Exclusive: Huntington Beach neo-Nazi who punched Asian man has a history of racist violence

Two men who were involved in a 2005 hate crime were among the dozen people arrested at a "White Lives Matter" rally held at the Huntington Beach Pier in southern California on Sunday.

A much larger group of counter-protesters gathered in Huntington Beach in response to the rally, which was organized on the social media app Telegram. Far-right activists showed up alone or in small groups over the course of the afternoon, and were almost immediately surrounded by counter-protesters.

During one altercation, a man with a swastika tattoo on his arm can be seen in video posted by various live-streamers attempting to walk away from the counter-protesters. One of the counter-protesters, who is Asian, can be heard in the video calmly saying, "If you're strong enough to stand for your beliefs, then speak to me." After the two men bumped chests, the man with the swastika tattoo shoved the other man and punched him in the face, next to a police car and surrounded by a scrum of live-streamers.

The police have identified the assailant as Andrew Nilsen, a 38-year-old resident of Huntington Beach who is charged with fighting in public. Triet Tran, the man who was punched, was also charged with fighting in public. It is unclear why Tran, a 36-year-old resident of Santa Ana, was charged.

Although insistent that Nilsen explain his far-right beliefs, video from at least two sources shows no instance of Tran putting his hands on Nilsen. In a video published on Twitter by television producer and news live-streamer Andrew Kimmel, Tran can be seen prior to the altercation walking backwards with his hands clasped behind his back as Nilsen advances towards him.

"Nazis ended in World War II, so why are we doing this?" Tran asks. Then the video shows Tran stopping and Nilsen walking into him, causing the two men to bump chests. Nilsen can be seen placing his hands on Tran's shoulder and shoving him.

"You're fucking pushing up against me, motherfucker," Nilsen says.

"I didn't touch you," Tran protests. "I want to understand…"

"Get the fuck out of my face motherfucker," Nilsen says again, shoving past Tran. "I'm walking down the pier."

And again, Tran says: "I want to understand why you hate me so much."

By that time, Nilsen had moved past Tran, but he turned and punched the other man in the face.

"He is in a direction to leave my bubble, and yet he still comes toward me," Tran told Raw Story. "You've seen the situation from different angles. Right on top of that, the words I was saying — my words — weren't meant to incite an altercation, so I'm surprised they decided to press charges."

Later, before being taken into custody, Nilsen told reporters: "White culture to me means putting up your hands and fucking fighting."

Nilsen could not be reached for this story.

Tran said he asked the police to charge Nilsen with assault, and was surprised to learn from Raw Story that his assailant was charged with the lesser charge of fighting in public.

Tran said he decided to go to counter-protest the White Lives Matter protest because of the climate of rising violence against Asian people in the United States.

"Just the amount of racism that's happening across the nation, with anti-Asian violence," he said, "to allow another source of hatred to continue, it's intolerable."

When he saw the swastika tattoo on Nilsen's arm, Tran said he made a spur-of-the-moment decision to try to speak with him.

"But I always believe in approaching the situation in a peaceful and calm manner," Tran said. "That's how I think things should be approached. There's too much violence already. It's pointless to yell. I want the question answered."

To compound the injury of being assaulted and criminally charged, Tran said he's also getting pushback on social media for not fighting back.

"I am getting a lot of heat for appearing to be a wussy and not standing up for my people," he said. "That kind of hurts a little bit, you know."

Nilsen was previously charged in 2005, along with two other men, with assault and making criminal threats, with enhancements for targeting the victim because of his race, according to a report by the Associated Press. The news agency reported that the then-22-year-old Nilsen, along with 23-year-old Lucas Eli Labarre and 20-year-old Andrew William Gray, assaulted a young, Black man who was trying to play basketball in a public park in Chino Hills, a small city just outside of Orange County.

Labarre, now 39, was also charged during the unrest in Huntington Beach on Sunday. He faces two charges: pedestrian in roadway and resisting or delaying an officer.

During the 2005 incident, Nilsen, Labarre and Gray reportedly taunted the young, Black man with racial slurs and attacked him as he was getting a ball from his car. Gray was also charged with assault with a deadly weapon for trying to hit the victim with a car, and Labarre and Nilsen chased him on foot. According to the report, police found white supremacist materials in Gray's vehicle.

Gray is currently serving a 25-year sentence at Calpatria State Prison for first-degree murder stemming from beating a Latinx man to death with a two-by-four in Corona, in Riverside County, in 2009.

Andrew Gray and his brother, Colin, were drinking and decided they wanted to find some Latinx people to fight, according to a 2014 California Court of Appeals opinion. Another man, Timothy Keiper, drove the brothers around Corona. "Keiper pumped up Andrew and Colin with the plan of finding something to do, someone to hang out with, or a fight," according to the Court of Appeals opinion. "They discussed a fight and a target in the car. As they drove, they looked for Hispanics and gang bangers. Specifically, Andrew was looking for 'dirty Mexicans,' while Colin was looking for perverts and rapist."

They found two men, Raul Flores and Armando Ruvulcaba, in a dark alley. Keiper repeatedly kicked Flores in the head, according to the court, and then Andrew Gray struck him with the two by four, putting him in a coma that took his life two days later. According to the court, Gray told a cellmate "that Flores was a no-good wetback and deserved to die."

Although the "White Lives Matter" rally was organized by anonymous group of neo-Nazis on Telegram, fliers circulated by the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan to promote the rally ratcheted up tension. Grand Dragon William Hagen appeared at the rally on Sunday dressed inconspicuously in a T-shirt that said, "I stand for the flag, and kneel for the cross." Hagen is the California leader of the Loyal White Knights, which is based in North Carolina.

Hagen recently completed a state prison sentence for a 2015 incident in which he assaulted a homeless man outside a bar in Orange. In 2016, Hagen was stabbed by counter-protesters during a KKK rally in Anaheim. Brian Levin, who researches extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, stood over Hagen's prone body and protected him from further injury at that rally.

The "White Lives Matter" rally on Sunday also attracted a small group of neo-Nazis, including one with the wolfsangel — a symbol favored by the ultranationalist Azov Battalion in Ukraine — tattooed on the back of his head. While counter-protesters were pursuing them, video published by Andrew Kimmel records one of them hurling anti-Latinx and homophobic slurs at them.