote that he had been to an April 2017 rally in Pikeville, Kentucky, organised by a coalition of far-right groups, including the neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement (NSM), the now-defunct Traditionalist Worker Party (TWP) and the neo-Confederate League of the South.
“I was at Pikeville,” Tyrone boasted, “Seig Heiling into the night.” Video from the Pikeville rally shows Chesny wearing sunglasses and black gloves, marching in formation with a group of men flying neo-Nazi flags and wearing shirts signalling their support for “Rahowa” – or racial holy war.
In one video from Pikeville, NSM leader Jeff Schoep declared that the people behind him are “are the shock troops for the white race”. Chesny’s face appears in the back of the crowd.
Military leaders, including Marine Corps Commandant General Robert Neller swiftly condemned the violence in Charlottesville, telling US media: “Bigotry and racial extremism run contrary to [Marine] core values.” When asked to comment on Chesny’s activities, Marines spokesman Brian Block told Al Jazeera that any Marine’s affiliation with white supremacist groups is “a violation” that results in “separation following the first substantiated incident of misconduct”.
A different Marines spokesman told Al Jazeera that Chesny enlisted in 2007 and was deployed to the American naval base at Guantanamo Bay in 2008 and early 2009. Later, he served a six-month tour of Afghanistan in late 2011 and early 2012 as part of a light armoured reconnaissance unit.
Chesny had become eligible for a promotion to staff sergeant last September, but Marines officials say that promotion was cancelled during an investigation that led to Chesny’s discharge from the Marines in early April.
Chesny entered the Marines during a time when the military had reportedly eased its recruiting standards to supply a surge of boots on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In 2006, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) watchdog group released a report claiming that the Department of Defense (DOD) had been “relaxing bans on extremists” and that “‘thousands’ of soldiers in the Army alone” were “involved in extremist or gang activity”.
In 2009, the DOD amended its regulations on “extremist activity” to include more explicit bans on white supremacy in the military.
“DOD recognised that it was not a good thing to be training racists and extremists who fantasize about race war,” said Ryan Lenz, a former Iraq war correspondent now working at the SPLC.
Officials at the Marine Corps and the DOD argue that the incidence of white supremacists in their ranks is rare.
But DOD spokeswoman Carla Gleason told Al Jazeera that the military does not keep data on the number of people who have been discharged for their affiliations with white supremacist groups.
Instead, those numbers are combined with a variety of forms of misconduct that can lead to discharge, ranging from “participating in a white supremacist rally, drug use or unauthorised absence”, Gleason said.
While certain convictions in a military court “require reporting through a federal database,” she said, “we do not track discharged individuals after the conclusion of their military service.” The Marines refer cases involving threats of violence to the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, or NCIS, according to a spokesman.
It is unclear whether Chesny would choose a military career over his white supremacist affiliations, but the Marines have made it clear: he can’t have both.
For now, the best view of his mindset appears to be that of his online alias – Tyrone.
On June 24, 2017, he wrote on Discord: “I’m a big fan of promoting ‘We’re. NOT. Sorry!’ As a core position.”